Author: ryan couch

A broken man in need of Jesus.

Joe Biden, the town drunk, and the sacraments.

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Has there has been a more hotly debated issue in the history of the Christian Church than that of the sacraments or ordinances as some churches call them? From the denial or insistence upon the real presence of Christ in communion to the nature of baptism the Church has divided itself into tiny fragments in an effort to protect these sacred means of grace.

Protecting the sacraments from perversion and misuse is on one hand something the Church should take seriously. However as with anything that God gives to humans without condition we should be careful that we are not placing fences around something that God wants to roam freely and without impediment.

Recently former Vice President Joe Biden was denied communion at a Catholic parish because of his view on abortion. This denial made national news but this issue is not new nor does it only exist amongst Roman Catholics. Many Protestant church bodies practice closed communion and others will only baptize those who have made the proper confession of faith.

In the Baptist church, that I grew up in, the individual looking to be baptized was asked to attend an 8 week baptism class to ensure that they not only understood the Christian faith in general but baptism in particular. This seems a far cry from the Ethiopian Eunuch who after hearing the gospel simply said, “here is water what prevents me from being baptized.” (Acts 8:36) I am not discouraging Christian education or catechesis I just want us to consider why we feel the need to put fences up around God’s grace. Are we afraid of letting the wrong people in? Jesus never has this worry. Despite all of our St. Peter at the pearly gate jokes there are no gatekeepers in heaven. The gate stands wide open inviting all the wrong people in and we would be wise to get out of the way.

In many churches communion is closed to those who are not members of the church or do not ascribe to that denomination’s view of the Lord’s Supper. Even amongst those bodies that do not have “closed communion” there are many that will discourage real-sinners from partaking until they have properly “repented” of their sin so as to not bring judgment upon themselves (1 Cor. 11:29). Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 11 is one that every pastor and Christian should consider and understand. However, Paul is not discouraging actual sinners from partaking he is warning the Church against turning the Lord’s table into a drunken feast where some were being neglected while others were gorging themselves. He commands that no one partake without first “examining themselves then so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (vs. 28).

A few years ago I attended a men’s retreat where the keynote speaker preached Christ-centered messages of God’s grace for two solid days. The event was wrapped up with a time of worship and communion. A wonderful opportunity for sinful men to receive the goods of the gospel in tangible means. However, rather than freely offer Christ for sinners one of the hosting pastors stood in front of the table and told the men not to partake if they had ongoing sin in their life. I was not surprised, I had seen this happen many times. In fact I have probably said similar things in my past life as a pastor. While not surprised I was grieved. Fences were being placed around God’s means of grace. What would have been better is for the pastor to acknowledge that every man in that room was living in sin (examine yourself) and then proclaim the very words that Christ has given the Church, “you are forgiven.” These are the very keys to Christ’s kingdom that have been entrusted to us, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:23, see also Matt. 16:19)

As I said, I too have been guilty of erecting fences around God’s grace. In fact one of my most regrettable moments as a pastor took place in the waters of baptism. I was standing in a shallow creek baptizing people in our congregation when the town drunk (we’ll call him Larry) stepped into the waters. I put my arm around him and asked him, “Larry are you ready to turn from your life of drunkenness toward Christ.” Without hesitation Larry responded with, “I don’t think I can do that pastor.” To my shame I turned him away from baptism that day. A decision that brought me much affirmation from my congregation. I received pats on the back and emails telling me how much they respected my stand for holiness. It was not until years later with a very different theological paradigm that I recalled that encounter and was immediately struck with my egregious error. Larry was a better theologian than I was, he recognized his sin and his inability to change.

