Back to a Better Church?

In a recent assignment for my Church History class, I was confronted with the following question that I found extremely interesting and thought provoking. Other than having to respond to it with pen and paper (confirming forever the reality of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome), I very much enjoyed tackling this question, so I thought I’d share it here. Hopefully, it will spawn discussion and even debate, not just reading. Please feel free to comment your opinion / answer to the following question…


ConflictA friend who is planting a church tells you: “We find the divisions, controversies, and spiritual lethargy of the contemporary Church completely unacceptable. Therefore, our vision for church planting is to create an authentic community of believers modeled entirely on the theology and practices of the early Christian church, before the reign of Constantine.” Write a letter to your friend in which you assess the wisdom of this proposal.


Dear friends…

I so admire your desire for unity in the Church and zeal for the Name of Christ. We should all desire that and pursue it with passion. However, I submit that you may be romanticizing church history and ignoring key elements both of the development of theology and the cultural / historical influence on church practices.

Before we do anything else, let’s establish the period we’re discussing. “Before Constantine” would equate to the period from the Apostles to AD 312, when Constantine rose to power over the re-united Roman empire. So, roughly, the first 300 years of church history.

TheologyTheology

In that time, Christian theology was anything but free from division and debate. Many of the orthodox beliefs we now take for granted were either being hotly debated during that time, were still in their infancy, or were not yet even universally defined (some yet to be even debated).

For example, it was unclear in that time (and certainly not a foregone conclusion) how to understand the continuity between the Old and New Testaments or between the Jewish God and God the Father of the Lord Jesus. Debate raged concerning the authority of Scripture, and was even more pronounced concerning the authority of the church to interpret the Scriptures. There were many ideas (from flat denial to myriad explanations of) the incarnation of Christ and the nature of the Trinity. The questions of the nature of sin, the will, and grace hadn’t really begun to be tackled yet. That debate would heat up later in the 4th and 5th century with Pelagius and Augustine of Hippo, as would the nature of Christ as the God-man, in the monophysite controversies beginning in the mid-5th century.

The canon of Scripture — the “boundary” around which documents were to be considered part of the New Testament — had also not yet been formally and finally recognized. There was broad agreement on the authenticity and historicity of many of the books we now call the New Testament, but it wasn’t universal. And a great many forgeries and other aberrant works plagued the churches all over Europe, Asia Minor, and N. Africa. The Church at this time was in the throws of weeding through all that to identify the true writings of the Apostles and teachings of Christ. You would be putting yourself in the heart of that debate, not rising above it.

Also, heresies abounded. Extreme controversy swirled around such non-orthodox views as…

Gnosticism

A dualistic philosophy which considers matter (and the God who created it) “evil”, and the spirit “good”. The soul is trapped within man, and the spark of the divine (experienced only by some through the discovery of “secret knowledge” unto “enlightenment”) can empower the soul to transcend the body in death and be released to be with God. This view held that the God of the Old Testament was evil, having created the physical world, and that Jesus could not have been fully man. (Read more)

Monarchianism

A philosophy which sees God as One, but leaves no room for a Trinitarian concept of God. Many varieties exist, but all consider God the Son and God the Spirit to be some kind of illusion or manifestation or “mode” of God’s unified Being, denying their true personhood. (Read more)

Arianism

A philosophy which sees Jesus as a little “G” god who was created by the Father, and is lesser than Him. The Spirit is typically seen as lesser still. This view denies the Trinitarian formulation that was agreed upon by the church at the Council of Nicaea in 325, seeing God as a Trinity: one “essence” in three “persons”. (Read more)

So, you see, turning back the clock to this early ages of Christianity would not eliminate controversy or division, but likely intensify it.

