Friday books

Even though the sermon series on the gospel is ended, I’ll never finish preaching the gospel.  Here’s another great book on it: Tullian Tchividjian’s Jesus + Nothing = Everything.  

Smell the scent of gospel from Paul’s letter to Colosse Christians.  In the middle of a firestorm at his new church several years ago, Tchividjian‘s study of Colossians drove this gospel truth deep into his soul: Because Jesus was someone, you’re free to be no one (75).  In other words, people who have been rescued by the gospel, have a new, a sealed, and a supernatural identity that doesn’t ebb and rise and fall by circumstances or what others think of you.  But that’s just the tip of the book’s iceberg.
Though 33 years in Christ, as a virtual babe in the gospel woods I still read some of this stuff in disbelief.  It’s a disbelief that goes in two directions: one, that only Christ’s work is the gospel–quite apart from what I do or fail to do.  And two, that I could spend 7 years in Bible College and seminary, serve years as a pastor–indeed, be a Christian so many years, promoting something of a schizophrenic gospel.  That is, I paid lip service to grace, but preached and lived the law.  As Galatians 3:24 and Romans 7 point out so elegantly, not only couldn’t the law ever deliver anyone, God never meant it to.  It was meant to drive home the ugly truth that sin is epidemic and its powerless victims need outside help.

Conversely, every person rescued by Christ has been given a standing of the highest order, and has been promoted to the heavenlies beside Christ (Eph.2:6) despite an abysmally poor performance.  That affects a person’s self-perception, his fears and anxieties, her confidence, her outlook, his abilities, her behavior, and his thinking.

Having seen how naturally we Christians are addicted to works, I was intrigued by Tchividjian’s question, “Why do I avoid the gospel?”  He claims it’s because …the gospel makes me disappear.  The gospel obliterates me, in a sense.  Suddenly life is no longer about my little world and my standards and rules and goals and preferences.  It’s no longer about me and what I want.  It’s no longer about my strengths and achievements and attainments.  The gospel erases us, in that sense, which is why we avoid it.  But that erasing of self is the key to our freedom.  The gospel doesn’t take you deeper into yourself; the gospel takes you away from yourself (121).

Tchividjian says what can’t be repeated often enough: the way to defeat the practice of sin is counter-intuitive: stop spending so much time peering into the darkness of your soul and spend more time peering into the light of the gospel.  He puts it this way: In short, I spend way too much time thinking about me and what I need to do, and far too little time thinking about Jesus and what he’s already done.  And what I’ve discovered, ironically, is that the more I focus on my need to get better, the worse I actually get.  I become neurotic and self-absorbed.  Preoccupation with my performance over Christ’s performance for me makes me increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective (174). 

Ahhh, love the smell of the gospel!

It’s all in the roots

The 2010 survey said 1/3 of those who describe themselves as “born again Christians” seldom or never read their Bibles.  Perhaps it doesn’t really matter.  Bible teachers and other cranky religious nuts seem to get unnecessarily worked up over Bible disinterest.  Then again, what happens to a tree with weak roots?
Last fall we cut down a silver maple tree in our back yard.  The house is 40 years old but this was the only mature tree on the property.  Losing its shade was bad; losing the miniature but vast forest that popped up each year in nearby beds from dropped seeds, was very, very good.  All that was left after Leon carted off the firewood was an ugly stump and roots nobody could see.

This week professionals arrived with a machine that looked like a steel rhinoceros.  Even though the grinder’s cutters were about 4-5 inches wide, it still took the operator 45 minutes to turn the stump and roots into wood chips and dirt.  With between 6-9 shallow flare roots, a silver maple’s foundation is all brawn.  Roots can buckle sidewalks and break basement walls.  About 40′ high, all the muscle of our tree was stretched out below ground and out of sight. 
What keeps a believer upright?  What keeps him from breaking when the wind blows?  Why can’t she be pushed over?  What deters a believer from settling happily into a hot tub of sin?  What keeps a saint from the kind of despair that ends with a bottle of pills or a bullet?  What dissolves the kind of fear that paralyzes others?  What keeps a someone in a bitter marriage at home instead of prowling?  How can some parents bless God for a child with birth defects while others scream in fury?

