Archive for the ‘Christian Life’ Category

Moviegoing and Ministry April 9, 2013

Distill all the characteristics of American culture into one word, and you’ll likely find grandiosity. “Bigger is better,” “Go big or go home,” “Too big to fail,” and the like are our taglines of choice. Anything we do is bound to be better if you toss a “mega”, “super”, or “hyper” out front.

Neither is the Church immune to this phenomenon (witness “megachurches” and “celebrity pastors” in case you have any doubts). It cuts across theological and denominational lines, to the point that we are not even aware of it or how it colors our ministry. An implicit code demands every event or project we undertake to be thoroughly planned, promoted, hyped, executed, well-attended, and measurable. If any step of that procedure is given short shrift, we question whether anything “really” happened.

Over 50 years ago, novelist Walker Percy fingered the wrist of post-WWII America to find this idea pulsing within.

In The Moviegoer, Percy paints his protagonist, Binx Bolling, as a dislocated individual—lost in suburbia and the art of moneymaking, yet oddly ill at ease with nearly every aspect of existence. Binx seeks significance and transcendence in watching and re-watching popular movies; the shared world of mass culture is more real to him than anything else. Through Binx (and one scene in particular where William Holden’s presence brightens an otherwise dull afternoon in the French Quarter), Percy describes how people and places are authenticated, not by their actual nature, but only when they are acknowledged by the transcendent reality of Hollywood.

This desire for worldly significance, to be on the radar of the kingmakers of politics and mass media, afflicts almost all Americans, and it has only metastasized since Percy first diagnosed it. Only rarely do we see it outright; more often it seeps into our thoughts and actions with hidden designs for otherwise innocent and noble work.

The situation is no better in the Church, and, if I’m honest, in my own heart.

Do we gobble up books, videos, blogs, and conferences featuring the best and brightest pastors because we earnestly desire to grow in appreciation and understanding of the Gospel or because we hope being close to these men & women and their ideas rubs off some “real” ministry on us? Do we rush to donate time and resources to relief after a natural disaster out of genuine concern for the suffering of the victims or because we want great stories about how “we were there” to tell our family and friends? Do we promote our writing and church services through social media in order to benefit others or to pad our own egos?

These are fine lines, and, though we should check our motives often, we should never stop doing good things. Still, these temptations tug at us, urging us to be double-minded. We want so desperately to be noticed, to be certified by our peers and a watching world as “real”.

The problem is that “real” ministry does exist, and it often looks a lot like hard work and patient suffering with few observable results. “Real” ministry often takes place far from the cameras and microphones, away from the chattering hordes of Twitter and Facebook.

Our cultural blinders are so strong that we often miss the work God has put directly in front of us while we crane our necks to see if our true calling might be just around the bend. Even when we recognize the ministry at hand, we might give less than our full effort, treating the people we serve as stepping stones. The local church becomes a training ground where we wait to be called up to the big leagues with a book deal or a spot on the staff of a well-known church. Even if ambition lies closer to home, the chimera of a vibrant and growing church entices many to water down or sideline the Gospel for the sake of “success”.

As the story of The Moviegoer progresses, Binx’s discomfort with life and detachment from everyday responsibilities are upended by a series of events and choices that force him to reengage with the world around him. His catharsis comes as he turns from projecting himself into the illusory world of movies to become a director of sorts.  In the unfolding metaphor, Binx begins producing the project of his life, framing shots and executing takes for the benefit of those closest to him, leaving his former idols on the cutting room floor, and God alone in the theater audience.

In the same way, “real” ministry requires us first to recognize that God alone determines reality. When He calls us, it is according to His plan for His glory—not our plan for ours. There is an artistry to living faithfully and sacrificially among the people God places in our care that, though it is seldom celebrated on earth, “is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).

There is nothing wrong with growing or well-known ministries—God uses faithful people, big and small. The problem is when we see one as more valuable than the other, forgetting that neither is anything but for the cross of Christ. Obey God where you’re at, and if you get noticed, don’t change a thing.

Note: For a piercing look at “real” ministry, I cannot recommend this book enough.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Living the Resurrection April 4, 2012

Originally published in Pulpit Helps Magazine, April 2009.

On the face of it, Easter seems like a straightforward celebration of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins.

Without doubt, the salvation of mankind was an integral part of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The wider view of Calvary, however, reveals Christ crucified as the cornerstone of God’s plan for His ultimate glory.