In both examples that I gave the means of God’s grace (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) were denied to real-life sinners unless they took necessary steps to prove their repentance. These steps however do not lead to the grace of God they lead to some moral improvement that unlocks the grace of God. This is not Protestant Christianity, this is straight-up medieval Roman Catholicism! This is the very thing that Martin Luther stood so firmly against. To clarify, I am not accusing all church bodies, that practice closed communion or that put some parameters around baptism, of being in error. In fact it was Luther himself, at the Marburg Colloquy, who was unwilling to capitulate with Zwingli over the issue of Christ’s real-presence in the bread and wine. I understand why churches might put some limits on who they commune and baptize. However, for the sake of this article I want us to consider how harmful it can be when we build fences around that which God never intended to be contained. You cannot contain the grace of God. It goes to places we would never allow it to go. It flows downhill from God’s throne right into the ditch with the town drunk. It rushes headlong into strip clubs, crack houses, terrorist hideouts, and yes even the White House. It puts robes and rings on prodigal sons who squander their father’s inheritance on self-indulgence before he’s even dead. Would it be prudent for the Larry’s of this world to get sober and live clean? Of course, but denying them baptism is not going to aid in this endeavor. Larry’s only hope is in receiving the very grace that baptism imparts. Paul in Romans tell us that “faith comes by hearing and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The sinner needs to hear Christ’s word to him, “you are forgiven, this is my body and blood given for you.” This is what creates faith and imparts salvation. When we turn sinners away from these means of grace, the very word of Christ, we are keeping them from the very thing thing that brings new life. So if we care about the gospel, then it’s incumbent upon us to tear down the fences we have placed around God’s grace and do what Martin Luther suggested 500 years ago…”Let the Bird Fly.”

How Do I Know I’m Saved?

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The axiom, “all roads lead to heaven” is weighed and found wanting at the foot of the cross, where heaven and earth converge in the last place we’d expect. However, we might say (although with less certainty) that, “all roads lead to assurance”. In whatever flavor of Christianity or confession of faith one might find themself in, the question always becomes, “how do I know that I’m saved?” This is not only a theological question, it is a pastoral issue, and a very important one at that.

Where does the faithful pastor, priest or friend point the despairing soul who is looking for assurance and answers to their deepest doubts? First of all it’s important that we understand where this individual should not be pointed. Too often the discouraged saint is pointed inwardly to a decision they made “to follow Christ” or “to give their heart to Jesus.” Obviously this decision made in the past is no source of comfort for them in the present. Otherwise they wouldn’t be doubting their salvation in the first place. For how are they to know that they truly meant it and since they were the ones who decided for Christ maybe they’ve now decided against him by their behavior and lack of faith. Here the doubter is often given the opportunity to make another decision to “recommit their life to Christ” or to be re-baptized. I have known people who have made dozens of decisions to follow Christ, in fact one person told me that they’d been baptized 8 times! Certainly one of these will stick. Unfortunately if the onus is being placed upon our sincerity or our commitment, then no amount of decisions or baptisms will bring us what we’re looking for.

Another way the anguished Christian is pointed back into themselves is by searching for good works and fruit that will demonstrate that the Holy Spirit is at work in their life. If you want to know that you are one of the elect then “look at your fruit” for even if your fruit is little and sparse it still indicates the work of Christ. But how is one to know that they’ve done enough? If fruit is the evidence of God’s redemptive work then how I am to know when what I’ve accomplished is sufficient proof? This kind of searching puts the despondent Christian on a never-ending scavenger hunt desperately hoping to find the golden egg within that will assuage all their doubts and fears. In fact this type of searching actually becomes a zero sum game because all the focus upon myself is actually the very essence of sin (what Augustine and Luther called the Incurvatus in se – man curved in upon himself) for while we’re looking for assurance and hope all we come away with is more doubt and despair.

The person who is questioning their salvation and struggling with assurance should not be directed inwardly but away from themselves toward Christ and his promises. Paul tells us in Romans 10:17 that “faith comes from hearing and hearing through the Word of Christ.” The doubting Christian is a faithless Christian and faith is not dredged up from its burial ground in our heart, it is created by the very Word of Christ who makes promises to sinners and is faithful to keep them even when we are faithless (2 Tim. 2:13). God’s Word is a creative word, he speaks things into existence apart from any help from us. Herein God doesn’t look for things to be so, he creates what he’s looking for and says, “it is good.” In regard to our salvation, God doesn’t look for righteousness in us, he gives us his own righteousness and declares us to be so. God speaks promises to us, “I forgive you all of your sins, you are my child, you will be with me forevermore.” While many over-promise and under-deliver God delivers exactly what he promises. He does this apart from any work of our own (even belief) and it’s his promises that create faith. A faith that produces assurance apart from anything we can see, “now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). While we are looking for demonstrable proofs in our life God reminds us that faith is not something we see, it’s something we hope for and are assured of, because he promised to bring it to pass. Therefore the means by which he creates this faith exist outside of us in his word spoken over water where he puts us to death and gives us new life and his word spoken over bread and wine where he promises to be present for the forgiveness of sins. God creates faith by his promises and these promises are delivered to the sinner from another sinner. These are the keys that God has placed into the hands of every Christian; keys that unlock the mysteries of grace and redemption. However the key ring we’ve been given does not resemble a Middle School janitor’s. We don’t have dozens of keys to try to fit into the keyhole in hopes of finding just the right words to bring comfort and hope. In fact our keychain only has two keys on it…the key of the law to diagnose the sin (in this case unbelief) and the key of the gospel to deliver the sinner (where you are faithless Christ is faithful to you).

