New Year, New You

There is something powerful about turning the calendar to a new year.  People everywhere feel like this is the moment to turn over a new leaf and make some changes that are, perhaps, long overdue.  Join the gym, change your diet, break an addiction, form a healthy habit, read your Bible daily, stay on top of your inbox… whatever personal or professional goal it might be, January seems like the ideal time to start.

I do not want to criticize any New Year resolution, and I wish you well as you embark on change in your life.

However, perhaps we would do well to dwell on something else.  Maybe we have lost sight of all that is new for us as Christians.  Maybe some of our resolutions are birthed out of frustration and we might be helped by pondering more deeply all that is new for us in Christ.

We live under the blessings of the New Covenant: God’s great plan that was anticipated and predicted in the Old Testament, but has now been launched by Christ at his death and is the reality in which we exist as Christ’s people.  As Paul puts it in 2 Cor. 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”  (See also Gal. 6:15) A quick read through the epistles reveals many aspects of this New Covenant that are true for us today.  Here are six to think about – three more individual, followed by three more corporate ones:

 1.  New Life

In Romans, Paul equates the resurrection of Christ with the newness of life that is ours to live today (Rom. 6:4).  What does this mean?  He writes that we are released from the law, no longer held captive, but free to serve in “the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom. 7:6).  What would it look like if I sought to live in this new way of the Spirit, rather than by keeping myself in check via a written code?  Would my life look different?

 2. New and Living Way

In Hebrews, the preacher urges us to move forward into the presence of God by the blood of Jesus, that is, by “the new and living way that he has opened up for us.”  How easily I can get caught up in an exercise fad, or a desired daily habit, while ignoring the wonder of being able to boldly enter into the presence of God in prayer!  If I belong to Christ, then prayer would be the most natural feature of my life in 2020.

 3. New Self

When Paul wrote about the new life we can live, he referred to it as putting on “the new self.”  This new me is no longer hardened and calloused by sin, but instead, through knowing Christ, this new me is a heart, mind, and lifestyle-transforming reality that is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10) That New Covenant promise of a God-given new heart is exciting! I know myself and how easily I can focus on my attempts to tweak a small issue in my life, but ignore the wonderful privilege of true holiness that is mine in Christ.

 4. New Covenant Ministry

Jesus declared the inauguration of the New Covenant at the Last Supper, as Paul describes in 1 Cor. 11:25.  He picks up that theme and really develops the wonder of participation in the New Covenant in 2 Cor. 3:6 where we see that we are actually ministers of this New Covenant – no longer ministers of the letter that kills, but now of the Spirit who gives life.  (See also Heb. 8:8, 13; 9:15; 12:24) Whatever the size of my ministry might be, big or small, the real issue is the quality – and I don’t mean just a comparison of my preaching against yours.  I mean the spiritual quality that makes my feeble efforts in ministry quantitatively different from the impressive work of a highly equipped unbeliever.

 5. New Unity

What Christ has accomplished is not just individually transforming.  It goes much broader than me and my spiritual life.  We are brought together, Jew and Gentile, into “one new man in place of the two” (Eph. 2:15) How easily I take for granted the opportunities to worship with other believers.  Sunday has become a steady part of my weekly routine.  But there is nothing “routine” about unity among a fallen humanity.  What opportunities is God giving me this year to experience this new unity that Christ has made possible on a local and on a global scale?  How can I contribute to the beautiful unity of believers?

 6. New Commandment

It might be good to lose a few pounds, or be a bit more efficient, but I would do especially well to prayerfully pursue the new commandment from Christ in the coming months.  As the light of God’s good news breaks into the darkness of this fallen world, what could be more distinctly Christlike than his followers following his instruction?  How many times every day will I be given opportunity to love others as he has loved me?  (See 1 John 2:7-8; 2 John 5)

So, as we head into this New Year, let us consider all that is new for us in Christ.  Individually we have a new life, with new access to God’s presence and the privilege of godly righteousness that we could never achieve by our own natural inclinations and efforts.  With that we have the privilege of a new Spirit-empowered ministry, united together and loving one another.  If this is the new me that is going into 2020, then the year ahead is already exciting to anticipate.  Any other little tweaks are nice bonuses, but they can’t come close to the wonder of what God has done for me and wants to do in me.

