The gospel is everything

Imagine you’re getting ready for a big race. Say you’re competing in the Olympics. Where do you start? Typically on the starting blocks, which help hold your feet in place as yo push off to start running.

Now, many of us have been taught, whether implicitly or explicitly, to think of the gospel in this way. After all, if the Christian life can be thought of as a race (Phil. 2:16; Heb. 12:1), it makes sense to view the gospel as our starting point. After all, we can’t start the race without hearing and believing the gospel.

But here’s the danger this kind of thinking can create: it makes the gospel too small. It limits the gospel to simply being the starting point, but having no practical value for us after we believe. But the gospel is more than a starting point. In the race of faith, it’s not just the blocks our feet start off in, it’s the track we run on. And more than that—the gospel is shoes on our feet. It’s the air we breathe. It’s the oxygen being carried through our blood vessels. It’s the food that provides our muscles energy to run the race. The gospel is everything to the Christian life.

Good news for the weary

Sunrise

In our community group last night, our group leader shared this passage from Isaiah as an encouragement to all of us, especially those who are worn out:

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the whole earth.
He never becomes faint or weary;
there is no limit to his understanding.
He gives strength to the faint
and strengthens the powerless.
Youths may become faint and weary,
and young men stumble and fall,
but those who trust in the Lord
will renew their strength;
they will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not become weary,
they will walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

I’ve been chewing on this all night—throughout our meeting, on our drive home, and into the night as I prepared for my flight to Seattle this morning. Which means it inevitably led to more reading, specifically by turning to Ray Ortlund’s commentary on this book.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit out of sorts at the moment, in that although I am a pretty high capacity person—both personally and professionally—I definitely feel stretched in a way I haven’t before. And in that, there is a temptation to continually rely on my own strength, to act as though I have to do everything that I’m responsible for without any sort of help from the Lord. What I found this passage stirring within me was a realization of how I was working from the wrong starting point. That if I want to work under my own strength, I am doomed because it’s not going to be enough. It can never be enough. Instead, I need the Lord who strengthens the powerless, those who wait on him. Ortlund puts it better than I can though. He writes:

We’re all weak. But we don’t have to be supermen. God simply calls us to believe what we believe and to set our hearts on things above. If we will, that longing for God is the channel through which his power will lift us and renew us and cheer us all the way there.

This is good news, friends. This is what I need. This is what we all need. Lord, help us to believe.

The one story of the Bible

An open Bible being read

One of the things I love about reading the Bible is seeing how everything fits together. And one of the great joys of my life as a believer has been seeing when people “get” it—when that “aha” moment happens when they realize the point, because it’s something that is always so fresh in my mind. It’s a truth I’m continually rediscovering because, as Edmund Clowney wrote, “it is possible to know Bible stories, yet miss the Bible story.”

My default mode, and presumably yours as well, is to treat the Bible as a series of disconnected moral tales. Of fables filled with wise principles for living a virtuous life. But the Bible is so much more than this. It is one book with one story, the story of God’s rescue of his people in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The one story that changes everything.

Lord, help us see this every time we open this book.

Six gospel themes in first half of Genesis

Highlighted Bible

At the beginning of the year, our church encouraged everyone to be reading the Bible together throughout the entire year. So far, I’ve managed to actually keep up with it (and am now in Deuteronomy). I’ve consistently enjoyed reading the Old Testament, because it is so rich with these threads of the gospel—hints at what God was planning from before the world began. They’re the sort of moments that are easy to overlook, because they’re presented in an understated way; they’re not the main point of the passage, but they’re present.

Just in the first book of the Bible alone, there are many gospel themes that begin to take shape, many of which are found in the earliest chapters. Here are just a few that are fairly clear:

