Category: MISSION


  • BABY ON BOARD

    By Doug Ponder on June 20, 2017

    The World Doesn’t Revolve Around You[r Children] “The world doesn’t revolve around you.” “You’re not the center of the universe.” I was reminded of those truths quite often when I was growing up, and probably every instance was deserved. Like the rest of mankind, I was born naturally self-centered. Thanks to sin, from our as a baby we are accustomed to thinking and behaving as if we are the most important person on the planet. But we’re not, and most adults figure this out sooner or later. Unfortunately, something sad often happens when adults who know they aren’t the center of the universe start having children. Suddenly, even when mom and dad didn’t intend for it to happen, their world starts to revolve around their children. But God tells us that life isn’t meant to revolve around our children, because they are not the center of the universe. They are not to be the center of our universe either. Heck, they’re not really the center of their universe (though the little ones don’t realize this yet). Many well-meaning families get this terribly wrong, and the consequences are much more dire than you might think. What Life Revolves Around Everything revolves around something. The moon revolves around the Earth. The Earth revolves around the Sun. The Sun revolves around the barycenter of the Milky Way galaxy. And the Milky Way, along with the other 54 galaxies in its group, revolves around a gravitational anomaly called The Great Attractor. In similar way, when it comes to your life it’s not a question of whether you will have a center; it’s only a question of which center you will have: Will it be Jesus, the one and only center who can sustain the weight of life and keep our loves rightly ordered? Or will it be something else? For many moms and dads, it’s easy for our children to become what our lives revolve around. We know they are not the center of the universe, but that’s how we often treat them. We structure our lives around them. We let our child set the schedule, and we fit in other things around them. Here’s an example of what this could look like, adapted from the wonderful little book, Gospel Centered Family: Becoming the Parents God Wants You to Be. When the Child Becomes the Center “Hey, Mary! I haven’t seen you in ages. How have you been?” “I’m pretty good, I guess. Life is busy with the baby and all.” “Same here. My kids tire me out! I’m glad I ran into you, though. The church is doing a big service project at the park this weekend. Will you guys be there?” “Uh, maybe. What we will be doing again?” “We’ll be cleaning up the park, picking up trash, pulling weeds, and hanging out with folks from the neighborhood. The whole church is gonna be there!” “When is it?” “Saturday morning from 9 until noonish.” “Oh, I can’t make it then. That’s when I take my little one to Story Hour at the library. We never miss a week!” “Maybe you could bring your little one with you to the service project instead? Just this once. I mean, there will be games for kids, and besides, lots of families with young children will be there too.” “Ah, well, Story Hour is kinda ‘our thing.’ And you know, family time is very important. Family first and all that.” “But the service project is family time, right? I mean, you’d be there with your family and…” “Maybe next time.” Baby on Board The irony is that putting your child first is not what’s actually best for them. Jesus comes first! He is the center of life, whether your child realizes this yet or not. Jesus sets the agenda. He structures our lives. Everything else, kids included, fall into place when they are oriented around him. To do anything other than this is to treat our children like something they are not. And if we do this, we set them (and ourselves) up for considerable frustration, fatigue, and heartache. I remember talking with one of the pastors in our church about adjusting to life with their fourth child. Like two of their other three kids, Number Four was a terrible sleeper. He woke up every night, a couple of times a night, until he was close to two years old. I asked him how this affected things like their involvement with the community group, or having friends and neighbors over into their home, etc. His response has stuck with me for years. He said, “We’re moving forward. The kid needs to get on board.” He said this as a matter of fact, with the same tone of voice that we talk about the weather. As a father of two young kids, I don’t for a second think it was easy for this man and his wife. But he was committed to leading his family to honor Christ. So it wasn’t a question of “if” his family will continue to gather with the church, serve other people, have folks into their home, etc. It was only a question of figuring out how to keep his family on mission. I think this is a glorious example for everyone (1 Pet. 5:3), especially our children. I want my kids to grow up seeing mom and dad actively worship with God’s people every Sunday. I want my children to see my wife and I serve others in the name of Jesus and opening our home to the community group every week. I want them to see us sharing the gospel with our neighbors, and sacrificing our time and money for things of eternal significance. I want them to join in all of this as they grow older. Above all, I want my children to know that they are not the center of my universe—Jesus is!—and we are all better for that.
  • WHAT MAKES A WOMAN?

    By Doug Ponder on June 27, 2017

    Jenner vs. Feminism vs. Jesus From time to time God gives us an occasion for seeing our hardhearted blindness. By almost every measure, the Bruce Jenner saga is just such an occasion. In the first place, we have witnessed our society support someone who is very sick instead of actually helping him. In the name of “love” we lied to a man and told him that he could do something impossible. And then we gave him an award for bravery, when we should have given him counseling. Counseling is what you would give if a man said he was a sparrow born in a human body. We all know that’s impossible, because biology and identity are connected. That man could not be a human in his body and a sparrow in his mind anymore than someone could be male “between their legs” but female “between their ears.” In the same way, Bruce Jenner was born with an X and a Y chromosome, and so he cannot possibly be a woman, nor could he ever become one. No amount of pills and surgeries can change your DNA. At the same time, however, Bruce did something that made feminists quite cross (which isn’t very hard to do). In trying to become a woman he began wearing dresses; he painted his fingernails; he started talking more about his emotions and his “sensitive side”; he wore make-up and a wig with long hair. Instead of ‘smashing the patriarchy,’ Bruce did things that seem to reinforce it, feminists say. He is not unique, however. Almost every person who suffers from gender identity disorder (the psychological name for what is commonly called “transgenderism”) demonstrates a strong urge to dress and act like the other sex. Actually, this urge is how many profess to first “discover” that they are born in the “wrong body.” But if, as feminism insists, differences between male and female or masculine and feminine are merely cultural constructs, then there is no standard of dress or behavior for transpeople to conform to. Indeed, if the feminists are correct in their assertions about womanhood, this means that Bruce Jenner could have declared himself a woman without changing anything. He could “walk like a man, talk like a man,” as Frankie Valli sang, but simply declare himself a woman by fiat. But if Bruce did that, you might be thinking, he wouldn’t “look like” a woman. Your sexism is showing, say the feminists, who think it's misogynistic and restrictive to talk of women looking a certain way. Yet Bruce and other trans people seem to have gotten the memo. For all his faults, Bruce does recognize that there are differences between men and women, and these differences run so deeply that they find ways of expressing themselves in every culture. This is why the Jenner vs. feminism debate is such an important one. It’s one of those rare moments that shows us just how blind and confused we have become. For the two sides are dealing with the same question—What makes a woman?—but neither has a consistent answer. Thankfully, there’s a third contestant in this debate. He has a word of truth for us, and it’s the kind that sets us free (John 8:32). The Mess We Made The problem before us is one of not knowing what it means to be a woman, and it seems we are growing more lost and confused on this topic with every passing year. All-girl colleges are now allowing males who “self-identify” as female into their ranks. Others are fighting to have words like vagina removed from our vocabulary, since they are “exclusionary” and offensive to all those women born in a man’s body. (Their preferred term, if you can believe it, is “front hole,” a term so ridiculous that it singlehandedly proves how dense we have become.) Even the word “woman” itself has come under attack by other women. As a prominent abortion rights activist recently said, “Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue; it’s a uterus owner’s issue.” She, and the thousands that joined her hashtag crusade on Twitter, were speaking up for “men” born in bodies with a uterus—you can’t call it a woman’s body, remember, since the body belongs to someone who self-identifies as male. Confused? Join the club. For a quick explanation of how we arrived at this place, consider the words of Elinor Burkett, a self-professed feminist and women’s rights activist who “winced” at Bruce Jenner’s official coming out party. She writes, “I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, [but] they cannot stake their claim to dignity as a transgender person by trampling on mine as a woman. Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity.” Do you see what has happened? In their desire to “loosen gender constraints” and end “gender stereotyping,” feminists insisted that to be a woman didn’t have to mean anything specifically. Women are “just” women, they say. A woman can do anything she wants and be anything she wants. To which every reasonable person responds: Really? Anything? Could a woman become a man? Could a man become a woman? Why not? When you have “your truth” and I have “my truth,” then why can’t I claim to be a female sparrow trapped in a human male's body? Who are you to say otherwise? Now we see the quandary that we have made for ourselves. When the word “female” can mean anything to anyone, then it really means nothing to everyone. In their quest to liberate womanhood from gender stereotyping, feminists unwittingly paved the way for gender nihilism—a state of affairs in which the word is merely a label with no substance. Now anyone can be a “woman”; all they have to do is claim the title. It’s worth nothing that in her article, “What makes a woman?”, feminist Elinor Burkett does not provide an answer to her own question. She merely tells us what doesn’t make a woman (fingernail polish), without offering any positive way forward. I’m not sure whether she realizes that she has done this, but in any case I doubt that she could offer a constructive definition of womanhood. After removing all those "gender stereotypes," it turns out there’s nothing left in the bottom of the bowl. Not even double-X chromosomes. Jesus' Answer to Our Problem In the 1990 film Kindergarten Cop, one scene involves a young boy “educating” his teacher about the differences between the sexes. He states triumphantly, “Boys have a penis, and girls have a vagina.” We laugh at the joke and move on. But the reason why we are able to laugh and move on quickly is because this truth is so obvious that it needs no explaining. Boys and girls are different, and the Scriptures tell us that these differences are more than “skin deep.” Indeed, the differences between men and women run right to the center of who we are, down to the depths of our souls. This is because when God creates men and women, he creates whole persons with bodies and souls and callings to fulfill in the world. Because God is not schizophrenic, these three line up; they point in the same direction. For example, we observe in nature that only women are able to bear children. This is neither accidental nor arbitrary. The Scriptures tell us that women were created as nurturing, supportive helpers (Gen. 2:18). They have a receptive/reciprocal/responsive calling that matches the "shape" of their souls, and so we should not be surprised to find that their biology "matches." (Thus a woman has the sexual anatomy for receiving her husband and nurturing new life inside her, while a man’s sexual anatomy is designed to initiate and provide the seed that leads to life.) In view of all this, we see that the short answer to “What makes a woman?” is God. God makes a woman, and he does so with purpose and intentionality. As one half of his image-bearers, women are created by God with the same care that an architect would use to design his dream home—because that’s what we are (Eph. 2:22). And when God makes a woman, he makes her a woman physically, spiritually, and vocationally, which is to say that she is unique in her body, soul, and calling. While men are designed by God to provide and protect (Gen. 2:15), women are designed by God to respond through receiving and reciprocating in a joyful partnership of two irreversible roles (Eph. 5:22-24; Titus 2:4-5). When we lose sight of the wonderful differences of God’s design, the only option left for womanhood is the do-it-yourself variety of feminists and Bruce Jenner. Far from liberating women, the DIY womanhood project has produced what sociologists call “the paradox of declining female happiness.” That is, women are self-reportedly less happy today than they were a few decades ago. Is it any wonder? They have been stripped of their God-given identity. Women have been told “they can be anything they want to be,” but they no longer know who they are. But Jesus knows who we are, because he made us and he purchased us back from our reality-twisting ways. So we are doubly his, and he really did come to set us free—not from gender stereotyping (much of which is, ironically, rooted in creational design), but from our quests to liberate ourselves. Women (and men) flourish, therefore, when they look to God's design and embrace it with the arms of faith. 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.
  • REPENT AND BELIEVE

