Category: GOD


    By Doug Ponder on July 4, 2017

    Hungry for More One of the ways of understanding what’s wrong with the world is to analyze what’s wrong with our desires. We want things we can’t have, so we complain (Phil. 2:14), or we covet (Ex. 20:17) or we argue (Jas. 4:1), or we even hurt others and ourselves (Jas. 4:2). The problem isn’t that we have desires in the first place (good luck telling yourself not to want things). The problem is that we have a deep desire for God without recognizing that desire for what it is. “God has put eternity into man’s heart, yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Eccl. 3:11). When we marry the love of our life, when we land that big promotion or buy that dream home, we find the happiness of these moments slip like sand through our fingers. They don’t deliver the lasting satisfaction that we thought they would. That is because moments like those are only appetizers. They are not the main course. Our souls are hungry for God, and when we fail to recognize this hunger we go on settling for things-other-than-God with their pleasures that fade faster than cotton candy and leave us feeling twice as empty. A Hunger for God This soul-hunger is not the problem. When our stomachs growl, it’s because we need food. The real issue isn’t the growling stomach but the empty belly. And the solution is simple: Fill it with food. In the same way, our souls ache for God because we were made for him. As with physical hunger, the aching is not the problem. It's ur separation from God that's the real source of trouble. Again, the solution is similar: Fill your soul with him. Feast on the glory of God’s goodness to you. The alternative results in continued frustration, emptiness, and an inability to satisfy those deep longings that remain even after you get what you want. In short, there is no lasting joy, no real satisfaction apart from a restoration of fellowship with God. That is why the author C.S. Lewis wrote these words in his famous book, Mere Christianity: “What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could… invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy. The reason why it can never succeed is this. God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol [gas], and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there.” Like a car runs on gas, like a fish lives in the water, and like a stomach yearns for food, we were made to “run” on God—which means we were made to delight in him, to trust in him, to receive all his graces with gratitude, to honor him, to draw our strength from him, and to acknowledge him in all that we do. The loss of that kind of God-centered life came through sin, which bends us inward upon ourselves. Thus selfishness proves both wrong and bad. Selfishness is wrong because we were made to worship God, not something that God made. But selfishness is also bad because it can never satisfy. It doesn’t “work” because it looks to the self to deliver what only God can give. Changing What You Crave It's important to recognize what sin does: sin doesn’t remove our hunger; sin changes our appetite, training the taste buds of our souls to crave cotton candy instead of the Bread of Life. To use biblical language, sin makes us idolaters. We don’t stop worshipping. We just go through life worshipping the wrong things (something in creation instead of the Creator himself). Instead of leading to joy, however, this false worship only brings misery and frustration and denial of all kinds. We will never find lasting happiness apart from God because there is no such thing, as C.S. Lewis reminded us. The solution is found in looking to the One who worshipped God perfectly, loving him with all his heart, soul, mind and strength. Jesus did that, and he did so in your place so that you could be forgiven and set free to worship the God your soul was made for. “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). This is why Jesus said, "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied" (Luke 6:21). He knew what he would accomplish for sinners, and he knew that everyone who recognized their hunger for what it is would one day be satisfied by the God who "fills all in all" (Eph. 1:23). To worship that Jesus means recognizing who he is, what he's done for you, and responding with gratitude and honor (Rom. 1:21). It means building your life on Jesus (Matt. 7:24) by taking him at his word and standing on his promises by faith. Worshipping Jesus simply means treating him like what he already is: a treasure of surpassing worth, your Savior, Redeemer, and Friend. He is the lover of your soul, and you will always be hungry until you are filled with him. Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder

    By Doug Ponder on July 18, 2017

    The Gospel and Its Effects The gospel is not everything, but it does change everything. That brief, dense sentence is the key to understanding Christianity. The gospel is not a message about everything, but it is a message that changes everything. The first idea clarifies what the “gospel” is. The word gospel means “good news.” In the Bible the gospel is not just any good news, but the specific good news that Jesus is Savior and Lord of all the earth. It is the good news that sin, Satan, and death have been defeated, that we have been forgiven and reconciled to the Creator we rebelled against, and that all things will be made new—and this is all true because of Jesus. That is the gospel. It’s good news! The gospel doesn’t take very long to say with words, but its effects will take eternity for us to appreciate. It is a very deep well, and many buckets of living water can be drawn from its depths. Hence we say, “The gospel changes everything.” No stone will be left unturned, and no idea, no plant, no person will be left unaffected by the redeeming rule of Jesus the Savior-King. Yet often, much too often, we forget or reject either half of that truth: the gospel is not everything, but it does change everything. When we forget or reject the first part, we turn the gospel into something other than good news. When we forget or reject the second part, we make the gospel impotent. The Road to Bad News “So I told my roommate that the gospel says ‘stop sleeping around.’” “The good news of the Bible is that God has a wonderful plan for your life.” “The gospel is stop sinning.” “The gospel is love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” “The gospel is repent and believe in Jesus.” The road to bad news begins by confusing or combining the gospel and its intended effects. Remember that the gospel is the good news about who Jesus is and what he has done. It is not a message about something that we must do—even though there are many things we are called to do. When this confusion takes place, when the gospel is combined with its effects, people are no longer declaring the good news of grace but the bad news of moralism. Moralism simply refers to the idea that we must act right or better ourselves (morally) in order to receive God’s love, forgiveness, blessing, etc. There are conservative and liberal forms of moralism. Conservatives most often highlight personal sins, matters of truth, the importance of holiness, and so on. Liberals most often highlight corporate sins like the need to love our neighbor, to not be racist, to be good stewards of the earth, and so on. Each group insists on good behavior in certain areas, but each group also obliterates the gospel in the process. By confusing and combining the gospel and its effects, they essential preach a message of, “If you want to be loved and forgiven, you have to live like this…” That message, whether in conservative or liberal clothing, is always bad news. It is bad news because you cannot live up to those standards well enough to earn God’s love, forgiveness, or blessing. And to think that you can live up to those standards reveals extreme dishonesty about your life that comes from a deep place of blinding pride. You are not good. You never will become good through your own effort. Thus the road to bad news is the road to hell. It confuses the gospel of grace for the false gospel or moralism, which can only produces versions of ‘good, clean living’ and ‘socially responsible altruists’ who still don’t see their need for grace. The Road to Powerless News “My husband is a godly man who loves Christ, but he’s a racist.” “I’ll fight you over doctrines, but everything else is just preference or opinion.” “If I’m truly forgiven, then I can live however I want to.” “We both believe the same things. We just choose to live differently.” Whereas the first road led to bad news by combining the gospel and its effects, the second road leads to powerless or irrelevant news by separating the gospel and its effects. This error makes the mistake of thinking that the gospel is an infinitely small message about something like forgiveness only. Instead of a fathomless well of living water, imagine a sealed Tupperware container in the back corner of your fridge. It’s “there,” but it hasn’t been touched in months. It doesn’t impact your life. It doesn’t really matter. By contrast, the gospel really is a message that changes everything because of what kind of message it is. It’s the good news that our worst enemies have been defeated. It’s the good news that we are loved not because of who we are, but because of who God is. It’s the good news that our rebellion has been punished in Jesus so that we could be set free—free not to indulge in the sins Jesus died to save us from, but free to worship the God who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light. It’s the good news that this broken world, and all the broken people to turn to God, will one day be set right again. And all of this, as we have already said, is true because of who Jesus is. He is the Redeeming Lord, the Savior-King. And that means it will never do to say, “We believe the same things, but we choose to live differently.” Anyone who believes that Jesus is Lord necessarily believes that his words are truth, that his commands are loving, and that his wisdom is supreme. We don’t come to Jesus like a buffet, taking a little of this but leaving off all of that. Jesus is a whole person, an undivided person, both Lord and Savior. If the good news we preach isn’t that, then it really isn’t powerful enough to matter. But this is not how Jesus himself thought about the gospel. It is said that when a woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus, he told her, “Neither do I condemn you.” Jesus was telling her the good news—Forgiven! Clean! Reconciled!—all of which would come true in him. That’s the gospel. But notice what Jesus says immediately after this: “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). That isn’t the gospel, but it is an obvious implication of the gospel. You can’t divorce the good news of salvation from the sins Jesus died to save us from. A similar thing happened when Paul confronted Peter about his racism. Paul writes, “I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11). Paul was smart enough not to confuse or combine the gospel and its effects, so why was he saying that racism and regeneration cannot coexist in the same heart? Because the gospel is the kind of message that necessarily has certain effects. Thus Paul continues, “I saw that they were not acting in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). So the gospel is not the good news of racial reconciliation, full stop, but the good news of the Reconciling Lord who will unit all things through his blood. And if you believe that, then you can’t remain a racist. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates his brother or sister is a liar” (1 John 4:20). The Road to Life Everlasting The only path that doesn’t lead to death or irrelevance is the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus himself. He tells us all, “Neither do I condemn you,” and he hastens to add, “Go, and sin no more.” Not because a failure to “sin no more” erases the grace of the gospel, but because the logic of the gospel is obvious. Slavery to Christ means freedom, while slavery to sin means death (Rom. 6:16-18). We keep the gospel and its effects clearly distinct, therefore, so that all can hear the free offer of God’s grace. Yet we never divorce the gospel from its effects, so as to make the costly grace of Jesus some cheap take-it-or-leave-it trinket. Instead we seek to bring all our lives “in step with the truth of gospel,” which extends to every idea, every attitude, every action, every decision, every dream. The gospel changes everything! Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

    By Doug Ponder on July 25, 2017

    Does Christianity Make You Free? Christianity is commonly criticized as being “oppressive” or “regressive” because it places limits on our freedom to believe or behave as we like. “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and so on. If we have to obey, then are we really free? Past cultures generally understood that boundaries and limitations were intrinsic to all ways of life. (Even if they disagreed about which restrictions and constraints were good.) Yet today, the freedom to determine ‘what is right or wrong for me’ is considered one of the most basic human “rights” in our society. And that means Christianity seems like a straightjacket. In our cultural climate any command seems like an imposition of unwanted authority. Part of the problem, of course, is that sinners like us never like being told what to do. Some things never change. But what has changed is the (problematic) way we now think about freedom. Freedom Is Different Than You Think Simply put, we tend to think that freedom is the absence of restrictions or boundaries. However, this is not an accurate or helpful definition. In fact, many times restrictions and boundaries are found on the path to freedom from various kinds of slavery. For example, a person in the deepest throes of alcoholism or addiction to hard drugs has lost any meaningful sense of freedom to say “no” to another drink or another high. The freedom or power to say “no” only begins to reemerge for them when they live under new boundaries, restrictions, and constraints—even if placed on them against their will (e.g., court appointed rehab). Or consider another example. Suppose that two people are falling from a plane. One is wearing a parachute, with all its straps and buckles and belts, while the other is free falling without a parachute of any kind. Sensing the weight of the parachute and the tightness of the straps, the first person will feel more constrained than the second. Meanwhile the second person, unencumbered by a heavy parachute pack, will feel freer than the first. But the second person is actually much less free: he is a slave to gravity, and he is at the mercy of the ground when his body slams into it. One last example. A fish is made for the water, having gills that absorb oxygen from water and not from the air. This means a fish is only free (to eat, to swim, to live) if he remains inside the boundaries of his watery home. A fish out of water isn’t free—it’s dead. All these examples make the same point: true freedom is not the absence of restrictions, boundaries, or constraints. In fact, restrictions, boundaries, and constraints actually work to preserve our humanity when they work in accordance with our nature. Where to Go from Here The crucial question is: which boundaries, restrictions, and constraints are good and right and true? The Christian answer is “the love of Christ constrains us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). God loves and then commands. Or, working back from the law to the love of God, he commands because he loves. Just as any good parent must tell their child “no” for the child’s own safety and development, God’s laws, commands, and designs are intended “for our good always” (Deuteronomy 6:24). They are a gift to help us know right from wrong, to keep societies in check, and to illuminate our unceasing need for his love and forgiveness. (For when we fail to keep God’s commands, as we all do on a daily basis, the need for his saving grace is never clearer.) Two Ways to Miss God's Love There are then two critical mistakes people make at this point. The first is to ignore God’s laws and commands because they challenge your authority and place boundaries on your freedom. But trying to live against the grain of God’s world never works well for anyone, since we really are made by God and for God. Rebellion against the wisdom and love of our Creator is thus an act of futility and a recipe for frustration, dejection, and death. A fish out of water isn’t free—it’s dead. We were made for the waters of God’s love. We cannot find true life apart from him. The other critical mistake some people is thinking that since God’s laws are given in love, keeping them is the way to receive God’s love. But Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15). He did not say, “If you want me to love you, then you better keep my commandments.” That’s because the love of God for us is not based on anything we are or do. It is based purely and entirely on who God is and what he has done for us in Jesus. His love flows freely from the cross to meet lawbreakers of every kind, offering forgiveness for all wrongs and freedom from slavery to sinful desires. And this freedom is found, counterintuitively, in becoming a “slave of Christ.” Which is just another away of saying that we thought we were free when we did as we pleased, but we were actually slaves to our deadly desires. But now, by the power of the gospel of grace, we have been set free to follow Jesus. We obey him because we love him. And we love him because he first loved us. “For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for also that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died and was raised for their sake” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

    By Doug Ponder on Aug. 30, 2017

    What We Think About Science and Scripture If you want to know what pop culture thinks about an issue, Google’s Autocomplete Me is a wonderful tool. (For those who aren’t familiar with how this works, when you begin typing in the Google search box the search engine shows a list of popular words that may complete your intended search. The suggested words or phrases are a reflection of what other people have searched for or written on. Thus, Autocomplete Me gives you a window into what people think about an issue.) I recently used Autocomplete Me to confirm what I already suspected to be true concerning what most people think about science and the Bible. Here’s what it came up with: science proves the bible wrong science proves god is fake science disproves god science disproves religion science disproves christianity Just to be clear, no respectable scientist would ever claim that empirical research can disprove the existence of God. They might say that science can’t prove that God exists, or that we don’t have enough evidence to believe in God. But they would never say anything like what I found through Autocomplete Me. Even famed agnostics like Richard Dawkins qualify their claims, saying, “There is probably no God.” So what should we make of the results of Autocomplete Me? At the very least, they show us what many (or even most) people think about science and the Bible. That is, most people believe that science and Scripture are incompatible. They think one is true and the other is false, but they can’t both be true. Many people think this way, including those who call themselves Christians and those who consider themselves to be agnostic or atheistic. All these have one thing in common: they’re completely wrong. The Roles of Science and Scripture For much of the past several centuries, many of the best scientists in the Western world were people who loved the Scriptures. They believed Scripture, and saw no real contradiction between what they observed in the world and what they read in the Bible. In other words, they believed that Scripture and science are friends. They are “partners” who, when doing what each was designed to do, shed light on different areas or spheres of life. It’s a little bit of an oversimplification, but usually science is good at answering “What?” and “How?” questions, while Scripture is good at answering “Who?” and “Why?” questions. For example, Scripture can’t help me identity what kind of tissue I’m looking at under a microscope. Nor does Scripture tell me anything about how the neural synapses function in my brain. But the Scriptures do tell me who created brains and why God created them in the first place, whereas science could only guess about these things. Science tells us how many different species of beetles there are (over 400,000!), while Scripture tells us why God created beetles—and plants and clouds and people. Science tells us what takes places during sexual reproduction, while Scripture tells us why sex was created and who sex was created for. Science tells us how people die (biologically), while Scripture tells us why people die in the first place (the wages of sin is death). Dilemmas and Debates So why all the fuss? If Christians have believed for centuries that Scripture and science are friends, then what is the problem today? Why are there some many debates? There are two problems. First, one problem is that there are some areas where the apparent claims of Scripture and the contemporary findings of science seem to contradict each other. We will look at one of these areas in a moment. The second problem is that many people are happy to point out the natural limitations of Scripture without fairly admitting the natural limitations of science. For example, Scripture is of no help for getting someone to the moon. It isn’t a book on calculus, rocket science, or orbital trajectories. But no Christian expects it to be that, either. Why would they? That isn’t the purpose of Scripture according to Scripture. But notice what happens when you begin to talk about the limitations of science. Some people get antsy. They start suspecting that you are trying to “force religion on them.” All you are doing, though, is questioning the limitations of science. You are exploring where the helpfulness of science ends, and where the need for some other discipline might begin (like philosophy or theology, for example). The Limitations of Science Remember the scientific method from your days in school? (Identify a problem. Research the issue. Make a hypothesis. Test the hypothesis with an experiment. Analyze the results.) Well, notice what the scientific method is designed to test: observable, measurable, repeatable phenomena. This means that the scientific method is incapable of analyzing nonphysical objects (things without mass or movement) because its methods of discovery are limited to only that which can be observed, measured, and repeated (i.e., empirical data). From the outset, therefore, the scientific method prevents itself from discovering things such as God, angels, souls or minds, abstract numbers, ideas, propositional statements, consciousness, mental images,  personal agency, and first-person identity. The point is not that all of those must exist because science cannot disprove them. The point is simply that science can say nothing about them. It cannot discover them, even if they do exist. And here’s where the problem gets worse. It is a huge assumption to say that because science cannot speak to the existence or non-existence of any of those things, that they must not be real or important. That is circular reasoning. It is like saying, “The only things that are real or important are those that science can discover.” How do you know that? “Because if they were real or important, then science would be able to discover them.” Do you see how viciously circular that is? That kind of thinking is not science; it’s what we will call scientism. Scientism believes that the scientific method is the only appropriate way of discovering truth in the world, and that science by itself is able to explain the world we live in. The following is a widely quoted statement from Richard Lewontin, a famous scientist. Note how he admits that many such scientists hold their beliefs with rigid dogmatism: “Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” (Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review of Books, January 7, 1997, 31). If you are willing to continue to believe in the ability of science to answer all important questions in life in spite of its apparent absurdity, its well-known failures, and its obvious limitations, then science has become a religion for you. You are an adherent of scientism who is no longer open to the possibility that science might not be able to explain everything. You have become truly close-minded in the very worst way. God and Science A common objection usually comes up at this point that goes something like this. “If science can’t prove or disprove the existence of God, are you suggesting that I should just believe in God with blind faith?” That’s not what I’m suggesting. Rather, I’m saying that we should let reality determine our methodology or way of learning, instead of allowing a predetermined way of learning (e.g., the scientific method) to determine what is real or what counts for evidence. To say this another way, you cannot know the best way to study what exists until you are adequately acquainted with what exists. 1. That means we must begin with a casual acquaintance with the object under investigation, 2. for the purpose of learning more about the nature of the object, 3. which allows the object of investigation to determine the best way to further investigate it, 4. resulting in the development of a method of study best suited to the object’s nature. In other words, I’m saying that reality should inform us of how to study it, instead of our deciding beforehand how we will study reality. For example, if the God of the Bible is real, then I shouldn’t expect to find him in a test tube or under a microscope. For he is both Spirit (nonmaterial), and he is the author of everything else in creation. His does not exist as a part of his natural creation, but as someone who relates to it through supernatural means. What I’m saying is this. If God exists, then my relationship to him is not that of an observer studying the facts of the world for “traces of God.” Rather, my relationship to God is more like Shakespeare’s relationship to Hamlet. What could Hamlet know about Shakespeare? And how could Hamlet know these things? He could only know Shakespeare if the author had written something about himself into the story. Hamlet would never be able to find out anything else about his author in any other way. This led Christian author C. S. Lewis to conclude that we won’t be able to find God through the scientific method. We’ll only know about God if he has written something about himself into our life, into our world. And that, of course, is precisely what the Christian faith believes he did. In the person of Jesus, God wrote himself into the pages of history. By becoming a human being, he stepped into our world and lived among us. The people who saw Jesus, therefore, saw God. They ate with him. They talked with him. They watched him die on the cross. And then, several hundred people in several different cities over the course of several weeks saw him after he rose from the dead—something that can’t be repeated or measured by the scientific method, but something that people saw and believed. They didn’t just see it, either. Their lives (and the lives of billions of others since) have been changed forever by the God who rose from the dead. So how can you investigate Christianity to see if it's true? You can't "go back" to see Jesus for yourself, but you can read about him in the pages of the Bible. As you do so, try viewing the world through the eyes of Scripture, just as you should try to do through the eyes of scientism. See which "lens" (scientism or Scripture) makes the world look clearer. Like billions of people in the world today, I think you'll find that Scripture can account for much that scientism can't. Not only that, Scripture makes room for true science to flourish in its proper role, without expecting it to address the kinds of questions that it isn't designed (or able) to answer. What About the Contradictions? Maybe you’re thinking, “What about the contradictions between Scripture and science that you mentioned?” Well, technically, they’re just apparent contradictions. That is, they are things that seem to contradict each other but actually don’t. Take the infamous example of the creation story in the book of Genesis. For years people have been getting into arguments about creation and evolution. Does science contradict the creation story in Genesis? Hardly. Although, there are many who think so. As a result, these people either throw out science altogether (which is a horribly unhelpful thing to do), or else they throw out the Bible altogether (which is eternally unwise). The problem is usually that someone has rigidly accepted one of two things: (1) a certain interpretation of the creation story or (2) a certain scientific interpretation of the data. It should be noted, however, that in both cases interpretations are being made. The Bible and the data itself (the evidence in the world) are not the problem. They simply are what they are. Our problem lies with the fact that we sometimes interpret information wrongly. This happens with both Scripture and with science. Interpretive mistakes in science are many. We are constantly overturning old theories to explain how the world works. None of that makes science bad, but it does means that we should hold on to scientific theories with humility. We may be wrong about lots of things, and even at this moment there are many theories competing to explain the data we have available. Not all of them can be right, and it’s possible that all of them may be wrong. This is why we need to be conscious of our role as fallible interpreters. The same is true with Scripture, though, and Christians should not forget this. The Bible means what it means, but our interpretation of what it means can be wrong (just like scientific interpretations). For example, Christians have disagreed for years whether or not the creation story should be seen as poetry or as history. This had been going on long before concerns about evolution arose. The reason for the debates have changed in every age, but the debates have always been there. Case in point, one man named Augustine wondered why it took God six days to create the world. He thought six days seemed far too long, believing that God could have created everything in a moment. Augustine noted that the phrase, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” seems to suggest that God created everything in a moment. So, he reasoned that perhaps the rest of the story was a poetic way of describing why God created, not what or how God created. Christians and Science Today For the record, I don’t think Augustine got it quite right. But I do think it’s important to point out that many Christian theologians debated the meaning of the creation story long before the theory of evolution came on the scene. Still today there are Christians who hold to one of several contrasting views. Some Christians believe the six days of the creation account are literal, twenty-four hour periods of time. Other Christians believe the six days are poetic ways of describing longer ages of time. Other Christians believe the entire account is a poetic arrangement, giving us theology instead of history. Still other Christians believe that the story is actually an account of the creation of the promised land, not of the whole world (since the whole world’s creation is already recorded in the first two verses). Not all of these can be right, but all those who hold them can still be Christians (people who follow Jesus by trusting him and listening to what he says). Just because there are many theories or interpretations doesn't mean that we are free to pick the ones that we like, either in Scripture or in science. We must make good interpretive judgments based on all the available evidence to us. It’s also important to point out that not all Christians are “comprising their faith” if they believe that the creation story is a poetic account of how God created all that exists. You can’t say that someone “doesn’t believe the Bible” if they merely disagree with you about the best way to interpret what is written. They may be wrong (or you may be), but neither of you are trying to deny the Bible; you are simply disagreeing about what it means. Does this land us in uncertainty? Are we left with guesses and the possibility of discovering that all we believe and care about will actually turn out to be false? I don’t think so. If the God who raised Jesus from the dead is real, then here’s something we can bank on: When all the facts are known and rightly interpreted, there will be no final conflict between science and Scripture. For the same God who made this world, wrote the Bible. Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

