Winning By Losing

Here are two great quotes from Robert Farrar Capon‘s The Parables of Grace:

“Jesus came to save a lost and losing world by his own lostness and defeat; but in this wide world of losers, everyone except Jesus remains firmly, if hopelessly, committed to salvation by winning… it would be funny if it were not fatal; but fatal it is, because grace works only on those who accept their lostness.”

“As I have observed a number of times now, if the world could have been saved by successful living, it would have been tidied up long ago. Certainly, the successful livers of this world have always been ready enough to stuff life’s losers into the garbage can of history. Their program for turning earth back to Eden has consistently been to shun the sick, to lock the poor in ghettos, to disenfranchise those whose skin was the wrong color, and to exterminate those whose religion was inconvenient… But for all that, Eden has never returned. The world’s woes are beyond repair by the world’s successes: there are just too many failures, and they come too thick and fast for any program, however energetic or well-funded… Therefore when the Gospel is proclaimed, it stays light-years away from reliance on success or any other exercise of right-handed power. Instead, it relies resolutely on left-handed power – on the power that, in a mystery, works through failure, loss, and death… For Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, improve the improvable, or correct the correctible; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of a life he cannot.”

What Of It?

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his book Spiritual Depression, poignantly asserts:

“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you.” 

We all have this experience. For some it is nearly debilitating. The weight of guilt from past transgressions or inactions drains the emotional bank account. The result, as Lloyd-Jones says, is “unhappiness”. Discouragement. And whenever discouragement is left untreated, there is always the risk that it metastasizes into full blown depression.

The issue is not that these thoughts are necessarily wrong. We all have regrets of things we have done and of things we have left undone. What is wrong is how these feelings warp our sense of identity, and consequently our emotional health. What is wrong is how these things rob us of our connection with the greater truths of God’s Promises, often making the one “listening” to these mental accusations feel unworthy, and therefore disconnected from God himself.

The answer is not to simply ignore these mental accusations. There is a very real sense that we are “guilty”, and that we are “unworthy” to enjoy God’s presence. As Paul reminds us in Romans 3.23, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”. John concurs with Paul, reminding us in 1 John 1.8, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” and again in v. 10, “If we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and God’s word is not in us.”

The solution to our unhappiness is found in what John writes in between, in v. 9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In other words, the remedy to our unhappiness begins by owning whatever part of the accusations are true. We own it, then “confess it” to God. (NOTE: However, we must take care to not embrace what is untrue.)

Lloyd-Jones, who was a medical doctor before entering into pastoral ministry, prescribes that we “talk to ourselves” as medicine for our souls. After “confession”, which is talking to God, we are to “talk to ourselves.” We are to remind ourselves of the promises of the gospel, such as the promises of 1 John 1.9, or any of the many similar promises that are laced throughout the Scriptures. These promises are “greater truths” than whatever is true of our guilt; greater because they are God’s truths, God’s promises to those who rest in his grace, through faith in Christ.

What would such a conversation look like? What might we say to “ourselves” when our minds feel flooded with accusation? The video above provides a powerful example. In this video, actor Joseph Fiennes plays Martin Luther in the 2003 biopic, Luther. In the scene, Luther declares:

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

This is what is called “preaching the gospel to yourself”!

As Luther ostensibly said at another time:

“Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.”

Gospel vs. Legalism

Gospel vs. Legalsim

What is the difference between legalism and the gospel?

  • Legalism (or Moralism) says God looks at how well we keep the law.
  • The Gospel says we are hidden in Christ. So God sees how well Jesus kept the Law (perfectly), all his works, and his death on our behalf.  Consequently, because we are hidden in Christ, God sees the work of Jesus when he sees us. The gospel says that, because of God’s grace, all that Jesus is and did is credited (imputed) to us, through faith.  (Colossians 3.3, Ephesians 2.8, Romans 5.2, Galatians 2.20)

So what is the difference between the gospel and legalism? It is the difference between Christianity and every religion in the world.

