Books

7 Errors to Avoid in Following Christ

What you believe makes a big difference in your Christian life. Even if the categories of formal theology seem remote and unfamiliar, you have a theology. Everything you think about God, Jesus, law, sin, salvation, holiness, the Spirit, the church, human nature, life, death, and eternity is theological. We are all theologians. The real question is whether or not our theologies are true to Scripture.
One of the most important areas of theology is sanctification: the doctrine that concerns our consecration to God, the restoration and renewal of God’s image within us, and our practical progress in holiness. I’ve seen a number of common errors that Christians make in this area. In fact, here are seven errors to avoid in following Christ.
1.     Looking to your sanctification for your justification 
Justification and sanctification are related, but not to be confused. Justification concerns our legal status before God. Scripture teaches that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. If you believe in Jesus, your sins are pardoned and God already accepts you as righteous – even though you still struggle with sin.
And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness… (Rom. 4:5)
God justifies the ungodly! Full forgiveness is freely given through faith in Jesus crucified and risen alone. The verdict is in: “not guilty.”
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8:1)
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.       Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Rom. 8:33-34)
Don’t measure your acceptance with God by your progress in holiness or apparent lack thereof. Sanctification depends on justification, not the other way around.
2.     Adding rules to Scripture
Make no mistake: there are commands in Scripture and we must obey them. Even Christians, who are freed the law (Acts 13:39Rom. 7:48:2Gal. 5:1-13), are commanded to walk in love, work out their own salvation, bring holiness to completion in the fear of God, and more (Eph. 5:2Philip. 2:122 Cor. 7:1). While obeying God’s commands does not justify us, obedience is an essential part of sanctification.
But sometimes people require more than God requires. When Paul warned of those who would forbid marriage and require abstinence from certain foods, he said it was demonic (1 Tim. 4:1-3). That’s pretty strong language! But it underscores the absolute sufficiency of God’s word for training us in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
If the Bible doesn’t forbid it or require it, neither should you. Doing so won’t help you or others become holy. It will only undermine confidence in Scripture. Beware of adding rules to the Bible.
3.     Focusing on behavior to the neglect of the heart 
Behavior is important. But our words and deeds always flow from the heart.
For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:43-45)
If you want to change the fruit, you have to change the root. This doesn’t mean we either can or should neglect behavioral issues until we feel different. You should do what God says, even when you don’t feel like it. But if you don’t go after the underlying motives, passions, and desires that drive your sinful behavior, your efforts to change will be short lived and superficial.
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.(Gal. 5:24)
4.     Thinking you can go it alone 
One of the most overlooked facts about the New Testament letters is that almost all of them were written to churches. Even Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus were written with a church context in mind. This means that most of the exhortations and commands given in these letters are given to churches, not individuals.
It was John Wesley who said, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” But when it comes to holiness, too many of us try to go it alone. It won’t work. You need the church. You need the church because you need the means of grace: the preached word, prayer, and the sacraments. And you need the church because you need other people. Even the Lone Ranger needed Tonto. Holy living is a community project. 
5.     Neglecting the ministry of the Holy Spirit 
Sanctification is part of the Spirit’s ministry (1 Pet. 1:22 Thess. 2:13). The Spirit is the one who fills us (Eph. 5:18), strengthens us (Eph. 3:16), and reproduces the character of Christ in us (Gal. 5:22-23). And while the Spirit indwells the heart of every believer (Rom. 8:9), we are responsible to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25) and to put sin to death in his strength (Rom. 8:13).
Neglecting the Spirit’s ministry is a sure recipe for stunted spiritual growth. We therefore need to cultivate continuous, conscious dependence on the Spirit. And Paul’s writings indicate that the primary ways we do this are through the word and prayer (study, for example, the parallels between Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18-20, and Paul’s many references to the Spirit in his prayers).
6.     Failing to put effort into the pursuit of holiness  
Sometimes an emphasis on the Spirit has led believers to spiritual passivity – the old “let go and let God” approach. But the biblical path leads in the opposite direction: the greater our dependence on the Spirit, the more active we become. Dependence on the Spirit is fully compatible with fighting the good fight of faith (1 Tim. 6:12) and running the race set before us (Heb 12:1). Effort is an essential ingredient in spiritual growth (2 Pet. 1:5-10).
7.     Forgetting the reality of your union with Christ
But we must never forget the reality of the new identity we already have through union with Christ. In fact, in Paul’s fullest teaching on the Christian life, this is always how he starts. We see this pattern in Romans 6 where he argues that continuing to live in sin is deeply incongruous for those who are already dead to sin through their faith union in the death of Christ.  This is also the focus of Colossians 3, where all Paul’s commands (imperatives) rest on the realities (indicatives) that we are already dead, raised, and hidden with Christ.  Or consider Ephesians 4:17-32, where Paul admonishes us to holy living, because we’ve already put off the old man and put on the new, in learning Christ. As Paul says in another familiar verse:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)
This post was originally written for Christianity.com

