Friday, November 30, 2012

Therapeutic Gospel, Part 5

The following is part of an article written by David Powlison in 2007. His writing is so insightful, no commentary is needed. Over this next week, portions of that article will appear here.

See: Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4
The Therapeutic Gospel
by David Powlison

Which gospel?
Which gospel will you live? Which gospel will you preach? Which needs will you awaken and address in others? Which Christ will be your people’s Christ? Will it be the christette who massages felt needs? Or the Christ who turns the world upside down and makes all things new?
The Grand Inquisitor was very tenderhearted towards human felt need—very sympathetic to the things that all people everywhere seek with all their heart, very sensitive to the difficulty of changing anyone. But he proved to be a monster in the end. There is a saying in mercy ministries that runs like this, “If you don’t seek to meet people’s physical needs, it’s heartless. But if you don’t give people the crucified, risen and returning Christ, it’s hopeless.” Jesus fed hungry people bread, and Jesus offered His broken body as the bread of eternal life. It is ultimately cruel to leave people in their sins, captive to their instinctive desires, in despair, under curse. The current therapeutic gospel sounds tender-hearted at first. It is so sensitive to pressure points of ache and disappointment. But in the end it is cruel and Christ-less. It does not foster true self-knowledge. It does not rewrite the script of the world. It creates no prayers or songs.
We must be no less sensitive but far more discerning. Jesus Christ turns human need upside down, creating prayer. He is the inexpressible Gift of gifts, creating song. And He gives all good gifts, both now and forever. Let every knee bow, and let everything that has breath praise the Lord.[1]

The Once-for-All Gospel
The real gospel is the good news of the Word made flesh, the sin-bearing Savior, the resurrected Lord: “I am the living One, and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore” (Rev. 1:18). This Christ turns the world upside down. One prime effect of the Holy Spirit’s inworking presence and power is the rewiring of our sense of felt needs. Because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, we keenly feel a different set of needs when God comes into view and when we understand that we stand or fall in His gaze. My instinctual cravings are replaced (sometimes quickly, always gradually) by the growing awareness of true, life-and-death needs:
• I need mercy above all else:
“Lord, have mercy upon me.”
“For Your name’s sake, pardon my iniquity for it is very great.”
• I want to learn wisdom, and unlearn willful self-preoccupation:
“Nothing you desire compares with her.”
• I need to learn to love both God and neighbor:
“The goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.”
• I long for God’s name to be honored, for His kingdom to come, for His will to be done on earth.
• I want Christ’s glory, lovingkindness, and goodness to be seen on earth, to fill the earth as obviously as water fills the ocean.
• I need God to change me from who I am by instinct, choice, and practice.
• I want Him to deliver me from my obsessive self-righteousness, to slay my lust for self-vindication, so that I feel my need for the mercies of Christ, so that I learn to treat others gently.
• I need God’s mighty and intimate help in order to will and to do those things that last unto eternal life, rather than squandering my life on vanities.
• I want to learn how to endure hardship and suffering in hope, having my faith simplified, deepened, and purified.
• I need to learn, to listen, to worship, to delight, to trust, to give thanks, to cry out, to take refuge, to obey, to serve, to hope.
• I want the resurrection to eternal life:
“We groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.”
• I need God Himself:
“Show me Your glory.”
“Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.”
Make it so, Father of mercies. Make it so, Redeemer of all that is dark and broken.
Prayer expresses desire. Prayer expresses your felt sense of need. Lord, have mercy upon us. Song expresses gladness and gratitude at desire fulfilled. Song expresses your felt sense of who God is and all that He gives. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. But there are no prayers and songs in the Bible that take their cues from the current therapeutic felt needs. Imagine, “Our Father in heaven, help me feel that I’m okay just the way I am. Protect me this day from having to do anything I find boring. Hallelujah, I’m indispensable, and what I’m doing is really having an impact on others, so I can feel good about my life.” Have mercy upon us! Instead, in our Bible we hear a thousand cries of need and shouts of delight that orient us to our real needs and to our true Savior.[2]

[1] Powlison, D. (2007). The Therapeutic Gospel. In The Journal of Biblical Counseling: Volume 25, Number 3, Summer 2007 (6). Glenside, PA: The Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.
[2] Powlison, D. (2007). The Therapeutic Gospel. In The Journal of Biblical Counseling: Volume 25, Number 3, Summer 2007 (3–4). Glenside, PA: The Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Therapeutic Gospel, Part 4

The following is part of an article written by David Powlison in 2007. His writing is so insightful, no commentary is needed. Over this next week, portions of that article will appear here.