    By Doug Ponder on July 11, 2017

    The First Words of Jesus When I’m on vacation in a new place one of my favorite hobbies is to find a brick-and-mortar bookstore where I can read the opening lines to classic works of literature. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” – Charles Dickens, David Copperfield “All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegurt, Slaughterhouse-Five “It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451 “You better not never tell nobody but God. – Alice Walker, The Color Purple The opening words of the Bible, too, are a classic in their own right: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Perhaps we are hard-wired to pay attention to the first words of a book or a movie or a person we meet. Or perhaps I simply have an odd hobby. In any case, the opening line of Jesus’ public ministry is far deeper than it may seem: “The time is fulfilled,” he said. “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). Those are the first words of the Word of God, and so it’s worth asking why Jesus chose to begin his public ministry in this way. He could have began any way he wanted, I suppose, but Jesus burst on the scene with an opening declaration that was one part message and one part command. “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand.” That’s the message part. It’s an announcement of good news. The time is fulfilled. No more waiting. God’s promises are coming true. The kingdom of God is at hand. Which means, of course, that the King himself has come, and he will certainly rescue his people. But what should we do about all this? Jesus tells us plainly: “Repent and believe the good news.” These are not carelessly chosen throwaway words. Jesus is letting know, right from the start, what our entire life’s response to the gospel should always be. In other words, Jesus is not giving us some one-time instructions for how to board the Salvation Express. On the contrary, we never move past the need to repent and believe. Repentance and faith are the two-beat rhythm of the Christian life. What It Means to "Repent" Few words are as badly misunderstood today as repentance. Repentance basically means “to turn,” as in turning away from something or turning back to travel in the opposite direction. If repentance were a cake, there would be three ingredients—remove any of these ingredients and don’t have repentance. The first “ingredient” of repentance is confession, which means we come to the place where we acknowledge and agree with God that some thought, action, attitude, or word is sinful and worthy be punishment—and that it is our fault. Confession is not excuse-making but blame-taking. We agree with God that our sin was our fault. But repentance is more than simply acknowledging our guilt; it’s also feeling sorry for our sin too. The old school word for this kind of sorrow is contrition. Contrition isn’t the same thing as being sorry that we were caught in the act; contrition is true sorrow that our sin is rebellion against God and the reason for the death of Jesus. Here is where too many stop, well before the cake of repentance is fully baked. It is good to confess sin and to feel sorry for it, but those alone are not repentance. We have only repented when our confession of guilt and contrition for sin lead us to make a commitment to change our actions. For the man who says, “I’m sorry” but takes no action to change shows that he isn’t truly sorry after all. Remember: confession of guilt + contrition for sin + commitment to change = repentance. What It Means to "Believe" The second half of Jesus’ call to “Repent and believe” refers to faith. Repentance and faith are like the Bert and Ernie of the Bible—you never see one without the other. That’s because of how repentance works. It means to “turn away” from something, which means you must be turning toward something else. Faith is what determines the thing (or person) that you turn toward, since faith at its core means trust. (The Greek words for the noun “faith” and the verb “believe” share the same root, even though you can’t see this in the English translations.) Thus, when the Bible talks about “believing” in something, it’s talking about trust, not just mental acceptance. I accept it as fact that George Washington was the first president of our country, but I don’t “have faith in” George Washington. I don’t “trust in him.” Yet that’s precisely what Jesus is asking us to do when he says, “Repent and believe the good news.” He is asking us to turn away from whatever we were previously trusting in—whether it was faith in our own ability to discern right from wrong, or faith in our ability to make ourselves good through righteous deeds. Instead, Jesus calls us to repent of that and to trust in (believe) the good news about him instead. Specifically, we’re trusting in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to make us good with God. One of the metaphors for trusting in Jesus that is used in the Bible is the language of “putting on Christ” like a great robe of pure white righteousness. In order to do that, however, we have to take off the suits of fig leaves and rags of self-righteousness that we sewed for ourselves (which cannot truly cover our guilt and shame anyway). “Putting on Christ” is impossible without taking off all that, which is why repentance and faith always go together. It’s why Jesus says, “Repent and believe.” Commands for You for Life Finally, it’s essential that we realize Jesus’ call to “repent and believe” the gospel is not, as we said earlier, some one-time instruction for how board the plane heading for heaven. We must see that since we never stop sinning, and since we never stop feeling the urge to find false saviors in our own self-righteousness, the commands to “repent and believe the good news” are given for you for your whole life. Like a two-beat drum—one, two; one, two—the response to every sin is repentance and faith. When we fall we must confess our guilt. We must feel the weight of sin in contrition, not treating lightly anything that cost Jesus his life. And we must make a sincere commitment to change—with actions to back it up. And this repentance is possible because we are simultaneously (re)turning to Jesus in faith. A proverb that has come up many times recently in certain counseling situations says, “Though a righteous man falls seven times, he will rise again, but the wicked stumble into calamity” (Prov. 24:16). The reason the righteous are able to rise is faith. They trust that the Savior is there to help them up and they know that Jesus is not standing by waiting to criticize us for falling—even the ten thousandth time. He does not keep score in order to “make us pay” (for he’s already taken care of that). Rather, Jesus is there when we fall to help us repent and believe the good news that yes, we really are forgiven; and yes, he really does love us; and yes, he really does command what is best for us; and yes, he really will help us to obey him. So Jesus says to you now and always: “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news!” 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.
  • THE GOSPEL CHANGES EVERYTHING

    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.
  • A FISH OUT OF WATER ISN'T FREE

    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.
  • I'M VISITING YOUR CHURCH THIS SUNDAY

