Repent or Perish

“But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Scary words from Jesus in Luke 13. Scary because it brings up the question: Have you done this?

And as soon as the question is asked, it leads to more questions: have you repented enough? Have you shown that you really have? What sins might you have missed, or what evil do you continue to cherish? Are you really penitent of heart?

All of these questions assume a definition of repentance that I grew up with: repentance is abandoning your sin and coming to the morality of God. Repentance produces change, a change of mind that leads to a change of life. Repentance is being sorry enough to stop what you are doing and change your behavior.

Holding to this view leads to self-examination to see if you are in the faith. It leads to identifying and removing, one by one, all the sin that you do. Or at least trying. Because if you don’t, then you aren’t repenting. And you aren’t saved.

But… wait a minute. Is that the right definition?

Repentance translates a Greek word meaning ‘change your mind.’ And, remarkably, it isn’t used of changing your moral behavior. Rather it refers to changing your mind about how you are saved.

“Repent and believe in the gospel,” John the Baptist says. He saw two paths. One was to trust in the good news of Jesus. The other is… the opposite. That’s to trust in your own self-righteousness.

This is absolutely critical, this “foundation of repentance from dead works,” as Hebrews 6:1 says. Our repentance is from the works that we think make us good before God.

Like the Pharisee in Luke 18, we come to God and thank him for making us righteous, and rattle off examples of how we avoid sin and do good things. We are glad that we aren’t like the immoral pagans. Yet that immoral tax collector, who sees he has no righteousness in himself and turns to God (that’s right, repents), he’s the one who is actually good.

Like Paul “not having a righteousness” of his own from rule-following, but only the goodness of trusting Jesus, repentance is turning from self-righteousness to Jesus.

Jesus our righteousness.

So abandon the hope of self-improvement, self-advancement, self-goodness, like somehow that’s God’s plan for you. Instead come to Christ, where all self dies and we trust in the gift of His righteousness for us.

Unless you repent, you will perish! Praise God that he repents us, opening our eyes to our sin and giving us the incredible gift of Jesus!

Some thoughts on law

“The beautiful law tells you how you should live for your whole life.”

Nice quote, huh? Ok, ok, I made it up. But I think it is true, whether you are a believer in Jesus Christ or just want life on earth to go well. The law comports well with societal function and relational peace.

The idea that you shouldn’t try to keep the law on earth (speaking of Biblical law, but in general it comports with law as a whole) is just an invitation for consequences. Consequences of the law. For example, if you commit adultery, your marriage may well break. If you steal, reparations and imprisonment await. If you covet, you’ll break relationships and ruin reputations. Life will make you care about the law.

Christians see Jesus raising the law to its beautiful heights. Lawkeeping isn’t just avoiding murder, it is not even getting angry; not just avoiding adultery, but never lusting. The law paints a picture of truly skillful living at a level that God approves. When the scribe says that loving God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength and loving his neighbor as himself is keeping the law, Jesus responds with ‘you aren’t far from the kingdom of God.’

No, the radical change that the gospel brings isn’t on the beauty or desirability of following the law on earth. We desire to keep it. It is rather in how we see our accomplishment of it.

To know that the law is this radical love of God and neighbor, is to be near the kingdom of God. And that’s the thing, right? Near; not far. That means… not there. Close, but no cigar. And we hear those words and think, ‘well, maybe with a bit more elbow grease.’ With more effort, more prayer, more enablement, the law’s demands can be fulfilled. I reason that with an extra push from the Holy Spirit, I can attain the law.

So the direction we often take isn’t to stop trying but to redouble effort on our not-quite-good-enough lawkeeping. “Fake it ‘til you make it,” a friend used to say. And we hold the law so high that we try and try… thinking we are taking steps, even baby steps, towards fulfillment. I don’t love God with all my heart, but I am trying to love him more and more. That counts for something, right?