See: Part 1Part 2, Part 3
The Therapeutic Gospel
by David Powlison
Good Goods, Bad Gods [Part 2]

Need for self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-assertion? To gain a confident sense of your identity is a great good. Ephesians is strewn with several dozen “identity statements,” because by this the Spirit motivates a life of courageous faith and love. You are God’s—among the saints, chosen ones, adopted sons, beloved children, citizens, slaves, soldiers; part of the workmanship, wife, and dwelling place—every one of these in Christ. No aspect of your identity is self-referential, feeding your “self-esteem.” Your opinion of yourself is far less important than God’s opinion of you, and accurate self-assessment is derivative of God’s assessment. True identity is God-referential. True awareness of yourself connects to high esteem for Christ. Great confidence in Christ correlates to a vote of fundamental no confidence in and about yourself. God nowhere replaces diffidence and people-pleasing by self-assertiveness. In fact, to assert your opinions and desires, as is, marks you as a fool. Only as you are freed from the tyranny of your opinions and desires are you free to assess them accurately, and then to express them appropriately.
Need for pleasure? In fact, the true gospel promises endlessly joyous experience, drinking from the river of delights (Ps. 36). This describes God’s presence. But as we have seen in each case, this is keyed to the reversal of our instinctive cravings, not to their direct satisfaction. The way of joy is the way of suffering, endurance, small obediences, willingness to identify with human misery, willingness to overthrow your most persuasive desires and instincts. I don’t need to be entertained. But I absolutely need to learn to worship with all my heart.
Need for excitement and adventure? To participate in Christ’s kingdom is to play a part within the Greatest Action-Adventure Story Ever Told. But the paradox of redemption again turns the whole world upside down. The real adventure takes the path of weakness, struggle, endurance, patience, small kindnesses done well. The road to excellence in wisdom is unglamorous. Other people might take better vacations and have a more thrilling marriage than yours. The path of Jesus calls forth more grit than thrill. He needed endurance far more than He needed excitement. His kingdom might not cater to our cravings for derring-do and thrill-seeking, but “solid joys and lasting treasures none but Zion’s children know.”
We say “yes” and “amen” to all good gifts. But get first things first. The contemporary therapeutic gospel in its many forms takes our gimmees at face value. It grabs for the goodies. It erases worship of the Giver, whose greatest gift to us is mercy toward those whose desires are disordered by instinct, enculturation, choice, and habit. He calls us to radical repentance. Bob Dylan described the therapeutic’s alternative in a remarkable phrase: “You think He’s just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires” (from “When You Gonna Wake Up?”). Second things are exalted as servants of Number One.
Get first things first. Get the gospel of incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and glory. Live the gospel of repentance, faith, and transformation into the image of the Son. Proclaim the gospel of the coming day when eternal life and eternal death are revealed—the Day of Christ.[1]

[1] Powlison, D. (2007). The Therapeutic Gospel. In The Journal of Biblical Counseling: Volume 25, Number 3, Summer 2007 (5–6). Glenside, PA: The Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Therapeutic Gospel, Part 3

The following is part of an article written by David Powlison in 2007. His writing is so insightful, no commentary is needed. Over this next week, portions of that article will appear here.

See: Part 1, Part 2
The Therapeutic Gospel
by David Powlison

Good Goods, Bad Gods [Part 1]

The things offered by the contemporary therapeutic gospel are a bit trickier to interpret. The odor of self-interest and self-obsession clings closely to that wish list of “I want—.” But even these, carefully reframed and reinterpreted, do gesture in the direction of a good gift. The overall package of felt needs is systematically misaligned, but the pieces can be properly understood. Any “different gospel” (Gal. 1:6) makes itself plausible by offering Lego-pieces of reality assembled into a structure that contradicts revealed truth. Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve was plausible only because it incorporated many elements of reality, continually gesturing in the direction of truth, even while steadily guiding away from the truth: “Look, a beautiful and desirable tree. And God has said that the test will reveal both good and evil, with the possibility of life—not death—rising from your choice. Just as God is wise, so you, the chooser, can become like God in wisdom. Come now and eat.” So close, yet so far away. Almost so, but the exact opposite.
Consider the five elements we have identified with the therapeutic gospel.
Need for love? It is surely a good thing to know that you are both known and loved. God, who searches the thoughts and intentions of our hearts, also sets His steadfast love upon us. However all this is radically different from the instinctual craving to be accepted for who I am. Christ’s love comes pointedly and personally despite who I am. You are accepted for who Christ is, because of what He did, does, and will do. God truly accepts you, and if God is for you, who can be against you? But in doing this, He does not affirm and endorse what you are like. Rather, He sets about changing you into a fundamentally different kind of person. In the real gospel you feel deeply known and loved, but your relentless “need for love” has been overthrown.
Need for significance? It is surely a good thing for the works of your hands to be established forever: gold, silver, and precious stones; not wood, hay, and straw. It is good when what you do with your life truly counts, and when your works follow you into eternity. Vanity, futility, and ultimate insignificance register the curse upon our work life—even midcourse, not just when we retire, or when we die, or on the Day of Judgment. But the real gospel inverts the order of things presupposed by the therapeutic gospel. The craving for impact and significance—one of the typical “youthful lusts” that boil up within us—is merely idolatrous when it acts as Director of Operations in the human heart. God does not meet your need for significance; He meets your need for mercy and deliverance from your obsession with personal significance. When you turn from your enslavement and turn to God, then your works do start to count for good. The gospel of Jesus and the fruit of faith are not tailored to “meet your needs.” He frees from the tyranny of felt needs, remakes you to fear God and keep His commandments (Eccl. 12:13). In the divine irony of grace, that alone makes what you do with your life of lasting value.[1]