From the very beginning, Easter was calculated for; in the midst of meting out the justified curses on His handiwork after their rebellion, God promised a coming redemption (Gen. 3:15). Later, he clarified his promises through the prophets, most notably via a man named “Salvation is God” (Isaiah). Isaiah begins to distinguish between two comings of Messiah—he elaborates on the theme of the coming king who will crush Satan’s head (Is. 9:1-7), but adds to it the narrative of the “suffering servant” who would be undeservedly punished to take away the sins of mankind (Is. 53:1-12). As we see throughout Scripture, both appearances are crucial to a proper understanding of Christ. Paradoxically, the Jews were so focused on the second, triumphal coming that they had Jesus crucified for blasphemy at His first.

The events surrounding the crucifixion are further evidence of the cosmic significance of that day. The thorns woven into His crown evoke a powerful irony as a product of the curse was used to mark the King on the day He settled the score; the story arc of fall and redemption came full circle. Athanasius of Alexandria in his On the Incarnation speaks of the earthquakes, darkness, and raising of deceased saints at Christ’s death as the whole of creation bearing witness to the fact of His Lordship and the act of redemption.

Why Resurrection?            
While Easter often draws our focus to the cross, the resurrection is the foundational act that gives fullness of meaning to everything that came before. Sometimes we think of it as the happy ending to the “real story” of atonement, but without rising from the dead, Christ’s work would not have been complete. Among others, four reasons stand out as to why the resurrection deserves paramount attention.

1) It was prophesied.
Isaiah is replete with references to Messiah’s return to reign after His suffering. In 55:11-13, he says “So will My word which goes froth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up, and instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up, and it will be a memorial to the Lord, for an everlasting sign which will not be cut off.

The “Word” spoken of here most likely refers to Christ. The Lord’s declaration that He would not return empty tells us that His death alone was not the sum total of His task on earth. The work of redeeming creation referenced in this passage is not yet complete, but it is promised; the crucified servant, therefore, had to be raised to return. In Matt. 20:18-19, John 2:19, and elsewhere, Jesus predicted His death and resurrection, seldom mentioning one without the other.

2) The Resurrection defeated death and Satan.
Christ’s atonement had a manifold purpose: to defeat not only sin but death and Satan. Whereas His sacrificial death covered the sins of humanity, only His resurrection cast aside death and dealt the crushing blow to Satan’s power.

Paul’s polemic against disbelief in the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15 makes clear that Christ’s return to life was the key both to eternal life and to the demise of death. Paul proves that Christ was in fact raised (vv. 4-8), that His ongoing life is key to our salvation (vv. 16-19), that His resurrection heralds eternal life for those who follow Him (vv. 20-23), and that death itself has been defeated by Christ’s act (vv. 26, 54-57). “But Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20-21). Paul reiterated this truth to the Thessalonians, encouraging them to grieve with hope in the assurance of resurrection and Christ’s victory over death (1 Thess. 4:13-18).

3) It brought greater glory to God
Perhaps the only thing that could show God’s holiness, power, and love more than casting His only son away from Himself by making Him into sin itself to atone for our sins (2 Cor. 5:21) was for Him to be restored to fellowship with Jesus by raising Him from the dead. Christ the “first fruits” was welcomed back to the Father, opening the door for all those who believe in Him to be adopted into the Kingdom. For the first time since the fall, the Lord was able to enjoy fellowship with His creation without violating His holiness.

Additionally, In Luke 24:35-36, Jesus points out that His suffering and resurrection were necessary for Him to enter into His glory. His triumph over death and Satan showed once for all His ultimate power. Because He died the death of a cursed criminal on the cross, His resurrection brought supreme honor and glory from the greatest dishonor man could subject Him to.

4) The Resurrection empowered Christ’s followers
Jesus’ very public death, without a public resurrection, would have easily quashed the spread of His teaching. As Jesus prophesied in Matt. 26:31-32, His death scattered the disciples, but He drew them back to Himself and commissioned them after He was raised. Athanasius cites the empowerment of the disciples after the resurrection as evidence of Christ’s defeat of death. The early Church clearly did not fear death as the culture around them, braving persecutions and martyrdom to take the Gospel to the corners of the known world within a few generations of Christ. The resurrection reinvigorated the disciples’ commitment to Christ’s message and paved the way for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Living it out
Clearly, Easter should motivate us to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the truths that form the backbone of our faith. It is a time for us to reflect on the cost of our redemption, the meaning of forgiveness, and the glory of God. More than that, however, it should stir us to give flesh to the reality of Christ’s life; we are to, as Paul said in Phil. 2:12 “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” The magnitude of Christ’s work on the first Easter (not just physically, but theologically [giving up His nature, becoming separated from the Father, etc.]) demands a response of obedience to His holiness and mercy. The obligation is one of gratitude; the God who gave His Son for us is not interested in forced obedience.