Top 12 Books of 2014


Every December, bloggers list off their favorite books of the year. I relish these posts and usually buy a few books as a result. Here are my top twelve picks for the year. Keep in mind, of course, these are my favorites of the books I read this year, not books published this year. Happy reading! 

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work, and School by John Medina. Fascinating study by a molecular biologist on the human brain and it's complex relationship to exercise, gender, attention, memory and more. Brilliant writing with engaging stories and illustrations, only somewhat marred by naturalistic presuppositions.

Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life by Ronald S. Wallace. An older, but excellent overview of Calvin’s theology that quotes generously from not only the Institutes, but also the commentaries and sermons. Wallace shows how the doctrine of union with Christ shapes all of Calvin’s thinking about the Christian life. Very, very good and well worth prolonged study and repeated readings.

Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn. Though I took most of the year to read this 600-plus page biography of the man in black, it was a riveting look at one of the most interesting icons in American music. Cash was a bundle of contradictions: addict/Christian; womanizer/family man; entertainer/artist; broken/redeemed. Hilburn’s biography is ruthlessly honest, but that just makes Cash all the more compelling.

Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God by Timothy Ward. This is an excellent treatment of the doctrine of Scripture, rooted in Trinitarian orthodoxy that utilizes speech-act theory to give a fresh articulation of the classic Reformed Evangelical position. Doesn’t say everything, but what it does say is very good indeed.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Timothy Keller. One of the best books on prayer I’ve ever read, Keller’s approach wonderfully combines theological reflections on prayer with very helpful practical suggestions for cultivating a strong prayer life. Keller draws heavily on Augustine, Calvin, Owen, and Luther, making this book all the more interesting and valuable.

Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God by Brian S. Rosner. Another scintillating addition to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, this new book on the law in Pauline theology was both clear and convincing, charting a thoughtful course through this complex territory in theology and ethics. Rosner articulates a three-fold approach to understanding Paul’s use of the law, helpfully summarized with three words: repudiation, replacement, and reappropriation. The value of this book is that it patiently surveys all the data and proposes an interpretative grid that makes sense of it all. Though I’m not sure I agreed with his interpretation of a couple of texts, the book as a whole is invaluable.

The Trinitarian Devotion of John Owen by Sinclair Ferguson. My favorite living theologian on my favorite dead theologian. ‘Nough said.

The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth by Mike Cosper. Excellent study on the intersection between the stories embedded in television / movies and the ultimate story of creation, fall, and redemption. A must read for every Christian who enjoys the media of film and television.

God the Peacemaker: How Atonement brings Shalom by Graham Cole. Another entry in the NSBT series, published in 2009. And it is simply excellent. Every page is stimulating and suggestive. A wonderful blend of thoughtful exegesis, theological reflection, and scholarly dialogue. Easily one of my favorite reads of the year!

Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces by Roy Peter Clark. This compact little book is bursting at the seams with a veteran author’s practical insights on the craft of writing. Clark isolates seven steps in writing (Getting Started, Getting Your Act Together, Finding Focus, Looking for Language, Building a Draft, Assessing Your Progress, Making It Better) and zooms in on three common problems in each step. Then he presents 10 possible solutions for each problem. Humorous, engaging, helpful: an excellent model of writing, written with writers and wannabe writers in mind. 