[1] Powlison, D. (2007). The Therapeutic Gospel. In The Journal of Biblical Counseling: Volume 25, Number 3, Summer 2007 (4–5). Glenside, PA: The Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Therapeutic Gospel, Part 2

The following is part of an article written by David Powlison in 2007. His writing is so insightful, no commentary is needed. Over this next week, portions of that article will appear here. 
See: Part 1

The Therapeutic Gospel
by David Powlison

The Contemporary Therapeutic Gospel
The most obvious, instinctual felt needs of twenty-first century, middle-class Americans are different from the felt needs that Dostoevsky tapped into. We take food supply and political stability for granted. We find our miracle-substitute in the wonders of technology. Middle-class felt needs are less primal. They express a more luxurious, more refined sense of self-interest:
• I want to feel loved for who I am, to be pitied for what I’ve gone through, to feel intimately understood, to be accepted unconditionally.
• I want to experience a sense of personal significance and meaningfulness, to be successful in my career, to know my life matters, to have an impact.
• I want to gain self-esteem, to affirm that I am okay, to be able to assert my opinions and desires.
• I want to be entertained, to feel pleasure in the endless stream of performances that delight my eyes and tickle my ears.
• I want a sense of adventure, excitement, action, and passion so that I experience life as thrilling and moving.
The modern, middle-class version of therapeutic gospel takes its cues from this particular family of desires. It appeals to psychological felt needs, not the physical felt needs that typically arise in difficult social conditions. (The contemporary health-and-wealth gospel and obsession with miracles express something more like the Grand Inquisitor’s older version of therapeutic gospel.)
In this new gospel, the great evils to be redressed do not call for any fundamental change of direction in the human heart. Instead, the problem lies in my sense of rejection from others; in my corrosive experience of life’s vanity; in my nervous sense of self-condemnation and diffidence; in the imminent threat of boredom if my music is turned off; in my fussy complaints when a long, hard road lies ahead. These are today’s significant felt needs that the gospel is bent to serve. Jesus and the church exist to make you feel loved, significant, validated, entertained, and charged up. This gospel ameliorates distressing symptoms. It makes you feel better. The logic of this therapeutic gospel is a jesus-for-Me who meets individual desires and assuages psychic aches.
The therapeutic outlook is not a bad thing in its proper place. By definition, a medical-therapeutic gaze holds in view problems of physical suffering and breakdown. In literal medical intervention, a therapy treats an illness, trauma, or deficiency. You don’t call someone to repentance for their colon cancer, broken leg, or beriberi. You seek to heal. So far, so good.
But in today’s therapeutic gospel the medical way of looking at the world is metaphorically extended to these psychological desires. These are defined just like a medical problem. You feel bad; the therapy makes you feel better. The definition of the disease bypasses the sinful human heart. You are not the agent of your deepest problems, but merely a sufferer and victim of unmet needs. The offer of a cure skips over the sin-bearing Savior. Repentance from unbelief, willfulness, and wickedness is not the issue. Sinners are not called to a U-turn and to the new life that is life indeed. Such a gospel massages self-love. There is nothing in its inner logic to make you love God and love any other person besides yourself. This therapeutic gospel may often mention the word “Jesus,” but He has morphed into the meeter-of-your-needs, not the Savior from your sins. It corrects Jesus’ work. The therapeutic gospel unhinges the gospel.[1]

[1] Powlison, D. (2007). The Therapeutic Gospel. In The Journal of Biblical Counseling: Volume 25, Number 3, Summer 2007 (2–3). Glenside, PA: The Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Therapeutic Gospel, Part 1

The following is part of an article written by David Powlison in 2007. His writing is so insightful, no commentary is needed. Over this next week, portions of that article will appear here.

