The day God waged war

I’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with Christmas, or at least a lot of the trappings surrounding it. The struggle to create a “perfect” Christmas, the whole Christmas-karma nonsense… But one of the things I desperately struggle with is our lack of understanding of what Christmas is really all about.

Christmas—the incarnation—is a declaration of war.

And yet, more often than not, we shy away from this understanding, don’t we? We joyfully embrace what happened that day and all the details of the story:

The Son born of a virgin, the shepherds attending Him, the angels singing, all of it.

But we forget to talk about why. Why did Jesus come to be Emmanuel—”God with us”? Why was it necessary for Him to come at all?

God With Us to Wage War on Sin

Of course, we know the answer. We know why Jesus came. The baby didn’t stay a baby; He became a man who would die in our place, perfectly satisfying the wages of sin. We know the Easter story… and yet we don’t seem to connect the it to our Christmas celebrations.

We need to connect the dots. We need to remember, as some have said, that Jesus was born in the shadow of the cross. To see, as Simeon did, who this baby truly was and rejoice as he did:

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)

Simeon doesn’t rejoice simply because he’s seen the baby Jesus—he rejoices because he’s seen God’s salvation. He’s held Him in his hands. That’s pretty incredible, isn’t it?

Can you imagine what our Christmas celebrations would look like if we had that same sense of awe?

Remembering Christmas as More than Jesus’ Birthday

This year, remember Christmas not just as “Jesus’ birthday” as some of us tell our kids, but as the day God waged war on sin and death. For when we do, it changes the celebration. It doesn’t remove the joy or the excitement. It doesn’t turn what should be thrilling into a funeral procession. If anything, remembering this only deepens our excitement.

For Christmas is the day God waged war—and it’s a war He wins.

My favorite books of 2021

It’s reading recap season once again—which means it is time to share my favorite books of 2021. Check out the list and discover one to add to your 2022 reading pile.

Speaking the Truth in Love, Division, & Contending for the Faith

Speaking the truth in love is not easy, especially when we’re on the “wrong side of history” as Christians. Access to abortion, support for same-sex marriage, and transgender ideology all create dividing points between Christians and non-Christians (and sometimes from one another too). Some lament these issues, saying they’re tired of the culture wars. Others have reminded us that there are good reasons that believers ought to continue to oppose gay marriage as a perennial example.

Younger Christians (and non-Christians) struggle to understand the uproar from their conservative forebearers. But just because homosexuality seems “normal” to the 30 and under crowd, it doesn’t mean that our response ought to be to throw their hands up in the air and sigh, “Can’t we all just get along?”

As Christians, we have an obligation to, as Jude calls it, “contend the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). That’s what speaking the truth in love is all about. So whether it’s a matter like gay marriage, the prosperity “gospel”, or the perpetual Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate, to name but a few examples, we need to remember a few important truths that ought to guide our behavior as we contend for the faith:

1. Doctrine is intended to divide

There is a sense in which doctrine does divide. It can’t not by its very nature. Jesus himself—the Word of God made flesh—was and is the most divisive person to ever live. The people of his day were divided over his identity. They either didn’t know or refused to recognize him as the promised Messiah. Indeed, he himself said of his divisive nature, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division,” (Luke 12:51) and, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Because Jesus caused division and because he was uncompromising in his exclusivity as “the truth,” doctrine that aligns with Jesus will cause division. This necessarily means that we will be at odds with others—friends, relatives, perhaps even other believers.

2. Contending does not mean being contentious

Christians are never to be a quarrelsome people with “an unhealthy craving for controversy” (1 Tim. 6:4; 2 Tim. 2:24). Instead, we are “to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:1-2). The one who is contentious is looking for a fight; he loves controversy and debate. He builds men of straw simply to tear them down. But this person is one “who stirs up division . . . is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned,” wrote Paul. We are to have nothing to do with him—which also means that we must not be like him (Titus 3:10-11).

3. Don’t make doctrine more (or less) important than people

We are to speak the truth in love, not the truth or love. The Ephesian church deeply loved the truth of the gospel and that love overflowed toward “all the saints,” giving the apostle Paul cause to rejoice (Eph. 1:15). Yet, as we read in Revelation 2:2-5, it seems that, despite their rock-solid doctrine and their wealth of love for one another, their hearts had become cold to the things that had once burned so warm within them. Sam Storms writes:

What we see in the church at Ephesus, therefore, was how their desire for orthodoxy and the exclusion of error had created a climate of suspicion and mistrust in which brotherly love could no longer flourish. Their eager pursuit of truth had to some degree soured their affections one for another. It’s one thing not to “bear with those who are evil” (Rev. 2:2), but it’s another thing altogether when that intolerance carries over to your relationship with other Christ-loving Christians!

Being Christ-loving Christians

We must not forget that there are people involved in every debate, both “those who are evil” and those who are, as Storms puts it, “Christ-loving Christians.” We must remember contending is an act of mercy on those who doubt and those who have been deceived. It’s much easier to view those with whom we disagree as being demons when they’ve more likely just been duped. But in doing so, we do them a great disservice and dishonor Christ in the process. There is a tension in contending that requires us to uphold both people and doctrine. We cannot contend without compassion anymore than we can contend without a love for the truth. “Doctrinal precision is absolutely necessary. But it isn’t enough. May God grant us grace to love others with no less fervor than we love the truth.”

