By Doug Ponder


  • 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.
  • BLESSED ARE THE HUNGRY

    By Doug Ponder on July 4, 2017

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

    By Doug Ponder on Aug. 2, 2017

    Something's Missing - Round 1 Can you imagine how exciting it must have been when John the Baptizer (a.k.a., John the Baptist) showed up one day in the area around Judea to announce that the long-awaited Messiah would soon be here? “Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight paths for him,” John said. And people listened. Many of them were baptized, confessing their sins and placing their faith and hope in “the One who was to come,” as John put it. Now imagine how exciting it must have been for a guy like Apollos, a Jewish man from Egypt, who heard the good news that John the Baptizer’s message had come true. The Messiah had come, and his name was Jesus. So Apollos got busy telling people about Jesus. But one day, as he was proving from the Scriptures that the Messiah was Jesus, some Christians noticed that something was missing from his public sermon. Apollos’ teaching about Jesus was accurate, but incomplete (Acts 18:25). He didn’t know about the final instructions that Jesus had given to his followers. Jesus had told them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore 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 observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). It seems that Apollos was still teaching that baptism was just a sign of general repentance, sort of like a public demonstration that you are sorry for your sins. That’s what John the Baptizer had been doing, but things were different now that the Messiah had finally come. So when Jesus told his followers to baptize, he give them a different reason: baptism in the name of the Lord was to be the new “badge of membership” for Christians everywhere. It symbolizes that we belong to Jesus and that we belong with the rest of his people (cf. Eph. 4:4-6). It was important that Apollos get this right, so a concerned Christian couple named Aquila and Priscilla pulled Apollos aside, told him about the baptism of Jesus, and then sent him on his way to continue telling others the good news about the Messiah. Something's Missing - Round 2 Meanwhile, the apostle Paul runs into another group of John the Baptizer’s disciples in the city of Ephesus. They were missing something, too, and it was an even bigger deal than what Apollos was missing. They had heard John the Baptizer’s message, and believed, but they hadn’t been told that the Messiah they were waiting for had already come. Worse than that, they knew nothing about the Holy Spirit, the “Helper” whom God had given to live in his people. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” Paul asks. “We had not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” they replied. This wouldn’t do. To be Christian in the fullest sense of the term is not merely to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, though that’s start. Rather, it includes the fuller understanding that Jesus has left the world and sent the Holy Spirit to continue working among his people. Here’s how Jesus put it:  “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17). Jesus was talking about a “Helper” who would not only be withyou, as God has always been, but also be in you. Perhaps that didn’t seem like a big deal to his followers at the time, but Jesus himself thought otherwise. He told them, “Very truly I tell you, it is for your advantage that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). The Power of the Spirit's Presence Have you ever wished that you could have Jesus stand next you, physically, to walk with you and talk with you throughout your day? Perhaps we feel that life would be much easier if things worked that way. We could just turn to Jesus and ask him, “What should I think about this?” or “Tell me what to do here.” But Jesus says we’re wrong. “It is for your advantage that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Helper will not come to you.” The trouble is, we don’t believe Jesus about this. We continue to think that the Helper he promised, the Holy Spirit, isn’t really all that big of a deal. But he is. Listen to some of the things that God has promised the Holy Spirit does in our lives: The Spirit gives us a new heart along with new desires and new abilities to do what God has said (Titus 3:4-7; Phil. 2:13). The Spirit leads us into the truth, by bringing Scriptures to mind or by showing us the way forward when we don’t know what to do (John 14:26; Acts 13:2). The Spirit gives you the words to speak when you need to bear witness about the gospel (Mark 13:11; Luke 12:12). The Spirit empowers us to be God’s witnesses, drawing people to God by giving them faith. (Acts 1:8; Eph. 2:8-9). The Spirit illuminates the Word of God so that we can understand what it means and do what it says (John 16:12-15; 1 Cor. 2:10). The Spirit allows us to have intimacy with God, softening our hearts and giving us love and affection for God our Father (Rom. 8:15-16). The Spirit convicts us of sin and gives us the desire to turn from it (John 16:7-11; 1 Thess. 1:5). The Spirit brings us new life and freedom from sin (Rom. 8:2, 10-11; 2 Cor. 3:17). The Spirit intercedes for us when we pray (Rom. 8:26-27). The Spirit gives us supernatural gifts so that we can serve other (1 Cor. 12:1-7). Thus, the Spirit is our helper in every way. He is our comforter, our counselor, our adviser  our advocate, our encourager, and our strength. The question for us is, do we depend upon the Holy Spirit for all that God says he will do in us and through us? Do You Have the Holy Spirit? Sometimes we may wonder whether or not we even have the Holy Spirit. We look at our lives and see so much sin and brokenness that we doubt that it could possibly be true that the God who made the universe is actually living inside of us. At least, it doesn't feel that way. But Jesus and receiving the Spirit are a "package deal" (Titus 3:5-7), so there is no such thing as someone who has been redeemed by Jesus that doesn't have the Spirit. Nevertheless, the reason we may not feel the Spirit's presence and power may be because we are "quenching" (1 Thess. 5:19) or "grieving" (Eph. 4:30) the Spirit through deliberate rebellion or through neglect. After all, Jesus did say "You have not because you ask not," so it may be that we don't experience more of the Spirit's work in our lives because we have not asked him to move or we have not trusted that he would do so. The good news is that the Spirit will always work to supply you with the desire and the energy to do what pleases God; all that's left is for you to "work out" what the Spirit "works in" (Phil. 2:12-13). 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.
  • OVERCOMING A GUILTY-CONSCIENCE