The Therapeutic Gospel
by David Powlison
The appeal of a “therapeutic gospel” drives the action in the most famous chapter in all of western literature.
In his chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” Fyodor Dostoevsky imagines Jesus returning to sixteenth century Spain (The Brothers Karamazov, II:5:v). But Jesus is not welcomed by church authorities. The cardinal of Seville, head of the Inquisition, arrests and imprisons Jesus, condemning Him to die. Why? The church has shifted course. It has decided to meet instinctual human cravings, rather than call men to repentance. It has decided to bend its message to ‘felt needs’, rather than call forth the high, holy, and difficult freedom of faith working through love. Jesus’ example and message are deemed too hard for weak souls. The church has decided to make it easy.
The Grand Inquisitor interrogates Jesus in His prison cell, posing the three questions the Tempter put to Jesus in the wilderness centuries before. He criticizes Jesus’ answers. The church will give earthly bread instead of the bread of heaven. It will offer religious magic and miracles instead of faith in the Word of God. It will exert temporal power and authority instead of serving the call to freedom. “We have corrected Your work,” the inquisitor says to Jesus.
The Inquisitor’s gospel is a therapeutic gospel. It’s structured to give people what they want, not to change what they want. It makes people feel better. It centers exclusively around the welfare of man and temporal happiness. It discards the glory of God in Christ. It forfeits the narrow, difficult road that brings deep human flourishing and eternal joy. This therapeutic gospel accepts and covers for human weaknesses, seeking to ameliorate the most obvious symptoms of distress. It takes human nature as a given, because human nature is too hard to change. It does not want the King of Heaven to come down. It does not attempt to change people into lovers of God who embrace the truth of who Jesus is, what He is like, what He does.[1]

[1] Powlison, D. (2007). The Therapeutic Gospel. In The Journal of Biblical Counseling: Volume 25, Number 3, Summer 2007 (2). Glenside, PA: The Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.

Monday, October 29, 2012


What comes to mind when someone mentions the word faith? A synonym for religion? Belief in God? If you're a Christian, Hebrews 11:1?

It's not uncommon for a word to hold a variety of nuanced definitions. Love would be a classic example. So the goal here is not to try and pigeonhole the meaning of faith. But one poor definition is gaining popularity in the psyche of culture: "belief without evidence."

Many pit faith against fact, as if faith were an ugly second cousin to the supermodel of our modern, scientific age. However, faith is not the opposite of reason, logic and thought. Faith is an expectation--the standard model of hope.

When compared to the scientific method, there is actually a lot of similarity to genuine faith. The hallmark of science is repeatability of measurable phenomenon. The apple falls every time you drop it. As counterintuitive as it sounds, faith works the same way. Many balk at this notion because they cannot test God [Matt 4:7]. Of course, this is the fundamental problem with human nature. Because God will not do our bidding, because we can't domesticate him, because he will not bow down and worship us, we reject and refuse him. This does not mean faith is irrational; it means that God is sovereign.

Even though we may not be able to experiment on God and manipulate outcomes to our expectation, he is more reliable than the very laws of nature he created. He has revealed that he does not change: he is the same yesterday, today and forever.

God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
[Numbers 23:19]

God is faithful. We can trust God's Word; we can trust his promises. Everything God has spoken has come to pass, and faith is the expectation that God will keep his Word in the future too. As we observe the history of his action, we gain a confidence that God will right all wrongs [Rev 21:4], Christ will return [Matt 24:30], and anyone who believes in him will have eternal life [John 3:16].

Consider a non-religious analog. Everybody expects tomorrow...because of yesterday. Yet the future is not here that we can touch it, taste it or measure it in any way. But that does not mean that a belief in tomorrow is belief without evidence. Having faith in God is no more unreasonable than believing that tomorrow is coming.

We see everything that God has done: the covenants he's made, the prophesies that have come true, the incarnation of God himself. We see all that and trust the promises he makes about the future--about our tomorrow.

Christians are not called to turn off their brains. No, we get to use them with joyful hope that thinking actually has real meaning and an eternal impact. We use our brains knowing God will resurrect them and keep us in relationship with him forever.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Vicodin : Doctor Shopping :: Unrepenting Affirmation : ?

