Three men who taught me to love theology

An open Bible being read

One of the first Christian books I read as a new believer was GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I’m still not entirely certain what motivated me to pick this book up—I could have chosen any number of other titles—but this was the one. I devoured it, leaving nary a page unmarked. My mind was on fire as I read each sentence. I didn’t understand most of what I read (Chesterton tends to not make it easy for his readers), but I didn’t care. Whatever else you could say about what he wrote, he was excited. Passionate. He believed what he wrote, and I wanted more.

A friend told me I needed to read this book, that it would change my life. Knowing God by J.I. Packer. It took me months to read, each page a rich meal. The words of a man who knew much about God and also knew God intimately. Who wanted his readers to know that “the width of our knowledge about [God] is no gauge of the depth of our knowledge of Him.”

Mere Christianity was in my hands, a book I didn’t know existed. CS Lewis, in my mind, was the author of a wonderful children’s book I read as an eight year old. But this was no fairytale. It was the work of a man whose delight was found in working his way “through a tough bit of theology.” A man captivated by big questions and even bigger ideas and a God simply too glorious for him to fully comprehend.

Chesterton, Packer, and Lewis. These men didn’t teach me what to think, necessarily. They didn’t teach me what I was supposed to believe. Instead, these are the men who are to blame for creating in me a hunger for something I never knew I wanted. A wonderful gift that has sustained me throughout some of the most difficult times of my adult life. A deep love of theology. One I am forever grateful for.

Seeking the One who satisfies


David wrote in Psalm 63, “You satisfy me as with rich food; my mouth will praise you with joyful lips. When I think of you as I lie on my bed, I meditate on you during the night watches because you are my helper; I will rejoice in the shadow of your wings” (5-7).

What I love about David’s words here is how he expressed his satisfaction in God. It’s a relationship of intense enjoyment. Think about that: He genuinely enjoys God, not in an abstract way, but in practice. He praises with joyful lips. He thinks of him late into the evening and as he goes to bed. David describes himself as one who literally can’t stop thinking about God!

Which is strange for so many of us, of course. After all, we so often want it to be the reverse—that God can’t stop thinking about us. (Which is an issue for another time.) But strange or not, it’s worth asking ourselves the question:

When was the last time we set aside time and just enjoyed God?

When did we last open the Bible, just to read it? To hear from God? Not hoping to find a verse that answers the prayer request we’ve had for the last six months, or (depending on your convictions) seeking a special word just for you. When did we read just to learn more about him, and to enjoy his presence in that respect?

This is one of the great themes of the Bible, especially in the psalms. Throughout, the Bible is described sweeter than honey, enlightening, pure, clean, good, righteous, and more desirable than gold.

Whenever a psalmist—whether David or another—writes about God’s Word, there is an unabashed delight in the tone. They’re the words of people satisfied by God—satisfied with the One who is their helper. This is one of the many things I love about the psalms. it’s one of the many things I love about the Bible. In it, we meet the One who matters more than anything. Let’s never stop seeking him, the only One who truly satisfies.

“Just because” and the love of God


As I read through the Old Testament, I keep thinking back to a big question. I keep wondering why did God keep pursuing these people the way he did? Why did God continually pursue those who rebelled against him? Why did he keep sending prophets to warn them, and not just let the consequences of their actions (and their worship) catch them unawares?

For that matter, why does he still do that with us today? Why would he pursue a guy like me, who spent years openly mocking him, and only bought a Bible in order to make fun of a friend for believing nonsense?

Why does he love people like me—why does he pursue people like me who clearly haven’t done anything to deserve his affection?

And the answer is, as cheeky, as it sounds, “just because”. He does it because it pleases him to do so. He does it because it brings him glory. Because in doing so, those around us can be amazed by him and give thanks to him. That those who continue to run away might actually find themselves drawn to him.

He pursues us because he wants to. He saves us because of his mercy. He does it all because he is good, no matter how bad we are.

Maybe that’s hard to remember. Maybe it’s hard to believe at all. But it’s true. He doesn’t accept me because of what I’ve done. He accepts me because of what Jesus has done for me. But why did Jesus do this for me?

“Just because.” There really is no better news than that for us. As hard as it is for us to hear, and as difficult as it is for us to believe, the “just because”-ness of the love of God is what we need.

