As we celebrate the resurrection this Sunday, I find myself reflecting on our tendency in 21st century to miss the point of the gospel message. The good news is that Jesus came to save us, but from what? The number one answer today is likely that Jesus came to save us from hell, from the consequences of our sins. But is that really the goal of Jesus death and resurrection?

In his gospel Matthew tells us that he was named Jesus because He would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Later we are told that Jesus message was to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Even the “Great Commission” includes an expectation to teach disciples to “observe all that [Jesus] have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). The bottom line is that the goal of Jesus ministry was that people turn from sin and follow him.

Here’s the where I believe the confusion has come. We have come to view just punishment as bad rather than the actions that provoke. As a culture we frown on those who spank their children, because we see spanking as “bad.” Nobody is talking about the bad actions that led to the disciple. We frown on the death penalty as “inhuman,” because we fail to see their victims as human. We view hell as bad, because we cannot image a loving God actually punishing people for their unrighteous actions. Ultimately, we see hell as bad, because we have lost any sense of what sin really means.

As  result of these distortions, we feel a need to be saved from punishment,  because we don’t get that our action warranty the publishment. So instead of having a problem with sin and feeling a need to be rid of sin itself, we long to be freed from sin’s consquenses without needing to change our actions.

Bottom line: What’s worse hell or the sin that necessitates it? What would make the world a better place: getting rid of sin or getting rid of hell?

In my previous posting, I addressed the response of the wise men to the revelation of Jesus’s birth. We read in Matthew 2 that after showing up in Jerusalem, they are sent to Bethlehem where they “fell down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11). This reminded me of another reason why we should tell others about Jesus, so that they can come to worship him.

I have heard it said that “missions exist because worship doesn’t,” but that is just another way of saying that Christians engage in evangelism, because there are people not yet worshiping God.

I am persuaded that this point is crucial to a proper understanding of our goal in evangelism. We do not just want to see people’s lives reformed or our churches grow in numbers, but we want to see that God is given the worship that He rightly deserves. To miss this is to miss the fundamental cause of sin.

Consider Romans 1 where Paul tells us how men and women all know God (1:19-20). However, instead of giving Him the honor (worship) that He deserves, they “exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things (1:23). The reason God gives people up to their sinfulness is “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator (1:25). Man’s fundamental problem is a false worship problem.

So at least one purpose of evangelism is to turn people enslaved to the worship of created things back to worshiping the one true God. I think this is why Paul talks about the gospel as the “glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4) or “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Evangelism is ultimately an attempt to tell others why God in Christ deserves to be worshiped. So evangelism must challenges the idols that people hold on to, because it must present a God who is better than those idols. We talk of the righteousness of Christ, because it is superior to our own. We talk of how Christ fully satisfied God’s wrath on our behalf, because there is nothing we could ever do that would. We talk about how God took the initiative in loving use, because we would never have loved Him first. The gospel fundamentally draws attention to our unworthiness and points us to the One who is worthy.

 

 

What do you do with Jesus? This is an age old question. Is he a great teacher? Is he a prophet? Is he just another religious leader? Or is he something more? In a world that seems to be searching for answers about who Jesus is, Matthew’s gospel does not leave room for a lot of doubt. In the opening chapter, Matthew has taken great pains to show us that Jesus heir to the promises to Abraham and to David the king.

Now here in Matthew chapter 2, we begin to see that Jesus is not a neutral figure. It is not uncommon to see Matthew 2:1-12 retold each year around Christmas. I mean after all many of us justify the tradition of giving gifts, because the wise men brought gifts to Jesus. However, it is unfortunate that fundamental message of these verses is lost by our modern depictions of these magi from the east.

We see them show up in Jerusalem asking “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews?” (2:2). But this question is not met with joyous celebration but uneasiness and agitation. We read that “Herod…was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (2:3). In a city that should have been longing for God to send a king in the line of David, this announcement should have been met with great joy, but it wasn’t.

While it might be understandable that Herod was upset by this announcement, the response of “all the chief priests and scribes of the people” is particularly troubling. They know the scriptures. They know that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, but they don’t care. Now you might say that is a little harsh, but don’t be quick to excuse them. They have heard that a Messiah-like figure has been born and know where to find him, but they don’t go anywhere!

This is what makes the wise men, such important characters. They have traveled hundreds of miles to find a Jewish king. Instead of responding in apathy or agitation, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” at just seeing the star that mark the Messiah’s location (2:10). They did not just come to see Jesus, they came and “fell down and worshiped him.” That is the bottom line. There is only one one proper response to Jesus: Worship!