One bonus new…

New Heaven & New Earth – our life is not all wrapped up in the details of 2020.  The truth is that we are waiting for the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells.  (See 2 Peter 3:13)

The life we have to live this year is a life with a new heart, a new and special access to God, a new privilege of holiness, a new Spirit-empowered ministry, a new controlling principle, and a new hope.  We live in a world that is fascinated by what is new and exciting, but let’s not allow that artificial and temporary newness to take our focus away from the wonder of all that is new for us in Christ.

Dangerous Resolutions

design 4The New Year is traditionally a time for new or renewed commitments. January is the busiest month of the year for gyms and health clubs . . . and February is often the quietest!  New diets are typically added to personal fitness goals, and then perhaps there are personal productivity targets, or family scheduling ideals, etc.

In the church we can join in with another whole set of renewed commitments and resolutions – attendance goals, Bible reading goals, personal growth goals. I am sure most of us would be better off with improved Bible reading habits, prayer times, replacing internet “snack” reading with book reading, date nights with our spouses, regular together times with our children, better sleep hygiene, regular exercise, dietary self-control, etc.

But we need to be careful. There is a danger in resolutions. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not advocating a wholesale rejection of all good goals. I believe Christian leaders should be living lives characterized by heartfelt discipline and healthy physical, personal, relational and ministry habits. But we need to be careful.  Why?

We need to beware because there is a goal that is so overwhelmingly significant, but we can become distracted from it and pay it mere lip service if we are not careful.  Hear it in the words of the super-successful and disciplined converted rabbi and rising star of Judaism, the Apostle Paul:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him . . . (Philippians 3:7-9)

This doesn’t sound like a momentary commitment renewal for Paul.  He was genuinely gripped by Christ.  This is not a passage suggesting we add in more consistent quiet times to our busy lives and call ourselves committed followers of Christ.  This is describing an absolute dismissal of all that had been grounds for Paul’s identity before, and its replacement by an utter passion for knowing Christ, gaining Christ, being in Christ.

How easily I fall into the trap of decorating my life with Jesus.  I don’t wear Christian jewelry or Christian t-shirts so much, but perhaps I sometimes just decorate my busy life with Christian ornaments. Can that be true for someone who is “full-time” in ministry?  I believe it can. When the ministries we do, along with the personal growth we pursue, is done with our gaze distracted from the one great goal, then perhaps we are falling back into building our identity on something other than Jesus.

How easy it is to have “a righteousness of my own that comes from” . . . what I do.  I can make all sorts of effort to live a moral life, to learn and grow for the sake of ministry, to be a good steward of my life, my resources and my opportunities, but to do all of this with my eyes looking in the wrong direction.  I can be looking at myself, building my resume, or looking at the needs around me, and yet not be truly looking at Christ himself, my one great goal.

Isn’t it frightening how easily we learn to say the right things to dress up our lives and ministries so that they look consistently Christian?  Sadly our sanctified selfishness, or sanctified worldliness – building the kingdom of me – might allow us to fool ourselves, but none of it fools God.

So as we head into another year, by all means make the kind of lifestyle tweaks that will enable you to be a good steward of relationships, life and ministry.  Aim to get to bed earlier.  Be more active.  Watch less, read more.  Spend less, give more.  Speak less, listen more.  But may every one of our resolutions and habits be utterly eclipsed by one great, overwhelming goal: that in 2016 I want to know Christ better.

Let’s pray that God, by His Spirit, would convict us of every way in which our devotion to Christ is superficial, or distracted, or false.  Let’s ask God to shine a light on all that should be considered loss compared to knowing Him better this year.  And let’s ask God, by His Spirit, to incline our hearts more passionately toward knowing Christ, and loving Christ, and gaining Christ, and being in Christ – that we may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death . . . the kind of absolute radical discipleship that makes complete sense in light of who He is and what He has done!