Living the resurrection should encompass both submission to God’s will, and dedication to Christ’s call to make disciples. When we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), our actions fly in the face of human nature because they are flowing from the life within us. In that way, we give evidence to Christ’s resurrection; only if He was raised and is alive could He continue to work among men.

Jesus Himself desires that we carry on His mission in the power of the resurrection. In His “High Priestly Prayer” of John 17, He pleads to the Father for His disciples, saying, “Sanctify them in truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth” (vv. 17-19). In taking the Gospel to our neighbors and the nations, we are fulfilling Christ’s call and His hope for our lives.

John’s gospel concludes with a musing on the scope of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). There is a definite sense in which every believer tells a unique part of that story until the whole world is indeed filled with truth and majesty at the second coming. The glory of the resurrection is seen each day in the fullness of Christ’s living Body, the Church. Perhaps that is what the celebration of Easter is truly about

Posted by Justin Lonas

The Cure for Spiritual Arrogance February 20, 2012

Now I exhort you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.

“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider our calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that just as it is written, ‘let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (1 Corinthians 1:10-31).

Posted by Justin Lonas

2011 Booklist December 27, 2011

Here are a few books (in no particular order) that I encountered this year of varying genres that I would say are worth recommending for one reason or another.

Luke: The Gospel of Amazement, Michael Card

This wasn’t a particularly exegetical or particularly thorough commentary, but it caught my attention for its style. Card looks at the biblical text with an artist’s eye, and reminds us that the coming of Christ into the world was nothing less than astonishing. It is too easy to get stuck in a rut spiritually, and Card’s “devotional commentary” drags you back to the sheer wonder of our Lord and His love for men. Read my full review HERE.

Don’t Call It a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day, Kevin DeYoung, ed.

Some books are great at covering vast expanses of material in succinct and engaging ways. This is one of those. A bunch of young-ish pastors and theologians from around the world team up to tell a new generation of Christians the basics of theology, and the result is a great reminder of what we believe and why it matters. In particular, Greg Gilbert’s chapter on the message of the Gospel is probably the most powerful expression of the central truth of Scripture I’ve read in a long time. Read my full review HERE.

Truman, David McCullough

I love history, and I love getting a glimpse at history through biographies. Learning abstract ideas is useful, but opening a window into someone’s life to watch how those ideas play out over decades. Perhaps nobody is writing better biographies presently than David McCullough, and his Truman is a monumental work (in scope and depth). Though I find I disagree with many (if not most) of his political viewpoints, I think I’d have loved to have dinner and a Poker game with Harry Truman. McCullough’s portrait of the 33rd president shows the authenticity and grit of the last true “man of the people” to inhabit the White House.

Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell

I’m a longtime follower of Sowell’s incisive and prescient newspaper columns, but somehow I’d managed never to read any of his books until now. In the pages of Basic Economics, he unlocks the mysteries of the marketplace in ways that anyone could understand, bringing the complexities of the “dismal science” into principles that every voter should bring to bear on their elected officials. If more people would read and take to heart these lessons, the populace might never again elect someone whose political platform includes any form of government tampering with domestic and international markets.

How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home, Derek W. H. Thomas

Derek Thomas’ short and sweet meditation on “the greatest chapter in the Bible” was one of my favorite surprises this year. Thomas is quick to remind us that this Gospel spelled out so beautifully by Paul in Romans chapter 8 is the heartbeat of our faith, and that we can never devote too much time and energy to telling and retelling its mysteries to God’s great glory. Indeed the cross of Christ is the center point of all God’s creation and character, as Paul writes, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). How could we spend our energies on anything less? Read my full review HERE.

What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert

Beyond simply articulating the pitfalls of a misdirected mission (i.e., that doing all manner of social good at the expense of Gospel proclamation fails to achieve eternal good), DeYoung and Gilbert issue a rallying cry for the Church to recapture the excitement and joy that comes from pursuing Christ’s commission to us. They remind readers that what ultimately leads to the transformation believers seek in the world is the blood of Christ and the work of the Spirit, and they challenge believers to remember that God chooses to break into the lives of the lost through the faithful proclamation of His Gospel through the Church. They make the foundational point that the only thing the Church does that no one else in the world will do is to make disciples of Jesus, and that this should be our driving motivation. What Is the Mission of the Church? is a well-written, well-researched, and much needed book—it might be the most important Christian book of 2011. The implications of our interpretation of our mission for the Body of Christ are tremendous. Read my full review HERE.