Russell Moore:
Law enforcement officials use the term “doctor shopping” to refer to the way those addicted to prescription pain medications seek to avert accountability...The truth is, there’s a certain type of personality that doesn’t want accountability, but affirmation...When the pastor tells him the opposite of what he wants to hear, he leaves and goes to find a pastor or counselor who will. And this goes on and on. 
This isn’t being shepherded. It’s the same old autonomy of the self. 
Sadly, there are too many ministers of the gospel out there willing to empower this sort of behavior. If you have a church member who has been warned or disciplined by another pastor or church, you have a responsibility to investigate what’s going on...Your affirmation of an unrepentant and fugitive-from-discipline church member isn’t an act of love or mercy. It’s an act of hatred. You are empowering the unrepentant to “bear the name brother” or sister (1 Cor. 5:11), to assuage a conscience that should be convicted by the Spirit. If so, you’d be better off just prescribing an addict another round of Percocet.
Read the whole thing:

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Pray as though Everything Depended on God

Pray as though everything depended on God, and act as if everything depended on you.
--Source Debatable1

This quote appears to be popular in the church today. Though every time I hear it, alarm bells ring in my head. Even very good, modern commentaries2 carry the phrase. Is it biblical? Is it gospel-centered?

There are two elements of the saying that all Christians should appreciate. First, nobody should have a problem with the first half, "Pray as though everything depended on God." That is the way Jesus taught us to pray. In Matthew 6:8, Jesus says that the Father already knows what we need before we ask, and in Matthew 6:25-34, we're told that God cares for us and will provide for our temporal needs. Indeed, everything does depend on God, and God is dependable. Second, Christians ought to work hard. Trust in God has never been a valid excuse for laziness. Paul addressed a problem in the Thessalonian church where some became idle as they anticipated Christ's return, but they became leeches on the rest. So the apostle said, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat" [2 Thess 3:10]. The whole context of 2 Thessalonians 3 is helpful to understand the perspective with which a hopeful Christian should work.

However, and this is a big however, "acting as if everything depended on you" goes against the grain of everything the gospel of Jesus teaches. It is the self-justifier who lives as if everything depends on him. He believes he is righteous before God because of everything he's done. By nature, man does not have a problem acting as if everything depends on him, but it is from this mindset that we all must be saved!

Jesus has made it clear that the kingdom of God belongs to those who do not depend on themselves [Mark 10:14-15 vs Mark 10:17-31]. We cannot bring anything to God and earn eternal life. Physician Jesus did not come for those who think they are well, but for those who know they are sick and need to be healed [Mark 2:17]. God does not justify the self-righteous, but sinners who confess their need for mercy [Luke 18:9-14]. The gospel of Jesus Christ is that all who have faith in him and his work--in his substitutionary, sacrificial work on the cross--and cry out to him as Lord and Savior will be saved [Rom 10:9-10]. The gospel of Jesus Christ is that God is the one who saves us through his Son; we cannot and do not save ourselves.

In light of the gospel, I propose a change to the saying. The new one should read:
Pray as though everything depended on God, and act as if everything depended on God.
The key verse to understanding the partnership of God and man in labor is Philippians 2:12-13, "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." The Holy Spirit lives in the temple of the believer's heart after they are justified by faith [1 Cor 3:16], and it his God himself who works within his elect to accomplish his will according to his good pleasure. Given this truth, the believer works, in an outward fashion, what God has already done inside him. Yes, we labor, but not outside the strength, will or work of God.

So if we are to work hard under either perspective, then, what's the difference? Primarily it's one of faith. We not only want to seem as though we live by faith, but we want to actually live by faith--knowing and trusting that God is sovereign over all actions--even our own. The original saying, "act as if everything depended on you" communicates a distrust of God's ability to accomplish his will. But we need to act "as if" God really is sovereign. As mere mortals, we never know how God might use us to accomplish his will, and ultimately we are but a single thread in the great tapestry of his purposes. Another important difference in perspective is within the area of humility. If we believe that our accomplishments are "as if" our own, then the temptation toward pride in success (and depression in apparent failure) will engulf us. But there is no room for boasting in anything we've done.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord" [1 Cor 1:26-31].
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ [Col 3:23-24].
Pray as though everything depended on God, and act as though everything depended on God.

Update 8/7/13: Here is a great answer from Pastor John about a related subject.

1It is often attributed to Augustine of Hippo, but an electronic search through his writings does not reveal it, and other researchers have not been able to point to a particular source. Some attribute it to Ignatius, but his quote boils down to something subtly different, "Pray as if everything depended on you, and act as if everything depended on God." It is probably a conjunction and corruption of two ancient ideas dressed up to appear as if it has biblical origins.