The next time a fellow sinner begins to confess their unbelief to you please hear it as such, a confession and then proclaim to them the promise you’ve been entrusted with. “On account of Christ I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.” If you’re of the Evangelical persuasion this might be uncomfortable for you, but remember when Christ called you to make disciples he gave you the authority and the keys to forgive sins,

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:23)

Go therefore and make disciples, proclaiming to them the promises of Christ and watch his Word create what you and the confessing sinner never could.

“I did nothing; the Word did everything.” — Martin Luther

Why Do We Go to Church?

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For most of my Christian experience I was taught and I taught others that church was primarily a place to go to serve, to use your gifts, to bless others. “You don’t go to church to be served but to serve!” This became for me a mantra that I championed for many years as a pastor. I felt it was my duty to deconstruct the “consumer” mentality that so many American Christians seemed to espouse. This emphasis to do something for God actually sells very well in our pragmatic culture. You can rally an army of eager Christians who busy themselves with things to do believing themselves to be living radically for God. In fact, like Peter, we find it very difficult to allow Jesus to serve us (John 13:6). However I believe that Jesus would say to us what he said to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” (vs. 8). 

Certainly the Church ought to be a place where Christians are using their gifts for the good of their neighbor. The NT is full of “one another” imperatives and after washing the disciples feet Jesus tells his original disciples to follow his example and “wash one another’s feet.” (vv. 14-17) We miss the thrust of this passage however if we lose sight of the fact that at the heart of this command is the ongoing need for the Christian to allow Jesus to wash their own feet. The Christian, according to Jesus, is already clean but has need of a perpetual spiritual cleansing that while already accomplished has ongoing implications as we continue to battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The Christian as both a sinner and a saint (100% of each simultaneously) continues to struggle with sin and is in need of ongoing absolution. We need to hear the Word of Christ, “you are forgiven”, spoken through the word of a preacher sent to us by God. This I believe is the primary reason Christians gather together each week. While all of the acts of service that go into a church gathering are most certainly needed they are not the most vital thing that is happening when we assemble together as “the Church.” The words of Christ and the sacrament he’s given are the primary thrust of the Church. Those are the gifts Jesus has given to the Church and its leaders to give away with no prerequisites or conditions.

Jesus has most certainly commissioned his Church to follow his example by serving one another, but this service we give to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ is actually Jesus serving his people through us. While that might seem like a minor distinction it’s actually a very important one. For it is far too easy for the Church to begin to function as simply a means to an end; pushing Christ and his gifts “for you” to the margins. Putting in its place a comfortable setting where we partake of premium coffee (which admittedly beats the heck out of Folgers) hear polished music, and listen to inspirational talks. Yes, many will say, we need to, “purify the Church of its consumerism” by getting back to the basics, feeding the sheep instead of entertaining the goats! But please don’t miss my point. We can attempt to counter the consumeristic mentality of many American Christians but still miss the main thing. If our anti-consumerism turns into beating people over the head with their need to serve and live sacrificial lives we can just as easily leave the finished work of Christ behind and turn our congregations into modern day Pharisees who look down their noses at all the lazy Christians and the Churches that attract them.

