Repentance Uncompromised

I repentancehave just posted on the Cor Deo site on the subject of repentance.  It is such a critical subject, and it is so often compromised by the way we preach it and practice it.  I hope the post will be helpful to you.

One of the greatest terms in the Old Testament prophets is the word “turn” or “repent.” The prophets spoke to a nation of God’s people who had consistently turned away from God and to others. They turned to Assyria or Egypt for support via political alliance. They turned to their own military might for confidence. They turned to idols for alternative spiritual assistance. So the prophets urged them to turn back to God.

Repentance is at the heart of Christianity. It has to be. And yet it is so often compromised in the way we present it or practice it.

Why is repentance important?

The Bible tells the amazing story of God’s grace in rescuing a sinful and fallen humanity to bring about a marriage between His Son and the redeemed bride. Ever since the fall into sin and death in Genesis 3, the starting point for this marriage has not been two neutral parties awaiting an introduction. The bride-to-be is spiritually dead and existing in overt rebellion against God and His Son.

God has initiated in stunning fashion. He has demonstrated his love for us through the death of His Son. He has paid the penalty for the rebellion, broken the power of sin and made possible a reconciliation between God and man. And as we read the prophets, we are reminded that God continues to work to graciously win the hearts of humanity back to him through providentially guided circumstances – both those that appear positive and negative from our perspective. God not only initiates, but He also pursues in His attempt to woo the hearts of humanity to His Son.

The Bible presents the work of God in redeeming us, the persistence of God in pursuing us, and the character of God in all of this. The character of God is startling to rebels like us. For instance, the prophet Hosea can characterize God as the God of steadfast love and faithfulness who desires that His people really know Him personally and closely. Hosea expressed God’s frustration that these characteristics were not the defining feature of life in Israel (see Hosea 4:1).

In light of who God is and what God has done and continues to do, what is the appropriate response? It is repentance. It is trust.

How do we compromise repentance?

We compromise repentance when we lose sight of God’s initiative. We compromise repentance when we turn the spotlight onto ourselves. We compromise it when we make it a meritorious work that we do.

I imagine going back to the day when I proposed to my wife-to-be. What if I had pursued her, cared for her, shown affection toward her, won her heart and then nervously orchestrated the circumstances so that I could propose to her in the right place at the right time. After my introductory comments, I drop to one knee and propose marriage. I am ready to give myself to this woman forever, to become one with her. I propose and she says yes. Would it make sense for me to follow up with a “well done” to her for saying yes? Absolutely not! That would be bizarre.

But a corrupted repentance will be seen as the responsibility of the repentant. It will be understood as something we are to do that brings with it certain benefits. Hosea saw through a false repentance in Israel.

Israel said the right words and looked like they were doing the right things. In Hosea 6:1 we see that they viewed repentance as turning to God rather than merely turning to better behaviour (a common area of confusion in our day). Their repentance was followed by religious acts of devotion. Remember, repentance is a turn to a person, God, not a turn to better behaviour. However, turning to God will be followed by changes in behaviour. Repentance that involves no turning from sin cannot be true repentance. But it is possible to turn from sin and not be truly repentant. So it was with Israel.

They sacrificed and gave offerings, but there was no steadfast love or true knowledge of God (see Hosea 6:6). In fact, God declared, “they do not cry to me from the heart, but they wail upon their beds and gash themselves for grain and wine” (Hosea 7:14). They turn, but their turn is not toward God (see verse 16). Their response was not what could be expected in light of who God was and what He had done.

What is true repentance?

In the last chapter of Hosea we get a clearer picture of true repentance. It begins with God – His steadfast love and faithfulness, His desire that we should truly know Him. It is His kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). And then what do we bring? Commitment? Determination? Resolution? Do we get ourselves sorted and then come to Him for the reward of His love? Absolutely not! Do we bring promises and declarations that twist God’s arm into kindness toward us? No.