The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek

Sowell whet my appetite for a more in-depth look at socio-economic studies, so I took a stab at Hayek’s magnum opus. It’s a bit dense at times, but that’s more a reflection on the reader than the author. This is a tremendous repository of wisdom for citizens of any nation. Hayek’s commentary on issues from unionism to taxation to social security to state coercion reads as though it was taken from present-day political discussions rather than a 5-decade-old treatise. This is a more openly ideological work than most books on economic theory, but Hayek’s razor-sharp intellect makes his arguments in favor of limited government and free markets sound like the height of accepted wisdom. A must-read for anyone in any kind of policymaking position.

Desiring God, John Piper

I’m rather embarrassed to have never read this classic before., but I’m glad I took the time to enjoy it this year. Enough has been said about this book elsewhere to fill a shelf (and Piper’s eponymous parachurch is a daily fleshing-out of its themes), and all I’ll add is that it is a unique and powerful work. Joy is the only valid motivation for the Christian, as it wasn’t for duty that Christ died.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Another one I’m embarrassed to have missed up to this point. Finn is so ingrained in the fabric of our American culture that it’s easy to think you know the story without ever having read it. It’s easy to see why it’s one of the classics–Twain’s narrative style is comically brilliant, his themes touch every aspect of life in 19th century America, and his insight into the soul of the nation still resonates. Truly the firstborn of American novels.

A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, Paul E. Miller

I had heard about this book from various quarters for quite a while, but I wasn’t in a hurry to get a copy. Frankly, I’m not a fan of books about prayer and other spiritual disciplines because they often share a common flaw–an author assumes that the way that God worked with him in his own life is somehow a measurable, normative prescription for how God works with everyone. Miller delightfully avoids this temptation, and the result is a book that is both bold and helpful. Read my full review HERE.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Lament October 28, 2011

Lamentations 1:12-14, 20.

Is it nothing to all you who pass this way?
Look and see if there is any pain like my pain
Which was severely dealt out to me,
Which the Lord inflicted on the day of His fierce anger.

From on high He sent fire into my bones,
And it prevailed over them.
He has spread a net for my feet;
He has turned me back;
He has made me desolate,
Faint all day long.

The yoke of my transgressions is bound;
By His hand they are knit together.
They have come upon my neck;
He has made my strength fail.
The Lord has given into the hands
Of those agiainst Whom I am not able to Stand.

See, O Lord, for I am in distress;
My spirit is greatly troubled;
My heart is overturned within me,
For I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword slays;
In the house it is like death.

Lamentations is one of my favorite books of the Old Testament. Its intense grief over the destruction of Jerusalem gives way to a profound picture of God’s hand in both good and evil that shows clearly that He is the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. What I sometimes gloss over in reading this book, though, is that the destruction wrought upon Jerusalem that moved Jeremiah’s pen came from within. The blight on Israel was a result of their collective sins, and they recognized it (though only after it was too late).

The implications for daily life are painfully real. I so seldom lament the sin in my own life and the destruction it causes. Even when I do, the tendency is always to lament the consequences and fail to connect them to the sin. We are the child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, regretting our lack of cookies rather than the breach of trust and relationship with our parents our actions caused. We go on this way, stumbling from transgression to transgression without considering the brokenness of our own hearts.

When God allows our sins to bear fruit in pain and suffering, it is really His special grace to call our attention to our eternal destiny through such temopral consequences. The destruction wrought by our sinful actions should move us to consider our sinful hearts and our cardinal sin of rebellion against our Great and gracious Creator. The brokenness that comes when sin “catches up to us” should drive us to the cross, where the consequences of all man’s sin are on full display, heaped on the Son–”once for all, the just for the unjust” (1 Pet. 3:18). As Charles Hodge put it, “It is obvious that no severity of mere human suffering, no destroying deluge, no final conflagration, not hell itself can present such a manifestation of the evil of sin and of the justice of God as the cross of his incarnate Son.”

When we fail to recognize these connections, to lament and mortify our sin, we heap further guilt on our heards. What is lament but to dwell on our own failure in the face of God’s holiness and to consider ourselves as He does? For the believer, lament is a crucial discipline, the result of which is not despair but the joy of Christ’s sacrifice considered anew. It is only through lamenting the sin that stains us that we can see the grace of God in full. This is what allows Jeremiah to say from the depths of sorrow, “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never ceases, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness” (Lam 3:21-23).