5 Obedience Killing Lies

Colorful Confusion

No doubt in my mind, it is one of the more difficult aspects of living in line with the gospel. Is it about grace, or is it about obedience?  If I say “both” – which I do – then how does this not add a requirement of works to the gospel requirement of faith alone for our justification/salvation?  If I say obedience is not necessary to our salvation – which I also say – then are we not very close to the precipice of anti-nomianism (lawlessness)?  No wonder people scratch their heads, and then revert back to patterns learned or to personal instinct – both of which are often wrong.

To avoid confusion, I answered “Yes” to both grace and obedience for a reason.  Let me clarify.

I must say that our obedience is not necessary to our salvation, because we are incapable of perfect obedience – and perfect obedience is what the Law demands.  To add any measure of obedience to our justification would be to minimize the law and deny the gospel at the same time.  Christ became like us, and lived in perfect obedience to his Father, and then died in our place, because we are not and cannot be perfectly obedient.  And it we are not perfectly obedient, we are not obedient.  But by faith, we are counted as righteous – credited with Jesus’ righteousness as if it were our very own.  But part of what we must believe, as part of that faith is that we are disobedient.  In a real sense the admission of being disobedient is requisite to be saved. How then could we say that obedience is required for salvation?

On the other hand, God does demand obedience – and he is worthy of our total obedience.  But two things occur here, in some ways simultaneously.  First, the demand for what we do not and cannot do highlights our brokenness and our dependence upon grace – the grace of a savior.  The demand, coupled with our lack of obedience, drives us to either despair or to the cross. Those driven to the cross find, not condemnation, but forgiveness and love, through unmerited grace extended to us by God, because of Jesus.  This breaking, because we become aware of our disobedience, is a necessary step toward healing and wholeness.  But second, God’s demands are not a mere bait and switch. When he commands obedience, he means it.  Inability it no excuse.  He commands because obedience not only pleases him, we find that his ways are the ways the work, that lead us to the greatest joy.  In short, we find in both obedience and our failures to obey that God’s commands are really a tremendous gift of his love.

While I hope the reader will see the dichotomy – the two distinct tracks – I also hope all will be able to see how these two tracks work together.  Obedience cannot be required for salvation, because it denies both our reality and the necessity of the gospel.  But in walking with God, obedience is expected – though we fail, and are reminded of our continual need of grace – but it is expected, demanded, because through obedience we are able to bring joy to both God and ourselves.  Failure, or disobedience as a Christian does not cause the forfeiture of our salvation; but as Job discovered, we can forfeit the grace of joy that would otherwise be ours – and rob God of the joy that we would give to him.  But if that drives us back to the cross, we find grace anew, and we are renewed in faith, strength, to experience the joy that comes through gospel-prompted obedience.

Because this can be such a dizzying subject, I was appreciative when I recently read a short piece by Brad Watson, titled 5 Obedience Killing Lies.  Watson rightly notes:

Our ability to quit and become sidetracked is great.

I believe we get sidetracked by the confusion of the place of obedience, as well as by many other things that creep into our consciousness that hinder our pursuit of obedience.  Watson focuses on the more practical issues, rather than the confusion of the relationship of Law vs. Grace.  As he says in his article:

Our hearts are constantly being attacked by lies that keep us from persevering in faith. These five lies are particularly successful. They are deceptive and effective in killing our conviction to follow Jesus and trust in his work.

Continue reading

Galatians For You & Other Resources

In the present sermon series in our church I am working through Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Rather I should say “we” are working through the book of Galatians, as while I am preaching the bulk of the messages I am sharing the teaching with my Associate, Camper Mundy, and a couple of other pastors who are part of our church.  But in my preparations for each message there are a few non-technical resources I am uising that would also be beneficial for anyone who is studying Galatians – whether a seminary graduate or a typical church member wanting simply to deepen his/her understanding of this letter.

One of these resources is Tim Keller’s Galatians For You.  In the video above Tim introduces his intent in developing this book, and offers some suggestions of how it might be used beneficailly.  And though perhaps to those hearing my message may assume seeming little of Keller’s words may be overtly expressed my messages, without question the depth of Keller’s insights has helped shaped my understanding of this book and how the message applies to us today.

Below is a short list of some of the non-technical resources I am reading (or re-reading) during this series, Freedom: A Study of Galatians.