On occasion I stumble across a title that catches my attention. Counterfeit Gospels is one of those titles. It reminds me of such passages as 2 Corinthians 11:3-4 in which Paul tells the Corinthians that he is concerned they will “been led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” by accepting “a different gospel” (i.e. a counterfeit gospel). Therefore, I am grateful for Trevin Wax’s desire to help his brothers and sisters in Christ see where they might be being led astray.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I found it to be both convicting and encouraging. Before I discuss the many things that I agreed with, I would like to address one point that I found issue with. The book is organized by viewing the gospel as a three-legged stool, dividing “the gospel” into three main sections: “The Gospel Story,” “The Gospel Announcement,” and “The Gospel Community.” By defining the gospel in this way, the author seems to blur the lines on what “the gospel” really is. Biblically, and as Wax acknowledges, the gospel is what he refers to as “the gospel announcement” – the good news about what Jesus has done through his life, death, resurrection, and exaltation. Therefore, to say that “the gospel” is also comprised of the story and the community is a little confusing.

I do, however, believe I understand where Wax is coming from. On one hand, he wants us to understand that the background into which the gospel is set (the gospel story) affects our understanding of the gospel announcement. Likewise, the gospel announcement is supposed to lead to something, namely the formation and building up of the body of Christ (the gospel community). These are valid points. I only wish that he would have communicated them in a different way.

This book is meant to help us “be ready to spot the counterfeits that creep into our own heart and lead you away from the glorious message of Christianity” (18). Wax wants us to consider how we may have distorted “the glorious message of Christianity” by changing the storyline of the bible (Gospel Story), tweaking the gospel message (Gospel Announcement), and/or misunderstanding the role and purpose of the church (Gospel Community). In each section, Wax first defines the aspect of the gospel he is considering before looking at two counterfeits. For example, he attempts to help us see how a Therapeutic Gospel or a Judgmentless Gospel reflects a misunderstanding part of the Gospel Story.

As the author examines each counterfeit, he explains what it is and presents some common “evangelical versions” of that counterfeit. He then helps us to see why the counterfeit is attractive and provides some helpful suggestions for countering the counterfeit. Each chapter concludes with “Scripture Truths” for the reader to consider to reinforce the content covered in each chapter.

I echo Wax’s closing prayer: “I pray this book will not be seen as the last word on the gospel or on the counterfeits that vie for our devotion, but that it will be a helpful addition to the ongoing reflection on the gospel and its power to change our lives. May the God who has acted so graciously on our behalf fill us with his grace as we spread his gospel to a lost world!” (218)

 

In a previous post, I identified the primary purpose of evangelism as the glory of God. However, to say that it is the primary or ultimate purpose is not to say that it is the only purpose. There are lots of reasons why Christians should be active in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with others. In this post, I want to focus my thoughts on how one goal of evangelism is the salvation of lost souls.

Evangelism seeks to save sinners from condemnation

Evangelism should never be a mere intellectual exercises. There is too much at stake. Those who have not believed the gospel, those who have not entrusted themselves to Christ, are perishing (John 3:18, 2 Corinthians 4:3). Everyone by nature is a child of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). We cannot miss this. Peoples souls are at stake. While we cannot force results, we should never the less desire to see people respond to the message in saving faith.

We cannot afford to miss the clear reality that evangelism is a rescue mission. However, we cannot thing of this rescue mission like those we have seen in the movies. What makes this rescue mission different is that the power to rescue lies not in the evangelist or in the person being evangelized, but in the message of the gospel itself. It is God who must use the gospel to open the eyes of the unbeliever (John 3:7; 2 Corinthians 4:6; 1 Peter 1:23-25).

Evangelism seeks to save sinners from enslavement

However, in our contemporary understanding of man’s condition, it appears that man’s greatest problem is God’s wrath in the form or hell (i.e. eternal punishment). Yet this seems to miss the total implication of what it means to be under the wrath of God. Read Romans 1 for example. There we find that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). But what does it look like to be under the wrath of God? As we continue to read, we see that God gives these people over “to the lusts of their hearts” (Romans 1:24), “to dishonorable passions” (Romans 1:26), and “to a debased mind” (Romans 1:28). God’s wrath does not just have eternal consequences, but has a direct bearing on the present.