    By Jason Elliott on Sept. 13, 2017

    The Not So Fictional Visitor Meet John.  John is not a Christian. Actually, John is extremely skeptical to anything dealing with religion. John has only had three experiences with the church. His first experience was a middle school lock-in—an event where a bunch of junior-high kids play games, sing songs, and sleep on the floor in the same room with dozens of total strangers. (John thought it was awkward, too.) The only reason John even agreed to go was the free pizza and iPod giveaway. Despite his experience at the lock-in, John agreed to visit his friend’s church a second time for a Wednesday night service targeted especially at teenagers. After hearing a message from the speaker, John had several questions about what he said. Unfortunately, the youth group leader dismissed them as being insignificant or irrelevant. (The real problem was that he didn’t know the answers and wasn’t humble enough to say so.) John’s last experience with a church was during his college years. A girl he was interested in had invited him to visit her church on Sunday morning. John went, but mostly because he wanted her to like him. It was an election year, so the pastor’s sermon was especially pointed. As far as John could tell, it seemed like everyone there believed that Jesus was a Republican politician. Just imagine the negative impact these experiences had on John’s view of the church. As far John is concerned, all churches and all Christians are the same: mostly white, middle-class Americans who play games when they’re young and talk about Republican politics when they grow older. John is fictional, but stories similar to his aren’t. People like John visit our churches every week.  So, how should we respond when John arrives on Sunday? It may be helpful to start with a few things that we shouldn’t do: What Not to Do When Greeting John 1 - Don’t overwhelm John with insider talk:  As someone who hasn’t grown up around church, John doesn’t understand what it means to “walk with the Lord.”  He also has no clue what you mean by “justification,” “sanctification,” and “glorification.” He doesn’t understand what you mean by “picking up your cross” or “dying to self.” If all your conversation is filled with religious jargon, John will probably not understand what you are saying. Worse still, you’ve just communicated to John that you don’t care enough about him to speak in a way that includes him. You were talking at John, not with John. 2 – Don’t feel the need to point out that John is a first time guest:  For the most part, people don’t like to be embarrassed.  So don’t ask John to stand up or raise his hand so that people can see that he’s visiting for the first time.  Also, if you meet John in the building’s lobby or foyer, don’t  introduce him to everyone you know. How would you like to meet 30 people in 90 seconds? That’s completely overwhelming. It’s fine to help John meet a couple of people, but don’t set up a receiving line. 3 – Don’t give John the new person stare:  While it may be natural to notice new visitors on Sunday mornings, gawking at them definitely doesn’t create a welcoming environment.  Instead of staring, make sure you introduce yourself in a natural manner. You know, like you’d do everywhere else. 4 – Don’t be shocked if John uses strong language: John may “swear” or “curse,” or even drop the F-bomb in normal conversation. That shocked look on your face suggests that you are smug and self-righteous. If you seem more interested in correcting John’s language rather than listening to him, he will completely miss the point of the gospel—which isn’t about “cleaning people up” so they can meet Jesus. Rather, it’s about introducing people to the Jesus who heals, restores, cleanses, and renews. Oh, and you can forget about John coming back to your church. Who’d want to be part of a self-righteous group of people? 5 – Don’t pressure John to immediately make a decision: Everyone dislikes the pushy car salesman. It’s obvious that he is more interested in what you can do for him than what he can do for you. Don’t be like that. Instead of pushing John to make a decision about following Jesus or about joining your church, be patient, understanding, charitable, and kind—just as God is with you. So what should we do when people like John visit our churches? How to Welcome John like Jesus Would 1 – Be genuinely interest in John: If there is one thing people can tell, it’s if you really care about what they are saying.  Make eye contact.  Resist the urge to think about what you want to say next and pay careful attention what John is saying.  Don’t worry if your best friend just arrived.  Remember, you have six other days in the week to spend time with people you already know.  Utilize Sunday mornings to get to know new people like John. 2 – Be ready to answer some of John’s questions:  Remember, people like John have very limited experience with church.  Some of them may have been burned in the past because no one took their doubts and questions seriously.  If you meet John after the service, be willing to stick around for a while and dialogue if he has a question.  Most importantly, be honest.  If you don’t know an answer, tell John that you don’t know but that you will work to find an answer to his question. This also gives you an opportunity to meet with John again as you continue to get to know him. 3 – Use people skills and make John feel welcomed:  This may seem elementary, but we sometimes need a reminder to simply be friendly to new people.  Smiling, saying hello, and helping John find his way around the facilities will go a long way.  If we are honest, we can admit that we are prone to stay in our comfort zones when it comes to meeting new people.  When people like John come on Sunday and no one says hello to him, he will walk away and accuse the church of being smug and cliquish. (Which, after all, it may be.) But we ought not be that way. We need to continually develop deep, meaningful relationships—not only with those we already know, but also with those whom God brings into our churches for the first time. Try to designate the time before and after the Sunday morning gathering to meet new people.  Make it a goal to meet three new people every Sunday.  Smile, say hello, introduce yourself, and ask John if he’d like a cup of coffee. While the suggestions listed above may appear to be overly simple and even obvious, they will go a long way in making John feel welcomed when he visits your church on Sunday. Remember, people like John walk through the door every Sunday morning.  Don’t create a stumbling block for the gospel by neglecting to welcome John. You never know, John may become a close friend and God could use you in an instrumental way to see John trust Jesus as Savior and King. But even if that doesn't happen, John is someone whom God has brought across your path to serve as Jesus would. Jason Elliott is the Pastor for Community Groups at Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he oversees the spiritual growth of their small groups (Community Groups) and the training and development of group leaders. Other than being a Duke sports fan, Jason is a really swell guy. Follow him on Twitter @jasonkelliott.
  • COMMUNICATING FOR A CHANGE

    By Doug Ponder on Sept. 20, 2017

    Cross-Cultural Confusion Suppose a man takes a boat to travel halfway across the world in an effort to tell some people the good news about Jesus. He has studied the area where they live. He knows a great deal about their lifestyle and customs. And he knows that they've never heard the gospel. What he doesn’t know, however, is how to speak their language. After several days of preaching (in English) to villagers with puzzled looks on their faces, the man packs up his things to return home. He’s a little discouraged by the complete lack of “decisions for Christ,” but he tries to cheer himself with the thought that he has faithfully preached the good news about Jesus to them. But has he really done so? Kinda. Sorta. Not really. The man tried to preach about Jesus, but since he couldn’t speak the people’s language—and since they didn’t understand English—the man didn’t really communicate anything about Jesus to the people. They are just as ignorant of Christ as they were before the man came. The moral of that story is not, “Learn to speak the native tongue when serving as a missionary.” That much should be obvious. Rather, the point is that we all see the significance of an audience’s ability to understand what we are saying. This is true even when both you and your hearers speak the same language. If you talk about the truth in a way that your hearers can’t understand, then you aren't really communicating the truth to them. Know Your Hearers Well One of the leading theologians of the last century put it like this, “Preaching is not exposition only, but communication, not just the exegesis of a text but the conveying of a God-given message to a living people who need to hear it” (John Stott, Between Two Worlds, 137). Now, he was talking about the kind of preaching that occurs in a local church gathering, but his main point is true for all of us who want to talk with others about Jesus. We must know our hearers well. We must anticipate their most likely misunderstandings, talking in such a way that the gospel stands out clearly against the backdrop of the various errors of the culture in which we find ourselves. For example, I remember hearing a story in seminary about a missionary in rural India. After befriending one of the men in the village, the missionary gave him The Jesus Film, a movie based on the teachings of the Gospel narratives. After a few days, the missionary bumped into the man in the marketplace. When he asked him what he thought of the film, the villager responded, “It was very good. I have placed the video of Jesus alongside my other gods.” For a Hindu who believes in thousands and thousands of gods, Jesus was just one god among many. His incarnation was just another of the many incarnations of the god Vishnu. His death and resurrection were just another in a series of divine acts intended to bring salvation to faithful Hindus. The missionary did not communicate the gospel to that Hindu man, because he failed to consider how his message would be heard. Jesus and His Hearers Jesus himself understood this better than anyone. His own teachings are full of symbols and messages that spoke directly to the people of his day. Jesus knew exactly how his hearers would understand him, so he crafted his messages to fit the audience. The most-well known example of this is perhaps the story of the prodigal son. Although we usually focus on the return of the rebellious son who ran away, Jesus concludes by focusing on the older son whose hardheartedness causes him to miss out on the party. Here’s the set up for Jesus’ parable: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable…” (Luke 15:1-3). Do you see what Jesus was doing? He tells a specific parable targeted right at his religious, hardhearted hearers who were mad that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. Just imagine the looks on their faces when Jesus concluded the story by having the father welcome the rebellious son and throw him a feast, while the religious older brother is left outside of what the father is doing! Jesus knew if he had only told the story about the prodigal son who ran away, his religious hearers would think, “Well, we haven’t rebelled like that. We’re better than him. Surely, God accepts us and will give us a reward.” But they were wrong. Their rebellion was of a different kind. They refused to see themselves as sinful and in need of the Father’s mercy, just as much as the openly rebellious son who ran away. In all their law-making and rule-keeping, they never supposed that they needed the grace of God. Communication: Anticipation and Clarification What this means for us is that when we tell others the good news about Jesus—the good news about the God who came into the world to conquer sin through death and conquer death through life for all who trust in him—we must try our best to anticipate how the message might sound to our hearers. Our goal is not merely to speak the truth, but to communicate the truth such that it is rightly heard and truly understood. That doesn’t mean that everyone will like what we have to say. But we ought to make sure that it's the real Jesus, and not a caricature of him, that others are rejecting. In our conversations with others about Jesus we must be sure that we are clear about the meaning of very basic words. Don’t take anything for granted. Take the time to define words like “sin,” “faith,” “grace,” “love,” “salvation/saved,” and even “God.” A majority of people—even many who consider themselves Christians—don’t have a biblical understanding of these terms. So don't just spout off Bible verses, for they won’t make much sense to someone who doesn’t understand what those terms mean. (Just imagine trying to read Ephesians 2:4-9 without any of the words we’ve mentioned above.) You might find it helpful to ask questions like the ones below: “When I say the word ‘God’ what comes to mind? Who do you think God is? What is God like? Can God be known? Do you think that Jesus was/is God? How do you know any of these things?” "When I say the word ‘sin’ what comes to mind? What do you think sin is? Might sin be more than just breaking rules? Do you think a loving God can let sin continue making a mess of his creation forever? Do you think it’s just for a judge to let a convicted criminal off the hook without some kind of judgment?” “When I say the word ‘salvation’ what comes to mind? What do you think salvation is? What if I told you that salvation involves more than just forgiveness and heaven? How do you think people are saved? Do you think that you are saved? How do you know for sure?” “When I say the word ‘grace’ what comes to mind? What do you think grace is? Can we earn grace? If yes, how? If not, what decides where saving grace is applied and where it isn’t? Do you believe that you have received God’s grace? How can you know for sure?” “When I say the word ‘faith’ what comes to mind? What do you think faith is? The Bible makes a clear distinction between ‘dead faith’ and ‘saving faith’—what’s the difference? The Bible says that even the demons believe that Jesus is God’s Son and the savior of the world—what makes your faith different than theirs?” “When I say the word ‘love’ as in, ‘Jesus loves you,’ what comes to mind? What do you think that kind of love means? Do you think it’s possible for God to love and punish someone at the same time? (If it’s possible for parents, why not God?) Do you think that God loves you? If no, why not? If yes, why? How can you know for sure?” Gospel Communication Never forget that the power to change belief lies not in your persuasion, but in the gospel itself (Rom. 1:16). As the Scriptures say, “faith comes through hearing the message about Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Of course, the Scriptures also say that the message has to be understood (Neh. 8:8). That means your job is to make the gospel understandable. Leave the rest up to the Spirit. He’s really good at what he does. 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.
  • EVANGELIZE YOUR CHILDREN