Gospel Wakefulness

One of the more helpful works I have read concerning gospel-centered Christianity is Jared Wilson‘s Gospel Wakefulness.  Perhaps most insightful to me was Jared’s point that gospel-centeredness can be explained but cannot be taught.  In other words, it requires a grace of the holy spirit.  I do not think this realization moves gospel-centeredness into a neo-gnostic or higher life kind of category.  It simply is the realization that it is God who must work in us in our sanctification.  Thus the phrase Jared Wilson uses is Gospel Wakefulness.

In this video, Jared Wilson explain what Gospel-Wakefulness is.   This is not a short video, by any measure.  But it is worth taking the time – whether in one sitting, or in a series of starts-and-stops.

Inebriated by the Gospel

Smoky Mountain Moonshine

Great grace laced imagery from Robert Capon:

The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievilism, a whole cellarful of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred-proof grace – of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the gospel – after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps – suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started… Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, nor the flowers that bloom in the spring of super-spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.

Balance of Faith

Balance Act

A true, vibrant Christian faith is someting akin to a balancing act.

In a post this morning, Tim Keller suggested:

If we are going to grow in grace, we must stay aware of being both sinners and also loved children in Christ.

Keller’s paradigm reminded me of something Edward Payson – “Praying Payson of Portland” – wrote long ago:

True Christianity consists of a proper mixture of fear of God, and of hope in his mercy; and wherever either of these is entirely wanting, there can be no true Faith. God has joined these things, and we ought by no means to put them asunder.

He cannot take pleasure in those who fear him with a slavish fear, without hoping in his mercy, because they seem to consider him a cruel and tyrannical being, who has no mercy or goodness in his nature. And, besides, they implicitly charge him with falsehood, by refusing to believe and hope in his invitations and offers of mercy.

On the other hand, he cannot be pleased with those who pretend to hope in his mercy without fearing him. For they insult him by supposing there is nothing in him which ought to be feared. And in addition to this, they make him a liar, by disbelieving his awful threatenings denounced against sinners, and call in question his authority, by refusing to obey him.

Those only who both fear him and hope in his mercy, give him the honor that is due to his name.

Both Payson and Keller give credence to thw wisdom of Puritan Thomas Watson:

The two great graces essential to a saint in this life are faith and repentance. These are the two wings by which he flies to heaven.

Living Dangerously

Danger Sign (Black)

One of the dangers of [obedience based Christianity] is that it can lead people to think God owes them a reward for their obedience. Their perspective in life is:

  • ‘If I do certain things, I expect God to come through for me’.   And when He doesn’t, they think: What’s wrong? Why isn’t He doing something to help me, and what can I do?
  • In the opposite direction, some people live in fear that because of their sin, God will punish them…This is a trap.

If we think we earn God’s favor by our obedience or disfavor by our disobedience, we will expect God to come through for us or, at the other extreme, will always be living in fear that ‘the other shoe will eventually drop’.

~ Jerry Bridges, from The Transforming Power of the Gospel

Appropriating Grace

Circle of Life (Celtic)

Here is an important reminder and challenge from Richard Lovelace, from his monumental Dynamics of Spiritual Life:

Only a fraction of the present body of professing Christians are solidly appropriating the justifying work of Christ in their lives… Many… have a theoretical commitment to this doctrine, but in their day-to-day existence they rely on their sanctification for their justification… drawing their assurance of acceptance with God from their sincerity, their past experience of conversion, their recent religious performance or the relative infrequency of their conscious, willful disobedience. Few know enough to start each day with a thoroughgoing stand upon Luther’s platform: you are accepted, looking outward in faith and claiming the wholly alien righteousness of Christ as the only ground for acceptance… Christians who are no longer sure that God loves and accepts them in Jesus, apart from their present spiritual achievements, are subconsciously radically insecure persons… Their insecurity shows itself in pride, a fierce, defensive assertion of their own righteousness, and defensive criticism of others. They come naturally to hate other cultural styles and other races in order to bolster their own security and discharge their suppressed anger.

This paragraph, surprisingly, caused somewhat of a stir when I posted it on my Facebook page yesterday.  Most appreciated it. Some who expressed appreciation, I wondered if they really understood what Lovelacve was saying.  I hope so.

So, how do we respond if we find ourselves among the majority who are not functionally appropriating the justifying work of Christ?