2Within my own library, I discovered that the following commentaries used the phrase: NIV Application Commentary (2 Samuel 10), Bible Exposition Commentary (Acts 3 & 4), and even an old commentary called the Pulpit Commentary (Mark 1 & Romans 12).

Much to my chagrin, I found that Spurgeon used this saying in one of his sermons. "If I am a worker, I must look to God for the result, but then I must also use all the means. In fact, the Christian should work as if all depended upon him, and pray as if it all depended upon God. He should be always nothing in his own estimation; yet he should be one of those gloriously active nothings of which God makes great use, for he treats the things that are not as though they were, and gets glory out of them." [Spurgeon, C. H. (1998). Spurgeon’s Sermons: Volume 17 (electronic ed.). Albany, OR: Ages Software.]

Monday, October 1, 2012

Heart Wound

Now it pleased God to send Mr. Whitefield into this land; and my hearing of his preaching at Philadelphia, like one of the Old apostles, and many thousands flocking to hear him preach the Gospel, and great numbers were converted to Christ.

When I saw Mr. Whitefield come upon the Scaffold he looked almost angelical, a young, slim slender youth before some thousands of people with a bold undaunted countenance, and my hearing how God was with him every where as he came along it solumnized my mind, and put me into a trembling fear before he began to preach; for he looked as if he was Cloathed with authority from the Great God, and a sweet solemn solemnity sat upon his brow. And my hearing him preach gave me a heart wound; by God's blessing my old foundation was broken up, and I saw that my righteousness would not save me.
-Nathan Cole
Ezekiel 36:26

Ephesians 2:8-9

Friday, September 28, 2012

Head to Heart

Without investing too much time in this issue, D.A. Carson makes a good argument in his book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God that God's love is not impassible. That type of theology sprang up in reaction to those portraying God as a sentimental, sappy chap, but impassibility came with the sacrifice of emptying the word love of any real meaning. Under this system, God's love becomes definition without relation.

Unfortunately for the church, there seem to be some Christians who believe their responsibility is to model an impassible love. To become like God is to fill the mind with the things of God and emulate his character (as corrupt a view as one may have). And there are definitely those at the opposite end, who treat the things of God flippantly and thrive only on experiential emotion. It is possible to err on the side of all heart and no head (emotional experience without sound doctrine), but maturing does not mean erring on the other side (dry intellectualism with cold stoicism).

Carson ends his book with pastoral implication to studying the love of God. Christians can imbibe more and more theology and have rock solid doctrine, but if it comes without real love, then all that knowledge is as a noisy gong or clanging symbol. Though every Christian is a Professor (and confessor), no one is to live strictly in the ivory tower of academic Christianity. We are to walk Main Street with our brothers and sisters in Christ, in relationship, mirroring the radiantly warm love of God to one another while seeking the higher things of God together.

Carson explains supremely better, so this shall end with his wise shepherding:
The love of God is not merely to be analyzed, understood, and adopted into holistic categories of integrated theological thought. It is to be received, to be absorbed, to be felt. Meditate long and frequently on Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14–21. The relevant section finds the apostle praying for the believers in these terms: “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Paul connects such Christian experience of the love of God with Christian maturity, with being “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (3:19), as he puts it. It is far from clear that anyone can be a mature Christian who does not walk in this path.
Carson, D. A. (2000). The difficult doctrine of the love of God (68–69). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Hate the sin, but ...

How, then, should the love of God and the wrath of God be understood to relate to each other? One evangelical cliché has it that God hates the sin but loves the sinner. There is a small element of truth in these words: God has nothing but hate for the sin, but it would be wrong to conclude that God has nothing but hate for the sinner. A difference must be maintained between God’s view of sin and his view of the sinner. Nevertheless the cliché (God hates the sin but loves the sinner) is false on the face of it and should be abandoned. Fourteen times in the first fifty psalms alone, we are told that God hates the sinner, his wrath is on the liar, and so forth. In the Bible, the wrath of God rests both on the sin (Rom. 1:18ff.) and on the sinner (John 3:36).
Our problem, in part, is that in human experience wrath and love normally abide in mutually exclusive compartments. Love drives wrath out, or wrath drives love out. We come closest to bringing them together, perhaps, in our responses to a wayward act by one of our children, but normally we do not think that a wrathful person is loving.
But this is not the way it is with God. God’s wrath is not an implacable, blind rage. However emotional it may be, it is an entirely reasonable and willed response to offenses against his holiness. But his love, as we saw in the last chapter, wells up amidst his perfections and is not generated by the loveliness of the loved. Thus there is nothing intrinsically impossible about wrath and love being directed toward the same individual or people at the same time. God in his perfections must be wrathful against his rebel image-bearers, for they have offended him; God in his perfections must be loving toward his rebel image-bearers, for he is that kind of God.