    By Doug Ponder on Aug. 16, 2017

    Dealing with Guilt One experience common to humanity is the feeling of guilt. The experience is so common that we have come up with a phrase for it: “guilty conscience.” A guilty conscience is that gnawing sense that we’ve done something other than what we ought to have done. So how do we explain all the sin and evil in the world if everyone feels some sense of guilt for these things? Wouldn’t it make sense for us to stop doing what makes us feel guilty? Most often, we deal with guilt in one of two ways. Some people are so burdened by their guilty conscience that they strive with everything in them to do something that makes them feel better about themselves. This is sort of like a guilt-transaction. The more guilty you feel, the more good you feel that you have to do to let yourself off the hook. The other major way that we deal with guilt is by trying to downplay it or deny it altogether. People downplay guilt by trying to find someone else in their life who appears to be worse off than they are. For example, if you’ve just cheated on a major test and feel terribly guilty for it, you might comfort yourself with the knowledge that a fellow classmate has been cheating all year. “At least I’m not a habitual cheater,” you say to yourself, as if that somehow makes what you’ve done acceptable. (It doesn’t.) But other people try to deny guilt altogether. Maybe they tell themselves that guilt is just a relic from our society's religious consciousness. “If there were no religion,” they say, “there would be no guilt.” This isn’t quite true, of course. It may be the case that a religion-free society would feel less guilty, but that doesn’t mean that people would be less guilty. When you’re pulled for speeding, for example, you are guilty of breaking the law whether or not you feel guilty about having done so. The Guilty Charge the Innocent In the passage for this sermon, there are two groups of people who should feel guilty for what they’re doing—unjustly accusing Paul—but they don’t seem to show much remorse for their actions. Perhaps Paul’s Jewish accusers lightened their guilty conscience by thinking about how they were ardently devoted to their religion. Maybe they consoled themselves at night by thinking of all the rabbinic rituals they kept, instead of thinking on the mass of lies that had told about Paul. The Romans ought to have been ashamed at their utter lack of regard for due process, fair trials, and common civic law—things Romans normally prided themselves on. They probably didn’t look to their personal piety for freedom from guilt, but perhaps they lessened the guilt they felt by trying to deny it altogether. “Rebels like this guy don’t deserve a fair trial,” they may have thought to themselves. “And besides, who says that I have to be the one to figure out how to deal with him? Maybe I’ll just send him to Caesar…” What really went on in their minds we’ll never know, but we do know that Paul’s conduct was remarkably different than their was. Paul didn’t have to feel guilty about anything because, unlike them, he hadn’t done anything wrong. His conduct was blameless toward them both: “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense” (Acts 25:8). Now, Paul didn't say this because he was seeking to get out of something. He had been falsely accused altogether (25:5,7). That’s why he boldly says, “If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them” (25:11). Paul's Motivation for Action Why did Paul live differently, when everyone around him seem more concerned to save their own skin and to promote their own agendas, even at the cost of justice, integrity, and goodness? Because, as simple as it may seem, Paul really believed that he was guilty. Not of anything they had accused him of. Rather, Paul had a deep sense of two things: (1) his own guilt for the sins he had previously committed and (2) the good news that Jesus forgives guilty sinners who look to him for grace and mercy. In other words, Paul had been changed by the message of the gospel. He believed that he was guilty before God, but he also believed that Jesus took the punishment for his guilt upon himself, just as the prophets had said long ago: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days” (Isa. 53:10). Because of Jesus, there is no condemnation for there who are in him (Rom. 8:1). That is to say, all of our guilt has been placed on Jesus, and his merciful pardon has been placed on us. When you grasp both parts of the gospel—that we are guilty sinners AND that we are forgiven by Jesus—you can’t but be changed like Paul was. He became the kind of person who wanted to live a life of integrity, not dishonesty. He lived a life of authenticity and transparency, not hypocrisy. Because he remembered his guilt and the free grace of Jesus, he also became a humble man who spurned arrogance as something opposed to the heart of the gospel itself. Finally, the guilt/grace realization lead Paul to become a generous person who was lead away from his natural selfishness. Indeed, Paul eventually gave his life in the service of Jesus—not because of guilt over what he had done, but in love for the one who had set him free from his guilt. You see, love is a far more powerful motivator than guilt could ever be. Guilt drives us to do as little as possible so that we don’t have to feel guilty anymore. And if we can find ways to do what we want without feeling guilty, then we’ll do it, no matter how wrong it is. That’s precisely why the Jews and the Romans in this text acted as they did. On the other hand, if like Paul, we are motivated by the love we have for Jesus because of the grace that he has shown us, we’ll not be the kind of people who look to obey him as little as possible. We won’t ask questions like, “How far is too far?” Instead, we’ll ask questions like, “Does this please the God I love?” After all, why would we want to continue sinning against the God who saved us? As John the apostle writes, ““There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19). This article is a recap of the sermon from Mar. 17, 2013. The Scripture passage for the sermon is Acts 25:1-12. 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.
  • TAKERS, TRADERS, GIVERS