In fact, later in Romans we read about how apart from Christ we are slaves to sin (Romans 6:17-18). This means evangelism is not just about seeing people saved from God’s future wrath, but from sins present enslavement. Realizing this will help guard us from trying to sell the gospel as “fire insurance,” because it will help us convey the entirety of the sinners need. They need to be saved not just from hell, but from the sin that currently enslaves them.  A message that calls for liberation from hell without liberation from the enslavement of sin is like calling for and end to the death penalty, but leaving the person in prison. They are still condemned, but the punishment is not as harsh.

Evangelism seeks to save sinners from being estrangement

Now lets take the previous point a little further. What is the ultimate cost of sin? Is it merely that we as sentenced to condemnation in hell? Does it included being enslaved by it? The answer to these questions comes back to what we establish as the greatest good. If a life free from punishment and free from sin is ultimately the goal, then their is no greater cost, but what if those things existed without God? I believe if we think rightly about these things we will realize the greatest consequence of sin is not eternal punishment or present enslavement to sin, but the breach it causes in our relationship to God.

But the great news of the gospel is that it resolves this problem as well. “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13). This I believe is the greatest blessing of the gospel…it brings us to God (1 Peter 3:18) and makes us His adopted children (Ephesians 1:5; 1 John 3:1).

So when we are telling others of the good news of Jesus Christ, let us not loose sight of the fact that it is for their good. We want to see them reconciled to God, so that they are no longer under condemnation, are freed from the enslavement of sin, and are brought back into a proper relationship with their creator.

The last few days, I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between the guy standing behind the pulpit preaching on Sunday mornings and the people sitting in the pews. As a part of the reformed tradition, I understand the primacy that we place on the preaching of the Word. After all, bad preaching will eventual produce bad fruit (Matthew 7:15-20). However, in this post I want to offer three reasons why the pew might be more important than the pulpit.

  1. The Church is Every Believer, Not Just the Preacher. Sometimes it feels like Christians define the church much like they do a business. The church consists of a building or other physical location where one can go to participate in worship. The church has “employees” who are responsible for organizing and engaging attendees in a worshipful experience. It should be noted that these “employees” are the people hired to conduct ministry. The problem with this mindset is that it fails to appreciate that the church is made of people rather than a physical structure.Furthermore, we down play the importance of the people in the pews, when identify a church based on its pastor or preacher. The preacher exists for the good of the people in the pews, but the people in the pews have a responsibility to hold the preacher accountable to the Word of God.
  2. How People Respond to Preaching Matters. While the fundamental goal of the preacher should be to faithful declare the Word of God, it should also include a desire to see that Word bear fruit. Jesus was pretty clear about the dangers of hearing his words and not obeying them (Matthew 7:24-27). If a pastor preaches and no one actually applies that preaching to their lives, then has it really accomplished its purpose? I guess it all depends on what the preacher really wants. Are they satisfied with hardened hearts bound for eternal judgment or do they long for broken hearts stirred for love of God and love for one another?Now some one might say that a preacher can only be faithful, the fruitfulness of their preaching is out of his hands. It depends on God. They are right. However, the preacher (and the church) that are not satisfied with the fruitfulness of the preaching can do something. They can pray! We do not have because we do not ask!
  3. The People in the Pew Determine the Future of the Pulpit. Regardless of what form of polity a church has or how they go about hiring a pastor/preacher, the people in the pew will eventual determine who is in the pulpit. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Timothy 4:3). Let us not separate this point from the previous one. If the Word of God is not effecting and transforming the people in the pew, they eventually will either go find a different preacher or seek to replace the current one with one more suitable.The reality is that the longevity of a church’s existence depends on the impact that the preaching has on the people in the pews. The future of a local church depends on both the faithful preaching of the Word of God and its fruitfulness in the lives of those in the pews. And both of those depend on the Spirit of God working in the lives of both the person in the pulpit and the people in the pews.

There may be no more unpopular response to the question about how many gods exist than the Christian response that there is one true God. In a culture that screams for tolerance and inclusiveness that idea of someone claiming that there is only one true God and all others are false gods is likely to upset people. But the bible is clear that there is only one true God, Yahweh. Consider the passages below:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. (Deuteronomy 6:4)

But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. At his wrath the earth quakes, and the nations cannot endure his indignation. (Jeremiah 10:10)

For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens. (Psalm 96:4-5)

Now let me identify three ways in which the Christian claim of monotheism makes people uncomfortable.

Only One God is Worthy of Worship

First, notice the words of Psalm 96 above. “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, he is to be feared above all gods.” Words like “praised” and “feared” are words connected to worship. The psalmist is telling us that we are not entitle to respond to God is neutral. Atheism and agnostic are just as offensive to God as Buddhism or Islam. The God of the Bible, Yahweh, alone is worthy of worship. Sin is not just a matter of worshiping other things, it is also a failure to give God the worship that He is rightly due.

