jasonbwatson

July 14, 2016

Besetting Sins

This past Tuesday, Major League Baseball held its annual Midsummer Classic, the All Star Game. I am a big baseball fan and I love watching the ASG. This year the game was played in San Diego, so there was understandably a lot of celebrating the life of Tony Gwynn, often called Mr. Padre. Gwynn played his entire career with the Padres and then, after retirement, was the baseball coach at San Diego State University, his alma mater. He was a (relatively) local guy (born in LA) who became a hero for the local team. Gwynn was well-liked, a fierce but clean competitor who worked hard and gave his best. He was a 15-time All Star and an eight-time batting champion, ending his career with a lifetime average of .338 and 3,141 hits. Perhaps most amazing of all–he never struck out more than forty times in a season over his twenty-year career. By all accounts he was also a devoted family man. He was a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame, receiving over 97% of the vote. When he was inducted in 2007 I was in the crowd–because he went in with my favorite player, Cal Ripken, Jr. Both Gwynn and Ripken had clean images, clean careers and played their entire careers for their local team. Derek Jeter may well become the last player to be join the HOF having played his entire career with one team when he is inducted, but I can just about guarantee that there will never again be two players inducted in the same year who played their entire careers for one team.

I wanted to give Gwynn his just due, but this is not really about Gwynn ultimately. Instead it is about the example that Gwynn sadly left–an an example that was clearly described in a USA TODAY article in the July 11, 2016 issue. In it, Gwynn’s 2014 death from salivary gland cancer is described. His daughter Anisha is quoted in the article saying, “We tried so hard over the years to get him to quit [using chewing tobacco].” Their efforts were in vain, however. According to the article,Gwynn’s last days were unpleasant to say the least:

Gwynn had growths removed from his cheek in 2001 and 2007 and was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. He had surgery, only for the cancer to return two years later. Again in 2013, the cycle of tumors, surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy treatments started anew. Then came the seizures. Ultimately, Tony Gwynn Jr. said, there was an inoperable brain tumor.

Gwynn was in and out of the hospital for the last two months…the right side of his face paralyzed, his right eye taped shut at night so he could sleep and a walker required for him to leave the house….

Still, the article also states this: “Gwynn refused to listen, still dipping after all the tumors, seizures and radiation treatments, up until the day he died.”

As someone who has never smoked or used tobacco in any way that was hard for me to imagine when I read it. Then. though, I began to think about how I am the same way–as are so many of us. We have a natural tendency to keep doing those things we like even when we know we should not. That is really what sin is, after all–behavior from which we, for whatever reason, derive happiness, contentment, pleasure or satisfaction.By definition sin is coming short of God’s perfect standard of holiness and righteousness. Sin is missing the mark. We sin, though, because we want to. Sin is a choice we make, and it stems from pride, from wanting to do things our own way even when we know we should not. The first sin was committed when Satan tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit by telling her that it would make her like God. That was a lie, of course, but Eve thought yielding to the temptation would result in pleasure or satisfaction that would not come by obeying God’s command. And that, whether we like it or not, is why we all sin today.

Thanks to the sin of Adam and Eve we are all born with a sin nature, and when we behave in the natural we do things our own way–read, not God’s way. Everyone one of us is guilty of sin; the Bible makes that explicitly clear. Thankfully, God loves humankind enough that He sent His Son Jesus to pay the just penalty for our sin, and that forgiveness is available to all who accept His sacrifice in their place. Then, sin is forgiven and bondage to sin is severed. Some people like their sin too much, though; they do not want to repent of their sin and give it up because they think that the benefits of the sin are worth it–the pleasure and satisfaction sin provides outweighs the consequences they think. Or maybe they simply deny that the consequences of sin exist, though I assure you they do. God told Adam that if he and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit they would die and they did. They died spiritually immediately and physically eventually–and death entered the world.

Still, some–sorry, all–who accept Christ continue to sin. The frequency and severity of that sin should diminish over time but it will never go away completely. Even the apostle Paul described, in Romans 7, that he continued to do those things he did not want to do and did not do those things that he did want to do. I did not know Tony Gwynn, but I suspect it would be true that he wanted to stop chewing tobacco in a rational, detached way but he could not do it because he was hooked. Like a fish jerked from the water by a hook implanted firmly in its cheek, Gwynn was hooked on tobacco. Whether it was the flavor of it, the feeling it provided or just the act of doing it, Gwynn could not stop. In an of ourselves, none of us can. Sometimes, even when we know in a rational, detached manner that we should, we keep doing it anyway.

So what do we do about this persistent sin?

In a 2008 column in Christianity Today Kevin Miller wrote that God can still work through our “unconquerable imperfections.” Pondered Miller, “Could it be that our frustratingly persistent sins, which abound, lead us to a greater awareness of God’s grace, which so much more abounds?” Sure, that could be. However, Paul also made it abundantly clear (in Romans 6) that we are not to continue sinning in order to produce more of God’s grace. The fact that God will forgive our sins is not permission to keep committing them.

Miller also suggested that persistent sin can produce humility. “So when struggling with persistent sin, take heart. God is at work, and even your persistent failings may work to your good and his glory. Let yourself be humbled by your falls.” That, too, is true; when we keep doing those things we do not want to do we should be humbled by it, frustrated by it and grieved by it. “Wretched man that I am!” Paul laments in Romans 7:24.