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. In contrast to Clark’s book listed above, Pressfield’s War of Art is lean, mean, and focused on one basic thing: overcoming the inner resistance that keeps writers from actually getting words on the page. I’ve never read an author who better understands the thought-world of a creative. I read this almost daily during my writing leave this year. Very, very helpful (though it gets kinda weird and mystical in part 3).

On the Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalence of Indwelling Sin in Believers by John Owen. I read at least something by Owen almost every year and usually walk away wondering why I ever read anything else. This was probably my fourth or fifth time through Indwelling Sin, the third in Owen’s famous trilogy found in volume 6 of his works. The value of this particular volume is its profound insight into the power and deceit of sin in the human heart. Owen was a skilled soul surgeon who effectively applied the gospel to the heart. This is the book that an old Scottish Hebrew professor (John Duncan) recommended to his students with the warning, “But prepare for the knife!”

Update: Here are my lists from previous years:
2013
2012
2011
2010
2009
2008



Five Motivations to Pray

For years, when I thought about prayer, I mostly felt guilty for my lack of a robust prayer life. Reading stories of great saints praying for two hours a day or more left me with a gnawing sense of defeat. I would often resolve to pray more. But the resolves didn’t last.
One day I realized that something had changed. While not exactly satisfied with my prayer life, I knew that I had one. I’m sure that I still don’t pray as much as I should. But I pray a lot more than I used to. And I’ve tried to think about why. What changed? On one level, of course, whatever prayer life I have is the fruit of God’s grace. He gets the credit. But God uses means. The Spirit’s work doesn’t bypass our thoughts, feelings, habits, and desires. No, he works in and through all these aspects of our personhood.
When I think about my prayer life in these terms, two kinds of things bubble to the surface. On one hand, I can identify certain things that happen inside of me that often trigger prayer. And on the other hand, there are several tools I’ve discovered that have helped me form better habits in prayer.  This post is on the triggers. The next will be on the tools.
1. Longing
“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[1] Augustine’s famous prayer is my biography in a sentence. I first felt the sharp stab of desire as a child. I remember hearing a beautiful song that made me feel I hardly know what. It made me both happy and sad. It evoked longings I didn’t know I had and had no labels for. As I grew older, the longings became more acute.
We all feel this existential ache one way or another. C. S. Lewis wrote about this longing, calling it “the truest index of our real situation.” [2] The problem, of course, is that we usually mistake the object of our true desire. We try to slake our thirst with personal success, sexual fulfillment, meaningful relationships, the accumulation of cool stuff, and the approval of others. We forsake the fountain of living waters and try to drink from broken cisterns that can hold no water. [3] But the ache remains. And that ache is one of the key triggers for prayer. In the words of the Psalmist, 
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. [4]
2. Guilt
The second trigger that drives me to prayer is guilt. I don’t mean feeling guilty if I don’t pray. I mean the conviction I feel for having sinned against God and others. To echo a confession that Robert Murray M’Cheyne made in one of his letters, “None but God knows what an abyss of corruption is in my heart.” [5] Anyone who truly knows their own heart can say the same. I suppose I’ve prayed more prayers of confession than anything else. I’m so grateful for Psalm 51 and the other penitential psalms. These psalms, along with the promises of divine forgiveness, remind us that we don’t have to wallow in guilt or stay in our sins. With the tax-collector in Luke 18:13, we can pray, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
3. Stress
Perhaps nothing has helped my prayer life more than the pressure of difficult and painful circumstances. We call it stress, but the biblical word is “trial.” Sometimes our circumstances are almost unbearable. We feel like we’re about to sink. That’s why one of my favorite prayers in Scripture comes from the lips of Peter as he sinks beneath the waves: “Lord, save me!”  It’s short, simple, and to the point. But for someone desperate for help, it’s enough.
On one level, trials are – well – stressful! But when we can embrace our trials as instruments in our Father’s hands, intended for our good, they can lead us into a deeper dependence on him. In the words of an old hymn,
Trials make the promise sweet
Trials give new life to prayer
Trials bring me at his feet
Lay me low and keep me there.[6]
4. Love
Another motivation that triggers prayer is love. I especially have in mind love and compassion for others. When Paul asked the believers in Rome to pray for him, he appealed to their love, a fruit of the Spirit’s work in their hearts. [7] Love is the most effective spur to intercessory prayer.
As a pastor, I get a front row seat to people’s deepest needs and problems. More often than not, I feel inadequate to meet those needs. But I’m learning that the best way to love them is to pray for them, to ask the One whose sufficiency knows no bounds to meet their needs according to his riches in Christ.
5. Gratitude  
One more trigger for prayer is gratitude. I should feel much more gratitude than I do. As M’Cheyne, whom I quoted above, said in a wonderful poem:
When I stand before the throne,
Dressed in beauty not my own,
When I see thee as thou art,
Love thee with unsinning heart,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know -
Not till then - how much I owe.[8]
Like M’Cheyne, I know that I don’t fully realize how much I owe to the Lord’s kindness and grace. Butsometimes I get a glimpse – often on the heels of a fresh sight of my sinful heart and the Lord’s unfailing grace and mercy in my life, and gratitude overflows into joyful thanks.
Longing, guilt, stress, love, and gratitude. There is nothing unique about these feelings. This is the ordinary stuff out of which all of our internal lives are made. But what I have slowly learned is to let these ordinary feelings be my starting place for prayer.
If you want to grow in your prayer life, just start where you are.
Does your soul throb with the dull ache for something more?  Take it to God. Is your conscience stained with the memories of yesterday’s sins? Bring them to Jesus. Are you worried about a loved one’s health? Anxious about how you’ll make ends meet this month? Unburden your heart to the Father.
Wherever you are, whatever you’re facing, start there. Bring your needs to the throne of grace, and you will have a prayer life.
This post was written for Christianity.com. 
End Notes