We do not go to Church to serve. We go to Church to be served, by Christ. He invites us to come and sup with him, to recline at the Table with him and allow him to wash our feet. He welcomes us into his house with all our filth and grime and he once again sheds off his outer clothing and dons the towel of the servant. He isn’t afraid of our mess, there’s no sign that says “please remove your shoes”. He beckons sinners one and all to his feast, even his enemies are invited, he’ll wash their feet too. Sometimes those enemies, like Judas, leave with thoughts of contempt and betrayal, but some of those enemies turn into his friends exchanging their squalid garments of sin and shame for his robes of righteousness. This is why we go to church, to receive from Jesus. To allow him to do the unthinkable, to get dirty with the mess of our lives. To hear once again the promise, “it is finished.” It’s only from this place that we can serve one another and have any meaningful fellowship. So go to church but go with empty hands and dirty feet, Jesus will take care of the rest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Freedom in Death

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“Or do you not know, brothers — for I am speaking to those who know the law — that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.” (Rom. 7:1-2)

What is the role of the law in the life of the Christian? Is the Christian under the law? If I am free from the law why doesn’t it feel like it?

I wrote this story to help answer these questions and illustrate the above words of Paul from Romans 7.

Sally and Larry married young…they had a tumultuous marriage filled with the ups and downs of most marriages. Sally felt she could never live up to Larry’s demands and no matter how hard she tried she failed to fulfill his expectations. Larry, a former Marine, was a very matter of fact person. Everything for him was black and white…do this, don’t do that. Everything was regimented and you didn’t dare deviate from his guidelines. Sally lived more in the gray, and always felt that Larry was displeased with her. Despite her efforts to please Larry she always fell short of his heavy handed approach. Sally desperately wanted Larry to love and accept her but it seemed he was only pleased with her when she was doing what he wanted and when she failed he quickly removed his acceptance. Sally, who was raised in a very strict religious home, was not unaccustomed to this kind of paradigm. Her father too raised her to believe that if she did the right things then she would be loved…if she failed then she was forced to try to make amends. After 25 years of marriage Larry was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly after. Not long after Larry’s death Sally met Glen…Glen unlike any person Sally had ever been around seemed to accept Sally just the way she was. He seemed less concerned with changing her as he was with simply loving her and giving himself to her. His approval of her seemed less about what she did and more about his commitment and love for her. Sally however had a hard time accepting this kind of love from Glen. She almost preferred Larry’s ways because she didn’t have to feel bad for his acceptance…she earned everything she got from Larry, whereas with Glen she didn’t have to strive or work that hard for his approval. In fact he never criticized her or even had a harsh word for her. He just loved her…and unlike Larry this love didn’t seem connected to anything Sally did or didn’t do, and this kind of bothered Sally. She remembered the times with Larry when she really nailed it…the sense of satisfaction was exhilarating. She never felt this with Glen, it was almost as if her behavior was not that important to him. He just loved being around her. He would constantly tell her how beautiful she was…even in the morning before she had a chance to fix herself up. “He must be lying she thought…he can’t really mean these things. Larry only told me I looked good when I actually did and so I believed him.” Despite years of marriage to Glen, Sally continued to live under the demands of Larry. When Glen would ask Sally why she felt the need to please someone who was dead, Sally would respond, “he doesn’t feel dead, I hear his voice in my head and what he says makes sense…in fact it makes more sense than what you say because it gives me control of the outcome. With you the outcome is always the same…in fact it seems you’re the one in control, you don’t seem to be phased by my behavior one bit.” Glen would lovingly pull Sally into his embrace and encourage her to trust his love but it was very difficult for Sally. In fact she would often visit Larry’s grave and reminisce about their years together. Larry’s impact upon Sally never left her and despite the amazing marriage she had with Glen…far better than anything she ever had with Larry, she still felt drawn to Larry. He felt very alive to her…his words of harsh condemnation were constantly reverberating in her ears. Try as she might to receive Glen’s words of comfort and grace she had the hardest time allowing them to make any true impact upon her, she seemed to always gravitate toward Larry and the high expectations he placed upon her. She loved those insurmountable requirements he placed upon her…it gave her goals to shoot for…it made progress tangible and something she could easily see the results. With Glen it was almost as if progress, goals, and results were taken off the table…and this made understanding how to please him very difficult. “What do I need to do? Nothing, he would respond but she rarely believed him.” The freedom Glen gave to Sally was so foreign to her that it was scary…she didn’t feel free, she felt bound to everything she’d always known. Everything in her life was built on this performance paradigm and as much as she wanted to be set free from its power she kept running back to it like a an old comfortable shoe that despite its stench and tattered appearance was easy and familiar. Glen wasn’t either of those things…his approach was completely foreign to her…he spoke words that no one else ever had and this made Sally question whether any of what he said was really true. “Where’s the catch she thought?” So she lived out her days married to Glen but simultaneously feeling pulled to the ever present words of Larry that seemed to challenge everything Glen ever had to say.