This past May Gavin Ortlund wrote, on the Desiring God web site, the following:

Many Christians struggle with “nagging sins” — those entrenched, persistent, difficult-to-dislodge sins that continually entangle us in our efforts to follow Christ. Sometimes we struggle for decades, with bouts of backsliding and despair recurring. Most godly Christians, who have made true progress in their pursuit of holiness, can sing with feeling “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” or share the lament of Augustine: “I have learned to love you too late!”

I appreciate the way Ortlund stated this because he reminds us that even godly Christians struggle with sin. Like Paul did. Ortlund does not leave it at that, however. He goes on to provide four steps for eliminating those nagging sins from our lives. The first of those steps is simple: hate it.

I have no reason to believe that Tony Gwynn hated chewing tobacco. Quite the contrary, in fact. I have no reason to believe that Lot hated the sin he was surrounded by in Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, until his angelic visitors were in danger of being gang raped by an angry crowd we have no indication that he hated their sin at all. Even then Lot offered his virgin daughters to the mob. And when the time came for Lot to get out of town before its destruction, Lot “lingered” according to Genesis 19:16. Even after Lot and his family are dragged from the city by angels Lot pleads with them to let him go to the little city of Zoar rather than flee to the hills, and more than a few scholars and commentators think Lot was referring to the fact that Zoar’s sin was not as great as that of Sodom and Gomorrah. We are all good at rationalizing sin and thinking it is not as bad as someone else’s or some other sin we could commit.

The next thing Miller said must be done is to starve sin. Gwynn kept dipping. That means, necessarily, that he kept acquiring it, keeping it handy, having it at the ready when he wanted it. We do ourselves no favors when we say we want to stop a specific sin but we keep putting ourselves in situations to yield. Recovering alcoholics don’t hang out in bars, for example. Matthew 18:9 says that if the eye causes on to stumble the eye should be gouged out. That is a dramatic and unquestionably clear reiteration of the idea of starving sin.

Ortlund goes on to talk about cornering sin and overwhelming sin. That last part, thankfully, we need not do on our own. In fact, we cannot do it on our own. In Romans 7:18 Paul writes, “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” Bad news… The good news is in the previous chapter, where Paul writes, “But you have been set free from sin…” (6:22).

The point of this is not to pick on Tony Gwynn. I am just like him. To my knowledge he was not a believer. But his life, which ended with him continuing to use the product that killed him right up until the day that it killed him, is an excellent example of where we will go if we try to live life in our own strength. We will continue to do that which harms us, trading the ultimate consequence for the temporary pleasure. May Gwynn’s demise be a lesson to us that we must hate and starve our sin, yield to the work of the Savior in our lives and overwhelm that sin which so easily besets us.

June 13, 2016

ὑστερέω

Back in 1992 I was thinking I was pretty big stuff. I was starting to drive and I was making some money. I had a paper route that I did with my brother, rising far earlier than any other kids I knew at school so that I could deliver my papers, get home, shower, watch SportsCenter and get to school in time for my early bird classes–a voluntary class period offered before the start of the regular school day. I also did some yard work for a few customers, mostly mowing, and seized other opportunities that came along to make some extra money. Then I got a part-time job working at the local drug store, which I did in addition to all of the above. My expenses were minimal and I had a goal in mind.

I wanted my own car. Not just any car, mind you. Despite not really being much of a “car guy”–when it came to the mechanics of an automobile I knew very little and even basic auto maintenance was beyond me–I had somehow developed a fondness for Porsche cars. I do not remember where that originated, or even when, but I knew I liked them. On the rare occasions when I would see one on the road it always caught my eye. I knew what I wanted and I was going to work hard and get it.

After a few years of the paper route, innumerable miles walked behind a lawn mower, driveways shoveled after snow storms and lots of change counted back to customers at the drug store I had accumulated a nice savings account. On top of that, I was a well-behaved young man, earned excellent grades and spent most of my free time playing sports or reading books. The most trouble I had ever been in was a police officer telling me I had to obey all traffic laws after I had failed to stop my 10-speed bicycle at a Stop sign coming home from work one day.

So, shortly after I turned 16, I went to the bank and withdrew my hard-earned $4,296.17 (including interest earned for letting it sit there!). I borrowed the family’s Chevy station wagon–you know, the one with the lining of the ceiling held up with thumb tacks–and set off for the Porsche dealer. There was not one in our town so I had to drive a ways to the big city to get there. I got a few looks when my dark blue wagon pulled onto the lot, but I didn’t care; I knew I would soon be saying goodbye to that car forever.

I walked into the showroom and there is was: a beautiful 911 Turbo S. It was a metallic navy blue, shiny chrome on the wheels and the spoiler was up, just how I liked it. I walked around the car and admired it from every angle. I think I avoided having drool spill out of the corner of my mouth, but it had to have been close. This was the car I had dreamed of and here it was. Behind me a sharply dressed man approached and said, less politely than I would have imagined from a Porsche salesman, “Can I help you?”

“I expect so,” I responded. “I am here to buy this car.”

“Is that right?” he said, the less-than-polite tone seeming to become even less polite, yet somehow mixed with a bit of incredulity.

“Yes it is,” I responded. “I have been dreaming of this car for a few years now, and I have worked hard and I am ready to make it mine.”

“Young man,” he said, “do you know how much money it would take to buy this car?”

“No I don’t,” I said. “I thought that was why you’re here.”

He smiled, but not a friendly smile. More of a you think that’s cute, kid? smile. “The list price on this car,” he then said in measured words, “is $118,935.”

I had been smiling up to this point, I am sure. Ear-to-ear smiling probably. But the smile disappeared in an instant. Somehow this caused his smile to grow wider. “Not quite what you have with you?” he asked, clearly condescending now.