[1]Augustine, Confessions, Bk. 1, Ch. 1
[2]C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (HarperCollins, 2009), p. 42
[3]Jeremiah 2:13
[4]Psalm 73:25-26
[5]Andrew A. Bonar, ed., Memoirs & Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2004 reprint of 1844 edition) p. 637. Robert Murray M’Cheyne was a 19th century Scottish minister renowned for his earnest pursuit of holiness.
[6]William Cowper, “Welcome Cross”
[7]See Romans 15:30
[8]From his poem, “I am Debtor,” quoted in Bonar, ed., Memoirs & Remains, p. 637.

Do You Think Biblically about Your Work?

Work is one of the most significant parts of our lives. Of the 168 hours we are given each week, most of us will spend at least 40 at the workplace.  Many spend closer to 60 or 70, sometimes juggling two jobs or more. One of the most pressing questions for a Christian to answer, then, is, “How do I think biblically about work?”
Created to work
The first thing to remember is that we were made for work. Work is implicit in the “cultural mandate,” the command given by God to the first man, recorded Genesis 1:28-31. Human beings were created in the image of God for the purpose of subduing the earth, ruling over the created order as the vicegerents of God.  In the words of J. I. Packer, “Man was made to manage God’s world, and this stewardship is part of the human vocation in Christ. It calls for hard work, with God’s honor and the good of others as its goal.”[1] Labor is, therefore, one of the most important ways in which we bear God’s image, for God himself is a God who works (Gen. 2:2-3). “In contrast to Greek mythology, where the gods live a life of celestial loafing, the Bible pictures God himself as a ceaseless worker.”[2]As John Stott writes, “Our potential for creative work is an essential part of our godlikeness.”[3]
This biblical perspective shows the essential value and dignity of human work. In Genesis 2:15 we learn that after creating Adam, God put him in “the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.“ Even in the pristine, unspoiled pre-fallen world, man had work to do.  “God has deliberately arranged life in such a way that he needs the cooperation of human beings for the fulfillment of his purposes,” observes Stott. “He did not create the planet earth to be productive on its own; human beings had to subdue and develop it. He did not plant a garden whose flowers would blossom and fruit ripen on their own; he appointed a gardener to cultivate the soil. We call this the ‘cultural mandate’ which God gave to humankind. ‘Nature’ is what God gives us; ‘culture’ is what we do with it.”[4]
This means that any attempt to shirk work, either through thievery, desperate attempts to get rich quickly (lottery, anyone?), or through mooching off others in lives of indolence, are wrong-headed from the start.
The purposes of work
Work is is both commanded and commended in Scripture. The command to work, for example, is implicit in the Ten Commandments (as the fourth commandment begins, “six days shall you labor, and do all your work,” Ex. 20:9) and explicit in the apostolic writings (“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need,” Eph. 4:28).
The whole of Scripture commends honest labor, viewing it as a source of personal satisfaction (Eccl. 3:22), the means of providing for our families (1 Tim. 5:8), benefiting others (Eph. 4:28) and especially as a serving the Lord, as we do everything in word and deed in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col. 3:1723-24). Weaving these purposes for work together, John Stott defines work as “the expenditure of energy (manual or mental or both) in the service of others, which brings fulfilling to the worker, benefit to the community, and glory to God.”[5]
Work in a fallen world