    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.
  • THE LONG VIEW OF THINGS

    By Doug Ponder on Nov. 29, 2017

    The Charcoal Grill vs. The Microwave Slow and steady wins the race. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Patience is a virtue. Yet we don’t believe any of that, not in our world of microwaves, smart phones, Netflix, and free two-day shipping with Amazon Prime. Almost everything we want is “instant” “and “on demand.” Almost everything. It’s not so with God. We are plagued with the double-disease of pride and hastiness. We want what we want, and we want it now. We want to be freed from our sins now. We want others to trust Jesus now. We want Jesus to return now. But when these wishes aren’t granted, when these prayers seem to go unanswered, we wonder, “What gives? Why is God so slow?” He’s not, actually. We’re impatient and ungrateful. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). OK, but if God wants us to come to repentance why can’t it happen a little sooner? Our problem is that we so often misunderstand what is wrong, underestimate our own sin, and are confused about how God works to accomplish his plans. We need to recover the long view of things. We need a patient faith that entrusts our lives to God as we keep obeying him and doing what’s right. The Long View of Salvation The Bible speaks of salvation as a three-fold solution to our problem: salvation is past, present, and future. In Christ, God has freed us from the penalty of sin (past), and he will one day free us from the presence of sin (future). Presently God is at work to free us from the power of sin. That means in addition to being forgiven of sin, we also need to be set free from our slavery to sinful, selfish desires. 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). A brilliant theologian in the early church named Augustine said this about how we are freed from sin: “Without God, man cannot. Without man, God will not.” What he meant was that God does not save us only by doing something to us, but also by doing something in us and through us. In other words, God saves us from our present slavery to sin and selfishness by working in us to change our desires, thoughts, habits, and actions. The work of ‘freeing us from ourselves’ takes time. After all, we have been cultivating these selfish desires for our entire lives. Why should we expect them to go away in an instant? The Scriptures call this process “putting to death” our sinful practices (Col. 3:5). We do this in the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8:13) as we “put off the old self with its practices, and put on the new self which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:9-10). This is what Jesus meant he called us to ‘die to ourselves daily’ (Mark 8:34-35). All this is accomplished by working out through practice what God works into our hearts through grace (Phil. 2:12-13). Sometimes people object, saying, “God can do anything. He could free me from this sin right now if he wanted to. So why doesn’t he?” There are two reasons. First, Thomas Aquinas, a medieval Christian scholar, wondered if God may not free us from a habitual sin immediately because he knows that we would afterward fall into an even greater sin: total neglect of God. We all know what this is like from experience. When things are going well, it is easy for us to forget God and fall into an even deeper kind of selfishness than they otherwise would. But that kind of selfishness is what God is freeing us from! So, Aquinas reasoned, God may not make our problems disappear immediately in order to teach us lifelong dependence upon him. That’s far from harsh, by the way, since lifelong trust in God will actually lead to even greater freedom from slavery to our selfishness. The second reason God doesn’t immediately “zap” our sins away is, as we said earlier, God works with us not without us. It’s kind of like the difference between getting a car out of a ditch and teaching the driver not to end up in the ditch in the first place. We tend to think that God simply wants to get us out of the “ditches of life,” when in reality God intends to teach us how to drive. Getting us out of a ditch takes only a moment. But teaching bad drivers to drive well takes a considerably long period of time. A lifetime, in fact. When it comes to doing the right thing for the right reasons, we are terrible “drivers.” We need the grace of God from start to finish, not only to forgive us, but also to teach us to live rightly. As Paul says, “Grace teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12). Ah, but some of you are still wondering, “Why doesn’t grace teach us a little faster?” For one thing, you underestimate the depth of your sin. Not to mention, our lack of growth in grace isn’t God’s fault. No one is able to say to God, “I’m immature because of you.” On the contrary, any lack of growth or change in our lives is a consequence of our continued sinfulness and hardheartedness. We resist the Spirit (Acts 7:51), “quenching” his work in our lives (1 Thess. 5:19), even “grieving” him in the process (Eph. 4:30). Instead of doubt and impatience, we need to have the long view of salvation, one that begins with humble gratitude for God’s willingness to bear with persistent sinners like us. God is richly kind, forbearing, and patient with us so that we might walk in repentance (Rom. 2:4). As Peter says, “Count the patience of our Lord as salvation…” (2 Pet. 3:15). The Long View of God’s Mission God has been working through his people for thousands of years before you and I came on the scene, and he will continue doing so for years to come. Maybe thousands of years. Maybe tens of thousands. Too many Christians, especially in America, run around like headless chickens in our efforts to fulfill the mission God gave us, the mission to make disciples of all nations, by baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:18-20). God has the long view of his mission. He waited thousands and thousands of years from the first sin of humanity until the birth of Jesus. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son. . .” (Gal. 4:4). That is why the apostle Peter writes, “Don’t overlook this fact, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Pet. 3:18). Those who don’t have the long view of God’s mission often fall into a kind of hastiness that leads to carelessness and shortsightedness. Consider the difference between a man who builds hastily and one who builds with the long view of things. Most modern homes are built hastily. They use cheap wood from trees that grow quickly. They speed up the building process by cutting corners wherever they can. As a result, many of the homes built in the last twenty years will be in need of very serious renovations after just a few decades—if they are still standing. Contrast that with the way homes used to be built. My neighbor across the street lives in a home that was built with slow-growing hardwood trees. Though built in the late 1800s, his home still has most of the original wood siding. Similarly, I once stayed in a hotel in Europe that was over 400 years old. The walls and floor joists were original. They were built with the long view of things. You see, the man who builds his house hastily isn’t concerned about whether or not it will be standing in fifty years. “I just need a home that will last me until I die,” he says. But the man who builds his house with the long view of things will bless many generations after he is gone. The same is true of the mission of God. We must be people who have the long view of things. God has been working for thousands of years before us, and we benefit from the faithful legacy of the men and women God used to build his church. Our calling is the same as theirs: “say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:12-13). Still some will say, “Shouldn’t we have a sense of urgency about the mission? Don’t lives hang in the balance?” Of course we should! But urgency isn’t the same as hastiness. Hastiness says, “Live as if today were your last!” Urgency says, “Live as if today matters, because tomorrow you will reap what you have sown.” Oh, and so will you children and your grandchildren. The church has continued into the present not mainly because of a bunch of zealous evangelists, but more because of the faithfulness of everyday Christians who love God and love their neighbor with the long view of things. Jesus Had the Long View of Things In Jesus’ first recorded sermon, he quotes the following psalm of David, which tells the people of God to trust and obey as they wait for him to fulfill his purposes. Jesus says that all sorts of people who don't look blessed now—mourners, the meek, peacekeepers, the persecuted—will be blessed in God's future. Jesus could say this because he had the long view of things. His kingdom has come into the world, and it will have no end. All those who accept Jesus' view of reality will trust in the Lord and do good with steadfast patience and hope. Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; For like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away. Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; Do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil. For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the earth. A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the earth and enjoy peace and prosperity. Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever. For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed; the offspring of the wicked will perish. The righteous will inherit the earth and dwell in it forever. Hope in the Lord and keep his way. He will exalt you to inherit the earth; when the wicked are destroyed, you will see it. I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a luxuriant native tree, But he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found. Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace. But all sinners will be destroyed; there will be no future for the wicked. The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them because they take refuge in him.  
  • MORE THAN HEAVEN AND FORGIVENESS