    By Doug Ponder on Sept. 27, 2017

    Don't Waste Your Singleness For the vast majority of people, singleness doesn’t last forever. It’s a phase, just a stage of life, a rest stop along the way. Singleness is temporary. But what you do with your singleness lasts forever. You can’t “go back” and relive your single years. Like the rest of your life, you’ve got one shot. You have one single life. That’s all. And you were made for God. Don’t waste your singleness. Here are three common ways that most people waste their singleness: 1. Sowing Your Wild Oats Before there was YOLO, there was “sowing your wild oats.” That was the cutesy phrase our parents and grandparents used to talk about the sins of their late teens and early twenties. Sowing your wild oats became a cultural expectation, a sort “pass” granted to people because “everyone does it.” Even if that were true (and it’s not), it completely misses the point. Sin is never cute. Sin is so serious that Jesus had to die in order for you to be forgiven, so anything that cost Jesus his life is nothing to wink at. Instead of “sowing your wild oats” like your parents before you, God says to singles, “Do not follow the practices of your fathers, or observe their regulations, nor defile yourselves with their idols” (Ezek. 20:18). But you must see that God gives his commands because he loves you, and he knows that you won’t find a life of joy or peace or lasting happiness in sin. Sin only brings despair and death. Sin wrecks lives, both the lives of others and your own. It brings shame and fear and guilt and stress. Sin tempts you with freedom but brings slavery. Singles who say “no” to sin preach a powerful message to a world desperate for satisfaction—and it’s not the message of a clean moral life. It’s the message that there is a source of pleasure-filled joys in Christ that are deeper, richer, fuller pleasures than the cheap thrills of drugs, drunkenness, porn, and sex before marriage. It’s the message that you really do have a choice; you are not a dog in heat or a robot on cruise control. You can say “no” to these things when you have tasted and seen that the Lord is not only good—he is better. I know that some of you have already dipped your toes in the pool. Perhaps you feel like there’s no point turning back now. That’s not true. The good news is that God picks us up where we are, and not where we should have been. This means the same soul-satisfying grace of God is available to you, and God will help you not waste your singleness. 2. Playing Games (Being Idle) I have heard every defense of video games under the sun, both because there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9) and because at one time I used all those excuses myself. “Video games are social. They promote community!” “Games help improve hand-eye coordination.” “Humans are storytellers, and games are where the best stories are told today.” Even if those excuses are partially true, they completely miss the point. The problem with games is not the game itself, but the sheer amount of time most singles—and non-singles!—spend playing them. (Ladies don’t get a pass here, because “games” includes apps like Candy Crush, Trivia Crack, Words with Friends, and all forty-seven versions of Angry Birds.) It is tempting when you are single to view your excess time as “free time,” but no time is actually free when you consider why your life exists. You were made to know God and enjoy him forever, and to spread the knowledge of his joy-inducing glory to everyone around you. Compared with a tremendously meaningful purpose like that, 20 hours of video games, TV shows, shopping, or napping doesn’t make sense. (And they are the kind of laziness that God condemns in the book of Proverbs on almost every page.) Furthermore, since you probably won’t be single forever, playing games trains you in the wrong direction. It teaches you to see your life as yours, instead of someone else’s—first God’s, and then your spouse’s. This creates marriages down the road with people who fight over how much “me time” they each get. Their houses are full but their lives are empty because they have too much “self-space.” While you are young, God encourages you to use your strength to do meaningful things. Consider your future, and where you are headed. Plan wisely. Get two jobs, if you are a man. (It’s going to take a lot of money to provide for your family, so make this your new motto: Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.) Don’t squander your singleness doing things that don’t matter. Use your time to build a life that will be a blessing to others. 3. Moping about Your Singleness The last way people tend to waste their singleness is to spend most of it complaining about their singleness. I’ve been there. (We all have, since no one is born married.) It’s tough. Really, really tough. But complaining about your singleness won’t fix anything, and it’s a sure sign that you’re still struggling to be content in Christ. Comparing the glorious promises of Jesus and the eternal joy he offers you to the temporary joy of marriage is like comparing a shot glass to the Pacific Ocean. God is giving you the ocean, and you are still asking for the shot glass! That may sound harsh, but it isn’t. It’s actually the key to your contentment. Until you see (and truly believe) that you are better off with Jesus and no marriage than with marriage and no Jesus, then you will probably never be content. But contentment is possible, and I’m not talking about the gift of celibacy (more on that in a moment). The apostle Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). I know you heard that verse applied to passing exams and winning basketball games, but it’s actually about contentment and was written by a man who was single for life. Paul also says that contentment is something that must be learned (Phil. 4:11-12). That means you will grow in contentment through your singleness as you continue to trust Christ, to rely on him, and to seek the joy that comes from knowing him—especially when you don’t feel like it. Contentment is possible in Jesus, because of who he is. He leads us to say, “I want this, but I don’t need this, and if I don’t get this, I’ll be OK. Actually, I’ll be more than OK. I’ll be happy. Satisfied. Fulfilled—all because of Jesus. He is better than whatever it is that I want. I can be content in him.” Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

    By Doug Ponder on Oct. 17, 2017

    Let the Little Children Come to Me Christianity is not something you are born into; it is something that you must be born again into. This means many things, but the implication that concerns us here is that parents must evangelize their children—by which I mean that parents must embrace God’s command to declare and display, to ‘show and tell’ the gospel to their children. There are two reasons why this is true. First, parents must evangelize their children because they will not “grow into” salvation the way they grow into adulthood. Every generation must hear the good news and believe it, turning from sin in repentance as they turn to Christ in faith. ‘Every generation’ includes our children’s generation. Second, parents must evangelize their children because God has entrusted children to them, and calls parents to instruct, correct, and disciple their children in the faith. Immediately following what Jesus called the “greatest commandment” of the Bible—you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Deut. 6:5)—God says, “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:6-7). God explains the point of that command in the context of instructing children, too. “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (Deut. 6:20-21). In other words, God calls parents to teach their children of his love for them as seen in many his saving acts, from the exodus to the resurrection. This necessity for parents to evangelize their children is repeated throughout the Scriptures. “God established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments…” (Psalm 78:5-7). This task is further assumed in Jesus’ parting words to his followers, what we often call the “Great Commission.” Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). And just so we don't miss the point, Paul explicitly says: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Why This Matters: Brainwashed Babies? Sometimes people who want to sound smart can be heard saying things like, “I’m not going to tell my children what to think; I’m going to teach them how to think.” That line is smart in the way that most bumper stickers are smart, which is to say, not actually smart at all. Parents are doing an extreme disservice to their children if they don’t tell them that the liquids under the sink are poison, that 2+2 = 4, that mom and dad love them, and that Jesus died and rose to save them from sin and death. For if God is real, and if he is the God who revealed himself to us in Jesus (as his resurrection most certainly shows), then you are not “brainwashing” your children when you tell them about him. In fact, you would be brainwashing your children if you didn’t tell them about Jesus. For in that case, you would be withholding from them the single most important aspect of reality: that there is a Creator, that we are accountable to him, and that he has made a way for us to be reconciled to him despite our persistent rebellion and repeated failures. So, evangelizing your children is not brainwashing them. Rather, it is one of the key ways that you can show real and lasting love to your children. Why This Matters: Atheism Starts at Home Another implication of Jesus’ call for parents to evangelize children is that moms and dads must own this as their task. It is first and foremost their responsibility, not someone else’s. Parents will not be excused for failing to disciple their children. On the last day, when every generation stands before the King to give an account of how they fulfilled his commands to train and instruct their children, no one will be able to say, “Well, I never really thought the nursery curriculum was up to snuff. So, you see, it’s not really my fault.” Nor will anyone be able to say, “There was no youth pastor in my church, so I can’t be blamed.” Speaking of which, youth pastors were an invention of the mid-twentieth century. Before then (and still today, in many circles) it was understood that the primary job of making disciples fell to mom and dad. Sure, the church’s pastors helped out. But the main way that pastors help—then and now—is by equipping parents to be the ones who disciple their children. A failure to grasp this point is why one of my favorite authors likes to say, “Atheism starts at home.” Sometimes a child’s budding atheism is the product of parents whose spineless liberalism won’t allow them to “indoctrinate” their child. So the child, left to itself, grows further into sin, with a heart that hardens more each year. But many times atheism flourishes in the homes of hypocritical parents who talk to their children about Jesus while virtually ignoring all that he commanded. In that house there is no confession or repentance, no brokenness over sin or joy in Christ. There is only a trading of sins for others that are easier to hide. Mom and dad look polished on the outside, but the children can smell their decaying hearts (cf. Matt. 23:27). They Are Weak But He Is Strong Jesus’ plan to save the world gives a glorious role to parents, who are the providers, protectors, and instructors of society’s most vulnerable and most needy citizens. And though children have been entrusted to moms and dads, we should never forget that they ultimately belong to God. The “little ones to Him belong,” as the children’s song puts it. They are weak, but so are mom and dad. In light of our own weakness, the call to introduce our children to Jesus is eternally solemn. The weight of this task is enough to make every sober-minded parent stagger. But if, as you stagger, you cry out for the gracious help of God, then he will enable you to 'train them up in the way they should go.' It is all grace, from first to last—and your children ought to know that too. Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

    By Doug Ponder on Oct. 10, 2017

    Be Who You Are Every time someone says, “Act your age!”, they are making a claim about identity and action. In particular, that exhortation (or is it more of a rebuke?) highlights a dissonance between who you are and how you are behaving. It implies that there is a way you ought to be acting or behaving based on your age and maturity, but you are not behaving in this way. The important thing to see that identity precedes action; being precedes behavior. You do not act older in order to become older, as if your behavior could literally advance your age several years. No, you simply are a certain age and therefore ought to act in a way that befits who you are. This principle is true in the Bible, too. God does not tell us to “act like a Christian in order to become a Christian.” We are never called to behave like a child of God in order to become his child. You do not have to live a life that deserves love in order to be loved. It is always the other way around: God makes us Christians by faith, and then works in us to make us act more like Christ. God adopts us as his children by his grace, and then calls us to live like his sons and daughters. God loves us first, and then calls us to love him in return. Identity precedes action; being precedes behavior. When you get this backward, everything unravels. You will focus on your behavior incessantly, not because you want to ‘be who you are,’ but because you (wrongly) believe that you must behave in order to belong or that you must act a certain way in order to become what you want to be. This is nothing short of a works-based understanding of salvation, which lives as if your behavior determines your being or your actions determine your identity. Yet we are saved by grace, and only after are we asked to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph 4:1). Who You Are Is Who You Will Be The Scriptures add one important twist to the “be who you are” or “act like your identity” idea we have been discussing. It is this: who you are is who you will be. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are… Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.  And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3) These verses make three points. First, Christians already are God’s children because of the love God has given to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We do not need to ‘behave’ in order to ‘belong.’ We do not have to ‘act like God’s child’ in order to ‘become God’s child.’ We already belong to him because of Jesus. Second, the verse says that although we are God’s children now, what we will be one day is not yet reality in our daily lives. This is not referring to a change in our status or relationship. You either are a child of God or you are not. You can’t become a “super child of God” or anything of the sort. So when it says “what we will be has not yet appeared,” it means that our daily lives, our actions, are not yet like Christ. In other words, our lives now are marked by dissonance between who we are and how we live. We are God’s children, but we don’t always live like that. But one day (when Jesus appears), we will! Finally, these verses say that because of all this, those who hope in the good news about Jesus seek to “purify themselves just as he is pure.” What does this mean? Simply that Christians strive to be in practice who they will become in perfection. Or to say the same another way, God calls us to ‘be who you will become’ when he is finished with us. This is not a matter of trying to create a new identity for ourselves. On the contrary, it’s a call to live in accordance with the identity we have been given in Christ. We have been forgiven and declared to pure in Christ—that is our true identity. But the daily actions of our lives do not line up with our identity. So Be Who You Will Become Like an immature man who never acts his age, every day Christians struggle to be who they are. The solution, however, is not one of self-help and self-created identities. The ethic of the Bible is not, “Become who you want to be” or “Be the change you wish to see in yourself.” Instead, God calls us to ‘be who you will become,’ which is a double reminder of his grace. First, it reminds us that we already are his son or daughter because. We do not have to earn this status; it comes to us by faith in his grace. Second, it reminds us that we our actions will one day match our identity—and this is also by his grace: “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). Every desire to live a more godly life, every struggle to resist temptation, every prayer for God’s help to honor him are all about the same thing: be who you will become. In the future (at the return of Jesus) you will be godly in your actions (because of your present identity)—so be who you will become. One day you will not struggle to resist temptation, because you will be in the presence of an all satisfying Savior—so be who you will become. One day you will not need to fail to honor God, because your future with him is one of honor and glory forevermore—so be who you will become. Who you are is who you will be, and what you will be when you're with Jesus is ‘like him’ (1 John 3:2). So the entirety of Christian obedience, then, boils down to this: practice the presence of the future, and be who you will become. Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is a regular contributor to RE|SOURCE. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

    By Jessica Ponder on Dec. 13, 2017

    How I Found 'Freedom In, Not Freedom From' It’s rare that you read poignant words on Facebook. My friend Lauren penned this in a status update: “Why is freedom so easily associated with ‘freedom from’ everything? To be truly free is ‘freedom in’.” That was three years ago, and I’m still thinking about that phrase freedom in, not freedom from. Her words ring true, because our culture truly does celebrate “freedom from” virtually everything: We want freedom from authority and accountability, as our deep suspicion and distrust of people in power shows. We want freedom from work and responsibility, so we idolize rest, complain about our jobs, and 'live for the weekend.' We increasingly want freedom from the constraints of Christian community (that actually exist for our good)—which is why many are leaving the church in droves. The rise of deliberate childlessness among married couples, the reality of absentee dads, and the tragedy of broken families further show that we want freedom from consequences and freedom from commitment. In all these we look for an escape from things instead of seeking joy in things. Looking for an Escape And this is not an abstract problem for other people “out there.” Our own hearts constantly look for an escape: Our social media activity, our complaints to friends, and our internal dialogue reveal that our hearts naturally seek “freedom from” responsibility rather than “freedom in” what God has given us. “If I could just get away from my job for a few weeks, everything would be OK.” “If I could just get one night of sleep alone away from my kids or spouse, I could be more patient with them.” “If I could just have more ‘me time,’ then I would be OK.” “If I could just get out of this city or this neighborhood… this house… this school… this situation… then I would be free to live a different life.” “If I could have married a different person, then I wouldn’t be so unhappy.” “If I could just have a little more money like _____, then I’d be more joyful.” “If I could just go back to work for a little while, I’d feel like a woman instead of a mom.” “If I could just be my own boss, then I wouldn’t hate my job.” “If I could just hire a maid to clean my house…” “If I could just stop having to pay bills…” “If I could just be able to do whatever I want…” “If I could run away from it all…” This escapist “freedom from” and “grass is greener” mentality shows that we typically blame our situation and think that “freedom from” our circumstances is the solution to our problems and the path to a happy life. Of course, there certainly are challenging circumstances in life, and there is nothing wrong with seeking to be proactive about such things. However, when we spend all of our time longing for a different situation, or when we are discontent and bitter in the midst of these circumstances, then we all know there’s something sinister at work in our hearts. But this restlessness in our hearts can never be cured by fewer children, a different job, a different spouse, fewer bills, endless luxury or even a fresh start. Contentment and joy cannot be found in a life of escape. The “freedom from” route never brings what it seems to promise, and the reason is because what we are running from, in most cases, is actually part of God’s good design. The Goodness of God's Design When you consider how God created the world, it’s clear that he invites us to a life of “freedom in” the callings and responsibilities he has given us, not “freedom from” them. When God placed us in the Garden of Eden, he placed us under his authority and his blessing, gave us work, gave us family, and gave us community. He also gave us a mission, and he said all this was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Before Adam and Eve sinned, they experienced freedom in all of these things. God’s purpose and design for us was (and is) beautiful and good. In a way, the very first of humanity’s many sins was seeking freedom from God’s design for life instead of finding freedom in living with the grain of creation. Adam and Eve sought freedom from God’s authority and tried to establish their own. They wanted freedom from God’s command, while (ironically) they were already free in every other respect! The rest of the Bible is filled with similar examples of people making selfish and destructive choices based in a desire to find freedom from the design and purposes of God. Our sin hasn’t changed God’s design—what God calls good is still good—but sin has changed our ability to experience the goodness of what God’s creation and his callings in our lives. Left to ourselves, we would never find joy in this life no matter how much “freedom from” we might accrue. But we haven’t been left to ourselves. Jesus Came to Bring True Freedom Jesus came to give us freedom in God’s design, not freedom from it. When Jesus said that he came to set the captives free (Luke 4:18), he was speaking about our slavery to sin (Rom. 6:20-22). In other words, he came to free us from wanting “freedom from” God’s wise design and his good purposes. We have been set free from sin that we might now be free to obey God from the heart (Rom. 6:17). After all, the “abundant life” we shared with God before our fall into sin was a life filled with responsibility for the world, care for family members, involvement in community, and yes, even work! Jesus did not come to abolish these things, but to restore our joy in the midst of them all (John 15:11). And Jesus does so not by changing our circumstances, but by changing us. He gives us a new heart, new desires, and new perseverance through the Holy Spirit (Phil. 2:12-13). As we trust Jesus, we begin to find joy in God’s wise design and beautiful plan for the world. We come to see that we have been given certain callings and commands both for God’s glory and for our good (Deut. 6:24). We do not experience joy in spite of such responsibilities, but through them. Jesus brings freedom in work, freedom in submission, freedom in lifelong marriage, freedom in parenthood during the toddler years and the teenage years, freedom in challenging work, freedom in community, and freedom in sacrifice. In all this Jesus leads us to find “freedom in” the goodness of God’s design, not freedom from it. Jessica Ponder is a wife and mother to three. She loves reading, singing, baking, and urban walking. In her dreams she is a piano player with time to practice, a gardener whose plants don’t die, and someone who could hang out with the entire world at the same time, all the time. Follow her on Twitter @MrsJessPonder.