But we all know that real life in the workaday world is often complicated, frustrating and unfulfilling. Work problems are real: stress, job dissatisfaction, unemployment, the question of fair wages, and other ethical concerns demand careful consideration that moves beyond the mandate of Genesis 1, but without losing sight of it.
The ultimate reason for the complexity of work and its attendant problems is the sin, reaching back to the fall of man in Genesis 3. Part of the five-fold curse following the fall is the curse on the ground, which now bears thorns and thistles, so that man now eats his bread “by the sweat of [his] face” (Gen. 3:18-19). Work, in other words, is now fraught with obstacles and etched with frustrations. As someone once quipped, “man was meant to be a gardener, but by reason of his sin he became a farmer.”[6] Work after the fall is not simply the creative work of construction and cultivation. We must now also push back against the effects of the fall. There are constant obstacles to overcome with the forces of entropy, disintegration, and decay constantly working against us. Work now involves not only planting, but weeding; not simply doing, but undoing. Like Jeremiah the prophet, we often have “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow” before we can “build and … plant” (Jer. 1:10).
   To use the lament of Ecclesiastes, “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.” (Eccl. 2:22-23).  Work, like childbirth is not only joy, involves labor.[7] The problems of job-related stress, unjust labor laws, et cetera, are an index to our present condition: life in a fallen world.
The redemption of work
But the Scriptures also look forward to the final redemption and restoration of the created order, including the realm of work. In Isaiah 65, for example, the prophet records God’s promise of a “new heavens and a new earth” (v. 17) where his people
    shall build houses and inhabit them;
    they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
    they shall not plant and another eat;
    for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
    and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain
     or bear children for calamity… (Isa 65:21-23a)
This hope of new creation is picked up in multiple places in the New Testament (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:172 Pet. 3:13Rev. 21-22). The apostles viewed Jesus’ resurrection from the dead as the inaugural event in new creation, with Jesus himself as the firstfruits of the harvest and the gift of his Spirit as the guarantee that final redemption is coming. And its in this very context, having given his most eloquent and theologically rich defense of the resurrection, that Paul says to the early Christians, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58, emphasis added).
Though we continue to labor in a fallen world, we no longer labor without hope, but with the unshakable confidence that our work, done in service to the Lord Jesus, counts.
This column was written for Christianity.com
End Notes

[1]J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1993), p. 236
[2]“Work, Working,” in Ryken, L., Wilhoit, J., Longman, T., Duriez, C., Penney, D., & Reid, D. G., ed.,Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 965. This article presents a well-rounded biblical theology of work that has informed the structure and content of my post.
[3]John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) p. 219.
[4]Stott, pp. 222-223
[5]Stott, p. 225.
[6]W. F. Forrester, quoted in Ryken, et all, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.
[7]“In the story of the Fall woman’s pain in giving birth (Gen 3:16) parallels the curse on work (Gen 3:17). The Hebrew word for toil and pain in these verses is the same, and Forrester notes that “in language after language the same word is used for toil and child-bearing, e.g., ‘labour’ and ‘travail.’” (Ibid.)

Is the Christian Life about Running or Resting?