This is the dead end that so many Christians are caught on. The focus is on using the cross, using the enablement of the Spirit, using the means of the gospel, to attain the law. The focus is on our effort. We’re trying!  These efforts are often labeled ‘sanctification,’ as if incremental improvement in lawkeeping over time would mean we are more holy, more set apart.

But what if that focus is all wrong? What if the purpose of the law isn’t accomplishment, but rather on highlighting failure? The beauty and rightness of the law means that we try, of course we do. But if the reality simply is that we do not accomplish it, then the law leaves us failures. No matter how much you do, you are still a failure at the law. Just one jot or tittle missed, James says, and you are guilty of it all. He’s talking to Christians. And he’s keeping us… failures.

That opens the door for truth to leak in. The truth of our humble state. Our inability. Our lack. Instead of us looking at some enablement for self-improvement, we are forced to look outside of ourselves, for a savior.

This is the message that brings freedom. This is the good news of the cross. Of a Christ who died once for all, his blood cleansing all our grime, his forgiveness deep enough for all our sin. Forever.

This doesn’t mean you stop trying to keep the law. It is still out there, in all its (terrifying?) beauty. But issue of your life, the work of the Spirit, is in opening your eyes to how you are doing. Before and after “praying the prayer.” And how you are doing is failing still.

If you think you use the cross to improve yourself, whether you call that holiness or righteousness or God-glorifying activity, you will stay focused on you. The law doesn’t pat you on the back. Your tongue doesn’t stop being a pit of poison. Your sin doesn’t become less and less. You don’t climb a ladder of progressive lawkeeping. You are knocking on the wrong door, no matter what high-sounding words you use. You’re trying to leverage the cross to attain a better you. That’s the wrong goal. You don’t need to be better. You need to die.

But if you keep seeing the beauty of the law, its true height, and thus your failure… welcome to true freedom. A freedom that stops at the cross, that receives the forgiveness of Jesus, and a righteousness that is freely given, not earned through trying. Your hope is totally outside your lawkeeping. Forever.

The beautiful law shows you how should live for your whole life. And your whole life you will fail, thus keeping you at the foot of the cross. This is where we die with Christ to our dreams of self-earned righteousness. To our grandiose ideas of attaining the law. To ourselves, period… and instead trust in the freedom of his sure promise.

“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:56-57)

The law brings death your whole life long. Trust Jesus, who will resurrect the dead and give us the victory.

Rescuing a Clean Conscience

The Bible is hard to believe, mostly because the gospel is so incredibly bold in its promise to the believer. Nowhere is that more evident than in issues of the conscience.

The conscience is largely seen as that which internally affirms or condemns us. We talk about a “guilty conscience” when people live and breathe under the shame and guilt of their own sin. Conversely, a “clean conscience” often refers to people knowing they have acted righteously or in good faith.

The radical statement of the gospel is that our conscience is clean, not by anything we have done, but by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Hebrews says it most clearly. Contrasting the act of Jesus with the repetitive acts of sacrifice done in earlier times, the author proclaims “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14).

The idea is most assuredly not that a person’s conscience is cleansed from repeated acts of contrition and reparation. Instead, we trust in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. We are clean by trust that his blood is enough. He forgives us, and it works. A cleansed conscience is found in trusting Jesus.

He goes on in chapter 10, saying “we have been sanctified through the body of Jesus Christ once for all” in v.10. That’s a reference to our actual cleanliness being in Christ. We don’t have confidence in the purity of our own repentance, our own reparation, our own deeds of contrition. We trust that we are holy and set apart once and for all by Jesus.

And then in v. 22, again, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

Pretty strong language. We have assurance by trust. We trust that our hearts are clean. Why? Because of what Jesus has done. That’s it. Jesus has done it, we trust it, and we help each other come back to the cross as our only hope. The condemnation we escape is not because we’ve escaped sin, but in the midst of the sin we trust in the cross.