ChurchPractice

With regard to church practices, I have a couple thoughts. First, you would be erasing many generations of rich tradition (from which we have and can continue to learn), resetting back to a period in which very limited material would exist to guide you in organizing the church. You would certainly make use of the Didache, published c.110 to describe a theology of the paths of light vs darkness, and to instruct on church organization, dispensation of the sacraments, and liturgical practices. But other than that, you would be limited to the writings of a few Patristics (early Church father), and a not-yet-ratified canon of Scripture.

For example, the nature of baptism and the appropriate way to confer it was hotly debated then as it is today. Tertullian‘s De Baptismo, as just one instance, was written in the early 3rd century to contest the practice of infant baptism.  So again, I doubt you would be escaping controversy in any meaningful way.

Persecution

Lastly, remember that you are describing a time of significant persecution, which greatly shaped church practice and policy. There were only house churches then, and Christians typically met in secret. The first church buildings didn’t appear until mid-3rd century, and even then were rare due to rampant persecution — which didn’t end until the time of Constantine (who legally ended it). Martyrdom was extremely prevalent, as was the debate over how to deal with apostasy Underground Churchand canonical penance. Because the stakes were so high, the Church deeply struggled with how to apply discipline and grace, especially when it came to someone who renounced Christ to escape execution at the hands of the Roman government — a daily phenomenon. By placing yourself and your church in that era, you would be right in the heart of these bitter hardships and exceedingly difficult decisions in the face of them. Although you may be correct that some (not all) in that time took their faith very seriously, you cannot reproduce those conditions with the persecution and hardships that created them.

Conclusion

All that said, I do feel there is wisdom in seeking simplicity and deep commitment to Christ in daily life among His people. “Divisions, controversies, and spiritual lethargy” are indeed problems today, but have always been there. These are the legacy of human nature in general, not just of Constantine or of any one time in history. Every era of history has its strengths and weaknesses, its conflict, its openness to the gospel, and its challenges. Let’s work together to learn from the totality of church history and build the Church of Christ in our time, not blindly unwind it in search of a utopian past which didn’t really exist. God is calling us to go into all this world, and make disciples, not to a rose-colored past. Either way, I’m in it with you!

Planting

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!”

Love,

Jeff

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Just as you received Christ, so walk in Him

To the Christian, specifically my fellow seminary students…
A sermon manuscript on Colossians 2:6-7, prepared for my homiletics class at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Walking with God

Just as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him…

Introduction

Close your eyes. Think back to the first memory you have of knowing Christ. Can you picture it? Allow it to fill your senses. Feel what you felt then. Re-experience it. Do you have it? In that moment, what were the first thoughts and feelings you had? Okay, now open your eyes.

For me, it was June 20, 1994. I was a sophomore in college, and I thought my sin had destroyed a relationship with someone very dear to me. I remember being up crying much of the night – which was very unusual for me. I was overwhelmed with grief. But suddenly, in the midst of all my twisted notions about no longer being good enough for God to love me, the Lord brought rushing back upon me all the Bible trivia I’d played as a child. If I wanted to, I could be free. I wasn’t trapped in my sin, and I hadn’t forfeited God’s love because of it. Far from earning something from God, I could literally hand over the broken pieces of my life to God, and He would make them something beautiful. On my own, I was dead … wretched and weak, destructively sinful and completely helpless. But if I let Him, Broken and contrite heartChrist would save me … and give me a new life. Even all these years later, I remember those feelings of utter dependence on Him like it was yesterday.

Over the next year, God healed that relationship and literally overwhelmed me with His amazing goodness. Although I had glimpses right away of the life God had planned for me, it would take well over a decade after that day for God to drive home to me the truth that Paul is expressing to the Colossians in our passage today: that we are just as dependent on Christ to walk in new life with Him as we were to receive the gift of new life from Him in the first place.

Invitation to Turn to Passage

Open your Bibles with me, please, to Colossians 2:6-7. <Repeat reference>

Introduction to the Text

While you’re turning there, let me briefly introduce and give you some context for this passage.