We have nothing. All we can bring are the words overflowing from a heart that recognizes its need of God. We will not trust in Assyria, in horses, in idols. We will not trust in our righteousness, church attendance, ministry involvement, giving to charity, turning over a new leaf, determination to never do that thing again. We have nothing. We come with empty hands. We are orphans coming to a God who gives mercy to the totally undeserving. (See Hosea 14:1-3)

Whether we are encountering God for the first time, or whether we have walked with Him for many years, the truth is the same. Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling. Repentance is not a work I am responsible to do. It is a response to God. It is a turn from every other plan and distraction and lover. It is a turn to Him, whereby in my absolute poverty I cast myself into His arms, trusting Him and only Him. Like an orphan coming home. Like a bride in His arms. Forsaking all others, Him. That is repentance. That needs to be at the core of our lives and our message.

 

Why Didn’t God Reboot?

Reboot22I recently upgraded the operating system on my computer.  Frustratingly I now have a computer that freezes periodically.  The only solution appears to be reaching for the power button for an enforced reboot.

God created humanity and soon saw them corrupted by sin.  It was not gradual.  We read of the fall into sin in Genesis chapter 3. As soon as sin entered the story we see Adam and Eve hiding and protecting themselves, and when confronted they continued that pattern by blaming each other, and for Adam, even blaming God for what had happened.

In the next chapter we read of one of their sons murdering his brother.  Sin’s influence was immediate, and it was devastating to humanity.  We were created for loving fellowship with God and with each other.  But God watched as humanity spread like cancer across the globe, destructively devouring every opportunity to love in an insatiable quest for self-promotion.  The loving God created a world quickly filled with hate.

Why didn’t God reboot?

It is not that God didn’t have the power to reboot.  He spoke everything into existence by the power of his word, so he could just as easily wipe and begin again.  He did wipe the planet with the flood, and yet saved sinners through that to continue the same race that had pushed the boundaries of sin in the first place.

It is not that God wasn’t concerned about sin.  He hates sin and its devastating effects on his creation.  He hates death in all its forms – physical and spiritual.

So why didn’t he reboot creation, and especially humanity?

The two biggest questions we can ever face are central to understanding this question.  First, which god is God, or, what is God like?  Second, what does it mean to be made in his image, or, what is a human?

If we were to tour the god options on planet earth we would find an amazing consistency.  Most of the god options on display are gods defined by their power or desire for control.  In many ways they tend to be, as Feuerbach put it, “projection of our own ego onto the clouds.”  That is, the gods of the humans tend to be bigger and better versions of humanity – specifically, fallen humanity.  Since our life in a fallen world is marked by self-promotion and the desire to control our circumstances and our rivals, so the same must be true of God (or so we tend to think).

Yet the God of the Bible continues to surprise us if we are looking for a fallen and competitive human magnified into divinity.  Instead we find a God who is other-focused, a God who gives and gives.  He is a God who is prepared to give not only of his abundance, but of himself.

That is all good, but why didn’t God reboot a fallen and rebellious creation?

First, because God knew that humanity created in his image would always explore the realm of not loving God.  Since true love can never be forced, the exploration of the forbidden fruit would always have a certain strange attraction to creatures made with creative and inquisitive natures.  So God could reboot, but then it would all happen again.  But this doesn’t mean that God was somehow stuck with a badly designed creation – fatally flawed forever.

The second, and main, reason that God didn’t reboot is because he already had a plan.  Before the foundation of the world God knew what it would take to have a world inhabited by creatures joining in the loving fellowship of the Trinity. He knew it would take more than an impressive creation.

God is God and we are not.  That truth was challenged by the lie of the serpent in the garden.  Humanity was offered a rival god-like status and we grabbed it with one bite.  God was saddened, but not surprised.  He had a plan.

God’s right to be God and to rule according to his nature has been challenged for thousands of years.  Perhaps the greatest challenge is humanity’s counterfeit god-complex by which we act as if we are gods.  We play god when we corrupt God’s loving creation into a self-loving and self-serving realm.  Then without thinking we project a power-hungry, glory-grabbing, self-serving onto the clouds and say that God is just like us.

With billions of people living the lie, surely God is outvoted and his great plan is defeated?  Surely hell laughs in derision?  Actually, no.  God is God and we are not.  God is like God and not like the fallen us.  God remains loving and giving and generous and kind.  And most astonishingly, God doesn’t need to reboot to fix the fallenness of humanity.