Amazing, incredible, freeing, life-giving. We stand with a clean conscience not by our actions, but by what Jesus has done. We trust in his sacrifice, and it is enough.

Surprisingly, that’s often rejected in our Christian circles. People often return to the law (really, shockingly, exactly what Hebrews is fighting against) to try and get a clean conscience based on their own actions instead of the blood of Christ.

So you get teachers pushing people to “cleanse their conscience” by their own deeds. As if by relying on their own reparations, their own acts of contrition, they will be able to cleanse themselves. Teachers promote a straight law-based “be good by doing good” approach, and urge people to advance their own conscience by paying for their bad deeds. They imply that the believer will feel better (and thus have a better conscience) if they do something nice for whomever they have injured; if they pay back debts; if they can say that they have “made up” whatever they have done wrong.

This mix of law and gospel confuses and deceives. The self-oriented motivation to feel better about oneself based on deeds is a bald use of law to bring assurance. Hebrews will have none of it. The law will at the end only accuse. How can it help to do a good deed so that one’s own heart will not be guilty? How much is enough? And what kind of motivation is that? Basing cleansing on personal achievement of repentance and reparation will either lead the listener into pride (at how clean they’ve become) or despair (that they can’t do enough).

Examples given for this kind of self-cleansing of the conscience include the prodigal son (Luke 15) or Zaccheus (Luke 19). But the younger son isn’t thinking rightly—he doesn’t even get out the words of reparation before the father (God!) restores him beyond his wildest dreams. And Zaccheus is overcome with gratitude and wonder, not following laws of reparation. Spontaneous good deeds—yes! Cleansing your own conscience—no way.

So hear the law: you are grimy and besmirched, your hardened heart beyond repair. And then hear the gospel: your conscience is cleansed and you are holy, by the work of Christ alone. Have confidence, real assurance. You enter into his death and his resurrection. He has done it, this amazing savior of ours, and by his blood we are cleansed forever. Stand tall, no matter what you have done, because Jesus Christ has paid it all. He has declared, “it is finished.” This is the wondrous good news.

Mountaintops and Valleys

Most Christians have heard of that time when Jesus shone with glory, speaking with Moses and Elijah up on a mountain. It is one of those events that gets its own name – ‘The Transfiguration.’ Rightly so. The event is in all the synoptic Gospels, and shows that the culmination of God’s plan is Jesus. Moses points to him; Elijah does too. As Peter had to learn, the law and prophets aren’t co-equal to Jesus, but our hope is in the glory of Jesus, alone.

That’s a mountaintop experience, right there. Seeing Jesus in all his glory. We even note what Jesus was discussing with Moses & Elijah – his upcoming exodus at Jerusalem, which is to say his death and resurrection – and just associate it with the glorious plan of God. Jesus will die and be resurrected, that’s the center of our faith, the wonder and the glory. Jesus for us. Jesus alone. Hallelujah!

But then, most of the time, we leave that there and go back down the mountain. Great to think of the cross; harder to realize what it means. And so it should be no surprise that the Transfiguration in all the gospel accounts is directly tied to, immediately followed by, another scene. A valley scene.

Down in the valley, there’s not peaceful, shining glory. There’s arguing and crowds, the disciples and the scribes, and a child foaming at the mouth. There’s suffering and pain. There’s disagreement. Yep, there’s real life.

And Jesus steps in. The issue is that the disciples, who have been given some power of their own, have not been able to heal the demon-possessed boy, who has been tortured with seizures since birth. They’re arguing over it. There are accusations, sadness, suffering.

Jesus looks around and is dismayed. “How long will I have to deal with this faithless generation?” is his question. There really appears to be some question of whether Jesus is able to heal this particular affliction. Even the father of the child pleads for compassion from Jesus “if you are able.” No paragon of faith, he says he believes but in the same breath is crying “help my unbelief!”.

Real life.

In the midst, there is Jesus. He takes the child. He commands the demon to leave, and to never return. This is the Word incarnate, declaring in power, freeing the child forever. He does have compassion.