    By Doug Ponder on Dec. 20, 2017

    Bumper Sticker Theology You’ve seen the bumper sticker before. “Christians aren’t perfect. Just forgiven.” Just forgiven? Is that the only difference between someone who follows Jesus and someone who doesn’t? Many think so. For decades we have been telling others that they can decide to enjoy forgiveness at Jesus’ expense while have nothing more to do with him. And a tragic number of people have believed what we told them. We have created a society of what one author called “vampire Christians.” He writes, “One in effect says to Jesus, ‘I’d like a little of your blood, please. But I don’t care to be your student or have your character. In fact, won’t you just excuse me while I get on with my life, and I’ll see you in heaven.’ But can we really imagine that this is an approach that Jesus finds acceptable?” (In case you are wondering, Jesus tells us the answer is “No.” See Matt. 7:21-23; 10:32-33.) Don’t get me wrong. Forgiveness of sins and life forever with Jesus in the New Heavens and the New Earth are inconceivably great blessings. To spend eternity with our Creator and Savior in spite of the vileness of our own hearts is amazing grace indeed. But that’s not what we’re talking about. Rather, I’m asking why people who call themselves Christians have come to believe that the only thing God aims to give us in salvation is forgiveness of sins and the hope of heaven? I think there are two reasons: we misunderstood the nature of God’s solution to our problem, and we misunderstand who Jesus really is. What Do We Need to Be Made Right? First, we misunderstand the nature of God’s solution to our problem. According to God, our problem is that we are sinful, both in nature and by choice. We hardly know right from wrong apart from being told, and even when we are told, we so often fail to do the right thing. These sinful thoughts, actions, and desires are both wrong and bad. They negatively affect things between us and God, between us and each other, and between us and God’s world. Sin grieves God, offends God, and betrays God—and not because God is touchy. God hates sin against himself and against his creation, because sin breaks the peace, both between the sinner and God and also between all who are affected. Sin interferes with the way God wants things to be. That is why he has commands against it. God is for the good of his creation, and therefore against sin. So we need to be rescued from sin and all of its consequences, including judgment and death. To do that, God forgives us through the cross of Jesus and gives us life with him through his resurrection. In this way we are delivered from the penalty of sin, and we will one day be delivered from the presence of sin. But what about the present? Does salvation only affect our past and our future? Hardly. Yet the present aspects of salvation are what so many Christians overlook. Jesus came to offer salvation that is more than heaven and forgiveness. As Paul explains, “Jesus died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who died and was raised for their sake” (2 Cor. 5:15). God’s solution to our problem includes delivering us from our slavery to sinful, selfish desires. He does this through the work of the Spirit, who points us to Jesus and gives us the desire and the ability to obey what he commands (Phil. 2:12-13). As we obey Jesus we become “slaves of righteousness,” and the end result of that “slavery” is actually freedom and growth in Christ. By contrast, to disobey Jesus is to remain a slave to sin, which leads to death (Rom. 6:15-23). This entire process is called “being conformed to the image of God’s Son” (Rom. 8:29), and it is a painful process because we are very selfish people. That’s why Jesus called said that following him involved ‘dying to self’ (Mark 8:34-35; Luke 14:27). Now, here’s what all of this means: In addition to forgiving us and guaranteeing us life with God in heaven, Jesus came to make his followers less selfish and more focused on others than we otherwise would be. He said that the world would know us not by our claims to have been forgiven, but by our love for one another (John 13:35). Is Jesus Better Than the Gifts He Gives? The second reason we reduce salvation to heaven and forgiveness is that we misunderstand who Jesus really is. Many people think of Jesus as a cosmic soda machine, dispensing drinks to anyone who has the money and the desire for the products he offers. That’s a silly illustration, but it’s closer to the truth than we might like to think. Many approach Jesus for what they hope to get from him, instead for who he is in himself. Why is that bad? Well, imagine if your significant other told you that they only loved you because you gave good presents. Now you’re seeing the picture. Jesus won’t be used in that way. “Why not?” some wonder. “Couldn’t his love for us be so great that he even lets us come to him for the wrong reasons?” Perhaps. Then again, perhaps Jesus does not do this because he knows that there is nothing more precious and valuable than who he is in himself. He is not in the idol-giving business, in other words. He won’t give his people anything that pulls them away from the ultimate “gift” of himself. He is the source of all peace, comfort, happiness, joy, satisfaction, bliss, and goodness of every kind, so you cannot truly have these apart from him. (You may enjoy the shadows of those realities, but you will never know the real things until you go to the one who is the source of them all.) Here is how one respected Christian pastor-theologian has put it: “Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. People who could be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. . . .The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God.” This author is, of course, just rephrasing 1 Peter 3:18, which says that Jesus died to bring people to God. God himself is the gift. He is the treasure that his people long for. Anyone who thinks that heaven and forgiveness are amazing, without having Jesus himself at the very center of it all, will have neither forgiveness nor heaven. But, someone will say, can I not be saved—get into heaven when I die—without any of this? Perhaps you can. But you might wish to think about whether you really would be comfortable for eternity in the presence of One whose company you have not found desirable for the few years of your earthly existence. And when you stop to think of it, how could anyone actually trust Jesus for forgiveness of sins and the promise of heaven while not trusting him for much more than that? It seems that you can't really trust Jesus without believing that he was right about everything, and that he alone has the key to every aspect of our lives here on earth. But if you believe that, you will naturally want to stay just as close to him as you can, in every aspect of your life, listening to what he says and seeking to obey him all things. Bumper Stickers Revisited So instead of, “Christians aren’t perfect. Just forgiven,” we should make a bumper sticker that says, “Christians aren’t perfect. But Jesus is, and God is making them more like Jesus than they otherwise would be.” That doesn’t make for a great bumper sticker, but it does make for good theology. Salvation is more than heaven and forgiveness. It also involves becoming like Christ, in the power of the Spirit, as we look toward the day when we will be with God. In other words, for the Christian this life means practicing (imperfectly!) the kind of life that we will live with God forever—a life of joy and peace and security and rest and obedience and worship and trust in Jesus. Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

    By Doug Ponder on Dec. 27, 2017

    How I Self-Sabotaged My Plan to Lose Weight I gained nearly 50 pounds in my last year of college. After months of coping with tiredness, depression, and a wardrobe of clothes that used to fit, I decided that I needed to drop the extra weight. I began running a mile several times a week with a close friend. Each week we’d add a little distance to our run, until eventually we were running two miles, then a little further, and so on. My friend began losing weight immediately. I didn’t. A quick look at my eating habits revealed why that was the case. I worked at a steakhouse, where I ate red meat at least four times a week. Additionally, I bought a piece of chocolate-peanut butter pie every night for dessert, which I polished off with a tall glass of milk. If I remember correctly, the pie alone was somewhere about 1200 calories per slice. Thus, the exercise I had been doing didn’t make a difference because my eating habits were working against my exercise efforts. It was like dietary self-sabotage. Once I quit eating the pie and cut back on the steak, however, the pounds began falling off. (I lost 30 pounds in just over a month’s time.) The Art of Spiritual Self-Sabotage Many Christians commit a similar kind of “spiritual self-sabotage.” They engage in practices and behaviors that undermine their desire for change or growth in Christ. Often this happens because we don’t understand how change happens. As James K. A. Smith, one of the leading Christian scholars in our generation, has pointed out, many Christians (including many pastors and authors) have unknowingly bought into a view of change that greatly overestimates the role of thinking in our lives. We have wrongly assumed that our actions are the outcomes of decisions we make on the basis of what we know. In other words, we say things like, ‘If only we knew better, then we would do better.’ Or, ‘If I think the right way, then I will live the right way.’ But that’s nonsense, and everyone knows it. We don’t fail to follow Jesus because of a lack of information. Most Christians know very well what Jesus has called us to do, yet we still fail. Why? The reason is that our failures to follow Jesus also stem from a problem with what we desire, not just what we know (or don’t know). Whence Comes Desire? According to the Scriptures, our desires come “from within” (Mark 7:21-23). But they don’t just appear at random. No, our desires are formed within our hearts as we interact with the world around us. John Owen, a Puritan author and scholar, wrote at length concerning how sinful desires in our hearts are both expressed in and reinforced by our actions. They are expressed in our actions because an action reveals a desire. (You do what you do because part of you wants to do it.) But you also do what you do because your previous actions have reinforced, strengthened, and nurtured this sinful desire or “heart-habit.” Thus through repeated sinful actions your heart is “trained to love” that which it ought not love. This kind of “heart training” almost never occurs at the conscious level. That is, we are rarely aware of how our actions are training our hearts to love (or not love) a certain thing. But they do, and practices that we might think of as neutral, saying, “They’re just something that I do,” are actually doing something to us. They are shaping our hearts. They are forming our desires, our heart-habits, our loves and longings, which in turn drive us to act the way we do—even without a “choice” being made in the moment. Often the choice, if any choice was involved at all, occurred long before the present situation. Consider what happens to your heart every time you visit a local mall. Everywhere you look there are images of "the good life," presented to you as something you can buy or achieve through looking a certain way, acting a certain  way, or buying a certain product. You can hear the objections now. “That’s ridiculous! I’ve never thought of my trips to the mall that way before.” Yes, well, that’s the point. A mall is like that, whether we think of it in that way or not. And the point is precisely that we don’t think of malls like that, yet they still affect us in such ways. Studies have shown, for example, that people who “window shop” (who browse but can’t afford to buy what they look at) routinely leave malls feeling less happy and/or more depressed than when they first arrived. Why is this? Because in everything from the parking lot to the pictured models to the glistening displays, malls are designed to entice you. They are meant to make you want. They form desires within your heart as you interact with the sights, sounds, smells, touch, and taste of the environment. In a similar way, our actions throughout the week partially shape or form many of the desires in our hearts. Thus many people engage in the art of self-sabotage when it comes to change by their repeated engagement in activities that form sinful heart-habits that oppose the very behaviors that they truly want to be rid of. Examples of Self-Sabotage A man struggling with pornography is a fool if he prays for change in this area while continuing to watch sexually explicit TV shows and movies—not to mention magazine adds, pictures of models at malls, even most beaches. Those images will reinforce the lust in his heart, even training his heart to continue desiring what he says he wants to be rid of. Every week he prays, “God help me be free from these lustful desires.” Yet every week he stokes the raging fires of lust by immersing him in images that only add fuel to the fire. A lady who struggles with never feeling pretty enough, talented enough, or good enough at being a wife or a mom should realize that Pinterest is the last place she ought to spend her time. There’s nothing wrong with a picture of craft ideas or new hairstyles, but there’s everything wrong with thinking that craft or new hairstyle will make you prettier or more valuable in any way. It would be self-sabotage for her to stare at Pinterest all day while praying against her struggles for not feeling pretty enough or talented enough. Her prayers for help in this area would be drowned out by the noise of the fantasy world she has pinned to her board, which screams much louder than the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit. A man who struggles with self-control in eating almost always struggles with self-control in other areas. He probably oversleeps, and overindulges in alcohol, in video games, and in other things that might be perfectly acceptable in moderation. The problem is that why he sings the tune of moderation, he practices the art of self-sabotage by overindulging in all manner of things throughout the week. He then wonders why he has such trouble saying "No" to the lusts of his stomach or the desires of his wandering eyes. But when you've spent all week training your heart to love excess in every area, is it really any wonder why this happens? How to Stop Sabotaging Yourself How can we get out of this mess? How can I stop feeding the sin that I desire to fight? The answer is threefold: we have to know what's right, want to do what's right, and practice what is right. To know what is right we need only look to the Scriptures, which give us God's commands in very clear and straightforward fashion. But we can't stop there, as so many Christians do, for our biggest problem isn't knowing what is right. We also need a change of desires. This isn't something that we can do to ourselves, but it is something that we affect. That is, we can't make our hearts change—only the Spirit of God can do that—but we can do things that position ourselves to be changed or not to be changed. As John Piper, a well-known pastor and author, has often said, "I can't make the wind blow, but I can put the sails up." The movement of the Spirit of God is the wind, and "putting the sails up" are the means of grace, which God has given to us as a way to receive his gracious work in our lives. Finally, God calls us to put into practice the desires that he places in our hearts. We must 'work out what God works in' (Phil. 2:12-13). We do this through practicing what is right, through reinforcing proper heart-habits with actions that accord with godliness. So instead of immersing yourself in situations that will only tempt you beyond what you can bear, immerse yourself in the gospel through listening to sermons, talking about the gospel with friends, and taking part in the everyday life of a healthy, gospel-centered church.  As we open ourselves up to the conviction of the Spirit through the word of God and the people of God, we may also find areas of our lives where we are undermining the very changes that we wish to see happen. And if so, the person who truly desires to change will happily say goodbye to the things, scenarios, and environments in their life that tripping up their attempts to overcome sin and temptation. Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

    By Doug Ponder on Jan. 17, 2018

    As everyone knows, the last leaves of Autumn mean that Thanksgiving and Christmas are upon us. It’s that glorious time of year set aside for giving lots of stuff and to stuffing ourselves a lot. But to celebrate these holidays—and every day—as God intended, one thing above all is necessary: we must grasp that all of life is grace (James 1:17). We deserve none of the good things we have, not even a little bit. They flow from the love of God himself, the wellspring of saving grace and of every blessing in life, far too many to number. (Count your blessings, name them one by one? Good luck with that!) I have friends who grow up in a Christian denomination that recognized this truth and formed it into an unofficial slogan of sorts (long before Dave Ramsey popularized it). Whenever anyone would ask, “How are you doing?” The response often given was, “Better than I deserve!” I’ve heard many people express frustration over this. Perhaps it was a bit annoying to hear it said so often. Or perhaps the robotic repetition of the response caused the weight of those words to diminish over time. I don’t know, and I have no intentions of defending the custom. But every Christian should be willing to fight to the death to defend the truth of its content. For people who understand the gravity of sin and the depth of grace, there could scarcely be a more accurate summary of life: Better than I deserve. What We Actually Deserve Charles Spurgeon (who’s been getting a lot of air time in my life recently) famously said, “As long as a man is alive and out of hell, he can’t have any cause to complain.” As is so often the case, Spurgeon’s words are not just a matter of personal opinion. He is restating an important point that Paul the apostle makes. Paul writes, “Do everything without complaining or arguing” (Phil. 2:14). That is a command, by the way, one of those non-optional things that God tells us to do. But why would God tell us not to complain about anything? Because no matter what is going on in your life, it’s better than what you deserve. This is conclusion is impossible to avoid for people who believe that they deserve the just judgment of God for their many sins. To believe that sinners sit under God’s wrath, as the Scriptures everywhere affirm, is to believe that when it comes to deserving anything, all that we have earned is a death that never dies. This is why Paul says, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). As a matter of principle, the Scriptures teach that “The worker deserves his wages” (1 Tim. 5:18; cf. Luke 10:7). This is important to point out, because God is not opposed to earning in general. That is not the message of the Scriptures, and the proverbs are filled with verses that extol the virtues of a hard workers who earn their keep. The problem is that what we deserve for our actions toward God, toward others, and toward God’s world is nothing less than hell. That seems a bit much, some may object. Anselm of Canterbury would reply, “You have not yet considered what a heavy weight sin is” (Cur Deus Homo, Book I, ch. 21). Grace Given and Received Thankfully, this is not where the train’s final stop. Sin is great, but Christ is greater. And through him God has provided a way for us to receive grace instead of the gallows, heaven instead of hell, mercy instead of judgment (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:21-22; Romans 6:23; James 2:13). Receiving better than we deserve is fundamentally what grace is. Grace gives what was not earned. Grace bestows what is not warranted. Grace offers what is not owed. The Spirit uses this grace like an axe at the root of the tree of pride, which grows tall and strong in all our hearts. Sin has hardwired us to think of ourselves as valuable, deserving, worthy, and worthwhile. Sin is so deep that we can even say words of grace without grace in the heart. “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector’” (Luke 18:11). We could even fall prey to this same pride in the midst of a “better than I deserve.” It’s not about saying the right words; it’s about believing them. We deserve hell, but in Jesus, we have received a fullness of grace. And, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (John 1:16). The Christian who believes this has found God’s cure for calloused hearts. He removes our sense of entitlement, our self-centeredness, and our arrogance by reminding us of our sin and what we truly deserve, and by reminding of what we have received in Christ. In place of pride he gives us humility; instead of entitlement, he brings contentment; instead of complaining, we are filled with gratitude. Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

    By Doug Ponder on Jan. 24, 2018

    In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes, “Now I want to remind you, brothers and sisters, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved. . .” (1 Cor. 15:1). Of course, you don’t need a reminder unless you are inclined to forget. But judging by the number of times the New Testament authors call us to remember—Rom. 5:15; 1 Cor. 4:17; 2 Cor. 10:7; 2 Tim. 2:14; Titus 3:1; 2 Pet. 1:12-13; 2 Pet. 3:1-2; Jude 1:5, to list a few—we are clearly a people prone to forget. What Remembering Means When Paul said that he needed to remind the Corinthians of the gospel, he wasn’t suggesting that they had forgotten it in the same way you forgot all those years of Spanish you took in high school. He was talking about a different kind of remembering, more like being attentive, aware, considerate, or mindful of something that you already know. The apostle Peter put it like this, “I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have” (2 Pet. 1:12). Apparently, knowing the gospel wasn’t enough. Peter called for actively remembering the gospel. It’s like when your parents said to you, “Mind your manners.” They weren’t referring to manners that you had never learned. On the contrary, they were encouraging you to recall and to put into practice something that you had already been taught. In a similar way, remembering the gospel means recalling or reflecting on what God has said in the Scriptures. Why We Forget the Gospel Some people forget the gospel because they wrongly think of it as a message for non-Christians only. They think that you need the gospel to be saved, but after that you move on to something else. “I already know the gospel,” they say. “Why would I need to think about it again?” That sort of talk just shows that such people don’t know much about the gospel. As one pastor has said, “We never ‘get beyond the gospel’ in our Christian life to something more ‘advanced.’ The gospel is not the first ‘step’ in a ‘stairway’ of truths, rather, it is more like the ‘hub’ in a ‘wheel’ of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s of Christianity, but the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we all make progress in the kingdom” (Gal. 3:1-3; Col. 1:6; Rom. 1:16-17). Another reason we forget the gospel is our incessant busyness. The problem is not lack of time—for we have more time-saving devices than any generation before us while having the same number of hours in the day. The problem is our schedules. We pack our days like a sardine can full of scheduled events of all kinds except remembering the gospel. Thus it happens that the same people who agree that we were made to know God (Acts 17:26-27; John 17:3) will schedule virtually no time for the entire main of their existence. Meanwhile, we find plenty of time to think about ourselves, our friends, our families, our careers, our hobbies, our vacations, our next meal (you get the idea). This is the third reason why we "forget" the gospel. We naturally tend to spend time with the people and the things that we love and enjoy. So if we have little love, affection, or desire for God, is it any wonder that we fail to spend time remembering what he has said? Why Remembering Matters In God’s way of doing things, remembering always comes before doing. For example, the Passover was instituted so that Israel would remember how God had freed them from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 13:3). God then gave the law to his people to help them remember his character, his power, and his judgment of sin. As motivation to keep the law, God told his people to remember what he had done for them (Deut. 5:15). Later writers in the Bible directly attributed many of Israel’s sins to failing to remember God and his promises to them (Ps. 106:7-8). This pattern of “remembering before doing” continues in the New Testament, where it features prominently in the Lord’s Supper (“do this in remembrance of me,” Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). Why do the Scriptures highlight remembering before doing? Because to be a Christian, first and foremost, is a change of identity. We used to be children of wrath (Eph. 2:3); now we are children of God (John 1:12). At one time we were in darkness (Eph. 5:8), but now we are in the light (1 Pet. 2:9). We once were blind, but now we see (John 9:25). We were at one time separated from Christ (Eph. 2:12), but we are now united to him (Rom. 6:5). We were dead in our sins, but we have been made alive together with Christ (Col. 2:13). We were lost, but now we’re found (Luke 15:24). We were slaves to sin (Rom. 6:17), but now we’re free in Christ (Gal. 5:1). All these describe our change of identity. They are not something that we must do, they are something that we are thanks to the work of Jesus. That is the good news of the gospel. In this way, remembering the gospel supplies us with the reminder of grace that keeps us from pride and self-righteousness, on the one hand, or despair and shame on the other. Here’s how it works. Peter says, “For whoever lacks these qualities [of Christ-likeness] is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (2 Pet. 1:9). According to Peter, our lack of growth is Christ is a direct result of not remembering the gospel. Some of us look at our lives and conclude that we are pretty well off, so we become prideful, arrogant, conceited, and self-righteous. By not remembering the gospel we become like the Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this crooked tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12). But the gospel reminds us that we are so bad off that we need to be cleansed from our sins, as Peter says, and it took the death of Jesus to accomplish this. It’s really hard to see yourself as a wretched, wayward, enemy of God who needs to be forgiven and at the same time to see yourself as someone worth taking pride in. Remembering the gospel kills our pride. Remembering the gospel also fuels our hope. For if the prideful forget that they were cleansed of their sins, the despairing and the shameful forget that they were truly cleansed from their sin. There is no condemnation, no threat of death or hell or the wrath of God, that awaits those who are in Christ (Rom. 8:1). Our sins have been forgiven really, truly, and fully. Remembering that good news goes a long way toward freeing us from self-pity, self-loathing, depression, and despair. God has forgiven us in Christ. We are loved and accepted because of him, and nothing can take that way. Therefore, we are free to obey God—not from fear of what will happen if we fail, but from the joy of salvation and the love we have for the one who died to forgive sinners like us. Note to Self As Christians, therefore, we must always focus on remembering the gospel. We need to “rediscover” its applicability to every area of our lives. In fact, one theologian says that our problems are mainly a failure to be rightly aligned with the gospel. In other words, many (most!) of our problems come from failing to remember the gospel and to believe it through and through. For example, perhaps we value what the gospel says is of no value, or we crave what the gospel says cannot satisfy, or we fret and worry when instead the gospel shows us an empty tomb. Our problems are gospel problems. That's why we need to remember the gospel. Practically, this means we should be reading the Scriptures often, setting time aside for prayer, and staying involved in a local church community where we can join with other Christians in hearing the gospel preached and in helping one another to remember the gospel together as we share life together. Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

    By Doug Ponder on Feb. 14, 2018

    What Is the Sin of Pride? The seven deadly sins form a list of vices considered especially  dangerous because of their destructive nature and their tendency to entangle us in many other sins. Though the label “seven deadly sins” is not found in the Bible, it has been used by Christians for centuries as a helpful way of summarizing and categorizing the wide-ranging patterns of human sinfulness. This post examines pride, the worst of the seven deadly sins. Pride is a deadly cocktail of self-absorption (narcissism) and overestimation of our abilities and our significance (conceit). In other words, a prideful person thinks a lot of himself and thinks of himself a lot. The Deadly Nature of Pride Of all sins, pride is the most dangerous. It was the first sin, and it is the source of every other sin. Pride is the beating heart of all sins because it says to God, “my will be done.” In our pride we believe that we know better than God, that we deserve to receive whatever it is we want, and that we have the right to disregard what God says. Pride was how Satan became the devil. Pride was how Adam fell. Pride is why we sin today. Pride is also the sin God hates most. In his righteousness God hates all sin, but there is no sin God more frequently and openly rebukes than pride: When God reveals what he hates, pride is at the top of the list (Prov. 6:16-17). The wisdom of God says, “I hate pride and arrogance” (Prov. 8:13). The Scriptures say, “The Lord detests all who are proud in heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished” (Prov. 16:5). And God doesn’t just detest those who are proud, he actively opposes them (James 4:6). Pride is the greatest and most hated sin because it is a violation of the first and greatest commandment. The Lord says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3), but pride puts the self before God. Thus pride seeks to honor self, not God. Pride causes us to worship ourselves instead of our Creator (Rom. 1:25). Pride loves our self with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind, rather than God (Matt. 22:37). Pride, Pride Everywhere The problem, as C.S. Lewis famously observed, is that pride is also a sin that afflicts us all: “There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad-tempered, or that they cannot keep their heads about girls or drink, or even that they are cowards. I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice… There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others. The vice I am talking of is Pride.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, “The Great Sin”, p. 121) Lewis rightly shows that all men are afflicted with pride, but some are still more prideful than others. For example, there are those who refuse to recognize their pride, or else they call it by another name: self-confidence, self-worth, self-esteem, self-satisfaction, self-trust, self-love. Self, self, self. Those who are confident they are not prideful most certainly are. Meanwhile, others may admit they struggle with pride, “but no more than any other man,” they say. Such people think often and much of their humility (pride’s opposing virtue); they even self-consciously strive for it. But humility cannot be obtained by focusing more on the self, indeed, that is the chief cause of its lack. Thus, those who are even a little proud of their humility are not actually humble at all. If some who think they are humble are actually proud, then how can we tell the difference? The humble delight in God’s authority, but the proud detest it. The humble seek to obey God’s Word, but the proud reinterpret it. The humble accept blame for their errors, but the proud blameshift. The humble confess their many sins, but the proud hide or deny them. The humble act on behalf of others, but the proud act on their own behalf. The humble focus on God in the face of Jesus, but the proud focus on themselves. Modern Praise and Promotion Until the Enlightenment, pride was widely regarded as the worst of all sins. But the Enlightenment was, at its core, a quest to liberate the self, so it is no wonder that pride has ceased to be cause for much concern. In fact, pride has became not something to be avoided, but something to be praised and promoted. Consider all our talk of self-confidence, of being whatever we want to be, of doing anything we put our minds to, and of loving ourselves unconditionally. What are these if not veiled forms of pride? These are but a few examples of our extreme self-focus and gross overestimation of our abilities and significance. That combination of narcissism and conceit is precisely what pride is. The shift to praising and promoting pride has, of course, produced a prideful culture, too, one that is full of people who are fascinated with themselves. This kind of acute self-fascination turns our wants into “needs,” and creates a culture of envy, entitlement, and greed. Additionally, our endless self-focus causes us to obsess constantly about how we feel, even how we feel about how we feel. Thus God, the world and all its people shrink to a small circle of personal circumstances the size of me. Ironically, pride also produces insecure people. All this self-focus causes many to feel as though they don’t measure up. So while the insecure may not think “a lot of themselves,” they grow in their pride by continuing to think of themselves a lot. An insecure man is obsessed with how others view ‘me,’ what others think of ‘me,’ whether or not others like ‘me,’ and so on. He says to himself, “I have low self-esteem, so I can’t be prideful!” But pride is the true source of his problems. Let's consider one final example of modern pride. In high rebellion against God, we have inverted his moral order, calling good "evil" and evil "good" in many areas of society (Isa. 5:20). This is especially prevalent in how we have inverted the definitions of humility and pride. For example, when someone says, "This is just what works for me," or "This is what I learned on my journey," or "This is my perspective," or "This is how I feel," they are considered humble by others. But if another man says, "Thus saith the Lord..." or "God has told us..." or "The Scriptures teach...", then he is considered arrogant. But note that the first man did nothing but talk of himself: his journey, his perspective, his feelings, and so on. His comments are utterly self-centered, and he has made himself the judge of what is true. Yet he is praised for being humble! The second man, however, repeated truths that would still be true even if he were never born. His perspective, his hopes, his dreams, and his journey are entirely irrelevant to the truthfulness of what God has said, and he humbly knows this. Because of pride, many people get this totally backwards, scrambled, upside-down. God’s Cure for Prideful Hearts There are, in the end, only two kinds of people: the proud who think they are humble, and the humble who know they are proud. Jesus says about these two types, “Those who exalt themselves will be brought down, but those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). This is because pride is the chief obstacle to God’s work in our lives. By belittling, excusing, or denying our faults and failures, pride recognizes neither sin nor the need for God’s grace. God also wants to fill us with his Spirit, but the proud are so full of themselves that there is no room left for God. Hence God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). But how can we “humble ourselves” so that we may receive grace and be lifted up by God? Where is true humility found? How do we get it? The old cliché rings true: the way to humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. And specifically, we think of ourselves less by thinking more of Jesus. In other words, fix your eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:2). Think often of him. Remember his mighty works, especially the cross and the resurrection. Seek his help in all things, believing him when he says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Understand that every good thing you will ever do will only be possible because of God’s work in your life (Phil. 2:13). Remind yourself of the undeserved kindness God shows to you, seen in every blessing, far too many to number. And thank him always for his grace. Grace is the great pride killer, because it reminds us that we have nothing to offer God in ourselves. We have nothing, earn nothing, and can boast of nothing before him. We are but beggars at the foot of God's door. But there, on the bottom step, he stoops to receive us. He lifts us up. And he fills our empty hands with grace upon grace. Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