Within only a few decades of Christ’s ascension, the church at Colossae had begun to blend elements of the pagan worship of angels and Jewish mysticism into their concept of Christianity. In response, the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Colossians to elevate Christ’s supremacy and sufficiency for them in all things. He desired that they would abandon these “useless arguments” and trust fully in Christ. Paul argued that it is neither necessary nor profitable to turn to anything in creation for spiritual life, but rather – as he states just a few verses earlier – that in Christ are found “all riches”, “all understanding”, and “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”.

In the context of this larger argument, we come to the portion of His Word that God has for us tonight. But before we read the passage, let’s pray that He would illuminate it for us.

Prayer for Illumination

Please bow with me in prayer…

Reading of Scripture

Colossians 2:6-7. Please follow along with me in your Bibles, as I read what Paul writes (from the ESV):

In the context of this larger argument, we come to today’s meal at God’s table. Please follow along with me, as I read what Paul writes in Colossians 2:6-7 (ESV):

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

Transitions Explained

The first thing we notice in this passage is a number of transition words. The whole passage starts with the word “therefore”, and Paul reinforces his teaching in v7 with the words “just as you were taught”, which is a reference to what he means by the word “faith”. To this point in his letter, Paul has been explaining that Christ is preeminent in all things and that He is everything the Colossians need. Here, Paul refers both to his own teaching and to the weight of everything Jesus, the Apostles and their own pastor Epaphras have taught them.

What faith? What have they been taught?

In the next phrase, Paul specifically references what the Colossians have been taught with the phrase, “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord”. He doesn’t give us any detail here, but they knew what he was talking about, and so do we. In the opening moments of this message, I invited you to remember with me how it felt when you first came to Christ – how you first received Him. I hope this reminded you of a sense of utter dependence, a helplessness and smallness before a holy God, the unequivocal need for a Savior. This is how every Christian truly receives Christ, and Paul is inviting the Colossians with this phrase in v6 to remember their first love – just as I invited us to remember Him together a few moments ago. Paul may be implying much more by this phrase “as we have received Christ”, but certainly not less.

Primary Claim / Organizational Sentence

With those thoughts fresh in their minds, Paul then proceeds in the text to call his readers to three specific ways in which their daily lives must actively depend on Christ. Paul is calling both the Colossians and us to walk with Christ just as we were saved in Him: in active dependence.

Main Points

VineyardRooted in Him

I. We depend on Christ for daily life in Christ. (7a – “rooted … in Him”)

First Paul explains that we depend on Christ for daily life. <Read> Paul uses the same imagery here that the Apostle John uses in John 15 when he describes Jesus as the vine and His followers as the branches. As the branch must be rooted in the vine to remain alive, so we as Christians must remain rooted in Christ. If you were to find a vineyard – which was easy to do in Paul’s or John’s day – chop a branch from a vine, and bring it home with you, it would wither and die. Not at first, but eventually. At first it would seem perfectly fine, but in truth, the very moment it was severed from the source of life, it began to die. So it is with us. We depended completely on Christ to be born again, but it is no less true that we must remain rooted in and connected to Christ for spiritual life.

Consider a light bulb in an otherwise dark room. It produces light and heat. But we have no way to carry that light or heat away with us to another room. If we want light and heat, we must remain near the bulb. God’s life-giving presence is the same way. To possess it, we must remain in it. James MacDonald says it this way, “God doesn’t dispense [strength for living] the way a pharmacist fills a prescription.” His point is that God does not equip us to independently live the Christian life, but rather that our relationship with God is the Christian life. I agree, and so does Paul, as he demonstrates here.

So what does that look like in our practical everyday lives? God is calling us to remain in Christ. God supplies life in the vine. Our task before God is to remain rooted in it, that we might continue to receive its life. This means that we abandon any concept of searching for life in other places. We resist the temptation to depend on anything but God Himself as life-giving. We tear down idols and overturn altars to other gods, some of which can be extremely subtle. Ministry success, good grades, financial security, the approval of others, health and fitness – all of these are good things in some measure but to the extent they might claim to bring us life, they become the lies that would drag us from light and heat into death and darkness.