Jesus has compassion, in real life. But what does it look like? Here’s where it gets really interesting.

Because the child falls at his feet like a corpse. There’s this moment of silence, almost, as people are like, “the kid is dead.” See, that’s the power of Jesus. He does it. And it leaves the child… dead.

And only then does Jesus reach down, and take him by the hand, and raise him up.

That’s what healing looked like. That’s what rescue entailed. The Word of promise, authoritative, received… resulting in death… and resurrection. All by Jesus.

The disciples want to know why they couldn’t do what Jesus did. He says ‘this kind is only by prayer,’ and we go off on our glory roads again, figuring out how much prayer is needed… but what this means is tied to all he’s said. This kind is only by asking Jesus. Only by dependence. Jesus, alone.

And that’s the message all the way through life, isn’t it? Real life, with real suffering, disease, death. Jesus, the Word of God, acts to save through his own suffering and death. This is the glory of God. Applied to us, in his compassion he speaks salvation to us. But it looks like death. And it depends on resurrection.

Real life looks like trusting Jesus who says he has paid it all. We are forgiven. But it looks functionally like death, like our being even worse off than before. And it puts all our hope in his raising of us.

That’s the message of the mountaintop and of the valley. That Jesus, in glory, will suffer and die for us. And our power, our strength, our life avails nothing. We fall on his mercy for us. We live through death and resurrection, at his hand, on his work, in him forever.

Following Jesus is Bare Trust in His Action

Right here in the middle of the first chapter of Mark, we already know that Mark’s gospel will be one of action. We have scenes of Jesus at work. And it crushes our expectations.

We start this section with Jesus calling his disciples: “Follow me,” Jesus says to them, “and I will make you become fishers of men.” When we hear that, we are prone to think – what does it mean to follow Jesus? What actions do we take? What do we have to do, to become fishers of men? And we are off to the races of self-based religion.

But Mark’s focus is actually on something quite different, seen in the strong affirmation Jesus makes: “I will make you become.” Does Jesus have the ability to make you become who he wants you to be? Is Jesus just hoping that you fulfill what he wants of you, or does he create what he wants?

This becomes the focus of even this early chapter in Mark. We see this emphasis in what happens in the rest of the text.

Because the next paragraph has an interaction of Jesus and a demon-possessed man. Jesus says these simple words: “Be silent” and “come out of him.” There’s no intricate interaction, nor any real action on the part of the man possessed. But there is an immediate response. The demon leaves the man. The man is saved. Rescued by the power of Jesus.

With no letup, Jesus presses on. He goes and heals Simon’s mother-in-law. He heals many more.

And finally at the end of the chapter he interacts with a leper. Diseased, outcast, not able to be touched by anyone lest they become unclean like he is. Jesus says – “I will that you be healed. Be clean.” And with his touch the leper is immediately healed. No prior qualification, no acts of contrition, no promise of post-cleaning devotion.

What’s the point, in this beginning of the gospel? This: Jesus has the authority to heal. To rescue. To cleanse. Our eyes need to remain on Jesus, not on ourselves. Life isn’t about getting the right steps to be healed, but on the heart of Jesus to find the lost, to heal and rescue.

Forgiveness and cleansing come by his power and by his heart. You can trust him. Relentless, is this Jesus.

Reading Mark, Finding Jesus

I’ve grown up reading the Bible. Maybe you have too. Can’t really ever remember not reading the Bible. I don’t keep track, but I read it all the time. I love the Word. The stories of the Old Testament. The wisdom of Proverbs. The God who fights for his people. The faithful prophets in the times of rebellion. The beautiful, worshipful psalms. And then into the New Testament: the coming of the King, his life, death, and resurrection. The spread of the church. The letters of Paul. The looking forward to heaven.