    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.
  • REMEMBERING THE GOSPEL

    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.
  • NO LONE RANGERS

    By Doug Ponder on March 7, 2018

    The Original Lone Ranger A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty 'Hi-yo, Silver' – it’s the Lone Ranger! So began the intro to the TV series about the fictional hero of the American Old West. The Lone Ranger was infamous for appearing and disappearing quickly, for firing silver bullets at his enemies (were they secretly werewolves?), and for, well, his name says it all: the Lone Ranger. At least, he was the Lone Ranger, until the producers gave him a trusty sidekick in the eleventh episode of the series. After that, he wasn’t so a-lone anymore. And yet, we mostly remember him as the Lone Ranger for more reasons than just his name. The image of a self-made maverick/hero seems to resonate deeply in the collective American imagination. After all, we’re mostly descended from the kind of people who had a “do-it-yourself” approach to life. (Just think of all those pilgrims, settlers, and pioneers.) But when it comes to living as one of God’s rescued people—in little communities we call “churches”—things are quite different from how we might imagine them. Christians in Community To put it bluntly, there’s really no such thing as a “lone ranger Christian.” Of course, there are many who may try to object to this: “But it’s just me and Jesus, and that’s all I need.” Yes, well, Jesus taught differently. His commands were almost always given in the plural (to groups of people), and their fulfillment was often something that happened in the context of relationships (which necessarily involve others to exist). On top of all this, Paul had some pretty clear things to say about the death of Jesus: “He gave himself for us to redeem us … and to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14). Notice he didn’t say that Jesus died to rescue individuals. He said that he came to redeem/create a group of people. And what kind of people were they? The kind who would “do good to everyone, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Over and again, people who have been rescued by God are said to be part of the “household of God,” members of the “body of Christ,” and stones in the “temple of the Lord” built on the cornerstone of Jesus himself (Eph. 2:19-21). But how could you be part of Jesus’ body  if you’re disconnected from the rest of his people? How can you be part of his temple if you’re just a stone lying in the rock quarry? Jesus’ goal was to rescue a people for himself, which is precisely why his true followers have always found ways of joining together to live as a family in local communities shaped by the gospel. That’s what the word translated as “church” actually means: assembly. It’s not an assembly when it’s just one person. Pastors in Community In a similar way, there’s not a shred of evidence for a “lone ranger pastor” found anywhere in the Scriptures. Why should there be? If God is concerned for the leadership of his people, why in the world would he call a man to shepherd a church by himself?  Such a scenario is both unwise and dangerous, and it is rightly avoided at all costs. (Heck, even the real Lone Ranger had a sidekick.) In contrast to the foolhardy attempt at being a solo-pastor, God’s wise design for his people places a “team” of elders/pastors at the heart of the church. That’s why Paul’s church planting strategy included organizing new disciples under the shared leadership of qualified elders (Acts 14:21-23; Titus 1:5-9). (In fact, close-knit cooperation was so essential to Paul’s own work that he relied on the help of men like Timothy and Sylvanus to co-author all but four of his epistles.) In the face of all this, pastors should think hard about how they can share the authority and responsibility that they have been given (Heb. 13:17). Such a course of action will always turn out better for themselves, for their families, and for the churches where they serve. Community as a Picture of Grace Christians must realize that God has called us to join together with other believers in local churches for a reason. In addition to this, pastors must realize that they are not exempt from God’s call to live in community with others, especially other pastors who can help them share the load of their work. In doing both of these, the church today will better communicate what Jesus’ death and resurrection are all about: rescuing a group of people who learn to pray for each other, serve each other, and forgive each other, all because of the grace they have been shown 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.
  • LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR

    By Doug Ponder on March 14, 2018

    Recipe vs. Job Description Jesus summarized the shape of the Christian life with two simple commands: ‘Love God with all your heart and all your brains and all your abilities,’ and ‘love your neighbor like your love yourself’ (Mark 12:30-31). These commands are not a recipe to follow in order to become a Christian. Instead, they are a job description to be carried out as a result of our prior trust in the saving work of Jesus. Job description, not recipe. Got it? Unfortunately, a lot of people don't get it. They either turn the job description into a recipe, saying that you if you want to become (or stay) a follower of Jesus, then you must "love God" and "love others." It seems innocent enough on the surface. What's wrong with telling people to love God and love other people? (It's the motto of just about every church these days, it must be right. Right?) The problem is that what we're really saying is that God won't love you back unless you love him and love other people. And that's the opposite of the good news. The gospel is not, "Love God and he will love you back." Rather, it's that God has first loved you, and calls you to recognize his love as seen in the cross of Jesus (1 John 4:9-10). On the other hand, some people throw out the command to love others altogether, saying, "I'm a Christian whether or not I love my neighbor, so why bother to obey God in this?" These people basically rewrite the job description of what it means to be a Christian, assuming that they can define their lives instead of allowing Jesus, their Lord, to define it for them. This is not a modern problem. Even as Jesus was teaching these things, a man asked him, "Who then is my neighbor?" He wasn't asking for clarification; he was trying to avoid responsibility. He thought he could continue being a racist if he limited the term "neighbor" to mean only a select group of people. We must avoid both of these errors, realizing that loving others is not a recipe for becoming a Christian, but it is a sign that we truly are who we claim to be. That's why the Scriptures say, "Anyone who does not love does not know God" (1 John 4:8). Loving others is the sign that we love God, but it's not the way we make God love us. He loves us because of Jesus, and if we love him, then we will love others. It's that simple. How to Love Your Neighbor So when we come across an article titled “Love Your Neighbor,” we ought not read it as if it were telling us, “Here’s what we must do in order for God to love us.” Instead, we should read the article as a way of showing those who are already set on loving their neighbor what that might look like in their families, churches, and communities. That means the following list of things are examples of what it might look like to love your neighbor. The list is not complete, or permanent. Situations differ and contexts change. People may also disagree over which acts of neighbor love are the best use of time and resources. That’s understood, too. What we must not do, however, is explain away every example of neighbor love until the great commandment begins to sound like the great suggestion. God commands that we love our neighbors, and obedience in this area (as in all others) isn’t really optional. The heart of the list that follows is simply this: Welcome others into your life in the same way that Jesus has welcomed you in the family of God, that is, without prejudice, without selfishness, and with a great deal of love. Get to know them as people, not just as possible targets for conversion. (Although, if you really do care about someone, how could you not also talk with them about Jesus?) All of this is what good friends do. They help others, care for others, and walk with others through the day-to-day difficulties of life. And they offer real hope and real forgiveness, all of which is found in Jesus. 1. Introduce yourself to those around you. This may seem like a "no-brainer," but I constantly hear of people who don't even know the people who work in the cubicle next to them, or live in the houses across the street. Even if you've been working or living in some place for years, be humble and introduce yourself to them. It doesn't take much more than, "Hi, my name is ____. I know I've lived here for years, and I should have done this before now, but I wanted to introduce myself. We should get together some time." 2. Share meals with others. Whether at work or in your home, sharing meals together is a great way to get to know other people. I mean, who doesn't like to eat? Don't be afraid to invite your friends, family, or neighbors over for dinner. If you are part of a community group, try having them over for a big night of grilling out and encourage them to invite their friends as well. 3. Volunteer in your community. What kinds of needs do the people around you have? What would be a blessing to them? How can you sacrificially give of your time, your effort, or your financial resources to help others? Are there non-profit organizations or ministries in your area that are doing excellent work? Is there a need that you can fill in ways that others can't? 4. Listen. You can't get to know other people if you do all the talking. Ask about their lives. Listen to their stories. Remember that the person you are talking to is someone that God created and Jesus died for. That's all the reason you need to care about them and share life with them. 5. Talk about Jesus. Talking with others about Jesus doesn't have to be awkward. If you have a real relationship with someone, then they'll already know that the reason you're talking with them about Jesus is precisely because you do care about them. The biggest mistake that most people make, especially in the under-30 generation, is thinking that talking about Jesus will magically get easier with time. It won't. It always takes humility and courage and love. So don't wait for the "right moment," just be honest and open and willing to talk about why Jesus matters, not just to you, but to all of life. 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.
  • ACROSS THE STREET & AROUND THE WORLD