In the Gospel we discover that God had a plan.  We can explore the darkest recesses of rebellion and hatred toward God.  We can live the lie with the resources of the world at our disposal.  But we can never turn the lie into truth.  God is God, we are not, and His intention still holds true.  God will have a creation filled with humans who love Him and each other, sharing in the eternal delight of Trinitarian fellowship.

Before the foundation of the world God had planned to give of himself for our sake.  He planned to send His Son to die in our place and so startle us with the entirely different character of God that he would win our hearts from the apparently unbreakable power of self-love.  When Jesus died on the cross he paid the penalty for our sin, but more than that, he revealed the true glory of the true God, and so is drawing sinful self-absorbed mini-gods back into fellowship with the true God.  God will share his glory with no other god-rival, but he will share the glory of his love with us who are his!

The serpent, and every human, and all hell has given everything to defeat God’s great plan for creation.  We have all failed.  One day everyone will know they have failed.  One day every knee will bow.  And in that day they will look on the bride of Christ in amazement.  God planned to bring a vast number of humans into the loving fellowship of the Trinity.  And that is exactly what he is doing!

God did not need to reboot creation.  God had a plan that was not dependent on original creation, but on his great plan of redemption.  God had a better plan.

New Covenant Ministry – Part 2

NEW2Continuing on from the previous thoughts on 2nd Corinthians 3-5:

4. New Covenant ministry should generate boldness. (2 Cor 3:12-18)  Moses had to hide what being with God did to him.  Not so with us.  What happened to Moses was temporary and fading, but what God is doing in us is permanent and increasing.  It is so easy to think in terms of this life and fall for the lie of fading glory even today, but what God does in the New Covenant does not fade.

5. We cannot make people see, that is God’s work in Christ.  (2 Cor.3:12-18)  Israel experienced a hardening and a veil that would keep them from seeing the glory, and it is only by the work of God, through Christ, that it can be taken away.  We too minister to people who may still be unable to see the wonder of Christ.  We are not to focus on the veil and wrestle with it, but to boldly offer Christ so that the veil might be taken away from their hearts.

6. Transformation comes from beholding the glory of the Lord. (2 Cor 3:12-18)  Moses would enter the tent of meeting and encounter the Lord face to face, as a man meets with his friend.  Looking at that face changed him, but this would fade.  We too are transformed only by gazing on the face of Christ by faith, only now, under the New Covenant, the glory doesn’t fade.  Instead, we are transformed from one degree of glory to another.  (And one day, when we see him clearly, we will be fully transformed!)  It is the object of our gaze that determines who we are.  It is true for your listeners, so preach Christ.  It is true for you, so gaze on Christ.

New Covenant Ministry – Part 1

NEW2I want to walk through 2nd Corinthians chapters 3-5 as Paul describes New Covenant ministry and share a few thoughts.  This won’t be a full exposition of the passage, but rather a set of thoughts provoked by looking at the text.

1. We are called to minister Christ, not to defend ourselves in ministry.  (2Cor.3:1-6)  Ministry tends to create situations where we will be critiqued.  Sometimes, believe it or not, we deserve the critique.  Sometimes we don’t.  Either way, our ministry is to preach Christ, not to proclaim ourselves or defend ourselves.  Are you in a situation where you are tempted to defend yourself?  We are not sufficient in ourselves, our sufficiency is entirely of God.

2. We are given New Covenant ministry by God, who gives His Spirit. (2.Cor.3:1-6)  It is so easy to feel insecure in ourselves and therefore to seek to prove ourselves sufficient in life.  We are not.  Our sufficiency comes only from God, who himself has given us this ministry.  More than a mere past calling, He gives of His Spirit – the “key ingredient” of New Covenant ministry and so infinitely better than the old ministry “of the letter.”  Ours is not a ministry primarily defined by instruction and external pressure, but proclamation and internal transformation of the heart.  One way is death, but the Spirit gives life.

3. We must stop celebrating a glory now faded.  (2.Cor.3:7-11)  There is no question that Moses’ ministry was glorious.  After all, he glowed!  But that ministry of death, of letters, of stones, has no glory in comparison to what has replaced it.  A candle is wonderful in the dark, but walk out into the sunlight and the new glory far exceeds the old.  So it is with the ministry of righteousness rather than condemnation, and the ministry of the Spirit rather than that which is now passed.