All this talk of my Bible reading can sound like pride. That’s because so many of us (me included) can count Bible reading as a mark of value. I don’t think its pride if I talk about rereading my favorite novel for the 10th time. But I am tempted to count Bible reading as spiritual discipline, as a good work, the very act a ‘means of grace.’ I have this thought that the reading itself will change me, will do something more than reading another book. I have this thought that the words that I read will be used by the Holy Spirit—somewhat mysteriously, even magically—to change my heart and grow me.

Reading the Bible then becomes ‘my part.’ Reading it isn’t because I love the narrative tension of David and Goliath, or the irony of Jonah. It is to change me. And the mindset that I can get into is that the change is my earnest application of the tenants. My learning of principles and practice. Even the reading itself becomes part of this improvement mindset.

We’ve fought that at Grace and are sometimes misunderstood because of our stand against progressive spiritual improvement through hard work. Another word for what we won’t affirm is merit-based progress. You know, read more to grow more. Earn the growth by doing the work. Your effort plus God’s help leads to a better you. Our problem with this approach is, paradoxically, the Bible itself. What the Word actually proclaims is counter to our normal practice of self-improvement.

And so the message itself is why we excitedly affirm and promote reading the Bible.

Because the Bible is where you understand the story. Where you see God’s revelation. Where you encounter the Word who is Jesus. Where you are broken of you, and trust him.

That’s why we’re eager to examine the Gospel of Mark together. Because while the other gospel accounts might more easily shine forth with Jesus as the only center, from the I AM’s to the parables of prodigals and publicans, Mark reflects our conviction about the whole Bible. That it is all about the Son of God who came. Mark is relentless to show us, not steps to improvement, but our need to trust in this Jesus. This savior. This redeemer.

Over the course of the next months, we’ll walk through Mark’s presentation. I’ll put posts up as we go, with some highlights from what we’re teaching on Sundays, encouragements that the gospel is good news about Jesus, not us. You can also check out the church’s facebook page, where we’re putting up weekly short video posts on Wednesdays (“whiteboard Wednesdays”).

So… read Mark, will you? And my hope is that we will be changed. Because of the relentless presentation of Jesus Christ, Son of Man, Son of God, we see what belief is: that the only hope we have is this Savior for us.

Our Hope for Holiness

Salvation isn’t just conversion, it is the whole of our life. We are saved by Jesus Christ, and that means we are justified, sanctified, redeemed, adopted, regenerated, and are assured of glorification. That assurance of heaven is by the promise of God in Christ. The gospel announces this, outside of us, done by God. Our work is to believe (trust, have faith in) this good news.

The above may not seem remarkable. But in one particular aspect it flies in the face of what is often simply accepted dogma in modern conservative Christianity.

I was taught that justification was an event and sanctification was a process. I was taught that I grow progressively through life in holiness by my effort in conjunction with the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. I was taught that the straining Paul is doing in Philippians 3, and the fear and trembling in chapter 2, were about progression in personal holiness. I was taught that justification was essentially conversion, and sanctification was life now (slow intermittent growth in holiness).  I am a product of schools that teach this, of dear friends who hold to it, and of course have read many books that espouse this thinking. It is really common, so common as to be unquestioned.

What I ran into that has made me think differently was the buzz saw of the Bible, in teaching through Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Hebrews, and more. Slowly I have been faced with how the Bible uses the word sanctification. It’s alternatively translated holiness. It was a surprise to me how it almost always did not refer to progress in personal holiness.

That doesn’t mean we don’t display holy behavior (we do); or we don’t grow in godliness (we do); or we don’t run the race (we do).

But a misunderstanding of sanctification, in my experience, has led many Christians away from the gospel. I don’t say that lightly or without fear and trembling. But when we leave the biblical emphasis, we open ourselves up to difficulty.