    By Doug Ponder on Aug. 23, 2017

    How to Think about Your Life There are lots of ways to think about the different kinds of people in the world. You could categorize us according to gender, according to nationality, according to age, and so on. Or you could categorize people according to preferences. For example, you might say there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think baseball is boring, and those who are wrong. Cheap shots at baseball aside, there’s an important sense in which we there are only three kinds of people in the world. There are takers, traders, and givers.[1] You and I are no exception to this. How we live places us in one of those three categories of people, whether or not we’re even aware of this fact, and even whether or not we like it. (Just as a thirty-year-old is thirty, whether or not they like it.) The First Kind of Person Takers are people who do what they want without consideration of others pretty much all the time. A taker is only out to help themselves, even if this means ignoring, using, or abusing other people along the way. Suppose you’re at a party with a ton of people and not enough food to go around. Let’s say there are fifty people but only twenty brownies, twenty beverages, and enough chips and salsa for ten people. A taker looks at the situation and thinks, “I’d better get in line first, or else I won’t get anything.”And as they go through the line, they’re not content to take one of everything either. Three brownies, two drinks (one for now, and one for later), and half the chips and salsa. Even though everyone else is obviously annoyed, a taker doesn’t care what they think. Nor does a taker care about their not getting anything to eat or drink. Takers only care about themselves. Of course, the silly situation overlooks the serious ugliness of being a taker. While chips and brownies are not that big of a deal, when people live like takers in other areas of life, others get hurt or cheated or used or abused or neglected or abandoned. No one likes a taker. The Second Kind of Person Traders care a little about others, just not as much as they care about themselves. Traders always make self-serving deals and tradeoffs (hence the name) that seek to maximize what’s in it for themselves. Go back to the party again. A trader might notice the same lack of food that the taker did. The difference, though, is that a trader might be willing to “trade” getting less food in order to gain something even better in the process. Suppose the trader thinks, “If I offer to let everyone else go first, then I’ll look like a super nice guy.” He’s trading a bit of food for a boost in his reputation. He’s not mainly concerned for the well-being of the people at the party. He’s concerned about himself. The difference between him and the taker is that he’s willing to give up something small in order to get something bigger. Notice that traders are not any less selfish than takers. The reason we may not see a trader as such is because their selfishness is hidden behind their decisions to trade one thing they don’t care much about for another thing that they really want for themselves. But the truth is they're every bit as selfish, and then some, since they also care very much about how they look in the eyes of others. The Third Kind of Person Finally, there are givers. Givers are truly selfless, not selfish. They are focused on others completely, sometimes at great cost to themselves. At the same party, a giver would happily let others consume all the food. But unlike a trader, a giver wouldn’t be thinking about how good this makes her look. Instead, she would truly be thinking of the needs of those around her, and how she can meet their needs. What Kind of Person Are You? As we think about the three kinds of people, we should stop to ask ourselves: Which kind of person am I? There are very few pure takers, people who do what they want without caring at all what others think of them. Instead, the overwhelming majority of us are traders. We go about our lives making “trades” with the hope of gaining more for ourselves. For example: Maybe you clean the living area so that your roommate won’t complain. You aren’t cleaning the room as a genuine act of love toward them. You just don’t want to have to listen to their gripes any longer. Maybe you do the dishes so that your spouse will be intimate with you later. It’s not love for your spouse that drives you to do the dishes. Your making a selfish “trade off” to fulfill your own desires. Maybe you don’t cheat on your taxes—not because you care about honesty—but because you don’t want to face the consequences of getting caught. Maybe you leave a decent tip a local restaurant to save yourself from embarrassment. You have no intentions of blessing your server, you just don’t want your friends (or your server) to think you’re cheap. Maybe you think obeying God means giving up fun in this life for eternal rewards in the next one. You’re not obeying him because you love him. You’re just hoping for more stuff. This is how traders live every day, doing good things but with selfish motives. It’s a destructive way to live, because we convince ourselves that other people (takers) are the selfish ones, not us. And we go about our lives overlooking the real needs of other people, living as if we were the most important person on the planet. How arrogant and prideful! The World’s Only Giver So are there no unselfish people, then? Well, an honest look at humanity compels us to conclude that there one only one: Jesus. He was the only person who was ever a pure giver. He never did anything with a selfish motive. He never acted on his own behalf. His entire life, from beginning to end, was lived for the sake of others. That’s why, when he faced with impeding death, he could honestly say to God, “Father, not my will, but yours be done.” A taker would never give up anything. A trader would only give up something they don’t want to get something they do want. But Jesus gave up his life for his enemies. It’s hard to get any more selfless than that. What Jesus Has Given As we take in this reality, it hits us with a kind of force that shocks our souls and begins to change us from the inside out:  Because of what Jesus has done for us, God forgives takers and traders like you and me, adopts us into his family, and begins to work in our hearts to set us free from our sinful cravings and desires. When you really see the gospel for the first time, or for the four thousandth time, it changes you. Takers see themselves for who they really are: selfish, self-serving, users and abusers of other people who do not treat others like they want to be treated. Traders, too, see themselves for who they really are: selfish, self-serving deal-makers who hide their real motives from others as they seek to get what they want and make themselves look good in the process. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. You don’t have to live for yourself because you have an infinitely greater treasure in Jesus. What can compare to forgiveness of sin, freedom from guilt, victory over death, and unending fellowship with God, the source of everything good and beautiful and true? Nothing! The more that you value the treasure you have in Jesus, the more you’ll be able to let go of the things that once held you captive. You don’t have to selfishly take and grab; you already have more than you’ll need in Jesus. You don’t have to trade to get what you want; you already have something better in Jesus. Those who believe this find that they slowly become less of a taker and trader than they once were. As the gospel moves in to replace the old desires in your heart, new desires are put in their place—desires to give and serve and love others, even without thought to what we might receive in return. That’s how the gift of Jesus turns selfish takers and traders into selfless givers, people who share their money, their possessions, their time, and their lives. God has been doing this in the hearts of Jesus’ followers for thousands of years, and he calls you to this kind of life, too. The way to get there is not through greater resolve or renewed commitments to be less selfish and to be more giving. No, the only way to become more of a selfless giver is to see that you already have greater treasure in Jesus. “He 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) [1] This concept has been adapted from the writings of Miroslav Volf, a Protestant theologian and the founding Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. 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.
  • SCIENCE & SCRIPTURE: ENEMIES OR FRIENDS?