Posted by Justin Lonas

The Wisdom of the Ages (& the Aged) August 30, 2011

I’ve heard it said that the chain of wisdom always skips a generation; that the lessons of lives long lived are instilled in grandchildren by their grandparents while their parents are working to make ends meet.

That’s not to say that our parents are not wise, rather that our ability to absorb their wisdom as children is clouded by familiarity, authority, and selfishness–we’re predisposed to doubt what they tell us until we grow up to realize they knew exactly whereof they spoke. In the time between birth and that epiphany of maturity, God interposes grandparents.

Maybe we listen to them because they’re a curiosity–we don’t see them daily as we do our parents, their gray hair and glasses make them seem softer, their habits and customs from an earlier time are both confusing and inviting. Maybe we let them teach us because they offer us love with an infinite patience bolstered by the peace and quiet of living somewhere else (without kids) most of the time. Whatever the reasons, this cross-generational transfer of wisdom seems to be part of the design of life.

I’m thinking about this now because my grandfather passed away yesterday at the age of 86, and it’s hard to look at my life and values without seeing his fingerprints everywhere.

A child of the Depression, he taught me that the pursuit of “stuff” was futile and that the simple joys of life are the most enduring: growing your own vegetables, chopping your own firewood, cooking good food and eating the leftovers all week long, and spending evenings with card games and conversation. These habits forged in hard times are as necessary today as ever.

He taught me that life is best enjoyed slowly through his hobbies: fishing from the bank with a cane pole and live bait; taking long walks to no place in particular; working crossword puzzles on the front porch.

Even though he only went through eleven grades before finishing high school, he taught me that life is an ongoing lesson. He was always reading a book or two about whatever caught his fancy. He loved to travel and find out what people were like in different parts of the country and the world by striking up conversations with total strangers (I remember the time he asked a rather stunned coffee-shop waitress in Milo, Maine what kind of crops they grew in that area). He consistently took an avid interest in my school work, even if my lifelong inability to grasp math puzzled him.

By his service in the army at the end of World War II and the stories he told about that, he taught me the value of being a part of something bigger than yourself and of forging lifelong friendships with those who share a difficult experience with you. Even after a year in Japan, he came home to Pine Mountain, and more or less stayed put for the rest of his life. In that, he taught me what a community was and why it was worth putting up with the bad and the ugly to be a part of the good.

Through his daily routines he gave form to generosity and neighborliness. He shared the overflow of his garden with anybody who drove by. He took in more dogs over the years on his little country road corner than most animal shelters. He would insist (to the point of argument) on paying for our family’s meals when we ate out together. In short, he knew that money and possessions make us happier when we use them primarily to meet needs and give good gifts to others.

By his commitment through thick and thin, choir, Sunday school, VBS, and Wednesday suppers, he taught me the vitality and value of the local church. Following Christ is not something we can do in private, and he loved his church, warts and all, for decades.

When I think about all these things and more as the memories wash over me, I recognize that most of the areas of my life that are distinctly “me” are often my subconscious attempts to be like him. The world of today is a far cry from his rural Georgia upbringing, but the person that made him is a type of man the world needs more of. I only hope the Lord sees fit to bless me with a life long enough to pass some of these things on to my own grandchildren some day.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Reforming Humility August 3, 2011

“…and all of you clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for ‘God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Pet. 5:5, quoting Prov. 3:34).

I tend to spend a lot of time writing about theology, but I’d like to take a moment to write about how we write (and talk) about theology. When we discuss theological issues, particularly those surrounding core tenets of the faith, there is often a subtle strain underpinning the approach of both sides of every debate–pride.

On the side of liberalism lies the temptation to  the pride of discovering the “hidden truths” of Christianity & the sense of enlightenment that accompanies that assumption. On the side of orthodoxy lurks the pride of the elder brother, delighting more in besting the prodigal than in the purity of loving the father. This is not to say that debates of this nature are unimportant–they are often critically so–but that the attitudes and actions toward one another to which Christ and the apostles call us in general apply equally strongly here. Those of us who want to contend for the faith (particularly those of us in the Reformed tradition of robust assurance of doctrine) must be painstakingly cautious to avoid placing our pride above the truth we love, lest we tempt our detractors to abandon it altogether. Let’s look at a few passages of Scripture that lay this out for us.

In the first place, we need to be very careful where we draw divisions over theology in the first place. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in truth; Your word is truth. As you sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves may also be sanctified in truth. I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those who believer in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17: 17-21).