“No,” I replied. “Not even close. But I have worked extremely hard for what I have. I have earned excellent grades in school, I have stayed out of trouble and I have saved every penny I could because I want this car. I have Porsche posters on the wall of my bedroom and pictures of Porsches in my locker. My favorite t-shirt has the Porsche logo on it and look,” I said, pulling it out of my back pocket, “so does my wallet.”

“That’s all very nice,” the man said, “but none of that matters much. We do appreciate your affinity for our automobiles, of course, but that does not entitle you to drive one.”

“But I have been telling everyone about this Porsche,” I told him. “Everyone! I can tell you the length of it, the wheel base, the horsepower! I know the name of the engineer who designed the original engine. I have been waiting, hoping and longing for this day. Anytime someone asked me I told them I was going to buy a Porsche! I have worked as hard as I can to save this money–almost $4,300. You can’t send me away without that car…”

“I’m afraid I can,” the man replied. “The money you have there is far short of what is required. You would need about twenty-five times more money than you have there to purchase this car. Your efforts are commendable, I suppose, but you’ve simply come up short. Waaaayyy short. Now I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

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The story above is just that–a story. There are elements of truth to it; I really did have those jobs, for example, and I really did have a police officer fuss at me for not stopping my bike at a Stop sign. I also am not a car guy, yet I do have a fondness for a Porsche 911 Turbo–especially with the spoiler up. But I am wise enough to know that I could never purchase one with forty-three hundred dollars. The point of the story is to (inadequately, I acknowledge) illustrate the meaning of ὑστερέω. That is a Greek word, rendered hustereó in English, that means “to fall short.” HELPS Word Studies says “This state of lack (insufficiency, privation) naturally results when a person misses out on what is vital.” I my story above I had missed out on the vital realization of exactly how much a Porsche would cost. But that same word appears in Romans 3:23, which says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (ESV).

The Voice paraphrases the verse this way: “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” The standard God has is perfection. Absolute holiness and righteousness. Ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the garden we have all been born in sin and, try though we might, we cannot ever come close–not even one twenty-fifth as in my story above–of that standard. It does not matter how good we are, how hard we may work, how many people we tell about God, how many t-shirts or car magnets or wrist bands we have with crosses or fish symbols or John 3:16 on them. All of that combined and multiplied exponentially would still leave us infinitely short of God’s standard. Of our very best efforts the Bible uses some very vivid language–and not in a complimentary way, either! The cleaned up, suitable for polite conversation version says that all of our efforts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

Romans 6:23 tells us that the just due for our sin is death–eternal separation from God. The good news is that that same verse tells us that the gift of God–the free gift which no one deserves but which all can receive–is the eternal life. In other words, God has set an impossible standard that none of us can meet, but He has also provided a way for it to be met for us. He did that through His Son Jesus, who died on the cross in our place as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23, KJV).

That would be, by way of pathetic example, as if the salesman in the story above looked at my savings and said, “You’re not even close to being able to pay for this car. However, because I love you, I will give it to you.”

God has looked at each and every human being and said, “You are ὑστερέω. You are not even close. You could do your very best from now until you die but you will be no closer then than you are now. You simply cannot do it. It is not possible. However, I love you. And if you will accept my love, acknowledge your own inadequacy and fallenness, and accept the sacrifice of my Son on your behalf, I will give you eternal life anyway. You cannot earn it, and you do not deserve it, but I will give it to you…because I love you.”

That is the wonder of God’s love.

November 11, 2015

Celebrating sin

Earlier this year ESPN awarded “Caitlyn” Jenner its Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs. I did not agree with that decision and still do not. Even if I did not think that transgenderism is a sin, I agree with a number of other individuals who commented that there were far more deserving, far more courageous possible recipients of the award than Bruce “Caitlyn” Jenner. Apparently, celebrating sin is in this year, though, big time. This past Monday, Glamour presented Jenner one of its Women of the Year awards. This not really news for Glamour, since it gave one of last year’s awards to Laverne Cox, a transgender actress. We cannot really expect much else from the world, though. The world is full of people who like to do their own thing, and when someone does their own thing so publicly and gets praised for it, it becomes a little easier for everyone else to do their own thing, too. The more people there are doing their own thing, the easier it is to suggest that your “own thing” is just as legitimate, just as deserving of acceptance. Celebration even.

One thing that did stand out about Jenner’s acceptance speech on Monday, though, was her assertion that coming out as a transgender individual was the reason God put “her” on earth. Said Jenner, “My transition was very, very long. I had many, many, many years of isolation from the world, of lying to the world, of not being myself. I sat down with each one of my ten children, and I said, ‘This is my story. This is who I am. What can I do?’ I had a lot of conversations with God. I came to the conclusion that this is why God put me on this earth — to tell my story. To be authentic to myself, to who I am.”

I have never met Jenner, and the odds a quite high that I never will. I am not a prophet, either. I will tell you this, though, with absolute certainty: God did not put Bruce Jenner on earth to come out as transgender, to tell a story or to be authentic to him/herself. God did not put anyone on earth to be true or authentic to themselves. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden all humans have been born with a sin nature. The Old Testament law was given to reveal that we are flawed, sinful individuals and that, in and of ourselves, we fall short of God’s holiness, God’s glory and God’s perfection. In an of ourselves there is nothing we can do to earn or warrant forgiveness for our sins.