  1. God promises death to the serpent (Genesis 3). The first hint at the gospel comes on the heels of humanity’s rebellion against God. Sin will die, death will be defeated, and the serpent will be crushed the Son of the woman.
  2. God covers Adam and Eve (Genesis 3). This is a somewhat debated point, so it’s wise not to make more of it than is necessary, but prior to casting the first humans out of the garden, God clothes them in animal skins that he makes. So there are a couple of key things we see here: God covers shame, and another dies in their place.
  3. God’s favor toward Noah (Genesis 6-9). The language of Genesis s pretty clear that “every inclination of the human mind was nothing but evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). And God determined that he would destroy all humanity. Yet, Noah found favor with the Lord (6:8). God’s favor (or grace) to Noah gives us a picture of a greater rescue to come—that just as God preserved humanity in judgment through one man, he would preserve a people for himself in Christ.
  4. The promised offspring (Genesis 12). Paul explicitly addresses this in Galatians: the promised offspring, the seed, is a singular person—Jesus.
  5. Abraham is justified by faith (Genesis 15). Paul also explicitly calls this out in Romans: Abraham’s righteousness comes not from his actions, but from his belief in his God.
  6. Isaac is spared (Genesis 22). Abraham was faithful to bring Isaac to the mountain, to place him on the altar, and to raise the knife. Isaac was faithful to carry the wood, to allow himself to be tied up and placed on the altar, and watched as his father prepared to kill him. They both knew God’s promise. They knew Isaac was a child of promise—born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. They trusted the Lord to fulfill his purposes. And he did, because in the thicket, after Abraham’s hand was stayed, there was a ram. These events hinted at actions still to come, when a Father would send his son into this world, who would carry the wood on his back to the place of his sacrifice, be placed on a different altar, and no one would stay the hand of the One offering the sacrifice. A Son who was the Lamb.

There are more than these, of course. The gospel lurks in the shadows of the stories of Cain and Abel, of Jacob and Esau, of Joseph and his brothers. And when you see them, you can’t miss them. The gospel isn’t reserved for the Gospels themselves; it is the whole story of the Bible, and it is waiting for us in every book from beginning to end.

Delight, the Law and Leviticus

Highlighted Bible

We’re just around the time when many people have fallen off the rails with their Bible reading plans. Genesis was solid; Exodus started strong but by the end was getting challenging. And then, Leviticus. Laws. More laws. Very specific laws about every area of life.

For us, in our current context, these laws seem strange. They don’t fit with how we relate to God, nor to one another. So we tend to ignore them, which is so different than the psalmist who wrote, “I will delight in your statutes” (Psalm 119:16)—a delight which included Leviticus.

The psalmist knew Leviticus was good for him. He knew it was a means of relating to God, of identifying himself as one of God’s people, even as the Law inflamed his sin (Rom 5:20). He loved it, delighted in it, even as he knew it wasn’t enough to save him. It was a steward. A temporary restraint against even greater evils. A teacher, preparing him for the greater freedom to come. The freedom that ultimately comes through faith in Jesus, the one who fulfilled the Law not simply in precept, but in principle.

When we read Leviticus, we should read with this same kind of mindset. We should read it in light of the story that is playing out in Scripture, the story of God redeeming his people through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We should read it in anticipation of the gospel. Without the gospel, Leviticus will crush us. But with it, we may truly be able to delight in all that God says through it.

Should we teach kids about sin?

As part of my job, I am involved in a couple of Kids Ministry groups on Facebook. The conversations I see are fascinating. Usually they’re about best practices for discipling kids, occasionally folks are looking for different curriculum options… and then every so often there’s a question about what we should and shouldn’t be teaching kids.

Are sin too big for kids? Do we really need to teach them this or that story?

These are good questions, important questions. While some may disagree, it should be no surprise that I will say yes to each.

Yes, we need to teach kids about sin. We need to because they already know about it. They’ve experienced it in some way, but they should know how and why sin is in the world, what God has done to solve the problem of sin. So we teach them about sin to give them context and understanding of the world they live in.

And yes, that also means there aren’t really any stories from the Bible that are off-limits. You can (and should) teach kids about the nastier bits of Scripture, especially when it comes to the people we tend to portray as heroes (Abraham, Jacob, the Judges, David…). We don’t need to expose them to situations way too mature for them, of course, but in an age appropriate way, we should be helping kids see that the heroes of the Bible are people who needed God’s grace and forgiveness just like we do. That God was gracious to them, just as he is gracious to us. If all Scripture is inspired and profitable, then it’s inspired and profitable for all ages. Our responsibility is to teach it faithfully at an age-appropriate level (e.g., we don’t need to talk about adultery necessarily, but we do need to talk about David sinning).

Ultimately, we want kids to see that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and his gospel is the same yesterday, today, and forever. That Jesus’ goodness and righteousness is what we need to be in relationship with God. That Jesus is the one who paid for our sins. And Jesus is the one who we will spend eternity with by faith.

One big hint the Bible is true

Highlighted Bible

Yesterday, I got to one of those really weird and awkward stories in the Bible: the tale of Jacob, Rachel and Leah. The details of the story are probably familiar to many of you: Jacob had run off to live with his uncle Laban after stealing his brother’s blessing and birthright. On the way, he saw Rachel and immediately fell in deep smit with her. He agreed to work for his uncle for seven years to marry her, was given Leah in marriage instead, and then married Rachel in exchange for working for another seven years. Along the way, there’s trickery, rivalry, and more than a little bartering that goes on in exchange for who gets to (ahem) spend time with Jacob.