There is only one source of life and the power to live it, and that is Christ. To the extent that we depend on Him, we will have all the fullness of the life God promised us. But any other approach – the life lived for my sake or my desires, my agenda or my security – gives only the appearance of life, as does the branch when recently detached from the vine. But also like the disconnected branch, the disconnected spiritual life it is in fact dead.

Home ConstructionBuilt up in Him

II. We depend on Christ for daily building up in Christ. (7b – “built up in Him”)

This leads very naturally to Paul’s second point. First, we are to be rooted in Christ – dependent on Him for life. Secondly, Paul exhorts us to be “built up in Him”. <Read> Paul is using construction terminology here. The word translated “to build up” means to erect the first floor of a structure solidly on its foundation. The implication is that of a careful plan and skilled artisanship to achieve it.

However, a building does not build itself. Thirteen years ago, when I had my home built in the suburbs of Chicago, it started out as a plan and an empty field. An experienced architect drew up the design. The plan was approved. The foundation was dug. And finally, skilled laborers built my house on top of a well-thought-out plan and a firm foundation – both of which pre-existed its construction. So it is with the Christian life. God carefully designed your life and mine. Christ laid the foundation for it. And now (as the Apostle Peter put it) we are day-by-day being built up into a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5… and that, by God Himself. God is both the Architect and the Builder. He has unmatched skill. And in the end, our lives will look precisely as He planned for them to look. We are neither The Potter and Clayarchitect nor builder. We are the objects of God’s handiwork – the clay in the Potter’s hands. We are no more capable of effectively designing our lives or building what God has designed than my house was capable of designing and building itself.

So here too, we find ourselves dependent on Christ. In addition to remaining in Him, Paul is calling us to submit to Him.

We who are working hard at seminary degrees would be wise to take particular note here. It is God’s design, God’s plan, God’s goals, and God’s work in us to achieve His goals. We work hard, and rightly so, but let us be careful not to work as if we are building God’s house, believing that somehow we accomplish God’s plans with our labor. God alone designs and builds the lives He desires for us, and it is critical that we wait on and submit to Him. His priorities must trump ours. His definition of success must rule over ours. Christ must be our first and highest love. Our humility before God and His rightful place as King in our hearts must precede our labor for Him.

So, let’s get really practical. If we’re going to take seriously Paul’s charge to be built up in Christ, we can’t hurry through or skip over time with the Lord because we have a ton of reading to do or a big test to study for. It means we take God’s call to resting in Christ seriously, despite the voices that tell us that we can’t afford it. It means we’re careful not to neglect our God-given responsibilities to our marriages and families for the sake of ministry. And it means being unwilling to accept high grades if they come at the cost of a shriveled soul.

And as we humble ourselves before God, we acknowledge that His building work in us is more important than our building work in our careers or classes. We must give God the right and the room to fight battles in our lives we simply cannot fight for ourselves, no matter how hard we work or how long we study, and to develop us into who He wants us to be. To submit is to maintain the proper view of God as Builder and us as those under construction.

SealedEstablished in the Faith

III. We depend on Christ for daily establishment in the faith. (7c – “established in the faith”)

Thirdly, having called for their dependence on Christ for daily life and spiritual growth, Paul admonishes the Colossians to be “established in the faith”. <Read> The word he uses here has a number of nuanced meanings: to be strengthened, to be ratified (sealed as law), to be confirmed, and to be made secure. This word is used elsewhere in the NT to describe God’s covenant with man and Christ’s redemptive work on the cross, which we know to be firm, steadfast, and secure. God has taken upon Himself the work of sealing our faith like a law ratified and unchangeable. He causes the faith of the elect to stand firm, confirming and guaranteeing it, making it – and us – secure.

Note that it is not by our power that we are established in Christ, but by His power. So here again, we depend on the Lord. To be established in the faith is to know with certainty that God is in fact doing the work we’ve discussed – daily nourishing and building us.