    By Doug Ponder on April 4, 2018

    The following article is the product of years of observation and reflection. I'm especially indebted to Darren Carlson and The Gospel Coalition for their original research and contribution to the discussion, some of which has been included below.  The Popularity of Short-Term Mission Trips A horde of middle and high school teenagers waved hand-painted signs that read, “Free car wash! Donations accepted!” Their bubbly enthusiasm was outshone by their neon shirts with Comic Sans font and clipart crosses. Screen-printed on the front was the logo and name of their youth group—Impact2:42—while the back read in large letters: “Youth Missionary” with the year and the location where the teens would soon be headed for their overseas short-term mission trip. Events like that occur every weekend at gas stations and church parking lots across the country. Stats recently reported that nearly half (41%) of people aged 15-22 have taken a short-term mission trip at least once in their life. How did we get here? How did these trips become so popular? And what should we think about their popularity? The History of Short-Term Mission Trips Short-term mission trips as we know them have only been around for a few decades. Before the 1950s, people called “missionaries” were those who left home for the purpose of bringing the gospel to another country or culture for the rest of their lives. But during the 1950s and 60s, organizations like “Operation Mobilization” and “Youth with a Mission” (YWAM) began offering the chance to serve overseas with shorter commitments. Instead of committing for life, high school and college-aged students were able to sign up to serve for just a few months. As our nation’s affluence continued to increase, the cost of travel continued to decrease, and those two factors made short-term mission trips even more possible (and attractive). InterVarsity began offering short-term mission trips in 1970, and other organizations have continued to follow suit. Today, short-term mission trips are so popular that Americans spent nearly 2.5 billion dollars on them each year. That averages to more than $6.5 million dollars per day (enough to feed, clothe, and educate 5.71 million children for an entire year!). The amount of money needed to make these trips happen is so significant that only affluent Christians in America can afford to spend so much on plane tickets, food, and lodging for such a brief period of time. For these reasons, short-term mission trips remain a mostly Western phenomenon. The Tragedy of Short-Term Mission Trips In theory, short-term mission trips provide an opportunity for Christians (again, usually Americans) to connect with the global church or to meet needs of others in very under-served areas of the world. In reality, many (not all) short-term mission trips provide services of little value, very often doing more harm than good. Consider the observations of Darren Carlson, founder and president of Training Leaders International, an organization devoted to worldwide missions. He writes, “I have seen houses in Latin America that have been painted 20 times by 20 different short-term teams; a New England-style church built by a Western team in Cameroon that is never used except when mission teams come to visit. I have seen teams of grandmothers who go to African countries and hold baby orphans for a week every year, but don't send a dime to help them otherwise; teams who build houses that never get used; teams that bring the expensive vacation Bible school material that the nationals can never reproduce; teams that lead evangelistic crusades claiming commitments to Christ topping 5,000 every year in the same location with the same people attending.” To make matters worse, the expense of getting short-term team members to their destinations is so high that 85% of the money spent on short-term trips never reaches the targeted areas of need (instead, most of the funds are spent on plane tickets, food, and lodging for the participants). For example, U.S. mission teams who went to Honduras to help rebuild homes after hurricane Mitch spent $30,000 per home (because of travel costs and other expenses), whereas the locals were able to build the same homes for just $3,000—ten times less! In fact, the average amount of money it takes to send a short-term mission team to repaint an orphanage is enough to hire two local painters and two full-time teachers and to purchase new uniforms and books for every student in the orphanage. Sometimes, after citing examples like those above, people ask, “Well, what about those who go?” The thinking is that maybe short-term missions ‘does something’ for the person who goes, and this is worth more than whatever cost it took to get them there. But isn’t the point of missions about those who are supposed to be receiving the help? Why do we flip it to talk about those who go, instead of those who receive? This seems a bit selfish and backwards. Additionally, several studies have been done that show the people who go on short-term missions trips were “no more likely to give to missions or to be involved with missions.” The overwhelming majority of people who participate in short-term trips show no increase in giving or participation in missions as soon as a year after they go on a short-term trip. You get an exception here and there, but for the most part, people just come back and say, “We have so much to be thankful for,” without being motivated to give. Or they say, “That was a life-changing experience,” without their life actually changing much. Perhaps this seems surprising, but it really ought not be. Many of those who go around the world to tell others about Jesus are often unwilling to go across the street to do the same. Similarly, sociologists have noted that the same people who are willing to hold small black children in Africa are unwilling to help black children in America, despite the fact that it costs thousands and thousands less to do so. Tragically, it seems that for many people, short-term mission trips have become a way of relieving the guilt they feel about not fulfilling the Great Commission in their day-to-day lives. Think about it: it’s easy to go around the world to pass out tracts in a language you don’t speak; it’s much harder to go across the street to share the gospel with a neighbor. It takes time, it takes a relationship, and it can involve years and years of sacrifice. Any follower of Christ who is serious about the gospel and the Great Commission should be deeply saddened the current state of short-term mission trips. But they don’t have to stay this way. The Possibility of Short-Term Mission Trips Neither the affluence nor the ease of travel that have made short-term mission trips popular are problems. In fact, they give us reasons to rejoice. We should thank God that we can reach almost anywhere in the world by plane in less than 24 hours. This allows us to bring immediate, time-sensitive relief to people in need. It also allows us to expand relief work and take the gospel to places that we formerly didn't even know existed. The ease of travel and possibility for short-term trips also brings a measure of accountability, allowing churches to see if their funds are being used responsibility by the pastor or church planter they are supporting. Nevertheless, the possibility for helpful short-term trips will remain a tragedy unless we acknowledge the very real damage that has been caused by the prevailing approach to short-term mission trips and begin to rethink the entire enterprise. First, we should start by changing the name. Calling these trips “short-term mission trips” gives the impression that our day-to-day lives aren’t about missions, when God says they absolutely should be. Maybe we could call them “short-term ministry trips” or even “short-term cross-cultural ministry trips.” Granted, those names aren’t very catchy, but they’re a lot more accurate. This may seem nit picky, but our words reveal what we really think. So if we think "missions" = short-term overseas trips, then we'll always struggle to help Christians see the need to live on mission no matter where they are. Second, we’ve got to reconnect short-term ministry trips to the local church on both sides of the equation. That means third-party, for-profit, travel-agent-like “sending organizations” should get out of the picture completely. It also means local churches should seek to develop real relationships with church planters and pastors in cross-cultural contexts. Third, we should ask those cross-cultural pastors or planters what they need, instead of telling them what we want to do for them. We’ve embraced this practice in our own church, and so far it’s meant sending a lot more money overseas than people. On one occasion, it meant sending a very small group to visit a young missionary couple our church was supporting. In addition to encouraging them, praying with them, and helping them strategize, the team also babysat their three children under four so that the couple could go on their first date in over a year. If churches were to adopt a model like this, the fruit for the kingdom would be enormous: no more wasted money on plane tickets, no more wasted time on projects that don’t actually help the locals, no more people who serve only overseas but never at home. Instead there would be: long-term relationships between churches in America and churches around the world, specific requests for help and the right type and size of teams to meet the requests, and a growing understanding among Christians of their role in going 'across the street and around the world', living on mission for Jesus wherever they are. We humble acknowledge of our past mistakes, commitment to improve how we serve others, and a passion for the people that Jesus died to save, we can change short-term trips into endeavors that produce real and lasting fruit. For further reading, check out Why You Should Consider Cancelling Your Short-Term Mission Trips and Toward Better Short-Term Missions. 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.
  • GROWING IN GRACE