In 2009, Time magazine named “the new Calvinism” as one of the 10 ideas currently changing the world. The burgeoning movement brought several streams of conservative evangelicals together, ranging from Baptists to Presbyterians to Reformed Charismatics, best represented through organizations and conferences like Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition. But in recent months an intramural debate within the movement made headlines when author, pastor, (and grandson of Billy Graham) Tullian Tchividjian, was asked to leave The Gospel Coalition.
The issues surrounding this rather public “break up” are complex, but at least part of the brouhaha concerns differing perspectives on sanctification. Some have accused Tchividjian of antinomianism [1] and denying the “third use of the law” [2] (charges he has repeatedly denied, most recently in an interview with Janet Mefford.)
Kevin DeYoung, one of Tullian’s main interlocutors, has compiled a list of agreements and possible disagreements between the two sides. These questions certainly deserve careful thought, as do the varied responses to the debate from voices as diverse as Rick PhillipsMark Galli, and R. Scott Clark.
Without responding directly to Tullian, his accusers, or defenders, I think one possible way forward in this debate is to pay closer attention not just to the distinctions between law and gospel (as important as these are) but to the metaphors and word pictures the Scriptures use when describing the lives of believers. For ordinary believers, who can easily get lost in the complexities of theological jargon, the vivid imagery of the Bible itself is both refreshing and a wonderful means of keeping us balanced.
For example, Scripture describes our lives in terms of a journey and an athletic competition. We are commanded both to walk and to run. These are strongly active metaphors that emphasize the need for continuous movement and strenuous effort. But Scripture also uses agricultural metaphors like remaining in a vine and bearing fruit (John 15). In Galatians 5:19-23, Paul seems to deliberately contrast the fruit of the Spirit with the works of the flesh, reminding us that developing the Christian virtues of love, joy, peace, etc. isn’t merely a matter of self-effort and will power, but of supernatural empowerment.
But there’s more. In addition to the athletic and agricultural images, biblical writers employ metaphors from the realms of architecture (foundation, stones, buildings, edification), medicine (sin as a sickness, Christ as physician, his word as both a surgical knife and healing remedy), the military(soldiers, battles, discipline, armor), and more. We are encouraged to both labor (1 Thessalonians 1:3) and rest (Matthew 11:28-30), trust (Romans 15:13) and obey (Philippians 2:12-13), look out for others (Hebrews 10:24-25) and examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5), keep ourselves (Jude 21) and depend on the power of God to keep us (Jude 24).
These pictures are rich and diverse and we need all of them. If we take any one image by itself, we run the risk of becoming lopsided in our focus. For example, if we only emphasize the architectural and “body” metaphors in 1 Corinthians, people might be inclined to think the corporate dimensions of Christian living are more important than individual and personal responsibilities. An exclusive focus on resting in Jesus could lead others to infer that any call to effort or discipline is legalistic. On the other hand, the military and athletic imagery in Scripture, calling us to fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12) and run with endurance the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1-2), needs the balancing word-picture of abiding in Jesus, the true vine, apart from whom we can do nothing (John 15:5).
The Christian life, you see, is not dependence to the exclusion of discipline, or vice-versa. It’s both. It’s not just a me-thing or a we-thing. It’s both. It’s running and resting. Believing and obeying. Together and as individuals.
I believe that folks on all sides of the current sanctification debate desire to honor God and his word, rest in the good news of Christ’s finished work, and grow in grace. We all need to pay close attention to the text of Scripture and be careful to avoid rhetoric that is either theologically misleading or disparaging to others. Disagreements will likely continue. But whatever side of the debate we find ourselves on, let’s not forget that the Christian life involves both resting in Christ and his finished workand running with everything we’ve got for the prize set before us.
This post was originally written for Christianity.comFor more on this issue, see my latest book, Active Spirituality: Grace and Effort in the Christian Life
Notes
1. “Antinomianism so stresses Christian freedom from the condemnation of the law that it underemphasizes the need of the believer to confess sins daily and to pursue sanctification earnestly.” S. B. Ferguson, J. I. Packer, ed., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 379.
2. In Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin distinguished three uses of the law: (1) to condemn sin (Inst. 2.7.6-9), (2) to restrain sin in society (Inst. 2.7.10-11), and (3) to instruct, in Calvin’s words, “the third and principle use” (Inst. 2.7.12-13).