ThChildlike Truste question begged her is: do we trust Christ? Paul is calling the Colossians to a deep, secure, established faith. This is not the faith that, once it has saved you, can be blended with pagan philosophies, angel worship, and Jewish mysticism. This is an all-consuming faith that does not fear the future and which considers everything else worthless for the sake of knowing Christ. This naturally follows if we remain in and submit to Him. God Himself secures both our present and our future. The Spirit’s call on us is for ruthless trust. This established faith chooses to seek life only in Christ, to worship Him only, to fear Him only, to bow to Him only, to forsake the many other gods who threaten to distract and destroy (as we’ve discussed). This is what Paul elsewhere calls “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).

I think Eliza Edmunds Hewitt puts it well in the 19th century hymn, “My faith has found a resting place”. Listen to the first two verses:

My faith has found a resting place, not in device or creed;
I trust the Ever-living One, His wounds for me shall plead.
Enough for me that Jesus saves, this ends my fear and doubt;
A sinful soul, I come to Him; He’ll never cast me out.
I need no other argument, I need no other plea.
It is enough that Jesus died, and that He died for me.

This is what it means to be established in the faith. Knowing God’s unfathomable love for us, His great wisdom and His supreme power, we can be absolutely confident in His work on our behalf. He has been clear that He is orchestrating all things for His glory and for our good (Rom 8:28). This should indeed end our fear or doubt. We can trust Him. The whole of the gospel – all that the Colossians had been taught – is ours in Christ. We are firmly established in God’s drama of redemption and specific plan for our lives. Ratified. Secure. Confident. Sealed. We can put our whole weight down on His promises, knowing that they cannot and will not fail us, either in the present age or in the age to come. Let us together lay down fear and distraction, and boldly trust Him as He works on our behalf.

Primary Claim Statement (Restatement)

So Paul says, “therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” (Col 2:6) We were entirely dependent on Christ for salvation, so we are now entirely dependent on Christ in our daily lives.

GratitudeConclusion

There is one phrase left at the end of v7, which we can’t overlook and with which I’d like to conclude. Paul ends v7 with the words, “abounding in thanksgiving”. At first blush, we might be tempted to underestimate this as an afterthought, but I don’t think it is. If we, who were helpless before God unto salvation, and are just as dependent upon Him for daily living the Christian life … if we are both saved and sanctified by Him … if we daily receive life and power … are daily being transformed into His image … and are daily reassured that we have been adopted as God’s very children … Then, for all that God has done for us in Christ, how could we do less than to “abound in thanksgiving”? In fact, the word “abound” used here means, “beyond anyone’s reasonable expectation.” I absolutely love that definition.

So, with Paul, I challenge you to allow the person and work of Christ to be everything to you, not just for your salvation, but every day. Not blended with other lesser philosophies or gods, but preeminent and supreme. Just as you were saved, so walk in Him … rooted and therefore remaining, submitting to God’s building work, established and therefore ruthlessly trusting … and grateful beyond anyone’s reasonable expectation!

Gratitude

… abounding in thanksgiving.

Closing Prayer

Let us pray…

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Rejoice, roar, exult, and sing!

Exultation

Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth! Rejoice… roar… exult… and sing for joy!

Psalm 96 ESV

Tell of His salvationSing to the Lord a new song;
    sing to the Lord, all the earth!

Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
    tell of his salvation from day to day.

He is to be feared above all gods

Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
    he is to be feared above all gods.

All the gods of the people are worthless idolsFor all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
    but the Lord made the heavens.

Splendor and majesty are before HimSplendor and majesty are before him;
    strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name

Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts!
Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!

His Word is established and will not be movedSay among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
    Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
    he will judge the peoples with equity.”

Let the seas roar and all that fills themLet the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
    let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
    let the field exult, and everything in it!

The trees of the forest will sing for joyThen shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
    before the Lord, for he comes,
    for he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness,
    and the peoples in his faithfulness.