Jacob, one of the Patriarchs, the father of the heads of what would become the 12 tribes of Israel. This is an incredibly messed up story, and the deeper you go into his family’s story, the worse it gets.[1. Remember, Abraham and Isaac both pretended their wives were their sisters out of fear that they would be killed.] It’s a story that seems like it belongs in a soap opera, and yet there it is in the Bible.

Which seems to me like a pretty big hint that the Bible is actually true.

See, here’s the thing: When we’re writing stories about ourselves, what do we do? We almost always cast ourselves in the best light possible. Even when we talk about the terrible things we’ve done, it’s typically from a perspective of overcoming or learning from them. But Jacob’s story doesn’t really go that way. His favoritism of Rachel over Leah never diminishes. His favoritism of the children she bore is evident. He is a broken, train wreck of a human being.

In other words, he’s one of us.

A person, a sinner, in need of grace.

And this is what we see in the Bible over and over again, not just with the Patriarchs, but with everyone we would be inclined to look to as a hero. Samson was a proud fool. Samuel was a negligent father. David was a polygamist, adulterer, and murderer. Solomon was an idolator. Peter was a people pleaser. Paul was a murderer, too.

God’s Word doesn’t present our heroes at their best. It doesn’t repackage their stories as we might our own. It presents them as they were. Broken sinners like you and me in need of the one Hero who never falls. The One they are mere shadows of when they’re at their best.

Jesus, the Son of God who came to rescue and redeem them.

The One in whom the Bible calls us to place all our hope.

The ultimate foolishness and the ultimate wisdom

An open Bible being read

I wonder if “fool” is a word we should use as lightly and frequently as we do. We use it as an insult, a jab at a person when we think they’re being an idiot. But that’s not the way the word is used in Proverbs; nor, even, anywhere else in Scripture. It’s a label, yes, but one that’s used in contrast to the wise. Keller suggests that “fools are people so habitually out of touch with reality that they make life miserable for themselves and all around them.”[1. God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life, 7]

There’s something to that, I suspect. Consider it: what is a fool but someone cares for nothing but their own desires? What is a fool but someone who thinks they can do whatever they want continually and it have no ill-effect on society?

This is why when we first see the fool mentioned in the Psalms, it’s someone who, in their heart, says, “There’s no God” (Psalm 14:1), denying God’s existence, and authority in all creation. Denying the One who makes life make sense. “Fools fail to see these boundaries embedded in reality —physical, psychological, relational, and spiritual. They step outside them and wonder why they sink.”[2. ibid.]

This is what we see all throughout our culture in our day. This is what we’ve seen since the fall in the garden. We make ourselves the center of our worlds. We want to see the boundaries God has given over creation, including us. And when what we’ve decided is true about ourselves lets us down—when being the master of our domain doesn’t work—we decide we didn’t do it hard enough, repeating the cycle ad nauseam. We denied, rejected, and claiming to be wise, became fools (Romans 1:22).

That is the ultimate foolishness, and that is what God rescues us from in the gospel—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He gives us the boundaries because they are for our good and for our flourishing. He demands we stop trying to be our own righteousness because we can never be righteous enough. He commands us to look on Christ as our life because he is the only one who can bear the wait. The way of self is ultimate foolishness. The way of the gospel is the ultimate wisdom.

Christ’s gift to us in the Incarnation

There’s something that’s easy to lose sight of at Christmas time: the very purpose of Jesus coming into the world, and the gift he gives to us, something Spurgeon reminded me of as I read Christ’s Incarnation recently:

Jesus Christ did not come into the world to help you to forget your sin. He has not come to furnish you with a cloak with which to cover it. He has not appeared that He may so strengthen your minds (as some men would have you believe,) that you may learn to laugh at your iniquities, and defy the consequences thereof. For no such reason has the Son of God descended from Heaven to earth. He has come, not to lull you into a false peace, not to whisper consolation which would turn out to be delusive in the end, but to give you a real deliverance from sin by putting it away, and so to bring you a true peace in which you may safely rejoice.[1. Christ’s Incarnation, 81.]

That is a great gift. Jesus didn’t come to make you a better person, but a new one. He brings true peace, peace everlasting. It began with his incarnation. It continued through his life, death, and resurrection. It continues still as his Spirit resides in us as we wait for his return. And even in the new creation, when his kingdom has come in all its fullness, there will be no end. There will only be the fullness of peace, the peace of Christ, which we receive by faith in the God who entered into the world as a baby.