This is the Christian experience…simultaneously being accused by the law and set free by the gospel. The Christian lives in a place of being simultaneously sinner and saint. We are 100% sinner in and of ourselves, outside of Christ. And we are 100% saint in Christ, outside of ourselves. Herein, the Christian is both the dead husband and the freed wife of Romans 7. We are both under the law (in our old man) and free from the law (in our new man in Christ).

So how should the Christian hear the law? When the old Adam hears the command he hears a prescription. Like a coach drawing up a play so you can win the game; the old man hears God’s commands as something to do, a prescription for a holy life, a prescription for earning God’s blessings, a prescription for growth. But this isn’t how the law functions. The law, the Bible tells us, actually exposes and magnifies our sin (Rom. 3:20) it doesn’t help us obey it.

As Luther said in the Heidelberg Disputation: “The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.” (Theses 1)

We are incapable of doing the law which is why Jesus came to do it for us (Matt. 5:17). Jesus is not only a Savior who takes away our sins, he is a Savior who gives us his righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). This is what theologians call “double imputation”…we are justified, which means we’re not only pardoned from the consequences of our sin but actually declared righteous on account of Christ and his perfect obedience. Therefore when the new man (in Christ) hears the commands of God he hears a description, a description of what Jesus has done for us.

This is the gospel in a nutshell…what Christ has done “for you”. Therefore we are free from the law because Christ has freed us from it…he has put our old man (the dead husband) in the grave with him in baptism and raised us up as his bride (the freed wife). This new life we’re given in Christ now frees us to love and serve our neighbor and to fight sin because we know where selfishness and sin comes from, our old dead husband who has no power over us any longer. Of course like Sally in our story we struggle to recognize this and we continue to allow the powerful voice of our old man to dictate how we live. This is the simul, the civil war within. Only the voice of our Shepherd, the very Word of God can vanquish this foe and set us free with his word of promise.

May his Word (Jesus), the final word, grip our hearts and minds today and may it set us free as Christ intended us to be.  

Scandalous Grace

Sometimes you hear a story and it shakes you to the core. The other night I was watching Dateline (don’t judge me I love true crime) and the story they were covering was one I had heard before but had forgotten about.

It was a story, as they often are, about a love triangle. A pretty young divorced mother named Marie Carlson, and a once popular mega-church pastor named James Flanders. The pastor and his wife take the young divorced mother into their home to help her through some difficult times. The woman had shown signs of mental illness and had lost custody of her children to her ex-husband. According to Dateline, however, “she had found God” and was really turning her life around. That is until one day she came up missing. Her phone calls went unanswered, no one knew where she was, and aside from an ominous text she sent out to friends and family no one had heard from her in days. The Flanders’ insisted that she ran off to pursue some “thing she’d always wanted to do.” James Flanders was the last person to see her and said that because of her erratic behavior he was afraid that she’d flown off somewhere and that she was never coming back. He searched for her car at the airport and when he located it he brought it back to his house. After years of investigation it was discovered that Mr. Flanders was not being completely upfront with the circumstances of his relationship with Ms. Carlson. During the time that Marie was living in his home she became pregnant. The story initially was that the father was a very abusive boyfriend of Maries and that the Flanders were trying to help protect her from him. The truth was however that James was actually the father and that the Flanders had invited Marie into their home for the express purpose of carrying on a threesome and a polygamous relationship. The Flanders were unable to have children so Marie agreed to be a surrogate mother for them. All three of them admitted to as much in private conversations that came out later. While this is scandalous enough the story doesn’t end there. The details that follow are very fuzzy but according to James Flanders Marie became extremely distraught over the idea of giving up her baby and during an argument a physical altercation ensued which resulted in Marie’s death. Shocked and panicked James decided to bury Marie in his backyard and pursue a massive coverup. James only admitted to as much (which still doesn’t seem like the full truth) when he was facing a first degree murder charge and life in prison. By pleading guilty and showing law enforcement where the body was (they had not located it despite doing a search of his backyard) he received a lesser charge and 15 years in prison. Flander’s wife was not convicted of any crime and despite committing an Abraham and Sarah type sin she claims complete ignorance and innocence to the murder of Marie Carlson.