The great news of God as our Father

An open Bible being read

I think it’s safe to say some men will be looking to take this Sunday off of church. I mean, it’s not like it’s a happy day for many of us. Father’s Day usually brings a message of condemnation, if it’s not ignored. I am thankful that at my church, we tend to treat Mother’s and Father’s Day with the same level of respect. We wish each well, and that’s about it, which often is the best approach.

But as we came up to Father’s Day this year, I started to think about the good news that fatherhood brings. I mean, I have a great deal to be thankful for. My son always wants to play with me. My girls love to go on dates. All my kids are always eager for hugs and often make me risk being late because they want so many. I’m sure there are many dads who could say the same.

Good news about the best Father

But there’s something better still. There’s the good news—the great news—we find when we think about God as our Father. And I don’t mean this in the general way people try to say we’re all God’s children. In all honesty, I don’t think that point of view does justice to God’s character. No, the good news is much better. It’s not a generality—it’s a specific truth. If we are in Christ, we part of God’s family.

I love how Charles Spurgeon shared this good news in a sermon he preached 1858. He said,

I have never been able to see that creation necessarily implies fatherhood. I believe God has made many things that are not his children. Hath he not made the heavens and the earth, the sea and the fullness thereof? and are they his children? You say these are not rational and intelligent beings; but he made the angels, who stand in an eminently high and holy position, are they his children?

“Unto which of the angels said he at any time, thou art my son?” I do not find, as a rule, that angels are called the children of God; and I must demur to the idea that mere creation brings God necessarily into the relationship of a Father. Doth not the potter make vessels of clay? But is the potter the father of the vase, or of the bottle?

No, beloved, it needs something beyond creation to constitute the relationship, and those who can say, “Our Father which art in heaven,” are something more than God’s creatures: they have been adopted into his family. He has taken them out of the old black family in which they were born; he has washed them. and cleansed them, and given them a new name and a new spirit, and made them “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ;” and all this of his own free, sovereign, unmerited, distinguishing grace.

Sons and daughters of a good Father

Do you get a sense of the good news here? We’re not just his creations, but his children. We are not just servants, but sons and daughters. We aren’t just stewards, but heirs—co-heirs with Christ! That’s what I’m talking about when I say God’s Fatherhood is great news!

For many of us, our experiences with our earthly fathers make it difficult to consistently see the good news here. Maybe you’re in that position, If so, I hope you don’t find this insensitive. And at the same time, I hope you will see this good news as it really is.

The Creator of the universe calls us his own. He adopts us as “sons”—we are his children. When God calls himself our Father, he really means it! He will never leave us or forsake us. He will never disappoint us. He will always deliver on what he promises (even if it’s not always what we think we want). So, how can we do anything but celebrate?

Grace can’t be earned, only given

Heart on a log

It’s rare for me to feel anything but excited when I see people being baptized. Every time they happen at our church, I think back to my own baptism and being able to publicly declare myself to be in Christ. To participate in one of the two most ancient customs of our faith and celebrate the grace of God. I say “rare” because there has been one time when I felt something other than joy.

Once, I actually felt grief as I watched.

A number of years ago, I listened as a young woman shared her story before being baptized. She told the congregation how God had been at work in her life (it’s been a long time and the details aren’t necessary) and we all gave thanks to God. And then she said something funny as she concluded, she said, “…and now I want to pay God back by doing something for him.”

Now, I know a lot of people would find this pretty minor, not something that should cause grief (or a blog post to be written). But it’s funny: I don’t remember hardly anything else about that day, but I do remember this. And I remember feeling uneasy as soon as those words left her mouth, not because I had questions about this young person’s profession of faith (I wasn’t in close enough relationship to say one way or another), but because of the burden she had placed upon herself.

I felt uneasy because, unwittingly, this young woman had set herself up to fail.

Somewhere along the way, she’d picked up the notion that she needed to pay God back for his gracious work in her life, as though that were possible. She’s not alone in this, of course. There are many people who act as though their deeds can cancel out their debt to God, or that they can earn his favor—even among those who profess to be Christians! Grace cannot be earned, only given. Grace is scandalous, after all.

But this idea of “paying God back” or otherwise earning approval should never be given credence by God’s people—it only leads to disaster. Justin Holcomb describes this well in On the Grace of God when he writes:

There is a damaging idea floating around that says, “God saved you, now what are you going to do for him?” This is a recipe for failure. If you come to the table believing you can do anything for God in your own strength or repay him on any level, you have already lost. You are back to confessing your self-dependent spiritual death from which Jesus saved you.