    By Doug Ponder on Aug. 30, 2017

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

    By Doug Ponder on Sept. 27, 2017

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

    By Doug Ponder on Oct. 4, 2017

    What Would Jesus Eat? No one who lived through the 90s escaped without encountering WWJD—What Would Jesus Do? The question-turned-slogan was plastered on car bumpers and car windows, on T-shirts and Trapper Keepers, and especially on bracelets. The question was meant to serve as a reminder for Christians to imitate the life of Jesus (1 Pet. 2:21; 1 Cor. 11:1). But once its meaning became unmoored from the author’s original intent, a mostly helpful question became a mostly harmful way of thinking about the Christian faith. For there is much that Jesus meant when he called us to imitate his life, but his diet was not one of them (nor was his choice of dress, his style of hair, his native tongue, and many other accidental qualities). This conclusion falls under the “common sense” heading, but sin is sometimes stronger than common sense. Behold the vast number of authors urging us to imitate the diet of Jesus: The Jesus Diet The Jesus Diet (same title, different book) The Food and Feasts of Jesus: The Original Mediterranean Diet Cooking with the Bible: Recipes for Biblical Meals Eating the Bible: Over 50 Delicious Recipes to Feed Your Body and Nourish Your Soul What the Bible Says about Healthy Living Miracle Food Cures from the Bible The Good Book Cookbook None of These Diseases: The Bible’s Health Secrets for the 21st Century What Would Jesus Eat? The Ultimate Program for Eating Well, Feeling Great, and Living Longer The What Would Jesus Eat Cook Book (If you insist on locating these books, they can be found in Amazon’s “Missing the Point” category.) Not What, But How Surprisingly, perhaps, the relevant question is not actually, “What would Jesus eat?”, but, “How would Jesus eat?” (And I don’t mean ‘with his hands’.) God cares more about how we eat than what we eat, and we know this because God tells us so himself. Jesus told his disciples, “Eat whatever is set before you” (Luke 10:8). God told the apostle Paul to write the same, saying, “Eat anything sold in the market without raising questions of conscience, for, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’… Eat whatever is put before you” (1 Cor. 10:25-27). The apostle Peter ignored God’s command and did raise questions of conscience, being quite worried that certain foods would contaminate him. So God rebuked Peter, saying, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). Lest we go placing GMOs on the “impure” list, the Gospel of Mark tells us, “Jesus declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:20). Paul sums the Bible’s basic teaching on food in one verse: “Everything God created is good, and no food is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” (1 Tim. 4:4) In view of all these verses, the main message in the Bible about food is not “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Col. 2:21). Paul says that approach may seem wise on the surface, but it’s actually “self-imposed worship,” “false humility,” and “a harsh treatment of the body” (Col. 2:23). Instead, the main message of the Bible about food is give thanks. “No food is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4). This means if you are someone who grows your own heirloom tomatoes, drinks raw milk from a cow you bought a share in, makes your own kombucha, participates in a local co-op, and buys organic from the farmer’s market, God calls you to give thanks. And it also means that if you are someone who eats potted meat on Saltine crackers, Vienna sausages straight from the jar, McDonald’s on the regular, non-organic pasteurized milk, and high fructose corn syrup by the bottle, then God calls you to give thanks too. The one thing that you may not do is pass self-righteous judgment on your brother or sister (Rom. 14:10-13). God says, “Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died… For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:15, 17). Colluding with the Enemy Because God’s kingdom is one of joy and peace, he will punish those who disturb the joy and peace of his people—and that includes those who make loud assertions about what is “right” or “good” or “acceptable” to eat. These assertions could come from either side of the fence, but the corn syrup crowd has proven to be much more laissez-faire than the organic-only crew, who act like their life mission is to “inform” the world about what is healthy. (It would be more accurate to say “evangelize.”) Ironically, Christians are some of the worst culprits here. Believing that God made the world good (Gen. 1:31), we forget that God also made the world with pre-loaded potential (Gen. 1:28), the kind that can make coffee from coffee beans, wine from grapes, clothing from cotton, houses from wood, lecithin from soy beans, and high fructose corn syrup from corn. Instead of celebrating the grace of God in the ingenuity of his image-bearers, these food Pharisees pick up the weapons of the devil—fear, guilt, and shame—which they use to intimidate God’s people into eating this instead of that. “This food causes cancer.” “If you eat that, you will die.” “Jesus only ate organic.” “Processed food is not from God.” “Eating animals is wrong.” “Don’t you know what’s in that?” “This will make you fat.” “That’s not ‘real’ food.” “I would never serve that to my kids.” “I used to eat differently before I knew better.” “#healthymeals #glutenfree #imamazing” Those words are found nowhere in the Scriptures, but they are found in the deadly cocktail of fear, guilt, and shame that apostles of the appetite drink daily with a spoonful of essential oil (to help the body absorb everything). And they are not content to destroy only themselves but are compelled to “share” their “knowledge” with others. Claiming to be wise, they become fools and exchange the glory of God’s “yes” to all foods for a self-righteous “no” to most foods. Recalibrating the Scales None of this should be taken to mean that you could eat fried chicken every day and not have to worry about heart disease. We live in a world of cause and effect, and such laws were put in place by God too. But don’t get your scales out of balance. Even though our bodies matter greatly, our spiritual health is more important than our physical health (1 Tim. 4:8). For a man who dies with heart disease and faith in the grace of Jesus will be with Jesus forever, while someone who enjoys “healthy living” through their 70s and 80s but doesn’t have a clue about grace, will suffer eternally for their arrogance. The difference can be illustrated like this: Two men sat down in their break room to eat, one an overweight factory worker, the other a self-styled nutritionist. The self-styled nutritionist looked at the overweight man’s food and thought to himself, “God, I’m so glad I don’t eat like him—processed meals, fried foods, and none of it organic or natural. I eat three healthy meals a day, and I blog about it, too.” The overweight man saw the look of disgust on the self-styled nutritionist’s face, and he felt shame. He couldn’t bring himself to look the self-styled nutritionist in the eyes, so he kept his head bowed even after he had finished praying, “Father, thank you for this food. Please bless it, and use it to strengthen my body.” When Jesus told a story very much like this one, he concluded with words like these: ‘I tell you that the overweight man, not the self-styled nutritionist, went home justified before God. For all who exalt their diet will be humbled, but those who humbly give thanks will be exalted’ (cf. Luke 18:9-14). The difference is plain. The overweight man thanked God for provision in the form of daily breadsticks. He went home justified because he understood his meal had been fried in pure grace. The self-styled nutritionist, on the other hand, was the kind of man who was “confident in his own righteousness, and looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:9). So while there was nothing wrong with what he ate, there was everything wrong with how he ate it. His self-righteousness had reached the bottomless pit stage, and with every GMO-free kale chip that went into his mouth, his proud heart hardened just a little bit more. So, What Would Jesus Eat? If Jesus were alive today, what would he eat? Based on all that we’ve seen, it’s safe to say that Jesus would eat kefir, coconut oil, and organic kale, if they were served to him. He would also eat Twinkies, Dr. Pepper, and white bread if those were served instead. Jesus wouldn’t be a glutton (Matt. 11:19), but he wouldn’t let anyone speak evil about food that God calls good, either (Rom. 14:16). The point is that no matter what Jesus would eat or drink, he would do so with gratitude to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). How we eat matters more than what we eat. “No food is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4). That places all of us in the same boat, with lives so full of God’s grace that our hearts ought to overflow with gratitude and generosity. For we worship a God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim. 6:17), and that includes Moon Pies and gluten-free brownies, agave syrup and corn syrup, almond milk and skim milk, grass-fed beef and corn-fed beef, mesclun greens and McDonald’s—yes, even McDonald’s. It’s all grace, so let’s give thanks. 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.
  • BE WHO YOU WILL BECOME