Let Historical Details Be Details

5StonesbThe Bible contains a lot of historical narrative.  Historical narrative contains details.  Let’s not be unnecessarily clever with these details.

Hypothetical Tale 1 – In 1964 a preacher at a Bible teaching conference was preaching on the story of David and Goliath.  He came to the verse that tells of David taking five smooth stones and putting them in his pouch before going to face the giant.  “Now you may be asking, why five smooth stones?  Why not just one?  Does David lack faith in God?  Not at all, I tell you, he was just prepared for Goliath’s four brothers!”  The audience all gave a 1960’s Bible conference chuckle, except for one character who guffawed with awkward volume.  The preacher’s joke had gone down well.

Hypothetical Tale 2 – In 1964 another preacher at a denominational conference was also preaching on David and Goliath.  He read 1.Sam.17:40 and launched into an explanation of the five stones.  “Some will say that faith trumps wisdom.  Not so.  The story has become something of a tale of mythic proportions, but here we catch a glimpse of the original reality.  David was not foolhardy.  He was prepared.  Here was a man with his faith, and his wisdom.  Facing the foe, David went prepared into battle.”  The audience diligently made 1960’s style notes and headed home encouraged to not be foolhardy in their daily lives.

These two tales are both made up.  One is about a Bible-believing preacher who sought, humourously, to honour the giant-killing faith of David.  The other is about a preacher with a lower view of inspiration, and a desire to give good human wisdom to his listeners.  As much as I dislike the assumptions behind the latter preacher’s comments, let’s ponder the first preacher some more.

Imagine if, in that crowd, were several hundred pastors and lay preachers.  Some found the Goliath’s brothers comments humourous, while others found it stirring.  All of these later made the same point as they preached the passage.  Somehow the various settings don’t all react in the same way, and another generation of listeners hear the comment as received wisdom in Old Testament interpretation.  By the 1970’s several devotional expositional paperbacks include the significance of the number of stones.  Fast forward a generation or two and this insight is established as truth.

But what if it started as a joke?

What am I saying?  Just because we hear something from other preachers doesn’t make it true.  Just because it is published in a book or two doesn’t make it true.

Let’s grow in discernment by learning all that we can about the culture, the history, the geography, etc.  Let’s be discerning in our understanding of a text by evaluating carefully the context.

David was not hedging his bets by taking more stones – there is nothing in the text that points to a blending of faith with human wisdom.  He had seen God at work before and anticipated seeing it again now.  These giants were supposed to be eradicated from the land and David trusted God to complete the mission now.

So why five stones?  Did he lack faith to take more than one?  How many stones in your pouch would cause you to trust in yourself against a monster like Goliath?

Perhaps David’s pouch held five stones.  Perhaps his habit was to always have five for a day’s work protecting sheep.  Perhaps he always grabbed the right shape and size, and this day there were five such stones where he looked.  Perhaps he gave it no thought at all.

What we know is that he took five smooth stones.  Historical detail.  And unless the text pushes us to see meaning in such a detail, let’s not get distracted from the bigger issues in the narrative.  Giant king Saul was scared.  Young king-to-be David trusted God.  The stones were a detail.

Let’s be careful not to be too clever with details of stories.  Read stories carefully.  Every detail matters.  But not every detail is a sermon in its own right.  You never know who will take your clever quip and run with it!

Genre Shock

Shock2Can a church experience genre shock?  Maybe.

Let’s say you have been preaching through a narrative series – perhaps a gospel or the life of Abraham or David.  Then you start a series in Romans.  This could be a shock.  From flowing plots and character development to tight and complex logical sentences, abstract theological explanations and loaded terminology.

Is there a way to ease the transition?  And if there is, is it necessary?  I would say probably not in most cases, unless the last series has been a long one and the shift in genre is stark.

