What is the Gospel?

What is the gospel? It’s such a simple question, but answering it correctly is essential to healthy church ministry. Simply put, the gospel is the news of what God has done to save sinners in the death burial and resurrection of Christ.

Tim Keller says, “All human problems are ultimately symptoms, and our separation from God is the cause.” (1)

So, let’s get this straight: racism, poverty, and homelessness are all symptomatic. None of them is the ultimate problem. The ultimate problem is that human beings are separated from God because of their sin.

And this means that the only thing that can rescue humanity is to be made right with God; to be reconciled to him. And here’s the rub: nothing we do can reconcile us to him. This means we can’t be saved by housing the homeless or feeding the hungry. A man cannot reconcile with his brother enough to get himself reconciled with God too.

I’m not saying those things are unimportant. I’m saying they are so important that we must defend a clear definition of the gospel because the moment we water the gospel down into social work is the moment any hope of mortifying racism and pushing back poverty vanishes. 

The center of Jesus’ first appearing wasn’t social justice, it was to come and bear the wrath of divine justice as a payment of sin. When Jesus Christ ascended there were still poor people in Jerusalem and Jewish-Gentile relations were strained. But, there wasn’t a single person who couldn’t be reconciled to God. Jesus did what he came to do. He came to reconcile us and, having ascended, he has given the ministry of reconciliation to his church.

So, where does doing social good factor into all of that? This is where we have to differentiate between the gospel (we can be reconciled to God through Christ) with the effects of the gospel (our new life in Christ makes us reconcile with our brother, feed the hungry, etc.). 

John tells us that Christians who claim to love God but hate their brother are lying, and this ought to cause us to consider whether we’ve believed in the true gospel if our lives remain unchanged. But, on the flip side, those who redefine the gospel along the lines of doing social justice have left the true gospel. In other words, they no longer believe in justification by faith alone. Now, justification is based on works. And once that happens to a church, put a fork in it. It’s done. 

So, let’s ingrain the true gospel so deep that nothing will dislodge it. Let’s preach Christ and him crucified so that sinners can be reconciled to God. And let’s not be those who claim to love God while hating our brother, or despising the poor.

(1) Keller, Timothy. Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (p. 29). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Book Thoughts: Christ and Culture Revisited- D.A. Carson

A new series for this blog in 2017 will be Book Thoughts. A while back a friend and I began sharing the best quotes and thoughts we had from our personal reading. The idea was to give one another greater access to books without having to read as many. If I read a book, my friend could benefit from reading the quotes I pulled out and any thoughts I shared. For 2017, when ever I read a book I’ll share quotes I like, as well as any major thoughts I have about the book.

The first book is Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson. In 1951 Richard Niebuhr wrote what has become a Christian classic, Christ and Culture. The book plotted 5 different viewpoints on how Christianity relates to the world (culture). Carson gives Niebuhr an update and advances Niebuhr’s original thought, slightly.

The greatest contribution I took from this book was Carson’s admonition to balance my view of the relationship of Christ and Culture across the great turning points of salvation history (Creation, the Fall, Call of Abraham, the Exile, the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Church Age, Second Coming and Restoration/Consummation). For example, a view that focuses too heavily on the Fall without also focusing on the Resurrection will tend to hate the world as an evil/irredeemable annoyance. This results in isolationist Christians.

Two other insights I found helpful are these:

  • The church can be so involved in the political process that it ceases to be a prophetic voice challenging the process.
  • Pastors must work hard to distinguish between the mission of the church and the individual commands given to Christians who are citizens of human cities/nations.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

Niebuhr is not so much talking about the relationship between Christ and culture, as between two sources of authority as they compete within culture.
First, an evaluation of a culture depends on a set of values— even as that set of values is in turn shaped by the culture that informs the evaluation… Second, from a Christian perspective, everything that is detached from the sheer centrality of God is an evil… But third, equally from a Christian perspective, God in his “common grace” pours out countless good things on all people everywhere… Fourth, as Christian revelation certainly insists that there are degrees of punishment meted out by a good God, we must assume that some cultural stances are more reprehensible than others.
The worst abuses of Christians against the broader culture have taken place when Christians have enjoyed too much power.
that stance is most likely to be deeply Christian which attempts to integrate all the major biblically determined turning points in the history of redemption.
Romans 13 does not so much tell believers how to govern well as how to be governed.
As for democracy, if we promote it, we do so not because we take it to be an absolute good, still less as the solution to all political problems, and not even because it is an ideal form of government, but because, granted that the world is fallen and all of us are prone to the most grotesque evils, it appears to be the least objectionable option.
It would be more realistic to acknowledge that the founding of the nation was borne along by adherence to some Christian principles and not others. 
Let me know if you’ve read the book, or Niebuhr’s original. I’d love to discuss the topic in the comments.