    By Doug Ponder on March 21, 2018

    Mistaken Identity According to her death certificate, 18-year-old Whitney Cerak died on April 26, 2006. Nearly 1,400 people attended her funeral before she was buried in her hometown in Michigan. Six years later, Whitney got married in the same church where her funeral service had been held. You read that correctly. It turns out that Whitney had not died in the accident that took the lives of her friends. But due to severe head trauma and significant facial injuries, Whitney had been misidentified at the scene of the accident. It was weeks before she was able to speak, and in that time her family held a funeral service for the girl they believed to be their daughter. In reality, they buried the wrong girl. Meanwhile, the van Ryn family faithfully cared for Whitney in the hospital, having been told that she was their daughter, Laura. Only after Whitney began to speak did they realize they had been caring for the wrong girl. Their daughter Laura had not been healing in a hospital bed; she had been buried in a mismarked grave. Upon learning about the instance of mistaken identity, one family rejoiced at the news that they’d been wrong. The other family despaired to learn the same. Something similar often occurs when people hear the message of Jesus. Some think they’ve understood, and rejected, the Jesus of Christianity. They held a funeral service for the faith they held a long time ago. But many of them would be surprised to learn that the faith they’ve buried was a false one. They have rejected the wrong Jesus. Here are three impostors who are sometimes confused with the real Jesus: 1. The Jesus of Religious Hypocrites Imagine growing up in a home where your parents forced you to attend church services but never talked about Jesus throughout the week. They often complained about society as if they were perfect saints trapped in a world of sinners. They never read the Scriptures, and they only ever prayed before meals. They talked openly of the sins of others, but never confessed their own. For millions of people, that is not a life they have to imagine but a description of the life they’ve already lived. (Perhaps that is similar to your own story.) When children in households like that grow up, the one thing they are almost certain to abandon is the ridiculous faith of their parents. Can you blame them? Who would want to follow a Jesus that looked like that? But religious hypocrites are not at all like the real Jesus. And the Jesus they claim to worship is not the Jesus of the Scriptures. After all, Jesus aimed his harshest words at hypocritical religion. He said that though they claim Jesus as their Lord, Jesus says that he doesn’t claim them and their shenanigans (Matthew 7:21). In other words, people who reject Jesus because of religious hypocrisy are not rejecting the real Jesus, since the people they thought were giving Jesus a bad name do not actually belong to him. For unless they repent, Jesus will one day say to such people, “Depart from me. I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23). If Jesus doesn’t claim religious hypocrites, then why are you holding them against Jesus? 2. Jesus the Jerk The real Jesus is not a jerk, but many people think he is. They mistake Jesus’ correction and hatred of sin as some kind of mean-spirited nitpicking or harsh criticism. But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true that Jesus hates sin. It grieves him and offends him—but not because he’s touchy. Jesus is for justice, and therefore against injustice; he is for life, and therefore against anything that would ruin life; he is for the flourishing of his creation, and therefore against anything that corrupts and pollutes, or harms and destroys; he is for goodness, and therefore against sin and evil. The reason Jesus hates sin—sin against him, against our neighbors, against his good creation—is because sin breaks the peace between God and us, between us and each other, and between us and God’s world. Jesus is for God’s glory and our good, and therefore against sin. This is a little bit like when a parent tells their child that they cannot play in the street. They are not being harsh or mean by forbidding the child from playing the road. On the contrary, the parent commands them not to play there because of their great love for the child. In a similar way, Jesus commands us to avoid sin because he loves us. He knows that sin brings despair and death, but he offers us joy and life.  How stupid would we be to reject Jesus for that? And how prideful must we be to think that we know better than the God who made us and the world we live in? 3. Passive, Pushover Jesus At the other end of the spectrum from Jesus the Jerk is the Passive, Pushover Jesus. This misconception views Jesus as “a limp-wristed hippie in a dress with a lot product in his hair,” as one author put it. Now it’s true that Jesus is gracious, kind, compassionate, gentle, humble, and tender. And the Scriptures do say that he is abounding in love and mercy, offering rest to weary souls with a gentleness that will not “break a bruised reed.” But the reason all of that is true is not because Jesus is a kindly old grandpa figure sitting in his rocking chair in the sky, patiently waiting for you to go to him, but ultimately unconcerned if you really heed his call. In truth, Jesus is also an ultimate warrior King, who promised to return to execute perfect justice in God’s world. He will do this with such fury that the images in the book of Revelation depict Jesus as a shining warrior, wrapped in a white robe, with a sword coming from his mouth. He will use the sword to slay the enemies of God, and the devastation will be so terrific that his robe will be drenched with blood—and the blood is not his own. See, it’s easy to walk away from a kindly grandpa, passive pushover Jesus. You know that even when you disobey him, the consequences will never really catch up to you. He’ll still be there, in his rocking chair, waiting to reward you with a Werther’s original. But when you see who the real Jesus is, then you realize what your disobedience actually is. It’s rebellion against the ruler of this world. It’s disloyalty to the God who loves you. It’s unfaithfulness. It’s betrayal. And it’s suicide. The only reason we are spared from God’s righteous judgment of all sin is because Jesus offered himself in our place. He died a bloody death on the cross as both a demonstration of how severe sin is, and also as a substitution for those (like you and me) who should have died instead. And that’s something no passive, pushover would ever do. Meeting the Real Jesus The best guard against all of these errors is knowing the real Jesus for ourselves. And the way do that is to read the book that’s all about him, the Bible. The more familiar we are with the Scriptures and the gospel of grace, the better we will be to recognize and correct every ‘wrong Jesus’ that someone has rejected. We don’t counter with a beat down, but with good news: “Good news! You’ve rejected the wrong Jesus. Let me introduce you to the real one.” Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

    By Doug Ponder on March 28, 2018

    The Illusive Virtue “Patience is a virtue,” as the popular saying goes. But it’s also a command from God: “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You also, be patient” (James 5:7-8). Yet despite God’s call to be patient (which is repeated throughout the Scriptures in many ways), I know of very few people who would describe themselves as “patient.” I don’t think our problem is a lack of awareness. We know that we should be patient, and we know that we are not. I often hear friends confess, “I’m not a patient person.” Our problem doesn’t seem to be a lack of desire to change, either. For many also tell me, “I pray for patience, but it doesn’t seem to work.” Picking the Fruit, Leaving the Root So what’s going on? It may be that our confession, prayers, and attempts to change are not going deep enough. We are not addressing the root of our problem. It’s like pulling dandelions out of your yard every day, only to see them grow back in a week, and keep coming back year after year. That happens because the root of a dandelion is much deeper than the little yellow flowers we see on the surface. (I’ve that their roots can be as deep as several feet in the ground!) The flower is the only “fruit” (the product) of the plant, but the root is the source of its life and growth. The same is true with patience or its opposite, impatience. Those are merely the fruit (or effect) of a deeper problem, not the root (or cause) of it. So, praying for patience without addressing what is causing your impatience is a bit like plucking dandelion flowers without pulling up the roots. In other words, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t seem to “work.” Pride and Prejudice Patience We don’t have to guess about the root or cause of impatience. God tells us plainly in his Word: “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (Eccl. 7:8). In that short verse, God contrasts patience with pride because pride is the root of our impatience. Think about it. When you’re stuck in traffic and angry at the drivers around you, what is the cause of all your impatience? You think that you have somewhere to go, something important to do, and you need to get there now! But this arrogantly overlooks the obvious: you are surrounded by hundreds and thousands of other cars filled with real people who also have places to go and things to do. Hello, Mr. Prideful. Or suppose something has not happened as quickly as you would have liked. Maybe you have been praying for God to heal you for years, but so far he hasn’t done so. You’ve grown secretly bitter with God, impatient with him for not doing what you want when you want him to. You see? Pride again. The definition of pride is “thinking too highly of yourself,” which is true, but doesn’t help us unless we know that we shouldn’t think well of ourselves at all. The Scriptures say that like our ancestors before us, the intentions of our hearts are “only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). Even the good that we try to do is so often poisoned by a selfish view of ‘what’s in it for me.’ We are not righteous, not even the best of us. We don’t understand the world rightly without God’s help. The Scriptures say that our sins make us “worthless,” with our lying mouths and our feet that are swift to shed blood, leaving behind them a trail of ruin and misery (cf. Rom. 3:10-18). And that says nothing of our tendency to belittle others, to judge them, to look down on them, or to exclude them. It would be utterly foolish to put someone like that—someone like ourselves—at the center of the universe, yet that is exactly what pride does. You know the old saying, “He thinks the world revolves around him”? That’s a picture of pride at work. How Pride Produces Impatience How does pride produce impatience, though? By placing ourselves at the center of everything, we grow impatient when things do not go our way. When we don’t get things as fast as we want, pride nudges us to take them by whatever means necessary, instead of waiting patiently for them. And when circumstances do not go our way, we don’t just think, “I can’t believe this is happening.” Instead, pride nudges us to say, “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” which then becomes, “This shouldn’t be happening to me,” which is another way of saying, “I don’t deserve this,” which, finally, is our prideful way of saying that we ought to get what we want. All of this means that if we want to grow in patience (as we all do), then we need to repent of our pride and seek to grow in humility. Only by killing the root of pride, will we see less of the fruit of impatience. And if you want to know how to repent of pride, then start by reminding yourself of who God is and what he has done for you in Jesus. Think often on those truths. Remember that he is the center of all things, not you (Col. 1:16). Remember that you only exist because he decided to give you life (Rev. 4:10-11). Remember that you are a depraved sinner deserving of God’s wrath for your rebellion against him (Eph. 2:1-3), but also remember that he has shown his mercy to you in Christ (Eph. 2:4-7). Remember that what you could not do to save yourself, Jesus has done for you—not because you are worthy, but because he is gracious (Eph. 2:8-9). The more you grasp the gospel, the more you will grow in humility. And the more you grow in humility, the more patient you will become. It is proof of God's work in your life: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23). Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

    By Doug Ponder on April 11, 2018

    So You Want to Grow? I’ve never met a committed Christian who didn’t want to grow spiritually, to grow more mature, or to become more like Christ. Indeed, that desire to grow is one of the vital signs that we have a new heart (cf. Titus 3:3-7). But when it comes to knowing how to grow, many Christians seem to be terribly confused. Some talk as if we grow mainly because of our own effort. “It all depends you,” they might say. Meanwhile, others talk as if there is nothing we can do to help or hinder our growth. “It all depends on God,” they claim. So who is right? Does our growth all depend on us? Or does it only depend upon God? Who gets the credit for spiritual growth? Who gets the blame for our lack of maturity? People who think that spiritual growth is left up to us tend to agree with the idea that ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ They think that God left us the Bible—which they see as Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (B.I.B.L.E.)—and then asked us to “get to work.” He did his part, and now we have to meet him halfway. While those who think this way do recognize that God has commanded us to do certain things, they totally overestimate our ability to obey God in our own strength and with the right motives. This often happens because they downplay the seriousness of sin. Unfortunately, this view of spiritual growth produces people who are either very prideful or very shame-filled. If they think they’re mature, they have themselves to thank. If they think they aren’t, they have themselves to blame. On the other hand, people who think that there is nothing we can do to help or hinder spiritual growth aren’t much better off. They go around saying things like, “It’s all grace, brother.” “Let go and let God.” Or, “Pray Until Something Happens.” You can’t do anything, remember? You’ve got to wait for God. Those who think this way at least understand that we can’t obey God on our own. They know that we need God’s grace to change at every point. That’s good. What’s bad is they don’t understand how grace works. Ask how people grow and they’ll say, “All I know is, we grow because of grace.” Yes, but how? “All I know is, God grows us through the gospel.” Yes, but how? “He grows us through the gospel because it’s the good news about grace.” Frustratingly unhelpful, isn’t it? This way of thinking tends to produce very passive people who wait for God to move, or else it produces very frustrated people who wonder why it seems like God isn’t moving. Growth Takes Grace-Enabled Effort The truth is this: spiritual growth depends upon grace-enabled effort. God’s grace enables your effort that leads to spiritual growth. That’s the message of the Scriptures over and over again. That’s why Paul repeatedly tells us to “put off” our old self with all its sinful practices, and to “put on” the new self that is being renewed in the image of Christ. Paul was teaching that growing in the grace of Christ does not happen automatically, that spiritual growth does not happen passively. It takes grace-enabled effort. For while it’s true that Jesus says, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), it’s also true that those who do nothing will have nothing to show for it. One of the brightest Christian scholars of our time has summarized the relationship between God’s grace and our effort like this: “Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning. Effort is action. Earning is attitude.”  That means no one will be able to say, “I earned my growth because of what I did,” but neither will anyone ever be able to say, “I grew more mature by doing nothing.” Paul, the apostle of grace, understand the relationship between grace and effort very well. Listen to how he describes grace-enabled effort: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Cor. 15:10) “To this end I strenuously toil [work hard] with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” (Col. 1:29) “And so, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only when I was with you but even more now that I am absent, continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is producing in you both the desire and the ability to do what pleases him.” (Phil. 2:12-13) You see? God’s grace enables our effort that leads to growth. God gives us the desire and the ability to do what pleases him, and then we actually do it. In other words, we “work out what God works in” (cf. Phil. 2:12-13). Peter the apostle calls the growth that comes from grace-enabled effort “growing in grace” (2 Pet. 3:17-18). He writes: “God’s divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with perseverance, and perseverance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.” In other words, God has given you everything you need for a godly life (grace) . . . therefore, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue (effort) . . . for if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful (growth). Or as one theologian has put it, “God’s working in us [for our growth] is not suspended because we work, nor is our working suspended because God works… God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works, we work.” God’s grace enables our effort which leads to spiritual growth. How Does All This Work? The word “grace” means unmerited favor. In other words, God’s grace toward us means that he gives his love, kindness, blessing, and approval to people who haven’t deserved or earned these things in any way. Normally when we think of “grace,” our minds run to the cross of Jesus. That is good and right. This act of grace brought salvation for undeserving people. But grace doesn’t stop there. According to Paul, the same grace that brings salvation also trains us in how to live. “For the grace of God has appeared,  bringing salvation to all people, training us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-12). But how can grace “train” us? God’s commands, Jesus’ example, and the Spirit’s work to convicts us of sin and empower us for living are all grace. In grace, God gives us commands as a way to show us what is good, to demonstrate our need for him, and to restrain us from being worse than we otherwise might be (1 Tim. 1:8; Rom. 7:16). In grace Jesus not only died for us to forgive our sin, he also lived for us, leaving us an example that we might follow in his footsteps (1 Pet. 2:21). In grace, the Spirit convicts us concerning sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11), and to put to death the sins of our flesh as we walk in his strength (Rom. 8:13). What Should I Do Now? In the church where I grew up, we used to sing an old hymn that repeats the phrase “trust and obey” over and over again. The tune is campy, and some of the verses are odd, but the refrain is powerful and true: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” (Note: When this hymn was written, the word “happy” did not mean momentary giddiness, as it does in our day. It meant something closer to our word “joyful.”) The same is true for growing in grace. Do you want to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ? (cf. 2 Pet 3:17-18) Then trust and obey. Trust that Jesus has done all that is needed to cleanse you, to forgive you, and to satisfy the demands of the law. Trust that your future is secure because Jesus has risen from the dead, as the firstfruits of those who are in him. Trust that your life is hidden with Christ in God, having been crucified with him in his death and raised with him to walk in newness of life. Trust that the Spirit of God now lives and dwells within you, fixing your eyes ever on Jesus’ face. And as you trust these things, simply do as God says. Listen to his Word. Obey what he has asked you to do: talk with him in prayer; saturate your mind and heart with the Scriptures; gather with the church to hear the gospel preached; receive the sacraments of communion and baptism as living pictures of his grace toward you; spend time with other Christians in edifying fellowship; share the good news about Jesus with others; care for the sick, the poor, and the needy;  sacrifice your time and money for the good of others; seek justice and plead the cause of the helpless; forgive one another as Christ forgave you—seek to do all these and many more besides. Whatever God has asked us to do, let us heartily obey, not in the fear of his judgment, but in warm-hearted love of his mercy and grace. In the slightly re-worded rephrase of the old hymn, let us ‘Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to become more like Jesus, but to trust and obey.’ Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

    By Doug Ponder on May 9, 2018

    Growth in the Christian Life Jesus describes our relationship to him as that of a vine and its branches, with God the Father as the master gardener (John 15:1ff). In another place Jesus compares life in his kingdom to the growth (or not) of plants whose seeds are sown along a path, in rocky places, among thorns, and in rich soil (Matt. 13:1ff). Meanwhile the apostle Paul writes that the church is “God’s field” (1 Cor. 3:9), and he calls the results of God’s work in the lives of his people “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22ff). All of this talk of vines, branches, seeds, farms, fields, and fruit is intentional: part of the Christian life is about growth, because living things grow. For this reason, a lot of articles talk about how to grow, but not as many seem to discuss the nature of growth itself. To begin with, when we talk about “growth in Christ” we are talking about development in the sense of maturity. This spiritual maturity is like physical maturity in some ways while being unlike it in others. How Spiritual Growth Is Like Physical Growth The main similarity between physical and spiritual growth or maturity is that both move in the same direction: little by little, slowly but surely, onwards and upwards. The reason for physical growth is in our DNA; it’s just part of what it means to be human. The reason that spiritual maturity moves us “onwards and upwards” is because of who is at work inside us. It’s the God who renovates us from the inside out (Titus 3:6), renewing our minds (Rom. 12:2) and replacing our spiritually dead heart with one that’s alive and filling us with his Spirit (Ezek. 36:26); he gives us new desires and new abilities to say ‘yes’ to God and ‘no’ to sin (Titus 2:12) and hes promises never to leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5) until he completes what he started (Phil. 1:6). That’s why we can confidently say you will be like God one day, fully conformed to the image of Christ, and God himself will make sure that it’s done. But that promise doesn’t lead to passivity. In fact, someone who does nothing while they wait around for God to make them new is not only missing the point; they might be missing Jesus, too. How Spiritual Growth Is NOT Like Physical Growth In one very important way, spiritual growth and maturity is different than the physical growth we all experience from infancy to adulthood. Specifically, physical growth is automatic—you don’t have to “do” anything but wait for a baby to become a boy to become a teenager to become a man. But to grow more mature, the mere passing of time is not enough. (Which is why people are able to say things like, “Act your age, not your shoe size.”) The same is true of spiritual maturity and growth in Christ. Simply put: the number of years you have been a Christian does not, by itself, translate into greater maturity, growth, or likeness to Christ. This is because it is possible to “grieve” (Eph. 4:30) or even “quench” the work of the Holy Spirit inside of us (1 Thes. 5:19). We do this when we resist the Spirit’s work inside us, acting against what God says is good and right in favor of whatever passing pleasure we’re duped into thinking is worth the cost (it never is). Why This Matters Understanding the intended nature of growth in the Christian life is important for two reasons. First, it provides us with a way to “examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5). Imagine talking with someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus, though they never seem to trust him or attempt to obey him in anything—and this has been the case for years and years. Now it’s true that we’re not ‘saved by our works’ (Eph. 2:8-9), but it’s also true that we were created and redeemed for good works (Eph. 2:10; Titus 2:14), so their total absence for decades is a cause for grave concern. Indeed, James reminds us that faith without works is dead—not because faith must be supplemented—but because true faith can’t lie dormant forever (James 2:14-17). The second reason why we need to understand the nature of growth is because we would be tempted to despair if all we had was the previous paragraph. Our lives would consist in endless fruit inspecting, full of perpetual worry that we don’t have enough signs of the Spirit’s work in our lives to “know for sure” that we really do belong to Jesus. But that is not the whole story. The same God who solemnly calls us to ‘examine ourselves’ also reassures us with incredible promises. More than this, he does gives us evidence, over long periods of time, that we are his and that he is renewing us in his image (Col. 3:9-10). To understand how all this works, it might help to think of how stock markets work. The movement of the market can vary considerably from week to week, and this kind of instability can drive stock spectators crazy with worry. The same happens when Christians spend too much time looking at themselves instead of looking at Jesus. However, it is still true that, given enough time, the stock market always rebounds; it always regains its losses; it always moves onwards and upwards (which is basically what makes retirement possible for so many millions of Americans). The point is this: only a fool would never even take a peek at how his stocks were doing. Do they even care?! On the other hand, if you looked at them daily you'd agonize over the littlest movements up or down and miss the big picture. The same is true with spiritual growth. We ought to examine ourselves because God tells us to do so. But what we are looking for is not an perfectly progressing line with zero crashes or downward turns. Rather, we’re looking at the big picture, all the years of our life with Christ, to see the proof of his faithfulness and the fruit of our faith-filled obedience (Rom. 1:5). You see, if you do belong to Jesus and you look at the big picture of your life, past the falls and the failures and the struggles and the sins you will see a zigzagging line with a discernible direction: onwards and upwards to the prize of God's calling in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14).