God Provides, Even When We Can't See It


In his book Brain Rules, John Medina tells the intriguing story of Dr. Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist, and one of his patients, an elderly woman who “suffered a massive stroke in the back region of her brain that left her with a most unusual deficit: She lost her ability to pay attention to anything that was to her left.” Medina explains the effect this had on her perceptive abilities:

She could put lipstick only on the right half of her face. She ate only from the right half of her plate. This caused her to complain to the hospital nursing staff that her portions were too small! Only when the plate was turned and the food entered her right visual field could she pay any attention to it and have her fill.[1]

Sometimes I think we’re like this in our spiritual perception. While it’s easy for us to recognize the hand of God on the right, we fail to see him working on the left. We’re grateful for the clarity of his guidance and the comfort of his blessings, but find it difficult to discern his hidden hand during times of discouragement, disappointment, suffering, and trial.

The Scriptures abound with examples of saints who had the same problem. Think of Naomi, bereft of her sons and her husband, now back in Bethlehem after a decade in Moab during a time of famine. She is soon the talk of the town, and the women of Bethlehem ask, “Is this Naomi?” But Naomi, whose name meant “pleasant,” retorts,

“Don’t call me Naomi…Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (Ruth 1:20-21)

Once she enjoyed fullness, now she is empty. Once she was happy, not she is bitter. Naomi is convinced that God’s hand is against her. But she doesn’t yet realize that Ruth, the young woman at her side, will be the Lord’s means of bringing an heir to her household, redemption to her estate, and ultimately redemption to the world. (Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David and one of only four women named in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1).

Or take the old patriarch Jacob. With his family facing famine, his sons had ventured to Egypt to find food. Now they have returned, leaving Simeon behind, and with the mandate from the prime minister to bring their younger brother Benjamin back with them. To make matters worse, the money they had paid for provisions in Egypt is now back in their bags! This isn’t good.  Are they being framed as thieves? In near despair, Jacob cries out, “Everything is against me!” (Genesis 42:36). What Jacob doesn’t know is that God is working behind the scenes through his long-lost son Joseph, to provide for the whole clan of Israel. As Joseph will later say to his brothers (who had sold him into slavery, thus landing him in Egypt in the first place), “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

We’re just like Jacob and Naomi. We misinterpret our circumstances. We feel hopeless, though hope stands right at our side. We feel like everything is working against us, not realizing that God is actually working everything together for our good (Romans 8:28). As poet and hymn-writer William Cowper said,

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His works in vain
God is His own interpreter
And He will make it plain.[2]

The problem is our limited perspective on the providence of God. The doctrine of God’s providence teaches that God governs over all things in creation. He’s not an indifferent watchmaker who made the world and then left it to tick away on its own. He is rather a good and wise king, who governs human affairs. “The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all,” declared the psalmist (Psalm 103:19). But not only is he our king, he is also our Father, intimately concerned with the smallest details of our lives. For Jesus said,

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

My favorite definition of God’s providence comes from a 16th century catechism that asks, “What dost thou mean by the providence of God?” Answer:

The almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, as it were by his hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come, not by chance, but be his fatherly hand.[3]

This is good news, but we must have faith to embrace it. Neither our circumstances, nor our feelings, are reliable indicators of what God is up to in our lives. Sometimes everything will seem to be against us. Sometimes we will feel empty and bitter. But when we do, we should remember how limited our perception really is. Like Oliver Sacks’ patient who couldn’t see anything to her left, sometimes we can’t perceive the presence of God’s goodness or the wisdom of his plan.

Let’s remember, then, this wise exhortation from Cowper’s hymn:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace
Behind a frowning providence,
he hides a smiling face.[4]

This post was originally written for Christianity.com.

End Notes



[1] John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work, and School (Pear Press, Kindle edition. Loc. 1106-1116).
[2] William Cowper, from his hymn, “Light Shining in Darkness,” better known as “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” 1774.
[3] The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 27.
[4] Ibid.