Blog Link: Are Recent Restroom Laws the Same as Jim Crow Laws?

Andrew Walker raises both questions and brings clarity to what may be the hottest topic in American culture. In a post for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention entitled Are restroom laws that respect privacy the equivalent of Jim Crow laws? Walker writes the following:

Jim Crow laws made arbitrary distinctions based on skin color. For example, the color of a person’s skin matters nothing to their hunger or ability to purchase food, but Jim Crow laws prohibited African Americans from entering certain restaurants. There’s no rational purpose to deny a person access to a particular restaurant because of an arbitrary factor like skin color. Those laws were senseless and irrational. HB 2, however, makes rational distinctions based on the very real differences between men and women.

Therein lies the rub. Are there “very real differences” between the sexes? Walker’s post hangs on that sentence. Astonishingly, one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves today is, “Is gender something?” While so many people fight over definitions of gender this question precedes all other questions. Is gender something? Or, is it nothing?

We should ask the same question about marriage. Is marriage something? Or, is it nothing? We can argue until we’re blue in the face over what marriage is and isn’t, when we should be asking, “Is marriage something, rather than nothing?”

This is the center of the debate. Our nation is dividing over this question. Part of our population agrees with the statement, “Gender is something.” Part of our population agrees with the statement, “Gender is not something.” As it relates to Jim Crow laws almost no one is arguing over whether race is something or not.

I believe the Scriptures teach that both gender and marriage have objective definitions. They are something. They can be defined. Notice, I haven’t defined them yet. I’ve just said they can be defined. I also believe the Scriptures account for a wide range of human experience, human sin, and divine mercy and patience for both me and those I disagree with on public policy. I believe asking the question of the possibility of objective definition can help Christians clarify their understanding of exactly what’s at stake.

My hope and prayer is that Christians learn how to be both unwavering in their commitment to the authority of Scripture and patient and loving and winsome to surrounding culture.

I highly recommend following the ERLC and its President Russell Moore as they model what I believe is a Biblically faithful witness to culture.

Christians and Politics

I hate, hate, hate commenting on politics.download  But, as a pastor who gets asked a lot of questions about how our faith intersects with the political realm I do feel the need to share some thoughts. I won’t address any candidates here. My goal is the help you understand how I think about politics and in doing so, perhaps, help you think more deeply and critically as well.

Chances are you have Christian friends who obsess over politics. Their social media feeds flash every 15 minutes with a new video, article or advertisement for a candidate. On the other hand you have Christian friends who may not even vote. They have no hope in politics, and don’t believe Christians should engage in the systems of the world. “Our job,” they say, “is to evangelize the word, not try to make it better.” How do you account for those extremes? Both friends love Jesus. They both profess their own personal need for grace. Yet, they live by seemingly opposite motivations, fears, and hopes.

Tim Keller (yes, I know I quote him a lot) says that you can better understand this spectrum of the relationship to Christians and culture/politics by asking two questions:

Should we be pessimistic or optimistic about the possibility of cultural change?

Is the current culture redeemable and good, or fundamentally fallen?

Ask yourself those questions. Ask those questions about your two friends. With those two questions Keller has given us a coordinate plane that looks like this:

Cultral Change

These two axes represent the spectrum of answers to Keller’s questions. Someone who believes the world is full of God’s common grace, and that nonbelievers can understand and live by God’s natural revelation would be at the top of the graph. They also believe that God is heavily at work in the culture of the world. Those who believe the world and it’s systems are fundamentally evil, that non-believers can know little of God through natural revelation, and that God is working only in the church (not in the culture) fall to the bottom of the spectrum. As you move to the left you become less engaged culturally/politically. Move to the right and engagement increases.

