Freed to live through the death of another.

Category: Grace

The Greatness of the God Who Withholds to Bless

The gods of the world display their greatness by blessing their people with the treasures of the world when they are properly obeyed. If the gods are treated just right, they dispense their blessings in the form of earthly wealth and comfort.

Only the God of the Bible is big enough, glorious enough, good enough, and full enough of deep enough love to display the depths of his wisdom and the power of his goodness by withholding the world’s treasures and comforts from his people. In love he withholds. In love he disciplines. In love he shows us through loss, through trial, through rejection — through a cross — that he alone is the true treasure worth possessing.

And his grace is not for those who have worshiped him rightly, nor for those who have blessed him by obedience. His grace is for the weak; his mercy for the rebel.

Among all the gods of the world, with all their wares, our God stands alone — he stands above. He offers himself: a treasure greater, more beautiful, more exquisite than anything we have ever tasted or seen.
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I Love My God

This morning I was reading from Leviticus 19. In the midst of a long string of commands, where God’s people are told what they must either do or not do in order to be holy as their God is holy, God gives these instructions.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. 

In these books of Law we find all kinds of laws that we would expect: Don’t murder; don’t steal; don’t take someone else’s wife; if you’re a judge, don’t take a bribe; if you kill an unborn baby, you are guilty before God; all kinds of laws like that. But then there are times when we come across passages like this one that can just seem totally unexpected.

Our God’s justice is not like our justice. Intrinsic to the founding of ‘the City of God’ is this notion that the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sojourner must find a home. They must be taken care of. Why? Because it is a reflection of God’s heart for the downtrodden. If God’s people are to be holy, as he is holy, they must reflect the same heart as him: the poor must be comforted.

So how does that translate into the new covenant? I would suggest that we see this fulfilled in no less than three ways as we live in the current ‘City of God’.

  1. Jesus’ message could be summarized this way: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matt 4.17). This call to repentance is filled out a little more in this way: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 5.3). In other words, the kingdom of heaven has come, and is possessed by those who are poor–in spirit. These are the ones who are broken over their sin before a holy God (Matt 5.4); the ones who realize they are not perfect as God is perfect (Matt 5.48). They are therefore quick to show mercy, as God has shown them mercy (Matt 5.7; 39-47; 6.14-15; 7.1-5). This is the exact same calling as those citizens of the City of God in the OT received (Lev 19.33-34).

  3. Just as the thrust of the commands throughout the OT were to be kind to the poor in their midst, so in the NT, kingdom citizens are to be abundantly merciful and generous to meet the needs of other kingdom citizens. The early church did not miss this at all, but saw it quite clearly (Acts 2.44-45). The emphasis must be placed here: the first place we must give and look after the poor is in our own midst–this was so in the OT, just as it is in the NT (see also Gal 6.9-10).

  5. The Christian must be known as one who does not withhold the wages of the labourer, but gives to each what is due. The cries of even the unbeliever, when he is oppressed, will reach the ears of the Lord and the one who has withheld good from him, will bear his guilt (Jas 5:1-6). The Christian must never be known as one who values his money more than he values people; this would not reflect the character of our God at all.

I love my God because he cares for the spiritually poor (broken) and the destitute. He is a God of mercy, compassion, and grace–this is clearly revealed in both testaments. If we are to be his ‘City’ then we must reflect his character, his person, his passions. We must show mercy to others, as he has shown mercy to us.

God’s Grace in Augustine’s Theology

The following excerpt is taken from the full article, available here.

In order to understand Augustine’s theology of God’s sovereign saving grace, one must first understand Augustine’s view of the will. According to Augustine (and all the ‘catholic’ church after him) the will was free, but only insofar as it would choose what it desired.13 ‘Without exception,’ he writes, ‘we all long for happiness. … All agree that they want to be happy, just as, if they were asked, they would all agree that they desired joy.’14 Augustine’s point is that although we all desire true happiness (which is found only in God), our wills alone are not strong enough to enable us to achieve it.

It is only in this context, when we understand man’s plight (he desires true happiness, but is not able to will himself to find it since it is found in God alone, in whom he cannot delight while he is in the flesh15), that we are now prepared to truly appreciate Augustine’s understanding of God’s grace: ‘Saving grace, converting grace, in Augustine’s view, is God’s giving us a sovereign joy in God that triumphs over all other joys and therefore sways the will.’16 Grace, then, is God’s active changing of our heart’s desires so that we can truly desire him above all else, freely choose him, and as we love him, find in him our true soul’s joy.17 Our wills are always free to choose to do those things which we delight in, but they are never free to choose what our wills will delight in.18 That is why we need God’s grace.