Proverbs 14:25 and 16:25 both say that the way that seems right to a man ends in death. Jenner’s words of choice were “to be authentic to myself.” That translates quite well to “the way that seems right,” and the Bible clearly does not condone that thought process. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, on the other hand, says that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Revelation 4:11 says that by God all things were created, and they were created for His pleasure. The Westminster Shorter Catechism goes on to state that we glorify God by adhering to the instructions in His Word, the Bible. Question 10 further addresses Jenner’s matter by stating this: “God created man male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures.” Scripture makes it clear that God created male and female. Scripture also makes it clear that God Himself creates each individual human being, knitting them together (Psalm 139:13). God does not mistakenly put a female in a male’s body, as Jenner is suggesting. God certainly does not create anyone for the purpose of contradicting the Bible and then celebrating it. That would be contradictory to God’s nature and His holiness.

God loves Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, and if he/she ever chooses to confess his/her sins to God, repent and accept the forgiveness of sins made possible through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross–a perfect sacrifice paying a penalty demanded by a holy God that no human could ever pay–then God will forgive Jenner and we will spend eternity in heaven together. That, by the way, would be why God put Jenner on this earth. Unless and until Jenner chooses to do that, though, I think it would be in his/her best interest to leave God out of it completely. Bringing God into a celebration of sin–indeed, giving Him credit for it–is a really bad idea.

June 22, 2015

One Unchanging Message

Dave Furman wrote an article entitled “The Same Gospel” that appeared in the May 2015 issue of Tabletalk. Furman is the senior pastor of a church in the United Arab Emirates. Based on his location and the description in his article, it seems that his is a culturally diverse church. His comments are specifically targeted at the unique challenges of cross-cultural ministry, by which I mean different ethnic cultures and nationalities. However, in light of recent research and efforts by those who claim to have the most effective approaches for reaching those of different generations within the same culture (such as Gen X in the U.S.), the principles he addresses are just as applicable there.

Early in his article Furman writes,

The gospel changes lives. Though there are certainly cultural differences between the West and the East, we must resist the temptation to change the gospel. If we do, and people respond, then we have won people not just to a “variation” of the gospel, but to a false gospel, which is no gospel at all. Only the gospel of God concerning His Son is the good news. We want people to hear God’s truth and not a deceitful version of the message. The truth is that our sin against a holy God deserves death and God’s judgment. It is only through faith in Christ’s sacrifice for sinners that we will be saved.

I have heard and read a number of arguments for “presenting” the gospel in a way that fits within the culture in which it is being presented. I have always been reluctant of these approaches however because (1) in almost every instance “presenting it” is code for the message itself, and (2) if the message itself is changed it is necessarily different than the message the Bible contains. Something cannot be both different and the same; that is simply not possible. Even many relativists would agree that this is an impossibility. So, if changing parts of the Bible message is necessary to make it palatable to someone then we have a problem. Let me put it this way: I do not like pecans. It’s not that I do not care for them, I really do not like them. At all. How ridiculous would it be then for someone to tell me they would fix a pecan pie for me but leave out the pecans? Whatever I ended up with may well be tasty, but it would not be pecan pie. That is exactly what happens when we alter the gospel message in some way in order to “overcome” or “avoid” elements of the gospel message that are unpleasant, undesirable or even offensive.

I have heard of this working various ways. In some instances, the idea of Jesus being God’s Son is inconsistent with the beliefs and traditions of some cultures, so that wording is changed. In some places, the idea of a blood sacrifice or the idea of sin is objectionable, so that is tweaked or removed. The idea that we are fallen sinners is not a popular notion. It does not create warm fuzzies for anyone. The reality that we cannot work our way to heaven or earn forgiveness of our sins is inconsistent with what we teach and believe in almost every other area of our lives. Why not change the message a little bit to make it more appealing? Some megachurch pastors have said they will not talk about sin because it offends people. Imagine that! The Bible says it will be an offense; the gospel message will be a stumbling block. Whether it is refusing to talk about sin, changing the message to “culturally appropriate” or using bells and whistles (read lights, loud music and silly activities) to attract people to church, the reality is simply that such methods are nothing other than false advertisement. Okay, perhaps the lights, loud music and silly games are not exactly false advertisement, but when we use gimmicks to bring people in so that we can try to slip in the truth for a few minutes in between the stuff we really attracted them with, are we not operating under false pretenses?

Vacation Bible School and other activities designed to appeal to children can fall victim to this approach, too. There is nothing wrong with games, crafts, songs and skits in and of themselves. When those things became the primary focus of a VBS, though, the church is doing a disservice both to itself and to the children it is endeavoring to reach. If a church wants to offer a babysitting service or activity time or drama camp, no problem. Do that–and call it what it is. If a church wants to have a Vacation Bible School, though, the emphasis and most important part of the schedule need to deal with the Bible. (I have been a part of many VBS programs over the years, as a participant, a leader and as a parent of participants. Some of these out-of-the-box programs are much better than others in this regard. Answers in Genesis, for example, produces a program that is very “meaty” and ensures, when properly utilized, that children are receiving solid, in-depth instruction in the Bible. Generally speaking, though, I think VBS curriculum is like school curriculum. By that, I mean that the ultimate success of the instruction will depend far more on the teachers than on the materials being used).

Furman later writes, this:

There is no better message that we can share. And so there is no need to change it, distort it, rewrite it, add to it, or subtract from it. If you adjust the gospel, you destroy it. Gospel revision always equals gospel reversal. In a culture that is different from ours and even in dangerous contexts, why would we ever want to risk our lives to proclaim news that has no power unto salvation?