If Christians are emphasizing what the New Testament does, then we should see each other as holy, as much as we will ever be on earth, because of what Jesus has done and by his sacrifice alone. That means I don’t lose holiness by my sin. Jesus paid for that. I don’t go up and down in holiness, as it is not by degree. I am sanctified, set apart, by what Jesus did, not by what I do, not ever. If I have been a Christian for 30 years, and someone else has been a Christian for 3 minutes, I am not more holy. I was as holy at conversion as I am at my death. I don’t have any ‘personal’ holiness, because it is corporate. Because all of my holiness is found in my union with Christ, along with every other believer’s sanctification.

God’s favor is because of my union with Christ by faith alone, and not by my own good works, even good works done as a Christian. This does not take away from the reality that my faith produces different behaviors than unbelief would (these are a response to God’s favor, not a meritorious precondition).

Theologians sometimes break up holiness into “positional” and “progressive.” I don’t see the Bible doing this. The Bible seems to have a heavy emphasis on the former, while many in our theological stream have a heavy emphasis on the latter. So perhaps we should reserve sanctification for the former, and use words like “maturity,” “transformation,” and “growth in dependence” or some such for the latter. Because otherwise it is simply misleading as to what the Bible is about. Unfortunately people are drawn back to guilt, self-righteousness, pride, despair – all because they are thinking wrongly in this area.

I do have a part that is critical, for sure, and it is hard – believing in Christ alone. And I do respond, in gratitude, with humility and love and unity and transparency and, yes, with holy behavior. But this holy behavior is not my sanctification. Jesus is.

And thus our hope is in Christ and his finished work alone for justification, for glorification, and yes, for sanctification.

Rest Again

If you are reading this from afar, you’re missing out. Bellingham in the Fall is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I don’t think that’s hyperbole. The sky is blue, but not just blue, a piercing, clear blue. Clouds stand out in stark relief, but they don’t overwhelm. The reds and yellows of the fall leaves and the greens of the surrounding hills and the church steeple and even the roads and cars and people are all part of a wondrous landscape of color. And its accompanied by crisp, clean air with a hint of the coming winter. Incredible, this world that God has made. I’m in the midst. I’m blessed.

I experienced this, driving home two days ago. An epiphany, a moment of “wow, thank you Lord, you take such good care of me, look what I get to experience!” Maybe you’ve had such moments, too, where you just have a sense that God has you, in the very best sense of the word.

I say moments, because this experience was transitory. It was broken by my remembrance that I’d forgotten to finish preparing for a talk. Then that I hadn’t talked to my extended family as I’d planned. Then that I needed to mow the lawn. More to do now. The future to plan. I’m a little behind.

This is more than just “being busy,” that malady that seems to affect us all. It is also the worry that I’m behind, I’m not doing all I should. I feel that worry—there’s lots to do, and we don’t measure up to standards—is ubiquitous. Your tasks aren’t mine, but both you and I could always do better. I know this inside. I stress about it. I relieve the stress, sometimes, by looking around and getting a bit of comfort in comparison. “Yes, I’m not doing all I should, but I’m doing better than them!” This is something of a fool’s game. I know I’m not all I should be. At the extremes, this lack is experienced in guilt and shame, in despair even. In daily experience, I experience dissatisfaction, irritation, worry, and stress.

So often instead of the wonder of the beautiful day, or the enjoyment of my kid’s smile, or the joy of a free salvation, and especially about the truth that God has a plan for me and he will get it done, I am about the reality of a fallen me. I don’t want to be fallen. I want to be better. So I steal a moment of joy, and then head back to work.

I’m reminded of a friend’s recent statement from Hebrews 4. About rest. I see rest as a vacation, usually. You know, recharging the batteries, taking time off so that I can get back to work, at full force. When I’m tired or fatigued, rest is to restore me so I’m back to full capacity. Really, the goal of rest is as a restorative to further work.

And this flies in the face of the gospel. The good news is that Jesus actually did it all. I rest in his finished work. I trust in his once-for-all sacrifice.