Since God’s grace is a free gift on which all of our heart’s desires and all of our salvation depends, God’s grace is necessary for more than just our conversion: it is necessary for true, ongoing, joyful obedience. Once converted, Augustine could pray, ‘Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will! … All this makes clear, O holy God, that when your commands are obeyed, it is from you that we receive the power to obey them.’19 As Piper sums up this aspect of Augustine’s theology of God’s grace he says this: ‘Grace governs life by giving a supreme joy in the supremacy of God.’20 As it is grace which converts us and causes us to obey, it is God’s sovereign grace which will keep us secure in him until the final day. Augustine’s theology of God’s grace is the understanding that would persist through the era of the early church and which would rise triumphantly again through Luther and Calvin in the Reformation. It has been passed on through the Puritans to the Evangelicals, and endures to this day as the historic orthodox Christian doctrine of God’s sovereign saving grace.


13 Aurelius Augustine, Confessions (trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin; London, Eng: Penguin Books, 1961), 228-229. Augustine reasons that not all are able to willingly follow God, and there find the true happiness they seek, since ‘their will to do what they cannot do is not strong enough to enable them to do it’ (229).

14 Augustine, Confessions, 228.

15 Here Augustine cites Gal 5.17 (Confessions, 229).

16 Piper, Sovereign Joy, 59 (emphasis original).

17 The phraseology is intentionally chosen to be reminiscent of Augustine’s own conversion experience: ‘During all those years [of rebellion], where was my free will? What was the hidden, secret place from which it was summoned in a moment, so that I might bend my neck to your easy yoke? … How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose!You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honour, though not in the eyes of men who see all honour in themselves…. O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation’ (Confessions, 181; emphasis my own).

18 Thus, in another place, he could write, ‘If those things delight us which serve our advancement towards God, that is due not to our own whim or industry or meritorious works, but to the inspiration of God and to the grace which he bestows.’ T. Kermit Scott, Augustine: His Thought in Context (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), 203; as cited in Piper, Sovereign Joy, 59.

19 Confessions, 236.

20 Sovereign Joy, 61.

Desperate Need of Jesus

This morning I found myself finishing up the last few chapters of Luke and realizing again just how desperately I need Jesus.

I confess that for much of my Christian life I have seen my need of Jesus mainly in a soteriological sense (i.e. I need his vicarious death to accomplish forgiveness of my sins and so that I can be clothed with his righteousness). To be sure, that need is the burden of these chapters in Luke. Jesus himself, we are told, explained to his disciples ‘that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations’. This is why Jesus died, and this is what we need from him, first and foremost. That’s what Scriptures testify, and that’s what I believe.

But there’s more than that, though. I have so much more need of Jesus that I can see even just from these few chapters.

At the beginning of chapter 22 we are told that Satan enters into Judas. Half way through the chapter, Jesus says these words to Peter: ‘Behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.’ Wow. God ordained that Jesus would be betrayed by Judas, who gave himself over to Satan, but when Satan wanted Peter, Jesus said no.

What stands between Satan and me? What stops Satan (or one of his workers) from entering me and working in me to do his bidding? What holds Satan back from causing my faith to fail? The will of God and the prayers of Jesus. I have great need of Jesus to pray for me and be merciful to keep me.

In a similar vein, I need Jesus to remember me. This was the request of the thief on the cross, that when Jesus would come into his kingdom, that he would remember–be favourable to, merciful to–this thief who was guilty of sin and crime and deserved nothing but death and punishment. How am I any different than the thief? I need Jesus to remember me, too.

In these chapters is recounted the literal, historic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As Paul would teach later (Rom 6), we have need of Christ’s death becoming our death to sin (and to the law). In this way, we die to sin and to the law, and are no longer held captive by it, to do its will. Rather, all who have baptized into Christ, having been unified with him in his death, have been made alive with him in his resurrection. I have great need of Christ’s resurrection, which makes me alive to God. Though formerly I was dead in transgressions and sins, now through Christ’s resurrection, I have been made alive to God, that I might do his will.

In the last chapter of Luke we read of the two walking to Emmaus, who meet up with Jesus, but can’t figure out that it’s him. Jesus describes himself as the fulfilment of everything that has come before (Moses and the Prophets), but they still don’t get it. It wasn’t until he broke bread with them that their eyes were opened. I have great need of Jesus to open my eyes to see him for who he is. I am foolish and slow of heart to believe the word of God, but his grace is sufficient to enable me to see with the eyes of faith.