Now, let me put some names on the graph. I admit that this is an over-simplification. Forgive me.

  • The Moral Majority/Religious Right would occupy the lower right quadrant. They believe the world is fundamentally fallen, but are optimistic that through political endeavor they can change culture.
  • Mainline liberal Christians occupy the top right. They’re just as active in politics as the Religious Right, but they have a more positive view of the world.
  • Martin Luther and churches that hold to a Two Kingdoms doctrine represent the top left quadrant. Because they believe the world is full of common grace they focus on doing their personal work excellently and humbly before the Lord. Because they hold a strong discontinuity between the church and the culture they are typically pessimistic/indifferent to cultural change.
  • Anabaptists and Amish groups fill in the bottom left. This quadrant is the most isolationist. There is little common grace in the world, and zero desire to change culture, therefore they establish their own, separate community over and against culture.

So what does all this mean, and how does it apply to you? Let’s draw out some simple applications:

  • At different times in your life you will likely move between these poles. At times you will feel more optimistic politically; at times more pessimistic. This means that at times you will feel guilt over being overly engaged in culture/politics. It also means that at times you’ll feel guilt over being disengaged.
  • Ask yourself why. Why am I currently obsessing over the political/cultural? Am I obsessing because I feel the threat of change to the way of life I agree with? Am I obsessing because I feel oppressed and believe that change will make me happier?
  • Try to discern your heart. If things change for the worse will I be despondent? Why is my mental/emotional state so heavily anchored to the preservation/adaptation of society and not in the perfect grace of Christ? If he really has delivered me out of darkness into his marvelous light why am I afraid?
  • Seek to learn from the other views. Seek to move more towards the center of the graph. Balance pessimism with the hope that Christ is making all things new. Balance optimism with the knowledge of a yet future Kingdom where justice and righteousness reigns. Look around for signs of God’s common grace so that you don’t isolate yourself from culture. Acknowledge the evil and atrocity in the world so that you maintain realism and avoid superficial sentimentality.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, where you think you sit on the plane and why.

If you want to read Keller (I recommend it) here’s the book I’m citing:

Keller, Timothy. Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.

Why Christians Can Enjoy Non “Christian” Music: Common Grace


I love following the ministry of Ray Ortlund. I listen to just about every sermon he preaches from his pulpit at Immanuel Nashville. He recently posted a few thoughts I’d love every church member to hear on God, music, and the gospel. Ray, like me, believes that God gifts all humans with abilities that we, as Christians, can glorify God for and enjoy. Here’s a sample of what he shares:

“The glory and honor of human cultures — the music, the clothing, the literature, the dance, the languages, the customs, the humor, the traditions, and so forth — it will be cleansed and brought in forever.  So Eric Clapton’s blues guitar, for example, is a preview of coming attractions.  The blues will be brought into heaven.  But there it will be even better, and fully devoted to God.  It will finally be perfect.”

For the rest of Ray’s thoughts check out his short article on The Gospel Coalition website. I’d love to hear which artists speak to your soul and cause you to marvel at human giftedness.

What Do I Say When Someone Has Died?

This morning I responded to an email from a church member who is in a unique position to do gospel ministry. In our area this past month a young boy took his own life. Now people close to the situation are approaching this church member asking searching questions about life and death. She emailed me asking how she should respond. Below is a slightly altered version of my email response. It isn’t perfect. It isn’t everything that needs to be said. But, I think it’s a good starting point for a gospel witness in times of tragedy. I hope it helps you think better and more “Christianly” about death.

I will be praying that God gives you both the opportunities and the courage to demonstrate his love. When it comes to talking about a tragedy such as suicide there isn’t a formula. Rather, when I have to opportunity to talk with hurting/questioning people I just try to guide my conversation by a set of principles. Here they are:

1. People need to hear that I’m sorry for what they are going through.

2. People need to hear that I love them. 

When Chelsea and I lost a pregnancy a few years back people responded in so many different ways. Some people tried to tell us it wasn’t a big deal because “this happens to a lot of people.” Well, it was a huge deal for us because we had lost a child. Other’s tried to give cheap Christian sounding explanations like, “Well, God just needed another angel in heaven.” Aside from being incorrect, that statement wasn’t comforting at all. I learned through that time that I only really wanted to hear people say 2 things to us: “I’m so sorry this has happened. I love you.” Anything beyond that just felt like they were trying too hard. If I wanted answers to questions I would have asked. If I didn’t ask, then giving me answers just infuriated me. That would be the first thing I would consider. Let these people know you are sorry and that you love/care for them.