When I lose that perspective, it doesn’t become untrue. I can spin my wheels, and all I’m doing is not seeing reality. And when that reality breaks through, whether on a beautiful Fall day or in the middle of a busy week, I see again that Jesus is my rest for all time.

He has me, forever.

Like he had Peter when he started sinking.

Like he had Zaccheus even when he was up in a tree, a sinner through and through.

Like he had Lazarus even when he was dead.

He has promised us heaven. Not on our work. On his promise. On his strength. For me.

I lean back in my seat, resting on the strength of it. Well, for a moment, before the world and my flesh intrude again.

May true rest, true peace, true wondrous trust in his promises, continue invade our lives and color our days even as we struggle. Until faith becomes sight, and we see our Jesus again.

Read Your Bible

I love the Word of God. I think everyone who is saved does, in no small part because Jesus is the Word. But it has been an interesting journey through my Christian life in how I think about the text that informs my faith.

I wouldn’t know who Jesus is without the Bible.

I wouldn’t know how he came to earth. I wouldn’t know he died for me. I wouldn’t know about the incredible truth of the God who became man, to save people.

The heart of God, his character, his love, his justice, all on display for me in the pages of the Bible.

I love the Word of God.

But I have to confess a concern in how I see myself tempted to read it. And this concern is about how I have read in the past, and how I am often encouraged to read right now.

The concerning behavior is reflected in how people take 1 Timothy 3:16. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” Paul writes to his protégé.

And I was taught, then, that every passage, every sentence, every word, is perfectly set up so that I can discern timeless truths for living in them. I mean, Paul was referring to the Old Testament, and saying that it can be used as a basis for teaching, reproof, and correction, right?

Practically that became an exhortation to “search the passage for a timeless truth you can use today.” The procedure was to read the Bible in its context (or sometimes, out of it), and then generalize it to today’s setting, and come up with a truth that we should strive after.

Context was hard, because as a ‘regular reader’ I didn’t have a lot of experience with languages, so what I’d do is go to a commentary and get the ‘real reading’ from someone who was more learned than I was.

So I could read about Joseph being sold into slavery, reading of the jealousy of his brothers at his father’s preference for that firstborn of Rachel. “Favoritism is a killer of families” became a timeless truth. “Jealousy is terrible,” another. “God protects those who are faithful,” yet another as I read on and saw that Joseph didn’t die. Really, the timeless truths were only limited by my creativity and time in the text.

This approach was a direct application of my understanding of 2 Timothy 3. And the approach reinforced ethical guidelines and behaviors that I already knew were good. I was raised in a Christian home. “Be good” was always something we aimed for.

Some readers at this point may not understand why this grieves me so.

Here’s the concern: where’s Jesus? Not like “where’s Waldo?”, trying to find Jesus somewhere in the bushes of the text. But it is a real question.

One answer is that Jesus is the instruction. Jesus is the Word, so the timeless principles you get from the word is Christ himself instructing you in increasing righteousness. That the instruction and the training is Christ himself increasing your morality and goodness. Not sure anyone would actually say that, but that’s a possibility.

Another answer, perhaps more honest for most, is ‘who cares?’. I mean, the bulk of Christian experience, in my cultural setting, is squarely aimed at individual improvement. Tell me how to be a good parent, good child, good spouse, good Church-goer, good person. Let’s work on personal holiness, because that is the default understanding of what it means to “do” the Bible. The Word, in this instance, becomes an instruction manual on living, and the timeless principles become the things to do to get there. God functionally becomes window dressing, an enabling power or distant observer.

But what if the foundational assumption of this approach is wrong?

What if Jesus is the message of the Bible? What if the “instruction in righteousness” isn’t personal holiness, but renewal of the mind about who Jesus is, and who we are? What if “timeless principles” towards more ethical behavior really aren’t the focus of the instruction we are to have? After all, the Sciptures are identified as those which make you “wise for salvation through faith in Christ” in the verse before our famous 2 Timothy 3:16.

What makes you wise for salvation through faith in Christ?