Carson, D. A. (2000). The difficult doctrine of the love of God (68–69). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Love: A Difficult Doctrine

D.A. Carson is a genius. Every Christian should read his booked called The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. So should every non-Christian [then email me to discuss]. It's available for free from The Gospel Coalition.

Here is a short compilation of snippets on trying to explain or understand God's love within our culture:

We live in a culture in which many other and complementary truths about God are widely disbelieved. I do not think that what the Bible says about the love of God can long survive at the forefront of our thinking if it is abstracted from the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, the providence of God, or the personhood of God—to mention only a few nonnegotiable elements of basic Christianity. The result, of course, is that the love of God in our culture has been purged of anything the culture finds uncomfortable. The love of God has been sanitized, democratized, and above all sentimentalized. Nowadays if you tell people that God loves them, they are unlikely to be surprised. Of course God loves me; he’s like that, isn’t he? Besides, why shouldn’t he love me? I’m kind of cute, or at least as nice as the next person. I’m okay, you’re okay, and God loves you and me. Some elements of the larger and still developing patterns of postmodernism play into the problem with which we are dealing. Because of remarkable shifts in the West’s epistemology, more and more people believe that the only heresy left is the view that there is such a thing as heresy. They hold that all religions are fundamentally the same and that, therefore, it is not only rude but profoundly ignorant and old-fashioned to try to win someone to your beliefs since implicitly that is announcing that theirs are inferior. In short, the most energetic cultural tide, postmodernism, powerfully reinforces the most sentimental, syncretistic, and often pluralistic views of the love of God, with no other authority base than the postmodern epistemology itself. But that makes the articulation of a biblical doctrine of God and of a biblical doctrine of the love of God an extraordinarily difficult challenge.

Carson, D. A. (2000). The difficult doctrine of the love of God (11-14). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Deuteronomy 29:29 Revealed

"The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." [Deuteronomy 29:29]

Case closed.

This is the verse pastors use when they can't adequately explain a doctrine. The Trinity? Deuteronomy 29:29. Evil? Deuteronomy 29:29. God's Sovereignty...and man's free will? Deuteronomy 29:29.

Ultimately, we don't know all the dimensions and full transcendence of God, and we all have corrupted perspectives of our Lord to varying degrees. D.A. Carson explains how we all function with holes in our theology:
"[The Bible] is rather more like a jigsaw puzzle whose Maker has guaranteed that all the pieces he has provided belong to the same puzzle, even though for various good reasons he has not given us all of them. “The secret things belong to the Lord,” Moses tells us, “but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29). That means that we will always have gaps as we construct the puzzle; it means that clumsy players will try to force some pieces into slots where they do not belong and may be tempted to leave some pieces out because they cannot see where they fit in."
Carson, D. A. (1992). A Call to Spiritual Reformation (206). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

This is all true, and God is truly an infinite, awesome God. Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgment and how inscrutable his ways! [Rom 11:33]

Yet, practically everyone seems to use this verse in a negative sense. We cannot know everything, but we need not throw our hands up in theological despair. God has revealed himself through a variety of mediums. We can know him, and what Moses is fundamentally communicating in Deuteronomy is that God has revealed himself to us. There are facets of God's character and signposts of his plan that guide us. God has made his goodness to pass before us and has proclaimed to us his name, the LORD [Ex 33:19]. The following is not an exhaustive list, for if all of God's works were to be written, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (though we try).

First, God has revealed himself through his creation:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. [Rom 1:19-20]
Second, continuing with Paul's theme in Romans, we see that God has revealed himself through conscience:
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. [Rom 2:14-16]
Third, God has revealed himself through his Scriptures. Through his prophets and apostles, God has taught his people his Law, his will, his covenants and his redemptive narrative:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. [2 Tim 3:16]
Fourth, finally, and most importantly, God has revealed himself through his Son. Here is a thing revealed, a glorious treasure, worthy of white-glove treatment. For now, though, bask in the beam of radiant revelation:
In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. [Heb 1:2]
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. [John 14:8-11]
God can be known. We can know him not by our crafty devices or surpassing wisdom, but because God graciously gave us his Word. Deuteronomy shows us that God revealed to us eternal truth that we might follow him. It is not too hard for us, neither is it far off. "But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it" [Deut 30:14, Acts 17:27]. It is a hard thing to know God; it takes sanctified effort. But it is not too hard, and God has given to us many, many pieces of the proverbial jigsaw puzzle. As we stand back and gaze at the panorama, we see Christ and him crucified, we see the image of the invisible God, and it leads to a life of doxology.