Clearly, the unity of the Body is of primary concern–it distorts the very image of God when His people are divided. Notice, though, that the unity Christ prayed for is grounded on the sanctification that comes from the truth of God’s Word. Unity where there should be separation brings dishonor to the Lord (like when Paul admonished the Corinthians for keeping fellowship with brazen fornicators in 1 Corinthians 5:2, “you have become arrogant and have not mourned, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.“). Watering down the Gospel in the name of keeping fellowship with those who disbelieve ultimately leads to faithlessness and greater schisms down the road. By the same token, however, making a federal case of every little issue that should be the subject of a talk over a cup of coffee unnecessarily disrupts the unity that we should have together against our common foes.

Secondly, we should consider the ways in which we pursue the unity Christ calls us to. Paul elaborates at length on the specific ways Christians ought to treat one another, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:9-18).

This list has a lot of active verbs, reminding us that the love of the Body does not come passively but must be pursued and cultivated to bear fruit. Paul urges a sincere love, one that unites us both in opposition to sin and falsehood (”abhor what is evil“) and in commitment to the person and work of Christ (”cling to what is good“). He goes farther, though, exhorting believers to love their enemies as well, blessing them and returning good for evil. If Christ’s high priestly prayer urges us to zealously guard our unity, Paul’s list urges us to treat the opposition with all the courtesy and grace they deny to us. Neither leaves any room for arrogance, spite, or violence (physical or verbal).

The bottom line is humility. If we want to hold fiercely to the truths of Scripture, we have to trust God to defend His Word. This does not mean that we should hide the truth or back away from biblical stances that are unpopular with the world, but it does mean that the Word does not rise or fall on our defense of it. When we place our whole faith in Him, He will give us the grace to speak the truth in love (cf. Eph. 4:15) in every situation. If you are in the right on a given issue, be right, but do so standing in the manifold grace of God revealed in His Word by His Spirit rather than on the strength of your conviction.

Finally, Peter tells us, “all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Pet. 3:8-9). If the message of the Gospel is distorted by the shrillness of its delivery or the conduct of the messenger, then we are blessing no one and failing our calling. Our Gospel proclamation should leave no room for anyone but Christ to be the featured player in the story.

Posted by Justin Lonas

God and Economics May 18, 2011

In Christian circles,  there are  a lot of little phrases we use to encapsulate large swaths of theological truth for the benefit of concise conversation. Detractors call this “speaking in code” or “Christianese”, and they do have a point.  We have  a great  tendency overuse our favorite idioms to the detriment of their meaning and the confusion of unbelievers. On balance, however,  such expressions as “the kingdom of God”, “the Great Commission,” “God’s will”, “God’s plan”, or “new Covenant” are helpful aggregations of meaning and many are directly biblical. Sure, they need to be unpacked and explained to new believers, but their distillation of complex truths helps us  grasp the  basics and grow deeper in our understanding of God and His  Word.

One of my favorites in this category is the phrase, “God’s economy”, as in, “Spending 20 hours a week to share the Gospel at the  inner-city mission seems like a waste of time in earthly terms, but, in God’s economy, it makes perfect sense.” We use it to convey the idea that there is a separate (from the world) system of resource allocation that is directed by and focused on God. It’s a great, succinct phrase packed with significance.

There is a sense in which this idea is not just extrapolated from Scripture, but present in verbal form. “Economy” is essentially a Greek word, a transliteration of  oikonomia (the law or order of a house), and many manuscripts contain a variant of this word in 1 Timothy 1:4. The NASB renders this verse: “nor pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration (oikonomia) of God which is by faith.” Older renderings, like the KJV, follow the sources of the Latin Vulgate, giving the last part of this verse as, “…godly edifying (oikodomia lit. “house-building”)  which is in faith.” So God’s economy, biblically, is the notion of His oversight of his household. In this, we are stewards, as Jesus teaches in parable form in Luke 16, and we will give an account for our management of His resources. In the same manner, essayist Wendell Berry describes the  kingdom of God as the overarching  ”great economy” to  which all lesser economies are subservient.

I’ve been contemplating this notion of late because I’ve been reading a lot in the secular discipline of economics. This study fascinates me because economics seems to be one of the truly “honest” social sciences. That is, properly practiced, it attempts to do no more than analyze human behavior, particularly in the allocation of resources and the responses to incentives, rather than prescriptively telling people what to think. Among the themes that jump out from the pages of Hayek, Sowell, and, yes, even Levitt & Dubner,   the strongest is the conclusion that the laws of economics (essentially 1] that resources always flow to where they are most valuable and 2] that people, corporations, and institutions respond to cost-based incentives in their decisions) supersede almost all other motivations for the choices we make.