    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.
  • WHY PREACHING MATTERS

    By Doug Ponder on April 25, 2018

    Why Preaching Matters Chances are, like most people, you've probably not thought much about what preaching is, what it's supposed to do, or why it matters. On one level, that makes sense. You're probably not a pastor, so you think, "Why would I need to know about all that preaching stuff?" On another level, though, when you see what God says about the importance of preaching in the life of his people, it would be crazy not to understanding something about preaching. There are lots of places in the Bible that we could go to see what God says about preaching, but one of my favorite passages is tucked away in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. Here's what happens in that story. After returning from their imprisonment in a foreign land, God’s people got to work rebuilding the temple according to the instructions God had given them. When they were finished, they gathered together in the city square, and they asked the chief priest to stand on a high platform and read to them from the sacred Scriptures. (Sound familiar?) Ezra (that was the priest’s name) opened the book and began to preach. As they listened, the people started to cry. I wasn't there, but I'm pretty sure they weren't crying because of the quality of the sermon. Rather, the story tell us that they did not understand what was being read to them, and from where they were sitting, it sounded like very bad news. But it wasn't bad news; it was a message about the best news of all. So, what's a priest to do? Well, Ezra (with the help of a few other priests with him) decided to “make the Scripture clear and give the meaning so that the people understood what was being read” (Neh. 8:8). They preached good news to the people, saying, “Do not mourn or weep. Go and enjoy the best food and drink, and share with those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:9-10). Then all the people began to eat and drink, sharing their feast with others as they all celebrated with great joy, “because they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (Neh. 8:12). What Preaching Is As we saw in the story, preaching plays an important role in the life of God's people. By design, preaching is the authoritative declaration of what God has said in the Scriptures, with the goal of explaining and applying the good news about Jesus to the hearers. Or as Ezra put it, preaching aims to 'make clear' what God has said, and 'to give the meaning so that the people understand what is being read.' Preaching matters, therefore, because God has revealed himself in Jesus (Heb. 1:1-3), and Jesus says the Scriptures are what reveal him (John 5:39). So if the Scriptures are a window that lets us see Christ, then preaching is like Windex. Its job is to make Jesus as clear as possible. And that, of course, is a huge deal. After all, the good news about Jesus, the gospel, is where the power of God is found. That's why the apostle Paul writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Do you realize what Paul is saying? People want the world to change, and he is saying that change will only happen through the gospel. The power of God that changes, heals, and rescues is found only in the good news about Jesus. That’s where preaching comes in. Though God could have chosen any means of transforming the world, he has chosen to use our words about his word. This makes sense, if you think about how God has chosen to work in the past. In the beginning, God’s word first created the world, and his word today, from the lips of His servants, is now re-creating it. Whether he liked this fact or not, Hermen Melville at least recognized the role that preaching played. In his famous novel Moby Dick, he so eloquently summarized how God uses preaching in the world: “The pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world.” How Preaching Works But don’t miss how this happens: Preaching is God’s chosen way to transform the world, not because preaching is inspirational or motivational speaking, but rather because preaching brings an encounter with Jesus himself, who is the true Redeemer of the world. The men who led the Protestant Reformation knew this well. John Calvin wrote, “In preaching God calls us to Him as if He had His mouth open and we saw Him there in person.” And he also said, “We ought not so much to consider men as speaking to us, but Christ by His own mouth.” Martin Luther exclaimed, “Since Christ is the Lord of the past, the present, and the future, his proclamation continues in his body, the church. Thus the proclamation of God’s Word is a means of grace which calls, gathers, and redeems the people of God.” Luther added, “Preaching is God’s Word as surely as if God Himself were speaking to you.” Those quotes may sound like very high, self-congratulatory words of praise (for those men were preachers, too). But what they say about the importance of preaching, and how it is actually God who speaks through preaching to save sinners, is merely an echo of what God himself has already said. “Since the world through its ‘wisdom’ did not know him,” the apostle Paul writes, “God was pleased through the foolishness of our preaching to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). Elsewhere Paul writes, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? . . . Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Rom. 10:14, 17). This is why Martin Luther says, “To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes the preaching.” Jesus told his disciples to ‘tend his flock’ and to ‘feed his sheep’ (John 21:15-17). We see that what Jesus meant was the able, clear, consistent preaching and application of the gospel which is the power of God for salvation. This is how God unleashes his power in the word: through preaching! 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.
  • COUNSELING LIKE JESUS

    By Doug Ponder on May 16, 2018

    A Counseling Encounter Sitting on a hard plastic chair in a stuffy little room, I waited anxiously for my guidance counselor to arrive. To pass the time I traced the lines of the painted cinder-block walls. I was worried. “Why did she call me here? What had I done to deserve this?” The knob turned quickly, and in she came. Strangely dressed from head to foot, her dangling mismatched earrings jingled every time she moved her head; her skirt was so long it swept the floor as she walked. “I’m here to talk to you about something very important,” she said. I held my breath. “Your teachers have recommended you to be one of the school’s ‘conflict managers'.” “What’s that?” I asked. “It means that from now on, it’s your job to talk with other students when they have a disagreement. You will help them make decisions to resolve their conflicts. You are a conflict manager.” Twenty years later, I still think that’s an awful lot to expect of any fourth grader. (But then again, she was a very odd lady.) Biblical Counseling Perhaps scenes like the one above pop into our minds when we hear the word counseling. Or perhaps we think of red couches, quirky psychologists, and psychotic parents. In the biblical sense of the word, however, to give counsel is simply to give direction, to give guidance, or to give a strong “push” of encouragement to do something (or not to do it). Christians give that kind of “counsel” all the time. In fact, you can hardly speak about what the gospel means for someone’s life without giving counsel. Consider God’s commands to “love one another” (John 13:34), to “serve one another” (Gal. 5:13), to “teach and admonish one another” (Col. 3:16), to “encourage another and build each other up” (1 Thess. 5:11), and to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24). These things can’t be done without “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). So, in that sense, every Christian is a counselor by virtue of their calling. Surely not all Christians think of themselves in that way. (And surely not all of their friends think of them that way, either.) Perhaps some Christians don’t even want to be a counselor. But Christians are counselors every time they open their mouths to apply the gospel to their own lives or to the life of someone else. The question is not, therefore, whether a Christians is a counselor, but how good of a counselor is he or she? Thankfully, we don’t have to guess about the criteria for good counsel. Jesus himself tells us plainly. The Problem of Our Heart According to Jesus, who gets the last say, what’s going wrong in our behavior and relationships comes ‘out of the heart’ (Mark 7:20-23). In the Bible, the heart is not a reference to the blood-pumping organ in your chest, but a reference to the decision-making part of every person that is controlled by their desires or will. So what Jesus means is this: our behavior is a reflection of our heart's desires. As James wrote, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight” (Jas 4:1-2). To counsel like Jesus, therefore, means that we focus our attention on the cause of the problem (the heart) not just the results of the problem (the behavior). For example, suppose a person routinely succumbs to the temptation to get drunk. We could lock him up in a padded cell without any access to alcohol. Then he would never get drunk again. Problem solved, right? Not at all, according to Jesus. His heart hasn’t changed; you’ve just made it impossible for his heart to get what it wants. Suppose that another person feels depressed on a fairly regular basis. She feels like something new or exciting in her life might take away her feelings of depression, so she often overeats (but regrets it later), sleeps around with strange men (but hates herself for it), and dreams about moving away to another place (but knows she can’t afford it). The reason she keeps moving from one "solution" to another is because none of them have worked. What she and the alcoholic man both need is a change in their inner-being, a change of desires, a changed heart. The Heart of Our Problem Here’s the trouble with a lot of so-called “counseling” out there today: psychology—which means, “study of the soul”—has all but abandoned any belief in the existence of soul! According to most psychologists, your behavior is basically the result of biological stimuli that make you think,  feel, and act the way you do. In other words, these psychologists fundamentally disagree with Jesus’ diagnosis of our problem. (As if they knew better than Jesus.) According to them, what we need is a change of perspective, or a change of circumstances, a change in our chemical balance, or simply a new goal to live for. Yet each of those “solutions” only treat the symptoms, leaving the root cause of our problem untouched. In effect we teach people a dozen coping mechanisms instead of teaching them how to address what's actually wrong. (No wonder we spend so much on drugs and therapy every year!) Here's the good news: virtually every one of our missteps and misguided endeavors can be traced back to our desires or where we hope to have them fulfilled. The solution, as we shall see, is found in the gospel. (The few exceptions are comparatively rare disorders which have biological components. These sorts of things may require some medicine, in addition to the gospel, in order to bring healing and wholeness.) [superquote]Our heart is the real problem, and the gospel is the real solution.[/superquote] Diagnostic Questions Are you seeking in yourself what can only be found in Christ? For example, are you looking to yourself for value? Psychologists call this “self-esteem,” but Jesus calls it sin. If you think well of yourself, you’ll give in to pride. If you think poorly of yourself, you'll give in to despair. But if you look to Jesus for your value, then you can face the fact that you are more flawed and sinful than you'd ever dared to admit, but in Christ you are more loved and accepted than you ever dared to hope! Are you seeking from this life what can only be enjoyed in the next? The world as it is now is broken and backwards. What fools we would be to try to find our ultimate happiness in a place like this! Yet we do it all the time. And then we get disappointed when it doesn’t work, blaming just about everything—our circumstances, other people, even the world itself. The only thing we don’t blame is our desires. We never assume that maybe our desires (and where we look to have them fulfilled) are the real problem.  But they are, and Jesus can change them. He calls us to find our joy in him, which is not just some kind of peace in the midst of hardship—though it’s at least that—it’s also the settled conviction that God will, in fact, set the world straight again. And on that day, the Scriptures remind us, there will be no more death, no more sickness, and no more sadness. Equipped for Counseling One pastor who believed Jesus' teaching about our hearts had this to say after a life of ministering to people: “The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is. Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it also does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner. The psychiatrist must first search my heart and yet he never plumbs its ultimate depth. The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness. The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God.  The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.” (Dietrich Bonhoefer, Life Together, 118) What good news! Christians armed with the truth of the gospel have been equipped to face most of the problems in life that they (and others around them) will encounter. To the degree that we have understood the gospel and have practiced applying it to our own lives, we'll find that we can help others do the same. This means two things: go to the gospel when you encounter trouble in your soul, and, when necessary, go to your pastors for help (whether to receive counsel for yourself, or for help in giving counsel to someone else).
  • THE CITY AND THE CROSS