But from there you will seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. [Deut 4:29] Seek, and you will find.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Psalm 110: A Very Brief Primer

Given the amount of confusion that typically surrounds Psalm 110, it's good to understand what David is saying and why it was so scandalous for Jesus and his disciples to quote it in the New Testament.

Whose Son Is the Christ?
            Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,
            “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
            “Sit at my right hand,
                        until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
            If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
[Matthew 22:41-46 ESV]

In the culture of first century Palestine, there was no question that a son of David would be the Messiah. Where the Pharisees and even the disciples were mistaken, however, was what it meant to be the Messiah. Even though they had all of the Scriptures and theology to indicate that the Messiah would be God himself, the Jews of that day were focused on a military and political king who would (re-)establish Israel’s sovereignty.

Psalm 110 does not mention that the Messiah is David’s son. But Jesus uses that Psalm to confound the Pharisees within their framework. The Pharisees would also recognize Psalm 110 as a Messianic Psalm. So if not from Psalm 110, how did they come to understand that the Messiah was David’s Son?

[Ps. 2:1–12; Ps. 89:1–52; Isa. 9:1–7; Jer. 23:5–6; Ezek. 34:23–24; 2 Sam. 7:12–14; Isa. 11:1, 10]

As a 3rd party observer, what is David saying in Psalm 110:1?

Yahweh said to my [David’s] Adonai [the Messiah], “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”

Up to that point in time, it was never viewed that a son was greater than his father. You can even hear it in the biblical narrative (“Are you greater than our father so and so, who did such and such?”… John 4:12, John 8:53). They asked the question rhetorically, because they thought the answer was an obvious, “No.”

What does this all mean when you put it together? The Jews and Pharisees should have fully understood whom the Messiah was when they pieced together their Scriptures and worked to reconcile passages that did not inherently make sense. They were secure in the thought:

The Messiah is David’s son, therefore he is under, or inferior to David.

But they refused to acknowledge or see:

The Messiah is David’s Lord, therefore he is over or greater than David in some way.

Who can fulfill this apparent paradox? The only way David’s Son can be greater than David—and actually be David’s Lord—is if he is God himself. A full understanding of who the person of Jesus is reconciles and fulfills all Messianic Scripture in the Law and the Prophets.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

David and Absalom: 2 Samuel 15 & Psalm 3

The ways God uses M'Cheyne in my life every year continue to amaze me. From the use of a Sunday M'Cheyne passage in that day's worship service to a preparatory reading of Psalm 2 before Men's Bible Study the morning of the meeting, there have been countless providential circumstances through the years.

In my dense, hard-hearted blindness, I have never before noticed that the M'Cheyne plan lines up 2 Samuel 15 and Psalm 3 on this day.

In 2 Samuel 15, we read of Absalom's conspiracy--the consequence of a series of terrible decisions by David [read more]. So David and his men flee Jerusalem and ascend the Mount of Olives in tears, barefoot, with their heads covered--the sign of mourning.

What does David do in his day of distress? He writes a song. Psalm 3 is heartbreakingly titled "A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son."

But before I print Psalm 3 for reading here, consider great David's greater Son, who went to the Mount of Olives after singing a hymn with his disciples. Rather than cry out in response to oppression and persecution, he anticipates his foes rising against him and prays, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will" [Matt 26:39]. Praise God he endured the cup for our sake, but also that the Father saw fit to answer his Son, wake him again and sustain him for eternity! Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people!

[Save Me, O My God]
[3:1] O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
[2] many are saying of my soul,
there is no salvation for him in God. Selah
[3] But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
[4] I cried aloud to the LORD,
and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
[5] I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
[6] I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.
[7] Arise, O LORD!
Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
[8] Salvation belongs to the LORD;
your blessing be on your people! Selah

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Examine Yourselves

So says Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:5. And if you are in the faith, does your life bear the fruit of the Spirit and the marks of the cross? How do you relate to others in church? Does your life reflect the unity Paul writes about in Ephesians 4?

I have been struck by the discord in the American church--even within the small, warm church I attend. I know I contribute to it. May I be forgiven for my sin, and may we all evaluate our hearts and love toward one another.

Many excellent blog posts have been written regarding these things, and they are well worth the read. Does any of this sound like a struggle in your life?

What Do Pharisees Do?

What Is Real?

The Scoffer

How to Rescue Your Church in Three Weeks

You and Your Pastor