All Other”Gods” are Worthless Idols

If the Psalm 96:4 makes people uncomfortable or irritable, the next verse is likely provoke an argument. It is one thing to claim that your god is superior to all other gods, but to claim their gods are “worthless idols” is something else entirely. I mean think about it. If I said that my favorite sports team was better than yours, you might be a little offended. However, if I claimed that my team is not only better than yours, but all other teams are gutter trash and shouldn’t even be compare to mine, you would probably be even more offended.

Yet here the psalmist claims that other “gods” do not even deserve the title, because they are ultimately false gods or idols. Even more, while Yahweh is deserving of “great praise” these idols really do not deserve any. After all, they are “worthless.” Who in their right mind would offer worship to something that has no worth? Yet the reality is that we all do. Someone once described the heart as an idol factory. In our fallen natures, we are prone to replace God with other things. We try to replace the “great” God with things that are by comparison “worthless.” It is the height of folly to exchange the greatest treasure for junk. It would be like selling your most prized possession for counterfeit money.

Unbelief Does Not Change Reality

Finally, notice the end of Psalm 96:5 – “the Lord made the heavens.” How easily people attend to avoid the offensiveness of the first two claims (that God is superior and that their idols are worthless) by trying to make it relative. I’m sure you have heard it before: that’s your opinion, but I disagree. You can believe what you want, but I don’t believe that is true. You may believe that there is only one God, but they believe that it is okay for people for having radically divergent views about God.

Many people, at least in western cultures, have embraced the notion that we are the determiners of what is real. Like Descartes once said, “I think therefore I am.” We tend to believe that thinks are true or false because we have thought them. I have faith in one thing or believe in another and so they must be real. After all I would never place my faith in something unreal. We become the creators of reality, but the reality is that God is the creator of us. He created the heavens, and He created you and me.

While many people have convinced themselves that what they believe is simply a matter of personal choice, the reality is that it is not a neutral choice. When we choose to believe God, we give him the respect and honor, He is rightly due. However, when we choose not to believe God, when we choose to believe lie, we dishonor God and place ourselves in opposition to Him. While what people believe may ultimately be their choice, God will hold them accountable for the choices they make.

I started reading A. W. Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy : The Attributes of God  for a small group that I am a part of. The other night we met and discussed the first chapter. In reflecting on the first chapter their are a couple of ideas that really stand out to me.

  1. The Overall Importance of Theology

In opening the chapter Tozer writes:

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us” (p. 9)

This statements definitely runs counter-cultural. If I took a survey of what people think is the most important characteristic of an individual, their religion would likely not be at the top of the list. In fact, for many religion is a taboo topic. It is nice to talk about in private with some friends, but it does not belong in the midst of public discourse.

Yet since the fall in Genesis 3, the fundamental problem with mankind has been a deficient view of God. The words first spoken by Satan in the garden echo today: “God has not said…” The form of attach has changed over the years, but calling into question the truths God has reveal about himself is a constant strategy of the devil. We must fight for a right view of God.

2. The Importance of Theology for the Gospel

Later in the chapter, Tozer connects the dots for us on the importance of knowing God for rightly grasping the gospel. In speak of the gospels power to lift the burden of sin and guilt, Tozer writes:

“The gospel can lift this destroying burden from the mind, give beauty for ashes, and the garment of praise for  the spirit of heaviness. But unless the weight of the burden is felt the gospel can mean nothing to the man; and until he sees a vision of God high and lifted up, there will be no woe and no burden. Low views of God destroy the gospel for all who hold them” (p. 11, emphasis added)

This is a pretty bold claim. A proper view of the gospel demands a proper view of God. Let me identify three examples of how a wrong view of God weakness/destroys the gospel.

First, a wrong view of God affects how we understand the fundamental nature of the relationship between God and man. While the Bible paints the picture that man was created to worship and serve his creator, our contemporary culture tends to view God as someone who exists to worship and serve us. As a result, a gospel message that focus on the need for sinners to repent and deny themselves is replaced with a therapeutic gospel in which God exists to meet our needs.

Second, a wrong view of God affects how we understand sin. Again our current culture attempts to tell us that sin is normal. After all to err is human. We all make mistakes. The real problem with sin is that it gets in the way of our fulfillment, our success, and our happiness. It impedes the “American Dream.” Or at least that is what the world would have us believe. The reality is that sin is ultimately a violation of God’s law not man’s good. It is an affront to God’s glory and diminishing of his character. Sin does not just make as bad people, it separates us from God and makes us enemies with Him.