    By Doug Ponder on May 23, 2018

    A Tale of Two Cities Within every city there are two “cities” that coexist: the first includes all that is good and right and beautiful; the second is everything that we long to see changed. I can see both cities from my backyard. Less than a mile as the crow flies is Richmond’s skyline, a disproportionately large outcropping of buildings for a city of its size. These structures symbolize much that is good and right. They are places of commerce, industry, politics and law. They enable work and increase efficiency. Thousands upon thousands make their living in these spaces, exchanging their skills and effort for food and clothing and shelter—the barter system of the 21st Century. Yet the same towers of concrete and steel also represent much of what we long to see changed. Babel-like, they stretch to the heavens, and they beckon us: “Come and make a name for yourself” (Gen. 11:4). Behold these modern marvels! How stunning and magnificent is the mind of man! How self-sufficient is he! How... God-like. Thus are these towers turned into temples by our insatiable greed and our pride. Closer to Home The row of houses behind me is much closer than the skyline, and the two cities coexist there too. The block is lined with rundown homes long abandoned by their owners. Some left because they wanted to escape desegregation. Others left to flee the rise of poverty and drugs and violent crime. (By the 90s Church Hill had the worst murder rate in a city that had the second worst murder rate in the nation.) Today these dilapidated houses are a parable of the second city. The signs on all their doors read, “Condemned”—a message for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. This is what happens when people stop seeking the peace and prosperity of the city where God has sent them (Jer. 29:7). Yet the block is also bursting with fresh potential. Over the past two years more than twenty homes have been built for low- to moderate-income families. Thanks to the work of several non-profits and the partnership of a nearby hospital, this formerly forsaken area is once again teeming with life. There are certainly some important cautions to consider, but no one should be sad about new homes being built. Empty lots and collapsing buildings don’t help anybody. As new families take up residence here, this part of the city once again has the chance for neighbors and for neighborliness. But we have a long way to go. Just this afternoon my wife was walking outside with our two toddlers when a drive-by shooter fired five shots at a pedestrian on our block. The second city was clawing at our doorstep with all its ugliness. In truth, that city lives inside our home too, for much of what happens under my roof falls into the “things we long to see changed” category—veni Domine Iesu. Around the Corner About a block from us sits a building that belongs to the people of Mount Olivet Church. Since 1899 they have been “spreading the word around the world that Jesus is alive.” Like so many homes in the area, their building shows many signs of age. Its old bricks have been covered by a mural with symbols of the Christian faith and the names of the children who helped paint it. But in the middle, there is this: I reminded my wife of that picture after the frightening incident earlier today. It’s tempting to laugh at its message in the face of all the evil in the world, but the mural conveys deep truth. The streets are safe for those who belong to Jesus. He is Immanuel, God with us to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20), and he told us that we do not need to fear those who can only “kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28). Through faith in Jesus we are citizens not of this second city only, but also of the city that is to come (Heb. 13:14). This is the good news that led Justin Martyr (as he is now known) to announce so boldly to his Roman executioners, “You can kill us, but you cannot harm us.” The Romans then whipped him before beheading him, but Justin was proved right by their actions. They had done him no lasting harm, for they could only kill his body, but they couldn’t touch his citizenship in the city with everlasting foundations, whose builder and architect is God (Heb. 11:10). Above Them All If you stand facing that mural and allow your eyes to drift toward the heavens, you’ll come to a cross that rests atop the church’s steeple. From where I sit, the cross seems to stand above the city, and this is fitting in more ways than one. It reminds me that the second city, with all that we long to see changed, was fully judged on the cross. Like the dilapidated buildings around me, the second city stands condemned. Sin’s days are numbered. Evil has an expiration date. Yet in this way the cross is also a powerful symbol of hope. It is a reminder that Jesus transformed Rome’s instrument of death into a source of eternal life. And if Jesus can do that, then there is no limit to what he can redeem! Ultimately, the cross above the skyline reminds me that Richmond belongs to Jesus (Rev. 11:15). He is at work here to saturate this place with the knowledge of his glory (Hab. 2:14). In that day there will be only one city, the New Jerusalem, which is the people of God dressed like a bride ready for her husband (Rev. 21:2). God will come to live in our midst (Rev. 21:3), and he will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or pain—for the second city will have passed away forever (Rev. 21:4). And one the seated on the throne says, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5)—which is perhaps just another of saying, "God is here. The streets are safe."

    By Doug Ponder on June 6, 2018

    Ready or Not, Here It Comes Like almost all children, I grew up playing hide-and-seek with kids in the neighborhood. When whoever was “it” had finished counting, almost invariably they would shout, “Ready or not, here I come!” And off they went searching, whether we were ready or not. Something similar happened when the first followers of Jesus went around telling people about his glorious resurrection from the dead (but it had nothing to do with hiding or seeking). They confidently announced the good news about Jesus in that ready-or-not spirit. Actually, it was more of a like-it-or-not spirit. Here are a few examples: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (Acts 2:36) “You killed the Author of Life, but God raised him from the dead.” (Acts 3:15) “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross.” (Acts 5:30) “They killed Jesus by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and… he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.” (Acts 10:39-42) “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.” (Acts 14:15) “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31) “God commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31) The Rigidity of Facts Now, contrast the apostles'  declarations with our modern way of talking about “issues.” Don’t like guns? Don’t buy one. Don’t like gay marriage? Don’t get one. Don’t like cigarettes? Don’t smoke one. Don’t like abortions? Don’t have one. The “logic” of these arguments is astoundingly terrible. (Just ask aborted babies how well ‘Don’t like abortions? Don’t get one’ actually works.) But bad logic aside, the biggest problem with these sayings is that they all assume a take-it-or-leave-it approach to life. It’s as if everything is nothing but a preference or an opinion, and your personal choice is king. But that isn’t how the world works. Not in the slightest. We know that many things are true or false, good or bad, completely independent of our thoughts or feelings about them. You might really, really want the Redskins to be good, for example, but they just aren’t. You may really, really want to win the lottery, but your passionate wish doesn’t produce results. You may believe with all your heart that someone loves you, but that doesn’t make it true. We’re talking about facts, of course, and facts are true whether we like them or not. Facts don’t care when your favorite team loses. Facts don’t care if you slept in and missed your final exam. Facts don’t care that you don’t believe them. Facts are just true. When the first followers of talked about Jesus—all that he said and did—they understood that they were talking about facts. They were speaking about things that are either true or false, real or fake, fact or fiction. The one thing their message about Jesus could not be is an “opinion,” because it’s not an opinion whether Jesus rose from the dead—he either did or he didn’t. There are literally no other options. The problem is that we sometimes talk about Jesus like there are other options. Perhaps you have heard someone say, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” We ought to ask (politely), What does your belief have to do with anything? If God says or does something, it’s true even if you don’t believe it! Or perhaps you’ve seen the bumper stickers that read, “Try Jesus!” These speak about Jesus like an exercise routine or weight loss program. He’s something good for those who want it, you know, if you’re into that sort of thing. Talking about Jesus in those ways is dishonorable, misleading, and unhelpful. It reduces to Jesus to an opinion, a preference, or a wish—like your favorite ice cream flavor or the sports team you cheer for. No wonder people who hear us talk about Jesus like that so often shrug their shoulders and say, “Whatever works for you.” The Gospel Is Good News (Whether You Like It or Not!) Facts aren’t things that “work for you” but not for others. That isn’t how facts work. Facts are true whether people like them or not, and the same is true of the gospel: it’s true, whether you like it or not—but you really should like it. The gospel is good news, after all. It’s better news than free ice cream. It’s much better news than hearing your favorite team won the super bowl. It’s better news than getting your dream home for free. The gospel is the good news that, even though you are a screw-up and rebel, God loves you and accepts you anyway. Because Jesus. And in him you lose the “screw-up” and “rebel” labels and gain the name of son or daughter, fully forgiven and completely embraced. We were guilty, but now we’re innocent (Rom. 8:1). We were dirty, but now we’re clean (Eph. 5:26). We were lost, but now we’re found (Luke 15:24). We were dead, but now we’re alive (Eph. 2:5). We were enemies of God, but now we’re sons (Rom. 5:8; Gal. 4:4). Because Jesus is raised from the dead, this is all true, whether you like it or not, but you really ought to like it. And this is not just important for personal evangelism. When you have a rough day and you feel like no one likes you, not even God, guess what? The gospel is true, whether you feel like it or not. Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, and his death for sins cannot be undone. You are good with God, even when you don’t feel like it. That’s the power of an objective gospel. It’s good news, whether you like it or not—but you really should like it (because it’s the best news of all!).

    By Doug Ponder on June 13, 2018

    How Not to Deal with Sin Caught up in the cycle of addiction, I was looking for anything that offered some hope of release from this slavery to sin. I had turned to some drastic measures before, but nothing so severe as this. ‘This is it,’ I told myself. I’m finally going to be free from my addiction to pornography. I spoke about my decision with my pastor. “I’m going to fast for spiritual breakthrough,” I said. “For how long?” “Forty days,” I told him proudly. Unfazed, he paused for a breath and said, “You know, repentance and growth in the Christian life is more like breathing.” That was all he said. He didn’t explain the metaphor. (Or if he did, I wasn’t listening.) And while he didn’t overtly discourage me from fasting, I knew what he was hinting at. Unlike some family and friends who thought this was extreme, he simply thought that it probably wouldn’t work. He was right. One Step at a Time The Scriptures are full of images for the Christian life: a journey, a walk, a farmer’s toil, the growth of a vine, a race, etc. What these metaphors have in common is that virtually all of them depict our spiritual lives as a steady rhythm—like breathing. That’s how spiritual growth normally occurs. The farmer puts in work every day. The plant grows little by little. The race that is run is a super marathon, not a series of sprints. And progress is made in our journeys one step at a time. That’s not to say that we are not powerfully impacted by emotional events, insightful books, penetrating sermons. These things can, and so often do, play a significant part in our lives. But we are not meant to water the plant with a thousand gallons only once year. God does not intend for us to sprint until exhaustion and then slouch hare-like, until our next mad dash. No, God calls us to daily faithfulness. That is how progress is made. Short-cutting God Never Works This means that my fast was completely wrongheaded. I was looking for immediate deliverance from that addiction, but that is not the way that God normally works. I say, “normally,” because God sometimes does bring immediate healing or deliverance in special cases. When God does this, it is a surprising and wonderful work of grace. But by example in the Scriptures and by experience in life, we can plainly see that immediate deliverance from sin is an exception to the ‘norm’ of how God usually works. That is probably why my fasting did very little, other than make me religiously proud and dangerously thin. Instead of replacing my desire for instant gratification with a deeper desire for a greater satisfaction, all I was doing—ironically—was looking for more of the same. I wanted an instant gratification of a different kind: “God, I want to be free from this now!” I’m not saying that an occasional fast undertaken in the right way and for the right reasons is a fruitless endeavor. The Scriptures say otherwise. I’m merely suggesting that, like me, many people ‘fast for spiritual breakthrough’ as an attempt to find a shortcut to God’s normal ways of growing us. In our prideful impatience, we demand to be immediately freed of some temptation, instead of seeking to deal with the reasons why we came to be in this place. Learning How to Live I remember a counseling session with a man several reasons ago who kept saying, “All I want to know is why God won’t tow me back onto the road.” This man was using the illustration of driving a car to symbolize his life, and in this particular situation, he knew that he had run off the road. He was furious with God for not towing his ‘car’ back immediately, and keep insisting that his troubles would be gone if God would ‘just get him back on the road.’ Then, he said, he could stay out of trouble. A very wise friend with me at the counseling session replied, “Your problem is that you think God merely wants to put you back on the road, but in reality, God wants to teach you how to drive.” In other words, this man’s goals were shortsighted. He thought his problem was as simple as running off the road, when the deeper problem is why he ran off the road to begin with. All of this matters because it helps us understand what slavery to sin is, and how God brings about freedom from this slavery. Instead of thinking of slavery to sin as some kind of ‘thing’ that is put on us, we come to see that slavery to certain sins is a more like a deep ditch that we dug over a very long period of time. Each temptation taken, each repeated act of sin put another shovel to the dirt and dug us a little deeper. In other words, we do not “fall” into the ditches of our lives; we dig ourselves into them. And since deep ditches are not dug overnight, we should not expect to refill those ditches overnight either. This means youth rallies, large revivals, intense periods of fasting—all potentially good things—can be fruitless wastes of time or even dangerously misleading activities when those who are involved wrongly expect the event itself to carry them through the next period of their lives. Every high schooler knows this, as their prayers for God to “keep the fire alive” after returning home never quite seem to be answered. There is no mystery in this. They simply don’t understand how God works to free us from sin. A Long Obedience in the Right Direction In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul the apostle explained how God works to free us from slavery to sin: “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the standard of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (Rom. 6:16-19) It’s worth nothing that Paul’s teaching on freedom from sin only appears after more than 5  chapters of theology explaining that we are thoroughly corrupted in our hearts and in need of God’s saving grace, which is freely offered to us in Jesus through faith in his redemption. That does away with any silly ideas that we are somehow saving ourselves in all of this. What Paul was keen to show them (and us) is that God is at work in our lives, through the teachings that have ‘claimed our allegiance’ to make us ‘slaves to righteousness’ as we ‘offer ourselves’ in obedience. In other words, freedom from sin comes from a long obedience in the right direction. This ‘long obedience’ teaches us to be faithful to God in “little things” of everyday life. For virtues like patience and self-control are not formed overnight, but they are essential if we hope to grow. As Peter the apostle explained, “God’s divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness… For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness… knowledge… self-control… perseverance… godliness… mutual affection… and love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. ” (2 Pet. 1:3-8). You see? Through the sacrifice of Jesus and the renewing work of the Spirit, God has already given us everything we need for a godly life. This does not mean that God works by breaking into the world to “magically” take away our desires for sin. Instead, God works through the gospel to produce in us the new desire and ability for a long obedience in the right direction (Phil. 2:12-13). This is how he frees us from sin, in the ‘everyday’ of life, one step of faith-filled obedience at a time.

    By Doug Ponder on June 20, 2018

    What's the Point of the Church? Ours is a time of deep confusion concerning what God designed the local church to be and why he calls us to participate in one. For some, belonging to a church is something of a routine or ritual: “I’ve always done it this way.” For others, it’s a matter of blind obedience: “It’s just something you’re supposed to do.” Still others would admit they joined a church simply because their friends are there. The uncertainty about all of this is troubling. Jesus said that he would “build his church” (Matt. 16:19), which, the Scriptures tell us, he accomplishes through his death, his resurrection, and his giving of the Spirit. And since Jesus did all of that for the church, shouldn’t we at least know what its purpose is? If you were to read the Scriptures closely, you’d find three observations that shed some light on the purpose of the church: 1st Observation: Jesus’ faithful followers were constantly involved in spreading the good news about his vicarious death and victorious resurrection. 2nd Observation: As Christians joined together in communities where Jesus was treasured and people were cared for (see Acts 2:37-47), their long-term strategy for spreading the good news about Jesus was starting other new churches. (It is no accident that a large portion of the New Testament is comprised of letters written to new churches.) 3rd Observation: New churches were started as leaders were equipped to share the gospel boldly, to serve God faithfully, and to start even more churches (Acts 14:21-23; 2 Tim. 2:1-2; Titus 1:5-9). But why all the emphasis on the church? The earliest Christians understood what God was doing in the world, and they located the purpose of the church within God’s great plan. In other words, the purpose of the church has always been rooted in the mission of God. The Place of the Church in the Mission of God According to the Scriptures, this world is created for, fallen from, and being reconciled to God (Col. 1:15-20; Eph. 1:3-10; John 1:1-18). God’s actions in the midst of this sequence of creation, fall, and redemption are called the “mission of God,” because it describes what God is doing in the world (creating and redeeming) as well as how and why he acts. Essentially, God is working to bring about a world that is filled with people who recognize his surpassing beauty, value, glory and power. As a result, they live their lives as an act of conscious worship in all that they say and do. Such people have been rescued by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus to share in God’s new world—a world without pain, frustration, sickness, sin, or death. (And if we ask why this world isn’t that way now, we only have to look in the mirror to see why it isn’t.) The role of the church in the meantime, since we are obviously not yet living in God’s new world, is to put the glory of God on display in the present. In one of the more amazing passages in the New Testament, Paul explicitly says it’s through the church that the eternal purpose of God is accomplished in Christ (Eph. 3:7-12). He means that God has chosen to use communities of redeemed people as flesh-and-blood examples of the transforming power of his glory. Think about it: Jesus’ work on our behalf completely abolishes every self-righteous reason for separation and alienation so that otherwise diverse and disconnected people might come to share the same Lord, the same Savior, the same hope, and the same passion. Thus God’s glory is especially displayed in and through Christ-exalting, neighbor-loving, gospel-advancing churches. What This Means for Us Jesus died not to redeem random individuals, but to create a new people who treasure his glory above all else (Titus 2:13-14). That is the purpose of his death and resurrection according to the Scriptures. Therefore, participating in the new community that Jesus died to create (the church) is not really optional for those who call themselves followers of Jesus. The church is, in fact, the sole entity that God has entrusted with both the capability and the responsibility of displaying and declaring his glory to the world. There is no ‘plan B.’ There is no “Church is nice and all, but I’m going to do my own thing.” The role of the church in the mission of God (to make his goodness, love, grace, and glory known to all the world) necessitates that we see our life in Christ as something inseparably connected to the lives of his people. Practically, this means we should probably think about our lives in terms of “we” and “us” and not “I” and “me”. Our lives were designed  to become part of God’s new community, the church, through which the eternal purposes of God are carried out. To separate ourselves from that, or even to think of our churches as “just something you’re supposed to do” fails to see the central place that God has given the church in his great redemptive plan. Of course, a failure to understand all this explains why most of us do not grasp the central place that the church is supposed to have in our own lives. Instead of orienting our lives around the life and mission of the church, we get busy pursuing our individual interests, giving little (if any) thought to how our choices will affect those in our community. This kind of life is the norm for most of us. We choose colleges based on the merits of the school only, without even looking to see if there is a healthy church in the town nearby. We choose careers based on what will bring us the most money, not based on what jobs might be the most help to those around us. We take promotions to far away places to gain a few more dollars, while sacrificing years of rich relationships we had in our churches back home. Given the priority of the local church in the plan of God, however, maybe much of what we think of as "progress" in our lives is actually movement in the wrong direction.