One of the most incredible and powerful evidences of the truth of the gospel message is the transformation that occurred in the lives of the followers of Christ after His resurrection. Where there had been fear, there was boldness. Where there had been cowardice, there was courage. Where there had been doubt, there was certainty. If we are going to go to the time, effort, trouble and expense of sharing a message–whether to children in our own church or to unreached people groups halfway around the world–shouldn’t we at least make sure that we are sharing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Why waste the time and effort for anything less?

Finally, not only would it be a foolish waste of time, effort and resources to share message that was less than the truth, it would be unauthorized. Here’s how Furman puts it:

Long ago, before there was television and the Internet, when a military had a big victory the king would send a herald into the town centers of the villages, and they would declare the good news and then run into the next town square proclaiming the victory. The herald had no ability to make the news but only to share what the king had declared. That’s what we are called to do: to take the same gospel as it is and proclaim the good news about what our King Jesus has already done.

May we resist all efforts to alter, abridge, tone down or otherwise manipulate the message that all have sinned, all need a Savior, and God has provided one through His Son–a Son who lived a perfect life, suffered a cruel and undeserved death, was buried, rose again three days later and lives now in heaven with God the Father. Wherever we go, wherever the gospel message may go, may it go in boldness and in truth, unapologetically and unashamedly.

July 15, 2014

“Glad to be with Christ”

I do not remember where I read it, but I have a quote from John Piper written on a 3×5 card in my Bible that is a regular reminder to me of how I should be living my life. Piper said, “There is an infinite chasm between the one who is glad he’s not going to hell and the one who is also glad to be with Christ.”

There is incredible truth in that statement and, if you’re anything like me, it is very convicting. Of course I am glad I am not going to hell. But is that all my Christianity is about? Did I get my “get out of hell” card and now I can do my own thing? Or is knowing hell is not in my future a very nice benefit of the more important fact that I have a relationship with Jesus Christ?

Since I cannot remember when or where I came across the quote from John Piper I am also not sure if I found it in reference to I Peter 1:3-9 or if I added that reference to the note card in my Bible later, but that passage is incredibly relevant to this discussion. Here is how it reads in the ESV:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Peter emphasizes the fact that those who have accepted Christ as their Savior have been born again to a living hope. It is not temporary, not conditional and not finite. Rather, it is a living hope because it is received through the acceptance of Christ, who is Himself living now in Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. The inheritance that believers are promised–an eternity in heaven in the very presence of God–is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” It will never go bad, it cannot be tainted in any way and it will always be just as bright and wonderful as it is now. There is nothing on earth that compares. The reality of this inheritance can be hard to fathom because everything we know in this world is perishable, can be defiled and does fade.

Not only is this inheritance unlike anything we can relate to on earth, it is being kept for us by God Himself. He is protecting it, preserving it and defending it. No one and nothing can take it away. Thank goodness this inheritance is not being kept by the government or Wall Street or my bank! No, my eternity is being kept by the sovereign God of the universe!

I may encounter difficulties in life. No, scratch that–I WILL encounter difficulties in life. Those difficulties, though, cannot threaten or diminish my relationship with the Lord or my inheritance through Him at all. Those trials may test my faith, but through the power of the Holy Spirit in my life they can refine me and draw me closer to the Lord–and allow Him to be displayed through me.

The question is, am I, as Peter wrote, “rejoic[ing] with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory”? Do people who interact with me see that joy in me? Does the fact that I have an inheritance through Christ that is preserved forever by God show through in the way I live my life? I am not the most visibly-expressive person in the world and that is not likely to change, but I don’t think that is Peter’s point. He is not calling us to be giddy all the time or to have a fake smile plastered on our faces. But he is reminding us that we have received an incredible promise, we have a relationship with the almighty God, and if that is not evident in our lives then there is a problem. If salvation is just about missing hell then once we’ve got it that’s pretty much it. But it is far more than that, Piper reminds us. Am I glad to be with Christ? And if I am, can you tell by how I live my life? Thought-provoking questions…

April 19, 2014

Jesus Paid It All

Today is Good Friday. I know I am not the only one who has ever pondered why it is called “good” Friday when it is a day of remembering the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus was sinless yet He bore the sins of every person who ever lived and suffered an agonizing death to pay a price that no one else could pay. It was God’s love that caused Him to send His Son to earth as a human baby, knowing full well He would die on the cross. It was Jesus’ obedience to the Father and His own love for humanity that motivated Him to go through with God’s plan despite His desire to avoid it if there was any other way. As He prayed in the garden asking the Father to take the cup away from Him He also yielded and told God, “Not my will but thine be done.” The death of Christ is horrific and entirely unfair, but it is also incredibly wonderful. Only because Christ died…and rose again…can any of us have any hope of eternal life.

Elvina Hall’s 1865 hymn “Jesus Paid It All” is one of my favorite hymns, if not my favorite. The words of the refrain are simple yet profound. The sum up completely the fact that the penalty of sin was paid in full by Christ’s death and resurrection. The refrain says this:

Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

Jesus did indeed pay it all, and I do owe Him all. Interestingly, though, my all will never come anywhere close to what He paid. I do owe Him all but even if I were able to give Him all my earthly wealth and live a life full of good deeds I would still never come close to being able to repay Him.

The first verse of the hymn says,

I hear the Savior say,
“Thy strength indeed is small;
Child of weakness, watch and pray,
Find in Me thine all in all.”