Finally, a wrong view of God distorts the great blessings that come to us in the gospel. When we see God as someone who exists to serve us, the gospel becomes God helping us help ourselves. When sin as a violation of our happiness, the gospel becomes about satisfying our deepest desires. However, if we see God as a holy God and sin as an affront to His glory, then the gospel is about God preserving His holiness and preserving His glory, while at the same time dealing with the punishment that we deserve. The gospel becomes good news, because we regain access to God, who alone is worthy of worship.

The bottom line: How we view God will shape how we view everything else, including why sin is bad news and what makes the gospel good news.

Matthew opens his gospel by tracing the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham to David, from David to the deportation to Babylon, and from the deportation to Babylon to Christ. Matthew wants to establish for us up front that Jesus is the seed of Abraham through whom all the nations would be blessed. Furthermore, he wants us to see that Jesus is an heir of David the king. Yet when Jesus enters the scene it is not against the backdrop set by the prosperity of Abraham’s seed, but against the brokenness of a people still feeling the effects of Babylonian conquest and exile. When Jesus enters the scene the throne of David is almost forgotten and a Gentile rules of Israel.

However, as you read Matthew 1, don’t miss the importance of Joseph. The entire genealogy of Jesus account in the opening 16 verse traces from Abraham to Christ through “Joseph, the husband of Mary.” So let me observe 4 things from Matthew 1:18-25 that highlight just how significant Joseph’s role in coming of Christ.

  • First, Jesus is conceived while betrothed to Joseph. (1:18). Matthew is quick to qualify the conception by indicated that the conception occurred after the formal betrothal, but before they had become intimate. In other words, there was a formal, possibly even legal, aspect to their relationship when Mary got pregnant. They were not just friends or acquaintances. They were more like an engage couple, though our modern engages carry with them far less commitment.
  • Second, we should observe that Joseph was a “just man.” He feared God and had compassion for others. When he discovers that Mary is pregnant, he understands the sinfulness and shame that would have accompanied the announcement that the child was not his. Yet rather than make a public spectacle of her, Joseph “resolved to divorce her quietly.” Maybe we can all learn something from Joseph about how to deal with sins against us by trying to deal with them privately rather than publicly.
  • Third, God goes out of his way to convince Joseph to stay. God sends and angel to explain the situation to him in a dream. Joseph is addressed as a “Son of David.” In one sense this is why Joseph is important. If Jesus is to be a son of David, then his “father” must be a son of David. So while Jesus may have been conceived by the Holy Spirit,” he would be regarded as a son of Joseph, son of David.
  • Finally, we notice Joseph’s response; he obeys God. He takes Mary as his wife, yet does not consummate the marriage until after Mary had given birth. And Joseph assumes his proper place as Jesus father by exercising his fatherly rights in naming the child, Jesus. We may miss this in our modern culture, but in 1st century Israel, the practice was for fathers to name their children, so by naming Jesus, Joseph places a final stamp on recognizing Jesus as his son and therefore a son of David and an offspring of Abraham.

At first blush, this question may not seem theological at all. After all when it comes to prioritizing and ranking people or things. We have our favorite sports teams and our favorite flavors of ice cream. We prefer to spend time with some people more than others. People cannot go through life without developing preferences for some things over other things.

Yet the most pressing issue that we all have to deal with is what is the most important thing or person in life. What is it that should take precedence over everything else? For some people, this is a person; maybe a family member or a close friend. For others, it is a job or an activity to which they devote all their time and energy. And still for others it is a material object; something that they could not live without.

However, the reality is that most people are busing make gods after their own desires, but unwilling to acknowledge that there is one true God who should have the supreme place in their lives. According to the Scriptures, there really is no question about who is first and best of all. “Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts; ‘I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 44:6). Regardless of what we try to replace God with, there is nothing that can compete with God.

Consider the words of the Psalmists: “For You are the LORD Most High over all the earth; You are exalted far above all gods.” (97:9, emphasis added). And again, “For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised, He is to be feared above all gods.” (96:4, emphasis added). Clearly, God expects us to prioritize Him above all else.

For me there is no more profound statement regarding the superiority of God than Psalm 73: 25-26: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Here the Psalmist reaches the conclusion that there is nothing on earth or in heaven which compares in value to God. The reality we have a tendency to look for strength and fulfillment in created things rather than in God. We settle for lesser things, instead of that which matters most.