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As you launch into 2016, Foundations is a one-hour read that will make a difference to everything else you read and do in 2016.  Click here to find out more.

10 Questions for Your Preaching Year Review

TenbAs we come to the end of another year, it is good to look back and take stock.  Be careful though, it is easy to do this in a way that isn’t helpful.

As you look back, don’t emphasize things like ‘what fruit has my ministry produced?’, or ‘which was my best sermon?’, or ‘whose life has changed the most under my ministry?’  These kinds of questions put your focus entirely on yourself.  Negative versions of the same questions still do the same.

The right way to look back is in conversation with God.  Here are ten questions that may help:

1. What am I thankful for in respect to the opportunities I have had to preach?  Whether you have preached a couple of times, or a couple of times a week. Whether it has been to one church, or to multiple groups, give thanks.

2. Where have I seen prayers answered in respect to my preaching?  Take time to reflect on prayers answered as you look back over the specific preaching opportunities you have had.  Were there some challenging sermon preps that came together as you prayed?  Did certain people hear certain messages?

3. Where might my prayers have been answered without me knowing during this year?  This is the important impossible one – what might have happened that you don’t know about?  A lot.  Ponder and pray about that.

4. What sermon preparation has most stirred my heart during this year?  A specific text, or a certain series?

5. What lessons does God want me to learn from what has happened this year? Lessons about preaching, about life, about ministry, about yourself, about Him?

6. What life change have I seen that I can give thanks for?  It could be gradual or sudden, salvation or growth. Give thanks for the privilege of being a part of what God is doing!

7. How has God protected my integrity during this year of ministry?  You could be out of the ministry right now. How has God guarded you from that?

8. How has my intimacy with Christ developed (or faded) during this year?  Don’t automatically self-evaluate. Ask God to search your heart and show you His perspective on this.

9. What should I be thankful for in terms of provision to allow my ministry?  Whether it is paid employment that allows you little time to prepare, but pays the bills, or ministry-related income that makes it possible . . . give thanks.

10. Is there anything else that I should give thanks for as I finish my review?  Family support? Key friends? A mentor? A preacher you look up to and learn from? A book that has helped?  Challenges that have shaped you?  Take time for God to bring to mind whatever has been missed in the earlier questions.  Gratitude is the critical ingredient in a truly faith-driven ministry.  Give thanks.

The Incarnation is Not Just for Christmas

Boxing Day(This post appeared yesterday on www.trinitytheology.net)

The morning after Christmas Day is quiet. In our house it is quiet because the children were wiped out by a long and fun day yesterday.  In other houses it is quiet because everyone is out shopping for bargains in the sales.  For many, the magic of Christmas has now given way to a gradually growing anticipation of return to work or school.

So let me be up-front about this.  I have a vested interest in a continued interest in the truth of Christmas. After all, Pleased to Dwell is a book I have authored and I would like it to be of interest to folks for more than just a few weeks each year.  Maybe that is my motivation in pondering the subject of this post, but I hope that is not my only motivation.

Christmas is in the DNA of the Christian faith.  Why?  Because God’s Son didn’t just become one of us to launch an annual holiday. It wasn’t a publicity stunt to stir the sales of Christmas cards and boost end-of-year retail revenue. God’s Son became flesh and dwelt among us because that was the ultimate expression of the heart of God – a heart that wants to draw our hearts out of the black hole of our self-loving-vortex (think January sales), and back into true communion with the God who made us.

The Son of God didn’t become one of us for some temporary period of time, or on some fleeting agenda. He became one of us forever so that we can be united to Him forever.

Whether Pleased to Dwell continues to be a blessing to folks for the next few months is not important. Whether we a gripped by the wonder of the Incarnation and the every day, forever lover of our souls, is.