    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."
  • WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT

    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!).
  • GOD’S PLAN FOR THE CHURCH

    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.
  • OUT OF THE DARK

    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?
  • THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT

    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).
  • 15 WAYS TO BE ON MISSION AT WORK

    By Jason Elliott on Sept. 26, 2018

    Working Eight Days a Week According to the United States Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employed American spends almost nine hours per day on work or work-related activities.[1] That’s approximately 45 hours per week. Even considering that most people take two weeks of vacation per year, that’s over 2,000 hours spent at work every year! If the average person works 40 to 45 years, that means we spend over 90,000 hours of our lives at work or doing other work-related activities. So here is the obvious question for us: As followers of Jesus, how should we redeem this time and use it wisely to advance Jesus’ mission? Helpful Tips for Hard Schedules Many times it’s difficult to find practical ways to be a blessing in your workplace. Rapid pace, mounting deadlines, or conflict can often get in the way of even the best intentions to speak and live out the good news of Jesus. But it is possible to live on mission ("missionally") while you’re at work. With a little intentionality and some planning, you can use your time at work to serve others and point them to Jesus. Here are a few practical ideas that make it easier to be on mission at work: 1. Get to work early so you can spend some time praying for your co-workers. 2. If you are in a management position, make it a daily priority to speak an encouraging work or write an encouraging e-mail when someone does good work. 3. Bring breakfast (donuts, bagels, breakfast pizza, etc.) once a month for everyone in your department—no strings attached. The donuts are not bribes to get people to church. Just be generous. 4. Instead of eating lunch alone, eat with other co-workers and begin to build deep relationships. 5. Start a routine of going out to lunch with co-workers. Be sure not to show partiality with the invitees. 6. Make it a priority to invite co-workers over for dinner or out for drinks after work. 7. Make a list of your co-workers birthdays and find a way to bless them or serve them on their birthdays. 8. Make every effort to avoid gossip in the office. Work hard to demonstrate humility and gratitude, while avoiding menial complaints. 9. Find others that live near you and create a car pool. Don’t waste your commute! 10. Offer to throw a shower for a co-worker who is having a baby. 11. Offer to fill in for a co-worker who needs a day off. 12. Ask someone who is typically ignored if you can grab him or her a soda or cup of coffee while you’re out. 13. Keep candy or gum in your office or cubicle. This is an easy way to increase traffic by your desk and get to know people. 14. Make every effort to know the names of co-workers and clients along with their families. 15. Go out of your way to talk to your janitors and cleaning people who are often overlooked. These ideas might seem simple, but they go a long way toward building genuine relationships with others.   [1] http://www.bls.gov/tus/charts/chart1.pdf
  • BEAUTY WILL SAVE THE WORLD

    By Doug Ponder on Oct. 17, 2018

    What Culture Is Made Of The three “ingredients” of culture are truth, goodness, and beauty. Truth deals with facts, with the way things are. Goodness speaks to what is morally right, or the way things ought to be. Beauty relates to what is pleasing and to what can be imagined. It’s no surprise that Christians are lovers of truth and goodness. After all, Jesus himself said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). Meanwhile the Scriptures are filled with clear words from God about what is good that is to be emulated and upheld, as well as what is evil that is to be avoided and restrained. When it comes to beauty, however, the church has a bit of a rocky relationship. We seem unsure of its role and importance in the Christian life. We’re apathetic about beauty, and we tend to be suspicious of those who call for a consideration of its significance. This mindset has left most Christians with a view of God’s world that works about as well as a two-legged stool. Obviously, the truthfulness of a claim and the goodness of an action are not dependent upon the beauty of either. That is to say, without beauty, truth and goodness are still true and good. There is nothing wrong with those “ingredients.” But without beauty, the cultural “recipe” is incomplete. What Beauty ‘Does’ A man named Blaise Pascal made some important observations along these lines many years ago. He was a Christian thinker whose mind was an unending spring of brilliance and profundity. (Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of him, though. He made his living as a mathematician, and he was a Frenchman by birth, two strikes against him on the count of some.) In his brief essay “The Art of Persuasion,” Pascal wrote, “Every man is almost always led to believe not through proof, but through that which is attractive” (“The Art of Persuasion,” II). He adds, “[T]he mind and the heart are like gateways through which [truths] are received by the soul, but very few enter through the mind...” (“The Art of Persuasion,” V). His claims have driven some to anger and others to fear. They wonder, “Won’t we lose the hard edges of truth and the firm lines of goodness if we reduce our persuasion to that which is appealing?” Make no mistake, Pascal is not arguing for “sugar coating” morality or “watering down” the truth. Rather, he is claiming that all people—whether we like it or not—are mainly led by their passions and not by propositions. You may hate that fact. You may decry that state of affairs. You may diligently labor to demonstrate the truthfulness of the truth apart from beauty. But in all this people will still “believe almost only in the things [they] like” (“The Art of Persuasion,” IV). The Way Forward Emphasizing truth and morality, we have tried to show that the Christian view of the world is reasonable (to the mind) and beneficial (for society). These aims are both good and necessary; we dare not abandon either. Without emphasizing beauty, however, we have failed to show that Christianity is attractive, that it is beautiful. We must not fear the idea that true beauty is an indication of truth and goodness, for God himself designed it this way. After all, he dwells in stunning splendor and clothes himself with awe-inspiring majesty (Job. 37:22). His glory is beyond compare. Moreover, all God’s actions tend to the beautification of his people (Psalm 149:4), the bride of Christ who is arrayed in stain-free gown of dazzling white, adorned with beauty for the return of the long-awaited bridegroom (Rev. 21:2). What this means is that Christians should not only seek to convince others with truth and compel them with morality, but we must also seek to attract with beauty. In other words, in addition to defending Christianity as being both true and good, we must also present it as beautiful—because it is. We’ve got the truth and goodness bit down when it comes to logic and moral laws. What we need is a portrait of truth and goodness as beautiful and compelling as God says it really is. Since God is inherently beautiful, we must be able to speak about him “in spirit and in truth.” What is needed is a response that takes into consideration the beauty of Truth. We’ve got the truth portion down when it comes to propositions. What is needed is a beautiful and compelling portrait of the who is Truth-in-the-flesh, Jesus. After all, it is no accident that Jesus himself said his followers would be known not by their truth claims or their righteousness (both of which are important), but by their love for one another (John 13:35). And shortly after Jesus uttered those words, his predictions were already coming true. Roman officials were astonished by the early Christians, not because of their claims to truth and their moral codes of living, but by the beauty of their love for each other. As the early Christians cared for the members of their community, the Roman officials exclaimed, “See how they love each other!” Of course, we ought never abandon the truth of the faith. Jesus really died and rose for us. If that didn’t happen, it doesn’t matter how beautiful the Christian story may be. Secondly, we should never think that God’s moral commands are irrelevant. “So long as we know the truth and we try to love people…” No, that won’t work. God’s commands are not suggestions. They are designed to show us what is good, and they illustrate what a beautiful world would look like. All three of these “ingredients” work together to shape and form us as well as the culture around us. But without beauty, truth and goodness seem cold, callously, rigid, and harsh. What the world needs is to see a community who believes the truth and embraces God’s commands in such a way that it shows the intrinsic beauty of Jesus’ way of life. In this way beauty will save the world.
  • OAKS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS (YOUR LIFE IN CHRIST)

    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.
  • KNOWING THE WILL OF GOD

    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?