I realize that the fight is exhausting—but we dare not give in and we dare not sit on the sidelines.

If we truly love Jesus and if we truly care about the well being of the Church then we must contend. Caring for one another means speaking the truth in love. “People’s eternal fate is at stake,” writes Robert Gundry. “With might and main [we] are to join in the fight.”

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The 3 Ingredients of Gospel Culture

Every week, without fail my community group begins the same way, with a reminder of our purpose—our pursuit of what we call a gospel culture. Here’s here’s what we say:

Because of the gospel, this is a safe place. What is said here stays here. No one has anything to fear because if God is for us, who can be against us?
Through the gospel, we are a family and you belong here. If one suffers, all suffer together; if one is honored, all rejoice together.
To further the gospel, we are on mission together. We take responsibility to love our neighbors and declare the good news of Jesus together.
This is a safe gospel family on mission together.

This relatively simple statement captures everything we’re trying to be as a group, and as a church—a culture and a community shaped by the gospel.

Community of Clichés

Many of us have heard (or shared) messages on the importance of community. When we believe the gospel, we are often told that we are not only saved from our sin, but saved into a community. And this is true. It’s been said so often in so many different ways that I can practically hear your eyes roll as you read it in this article. We say it so often that it’s become a cliché, much like the other (often biblical) ways we describe community within the church.

But here’s the rub: we can say this all day long, but not really believe it. Too harsh? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Think about it. Our actions, largely, are the evidence of what we believe—they validate or discredit what we think is true about ourselves and our churches.

  • When we say, for example, that our church is united as one body, but we allow politics and preferences to divide us, what do we really believe?
  • We might say we want everyone to be known, but if people can attend for years essentially anonymously, do we really believe it?
  • We may say we want to be a safe place for everyone to be authentic or real or whatever people are saying now, but if we only ever talk about “safe” struggles, then do we care about authenticity?

The Key Ingredients of Gospel Culture

So what about what my community group says every single week? Isn’t the idea of a “gospel family” just another cliché? It could be. And maybe to some people it is. After all, using gospel as a qualifier to any kind of ministry or mindset (gospel-centered, gospel-driven, gospel-shaped, etc) has itself turned into something of a cliché. It’s a buzzword, meant to signal… something. But we’re not always sure what.

But when a church latches onto this idea—and I really mean the whole church, not just one or two people within it—that what we believe about the gospel leads to culture shaped by the gospel, there is nothing else like it in the world. So what does it take to actually do this? Three things: Gospel + safety + time.

Gospel: the First Ingredient

It is impossible to have a gospel culture without the gospel itself. This doesn’t mean that we tack the gospel onto every conversation, in a hamfisted way, as though we were making some kind of evangelistic appeal at the end of a discussion about whether or not chorizo makes queso better (it does, just for the record). What it does mean is that when we have difficult conversations, we do so in light of the gospel, reminding one another of the hope we have in Jesus. It means that we encourage one another in light of the gospel, celebrating how we see God at work in each other. In other words, when one of us is honored, we all rejoice together; when one suffers, we all suffer together (1 Cor. 12:26).

Safety: the Second Ingredient

Genuine community requires safety: safety to be vulnerable, to let our guard down and not come to church or community group with our “Sunday faces” on. To be able to tell the truth when someone asks how we are. This means that we need to see one another not as problems to solve, but people to know. We need to have the freedom to be vulnerable, to not come to church or community group with our “Sunday faces” on, but to be able to say, “actually, today has been pretty rough.” Gospel culture means we are safe from fear and judgment. After all, “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:8). We have no punishment to fear. Because of Jesus, God is for us. And if God is for us, who can be against us?

Time: the Third Ingredient

Gospel culture—a culture where people feel genuinely safe and loved in and through the gospel—takes time. This means there is no hurry when it comes to people. People in our communities are not problems to solve, but brothers and sisters to love. So we let people experience the culture, to be saturated in the gospel, praying and trusting that the Holy Spirit will work in them according to His timeline, not our own.

A First Step into Gospel Culture

When I first joined my church, I didn’t know how much I needed this kind of community. I’m generally pretty cautious about getting too close to people; people have rarely felt safe to me, even those who have genuinely tried to be kind to me. And so for a long time—and I mean a couple of years—I kept my guard up. I watched as others opened up; I celebrated as they did (and rightly so). And then, one day, I let my guard down a bit. Years of not only hearing the message that we are a gospel family, but seeing it week in and week out, helped me to take a step.

So I did.

And do you know what happened?

My group—my friends—didn’t judge me. They rejoiced, not because I had done a good thing by opening up, but because they saw this as God at work (and they were right).

That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the result of three things: gospel + safety + time. This is the kind of culture we all need; a life-giving culture that strengthens the weary, and allows the “strong” to be weak. Where strangers, because of the gospel, can truly become family.