My strength is small. It is infinitesimally small, in fact–not even worth mentioning or attempting to measure. Yet, Christ made possible incredible assurance and blessing through His sacrifice and He has offered it freely to all who believe. In Him I can find my all in all. The second verse reinforces the message of the refrain that I owe Him all yet there is nothing I could hope to do to repay Him. It reads,

For nothing good have I
Whereby Thy grace to claim;
I’ll wash my garments white
In the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb.

There is truly nothing I have that is of any value. As the Apostle Paul wrote, any human accomplishments I may have are worth nothing more than dung in comparison to what Christ has done for me…and for all who believe.

There are four more verses to the hymn, some more well known than others…

And now complete in Him,
My robe, His righteousness,
Close sheltered ’neath His side,
I am divinely blest.

Lord, now indeed I find
Thy pow’r, and Thine alone,
Can change the leper’s spots
And melt the heart of stone.

When from my dying bed
My ransomed soul shall rise,
“Jesus died my soul to save,”
Shall rend the vaulted skies.

And when before the throne
I stand in Him complete,
I’ll lay my trophies down,
All down at Jesus’ feet.

I learned that last stanza with a different ending and I am not sure which is the one Hall originally wrote. I learned it ending with “Jesus died my soul to save My lips shall still repeat.” Since that’s the way I learned it I suppose it is the one I prefer, but both endings are beautiful and accurate. I will lay down any trophies I may have; another classic hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross,” mentions this too when it says, “My trophies at last I lay down.” And I suspect I will spend eternity continuing to repeat that Jesus died for my soul…praising and thanking Him for His wondrous love.

Great hymns are great not so much because of their beautiful melodies–though some of them are indeed wonderful. Rather, they are great because they contain great theology; they are are easily-memorable, portable pieces of biblical truth. I think God loves to hear us sing about His love, to praise Him for His goodness, His mercy and His gift of salvation.

And ultimately this is why Good Friday is good…because Jesus did pay it all.

February 13, 2014

Beware Appearances (Part 2)

Yesterday I looked at the danger of focusing on image enhancement at the church level, a concern raised by John MacArthur in a February Tabletalk article and by Sophia Lee in a December WORLD article. Today I want to address the danger of focusing on image at the personal level.

MacArthur writes, “Worst of all, this attitude is pervasive at the individual level. Far too many Christians live as if a pretense of righteousness were as good as the real thing.”

He goes on to point out that this was the major error of the Pharisees. So true is this, in fact, that the very words “Pharisee” or “pharisaical” are now used to describe someone who is far more concerned with the external than the internal. Dictionary.com defines “pharisaical” this way: “practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit; self-righteous; hypocritical.” Hypocrite is probably one of the most common synonyms for Pharisee in any contemporary vernacular. Not exactly anything to aspire to!

The Pharisees’ problem was that they had mastered the art of making, interpreting, creatively bending and then living by the rules. So hung up on rules were they that they greatly added to the Ten Commandments God gave Moses and generated lists of hundreds of rules. So hung up on rules were they that they condemned Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath, condemned His disciples for grinding grain on the Sabbath when they plucked a few heads of grain with their hands while walking through a field. So hung up on rules were the Pharisees that they completely missed–indeed even denied–that Jesus was the Messiah because He did not fit their idea of what/who the Messiah should/would be.

MacArthur writes, “The Pharisees’ teaching placed so much emphasis on external appearances that it was commonly believed that evil thoughts were not really sinful as long as they did not become acts. The Pharisees and their followers became utterly preoccupied with appearing righteous.” Jesus, of course, turned that manner of thinking on its head, making clear that hating someone or lusting after someone is no different than murder or adultery. In other words, thoughts matter just as much as actions! No wonder the Pharisees hated Jesus; He challenged their entire religious system and made clear that all their rule-keeping was for naught.

Few, if any, of us have the same fastidious attention to countless rules that the Pharisees did. That does not mean at all, though, that we are not just as hung up on external appearances. How comfortable we can get carrying our Bibles to church every Sunday and bowing our heads before every meal, deluding ourselves into thinking that surely means we’re doing pretty good. God doesn’t look at that stuff, though; He is far more concerned with our hearts. He made it clear way back when Samuel was anointing a king for Israel that man looks at appearances but God looks at the heart.

What we do matters; do not take anything I am saying here to mean otherwise. James, of course, makes it crystal clear that our faith must be demonstrated by our works. But faith must precede works. The Pharisees saw no need for faith; works was their means to salvation. So we should carry our Bibles and go to church on Sunday, we should tithe and give offerings, we should show love and mercy in our interactions with others, but all of those things must flow out of a heart transformed by the realization that none of that will get us to heaven or earn us anything. We must also grasp that none of those things negate any “secret” sins of the heart and mind. No one else may see or no about them but God does, and He cares about them. They matter to Him.

In MacArthur’s words, the central lesson underscored by Jesus was this: “External appearance is not what matters most.” Let us not forget that.

September 3, 2013

A childlike faith

Filed under: Biblical Worldview,Spiritual Growth — jbwatson @ 3:40 pm
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Last Saturday my family and I went to the South Dakota State Fair. While we were there we walked through several campers that were on display. We are not in the market for a camper, but we thought it would be fun to look at the range of options and features (and prices) that were on display. After looking at several my son, age six, commented, “Next year when we come to the fair let’s bring some money and get a camper.” I had to laugh to myself at his thinking. Here we were in a camper that cost about twice my annual salary and his thought was simply, “This would be cool to have, Dad should get one.” He has a minimal understanding of money–he has been getting a small allowance since he turned five, and he sometimes has to save up his own money to purchase things he wants–but he does not really grasp the fact that his parents have finite resources, too, and cannot just “bring some money and get a camper.”