Here’s how not to avoid genre shock – preach every text as if it is an epistle.  This is certainly a popular approach for some, but it has real weaknesses.  For instance, narratives get choked by multiplied principles and preaching points.  Poetry gets dissected so that the emotive force of the imagery is lost in a torrent of triple-pointed outlines.  And epistles feel like more of the same, when they should be like theological dynamite for the life of the church.  Let’s not go with this “every-text-an-epistle” approach.

Here are a couple of ways to transition from one series to another of a vastly different genre.  I am certainly not saying these ideas are necessary, but they certainly are ideas:

1. A genre intro message – Let’s say you are going from a gospel to a prophet.  Instead of diving into the complexity of apparently disordered prophetic burdens about places we’ve never heard of, why not preach a message that introduces people to the blessings of being in the prophets . . . and then start into the specific book the week after.  This might allow time in a more familiar passage by way of transition and preparation.

2. A new series intro message – Let’s say you are going from the Life of David to an epistle.  Instead of getting bogged down in the opening verses and complex sentences, why not introduce the series with the story of the letter.  If it’s history is rooted in Acts, then you have the chance to give the setting in a narrative fashion.  Tell the story, set the scene, taste the epistle by previewing the series and maybe put the main idea of the book up front so it doesn’t get lost in the progression of passage after passage.

3. A big story bridge message – Let’s say you are going from Genesis to John or Philippians.  Instead of forgetting Genesis like yesterday’s newspaper, why not take a message to trace the story you saw in Genesis through the canon to set up the next book?  Most people in our churches do not know the big biblical story as they could.  Why not use a message to trace the story forwards and set up the next series?

Whatever you do, make sure the transition message actually has a main idea and is not mere buffering.  You may be preaching something creative, but be sure you are preaching something.

5 Radars Every Preacher Needs – #2

RadarScreen2The second of five radars may well be the most important and the most difficult to develop.  Yesterday’s radar considered one aspect of our textual study skills, but this radar is about our underlying assumptions about everything.  I think we should all prayerfully ask God to develop in us:

Radar 2. Hissing Radar (in your assumptions)

The most dangerous assumption we can make is that we are neutral and can think clearly.  Every one of us has spent our entire life swimming and soaking in the brine of a post-Fall world system that hisses constantly with The Lie of pseudo-godlike autonomy.  The serpent introduced skepticism about God’s word, God’s character, and invited humanity to dive into a totally new version of godliness.  This new godliness meant that we humans became the image of the god of this age – self-absorbed, autonomous and overly confident in our own independent capacities.  We live our lives deafened to the hiss of our serpent-shaped existence.

The Gospel doesn’t save us from one or two sins we have done, but from the absolute self-loving, God-hating, autonomy of our spiritually dead hearts.  The problem we have as believers is that we tend to think we are somehow now immune to the subtle influence of The Lie.

Our flesh has been pickled in the subtle but sour vinegar of that original Lie.  As we seek to grow, let’s pray that God will develop in us a radar that will hiss when our assumptions evidence that serpentine autonomous impulse.

Here are some quick flags to highlight areas this lie often surfaces:

  • God can be a source of resources for us, but always from a distance.
  • With suitable resourcing I can do the job myself . . . i.e. sanctification.
  • I can be a good Christian, but I don’t need any sort of relational closeness to Christ.
  • I don’t need you (where you is God, or you is other believers).
  • I make independent and uninfluenced decisions, and therefore I am alive.
  • If my preaching can offer practical guidance, then individuals can make the decision to apply the teaching and be successful at living their individual and independent lives.
  • Etc.

May God develop in us an early warning system that hisses whenever our assumptions are dangerously autonomous and self-glorifying.

5 Radars Every Preacher Needs

RadarScreen2

To grow as preachers, I believe we need to develop several internal radars.  Think of a radar as an early warning system that beeps when there is an issue in the vicinity.  To be without any radar is to be dangerously naïve.  This week I plan to work through five radars we can prayerfully develop in our preaching:

Radar 1. Old Testament Radar (in your text)

Sometimes Bible writers flag up their use of earlier texts, “to fulfil what was written…”  Often they simply allude to, or hint at, biblical texts that are feeding into their thought.  Biblical writers typically assumed that their readers would have a full Jewish familiarity with the Old Testament, but most of us do not have anything like a full Jewish familiarity with the Old Testament.  Hence we need to develop the radar.  Unless we do, we will miss a lot of what is sitting in the sermon text before us.