    By Doug Ponder on Oct. 10, 2017

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

    By Doug Ponder on Oct. 24, 2017

    The Boob Tube In the early days of its life, TV was known as the “boob tube.” This had nothing to do with what television showed (nudity was unthinkable territory in those days) and everything to do with what television did. Too much TV turned you into a boob of the old-school variety: a fool, a dunce, an idiot, an imbecile. “All things in moderation,” we demur, as we get on with our immoderate amounts of viewing. Even in the age of the Internet, the typical American still watches an average of 5 hours of TV per day—which is really hard to do Monday through Friday, so we must be making up for it on the weekends. That works out to an average of 35 hours of TV per week—almost a full time job. And this doesn’t include how many hours we spend on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. That's a lot of entertainment! Addicted to Amusement Most of us already know about how much TV we watch. We don’t have a knowledge problem; we have an addiction problem. And it may be worse than we realize. Hanging out with friends and there’s a lull in the conversation? How quickly we grab our phones… Is that pile of assignments staring bleakly at you? Where’s that remote… Is your professor uninteresting? Just log onto Facebook… Are you bored and have “nothing to do”? I heard there’s a new show on Netflix this month… When entertainment becomes your means of escape from virtually any inconvenience in life, it has moved from harmless amusement to harmful addiction. It is our "drug of choice" when we want to drown our guilt over sin, tune out the “still small voice” of God, forget the friction in our relationships, or escape (for a moment) from the anxiety of work. To be sure, entertainment as a category is not the problem. The capacity for pleasure is part of the wonder of God’s world and the need for leisure is part of the way God has made us. To speak plainly, the TV isn’t the issue—we are. Our theological view of TV is fine; our viewing habits are anything but. One Slave's Story The never-ending “need” for entertainment is a form of self-enslavement. I'm speaking from experience. In college I played more than 60 hours of video games per week, in addition to watching TV shows and movies with friends. I nearly failed out of school one semester. I gained more than 50 pounds. I lost contact with several friends. And I was deeply, deeply unhappy. I was restless in spite of all my leisurely activities. The difficulties of life I tried to dodge were still waiting for me when the screen turned off. I only felt momentary relief while I was engaged in these entertaining distractions—but I knew nothing of the joy that lasts through sorrow and pain. Entertainment had over-promised and under-delivered. It beckoned me with its offers of “fun” and relaxation, but it never gave me rest or joy or peace. Freedom from TV: Trivial Vegging In truth, I think that entertainment can only be pursued rightly by those who already have joy and peace because they know the Source of joy and peace himself. He breaks the enslaving power of our addiction to entertainment with several key ingredients. (Note: They are "ingredients" and not "steps" because, like a cake, they all need to be present for the finished product to turn out alright.) The first ingredient is admitting you have a problem. You’ll never seek help if you don’t think you need it. TV, videogames, social media—these truly are all fine in moderation. But are you really using them in moderation? If not, confession is first ingredient for freedom. The second ingredient is remembering that God is the ultimate source of gratification. “At his right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). He is not trying to kill your joy; he is trying to fulfill it (John 15:11). So when this God calls us to trust him, obey him, and die daily to ourselves, he is not ruining our lives—he is saving them. The third ingredient is taking time to immerse yourselves in the Scriptures even when you don’t feel like it. How else can you learn to trust God, obey God, or live for God if you do not know who he is, what he has done for you in Christ, or how he asks you to live in return? The fourth ingredient is belonging to a church that preaches the gospel and shows how it's the key to change. For Jesus is Lord, and his saving rule extends over every aspect of our lives. There is no stone left unturned, no practice left untouched. The gospel changes everything. The final ingredient is to think more often about your death. As pastor John Piper often says, “You have one life. That’s all. You were made for God. Don’t waste it.” Remembering all that shouldn't cut out TV entirely, but it should absolutely cut back our trivial vegging! Remembering the brevity of life and the gravity of eternity has a way of setting us free from the tyranny of the moment by pointing us to the reality of the future. For no one will say on their deathbed, “I wish that I’d watched a little more Netflix.” Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is a regular contributor to RE|SOURCE. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.
  • 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.
  • THE ART OF SELF SABOTAGE