These principles are quite  effective at describing why the esoteric goals of legislation are never met, but the often hidden incentives such laws create always come to fulfillment (e.g. welfare programs incentivizing non-work over employment, etc.). They help us understand why prices rise and fall, why businesses come and go, and why nations have gone to war over trade. They are so uniformly observed across history, geography, and culture that Hayek goes so far as to call the market system a “marvel” on par with gravity, inertia, or life itself. When we consider that even things like time, emotions, and energy can be thought of as resources whose cost must be considered, a whole array of human interactions come under the descriptive power of economics. It enables us to wrap our minds around myriad human choices in the same way that mathematics gives form to the mysteries of the physical universe; neither discipline creates the phenomena it describes, but each makes the  unknown into something observable and measurable.

But is that all there is to this life, responding to incentives according to our self-interest? What does economics have to say about the soul and its relation to God? Does “God’s economy” fit into categories of supply and demand? Certainly God is above human wisdom; the best understanding common to us “under the sun” doesn’t have the capacity to contain God’s plans and desires (as Job 28, etc., tell us). Scripture is filled with examples of the faithful submitting to God’s wisdom and showing the world’s ways to be utterly subservient to Him (David  defeating Goliath; Hannaniah, Mishael, & Azariah  surviving the furnace; Daniel  preserved in  the lion’s den; Esther pleading her case before the king; the virgin birth of Christ; etc.). God is clearly glorified when we put our faith in Him and act on it, even when doing so flies in the face of earthly realities.

Even so, something about economic theory won’t let me leave it at that. If Hayek is right in calling the price system a marvel of creation,  might it be that God  allows the “invisible hand” of the marketplace (in Adam Smith’s terminology) to govern the free interactions among men  just as the laws of nature govern the interactions of matter? If that were   the case, then the self-interest of mankind (though, like everything else, perverted by the fall) would have to be an intentional, created part of the human soul. So much of what we think of as righteous living and following after Christ, however,  seems to be based on altruism, seeking others’ best, which is the antithesis of self-interest. There is the rub, to be sure. It would be inconsistent for God to have created us to operate from self-interest only to demand altruism from us in order to stay in relationship with Him.

When we look at the appeals God makes to us for obedience, particularly in the Gospels, we notice a curious pattern: God calls us from an angle of self-interest! Take the following, for example: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt 13:44). “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). Even a passage that would seem to contradict that message reaffirms it: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whosoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 24-25).

The self-interest in these passages is not of the same kind that motivates us to find the best price on items at the supermarket or to avoid actions that bring us harm. This is a self-interest in eternal terms that is revealed to us only through the Spirit of God, but it is still self-interest. God’s call is difficult but not ultimately altruistic because He appeals to our desires for rest, joy, reward, life, etc., to motivate us to seek Him. The incentives God provides only make sense in His economy, but under His authority they are powerful incentives, powerful enough to draw us from worldly wealth and wisdom to a temporal life that forsakes all other self-interest. God created us to seek our best interest, but He alone can satisfy that longing. When we heed His Spirit’s leading, we recognize that the only way to fulfill our deepest desires in God’s economy is to forsake every incentive of the lesser economies and pursue God alone. As John Piper puts it in Desiring God, “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him.” Our redeemed self-interest in God’s grand plan makes possible every act of unconditional altruism that Christ calls us to in this life.

This is a marvel indeed.

Posted by Justin Lonas.

Why Study Scripture? October 26, 2010

“œAll Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work“ (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

We quote these two verses all the time””they’re succinct, unambiguous defenses of the inerrancy of Scripture and its authority in our lives. We pull them out whenever we’re admonishing church members to get into the Word or sharing with nonbelievers our reasons for relying on the Bible.  While those are good and right uses of this passage, the context of 2 Timothy 3:1-4:5 gives it  a deeper and more  powerful meaning than it  has in isolation.

In  the first 13 verses of  chapter 3  Paul paints a picture of the hearts of men in the last days (that is, the time after Christ’s work of redemption was fully accomplished). His list in verses 2-5  grimly reflects our present reality; “œBut realize this, that in the last days, difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self control, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; avoid such men as these.” These are those who prey on those “weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, always learning and never able to come to knowledge of the truth”(vv. 6-7). In the end, however, they will not be allowed to continue deceiving, just as the Egyptian magicians who used trickery and satanic power to oppose Moses before Pharaoh were exposed  (vv. 8-9).