You and I have no power to pay God back for anything—we “go and sin no more” (John 8:11) by his grace alone, not by our own strength. The works we do are works of grace, not for the satisfaction of a debt. When we lean on anything but the grace of God, when we try to pay God back in some way, we set ourselves up for certain disaster.

An earlier version of this post was first published in June, 2013. 

We really should think of God as Father


The other day, I was asked about what faith in Christ has really given me—specifically in terms of a sense of fulfillment, or completeness. What has believing in Jesus changed in me. I thought about this for a moment, and gave my answer: God.

As a non-Christian, I didn’t really recognize any sort of need or emptiness that I might have had, spiritually speaking. I was probably too hardhearted for that. But after coming to Christ, I came to realize how much I had to be thankful for. And not just that I was being saved from judgment and hell, but what I was being saved into—a family. Christ’s family. A family I could not be a part of on my own. And I get to call God my Father. I get to spend eternity with him. And that is a wonderful, glorious gift.

This is something that I have on occasion taken for granted. But I shouldn’t. My adoption into the family of Christ, to be able to call God my Father, was incredibly costly. It is a “sonship” that comes not by my merit or my birthright. It is a gift—a “sonship”, an adoption that comes by promise. I love how Charles Spurgeon explained it in a sermon on Galatians 4:6:

We have a sonship which does not come to us by nature, for we are “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Our sonship comes by promise, by the operation of God as a special gift to a peculiar seed, set apart unto the Lord by his own sovereign grace, as Isaac was. This honour and privilege come to us, according to the connection of our text, by faith. Note well the twenty-sixth verse of the preceding chapter (Gal. 3:26): “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.”

As unbelievers we know nothing of adoption. While we are under the law as self-righteous we know something of servitude, but we know nothing of sonship. It is only after that faith has come that we cease to be under the schoolmaster, and rise out of our minority to take the privileges of the sons of God.[1. Adapted from “Adoption—The Spirit and the Cry,” as published in The Sermons of Charles Spurgeon: Sermons 1-200 (Vol 1 of 4)]

As believers, we have been all made sons and daughters of God. And our Father is a good father—the best father. But there’s something in a great many of us that gets nervous about calling him our Father. But we can’t do that. He is our Lord, yes, and should be addressed as such. He is our God, yes, and should be addressed as such. But he is also our Father. Because of Christ, we are his children, and with us, he is well pleased as we become more like Jesus. And he delights in us addressing him as such. So do not hesitate to do it.

Take every opportunity to know him more


Growing up, I didn’t really think about whether or not there was a God. Matters of faith weren’t really an issue for me, mostly because I didn’t care. Generally I figured, like so many North Americans, that if there were a God like the one I thought Christians worshipped, he was a jerk who wanted to steal all my fun. I didn’t really know though. And I didn’t know if I could even know.

Like so many, I had bought into the spiritual wisdom of the world—that God (if he exists at all) is unknowable. Despite the protest of those who would say otherwise, you can’t really know him. You can’t know what he’s like, what he cares about or what he expects from us.

And because you can’t know, you don’t really have to worry.

But, again, like so many, I didn’t have an important category: that of revelation. I mean, what if this God who I couldn’t be sure existed, did something wild like told us about himself? And what if we could know about his character and his plans for the world? Wouldn’t that be something?

The good news, of course, is he has done exactly this. And he has done it in the Bible—the 66 books that make up the Old and New Testaments. In this book, we have an actual knowledge of God—and essential to that knowledge is knowing him as Father. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote:

What the Bible, and especially the New Testament, offers us is an actual knowledge of God. We are to know him as our Father. “No man,” says Christ, “cometh unto the Father, but by me.” So I can know God, not as someone who is far away in the distance, of whom I am frightened, a tyrannical someone who is set against me, but I can turn to him and trust him as my Father. “Ye have received the Spirit of adoption,” says the apostle Paul, “whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15). In other words, we realize that God loves us with an everlasting love, that he is so concerned about us that the very hairs of our head are all numbered, and that nothing can happen to us apart from God and outside his will.[1. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Let Your Hearts Not Be Troubled]

This is such good news for us. God wants us to know him. He wants us to know him, in Christ, as our loving heavenly Father… And yet, it’s so easy to forget this, isn’t it? It’s so easy to revert to some other idea about God than what he says about himself.