I tell this story because it’s one that when we (especially church folks) here it we are horrified and outraged that a pastor would not only compromise his marriage bed but that he would commit murder and bury a body in his backyard to cover it up.

When I first heard this story several years ago I was filled with indignation toward this fellow Christian leader who would so misrepresent our Lord and his Church. But then I was reminded of my own sin…I was reminded that while I haven’t invited another woman to share my marriage bed or physically killed anyone I have been guilty of these very things according to Jesus (Matt. 5:21ff). Furthermore I was reminded of one of my biblical heroes who was guilty of similar sins and yet is called “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14, Acts 13:22). David, the king of Israel, not only selfishly took a married woman into his bed, but when he found out that she was pregnant and that her husband was away at war (pretty hard for Bathsheba to explain that to Uriah) he devised a murderous plot to rid himself of any potential fallout for his sins. David, one of the most prolific writers of Scripture, a man who loved God and was considered one of Israel’s finest kings was guilty of the very same sins and crimes as the subject of our story. Except that David did not have to run away in shame…in fact David continued on as king. David did not lose his position or have his writings removed from the canon. No, David was mightily used by the Lord after his sins, he wrote wonderful Psalms (like Ps. 51) where he tells his story of sin and redemption. This is the scandal of God’s amazing grace. While we would tell the Prodigal that he “got what he deserved”, Jesus welcomes him home with a party. While we would never trust Peter with anything ever again, Jesus makes him the leader of the early Church. While we would write King David out of the story, our God highlights him as a true discerner of His character and nature. So what do we do with James Flanders? Yes, he should pay for his crimes. But would you welcome him into your church? Would you extend the forgiveness of sins to him in the Lord’s Supper? Is there a place for a man, who has done such heinous things, in the Church of Jesus Christ? Would you trust him to lead anything in the Church ever again? I really don’t know how I would answer these questions and I certainly don’t know how you would but I do know how my Savior would respond for we see it all over the pages of Scripture and we observe it in the way Jesus responded to those who betrayed, abandoned, and murdered him…”Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

Jesus’ grace runs downhill…all the way to the bottom. It reaches the people and places we’re convinced it could never find.

*Hat tip to my friend, Julian Brooks, who helped me connect the dots for this post.

 

 

 

Project Car Christianity

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Growing up my dad was always working on some project out in his shop. Much to my mother’s chagrin he would drag home some broken down vehicle or boat in need of a complete overhaul. Once he towed home a giant horse trailer that was completely rusted out and falling apart and we didn’t even own horses! Friends were constantly hitting my dad up for help with their projects; he never charged them he just loved to help people. It was his escape, his way of avoiding the difficulties of family life. To his credit he would, at times, try to include me by teaching me the ins and outs of mechanics and DIY projects but I was rarely interested. I was a book worm and while mechanical things come easy to some it was (and still is) very difficult for me. I wish I had taken more interest in the things my dad was passionate about, it would have been a way to connect with him and at the same time learn some very practical skills that would most certainly come in handy as an adult.

While I didn’t necessarily like the projects my dad chose to engage in, I did take an interest in more anthropological fixer-upper projects. At a fairly young age I felt called to the pastorate. I went to Bible College right out of high school and began pursuing a life of ministry. For many years I viewed ministry in much the same way my dad viewed his projects; I was helping people with their favorite projects (themselves).

Too often we view the Christian life as a project we partner with God on. Unlike me with my dad, we take great interest in learning from God however. We call it “Christian disciplines” and  “sitting at his feet”. Day by day God and I tinker on this “old car” in the garage and once in a while we take it out for a spin, just to see how it’s running. It usually breaks down and together we push it home to continue the endless task of making this project work.