In contrast, Paul describes how Timothy has rejected the world’s way and followed Paul’s commitment to Christ, in spite of tremendous persecution that comes from shining Christ’s light among those who deceive themselves (vv.10-13). This culminates in his description of Timothy as standing firm on the Word, in opposition to the world’s way: “œYou, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”

It is here that we find that famous and familiar passage about Scripture. It is anything but an off-the-cuff statement about inerrancy. Rather, Paul brings out the God-breathed Scripture as the ultimate counterpoint to every sin and evil the world has to offer. This Word is pure, proceeding directly from God the Father, and its effects on mankind are powerful. The Scripture brings “teaching,” “reproof,” “correction,” and “training in righteousness;” the breath of life to sin-filled men. These “sacred writings” that give “wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” are an inseparable part of Christ’s work–He is the Word (John 1), and the gift of salvation is through Him alone. Without the revelation of the Word, we would have no hope but to continue as those Paul wants us to avoid.

What does it mean to be “equipped for every good work,” as verse 17 says?  Perhaps a reversal of Paul’s list of sinful excesses from earlier in the chapter: “Through the work of Christ, and the teaching of the Scriptures, men will be  selfless, generous, humble, respectful, godly, obedient to authority, grateful, holy & decent, loving, agents of reconciliation, speakers of truth, self-controlled, lovers of all that is  good, loyal, prudent, modest, lovers of God rather than lovers of pleasure, holding to true Godliness and embracing the power of the One who is Truth.   Imitate such men as these.”

In the first   five verses of chapter 4, Paul lays out this “good work” in a charge to Timothy: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” The work of righteousness is always inextricably the ministry of the Gospel–the Word of God on the lips and in the actions of His children.

So, why study Scripture? This passage makes it plain that faithful study is never an end in itself; as A.W. Tozer wrote, “What is generally overlooked is that truth as set forth in the Christian Scriptures is a moral thing; it is not addressed to the intellect only, but to the will also. It addresses itself to the total man, and its obligations cannot be discharged by grasping it mentally.” By the same token, however, the Living Word empowers us through God’s written Word to follow His example and do the work of righteousness. This is never accomplished without faithful reading, study, and meditation in the Scriptures.

Studying the Word is both more important and less important than most of us think. You can never, ever under any circumstances learn too much of and about the Bible, and you should never stop thirsting for the knowledge of God that He reveals therein, but you have a moral obligation to take the truths He teaches to the streets.

Posted by Justin Lonas

The Passing Pleasures of Sin January 18, 2010

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward” (Heb. 11:24-26).

If, like me, you’ve grown up in the Church, you’ve probably been read that verse (and chapter) dozens of times. You may have even heard sermons built on this passage (particularly back in youth group days) exhorting you to “flee youthful lusts“ and live a life of high moral character. To that I’d say, “great message; wrong passage.” Sure, there were boundless temptations appealing to all the senses in the royal palace that Moses would’ve done well to shun. However, the context says a lot about the choice Moses made to seek and do the will of God, and nothing about the licentiousness of pagan Egypt.

This reading probably comes from our American tendency to think of righteousness only in terms of “not doing bad things,” rather than in terms of life-long obedience to God’s will that His glory be proclaimed. When we sequester sin to the realm of activities “they” (because “we” would never do that, right?) participate in, we wall off God as some sort of moral barometer instead of the Creator of the universe. The problem with this viewpoint is that morality is not about us. God desires that we be holy and blameless so that He can use us how He sees fit, so that we will be true witnesses of His character to a watching world.

This gives new meaning to the “passing pleasures of sin.” Perhaps they are those things that, in and of themselves, are not only not sinful but useful and good–things that distract us from our purpose of glorifying God by obedience to His will. Moses grew up into a sense of God’s purpose for his life as a deliverer (see Acts 7:25), and he knew that a life of luxury in the palace would keep him from that role.

In that light, everything we enjoy temporarily at the expense of participation in God’s purpose is a fleeting pleasure, and our obsession with comfort becomes a greivous sin. When was the last time you thought of your movies, music, television, or hobbies as “pleasures of sin“? How about your fridge or pantry well-stocked with an incredible variety of food, your manicured yard, or your car? Obviously, anything can be used as a tool for accomplishing God’s call to proclaim His name, but we have quite an ability to justify all manner of luxuries as ends in themselves. The theme of the Scriptures is that we are blessed to bless others, and that’s a teaching I fear we’ve lost sensitivity to. May the Lord convict us (myself chief of all) of thinking that the self-serving accumulation of wealth and pursuit of comfort that distracts from obedience to His call is somehow not a sin.

Posted by Justin Lonas.

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