    By Doug Ponder on June 27, 2018

    Total Darkness If you’ve ever been in a cave before—a real cave without lights for tourists—then you know what total darkness is like. When you turn off your flashlight, you can’t see anything, not even the hand you hold two inches in front of your face. You know your hand is there, but you can’t see it at all. It’s a very eerie feeling, and quite scary too. I mean, imagine spelunking (cave exploring) by yourself. What if your  flashlight broke? What if the batteries died? The pitch-black labyrinthine caverns would all but seal your fate before you could feel your way back to the exit. Pretty grim. You realize in places like caves just how hopeless things would be without light. We’d be lost, helpless, and unsure of where to go or what to do. And then it hits you:  without “light” from God we would be in the dark about everything in life. Who am I? What does it mean to be human? What is the point of life? What is wrong with the world? How can what is wrong be made right? Questions like those (and many, many others) would be hopeless quests for answers among differing points of view, with no one really able to say for sure what is right or wrong about anything, including whether there even are such things as right or wrong in the first place. But what if Whoever was responsible for making the universe—including all the little particles that must have been present before any kind of big bang could happen—what if that Being revealed himself to the universe he made? It would be reasonable to conclude that we might find traces of what he is like through what he has made. This is even more true if our Maker specifically intended to reveal himself to us. We could not only know him, therefore, but we could also know ourselves in the light of his revelation. Thankfully, that’s exactly how it is in our world. God hasn’t left us to ourselves, alone in the dark, trying blindly to feel out our way in our life. He has revealed himself in several ways. How Vast the Heavens Above To start with, creation itself tells us something about its Maker. Just as a painting reveals the style and skill of the artist, so too the universe reveals the majesty and power of the one who made it. There are an estimated 300 sextillion stars in our universe (that’s a “1” with twenty-one zeroes behind it), and most of them are so far away from each other that if you were traveling at the speed of light (186,282 miles per second), it would take you years to go from one star to the other. And there are 300 sextillion of them! All this means, simply, is that Whoever can bring something massive like the universe into existence, is obviously a pretty big deal. God is a big deal, in other words. We might also discern God’s eternal nature from all of this, too. In order for the universe to get here, Somebody (or something) had to set things in motion. There had to be what the ancient Greeks called the “Unmoved Mover.” There had to be Somebody who could set things in motion that didn’t need to be set in motion himself. We call that Somebody “God.” Writers of Christian Scripture reflecting on creation came to the same conclusions: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). “What can be known about God is plain to [us], because God has shown it to [us]. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19-20). Why You Long for Eternity Knowing that the Maker of the universe is powerful and eternal is still a long way from knowing about his character or his desires. So God also placed a deep longing in our hearts to be with him. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11a). Germans philosophers call this Sehnsucht (pronounced “ZANE-zookt”). It’s very hard to translate what it means with only one word, but basically it describes that “inconsolable longing” in our hearts. It’s a profound yearning for something that we can’t seem to find. It’s like the desire for joy and peace and satisfaction without knowing how to get them. What Your Conscience Tells You Another trace of God’s character seen in his handiwork can be found in what we call the conscience. What we mean by “conscience” is our sense of right and wrong. Everyone has some idea of moral rights and wrongs. Even when people disagree over which actions should be considered right and which should be considered wrong, they still agree that right and wrong actually exist. That is the human conscience, and everyone has one, even people who try very hard to deny the fact that morally right and wrong actions really do exist. A well-known Christian philosopher tells the story of having a friend over for tea one evening. They began discussing ethics (a branch of philosophy that deals with right and wrong actions). The man’s friend made it clear that he believed “right” and “wrong” were just socially defined constructs. “There are no such thing as morally right or wrong actions” he persisted. “There are just actions which are called right or wrong depending upon your personal beliefs.” “I see,” the host said. He moved slowly to the stove where the kettle was singing loudly and he walked back over to where his friend was sitting. “So would it be morally right or wrong for me to pour the contents of this kettle over your head?” Frustrated and embarrassed, his friend stormed off into the night, for his conscience knew the answer, but his pride prevented him from admitting that he was wrong. Paul said that the human conscience is like having an invisible law written on our hearts. Sometimes we listen to it, other times we ignore it, but it’s always there. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Rom. 2:15). Missing the Maker of the Forest for the Trees “This is all well and good,” you may be thinking. “But how much help is it if all we have are a conscience and a longing for something we can’t identity, coupled with a belief that Somebody powerful and eternal must have made the universe? We still don’t know anything about him.” This is a fair objection. After all, even though scriptural authors point out that God has placed eternity in our hearts, the very same author also reminds us that “no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Eccl. 3:11b). That means that we’d still be very lost if God hadn’t given us anything more than creation. Of course, it’s not a problem with God’s creation; it’s a problem with our ability to see God accurately (thanks to our sin). We can’t reason our way to a complete picture of God, in other words. We’d need him to tell us about himself, and that’s exactly what he did. The Mouthpiece of God “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in many ways, but at the end of these days he has spoken to us by his Son. He appointed this Son to be heir of all things, and through him he created the universe. He is the shining reflection of God’s own glory, the precise expression of his very own being” (Heb. 1:1-3). As the author mentions, God most often revealed himself through prophets. Sometimes this happened in written form (the Scriptures), and sometimes this happened through public teaching and preaching. In both instances God was making himself known to us through the use of human language so that we might come to trust him, love him, and find life in him. But to speak even more powerfully than he could through human words alone, God spoke through the entire life of Jesus, “the shining reflection of God’s own glory and the precise expression of his very own being.”This is why John said that Jesus is the “Word of God” who “dwelt among us” and has “made the Father known” (John 1:1, 14, 18). You can’t get any more clear than that. John the apostle understood Jesus’ role in revealing God to us. That’s why he calls Jesus “the light [that] shines in the darkness” (John 1:5). Indeed, Jesus brings light for the whole world, as he himself said: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). What this means is that if we want to know what God’s like or what he’s doing in the world, we must look to Jesus. He is the light of the world and the exact representation of God’s nature and redeeming purposes. This is why Jesus said we must ‘follow him’ if we do not want to walk in darkness. But he wasn't just talking about "showing us the way," Jesus himself is the way to life in God: "And if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:9). For if you follow Jesus, you are redeemed and claimed as part of "a people for his own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet. 2:9). Have you seen the light? Or are you still walking in darkness?

    By Doug Ponder on July 11, 2018

    The Tug of War Inside Us All There exists within all of us both a longing for greatness and a misunderstanding about the power of an ordinary life. Or as several have said in various ways: Everybody wants to change the world, but nobody wants to do the dishes. There may be some debate as to how we got to this point, but at least one factor seems to be that people started listening. That is, for decades we’ve told every rising generation: “Don’t settle.” “Reach for the stars.” “You can be anything you want to be.” “You can change the world.” And they have finally believed us. Now everybody wants to be somebody. Somebody who does ‘big things.’ Somebody who ‘makes a difference.’ Somebody whose life ‘really mattered.’ This is about more than merely wanting to avoid a wasted life. It’s deep longing to be known and accepted and admired. The trouble is that most of us know better than to openly crave fame, so instead we talk about “doing great things.” We have become masters of self-deception, twisting the inner impulse, the drive, the yearning for greatness into various shapes and sizes until at last we hardly recognize what it is that we’re doing. But it’s still there. And for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, it only takes a little honest self-reflection to see this cancer-like spot on the soul: Maybe you get extremely excited when others recognize your achievements—or you get angry when they don’t. Maybe you check your Facebook status several times after each post, closely monitoring how many interactions it receives. Maybe you spend a lot of time measuring yourself against others to see if you’re a better mom… or employee… or sibling… or friend… or whatever. Maybe you send a text to your family and friends to tell them about how someone famous replied to you on Twitter. (The Internet didn’t create the yearning for greatness, by the way. It merely gives us the platform that fans it into a raging inferno.) Maybe you check your blog’s view count often—even daily—to see how many people are reading you. Maybe you don’t have a blog, but you’ve often thought about starting one. Maybe you daydreamed about being interviewed on TV or written about in the newspaper or going viral on YouTube because of something you’ve said or done. Or maybe you’re turned off by all of that, so you’ve repudiated those ways of life in the hopes, ironically, of influencing others to do the same. I know these well because I feel the tug in my own heart. With every sermon I preach or article I write—even this one—the siren call of success and fame is always lurking somewhere in the depths of my heart. I suppose you could write me off as narcissistic, but I’ve spoken to enough people to know I’m not alone. In fact, this is an age-old problem. The Dangerous Dream One of the first stories in the Bible recounts an episode in early humanity when some people got together and said, “Come, let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). Their story ends in irony: they are remembered, but without an ounce of the glory they craved. This story reminds us that the yearning for greatness, the longing to be extraordinary, to stand out, to be glorified, is woven deeply into the human experience. No one is exempt from this natural hunger for greatness or the longing to be known. This reality is precisely what makes our desire to change the world such a dangerous dream. Those who begin with best intentions are often devoured along the way. Even those who appear to succeed often succumb in the end, winning the whole world while losing their own soul. This is why you will not see Jesus anywhere telling his followers to aspire to greatness, fame, or even success. (Quite the opposite, in fact.) This is also why all the Christian ministries named “radical” or “epic” or “extreme” seem to be hurtling down the wrong path. They are unintentionally feeding your inner impulse for greatness with "The Next Big Thing" in Christianity, promising to take you to "The Next Level" (whatever that means). Yet Jesus didn't talk like this. He was not (and is not) interested in feeding our yearning for greatness with the promise of Christian success (or any other kind, for that matter). Instead, Jesus gives us a different goal altogether. He shows us a better way. An Ordinary Life God’s solution to our dangerous dreams of extraordinary greatness is an ordinary life. We come to him with great aspirations, but he says to us: “Aspire to lead a quiet life” (1 Thess. 4:11) where you “work quietly and earn your own living” (2 Thess. 3:12). We may hate the idea of the ordinary, but the church has long spoken of “ordinary means of grace,” the regular old run-of-the-mill ways that God has been growing his people for thousands of years: weekly church gatherings, prayer and Scripture reading, humble service, diverse vocations, conversations with friends, simple bread and wine—these are how God changes the world. He breathes life into dust and forms the clay, turning his ordinary church into the extraordinary people of God, a community set apart for the ‘radical’ work of everyday faithfulness. When we realize this truth, two things happen. First, we are set free to aim for faithfulness instead of success. The desire to be "great" is thus replaced with the desire to greatly please the God who loved you and gave himself up for you on the cross. Second, we come to see that our aspirations of ‘changing the world’ or ‘doing something great’ may have been a way of avoiding the more difficult work of honoring God and enriching the lives of others through the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly routines of life—which is where lasting change most often happens. Our lives are more than a few big decisions and “life-changing moments” separated by long stretches of time. No, the story of our lives is written in the millions of seemingly insignificant things that we carry on for decades. It’s in the everyday of life where God meets us, working through ordinary means to accomplish his extraordinary purposes in the world. This means that laundry matters for more than just whether or not you’ll have clean underwear tomorrow (though that definitely matters, too). It means your job is filled to the brim with opportunities to bless others and serve wholeheartedly as if you were serving the Lord himself—because you actually are (Col. 3:23-24). It means that cutting your grass and paying your taxes and doing well in school all matter. It means that sharing the gospel and wiping little hands and mouths after every meal both matter to God. An ordinary life probably won’t sell books or even make for very interesting blog posts. Truth be told, if you live an ordinary life you probably won’t be remembered long after your last grandchild passes away. But you will change the world. And you will also be changed in the process, having been molded and shaped by the Spirit in the crucible of the “quiet life,” as he conformed you to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).

    By Doug Ponder on July 25, 2018

    Becoming Worse Since Becoming a Christian? I recently met with a friend who was worried about some trends he had noticed in his life. Since coming to faith in Jesus several months ago, he has often felt like he is even more sinful today than he was before. How could that be? he asked. Does this mean that God hasn’t accepted me? hasn’t forgiven me? Am I even a Christian? If so, why would I feel worse today than before I met Jesus? I know the feeling. I think most Christians do. There is a paradoxical tension between the sins we see so clearly and our expectations that the gospel would lead us to freedom from these things. Some people try to relieve the tension by suggesting that the gospel has “noting to do with our behavior, only our beliefs.” But that isn’t quite right. It’s true that salvation is not a reward for our good behavior, but salvation is a gift that changes our behavior. It’s the message that brings a change of mind and change of heart that lead to a change in action (that’s what “repentance” is, and it’s why Jesus calls us to continually repent and believe). The gospel, in other words, is about “more than heaves and forgiveness.” It is the total good news about all that God has done for us and will do in us, which includes renewing his sons and daughters in his image (Rom 8:29; Col 3:9-10; 2 Cor 3:18). Then why did my friend not see or feel this renewal going on? He wondered, perhaps, if this meant he had not been sincere enough in his apology or strong enough in his faith. Maybe he wasn’t really a Christian after all. Maybe. But I don’t think that is true of my friend. I have as much confidence as anyone can have that he understands the gospel and trusts in Jesus with saving faith. Everyone who knows him testifies to the same. So what gives? How do we explain his feeling of being even worse today than he was several months or even years ago, before he came to faith in Christ? We Are More Sinful Than We Ever Realized I think the answer is this: We are more sinful and flawed than we ever dared to admit, even to ourselves. When you have lived your entire life in the pitch-black dark, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust to that “marvelous light” that called you out of darkness (1 Pet 2:9). Or, to speak plainly, we were (and still are, to a great degree) simply unaware of the extent of our own sinfulness. Apart from Jesus, we see only the “big sins” in our lives (even if we did not call them sins). But the longer we spend in the light, the more our eyes adjust to life in God’s kingdom. And the more our eyes adjust, the more we see the stains on our shirt. They’ve been there all along, of course, but now we see them. We once were blind, but now we see. And what we see clearly now is not just Jesus, but a new awareness of our sinfulness. This explains why many Christians feel worse off many months and years after coming to faith in Jesus. This is why many Christians wonder if they have made any progress in sanctification or growth in holiness at all. The truth is that you are almost certainly not more overtly sinful today than you were before you came to trust and treasure the costly grace of Jesus; you are probably just more aware of how bad off you really were—and still are—apart from Christ. We Are More Loved Than We Ever Hoped Alas, too many Christians stop with the last paragraph. Exiting the train one station too soon, they begin to live as if their new mission in life is to exclaim to the world how bad off everyone really is. Thus the good news of the gospel nearly gets swallowed up by the bad news of our sin. But it ought not be this way. For while it’s true that we are far more sinful and flawed than we ever realized or dared admit, we are also more loved and accepted in Jesus than we ever dared to hope. That truth, first expressed by Elyse Fitzpatrick and later made popular by Tim Keller (in its many variations), wonderfully summarizes the heart of the gospel. We are more far sinful than we thought, yet we are more loved in Jesus than we can possibly know. We are more messed up than we ever realized, yet God is more gracious in Jesus than we ever dreamed. “There is more mercy in Christ than sin is us,” as Richard Sibbes said. And considering how much sin there is still in me, that can only mean there is a lot of mercy still in Christ. My closing encouragement to my friend (and to you, if you have ever found yourself in a place like he did), was not to beat himself up for the sins Jesus already took a beating for. When you come to a fresh realization of the depth of your sin, there will always be the temptation to think that maybe you should have tried a little harder, believed a little more strongly, or done something to somehow offset sins such as serious as yours. But when Jesus died for you, he already knew the depths of sin you are just now discovering—and he still died for you anyway. So don’t worry about the fact that you are more sinful than you ever realized, for this also means that you are even more loved in Christ than you once realized too.

    By Doug Ponder on Aug. 1, 2018

    The Blind Men and the Elephant If you spend a few hours in a university coffee shop or even a few moments in the hellish lower realms of an Internet article’s comment section, you are likely to overhear the story of the blind men and the elephant. It is an old parable that originated in India and has been retold many times. The English poet John Godfrey Saxe popularized the story in the West with his poem in the mid-1800s. Lillian Quigley later made the story into a children’s book of the same name. And now, thanks to the wonders of the YouTube, you can even hear a jazzy song about it. Here’s the gist of the story: Six blind men stumble upon an elephant, each laying hands on a different part as he tries to discern what the elephant is like. The first touched the smooth side of the elephant. “An elephant is like a wall,” he said. The second blind man grabbed the elephant’s trunk, saying, “No, an elephant is like a snake.” The third touched the point of the elephant’s tusk. “No, an elephant is like a spear,” he said. The fourth blind man wrapped his arms around one of the elephant’s legs. “No, an elephant is like a tree,” he said. The fifth felt the wide ear of the elephant and said, “No, and elephant is like a fan.” The sixth blind man laid hold of the elephant’s tail. “No, an elephant is like a rope,” he concluded. The blind men soon begin to argue about which of them were right, waking up the king who was sleeping nearby. Seeking to end the commotion, the king says, “An elephant is a large animal, and each of you has touched only one part. You must put all the parts together to find out what an elephant is like.” Enlightened by the king’s wisdom, the blind men agree that each of them had been only partially right. “Each of us knows only a part. To discover the whole truth, we must put all the parts together.” The ‘Moral’ of the Story The parable of the blind men and the elephant is usually used to claim that ‘every person has their own perspective, and no one has the whole truth.’ When we disagree with someone, in other words, we may both we right about whatever part of the truth we see. #everyonewins At another level the story is often used to claim that each religion is only partially right (and thus partially wrong), since each has only one part of the whole truth. If we want to understand spiritual reality, the reasoning goes, we must learn from all world religions. Why the Story Fails One of my favorite authors, Lesslie Newbigin, often encountered this story during his time as a missionary in India in the middle 20th century. His critique of the story is now famous. The entire story is told from the point of view of the king, who is not blind and who therefore can see the whole elephant that the blind men are only guessing about. But if the king were also blind, there would be no story. In other words, if everyone really only “saw spiritual reality in incomplete pieces,” then even the storyteller’s parable would be just one piece of the puzzle! Arrogantly, the parable claims to know what spiritual reality is truly like while suggesting that everyone else has only a partial picture. The parable assumes the sight of the king while casting everyone else as blind men. Pastor Tim Keller summarizes the critique this way: “How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant? … How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?” (Keller, The Reason for God, 9). The King Who Speaks The message of Christianity has never been, “Everyone is blind to the truth about God except for us!” That would be ridiculously self-righteous. Rather, Christianity believes that there is a king who can see the whole “elephant,” and he told everyone about it. That king, of course, is Jesus. God revealed himself through the life of Jesus so that all of us might come to know him, his world, and even ourselves. This revelation from God has not left us to blindly search for pieces of the puzzle. Jesus is the whole puzzle, showing us what God is like and what God has done for us. This, then, is the most ironic aspect of the parable of the blind men and the elephant (which is actually a very good picture of how sin distorts human perception when it is reinterpreted in the light of Christ). For we actually are blind men apart from God’s revelation, groping hopelessly in the dark for a touch of reality. But in Christ, light has dawned. The king has spoken. The nature of the “elephant” has been revealed for all who are willing to listen to only one who sees. And he says to us all, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

    By Doug Ponder on Aug. 15, 2018

    What “Thank You” Means “Thank you” is among the first phrases we teach our children. We offer prayers of thanks before meals. We express thanks for our civic freedoms or for the soldiers who have fought to secure them. In acceptance speeches for receiving public awards, almost every actor and musician extends ‘a big thanks to God and to everyone who made this possible.’ It seems saying “thank you” is so deeply ingrained in us that we say it habitually, without awareness and even without any real feelings of gratitude! But what if “thank you” is not just a throwaway phrase? What if saying “thank you” is more than some arbitrary code of manners, and even strikes at the heart of what it means to be human? What if God’s command to “giv[e] thanks always and for everything” (Eph 5:20) is not meant to be another action to check off the list, but a basic posture for all of life? And what if all of these “what ifs” aren’t actually questions, but statements about the way things truly are? Whether we realize it or not, to say “thank you” (and truly mean it) is to acknowledge three things: (1) the giver of a gift, (2) the gift that was given, and (3) our glad reception of the gift. In other words, our urge to say “thanks” is connected to the fabric of the world, and it invites us to ask three questions: Who has given to us? What has been given? How do we receive it? God as Giver God is ultimate giver, from whom and through whom and to whom are all things (Rom 11:36). All things begin with God, are upheld by God, and return to God like endless waves of credit and honor and glory all flowing back to their original source in him (Col 1:15-20). As our Creator, God is literally the “author of life” (Acts 3:15) and the fountain of everything good and beautiful and true.. Hence “every good and perfect gift comes from above” (Jas 1:17), from the overflow of his grace and love. The World as Gift The whole world is God’s gift, including our capacity for experiencing the goodness of his world. This means the very fact that we feel pleasure is owing to how God made us. It also means that there is nothing good we possess that cannot be traced back to the hand of God, whether directly or indirectly. Gifts of modern medicine, for example, are still gifts from God, coming into existence by applying our God-given creativity to the God-given resources of this world. But the greatest gift from God, of course, is the gift of his Son, Jesus. In fact, this gift is so precious that Paul says it is the proof that God will keep giving us grace. “For if he did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom 8:32). The Christian Life as Grateful Response On the human level, when someone gives us a great fit we naturally feel some obligation to thank them, to please them, or to show appreciation to them in some way. But we must be careful that this does not turn into the debtor’s ethic when it comes to God, as if we spend our lives groveling before him saying, “How could we ever repay you? We’re unworthy!” Look, it’s true that we’re unworthy of grace and never could repay God—but that’s the whole point. Grace means you don’t have to. The simple acknowledgement of where grace comes from is the first way to respond to God in gratitude. Every gift God has given is like a ray of light that points to his glory—the Giver is always greater than his gifts. Therefore, we must train our minds to trace every sunbeam of pleasure back to its source in the sun. Second, we ought to feel joy for being loved as we are. If the love of God for you doesn’t make your heart sing, then you must not understand it yet. By remembering the costly nature of God’s love and his total willingness to give us all things—especially his Son—we find our own hearts filled with love for the One who loved us first. Finally, we respond to God with faith and obedience for all his gifts. How could we not trust him? If he gives even his Son to spare us, hasn’t he proven himself trustworthy? If he gives us all that we need and more, should we not seek to please him instead of continuing in our sin? Yes a million times over! To receive God’s gifts, therefore, means remembering that all good things come from God, feeling gratitude toward God for his grace, and honoring him by responding with faith and obedience. In other words, it means growing more and more into the kind of person who can “giv[e] thanks always and for everything to God the father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:20).

    By Doug Ponder on Aug. 29, 2018

    THE DESIRE FOR EDUCATION Few things seem to matter as much today as education. What else do people move across the country for, go into great debt to obtain, restructure their family’s schedule and living situation around, argue about at every political level, and even measure people’s worth or intelligence or giftedness by? Education is clearly essential. There’s a great reason for this, even if people don’t realize it: We value education because we are knowers by nature, having been created by God to know him, know ourselves, and know his world. Yet we aren’t born with such knowledge already in us, like a computer preloaded with software. In order to know God and his world, we have to learn about them. And that means education. Like everything else in God’s world, therefore, education is something that can (and must!) be undertaken to the glory of God. Usually when thinking about education for their children, parents often start with the question: Where?—as in homeschool? public school? private school? Ironically, this is probably the least helpful question to start with! For you can’t answer Where? unless you first know the who, what, and why of education. WHO IS RESPONSIBLE? The Scriptures make it clear that God holds parents accountable for the education their children receive, for parents are the guardians of their children’s hearts and minds. In the most specific place, God tells fathers to ‘bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord’ (Eph 6:4). That includes so much more than Bible stories before bedtime or prayers before meals, because “the instruction of the Lord” is so much more than the gospel and the Ten Commandments. God calls parents to teach their children think well about everything, which means giving them the tools they will need to grow as lifelong learners to the glory of God. Now this doesn’t mean that parents are the only ones who teach their children. Pastors, community group leaders, schoolteachers, and other adults may all be part of the process. But even when parents invite someone else to help educate their children—whether a pastor on Sunday or a schoolteacher on Monday—the parents are still the ones who must make sure their child’s education is sound. A child may have many teachers, but he has only two parents whom God holds accountable for the education (whether good or bad). WHAT IS A GOOD EDUCATION? Jesus is Lord over everything, including math and science and literature and art. As the psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps 24:1; 1 Cor 10:26). That means God’s world is not divided into “sacred” and “secular” spheres, as if the gospel changes how we think about philosophy but has no impact on biology or math. All subjects should be part of a child’s education, but we must ensure they are not learned as if Jesus were irrelevant to the subject matter. For example, are numbers arbitrary constructs of human ingenuity and convenience, or are they representative realities of the inherent order of creation? The difference between these two frameworks cuts the core of what we think knowledge is for. Furthermore, the Christian vision of life and learning has a specific starting place. Put another way, the foundation for a Christian education is the Bible because God has spoken, we can trust him, and his Word works to shape our minds and hearts to engage his world rightly as we discover and cultivate and create. This differs from the foundation (or starting point) of secular philosophies of education, which begin with what man can discover for himself, unaided by divine revelation. This approach, which masquerades under the guise of neutrality, is actually loaded with assumptions about humanity (that we are able to discover truth on our own), about what counts as truth (that only what can be seen, measured, or recorded is true), and about whether virtues, morals, and religious beliefs have any positive role in the holistic formation of a student (hint: they do). WHY DOES EDUCATION MATTER? Every education philosophy has specific goal or purpose, the “so what” of education. For many people education is purely pragmatic: you get an education to get a job to make money to live life. Certainly those are all important, but if that’s all that education is good for, you will have a difficult time convincing an 8 year-old boy why he should care about spelling today when the consequences you are talking about are still more than a decade away. Meanwhile, the Christian vision of education includes the exciting realization that every aspect of learning—down to the smallest detail—is an opportunity to learn more about God and his world. The ultimate telos, or end goal, of Christian education therefore is worship. We educate our children in the hopes that they would grow to know and love God. And this includes teaching them about math and science and history and everything else. Math and chemistry study God’s orderliness and consistency. Science studies of God’s creativity and in creation. History is the story of world events, full of the sins of men and the redeeming providence of God. Spelling studies the wonder of human language, and the capacity for humans to read and write (unlike any other animal). Far from being random facts, these subjects pour the fuel of knowledge onto the fire of worship, engaging our minds and exciting our hearts with thoughts of the God who creates and redeems. WHERE SHOULD I EDUCATE MY CHILDREN? None of what we have said necessarily directs parents to an exclusive course of action when it comes to the well-worn debates about public school vs. private school vs. homeschooling. Simply put, there is no “thou shalt homeschool” from the Lord, and Christian parents have the freedom to utilize any of educational context. At the same time, this doesn’t mean every institution is equally good at educating your children with a comprehensively Christian education. This fact seems equally undeniable. The question parents must ask is this: Is where my child receives his or her education the kind of institution that will instill in them a true vision of life and learning? If it is not, parents must be prepared to equip their children with what is lacking in such contexts. This may mean parents provide supplemental lessons, or at the very least, parents make it a habit to sort through all the material their children are learning at school, correcting what is erroneous and connecting what is good to Christ and his Word. This goes for public school, private school, and even homeschool. Every parent is called by God to help their children learn what is good, right, and true Monday through Sunday.
  • GOD, WHY ME?