Strength.  What we label “inner fortitude” or something similar may take us part way down the road but it will never supply the strength to complete the journey.  Growing up in a healthy home was a big blessing for some of us, but ultimately it’s no match for an all-out assault by a life bent mean and crooked by the Fall.  Having someone to talk to through the worst won’t do it even though most of us are grateful if we’ve got that someone.  By such things we may endure for the moment but they are not our strength.

From Noah to Shem, from Abraham to Moses, from Deborah to David, from Isaiah to Daniel, from Peter to Paul, from Jerome to Augustine, from Jan Huss to Luther, from David Brainerd to D.L. Moody, strength for the people of God has come through the voice of God, God’s revelation.  For us that’s the Bible, the final revelation of God’s redeeming work in Christ.

His Word tells us who God is and through the gospel, that He’s for us.  Depicts the breadth of His power and how He’s limited that of others’.  Describes the future He’s crafted for those He loves.  Prepares us not just for the good, but the bad we can expect in this life.  In the Bible God recruits us to be ambassadors of the gospel to the tragically disgraced race that’s our own.  We read and reread in brutish and glorious terms about God’s rescue operation.  Oh yes, and if we pay attention, in the process we learn the freeing truth that the world revolves around Him–not us.  

Having a Bible isn’t enough.  Some Bible owners remain weak and broken as theirs stays closed.  Transporting one is also pointless; it’s not a lucky charm so taking it to church makes no magic if it remains closed.  Strength doesn’t come from reading it like a textbook you expect to get quizzed on.  Not even by diligently reading a few verses each day so you can cross it off a to-do list.  It comes from the unshakable conviction that “This is the very voice of God and that apart from hearing from Him, I have no life.  Without a steady diet of this, soon life-giving truths will be forgotten or drowned out by a global din which dismisses them.  Without the Bible, over time I will become content with a Sunday religiosity that will be more than happy to replace my once-thriving faith in the work of Christ.”  

But giving God the chance to speak through the open Bible on our laps, hearing Him through an iPod or laptop, creates all kinds of tantalizing possibilities: the prospect of a gospel-saturated faith, of saying “yes” to something you’d rather say “no” to, the unlikelihood that sin is going to have the upper hand, and the ability to be who God made you to be.  Letting God out of His cage every day to roar puts the kind of muscle on our faith that the same effort at the gym does for our bodies.  But matters infinitely more.  

…for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (1 Tim.4:8).

Divine healing

It’s winter and seems like everybody’s sick.  I have a cold.  I know of people with viruses.  Several weeks ago 2 of my grandchildren had pneumonia.  Then there’s the more serious stuff.  A church member is suffering from ALS.  Two weeks ago cancer took John at the age of 77.  Not just a church member, John had lived with us for two years so he was also something of a family member.  

Everybody dies eventually and death is not terribly choosy how it kills people: through choking, freak accidents, crime, and car wrecks.  But the vast majority of us will die sick.  Some illness or disease will take us.  Why is that when God could heal?  In fact, the gospel accounts seem to bristle with men and women who, once sick, became well after Jesus touched them.  Blind men could suddenly see, lepers became whole, a deaf man could hear, a women’s 12 years of bleeding came to an end, a man’s deformed hand was corrected, and paralyzed people walked.  Not only were individual people healed, but sometimes there was a healing service where entire crowds got well from His touch (Matt.15:30). Sometimes the Bible indicates those healed showed faith to be healed, but at other times nothing is mentioned.