I was reminded of this when I was trying to comfort my oldest daughter after work recently. Emily texted and let me know that Abigail was distraught because she was sure I was going to be mad that her bicycle’s inner tubes needed to be replaced. She remembered that I had cautioned her against riding her bike with flat tires (as it would risk damaging the rims), but my caution grew in her mind to a fear that I would be angry. She forgot who I am.

“Do I normally get mad about things like this?” I asked her.

“No,” she sniffled.

“That’s right. Although I’m not perfect, I try to be a reasonable person,” I said. “So you don’t need to be upset about this, and you don’t need to be afraid I’ll be angry. Even if you’d been riding on your bike with flat tires, I wouldn’t have been mad. Disappointed, maybe, but not angry.”

And then it started to click. Simply by acknowledging the fact that she knows I’m not someone who acts that way, she was able to see her feelings for what they were—real, but not based in reality.

And this is why we need to be reminded, again and again, of the character of God. This is why we need to continually fight the inclination to not read the Bible. Because even as we are prone to forget the character of our friends and family when fear takes control, we are even more prone to do this with God. We can so easily forget that he is our Father. That he, as Lloyd-Jones put it, “loves us with an everlasting love, that he is so concerned about us that the very hairs of our head are all numbered, and that nothing can happen to us apart from God and outside his will.”

That is the Father we have. That is the Father we can know—the Father who wants us to know him and really know him, through the everlasting love with which he loves us in Jesus Christ. So let’s take every opportunity to know him more.

Knowing our great and neglected God


It wasn’t that long ago when if you used the term “God,” nearly everyone would know you were referring to the God of the Bible (at least in the west). Today, “God” could mean almost anything—from the triune God of Christianity, to the god of any of several other religions, to a vague cosmic force, to the earth itself.

Over at the Cruciform Press blog, I’m talking about the danger of assuming we all agree about who God is in a post adapted from chapter two of my book Contend: Defending the Faith in a Fallen World. Here’s a preview addressing the immanence of God:

Consider that God has revealed himself to us, which means we can comprehend him, at least to some degree. God’s self-revelation brings him near and makes him personal. God is intimately involved in his creation, and particularly so by making mankind in his image. Not content to speak the first man and woman into being, God actually formed them with his hands (Genesis 2:7, 22).

Apparently there is a sense in which this direct formation continues, for the psalmist declares that God “formed my inward parts; [he] knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). It seems only fitting that a sovereign, loving God would play a “hands-on” role in the formation of every creature specifically made in his image.

God’s moment-by-moment involvement with us does not end at birth, though. It continues throughout our lives. Jesus goes so far as to tell us that God “knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). Indeed, Jesus himself is the epitome of the immanence of God, humbling himself to take on flesh, becoming like us so that he might redeem us. This is not the description of a far-off, unknowable, uninterested divine being. It is instead a realistic, albeit partial glimpse of a deeply personal, involved God. God is immanent; he is near and knowable.

As I wrote in the post, and in the book, it is so dangerous to assume we all mean the same thing when we talk about God. If we get God wrong, nothing else about the Christian faith—or life—makes a lot of sense. I hope you’ll keep reading the article at CruciformPress.com. (And while you’re there, be sure to enter this week’s 20Twosdays giveaway where you can get a copy of Contend and Awaiting a Savior, as well as a $20 gift certificate for the Cruciform Press store!)

Honor authorities, but fear God


First Peter 2:13 starts with six words most of us probably really, really hate: “Be subject to every human institution.”

Admit it: you just bristled, didn’t you?

None of us particularly like authority. That is, in large part, because we are sinners prone to wanting to be our own authorities. But some of us also have a habit of being so concerned about our human authorities that we forget that they are also under God’s authority.

Yes, respect and obey the earthly authorities—whether parents, pastors, police or presidents—but don’t forget: they’re not the primary authority. God is.

The higher authority


In Luke 12:4, Jesus tells His disciples, “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.”

“Those who persecute you, those in authority over you,” he says, “the worst they can do is kill you. So don’t be afraid of them.”

Instead, fear God. Why? Because he can kill you and after that, he has the authority to cast you into hell.

So yes, we should obey the civil authorities, but we are to “fear” God over them. Simple, right?