The disciples (and the rest of humanity since!) are no different than the two on the road. When Jesus comes to them they don’t know what to make of him. They think all kinds of wrong thoughts about him (like, ‘Maybe he’s just a spirit or something?’). It wasn’t until Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures that they could understand Jesus.

I have great need of Jesus opening my eyes to understand the Bible, in order for me to know him. Unless Jesus grants that my eyes be opened I can read the Bible till I die (or not read the Bible till I die) and I will never know Jesus. The only way to know him is from his word, and the only way to understand his word is if he opens our minds.

Man, am I needy!

And to think, that’s from only a few chapters…

On the Great Irrelevance of the Gospel

Perhaps we’ve missed something. In all of our efforts to “make church relevant”, perhaps we’ve missed that the gospel itself is not relevant. People do not care when we tell them about Jesus. Why should they?

I was listening to an album called Awesome God put out for kids by Sovereign Grace Ministries on the way home in the car tonight. The one song called Have You Heard? has a line that was particularly thought-provoking.

Okay, so a song for kids was “thought-provoking” for me–call me simple, but I think there’s something to it.

Anyway, the song is talking about the gospel and says, “It tells us that Jesus died for us to save us from our sins.” Nothing terribly original yet, I know. The next line, however, says, “This is the best news that we could ever hear.”

Is it? Is it the best news you’ve ever heard? What do you do when you get good news? When you propose and she says “yes” (drug induced or otherwise)? When you find out you got the job? When you find out your wife is pregnant with your first child? When the offer you put in for the house is accepted?

You tell people! You celebrate! You rejoice! It’s a no-brainer. Maybe you even dance a jig (when no one’s looking, of course)!

But how do we react when we hear that Jesus died for us, to save us from our sins? No wonder the world doesn’t find our message relevant. It’s not.

See, the message of the gospel is water. If you’re thirsty, there’s nothing like it. If you’re belly is already full of fluid so that you can hear it jiggle when you move quickly, you’re not interested.

The problem is that we’re trying to force people to drink when they’re just not thirsty. In our world there’s no such thing as sin. If there’s no sin, and I’m not guilty of it, and it really shouldn’t be punished anyway, then why is it good news (the best news!) that Jesus died for my sins? It’s not.

If our message is to be relevant, so that the gospel can be restored to a place where it is the best news people have ever heard, then we need to start by preaching sin. We need to start by showing people that they are thirsty! They have a need! They are hellbound sinners in the hands of an angry God.

A world that is so incredibly “tolerant”, and a philosophical realm where the ultimate ethic is always “justice to the other’s idea” needs to hear that there is right and wrong, sin and righteousness, judgment and forgiveness. No one is interested in drawing these lines anymore, however.

But we need to. We must preach sin if we are to ever preach a relevant saviour. Forgiveness is only the best news ever heard if people have heard that they need it.

The Passion of the Christ: A Blessing in Disguise? Part 2

Many have said that the benefit of Mel’s movie is that it gets people talking about Jesus. The unfortunate thing, I have found, is that because of the wrongly placed emphases in the movie, people are generally quick to talk about the wrong things about Jesus. People are quick to talk about the violence in the movie, if the Jews are really to blame for Jesus’ death, and did the crucifixion really happen that way?

In the true gospel story, however, it was not the violence that was front and centre (a concept foreign to the maker of movies like Braveheart and the Patriot). While the brutality Jesus experienced was most likely more horrible than anyone ever reading this post will ever have to go through, that was not the point. The depiction of the suffering of Christ in the movie was at the very least superfluous, if not distracting.

The point of the cross was not how bad the pain was for Jesus. The point of the cross was that he had to die. But removed from the rest of the biblical plotline, audiences everywhere walk away saying, “What did he do that was that bad?” Or else, “Man, the Pilate guy sure was a wimp.” Some even leave saying, “Those crazy Jews, why did they kill an innocent guy?”

I understand that it is impossible for Mel to make a movie that depicts the whole story of redemptive history, but to focus on the cross without giving any background rationale for it makes the evil seem pointless and people leave with more questions than answers.

God created the world, and the world was good. But when man was tempted to disobey God’s command, he did it. Adam, our first representative, chose to sin. He thought what he wanted outweighed what God commanded. He thought that he knew the way he could be happy and that God’s command was keeping him back from that.