Continue reading

Why I Won’t Forgive Lance Armstrong


I have no inclination to forgive Lance Armstrong.  I feel no need to.  Armstrong, the infamous cyclist who has now been stripped of several Tour de France victories, an Olympic medal, and has had a host of other indignities hoisted upon his head, has finally confessed to doping in order to enhance his performance.  And his confession has seemed to turn multitudes to dismay.

Many had considered him a hero.  His story was compelling. A cancer survivor, he came back stronger than ever after his treatment to dominate the world cycling circuit, most notably in his unprecedented – and unlikely to ever be repeated – 7 consecutive victories in the Tour de France.  He then translated his fame and his story into the tremendously successful cancer research foundation, LiveStrong, which has raised and given millions-upon-millions of dollars toward the treatment and eradication of cancer.   To find out that Armstrong’s success was synthetic has led many to feel betrayed.

But not me.

It is not that I have any admiration for Armstrong.  I have had little interest in him for some time.  Armstrong is a seriously flawed guy, whose most serious character flaws had little to do with his doping.  Behind the scenes he was a despicable person who destroyed dozens of lives through threats and lawsuits in order to preserve his persona – his lie.   This is far worse than cheating in a sporting event – especially in a sport where nearly all the other participants were cheating just as much.

Why do I feel no need to forgive Lance Armstrong?  Simple. Because I never expected anything from him in the first place.  His failures and his fall have cost me nothing.

In the Bible the concept of forgiveness is often likened to that of swallowing a debt.  Whenever someone wrongs us – or we wrong another – whether by actual stealing, or tarnishing a reputation, or some other offense, something is taken from the victim by the perpetrator.  And a debt incurs.  (See Parable of Unmerciful Servant, for instance.)  What is taken may be wealth, or it may simply be peace of mind.  But with any actual offense something, tangible or not, is actually taken.

Jesus’ instruction to his followers who have been wronged is to extend forgiveness to the offender, just as forgiveness has been extended to us for our offenses.  Our offenses may be against other people, but they are also always against the Lord.  If nothing else, by our offense we belittle the Lord.  Or put another way, consistent with the above premise, we rob Jesus of the glory he is due.  We essentially say he is not enough; that we need something in addition to or instead of God and what he promises and provides.   Yet, in the face of such insult Jesus reminds us that we have been forgiven.  He has swallowed the debt we owe, paying for it with his own blood on the cross.  Further, by telling us that we ought to forgive as we have been forgiven, Jesus is not merely telling us to follow his model, he reminds us that we have been forgiven and we can rest in his promise to supply whatever we need.  In other words, whatever has been taken from us he has, and will, more than make up for.  Our loss now restored, we have no need to extract a penalty on those who have wronged us.

So with this understanding, one may wonder why I say I have no inclination, no intention, to forgive Lance Armstrong.  The answer is simple. In this instance, Lance Armstrong took nothing from me.  I have had no vested interest in him. While I found his successes impressive, and his cancer research foundation commendable, not one aspect of my life has depended upon him. So now to find out that he is a deeply flawed man, just as I am, does me no damage whatsoever. So what is there for me to forgive?

I wonder how many people, who are rightly appalled by Armstrong’s heinous behavior, have actually been effected by his fall-from-grace.  It seems to me that those who are seemingly chagrined should ask themselves what Armstrong has taken from them.  For some, the answer is a lot. But for most, if the answer is as simple as they lost their hero, then perhaps they ought to consider why they attached so much of  themselves in a mere man in the first place.

The only man worthy of hero status is Jesus.  To offer such adulation to anyone else is to rob Jesus of  the glory he alone deserves.  Yet this offense of our toward him is an offense he willingly swallows, if we will only confess and repent.

2 Mistakes Christians Make

Redemption Acccomplished But Not Applied

People tend to make two mistakes when they think about the redeemed life. The first is to underestimate the sin that remains in us; it’s still there and it can still hurt us. The second is to underestimate the strength of God’s grace; God is determined to make us new. As a result, all Christians need to say two things. We admit that we are redeemed sinners. But we also say boldly and joyously that we are redeemed sinners.

~ from Cornelius Plantings, in Beyond Doubt