Second, if they ask questions that open the opportunity for witness I would really want them to know these few things:
1. God hates death. Too many Christians speak as if death is one of God’s ways of getting back at people who reject or disobey him. But, God hates death. It wasn’t apart of his original creation. Death is the awful result of human’s rejecting a relationship with God and we should never speak of death as, “just apart of life.” It may be apart of our current existence, but it is an evil consequence of our own choosing. We chose death. We chose exile from God’s presence. God hates death so much that he was willing to die. Christ died in order to kill death. Here’s what that means for us and our Christian witness. We should hate death too. And we should hate it all the more because we know it’s source and it’s ultimate defeat. I would impress that fact on anyone who asks you why something tragic has happened. Let them know that you hate death and God hates it too.
2. Don’t be afraid to tell someone you don’t know why this tragedy has occurred. The truth is that even if you did know the reason why things like this happen the answer wouldn’t satisfy anyway. The scriptures never tell us to always be prepared to give a reason as to why evil happens. Rather, we are to always be ready to give a reason for our hope in spite of evil. Why, in the face of such a tragedy, do we hope? What reason do we have for endurance and joy? It is because death is not the end. Christ has risen from the dead. Paul tell us that Christ disarmed all of the rulers who held judgement over us and put them to open shame by triumphing over them in the cross. Here’s our hope: when hope had all but faded and death was closing in, Christ came at the right time and took our death. He was exiled so that we could be brought back in to God’s family. He lost his face before God so that we could have God’s presence. Our hope is that our death has been exchanged for life.

Aquinas and Culture

NERD ALERT: As posts on this site go, this one is in the uber-nerd category. My apologies.

Earlier this week I had to answer the following question in a discussion board for school: Why does the church in NA often struggle with finding a good tension between being in the world but not of it? Other ways to state the question are, “What is the relationship between God and this world” or, “What is the relationship between Christ and Culture?”  The following was my response:

The short answer to this question is that we stopped reading Aquinas. The long answer is that the church in North America struggles with the tension between being in the world and not of it because we don’t know what to do with Immanuel Kant. His Critique of Pure Reason severed the relationship between the worlds of the physical and the metaphysical. Before Kant, theologians and philosophers wrestled with the relationship between ideas and matter. For Plato ideas were supreme and matter was illusory. For Aristotle, nature was the primary location of knowledge and truth. In other words, Plato believed universals to be located in the world of ideas (Forms). Aristotle believed that universals only exist in their instances. Kant’s work argued that reason overstepped its boundaries. The metaphysical, says Kant, is off limits. Don’t go there.

Idealism and Realism

Aquinas (before Kant was born) objects. The world of metaphysics is real, and we can have true knowledge of it. We can have true knowledge because the source is God himself, and he has given us two distinct avenues of knowledge: nature and special revelation. Ultimate reality is defined as God, but Aquinas doesn’t side with Plato. External reality, as we experience it, is real, but it is fallen. Therefore Aristotle isn’t right either. The answer, therefore, is to avoid any extreme view of the relationship between “being in the world but not of it”. We reject Plato’s idea that the external world and it’s products of culture lead us away from truth and is to be escaped. We reject Aristotle’s idea that products of matter/culture are the containers of universal ideas. We also reject Kant’s impenetrable wall between knowledge about the physical and the metaphysical.

We don’t reject the the physical world or culture or their imperatives. We don’t completely adapt to the fallen world or culture and accept their fallen imperatives. We see the world as something created with meaning and charged with purpose. Culture, though fallen, is a good thing to be engaged in and created, and it’s highest use is when it prepares and points a society towards the ultimate creator. There is therefore, as Niebuhr interpreted Aquinas, no real antithesis between the divine law and natural law, between the Creator and creation, between Christ and Culture. One simply prepares the individual for the other.

My apologies to those of you who have read Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Aquinas. I tried my best to digest them without being sloppy for this discussion board.