    By Doug Ponder on Dec. 27, 2017

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

    By Doug Ponder on Jan. 3, 2018

    Preferential Parenting? As a parent and a pastor, I’m concerned about the rise of parenting books and blogs that only further confuse, frustrate, and complicate things. “Mommy wars,” “the bottle battle,” and the ever present debates about homeschooling and discipline come to mind. Some say, “Do it this way,” while others say, “No, don’t do it like that. Do it like this.” People take sides, usually picking whichever side they like, whichever they prefer. (It’s almost like parenting choices are seen on the same level as what we choose to wear for the day.) That is why the most popular blogs are the ones that say, “Neither side is right. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Just do what works for you.” Yet when discussion about serious matters, like parenting, has sunk to the level of mere preferences, the battle is already lost. You see, the whatever-works-for-you-is-right mentality doesn’t come from the Scriptures; it comes from postmodern relativism, which denies universal truths and says whatever works is “true for you.” God never says anything remotely like that. Of course, neither does God say, “Thou must breastfeed thy children,” as if it were the eleventh commandment or something. So where does this leave us? Principles and Practices We have to understand the difference between principles and practices. A ‘principle’ is a general rule that is based on truth. A ‘practice’ is the application of that general rule. The Bible doesn’t give us specific instructions for every parenting practice (though it does give us some), but the Bible does give us parenting principles that we need to raise our children in a way that honors God. Principles are a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. God has given them to us, so they are binding upon us all—whether we like them or not. But we should like them, for God is a heck of a lot smarter than we are, and he loves us and gives us commands for our good (as well as the good of our children). Practices, on the other hand, can change a little with time and circumstances. That doesn’t mean that all  practices are created equal, however. Something is obviously a bad practice if it violates a biblical principle. You can’t honor your spouse (a  principle) by cheating on him or her sexually (a practice). Additionally, some practices uphold a principle better than others. Eating junk food 24/7, for example, does not fulfill the principle of stewarding all things for the glory of God—including my body—nearly as well as eating well-balanced meals with the occasional treat or festive celebration. Principled Parenting All this means that we must be principled parents. We must seek to uphold God’s principles for parenting (in addition to whatever practices he directly prescribes), to the very best of our knowledge and ability. Sometimes this means we might stop one practice and start a different one, if we become convinced that a certain practice better upholds the biblical principle that we aim for. If you focus only on the practice while forgetting the principle, however, you will become like those moms and dads who argue stringently for their practice, as if it’s the only way for the biblical principle to be upheld. At the same time, if you focus only on the principle without considering the outcome of a practice, you might go around thinking that you uphold the biblical principle while failing to do what God actually requires. (Can you really say they’re upholding the principle of stewarding their bodies if they eat only ice cream for every meal of the day?) What we need is commitment to obey God and humility to receive correction from wherever it comes (the Scriptures, wise counsel from parents or friends, or biblically-informed books and articles). That means we shouldn't run from every form of confrontation. Of course, we are all guilty of this to some degree. We have put up signs in certain areas of our lives that say, “No trespassing,” so that no one is allowed to speak to what we do. And because parenting is such a tremendous blessing and sobering responsibility, most of us are doubly wary of letting other people speak into our lives. That’s why we read blogs that “affirm us” by saying “there is no right way to parent,” which isn’t true from a principled standpoint, and “you can’t judge me,” which isn’t true from a community standpoint, and “just do what works for you,” which isn’t right either if God has anything to say about it. Comfort and Truth Just to be clear: I’m not trying to offend; I am trying to help. (Though, often the truth hurts before it heals.) I’m weary of seeing people whom I love cling to destructive lies about parenting because of their longing to be comforted and affirmed. To paraphrase one of C. S. Lewis’ warnings, ‘If you go looking for comfort in things like affirmation, you’ll get neither comfort nor truth. You’ll get only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with, and in the end, you’ll have despair. But if you go looking for truth, you’ll find comfort in the end.’ So it is with parenting. If you go looking for truth—the truth of what God says about parents and about raising children—you will find both comfort and confrontation. Confrontation isn’t comfortable, but it’s necessary for everyone who isn’t perfect. (That includes you and me.) But if you go looking for comfort without confrontation, you will have no real comfort in the end, only a heart full of grief and despair in the form of poorly raised children and a disorderly household. Responsibility: The Basic Principle of Parenthood If you could sum up the basic principle of parenthood in a single word it would be responsibility. Parents are responsible for raising children to know God, love God, and obey God. Parents are held responsible for how they raise their children, because they are “managers” (stewards) of God’s image-bearers when they are at their most fragile and impressionable state. Our children are “on loan” from God, so to speak. They have been given to us, but they still belong to him. We are responsible for parenting them accordingly. Parents Are Responsible for Their Children’s Well-Being You are responsible for your child’s health and safety. The practices you adopt, therefore, should uphold that principle to the best of your knowledge and ability. A child’s health and safety are obviously important, and not a few blog wars have been started over these issues. Consider the debate between breast milk and formula. Those who debate over practices without considering the principle simply take sides (usually whatever they have already chosen to do), and then defend their positions. If you recall the principle of responsibility for the child’s health and safety, however, you are better able to make wise and informed decisions. For example, formula is a blessing of modern science that enables moms to have children who might not be able to breastfeed them for medical reasons. That is a wonderful thing. The formula isn’t harmful to the child. It is nourishing and sustaining. In fact, if it weren’t for the invention of formula, some moms would not be able to feed their children (which obviously harms their health and safety!). So, if you are a mom who is forced to use formula, you should thank God for this gift and not feel guilty about it. On the other hand, some might choose to use formula for reasons other than the child’s