Some Christians think God just healed during certain times in history, and that He did it only through special messengers like Jesus (God in flesh) or the apostles. They view those days as unique, believing their purposes have long ago been fulfilled.  Consequently they conclude God no longer heals–and no longer gives Christians that ability as spiritual gift (1 Cor.12:9, 28)*.  They believe that the main reason Jesus and His apostles healed was to authenticate Jesus and His message.  

Faced with inexplicable recoveries that medicine can’t explain, fewer and fewer Christians actually think healing has ended completely–even though they may not expect it to occur as regularly as it appears to have in the gospels.  Nevertheless, even some of those who do believe God heals, may quietly lapse into skepticism as a way to make sense of the fact that so few people seem to be healed by divine intervention. 

Other Christians read their Bibles and insist, “Physical healing should be as common as it was in Jesus’ day.  If it was normal then, why not now? After all, Jesus’ arrival on earth changed things.”  They point to Matthew’s words that Jesus healed a lot of sick people (Matt.8:17) to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy: (Is.53:4: He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows [although the wording seems better lifted from Ps.103:3]). 

Some go farther–particularly Pentecostal Christians who say that on the cross Jesus shouldered not only all of our sins, but all of our sicknesses.  In the words of 1 Pet.2:24, By His wounds you have been healed.  They argue that when Christ died for us on the cross, through His atoning work God guaranteed that believers who have enough faith–and clean hearts, should not get sick–at least not stay sick.  That illness is the work of a defeated devil. 

God did heal.  

God does heal.  

But God doesn’t always heal.  Ask Job.  Or Paul.  Or, ask any of the saints now in heaven who died from cancer, diabetes, a heart attack, stroke or brain aneurism, or…  If God refuses to heal even one person who’s faithfully serving Him (meaning, critics can’t blame their illnesses or diseases on weak faith or disobedient living), then we cannot say that 1 Peter 2:24 means Jesus atoned for our sicknesses like he did for our sins.  As He did with Paul, sometimes God has a good purpose in physical infirmity and means to shape us with it (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).

On the flip side, some of us (by that I mean me and maybe some of you), may well be functional atheists when it comes to healing.  We believe in the idea that God heals, but you’d never know it by what happens when we or loved ones get sick.  What do we do first?  Call the doctor.  First.  Maybe we think to pray in a day or two but is it more than a formality?  Is any faith exhibited?  The people who shun medicine altogether are wrong not to take advantage of the medical advances which are the result of God’s common grace.  But perhaps we’re just as wrong to all but worship at the throne of medical science.  Where’s our real trust rest?  

Admittedly, many of us who believe God still heals are disappointed at how rarely He seems to.  As a pastor I have prayed thousands of times for hundreds of people.  Yet I can count on one hand the time I have seen remarkable and obvious healing that couldn’t be explained by medical treatment.  Perhaps that’s part of the problem.  If we more readily believe in the doctor’s power than the Lord’s, are we at times crediting medicine with what God actually did?   Is my faith actually in medicine–not God, and because of that I’m missing some miracles?

God sometimes won’t heal and it has nothing to do with the size of our faith or the shine of our halos.  It is because the sovereign God has some other God-glorifying and people-strengthening purpose in our suffering (2 Cor.12:9-10).  But God STILL heals.  Don’t stop praying for yourself or others “…to be in good health.” (3 John 1:2).

*What about the spiritual gift of healing?  Do some Christians have the ability to heal people at their pleasure–rather than having to ask God to do it?  Like the apostle John did, or Paul?  There’s really no lasting legacy of such people in the records of Christian history but in the last century we’ve seen men and women like Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts, and Benny Hinn lay claim to the gift.  However, when supposed healings by these and others are investigated, often more questions are raised than answered.  Muddying the waters are the enormous sums being taken by the healers in contributions.  But there’s nothing in Scripture to rule out that God could give this gift.  I would assume the exercise of such a gift would be evidenced not just in arena events where large offerings are taken, but in hospitals where people can’t pay and where the need is more concentrated than anywhere else.