    By Doug Ponder on Oct. 24, 2018

    Evil All Around Us A childless mother has a miscarriage for the third time in a row. An adulterous affair is ripping a family apart. My neighbors were recently robbed. The city I grew up in is experiencing a spree of shootings and robberies at gunpoint. The neighborhood where I live just witnessed an older man killed in broad daylight. Twenty minutes south of me a little girl was found dead after being left in a car on a hot summer day. In that same county a man shot his wife and two children before turning the gun on himself. You do not have to look hard to see the evil all around us. The picture is even more grim when we think of how many untold millions of people are hurting and suffering from other tragedies that we will never hear or know. More Than Reminders of a Broken World For many, such tragedies are usually little more than ‘sad reminders’ of living in a broken world. They are just stories, that is, until they reach in, uninvited, and touch our lives. As a pastor I have the privilege and responsibility of talking with people when they are going through tragedies.  In addition to the hurting, the tears, the anger, I’ve found that personal tragedies are often filled with doubts, second guesses, and feelings of confusion. It’s common for people to wonder: Why did this happen? Why didn’t God stop this? God, why me? Some wonder if God isn’t powerful enough to stop evil acts from occurring. (He is.) Some wonder if God doesn’t care, or if he doesn’t love them enough to stop evil. (He does.) Others wonder if God exists at all. Soon it’s not long until “How could God let this happen?” loses its question mark and becomes, “If God did exist, then he would not have let this happen.” Why?—The Dead-end Question As we read what God has to say about all the evil and suffering in his world, it becomes clear that most of us have an unhealthy obsession with the question, “God, why me?” To put it bluntly, there are no positive examples (that I can think of) that involve anyone asking  “Why me, God?” When a man named Job that question, God’s response cut right to the heart of the problem: We think we know how the world should go, and we think that if we were God, we’d run things a lot differently. Sound arrogant? God thought so too, and he let Job know it with a rebuke so one-sided that it borders on stand-up comedy. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we rebuke others whenever tragedy strikes and they ask, “Why?” But it is worth nothing that the question always leads to a dead-end. We think that by asking, “Why me?” we will discover an answer that will satisfy our curiosity, that will gives us some kind of silver lining, some kind of purpose or reason that will temper the grief with a bit of good news. But God gives us another answer instead. He stays that evil and suffering exist in his world because of our sin, the sins of others, and the work of God’s enemy, Satan. That’s the only “reason why” that God gives us. What's Better Than Why In place of an all-satisfying reason, however, God gives us something even better. He shows us what he thinks about evil and suffering and what he has done about it. Everywhere Jesus went he had compassion on suffering, he forgave the guilty, and he resisted the works of the devil. Therefore, we don’t have to guess concerning what God thinks about evil. He hates evil, and he is hellbent on removing it from his world forever. Jesus tells us, "The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matthew 13:41-43). Jesus' Victory Over Evil and Suffering We need look no further than the cross and resurrection of Jesus to see that God does indeed have the power to do something about evil. On the cross Jesus delivered a death blow to sin and death itself. He swallowed sin and death but spit out victory. On the cross he gave an advance judgment of all sin and evil, showing them to have no place in his future world. And after his resurrection, Jesus promised to return to destroy the sin and evil that he has already defeated. Since sin and evil are defeated-but-not-destroyed, we still experience them, but only in part. Death has become like a bee without a stinger. And sin has become a slave master that can no longer keep his slaves from escaping through the Underground Railroad. Furthermore, the cross and resurrection of Jesus show us that we don’t have to wonder about whether God cares to stop suffering and evil. He does care, deeply. So deeply in fact, that Jesus willingly laid down his life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. He took our punishment, dying so that we could live through him. "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him" (1 John 4:9). Thus, we know that God is powerful enough and loving enough to do something about evil and suffering, because he has already done so in Jesus. When grief or tragedy strike, we can rejoice that the evils of this world have already passed their expiration date. And when Jesus returns, he's rid the world of these things once and for all.

    By Doug Ponder on Oct. 31, 2018

    Two Ways to Rob God's Love of Its Power Whenever we talk about the love of God, two dark tendencies in our hearts threaten, like thrives, to rob God's precious gift of all its power. The first thieving attitude of the heart says, “Of course God loves me. No big deal. Why wouldn't he love me?” This robs God's love of its power by assuming that we are the kind of people who ought to be loved, or that we deserve God’s love, or that we are worthy of his love because of who we are, what we possess, or what we have done. It should go without saying that when it comes to our relationship with God, words like “ought” and “deserve” and “worthy” only move in one direction (and it ain’t toward us). Our actions don’t make us worthy of anything from God. Nor does God owe us anything, as if we have put him in our debt somehow. God loves us because of who he is, not because of who we are. It’s an important distinction, and we miss it at our own peril. Jesus did not die for us because we were lovely; he died in order to make us lovely. That is the difference between cheap grace and costly grace. Both agree that God's love is free to us, but only one recognizes that what is free to us cost God everything. As C.S. Lewis said, “It costs God nothing to create nice things: but to convert rebellious wills cost Him crucifixion.” The good news that kills the first thief is this: we are loved by God—it’s true—but his is a love so costly that everyone who sees it can’t stop thanking God, can’t stop honoring him, and can’t stop responding to God with love for him and love for others. When we look on the cross of Jesus, that is what we ought to see: God’s amazing love, not our amazing worthiness. His love is amazing not because we deserved it, but precisely because we didn’t! The second thieving attitude of the heart says, “There is no way that God could ever love me. I don't even love myself.” This thief robs God's love of its power by thinking that our sins are greater than Christ's ability to save. And while it may sound humble or contrite to say, “There’s no way anyone could forgive me,” this is actually a false humility that is elevating our personal standards above God’s own. If God says that the sacrifice of Jesus is enough to forgive us, then we need not beat ourselves up anymore. His standards are infinitely higher than our own, and yet he says there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). This does not diminish the reality of ours sins, but it does increase our appreciation of God’s love. It enables us to see that our sins are very great indeed. We are more sinful and wicked than we ever dared to admit to anyone, even ourselves. But we also see that in Christ, we are more loved and accepted than we ever dared to hope. Both are true at the same time, and this is the good news that kills the second thief. What this means is this: the more you see your own sins for what they are, the more precious and electrifying and powerful God’s love will be to you. As Jesus tells us, “Whoever is forgiven of much, loves much.” And this is why Martin Luther said, “Let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” This is why the apostle Paul says, “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus or Lord.”

    By Doug Ponder on Nov. 14, 2018

    Rolling Stones And Replanted Trees Many have heard the old proverb, “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” but not very many seem to misunderstand what it means. Because ours is a highly-transient, always-busy, easily-distracted, instant-gratification culture, most think “a rolling stone gathers no moss” is like saying: “Don’t be lazy.” “Never settle.” “Keep on keeping on.” “Do whatever it takes to reach your goals.” “Never stop.” Yet none of those are even close to the proverb’s actual meaning. We know this because the author compared his proverb to a (then) well-known Latin saying: Saepius plantata arbor fructum profert exiguum, which means, “A tree replanted too often produces little fruit.” In the same way, “A rolling stone gathers no moss” is a not warning against stagnation, but against excessive movement. Now it ought to make us wonder—with sober self-examination—whenever our culture has led us to read into a quote almost exactly its opposite meaning. This is usually a sign that we are blind to something that previous generations clearly saw. To be sure, they had blind spots too, but the revealing power of hindsight has cleared up most of theirs. Our problem is that we act as if they had blind spots while we do not. We love identifying specks in the eyes of our ancestors; yet we do not recognize the log that sticks out of our own (Matt. 7:3). The Transient Life The particular blind spot we are concerned with here is the fruitlessness of the transient life. The transient life is the “here today, gone tomorrow” life, instead of the “here to stay” life. It’s a life spent chasing things that don’t last (like bigger paychecks, fame, recognition, status) instead of pouring time into things that do last (like relationships with God’s people, which will last forever). The transient life is a life that values whatever is taking us away from our neighbors, our friends, and our churches above our those neighbors, friends, and churches. The transient life is lived by someone who relocates every time they are offered a promotion in another city, even if they already make plenty of money. The transient life is lived by people who hop from church to church to church, always looking for something that suits their selfish preferences. They go on searching, but never finding, and eventually they abandon going to church altogether. The transient life is lived by the person who moves from house to house to house, always on the hunt for a bigger home in a “nicer” neighbor—which is usually code for ‘an upper-middle class white neighborhood’ or for more land, far away from people who might actually have needs or make requests of us. The transient life is lived by pastors who move from one congregation to another, which tragically seems always to move in the direction of more people in attendance and more dollars on their pay stubs. The reason the transient life is bad is because it is a fruitless life. It keeps people from putting down roots and staying committed to a specific people for long enough to make a difference. This matters because Jesus did not die to rescue isolated individuals, but to create a new community of people who live for him (Titus 2:14). That truth has many important implications, but one of them is that we must learn to see that the local church is God’s chosen context for our lives. Everything we do is done with a view to how it affects the people in the church where we are members. This makes sense because the church is central to what God is doing in the world (Eph. 3:7-12). The church is the end goal of God’s saving plan. It’s where everything is headed. The church is God’s final destination; it is his eternal home (Eph. 2:19-21). Thus when John wrote about eternity, he talked about the people of God (Rev. 21:1-3). The people are the point! Saved from Fruitlessness Tragically, our sin causes us to view our lives through lens of Me and My. We tend to think about our decisions solely in terms of how they will affect me, increase my opportunities, advance my career, further my enjoyment, give me more travel time, and so on and so on. This is radically different from the salvation that God intends to bring into our lives. He tells us that people whose eyes have been opened by the gospel are people who “no longer live for themselves but for him who died and rose for their sake” (2 Cor. 5:15). That’s another way of saying that the gospel changes our focus from Me/My to Jesus and his people. In other words, when God saves us he turns people with rolling stone hearts into firmly planted oaks of righteousness (Isa. 61:3). For example, we begin to ask questions like, “How will my presence affect others? How will my decisions help or hurt the people in my family, my church, and my community? Will spending this money on that thing I don’t really need decrease my chances to be generous with others? How will traveling every weekend or for months at time mean cause relationships with people in my church and my neighborhood to suffer from my absence? Will turning down a promotion in another city give me a chance to keep building on the relationships that God has given me?” These questions sound crazy to a Me/My world, but they don’t sound crazy to people who “no longer live for themselves but for him who died and rose for their sake.” Thus God replaces our selfish tendency toward the transient me-focused life with an others-centered rooted life. Instead of the transient life of “here today, gone tomorrow,” the rooted life is “here to stay.” And this rooted life is a reflection of the gospel itself, since the gospel is not a message about a “here today, gone tomorrow” God. Rather, the gospel is a message about the God who is “here to stay,” who never leaves us or forsakes us (Heb. 13:5). The Beauty of a Rooted Life There are many people in our church who have turned down better-paying jobs so that they could keep pouring into relationships with their neighbors, co-workers, friends, and church family members. One man turned down a job that made three times as much as his current salary. Another is leaving his job that would have required him move, and he is taking a lesser paying job so that he can stay. Another man moved his family to Richmond in order to plant their lives in a healthy church, because there were none in their hometown. Because of Jesus, these people are choosing to live the rooted life, to become oaks of righteousness in their church and community, with branches that extend to bless those who are near them. Imagine the kind of impact that people like this will have after decades of faithfulness in the same community and church. Imagine the beauty of friendships that are fifty years old and all that they have shared together as members of the same church and same community. Imagine what it would be like if people who had to move became the rare exception. Imagine the kind of power that this sort of life has before a watching world that is filled with people living the transient life. Imagine’ people who know that a “a tree replanted too often produces little fruit,” and so they make a concerted effort—so far as it depends upon them—to plant their lives in one church and one city in order to grow deep roots and strong branches that will truly bless the lives of others for years and years and years.

    By Doug Ponder on Dec. 5, 2018

    An Invisible Force Whenever we jump, whenever we trip, whenever we try to get out of bed in the morning, gravity is there working against us. We all feel its tug. It pulls us down toward the surface of the Earth, and it does this whether we like it or not. Scientists call gravity a “law of nature,” because it’s not up for debate. It’s real. We experience it. It’s there all the time, whether or not we even acknowledge its presence. For example, suppose someone were to jump off a cliff screaming “I don’t believe in gravity!” as they fall. Despite their denial, gravity would pull them to their death. The law of gravity works all the time, without stopping and without permission. When we think about sin, however, we don’t  often think about it like gravity. We tend to think about sin as something someone chooses to do: You lie. You steal. You murder. You hate. You lust. You envy. You overindulge. These are all actions. They are something that someone does. But this is not the only way that the Bible talks about sin. In fact, the first appearance of the word “sin” in the Bible does not refer to an action but to a force or power: “Sin is crouching at the door,” God warned Cain. “Its desire is for you” (Gen. 4:7). Even if this is some kind of poetic personification of evil, it’s clearly not talking about an action. So when the Bible introduces us to sin, the first thing God wants us to see is that sin is not just an inappropriate choice. Sin is also a force that works against us, constantly pulling and tugging at us to go in the wrong direction. Paul the apostle understood this idea well. He even called sin a “law,” just like the law of gravity. He writes, “Even when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21). “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me” (Rom. 7:22-23). Paul seems to be saying that one part of him wants to do what is good, but another part of him is constantly being pulled down and held back. It’s like a tug-of-war in his soul. That’s sin like gravity. The really important thing to see in all of this is that sin is always there whether we recognize it or not. The law of sin and its pull on your life is something that never goes away. You never reach a place where you don’t feel the effects of gravity, and you will never reach a place where you don’t feel the powerful allure of sin. That’s the bad news. (Welcome to life on planet Earth.) The good news is that there’s hope for us, and Jesus shows us the way. Step One: Stop Your Denial. It does us no good to pretend. Nor does it help us to re-label sin as something else. If I take the barcode from an apple in the supermarket and place it on a box of cereal, the box of cereal will remain a box of cereal even though the scanner says, “Apple.” You see, renaming or denying your sin won’t help you. It’ll still be there, affecting you without stopping and without permission—just like gravity. John the apostle writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Notice two things. First, he said “If we say we have no sin” here (1 Jn 1:8), which is different than saying, “If we say we have not sinned” (1 Jn 1:10). The former is talking about sin as a force, power, or law within us. The latter is talking about sins that we commit as actions, thoughts, or behaviors. John clearly believes that both are problems. We have sin working within us, and we commit sins as a result. Second, notice that John was writing to Christians. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that “people with sin” are those guys over there. (You know, the ones who live differently than you.) That’s a lie that people who claim to be Christians often believe in order to let themselves off the hook. But it doesn’t really help them at all. They still “have sin,” which means that they still have the pull of sin like gravity in their lives. The problem is that for many of these people, sin has blinded them for so long that they no longer think they are affected by it—which is actually the clearest sign that they still are. Sin is what leads us to say we aren’t affected by sin. That’s the oldest trick in the book. Step Two: Don’t Trust Yourself. We have said that sin affects us without stopping and without permission. Those who understand sin should take precautions against it. How stupid would it be for you to believe in gravity and then live like it doesn’t exist? In the same way, far too many Christians give a little head nod to the reality of sin, but then go about their lives as if it weren’t really present within them. Sometimes people do this because they still think of sin as something you do versus something you have. They don’t think of sin as something that affects their whole person: head, heart, and hands. They just think of sin as something done or not done. But Jesus says differently. He teaches that what we do comes from deep within (Mark 7:20). That means that whatever we do is affected in some way by the law of sin at work within us, just as gravity affects everything we do as it works upon us. At other times, people make the mistake of thinking that sin isn’t that big of a deal. “Sure, we all have to deal with sin,” they say. “But come on. It’s not that serious.” Again, the Scriptures say differently. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). You and I are included in that rhetorical question. Over and over again, the Bible warns against trusting yourself or “letting your conscience by your guide” (thanks for nothing, Jiminy Cricket). So what it looks like to take sin seriously, then, is to not trust yourself. Don’t say things like, “I feel like I should…” You should even be careful of saying, “God told me to…” Not every voice is from God (1 John 4:1-6), and naively assuming that you have heard God clearly is dangerous business—no matter how many so-called Christian books or conferences tell you otherwise. Because the Scriptures say not to trust yourself, it’s vital to stay close to other followers of Jesus who know you well and know how serious sin is. It’s foolish arrogance to think that we can handle sin on our own. The loving wisdom and correction that comes from other brothers and sisters in Jesus is a huge part of overcoming sin and temptation. Another important aspect of not trusting yourself means not putting yourself in a place where you are likely to fall. For example, because I believe in gravity and I know the limitations of my balance skills, I don’t walk across tightropes between skyscrapers. In the same way, it’s foolish to put yourself in a place where you are all but guaranteed to fall into sin. Sadly, we do this sort of thing all the time. Suppose that you want to honor your boyfriend or girlfriend by not making sexual advances toward them until you are married. Since you think they’re attractive, since you have a sex drive, and since you have the law of sin at work within you, you’d be an idiot to spend a ton of alone time with them in an isolated place. The pull of sin will likely lead you into compromised situations. You may object, “But I couldn’t help it!” That’s only half true, though. Maybe you can’t help falling off a tightrope once you’re on it, but you never had to get on the tightrope in the first place. In the same way, because you are aware of how sin is a constant presence within you, don’t put yourself in the way of obvious temptation. That’s exactly what Paul meant when he said that God is faithful to provide a way out of temptation (1 Cor. 10:13). He doesn’t mean that you can be foolish and reckless and always bank on the fact that God will somehow, magically, provide a super convenient escape route to get you out of trouble. Rather, he meant that if you take sin seriously, you’ll take temptation seriously too. That is why I don’t own a TV, and I still screen every movie I watch. My past failures combined with my present knowledge of the law of sin means that I don’t trust myself around too much skin. (To help with this I often use a website that tells me, on a scale of one to ten, how much nudity is in a certain movie.) It may sound like a lot of trouble to go through, but I’d rather miss a few TV programs or blockbusters than dishonor God and hurt my wife by giving into sin. Step Three: Look to Jesus. If sin is as much of a problem as we have said, if it blinds us and tricks us and tugs on us at all times, then we are hopelessly lost. And we would stay that way if it weren’t for Jesus. Those who believe the good news of the gospel are given power through the Holy Spirit to put sin to death (Rom. 8:13). “Putting sin to death” is another way of saying “die to yourself,” which was Jesus’ basic call for his followers. It means choking out the life of our sinful desires, and it happens through the slow and difficult process of following Jesus. Following Jesus means trusting him and listening to what he says. As we do this, we find that he works in our lives to give us new desires—desires that weren’t there before (Phil. 2:13). That doesn’t mean the old desires are completely gone, for sin will continue to live within us until the day we die. But it does mean that we now have the ability to say “no” to the kinds of thing we used to indulge in without even putting up a fight (Titus 2:11; 3:3-7). Although gravity doesn’t diminish throughout life, your awareness of gravity and your ability to live within a world with gravity does improve with time. That’s why adults are able to walk without falling as often as toddlers. In a similar way, people who have been following Jesus in faith and obedience for a long time will find that they are better able to see the work of sin in their lives. The last but most important part of dealing with sin is that we’ve got to remember that we’re forgiven. Because the fight against sin is an ongoing battle that will never stop in this lifetime, it would be easy to grow weary of the fight or feel guilty for our failures. That’s when the forgiveness of Jesus is especially beautiful. The more you realize how sinful you are, the more deeply you can appreciate the forgiveness that you’ve been shown. And if you truly believe that you are forgiven, you’ll want to keep fighting against the sin that sent Jesus to the cross in the first place, not out of guilt or fear of punishment, but out of love for the one who died for us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8).