Perhaps we should be asking this question of our text. Perhaps our text becomes more about worship, more about humility and trust and wonder and loyalty. And less about timeless behavioral principles.

So Joseph’s story becomes a magnificent opus to the failure of even the chosen (Jacob) to raise his family right, and God’s faithfulness in the midst. Joseph becomes an incredible look at the upside-down ways of God, saving through the least and the little, taking the lowly and raising them up in the midst of the so-called powerful.

Perhaps the training Paul is after is to exalt Christ, forgetting ourselves… not forgetting Christ and exalting ourselves.

That may sound a bit harsh. I mean the reason why people often exhort personal improvement is so that you will “glorify God.” But the work of God is not presenting him your goodness. It is trusting in Christ’s goodness. The work of God, famously identified by Jesus himself in John 6:29, is to “believe in the one whom he has sent.”

This changes the whole idea of Bible reading. We don’t read to get ourselves better, in any normally understood way. We read because Jesus is the Word. He is the revelation, the perfect revelation, of who God is; and by so revealing him, we also see our need for him, our lack. The Bible births things like gratitude and humility simply because the story is one of God reaching down, not us building up.

This doesn’t change one bit the idea that the text is inspired. That it has authority. The issue is, what it is for? Your answer will mark your life. For Luther, father of the reformation, I think he’d distill it to two words: law and gospel. Law to condemn, the gospel to free.  And all of it Jesus, revealing God’s plan for us in Christ forever.

It isn’t too late to change your Bible habits. So change this one. Read your Bible, looking for Jesus. The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory. Go ahead. Behold his glory, in the pages of the most important reading you’ll ever do.

We Are All Theologians

Humility is so not something we work on. It really is what we are, what it means to come to trust Jesus, to need Jesus, because our own works are a crumbly mess.

Thinking that the church at Corinth had the same basic theology as Paul. He calls them saints. He says that they have all things, that they are Christ’s, and that they, like him, have nothing they didn’t receive. Basically they both have received the gift of the gospel. They are Christ’s people, his church.

But then he really goes after them for not living it out. For what kind of theologians they are. He paints this incredible contrast in chapter 4. The “Corinth-way” of being theologians is that they are rich, they have all they want, they are wise in Christ, they are strong, they are held in honor. They are leveraging the gospel to affirm their self-righteousness, their standing.

I’m struck by how amazing this is. You can hear the gospel, believe in Jesus, and live it out in a way that doesn’t go to the core of what the gospel is.  You can, as a Christian, see the Christ and the cross as a means to self-improvement.

Against that way, Paul illumines another way of living out the theology of the gospel. He calls it the apostles’ way. They are a spectacle to all, sentenced to death, fools for Christ’s sake, weak, held in disrepute, considered scum of the earth, refuse. No leveraging, no honor, no climbing some ladder to self-improvement through the gospel.

I’ve never seen this passage used as support by Forde or Luther, but this passage fits right in with the contrast of being a theologian of glory or being a theologian of the cross. Do you see through the cross to a grander purpose for yourself, to be honorable, strong, improved, and not to die? There you are, the way of Corinth, the theologian of glory.

Or do you see the cross… and stop. The hidden mystery of God in suffering and death. It proclaims our total unworthiness. And we identify with this Jesus, and we await the resurrection from the dead that brings no status here, no strength that the world is attracted to.

Being a theologian of the cross, it seems to no small degree, is essential humility, because it is being struck with the suffering and death of Jesus for me. All is him, naught is me. And in my own suffering, in my own death, in the insufficiency of all I do, is not futility to be railed against, but a trust that, in Christ, I will be raised. There is no hope in me; there is no hope but Christ.

I’m coming to see you, Paul says to the church in Corinth, we will see. The issue is, where is the power? Is it in us, seeing through the cross, stronger and better now? Or is it in our identification with Jesus, because the power is the resurrection? May we all be theologians of the cross.