The Twisters of God

A plague of tornadoes again tore up American lives and landscape last week.  These are our fellow citizens.  We ache seeing pictures of flattened homes and hearing about the funerals.  Even Christians wonder, “Where was God?”  
I have been reading through Job again in my worship time, a book that displays the Providence of God with a relentless but unflinching candor to those willing to say, “Your will be done.”  Though He gives the devil permission to hurt Job  and all he loves (including the deaths of his children by a tornado), in the end God alone takes credit for what has happened and dares Job–whose comprehension is bound by the limits of humanity, to accuse Him of doing wrong, Will you even put me in the wrong?  Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? (Job 40:8)

In response to the tragedies, Pastor John Piper penned yet another eloquent blog entry on God’s sovereign work.

Fierce Tornadoes and the Fingers of God

By John Piper | Mar 05, 2012 04:00 am


Why would God reach down his hand and drag his fierce fingers across rural America killing at least 38 people with 90 tornadoes in 12 states, and leaving some small towns with scarcely a building standing, including churches?  If God has a quarrel with America, wouldn’t Washington, D.C., or Las Vegas, or Minneapolis, or Hollywood be a more likely place to show his displeasure? 
We do not ascribe such independent power to Mother Nature or to the devil. God alone has the last say in where and how the wind blows. If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command.
·         “The wind of the Lord, shall come, rising from the wilderness, and it shall strip Ephraim’s treasury of every precious thing” (Hosea 13:15).
·         The Lord turned the wind into a very strong west wind, which lifted the locusts and drove them into the Red Sea” (Exodus 10:19).
·         God appointed a scorching east wind” (Jonah 4:8).
·         God commanded and raised the stormy wind” (Psalm 107:25).
·         Even winds and sea obey Jesus” (Matthew 8:27).
But why Marysville and not Minneapolis? Why Henryville and not Hollywood?  God has spoken about these things. Consider three ways he addresses — all of us.

1. Job, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” 

Job’s ten children died because “a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people” (Job 1:19).  Job cries out to God, “Why have you made me your mark? . . . Why do you hide your face and count me as your enemy? . . . Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (Job 7:20; 13:24; 21:7).

In other words, Why Henryville, and not Hollywood?
God’s answer to Job is not that he was a worse sinner than the “wicked” — or that Maryville had some dark secret.
His answer was, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’” (Romans 11:33–34; Job 15:8; 36:22f). 
Job’s loss was not a measure of his immorality. “Job was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1).  In fact, perhaps God chose Job for that deadly wind because only the likes of Job would respond: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

2. Luke 13:4–5, “Unless you repent.”

A Tower fell and killed 18 people in Jesus’ day. Jesus spoke into that situation: “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4–5).
This is a word to those of us who sit safely in Minneapolis or Hollywood and survey the desolation of Marysville and Henryville. “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  Every deadly wind in any town is a divine warning to every town.

3. 1 Peter 4:17, “God’s own people are not excluded.”

We are not God’s counselors. Nor can we fathom all his judgments. That was the lesson of Job. Let us beware, therefore, of reading the hand of providence with too much certainty or specificity. God is always doing a thousand things when he does anything. And we see but a fraction.
But stir into your mental framework this truth: When a time for judgment comes, it usually includes, and begins with, God’s own people. That’s what the apostle Peter says. “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17; Jeremiah 25:29; Ezekiel 9:6; Amos 3:2).
Therefore, God’s will for America under his mighty hand, is that every Christian, every Jew, every Muslim, every person of every religion or non-religion, turn from sin and come to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and eternal life. Jesus rules the wind. The tornadoes were his.
But before Jesus took any life in rural America, he gave his own on the rugged cross. Come to me, he says, to America — to the devastated and to the smugly self-sufficient. Come to me, and I will give you hope and help now, and in the resurrection, more than you have ever lost.