He will judge the world in righteousness

He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.

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The Gift of Certainty

Certainty

“All my life I’ve had doubts about who I am, where I belonged. Now I’m like the arrow that springs from the bow. No hesitation, no doubts. The path is clear.” –Commander Jeffrey Sinclair

Can we be certain about the purpose of our lives? What has God put us here to do?

When I think about these questions, I have moments of crystal clarity. Sometimes, I feel like “the arrow that springs from the bow” — a moment of remembrance for Commander Jeffrey Sinclair; I’ll never forget the first time I heard him say that — no hesitation, no fear, no looking around to make sure I really want to go to the center of the target. Other times, I’m not at all certain about my calling. It feels like it’s awfully easy to get sucked into the vortex of “What does God really wants from me?”, and I’m not a fan. I suppose this is in fact closely related to the idea of resting in Christ. I think it’s because I find myself evaluating my calling based on my perception of my own ability to fulfill that calling, so I end up muddle-headed and afraid.

But God is faithful; he will surely do it!

In the closing words of his first letter to the Thessalonican church, Paul quick-hits a laundry list of exhortations to admonish, encourage, rejoice, pray, be thankful, respond to God’s prompting, be discerning, and a host of others – wrapping up with a crescendo to “be good and don’t be bad” in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22. It must be one of the most densely packed sections in the New Testament in terms of commands to God’s people. Even though it’s only a few verses, I don’t make it all the way through before my earn-your-way-to-heaven upbringing starts to chafe. Not cool. Doesn’t feel like the gospel. But keep reading. Paul reminds them of what I too need to hear as well in the next few verses:

“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. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thess 5:23-24, emphasis added).

  • It’s not “sanctify yourself”, it’s “may God sanctify you”. He doesn’t even delegate it. He does it Himself!
  • It’s not “keep yourself blameless”, it’s “may God keep you blameless”. And at that, all the way to the end … when Christ returns.
  • It’s not “be faithful”, it’s “He who calls you is faithful”. Not only is the story about God (not about me), but God Himself wrote the story and God Himself is faithful to unfold it. Truly, He is the Alpha and the Omega (Rev 22:13), and the Sustainer all the way through (Col 1:17). Safety and rest are in Him (Isa 41:10), not in some false sense of control I conjure up in my mind from inside the story.
  • And finally, it’s not “make sure you do it”, it’s “He will surely do it”. I have the responsibility of availability, not the responsibility of capability. It’s the strength of God’s arm that is on trial, not mine. (2 Chron 20:1-24; one of my favorite stories in the bible)

So, what God starts, He finishes (Phil 1:6). If He says to it, then He’ll do it in you. God is not weak and He’s not slow. I’m both. But I trust the Lord, and I’ll listen to Him. And what He says — I know — He will surely do it!

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The Gift of Rest

I delight myself in You, captivated by Your beauty God, I run into Your arms, unashamed because of mercy I’m overwhelmed, I’m overwhelmed by You

I delight myself in You, captivated by Your beauty
God, I run into Your arms, unashamed because of mercy
I’m overwhelmed, I’m overwhelmed by You

I don’t know about you, but I wrestle with the concept of “resting” in Christ. God makes it extremely clear in His Word that we are called to “rest”.

  • God models rest in His resting from the work of creation (Genesis 2:1-3). The omnipotent God wasn’t tired, He’s just really good at foreshadowing. Creation is the first time God rests. The second is recreation. Here, God demonstrates the reality that rest follows work, as it will after the cross … for us (which we’ll get to). Not only that, but His love for us extends even to modeling the “rest” principle for us. He isn’t weak, we are … also pointing to Christ.
  • God commands rest as part of His “Top 10″ commandments (Exodus 20:8-11) . Again, this command is given to us out of love. God never intended us to believe we could actually live up to the standard of His perfection, but gives us these commandments so that we would recognize His unattainable perfection compared to our extreme weakness. Exodus 20 is an early chapter in God’s redemptive love story.
  • God leads us to rest, both from Egypt in the Old Testament (laid out succinctly, but in the negative, in Psalm 95:8-11) and (in a brilliant, intentional parallel) from the Law in the New Testament (Hebrews 3-4). God promises Moses to provide the people rest in His presence (Exodus 33:12-23), but the people have no faith, and in tragic judgment they are denied rest and condemned to die in the wilderness (Numbers 14:21-25). In both cases, the Bible juxtaposes “slavery” and the land of God’s “rest”.