health and safety. Let’s say, for example, a mom thinks breastfeeding is "icky," even though her body was made to do this. Her decision has nothing to do with the child’s well-being, but has everything to do with her own skewed view. The principle of the child’s health (not to mention the principle of being a good steward of your money) suggests that the practice of using formula is wrong in this specific case. Now suppose that a mom has been told by several doctors that she can’t produce enough milk to keep a child healthy. She is a staunch opponent of formula, however, and she loves the thought of participating in breastfeeding “sit ins,” where all the moms whip out their equipment in local restaurants to do the “natural thing.” Even though the doctors have warned her about the health of her child, she stubbornly refuses to use formula because of her own pride. In this case, using formula would be the right thing to do. The principle also applies to what your toddlers eat for breakfast. Obviously, the principle isn’t violated if you enjoy donuts with them once in a while. In fact, to refuse your kids certain foods seems to violate another principle in Scripture, namely, that God wants us to enjoy his creation. (After all, what do you make of God’s occasional commands for his people to enjoy the rich and fatty foods as a sign of his blessing?) But that doesn’t mean that letting your kid eat Cheetos for breakfast every day is smart, economical, or healthy for the child. The principle rules that practice out because, as everyone knows, Cheetos are anything but healthy eating. (And before you think I’m getting legalistic about Cheetos, I think they’re completely fine as a side item to a sandwich or some other item. I’m just pointing out that while eating cereal for three meals a day might be a little strange, eating Cheetos for three meals a day might be borderline neglectful. The difference is clear, and everyone knows it.) Parents Are Responsible for Their Children’s Education Just as parents are responsible for a child’s physical well-being, so they are responsible their spiritual and mental well-being. Parents are routinely told in the Scriptures that they must instruct, teach, and train their children. Parents are responsible for their child’s education. That’s the principle. Now, a parent shouldn’t make the mistake of equating “education” with schooling. Children learn in school, but their education doesn’t start or stop there. A child’s primary education always begins and ends in the home. They learn so much more from mom and dad than subjects like math and English and science. So when we say that parents are responsible for their child’s education, we mean their total education, from what they think about God, to how they think about themselves, and even how they think about the place and importance of schooling in the life that God has given them. But a parent is responsible for a child’s schooling, too. That is part of their education, even though it isn’t all of it. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you must choose homeschooling. But it does mean that regardless of what form of schooling your child receives, you (the parent) are responsible for overseeing and directing their learning. For example, let’s say that a single dad who works two jobs to care for his three kids has to send them to public school. Is he forfeiting his responsibility over his children’s education? Not necessarily. He could talk with his children about what they are learning, and he could supplement what is lacking or correct what is wrong in what they are being taught. Let’s say that another family has chosen to homeschool their kids because they believe that “it’s the only way to educate your children.” The agree with the principle of overseeing a child’s education, but they confuse the principle with the practice of homeschooling itself. As a result, they are likely to think that by homeschooling their children they automatically fulfill the principle to oversee their child’s education. But they’re wrong. Bad homeschooling is just as irresponsible as bad public education. Simply schooling at home doesn’t fulfill the principle of directing your child’s education. Whether you homeschool your kids or you send them to private or public schools, you are responsible for what they are learning because you are responsible for their total education. If that sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is! A child’s education shapes them, for better or for worse, in significant ways. But a parent doesn’t get off the hook by neglecting their responsibility. So Many Issues, So Little Time There are so many other “hot button” issues that we could address. But we can’t address them all here. What we must avoid at all costs, however, is the lie that parents simply choose “what works for them” without considering the principles that God has given us. For example, how might the principle that fruitful discipline should be painful (Heb. 12:11) inform the practice of spanking? How might the primacy of the marital relationship (between husband and wife) affect whether or not co-sleeping  with your children is an acceptable practice? All these are worth considering, but they can’t be answered without knowing the principles and truths of the Scripture. Otherwise we are left to mere opinions of what seems to work for us, without consideration for how we might be violate the principles God has given us. Am I a Bad Parent? The message of the gospel is not, “You’re good just the way you are.” Rather, the good news is that, despite our many flaws and failures, God has chosen to make us good through the love of Jesus. Admitting that we are not good is the starting place for receiving grace, and it should be the starting place for thinking about whether or not we are good parents. All of us have “room to improve.” All of us have things we could do better, and we know we should. We don’t help ourselves when we deny these errors or faults. That only makes things worse. We have to own up to our errors before they can be made better. We have to say, “I haven’t done a good job of parenting in this area,” before we can receive the loving correction of God’s grace. But if you're asking, "Am I bad parent?" as a way to wonder whether or not God loves you and is pleased with you, then you are asking the wrong question. God loves even bad parents because of Jesus. The difference is that bad parents who know the grace of Jesus won't want to stay that way. They'll want to change whatever they can to improve how they shepherd, care for, protect, lead, and love the children that God has entrusted to them. The really good news is that you don't have to do this on your own. God's grace toward us doesn’t leave us in our backwardness and error-laden ways. His grace comes into our lives to change us. It humbles us, it corrects us, and it teaches us (Titus 2:11-12). All of this is grace from God, who wants us to shepherd our children (his image-bearers) to the best of our ability. He will do this in you, if you continue to humble yourself, listen to what he has said, and seek wisdom from godly parents in your community. The community part isn't optional, either. For we all have hearts that pollute our thoughts and lead us astray, but God says that wisdom is found through many advisers (cf. Prov. 11:14; 15:22), and "Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment" (Prov. 18:1). 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 HEART OF MASCULINITY