Now, there is a fair amount of debate about whether or not the Scripture instructs is to have a childlike faith. In Matthew 18 Jesus said to His disciples that unless they became like little children they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. Some interpret that to mean that believers are to have a childlike faith. Others suggest that that is not what Jesus meant at all, since children can be gullible and led easily astray and Scripture makes it clear that believers are to test what they hear and read, both within the church and without, against God’s Word, and that is not something children are prone to do. In advocating this second position I once read someone’s explanation that Jesus was instructing the disciples in the need for humility, and children are “characteristically humble and teachable.” I am not sure I would agree with that statement; having worked with children for the last fifteen years I would not suggest that many of them are naturally or characteristically humble. So I agree that we are not to have a gullible faith, but I would suggest that we are to have a faith that is simple, pure and complete–faith like my son demonstrated at the fair.

In Mark 10 Jesus says, “Whoever whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” So what does that mean? I think it means to have complete and total trust in God like a child does in his parent. As an adult, when hearing my son’s comment about the camper, my mind immediately thinks multiple things–no way can I afford this, I wouldn’t use it enough to justify the expense anyway, what kind of vehicle would I need to pull this thing?, and would I even want to pull it? are just a few of the thoughts my mind covers in a manner of seconds. Similarly, when it comes to faith, the adult mind can quickly think of many questions, objections, obstacles and arguments against the simple (but profound) message that God is holy and demands judgment for sin, He sent His Son to earth as a human being, Jesus lived a perfect life and died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins and rose again three days later, and only by accepting that can I have eternal life in heaven. A childlike faith, though, is one that accepts that, believes it and embraces it.

Needless to say, I will not be taking “some money” to the fair next year to buy a camper. But it was a touching moment for me to reflect on the faith my son has in me, and it was a powerful reminder of the kind of faith I need to have in my Heavenly Father.

June 4, 2013

Who We Are

WORLD Magazine columnist Janie B. Cheaney is a good writer. I enjoy reading her columns, and I often find them to be well thought out and even thought-provoking. I have also found, however, that I seem to disagree with her at least as often as not. Such is the case again with her column entitled “The heart of the matter” in the June 1, 2013 issue. The subtitle of her column is “Homosexuals and the rest of us sinners are who we are, and that is the problem.” Unfortunately, Cheaney’s premise is wrong, and she makes several assertions throughout her column that are wrong.

Cheaney begins her piece with a quick rundown of some of the more prominent conservatives to have endorsed same-sex marriage. But then she starts the second paragraph with this: “So-called gay rights (for lack of a better term) is the third great civil-rights movement of the last 60 years, and the most vexed. Here’s why: Racism challenged society, feminism challenged the family, but sexual identity challenges our very being.”

I have argued in this space on numerous previous occasions that gay rights is not a civil rights issue, and I was disappointed to say the least that Cheaney has jumped on board with those who say that it is. And the reason that it is not is because the conclusion of Cheaney’s explanation is exactly wrong. Sexual identity does not challenge our “very being.” Our “very being” is that we are human beings created in the image of God. If you want to go further than that we are male and female human beings. But that is the extent of our “very being.” The identities that have been created in recent years, neatly summed up in the letters “LGBTQ” are man-made labels to describe chosen behaviors and preferences, but they are not identities. Cheaney calls them “a range of identities with unfixed borders,” but that is wrong. The unfixed borders part of the statement may be accurate; after all, the Q stands for, depending on who you ask or where you look, “queer” or “questioning,” but means, in either instance, someone who is uncertain of which label fits them.

Still, labels is all they are, not identities. For one thing, identities do not change; the very beginning of the definition of “identity” is “the state or fact of remaining the same one or ones, as under varying aspects or conditions.” They are further not identities because those behaviors abbreviated by LGBTQ describe personal preferences and possibly personal behaviors, but not who a person is. The same is just as true of a heterosexual as a homosexual, by the way. Heterosexuality is defined as, “sexual feeling or behavior directed toward a person or persons of the opposite sex.” Neither feelings nor behaviors are identities. I am certainly not identifiable by my feelings–and thank God for that, by the way! Nor am I identified by my behaviors. You may be able to learn a lot about me by what I do, but none of those things are me. Many labels can be applied accurately to me–husband, father, son, brother, teacher, friend, fan, reader, writer, colleague, employee, and on and on I could go. But if you took away each and every one of those things you would not eliminate me; I would still exist if none of those labels were still applicable, and therefore none of those things are my identity.

Cheaney uses a man named Christopher Yuan as an example of her point. Of Yuan she writes, “His identity was inseparable from his sexuality, and by his early twenties he knew he couldn’t change it. He was and always would be gay.” Therein lies the problem, though; his sexuality is separable from his identity.

Cheaney goes on to explain that sin is a matter of who we are. She writes, “‘This is who I am’ unwittingly bears the human soul. Sin is not primarily a matter of what we do but who we are. We are liars, idolators, adulterers, hypocrites, perverts. That is why we lie (to ourselves especially), worship the creature rather than the Creator, stray from our true lover, pretend righteousness we don’t have, and misuse God’s gifts to our own selfish ends. But most of those sins can be hidden, even within the church. The homosexual’s peculiar burden is that his sin can’t be hidden.”