I feel like I keep choosing slavery. At its core, at least for me, it’s essentially a battle with insecurity. I continually look for other people and circumstances to validate me. When others think well of me, I think well of myself. When I perceive myself to have failed or disappointed others, I feel like a failure. And when I feel I haven’t been enough for God, I feel the most acute sense of this failure. My fundamental problem… That I mistakenly believe God is grading me the way the world is grading me. Rather than resting on Christ — who loved me so much He would rather die than see me a slave and condemned to death — I stir restlessly on the hot coals formed by my projection of the fallen world system onto the Kingdom of Heaven. My heart is far more attuned to winning approval than it is to God’s unwavering and certain love for me. Did Christ’s death and victory and offer of new life not demonstrate that love clearly enough for me?

Whether I see it or not, Jesus did the work. It is finished, and, as it did in creation, rest follows work.

Paul admonished the Philippians, “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh…. [Whatever this world has to offer, I count] as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.” (Phil 3:2-10a)

On too many days, I’m the “dog” Paul is talking about. I agonize over my performance. Was my work good enough? For all I desire is to complete my work, so I can rest, hearing that I did well. But God’s circumcision is of the heart. I cannot get it right, so there’s no point in the agonizing labor. My flesh is assured to fail me (refer to the Law in general), so confidence (or fear) in it is foolish and dangerous. That same uncertainty led to the failure of the Israelites to enter rest in the land God promised them, and threatens to prevent my rest in a far greater land God has promised me.

But my great hope is in the finished work of Christ. On my good days, I realize it. Jesus’ work is completely done, so His rest is freely available to me. And He bids me to enter … to “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9). Found in Him… Oh, I want that! Everything else fades away, and we realize that we’re just His … overwhelmed by and fixated on who He is. Not on me. By myself, I started out a failure and will end a failure. All of Adam’s race the same… careening to destruction. But in Christ, we are renewed. Dead, but now alive. Satisfied. Complete. Finally whole. Fully loved. Enough to be a son (or daughter) of the Living God.

  • And so, for our good, God commands rest. The only work left is the work of stillness; to “cease striving and know that [He is] God.” (Psalm 46:10 NASB) And that, regardless of circumstance, is enough. God’s command too is loving … to rest and let it be enough.
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Am I enough?

My Strength

Not enough…

Part of the process we’re going through in my preaching methodology and theology class this semester is to ask questions of ourselves about our preparedness to teach God’s Word. Last week, one of the questions we had to tackle in our journals was “In what ways do you find it difficult to trust God?” Such a great question! After some pondering, I came up with a few thoughts, and I thought I’d share some of them.

The first thing God brought to me is that I wrestle with the question of “enough”. Sometimes I find it difficult to trust God to be enough, when I’m not enough. Enough for what, exactly? Well, specifically, to do what God has called me to do. When the rubber meets the road, will I have the … strength? smarts? savvy? simoleons? whatever I imagine it’s going to take to actualize God’s plans and purposes?

You probably caught it just from the way I asked the question… I don’t really think it’s the right question. What we’re really asking when we ask a question like that is… Does God have the resources to achieve His purposes? Is HE enough?

In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul explains to the Corinthian church — who are struggling with trying to decide which teacher among them is the greatest — that it is in fact God’s strength that matters, and that God’s strength in fact radiates in our weakness…

First, God made Paul weak on purpose, ostensibly to draw Paul to Christ. Paul formerly viewed himself as strong, but has now realized that strength was an illusion … even a delusion (see the preceding verses back into chapter 11).