    By Doug Ponder on Dec. 12, 2018

    Into the Lion's Den Paul had to have seen it coming. All the signs were pointing in the same direction, confirming what was revealed by the Spirit through Agabus the prophet. Paul was headed for certain capture, imprisonment, and probably death. But he went anyway. Never mind that the Jews had received false reports about him. Never mind that the messengers who brought those false reports had completely misunderstood Paul’s message. All that mattered, to the crowds anyway, was that the man who had “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) was standing right in front of them, in the Temple of all places. “What nerve he’s got,” they must have thought. “Coming into the same holy Temple that he was blaspheming. And bringing Gentiles, too!” Don't Shoot the Messenger Of course, they hadn’t gotten Paul’s message quite right. Saying that Jesus was the fulfillment of the law and the Temple wasn’t blaspheming either of them. Plus, they were dead wrong about Paul bringing Gentiles with him into the Temple (that was somebody else, not Paul). But it didn’t matter. To them, Paul was the ultimate traitor. He had “switched sides.” He was coaching a rival sports team. He was aiding the enemy. And they hated him for it. All because Paul dared to teach that Israel’s Messiah, Jesus, was going to rescue Gentiles too. “Rid the earth of such a fellow! He should not be allowed to live!” they jeered in unison (Acts 22:22). They would have killed him, too, if it weren’t for the intervention of the Romans. Of course, the Romans weren’t interested in rescuing Paul from the hands of the mob. They just wanted to find a way to end the commotion. So they nabbed the apparent troublemaker and prepared to quiet him down the Roman way (which is a polite way of saying they prepared to torture him and beat him like professionals). Good News for Everyone... Or Is It? Once again we find ourselves wondering why Paul might have dared to say such a thing, especially if he suspected that it would lead to all this. Couldn’t he have contented himself to say that Jesus came to rescue Israel, without even mentioning the Gentiles? Yes, well, he could have done so if his mission had been to save his own skin. But as it was, Jesus himself had handpicked Paul to tell the Gentiles, along with all the Jews who would listen, the good news that Israel’s Messiah had come to rescue everyone everywhere who looked to him in faith and called on him as Lord. What could possibly be offensive about that? Why would anyone be bothered at the thought that the same Jesus who came to rescue them will rescue others, too? As it turns out, that same message is still offending people today. The Real Problem at Hand The message of the gospel is not the problem, of course; we are. Some people are arrogant enough to think that they don’t need help, that they don’t need rescuing. “Thanks, but no thanks, God. I run the show here, and I do just fine without your input.” They might not say it in so many words, but that’s the basic refrain of many people’s lives. The tragedy is that God gives them over to what they long for: the total absence of his involvement in their life. At death, such people have no hope for life in the resurrection, since they have neither wanted nor asked for Jesus’ mercy. So God will leave them to themselves in an undying death, which the Scriptures call “hell.” Others are more like the Jews in this passage. They’re convinced that Jesus only came to die for people like them. If we’re honest with ourselves, this is probably where many of us find our wayward hearts more often than we’d like. We tend to think that we are “in” and those kinds of people are “out,” because of something we have or something we’ve done. For the Jews in Paul’s day it was their adherence to the law, their practice of circumcision, and their reverence for the Temple. They believed that Jesus came to rescue them—and them only—because they were the ones who did what God wanted, earned his favor, and so on. Worshiping a Jesus for All People Of course, among Christians there is no major modern controversy over whether or not those who adhere to the law and worship at the Temple are the “in” crowd. Instead we tend to draw the lines in different ways. Perhaps you think those who are “in,” those who are accepted by God and rescued by Jesus, are those who vote a certain way. All those who adhere to political affiliations that differ from yours will be cast into utter darkness! But  not you. You will be spared for your righteous voting record. Or maybe you act as if Jesus only came to rescue certain races or ethnicities. You’d never say that, not publicly. But your life shows that you give preferential treatment to people who come from the same racial background as yourself, while you disregard, overlook, or mistreat people who are different than you. You think that you're "in" and they're "out." Or maybe you think you’re more righteous than others because of where you live, what kind of music you listen to, how you dress, what you eat, what you don’t eat, and so forth. It doesn’t matter what it is, people are always looking to draw new lines to determine who’s “in” and who’s “out.” But God has already drawn a line, and that line is Jesus. You’re “in” if you follow Jesus in faith and listen to what he says. You’re “out” if you refuse to acknowledge your need for the mercy and grace of Jesus. Once you’re “in”, of course, your need for Jesus doesn’t diminish. It’s not like Jesus is just some get-out-of-hell-free card. He’s the risen Lord. He’s the Righteous One. He’s the forgiver of sins. He’s the rescuer of all. This means the church—those who are “in” because of Jesus—should look like and live like people who know their need for Jesus most of all. This replaces pride with humility, greed with generosity, and selfishness with love. Finally, the church should know that if Jesus is for all people, then we must be for all people. This means putting aside our differences, our preferences, and sometimes, our rights, for the sake of others and in the name of Jesus. We must be people whose passion is not to extend the glory of our own names or organizations, but extend the glory of Jesus and all that he is doing in the world. For Your Consideration 1. We have said that the message of Jesus is “offensive” to us on some level. What parts of this gospel message do you think are offensive? Do you think it’s good to be offended in some ways? 2. What kinds of “lines” are you tempted draw in your own life that include you in God’s favor and/or exclude others? What is Jesus saying to you today about these “lines” that you have drawn? 3. Do you realize your need for God’s grace and mercy? How does recognizing your need drive you back to Jesus?

    By Doug Ponder on Jan. 16, 2019

    The Great Search I don’t know any Christian who hasn’t wondered about the will of God for their life. What does God want me to do? How can I know if God’s will, not mine? What am I supposed to do next? Unsure of what to do, many people feel that they must "pray hard," "live right," and "look for a sign" in order to discover God’s will for their life. What a destructive lie! But I heard it growing up in church. I heard it in youth group. I heard it in sermons. I heard it in classes at the Christian college I attended. And I see versions of it almost every day on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. It's like everyone wants to know what God’s will for their life is, but almost no one seems to know where to find it. Here’s the good news: God’s will for your life is not a mystery. He is not hiding it from you. He is not forcing you to go looking for it. He has told you plainly what he wants from you. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of mankind.” (Eccl. 12:13) Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:36-38) There you have it. That’s what God wants from you. Love and obey God as you love and serve others. Or as Jesus put it in the sermon on the mount, he wants you to trust him and build your life upon his teachings. Of course, if you want to know what that looks like, you need only look to the Scriptures. There God reveals to us plainly who he is, what he is doing in the world, and what we ought to do about it. For example, the Scriptures tell us that Jesus came to defeat sin and evil, and that he will one day return to destroy them both forever. Anyone who refuses to go to him for forgiveness and redemption will be swept away at his return for continuing to collude with the evil his kingdom will destroy. But we aren't left to "put the pieces together" for ourselves, because God has told us plainly what he wants. He loves us and gives us commands for our good, and these commands are not random. Rather, they are designed to demonstrate God’s glory and power as they promote our own flourishing as his people in his world. Ignoring or Twisting the Will of God So what's the problem? Well, most of God’s commands are remarkably straightforward. The problem, it seems, is that we just don’t like them. Perhaps that is the deepest reason beneath why so many people have turned knowing the will of God into a game of hide and seek. Consider the following examples. Jim and Laura have been married for several years. They have a large home with several bedrooms, but no children. They know that God has commanded his people to be fruitful and multiply. They’ve read where God says children are a blessing. But they like not having kids, and they hope to keep it that way. And besides, they’ve asked God to give them a sign if he wants them to have children. But they haven’t seen any clear sign from him yet. Rachel is about to graduate from high school. She’s thinking about going to a college that will cost her over $150,000 in loans by the time she graduates. She plans to be a general studies major because, as she readily admits, she just wants to be a stay-at-home mom. When asked how she plans to pay back those loans, Rachel just shrugs her shoulders and says, “I guess God wouldn’t let me get into the school if he didn’t want me to go there.” Mark is a worrier. He’s broken off his last three relationships because, in his words, “God didn’t tell me that she’s the One.” Now he’s in another relationship, and he really, really likes the girl. She loves God, serves others humbly, and seems to be madly in love with Mark. But God hasn’t given him any signs, so Mark is worried. “What if she’s not the One either?” He’s beginning to think he should go ahead and break it off before he gets even more attached to her. Billy and Susan are thinking about moving in together. They attend the same church, and they’ve heard the same sermons about God’s design for sex in marriage. But this is the 21st Century. Surely God doesn’t mean all that stuff, right? Just to be sure, they ask God if it’s OK for them to move in together. After a quick prayer, they both agree that they have a really good feeling about it. Alice and her roommate Tiffany have been fighting again. It seems like they argue about everything these days. Alice is a Christian, but Tiffany is not. Often after their fights Alice wonders if she should apologize and ask for forgiveness, but she never gets around to it. “After all,” she thinks, “Tiffany will never ask me for forgiveness. So why should I forgive her?” James and Philipp have been in an open homosexual relationship for a few months now. They came out of the closet together for mutual support. Both of them grew up in the church, but neither of them goes very often anymore. “Who wants to put up with bigoted people who don’t accept us?” they say. They used to wonder whether or not homosexual eroticism was sinful, but not anymore. “Everyone knows that the part of the Bible that condemns homosexuality also forbids shrimp, bacon, and clothes of blended fabric,” they explain. “And since plenty of Christians don’t mind those things, why choose to condemn us?” Tim has been a deacon in his home church for years. He’s a good, clean, moral person. He gives to the church regularly. When not serving as a police officer during the day, he volunteers at the local hospital for disabled kids. But Tim is also deeply prideful and prejudiced. He often posts rants on his Facebook wall about minorities, illegal immigrants, and people who use food stamps. He knows what Jesus says about loving your enemy and helping the poor, but that hasn’t stopped him. Besides, he’s just repeating what he hears from Fox news, country music, and his pastor’s sermons. They can’t all be wrong, can they? Ted and Janice are looking to buy a new home. Although their current home more than meets their needs, they are already tired of it after just five years. Not to mention, Ted just got a substantial raise, so now they can afford the dream home they’ve always wanted. It’s much larger than they actually need, but it’s so beautiful. They pray about it, and decide that it must be God who put that desire in their hearts. Why else would they love it so much? Different Stories, Just One Problem Despite their different stories, all of these people have the same problem. They have some vague familiarity with the Bible, perhaps, but they are not submitting to what it says. That is God’s will for their lives (and yours). He wants us to trust him and obey what he says (Eccl. 12:13). So when Jim and Laura, the couple with no children, come across the verses in the Scriptures where God clearly commands them to have children, they shouldn’t continue in their selfishness. Though they “pray for a sign” from God to have kids, they ought to realize that God has already told them to do so. His will is for them to have children as soon as they can afford to (which is much sooner than many people think). When Rachel, the recent high school grad, considers that she may never be able to pay back $150,000 as a stay-at-home mom, she should probably pick another school (or perhaps even skip out on college altogether). And though she might be tempted to think that an “open door” means that God wants her to walk through it, she should consider the fact that the Scriptures never teach us that simply because we have an option left open that necessarily means that God wants us to choose it. His will is for her to obey what he has told us, not guess about what he hasn’t. Mark, the worrier, is no better off. He’s ended several perfectly good relationships because he is afraid that he will miss out on “the one” that God has for him. Yet God never tells us to spend their life looking for “the one.” Instead, he just tells us about what mature Christian men and women ought to look like. If Mark’s girlfriend is a mature Christian woman, then he doesn’t need any other sign from God. His will is for Mark to get married to a girl who loves him and wants to follow him as he follows Christ. Billy and Susan, the couple who have moved in together, don’t need to pray about what God has already forbidden. He designed sexual expression for marriage, and they don’t need to pray about whether or not he still wants them to follow those commands today. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His will is for them not to move in together, and not to sleep together until after they are married. Alice, one of the arguing girls, shouldn’t pray about whether or not to forgive her roommate. God says that we should forgive one another as the Lord has forgiven us. That doesn’t leave any room for her to pray and ask God for a sign about whether or not to do it. His will is for her to forgive her roommate. James and Philipp, the gay couple, have made the mistake of assuming that because God asked the theocratic nation of Israel to abstain from certain foods and civil practices, that he must not care about sexual ethics anymore. They completely ignore the rest of the Bible’s clear teachings on sex and marriage, however, as well as the teachings in the New Testament that condemn homosexual acts of eroticism. God’s will is for them to honor his commands regarding sex and marriage, even if that means that they remain celibate. (Jesus was celibate, and it didn’t seem to bother him.) Tim, the prideful deacon, misses the will of God for his life, too. While he understands that God wants him to be involved in his church and his community, he is like the Pharisees who overlooked mercy and justice, the weightier matters of God’s law. God’s will for his life is that he stop looking down on other people in pride, and stop posting inflammatory things on Facebook that don’t actually help the people that Jesus calls him to love and serve. Ted and Janice are guilty of assuming that just because they want something, it must be God who gave them the desire. Not only have they overlooked the fact that our hearts are easily able to trick us and lead us astray, they also have ignored Jesus’ repeated warning against the dangers of materialism. In fact, more than any other issue God warns his people against the dangers of greed. Jesus devoted one quarter of his teaching to this point, but it doesn’t seem to affect Ted and Janice—and that’s the problem. More than they love heeding God’s warnings about materialism and greed, they love having nice things and endless comforts. But in view of God’s call for his people to sacrifice, that sort of comfort isn’t God’s will for their life. Yes, but... I know what you're thinking. The title of this article was "Knowing the Will of God" but most of it has been talking about different ways that people don't submit to the will of God that's already been revealed in the Scriptures. So, what gives? The truth is that most of the important decisions you will have to make in life are the ones that the Scriptures talk plainly about. It may not feel that way, but it's true. If you already know what the Scriptures say, but you still have no desire to trust and obey them, then you need a heart change... But what about areas that the Scriptures don't talk about? What about things that are not so black-and-white? For example, what about a person who is trying to decide whether or not to spend their life as a lawyer or a social service worker? In cases like these, the Scriptures are still our guide. Though they may not give us verses  that speak directly to every situation, they contain all the wisdom we need in order to make informed, Spirit-led decisions in our lives. What we mean is that God has already said a great deal about the kinds of motives we should have and the kinds of outcomes we should seek when making decisions. Here is a list of practical questions to help you with the areas where the Scriptures do not directly tell you what to do. (In the cases where they do, you don't need to question any further.) Are you leaning toward this decision because you think it will make you look good? Are you pursuing this because you want to be rich or famous or powerful? Are you the only person who will benefit from this decision? What will it cost others around you? Are you pursuing this because you want to be loved, accepted, valued, or approved? Have you forgotten that your value comes from what Jesus has done for you, not what you do for him? Will your decision hinder something of greater importance, like your fellowship in a local church? Have you talked with mature believers and the pastors in your church about this decision? Are you being patient and wise about this decision? Will you be setting yourself up for greater temptation if you make this decision? Have other people warned you not to do this but you insist upon doing it anyway? Are you hoping for a change of circumstances to fix your problems? Or are you relying on the Spirit to change you as trust and follow Jesus? Is this decision something that will better position you to serve other people or tell them about Jesus? Does your decision make sense in light of the story of the Bible? Or will it be wasted time and effort that contributes nothing to the kingdom of Christ? What will your decision ‘say’ to others about the mission of the church in the world? Will it make Jesus look like the surpassing treasure that he is?

    By Doug Ponder on June 18, 2019

    Sin: More Than What You Do When it comes the word “sin,” most people think of morally wrong acts or actions. If they are especially discerning, they may include morally wrong attitudes and thoughts as well. But almost no one thinks of sin as a person, yet this is precisely how the apostle Paul refers to sin. Paul explains that inside of every Christian live two people: the “old man” and the “new man,” or sometimes people refer to them as the “old self” and the “new self.” He writes, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off the old self, which is being corrupted by deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like ravod in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22-23). If having two “selves” inside of you sounds a bit like multiple-personality disorder, then you’re on the right track. Look at how Paul spoke of the “war” within himself: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want to do, but instead I do the very thing I hate. . . As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do is what I keep on doing!” (Rom. 7:15-19). Paul’s words there summarize the daily struggle that Christians feel. We know what is good because God has told us in his Word. And because of the new heart given to us by God’s spirit, we even “delight in God’s law” just as Paul did (Rom. 7:22) just as At the same time, however, we have another “force” at work within us—like the law of gravity—constantly tugging and pulling, waging war against our minds and taking us prisoner to its demands (Rom. 7:23). That “force” or “law” is the sin that dwells within us. The relationship of the Christian to old man is this: our old self has been crucified, but he is not yet totally dead. Like victims on crosses, which took hours and even days to die, the sinful self inside us is still writhing from the place where he was nailed. He has been crucified but not wholly mortified, nailed to the cross but not yet dead. The term for this kind of ever-present sin in the life of the believer is “indwelling sin,” since is dwells within us, like an unwelcome guest who will not leave. For though Christians have been completely delivered from the penalty for sin (Rom. 8:1), we are every day being delivered still from the power of sin (Rom. 8:13-14). This process of deliverance comes through the work of the Holy Spirit as we trust Jesus and turn from sin. The Holy Spirit enables us to fight against the old man by giving us the desire and the ability to do what pleases God instead (Phil. 2:13). In this way, the old man is slowly put to death over the long course of our lives. We will never be rid of the dark guest who dwells within—not until Jesus returns to make us completely new, but God is able to set us free from his power in meaningful ways. All we must “do” is continue trusting him and asking him to help us repent of our sins as we remember Jesus’ sacrifice. A Puritan's Prayer for Deliverance The Puritans, who get a terrible rap is American history books, were actually people who "loved the arts, wore brightly colored clothing, smoked and drank, and loved making love to their wives. They were an exuberant group, full of, as the French might say, les beans” (Wilson, 5 Cities That Ruled the World, p. 138). More importantly than that, however, the Puritans were people who took sin seriously. They understood, perhaps better than anyone since them, just how powerful the old self can still be. That is why one of the Puritans wrote this prayer, as a way of honestly asking God to free us from slavery to sin as we trust him more. The prayer is sometimes titled, "The Dark Guest." O Lord, Bend my hands and cut them off, for I have often struck thee with a wayward will, when these fingers should embrace thee by faith. I am not yet weaned from all created glory, honour, wisdom, and esteem of others, for I have a secret motive to eye my name in all I do. Let me not only speak the word sin, but see the thing itself. Give me to view a discovered sinfulness, to know that though my sins are crucified they are never wholly mortified. Hatred, malice, ill-will,vain-glory that hungers for and hunts after man’s approval and applause, all are crucified, forgiven, but they rise again in my sinful heart. O my crucified but never wholly mortified sinfulness! O my life-long damage and daily shame! O my indwelling and besetting sins! O the tormenting slavery of a sinful heart! Destroy, O God, the dark guest within whose hidden presence makes my life a hell. Yet thou hast not left me here without grace; The cross still stands and meets my needs in the deepest straits of the soul. I thank thee that my remembrance of it is like David’s sight of Goliath’s sword which preached forth thy deliverance. The memory of my great sins, my many temptations, my falls, bring afresh into my mind the remembrance of thy great help, of thy support from heaven, of the great grace that saved such a wretch as I am. There is no treasure so wonderful as that continuous experience of thy grace toward me which alone can subdue the risings of sin within: Give me more of it.

    By Doug Ponder on Aug. 6, 2019

    How to Rent a Friend Uber lets you rent a stranger’s car. AirBnB lets you rent a stranger’s house, and now comes Ameego, which will let you rent a stranger. For a small fee, you can pay someone to hang out with you. That someone would invent something like this isn’t all that shocking. The Internet has shown us enough silliness to last a lifetime. But what is shocking is how rapidly this app is rising in popularity. So before you laugh or shake you heard in astonishment, remember this: necessity is (still) the mother of invention. In other words, there are enough people starving for friendship that they’ll pay good money for a cheap substitute. In fact, a recent survey reports that 11 percent of Millennials claim their dissatisfied with their friendships. And that trend is increasing. We are slowly witnessing the emergence of a generation of who will belong to vast social networks and have connections with people on every continent, but who won’t have anybody to hang out with on the weekend. But let’s be honest. Many people who do have someone to spend the weekend with still spend a lot of time frustrated with folks they call “friends.” In truth, this problem isn’t anything new. It’s not the fault of social media or the Internet or the faults of the much-maligned Millennial generation. Rather, difficulty with friendships has been around since the first two friends. Sin messes up everything, especially how we interact with each other. Thankfully, Jesus is in the redeeming business. His grace is able to change anything, including friendship. The 3 Levels of Friendship Since trouble with friends isn’t anything new, people have been thinking about friendship for a long time. For example, the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote a classic essay about friendship. Although his work is over 2,000 years old, it’s so insightful that it’s still read by many people today. Aristotle observed that some people are “friends” only because they both get something out of the relationship. It’s essentially a way for people to use each other. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. Tragically, many friendships fall into this category. Maybe your drinking buddy only hangs out with you because they don’t like to go to the bar alone. And maybe you only hang out with them because you don’t like to stay at home on the weekend. Examples like this abound. Aristotle rightly called this level of friendship “shallow,” since it’s not really based on anything except getting your desires met. As soon as one person in the relationship isn’t happy or isn’t getting what they want, the “friendship” is over. In the second level of friendship, friends don’t use each other—they actually like each other. Perhaps you and your friends share similar interests or passions or life circumstances. You are compatible in areas you both care about, and so you get along easily. This level of friendship clearly isn’t as shallow as the first, but it’s still fragile. Passions change. Interests change. People change. So a friendship based only on similarities and shared interests aren’t likely to weather many storms or stand the test of time. The deepest level of friendship is found in friends who are committed to “the good.” Aristotle was a philosopher, so when we talked about “the good,” he was not referring to personal opinions about what is good but to what is actually good and beautiful and true. Friends who are committed to goodness appreciate genuine virtues in each other, but, perhaps even more importantly, friends like this are also committed to helping one another change for  good. Real friends tell us the truth even when it’s difficult but always out of love for us and with a desire to see us grow. Deep friendships like this are wonderful, but thanks to sin, they are difficult to find and even harder to maintain. The Transforming Friendship of Jesus The trouble with Aristotle’s assessment is this: It’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Although he accurately identified three levels of friendship we all experience, Aristotle can’t help us get from where we are now to where we’d like to be with our friends. The truth is that none of us are the third kind of friend to everyone, even though we’d like to be. (Many people aren’t even the third kind of friend toward anyone!) Aristotle can help us figure out where we fall, but he can’t get us out of the ditch. And here is where Jesus speaks a (much) better word. For Jesus not only defines true friendship, he also becomes the friend we’ve never had but always wanted. For this is precisely what Jesus meant when he said, “No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus has already done that for you. He is the ultimate friend who cares for you, not with some shallow or fragile friendship, but with a deep and eternally lasting love. Indeed, Jesus is more committed to our good than we are. We split our time between messing up things for ourselves and messing up things for others, but Jesus comes alongside beside us to forgive and to heal, to lift up the downtrodden and to fill us with his love. Not only this, but Jesus gives us his Spirit so that we can begin to become the kind of friend to others that he has been to us. That is why Jesus says, “I give you a new command: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). Yet take care not to turn the scalpel of God’s truth into a sword for bludgeoning your friends. Jesus tells us to love others as he has loved us. He does not say, “Make sure that others love you just as I have loved you—and cast them off if they haven’t.” In the end, the deep and abiding friendship of Jesus enables us to be friendly to others without any prideful self-focus and self-absorption that constantly measures their actions against our own. With apologies to Aristotle, only the transforming love of Jesus can make us that kind of friend.