I lived out my Christian life in this way and led others into this type of Christianity for many years. Convinced that by the power of the Holy Spirit I was “getting better” and I was helping others with their progress too. But there was one problem. I wasn’t getting any better and neither was anyone I was supposedly helping. I was struggling with same sins that I had always struggled with but in the paradigm of “project car Christianity” I couldn’t admit to this, I had to pretend that I had everything together and that God and I were making measured progress. I became skilled at polishing and patching my old man to make him operate the way I was convinced he was supposed to. God was of course “the God of second chances” and he didn’t mind the slow and steady progress we were making. This was however an effort in futility. A square peg in a round hole that we’re somehow certain will fit if we try hard enough. No matter how hard you try however you can’t get your old man to be holy or to be obey God. He is fundamentally opposed to God in every way and no amount of prayer, Bible study, or church attendance will make him anything other than this. From a pastoral perspective this kind of theology works well though, for people love to be told that they have skin in the game. Church folks are addicted to pragmatism and desperately want to believe that if they try hard enough (with God’s help of course) they can turn their lives around and take what was once a disaster and make it into something beautiful. This sounds wonderful doesn’t it? It can even be described as “good news” and when preached with enough pathos and pizazz people eat it up like free soft serve on a cruise.

Is this Christianity? Is this what the Bible describes as the gospel? Is the Christian life? A partnership with God where we fix up our old man? The simple answer is no. While we might be looking for improvement and progress the Bible calls for death.

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) 

While I had convinced myself that God and I were making such great progress on our project car there was a brand new car parked in the driveway the entire time. A car that needed no repair and that cannot be improved upon. All this time I thought God and I were “partnering” on trying to fix up my old man he was actually calling me to put the old car in the junk yard and take the wheel of the brand new car he gifted to me in Christ.

The Christian life is not about improvement, progress, or measured results. It’s about death and life. There is no ladder to climb or tangible results to measure. The old man does not need tinkering with, he needs to be crucified. Your sin nature cannot be slowly worked out of you, it must be put to death. Transversely your new man (in Christ) cannot be improved upon, Jesus lived perfectly in your place! His obedience is your obedience. There is nothing that can be added or taken away from Christ and his gift of righteousness. So what are we trying to improve upon? Whether we’re seeking to repair our old man or improve upon Christ we are attempting to do the impossible; beating our head against a proverbial wall of our own making. There is a better way, but it requires something painful, the excruciatingly difficult prospect of giving up on ourselves. If there is any process or progress in Christianity it is this, the continual going back to our baptism where our old man is put to death and we are raised in newness of life in Christ. As long as we live in this body of sin and death we exist in this tension, we face this civil war within. We must remember however, that while this battle must be waged it was ultimately won before it was even started.

“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Rom. 8:37)

 

 

How’s Your Walk with Jesus?

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If you’ve been around the Church for any length of time you’ve most certainly heard or been asked the question…the dreaded question, the one we secretly hope no one will take the time to ask.

“How’s your walk with Jesus?”

When asked, we typically stammer and stutter our way through some balancing act of not wanting to sound like we have it all together while not admitting we’re actually pooping our spiritual pants on a regular basis. So we just talk about how “good” God is while throwing in a few innocuous sins. If the truth be told, our “walk with Jesus” sucks, at least if we’re defining it by how well we’re living and behaving.

Oh but there’s good news! That’s not how we define our walk with Jesus. The quality of our walk with Jesus is not predicated on anything we do, for the only thing we bring to our salvation is the sin that makes it necessary. This truth never changes for who we are in and of ourselves (our flesh or our old man) is 100% a sinner and no amount of Christian activity will change that. The only thing that changes is the presence of Christ. The one who puts our old man to death and gifts his perfect life to us. He comes into our life as Savior and friend; the One who walks with us despite how we look (terrible), how we smell (like death) and how much we ruin his reputation.

“How’s your walk with Jesus?” It’s actually fantastic, you’re walking with Jesus! We fall, he picks us up. We run off, he chases us down. We take him to places he should never have to go but he never leaves us alone. We’re company that he shouldn’t be seen with, but he proudly walks with us and never acts embarrassed of us in front of his other friends.

Our walk with Jesus isn’t dependent upon us, because in every way we fall, get sidetracked, roll around in the mud, head into dirty seedy places Jesus has already walked in perfection with us, and for us.

“And he walks with me and he talks with me
And he tells me I am his own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known” — Merle Haggard