I am not suggesting that every sermon should fully develop every earlier biblical allusion in the preaching text.  I am suggesting that a preacher who is unaware of how earlier texts inform and shape the preaching text will struggle to be a good steward of the preaching text.  The best preachers do not say everything there is to say, and they do speak with clarity and simplicity.  Please preach with clarity and simplicity, but with clarity built on the richest and most determined exegetical study already under your belt.  This means lots of things, but it must include a growing awareness of earlier texts assumed by the writer of the preaching text.

For example . . . think about John 3:1-16, Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.  Nic knew his Bible, but was treated as unqualified for conversation about spiritual matters.  In the course of the conversation the text is picking up on Ezekiel 36, Deuteronomy 29, Numbers 21, and perhaps the overarching backdrop – Genesis 3 . . . (is Nicodemus dead and needing a new birth, or not?)

How do we develop this radar?  Two suggestions:

A. Read the whole Bible, a lot.  There is no tool that can compensate for a lack of personal intimacy with the Word of God.  Prayerfully and purposefully devour the Scriptures as if they are the most precious gift you have.

B. Double check you haven’t missed something with good commentators.  We need the benefit of the community of God’s people and good commentators are a real blessing.  At the same time, many do miss the influence of earlier texts and so shouldn’t be relied upon apart from A, above.

Tomorrow I will offer another radar I believe we all need to see developed in our lives.

 

Creative Christmas Sermon Options

Christmas Dog2Christmas services are just a few weeks away.  You might be getting excited, or dreading another Christmas and the need to generate more messages when the obvious options feel well worn.  Here are some other angles to consider:

Prophecies – there are some key Old Testament prophecies, such as Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah 9:6, Micah 5:2, even Jeremiah 31:15.  Why not take an Old Testament approach to Christmas hopes this year?

People – maybe you have preached through Matthew’s opening chapters, but have you preached the four other ladies in Matthew’s genealogy . . . Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the one “who had been Uriah’s wife.”  Four ladies with question marks over their morality, rightly or wrongly, that set up the lady who has to be in the genealogy (also with a question mark hanging over her morality, wrongly in her case).  Or perhaps you might trace the Gentiles in the genealogy to show the greater scope of the Christmas hope?

Themes – why not track a theme this year that could be developed with one week in the Old Testament, one week in the Christmas narratives and one week later on in the gospels or epistles.  For example, consider the Immanuel theme from Isaiah 7:14-9:7, emphasized in Matthew 1, continued for our age in Matthew 28:20.

Less Obvious Passages – perhaps you might consider the less obvious Christmas passages, ie. those that aren’t in early Matthew or Luke.  You have the prologue to John’s Gospel, giving the other side of the story, if you like.  Or you have references like Galatians 4:4 and similarly Incarnation focused passages like Titus 2:11-14.

Christmas Titles – it would be interesting to explore the titles used in the Christmas narratives – Jesus, Saviour, Immanuel, King, etc.

Carol Theology – while some are keen to cut down the errors in the carols, there are some great truths encapsulated in the carols too.  Perhaps you could take Hark the Herald Angels Sing or another carol and trace the biblical background to a verse each week.  Different, but for some congregations this might be a blessing.  Remember that you are preaching the Bible, not the carol.

Contemporary Emphases – you could take key emphases in the world’s view of Christmas and present a positive biblical engagement with each one.  Gifts, peace, goodwill, family, etc.

November is here, Christmas is coming.  Let’s not have our pulpits filled with preachers trying to hide a creative fatigue over such a great subject.  Let’s take a new angle, dive into the Bible and preach with hearts spilling over!

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Webinar on Poetic Literature

webinar_bannerThis Thursday I am leading a webinar on “An Introduction to Poetic Literature” at 18:00 GMT.  It is free and if you would like to join, you just need to register on this page.

The Union Podcast Interview continues today as I am asked “How is Christ becoming man vital for our salvation?”  (I believe there will be five episodes this week.  I won’t post every day, but will list the links after the series completes.)