But like God had warned Adam, in the day when he sinned, he would surely die. Sin brings death. That was what God told Adam from the beginning. When Adam and Eve sinned, God killed an animal so he could cover their nakedness (ie. their shame). It was a picture that to cover their guilt, death would have to come.

They were cast out of the Garden where they lived with God, because sin cannot be in the presence of God. The whole rest of the Old Testament functions as witness to this fact… Even before the Law was given on Mt. Sinai. That’s why Paul could write in his letter to the Romans that from Adam until Moses sin and death still reigned.

So what about the Law? Could it save? No! The power of the Law was sin and death. As Paul said, “I wouldn’t have known what it was to covet if the Law hadn’t said ‘Do not covet’.” The Law functioned to stir people up to more sin, and to make their transgression obvious! Which of us hasn’t had an experience like this? We have no inclination to do something until we’re told not to do it. Then, once we know that we can’t do it, that’s exactly when we want to do it! And our sin becomes all the more obvious.

So we (each and every one of us) stand guilty before God and unable to live in his presence. Our representative (Adam) fell, and all of us fell in him. But then each of us, once we were born and able to choose right or wrong, chose wrong and bore testimony to the fact that we are fallen creatures. We prove our judgment to be right when we act the way that we do when we make our own choices.

So what can save us? Is it good works? If we do enough good things to outweigh the bad things? Clearly not. Isaiah says that our “good works” are like dirty, old, used menstrual rags before a holy God. Somehow I don’t think that’s the effect we wanted them to have. And the simple fact of the matter is that even if God is saddened by our sin, he cannot simply forgive by ignoring the facts any more than we would want Paul Bernardo’s judge to acquit by ignoring the facts. That’s not fair and it’s not just. But God is a God of mercy, is he not?

How can his mercy and his justice come together to accomplish his purpose of glorifying himself in redeeming an innumerable people from all over the earth? That’s why we have the cross. That’s why Jesus had to die.

To be continued…

The Passion of the Christ: A Blessing in Disguise?

This is to be part one of a few posts with regards to the movie the Passion of the Christ (the Gospel according to Gibson). To say the least, the movie is (1) Roman Catholic, (2) highly speculative, and, (3) has its emphases in the wrong places. Anyone can nit-pick, however, and the film’s flaws have been well documented elsewhere. I recommend (amongst others) this article as a primer for where the biblical, thoughtful Christian should have problems with the movie. That being said, it is not the intention of these posts to slam the movie.

What has moved me to write this series of posts is a recent conversation I had with a friend from work. He approached me–point blank–wondering about the truthfulness of the events depicted in the movie. To be honest, my first thought was, “Oh boy, now where do we start in identifying what was right from what was wrong? How do we separate the fictitious from the factual?”

Almost immediately, however, I had an about-face. Here was an opportunity to share with someone who has very little knowledge of the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection what really happened! And then it hit me… Whatever good the Passion of the Christ has done, it seems that it was done in spite of itself. Now, of course, anecdotal evidence I am sure can be provided (as it can be for just about anything). Someone might say, “I heard of a friend’s sister’s mother’s cousin who broke down in tears at that movie, and she never even went to church before!” or some other variant of that story. But the simple fact of the matter is that (1) we cannot be pragmatic (see Brad Powers’ paper on that topic) about how we present the gospel, and (2) God has used an ass to deliver a message before, but that doesn’t make it ideal.

There are also many positives to be drawn from the movie, however. Not the least of which is that Mel stood up for what he believes. Not many in our world today are willing to put their reputation on the line for their religion–Mel was. Moreover, his attempt to reach today’s audience authentically was admirable. Using pop culture’s current medium of choice, Mel brought the message of hope (as he sees it) to the world of today. Many evangelicals (this writer included) need to learn many lessons in the field of how to communicate the story of God’s salvation accomplished in Jesus more effectively to today’s culture.

The problem, as we have noted, is that Mel’s (Rome’s) gospel is no gospel at all. He has openly confessed that salvation is only in the Roman Catholic Church, and many of the details in the movie show how this belief works itself out.

The most important benefit of the movie is that it has given people like my friend and me opportunities to talk about Jesus. Thinking about, talking about, singing about my Saviour are the things that make me happiest in this world. He is my glory and my joy, and Mel gave me one more chance to do that with one more person. So buddy, when you read this, hang in there. Here’s to many more conversations (in person and online, God-willing) about Jesus and what he has done, is doing, and will do.

That’s it for now… to be continued…

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