Well, what happens when what the government orders comes into conflict with what God commands? Simple: We obey God first.

This is what the Bible continually shows us as the pattern of behavior for Christians. We are to honor the authorities over us, but not at the expense of our obedience to our Lord and Savior. Consider two brief examples.

Fearing God in the face of the fiery furnace

In Daniel 3, Nebuchadnezzar sets up a golden image of himself that all the citizens of Babylon are to worship. But he learns that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—three Jews brought into the royal house as servants—refused to worship.

He calls them to him and asks, “Is it true … that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound… and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Dan. 3:16-18)

Their answer? No. We must worship God alone. We believe that he will rescue us—and even if he doesn’t, we still cannot worship false gods.

Fearing God in the face of religious leaders

And in Acts 4, Peter and John are brought before the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews because they have been preaching Christ. And the council “charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.”

But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4-19-20).

The council ordered them to stop talking about Jesus. Their answer: We must speak of what we have seen and heard because it is from God—and we must obey him.

Respect authorities but fear God

A lot of Christians in North America are wringing their hands about what is to come. They’re afraid of losing their religious liberty. They’re afraid of it perhaps becoming illegal to meet publicly, unless we are willing to tone down our message. They are afraid of the possibility of persecution (though thankfully it has not come to that yet).

But should the day ever come when Christianity is outlawed, what will we do? We’ll still meet together. Why? Because God has commanded it. We’ll still preach the gospel. Why? Because the gospel demands it. We must fear God and obey him over any earthly authority.

But we’re not there yet. The gospel is increasingly offensive, it is true, but by and large we are free to do what we are called to without fear of reprisal. And we should be thankful because as long as their requirements do not conflict with God’s Word, we should have no issue obeying what the law demands of us.  We should have no issue showing them the respect their position demands.


But we need never fear them. Fear is reserved for God alone.


You’ve got to know God’s character


One of the things that’s always astounded me is how we don’t seem to really think deeply about God’s character. We might look at attributes such as God’s love–which is absolutely essential to our understanding of him—but if we do, we tend to elevate that to his essence. We don’t bother to get to the core of who God is.

But the thing about God is, he wants us to know his character and rejoice in it.

The chief attribute of God

Just think about Abraham for a moment. Abraham is one of the only men to be called a friend of God. He is the one to whom the great promise of an offspring who would be a blessing to all the nations was given. He was the one who miraculously was given a son when he and his wife were well beyond childbearing years. He knew God—he understood his character. And he wasn’t afraid to approach God on that basis. Consider Genesis 18:22-26:

So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

This is astounding isn’t it? Look at what he says in this bold appeal: “Far be that from you that the righteous be swept away along with the wicked,” he says. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

What is he basing this appeal on?

God’s character—he knew God was (and is) just. We know of his hatred of sin from Genesis 18:21, a sin so great that he came to personally judge it. Because he is a holy God, he would administer justice. He could do nothing else.

This is one of the attributes Abraham recognized—the attribute which is arguably the defining one of God. It is the one angels sing of (Isaiah 6:1-3), which prevents him from even looking at sin and not taking action (Habakkuk 1:13), of hating wickedness in all its forms (Psalm 5:5; 11:5).

But this same holiness also undergirds his compassion.

Holiness and compassion

That’s why Abraham could ask with complete integrity, “If there are fifty righteous people in the city, will you spare it?” And then again presume to ask about sparing the city for the sake of 45, 40, 30, 20 and 10. God in his compassion, his merciful loving kindness, would execute justice, but he would not destroy the righteous along with the wicked—and in fact, he was even willing to spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous!

That’s the sort of amazing God we serve—one who is generous as to extend mercy to the wicked for the sake of the righteous.

And that’s the gospel, isn’t it? For the sake of the true righteous one, Jesus Christ, wicked people such as you and me are spared what we are due and instead not only given pardon, but welcomed into God’s family. We are declared more than friends—we are children!

But that’s the thing about God: if we don’t do our best to grasp what we can of his character—understanding the natural limits we all face—we wind up with a lopsided view of him, one that doesn’t represent him at all. You and I, we have got to know God’s character as best as we are able. We have got to do our best to know and be thankful for every aspect of him, his overwhelming love and his perfect justness. His incomparable holiness and his unimaginable kindness.

We need it all. All the time. No matter what.