Second, even though Paul begs, God refuses to take away Paul’s weakness and replace it with a self-sufficient strength. God desires the dependence born out of Paul’s weakness. He knows it’s better for Paul to be weak and depend on Him than to be strong himself, even if the strength were provided by God.

Lastly, God graciously revealed His plan to Paul (and to us) that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)

In the end, Paul boasts in his weakness, knowing that therein the power of God is manifested and displayed to the Corinthians and throughout history. God Himself achieves His purposes. Our roles are more in acknowledging (boasting in!) our weakness, and running to Him. God is most clearly at work in His weak, incapable, humble, dependent children. The truth is that it’s better to be weak in the lap of God than strong anywhere else!

God's Strength

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

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The Bottleneck of Little Faith

Leap of Faith

The faith to trust what we cannot see

It’s my second semester in seminary (at TEDS), and I’m taking a very interesting class designed to prepare us to preach God’s Word. It’s both a methodology and a theology class, so it focuses both on skills / technique and the reasons behind it — what to do, why to do it, how, etc. But most of all, we’re focused on humbling ourselves before God, and yielding to His authority. His ministry, His calling in our lives, His Word, His approach, His results, His transforming power in the lives of the one who preaches and the one who hears.

To that end, our professor is walking us through a number of “bottlenecks” to (what would get in the way of) effective preaching, which I see as really being bottlenecks to effective ministry … in many cases, to Christian living in general. I don’t know how many of these will be “shareable” or interesting in this context, per se, but what impacts me and seems appropriate, I will share.

The first bottleneck is “little faith”. It is the idea that, if we do not really trust the Lord or His Word, then it will be very difficult to proclaim it powerfully and effectively to others. As an exercise during this section, we were asked to search the Scriptures for truths about God and His Word, and to build a list of “convictions” from them. The following is what I came up with. It is in no way exhaustive — a list like this of what’s true about God and His redemptive work in our lives could fill every scroll we could find — but it is representative and meaningful (at least to me), so I thought I’d share.

I debated writing a mini-commentary on each of these, but I thought instead that if you’re reading this and interested, click through some of the links and read what God Himself said about these things. May reading these Scriptures and meditating on these truths be to you as much of a blessing as it was for me in creating the list. And very importantly, where you feel you cannot confidently say any of these statements about yourself, ask God to show you why. Perhaps He is desiring a deeper relationship with you than you are with Him. Perhaps something is in the way (which by definition would be on your end). And if you want to chat, comment below. I’d love to hear that this list of truths was provocative in someone else’s life as well.

  1. God loves me (John 3:16; Rom 5:8, 8:35-39; 1 John 4:10)
  2. God has chosen me (2 Tim 1:9; Col 3:12a; 1 Pet 2:4-10)
  3. God has forgiven me, redeemed me (Eph 1:7, 2:8; Isa 44:22; Ps 49:15)
  4. God has given me a new life in Christ (1 Pet 2:4-5; 2 Cor 5:17)
  5. God is faithful to me (1 Cor 1:9; Deut 7:9; Lam 3:22-23; 2 Tim 2:13)
  6. God is enough for me (2 Cor 12:9; Ps 62:7, 73:26)
  7. God empowers me to do the good works He ordained for me, and both commands and empowers me to faithfully discharge them (Eph 2:10; 1 Tim 6:12; 1 Pet 5:10; Luke 9:23; John 15:5; Isa 41:8-16; 1 Cor 4:2, 10:13)
  8. God relies on His own capabilities, not mine, to perform His work and purpose (2 Cor 4:7; Isa 41:8-16)
  9. God’s Word is alive and powerful, and will accomplish everything it sets out to do (Heb 4:12; Isa 55:10-11)
  10. God gives me everything I need for the life He’s called me to (2 Pet 1:3-4)
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