Let’s take that apart a bit. First of all, yes, we are sinners–all of us. Scripture makes it clear that every human is a sinner, and that every human is born a sinner. Sinner, therefore, could accurately be included as part of our identities. And while Scripture also makes it clear that to be guilty of any part of the law is to be guilty of all, that does not mean that every person has actually committed each act. James 2 makes it clear that when we break God’s law in any way we are guilty of it all. James 2:10-11 reads, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (ESV). That does not mean, though, that if I have committed adultery I might as well also commit murder. It does not mean that if I have lied I might as well also steal. It simply means that it does not matter which of God’s laws I break, by breaking them I fall short of the glory of God and am therefore unworthy to spend eternity in His presence (Romans 3:23).

However–and this is a very important however–the fact that I am a sinner does not mean I have free license to sin. By God’s grace my sins have been forgiven, and with the leading of the Holy Spirit and my yielding to Him I do not have to live a life of sin. Paul makes it very clear that just because God’s grace enables the forgiveness of sins does not give me freedom to sin (Romans 6). So yes, some sins can be hidden, and some much more easily than others, but the fact that we are born sinners does not mean we have to sin continually, and certainly does not mean that we should sin.

So, to my second point, Cheaney says that homosexuality cannot be hidden. I disagree. If homosexuality is a feeling, it can definitely be hidden. People hide their feelings all the time. If homosexuality is an action it can be both hidden and avoided. Plenty of people throughout history have engaged in homosexual activity and hidden it, I am sure. But the real point is that no one has to engage in homosexual behavior! As I have stated repeatedly, even if I were convinced that people are “born homosexual” (I am not) they still have the choice to practice homosexuality. And this is why gay rights is not a civil rights issue. People can not choose or change the color of their skin, and people cannot choose their gender, either (though with the “technology” available these days they can have it medically changed).

At the end of her column Cheaney quotes Yuan as coming to realization that the Bible does condemn homosexuality as a sin, and that God called him to be holy. “My identity was not ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ or even ‘heterosexual,’ for that matter. But my identity as a child of the living God must be in Jesus Christ alone,” she quoted Yuan. And in that regard Yuan is quite right. The problem is that she prefaced that by writing that God “was not calling him to be straight, but to be holy.” The problem is, one cannot be holy and be a practicing homosexual. If the Bible says homosexuality is a sin (it does) and the Bible says that Christians are to be holy because God is holy (it does) one cannot then argue that it is possible to be both holy and homosexual (it isn’t). Am I saying all homosexuals will go to hell? No, I’m not. Homosexuality is a sin, but God forgives the sins of those who ask, homosexuals included.

My point, though, is that Cheaney is wrong about homosexuality or heterosexuality being anyone’s identity. It simply is not. I also disagree wholeheartedly that homosexual is what anyone “just is.” Who we all are is fallen human beings, created in the image of God but born in sin and therefore ineligible for eternal life. My identity now, praise the Lord, is a sinner saved by grace. And that is a identity anyone can have who is willing to call on the name of the Lord.

March 30, 2013

The Day Between

Yesterday was Good Friday; tomorrow is Easter. Yesterday we remembered the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; tomorrow we remember his resurrection, the fact that He is no longer dead, and the tomb is empty. But how often do we think about today, the day between? Today it probably has little if any major significance, but imagine what the day between must have been like for the followers of on that very first “day between.” The Gospel accounts tell us nothing of what happened that day other than that His followers “rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56), since Saturday was he Sabbath. Interestingly, Matthew records that the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate that day to request a guard for the tomb of Jesus “lest His disciples go and steal Him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead…'” (Matthew 27:64).

Imagine, though, what that Sabbath day was like. There was nothing the followers of Jesus could do to keep themselves busy and try to keep their minds off of the fact that Jesus was dead, because it was the Sabbath, and activity was strictly regulated, most of it forbidden. It was the day to worship God, and it must surely have been difficult to worship God the day after the One Who had proclaimed Himself to be the Son of God had been crucified on a Roman cross. Today, we can celebrate (solemnly) Good Friday because we know about Easter. The death of Jesus Christ is gruesome and horrific but also fantastic, because we know that through His death He paid the penalty for the sins of all who will ask for forgiveness and accept His free gift of salvation. It is also fantastic because Jesus died in order to conquer sin, hell and death, and we know He was not dead for long. But His followers who were sitting around on that very first “day between” had not understood that He was going to rise again, so there was no excited anticipation for Sunday morning. Instead there must have been dread, incredible sorrow, almost a loss of the will to go on living.

We know this because the Gospels record the fact that Mary and Martha prepared spices and returned to the tomb on Sunday morning, something there would have been no point doing if they knew Jesus would not be in the tomb. Luke tells us that they were “perplexed” when they found the tomb empty (24:4). The angel who appeared to them at the tomb asked them why they were seeking the living among the dead. “Remember how He told you…?” the angel asks in Luke 24:6. Verse 8 says they then did remember, but when they went and told the apostles–the very men who had spent three years living with, ministering with and learning from Jesus–the news of Jesus’ resurrection seemed to those eleven men “an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24:11).

The hopelessness that must have gripped the followers of Christ on that first day between still grips many people today, and understandably so. After all, if there is no God, there is nothing beyond the here and now, so what difference does it all make? If Jesus was just a good moral teacher, but He died and stayed dead, there is really no difference between Jesus and many other great teachers who have lived throughout the centuries. Paul writes in I Corinthians 15:54 that if Jesus has not been raised from the dead then our faith is in vain. It is useless, worthless and pitiful.

Thank God that the day between was just that, only a day between two incredible and essential events that changed the world and made possible the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life.

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