    By Doug Ponder on Jan. 10, 2018

    Masculine Males The heart of masculinity is the joyful acceptance of sacrificial responsibility. But that statement is as dense as a North Jersey smog, so we need to consider each part carefully. First, masculine and male are not the same word, and they don't have the same meaning. All men are male, for example, but not all men are masculine. This is because “male” is a biological term, while “masculine” is a relational and vocational term. Someone is male if he simply has an X and a Y chromosome, but a man is only masculine if he acts in accordance with the role that God has given to men. This means a man’s maleness is automatic and unchanging: he has an X and a Y chromosome, so he will always be male. But a man’s masculinity is not automatic and unchanging; it must be embraced and developed. This works a bit like the difference between physical growth and spiritual growth. Physical growth is automatic. For young boys to become men, all they have to do is wait for their bodies to grow naturally. But that’s not how it is with spiritual growth, including the development of masculinity (1 Cor. 15:10). Masculinity is not automatic; it must be embraced and developed. Avoiding Two Ditches Talk of masculinity today typically veers into one of two ditches, both of which are full of dead men’s bones: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 16:25). The first is the there-is-no-such-thing-as-masculinity ditch. Put another way, this is the ditch for those who say, “Masculinity is whatever you make it.” This is not an actual answer. It is masculinity nihilism. It is a giant black hole that devours every distinction between men and women, claiming that such words are just “labels” or “social constructs.” The second is the machismo ditch. Those who veer into this ditch have confused common male sins for the heart of masculinity itself. This would include sins like unbridled aggression, misused strength, self-serving sense of entitlement, etc. The ditch is full of über-macho males and men who take pride in being male (as if that were something to brag about). Both ditches are the way to death, but when we live in a society that only ever warns us about one of the ditches—as our society does—then that means we have probably made our home in the other ditch. This is an important point to make, because it means that what God says to us about masculinity will seem to our darkened minds like we are heading for the other ditch. “Don’t go right!” the ditch-dwellers will scream. “There’s a horrible ditch over there!” This is quite true, and it must be avoided. But when you’re in the ditch on the left side of the road, heading to the right is the only way to get out of the ditch you are currently in. Acceptance of Responsibility We have said that the heart of masculinity is the joyful acceptance of sacrificial responsibility. This is because, like the first man, all men have been called by God to provide and protect—to “work” and to “keep” as the biblical language says (Gen. 2:15). Work has to do with cultivation and provision, while protection refers to a man’s duty to be a fortress of safety and stability for his family. Both of these are ways of accepting responsibility in a masculine way. Note that God was the one who chose these functions for the first man and for every man made in his likeness. That means the dual-calling of “provider and protector” is not a human invention, a religious tradition, of a social construct. The masculine calling is an essential part of God’s design for men. That is why God tells us about it in the first pages of the Bible. Evidence of the masculine calling to accept responsibility is found all through the Bible. God created man first as the provider and protector (Gen. 2:7), and he created woman second to be the one he would accept responsibility to protect and provide for (Gen. 2:21-24). And when the man and woman fell into sin, God held Adam responsible and addressed him first (Gen. 3:10). The Bible also speaks of men “taking a wife,” but never speaks of women “taking a husband,” which makes sense if the masculine calling involves accepting responsibility for others. The most important example of the masculine calling to accept responsibility as provider and protector is seen in Jesus himself. In the fifth chapter of Ephesians, God speaks through the apostle Paul to tell us that every marriage is patterned after the roles of Jesus and his bride, the church (Eph. 5:22-33). Jesus provides his bride with all things and protects her from every harm. That is why God says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church” (Eph. 5:25). Practically speaking, a man’s acceptance of responsibility means taking the initiative in providing things like food and clothing for himself and for his family. That means the man needs to get a job and not be a stay-at-home dad. God says this is so serious that a man who refuses to provide for himself and his family in these ways “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). A man is also called to provide for his family spiritually, washing his wife with the water of God’s word (Eph. 5:26), and bringing up his children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4)—which can’t happen if the man sinfully seeks to avoid responsibility by never having any children to begin with. The acceptance of responsibility also means protecting his wife and children from physical, emotional, and spiritual harm. The man should be tough on sin, especially his own, yet tender with his wife and patient with his children. Mature men also honor the differences between them and their wives, using their greater physical strength and size to serve and protect, never to threaten or to harm (1 Pet. 3:7). Sacrificial Responsibility The responsibility that God calls men to take upon themselves is a sacrificial responsibility. This is because Jesus loved us with a love that knows how to bleed, and husbands are called to love their wives in the same way. That is to say, when Jesus died he was not just inconvenienced in a minor way. When Jesus died he was not briefly interrupted. When Jesus died he gave his bride all that he had to give: his own life. That is the model for husbands, and it is an example that should humble every man, yet not to the point of despair. For when the humble man cries out to his gracious God, he also trusts that the Lord will enable him to fulfill his calling. To speak in practical terms again, sacrificial responsibility means hard work. It means that a masculine husband is the kind of man who gets up early and stays up late when necessary. He pulls his weight around the house and doesn’t expect his wife to have to act like his mother. He gets a second job, if needed, in order to provide for his family. He labors diligently to create an abundance for his family, and if lean times come, he takes the smallest share and maintains a sense of gratitude in the home. Sacrificial responsibility also means the man puts himself last, and the needs of his wife and children first, just as Jesus did with the church. Joyful Acceptance Finally, masculinity is not just the acceptance of sacrificial responsibility, but the joyful acceptance of sacrificial responsibility. This means men recognize that the masculine calling is something God designed them for and blessed them with for their good. God is not ruing our lives; he is saving them. And one of the main ways that God rescues a man from a wasted life of irresponsible self-indulgence (whether video games, endless sports viewing, or any other fruitless activity) is to entrust the man with a wife and children to care for. This means a wife is God’s grace to the man (just as he is God’s grace to her in a different way). In other words, the easiest way to lead a man away from laziness, away from unbridled lust, away from a life of sinful self-indulgence is to lead him to a wife. But don’t get it twisted. A woman is not a ‘reward’ for becoming responsible. On the contrary, almost all men (with very few exceptions, even in the Bible) must marry in order to become responsible adults. Thus a wife is a sanctifying agent straight from God—which is why it behooves single men who can’t stop fondling themselves and their video game controllers to seek one pronto (1 Cor. 7:9). As one author puts it, “Just as the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, so also is the love of a good woman the beginning of male responsibility.” In this way God’s role for men matches God’s design for men, which means that men are a lot like trucks: they drive smoother and straighter when carrying a load. Men who know this truth can accept sacrificial responsibility with joy because they accept them with the eyes of faith. They believe that God is good to the core, that he loves us, and that he has given us all things so that we might be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). That “all things” includes masculinity and the roles God attached to it, and the man who embraces God’s design with faith will find there is joy at the end of the tether. And there’s more than enough to share. Update: Our society is in the midst of a masculinity crisis, and the evidence of this is that we can no longer see how many of our problems are related to the loss of masculine men. For this reason I encourage every man to read Father Hunger by pastor Doug Wilson. It is the clearest, frankest, and most practical book on the subject of masculinity that I have ever read. Almost all of what I have written in this article was influenced that book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. 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.
  • BETTER THAN YOU DESERVE

    By Doug Ponder on Jan. 17, 2018

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

    By Doug Ponder on Jan. 31, 2018

    Work Is Not a Curse Imagine paradise. Really. Take a moment imagine you are in paradise. What do you see? Maybe you picture a remote tropical island with water clearer than a swimming pool. You can almost feel your toes sinking into the white sands warmed by the sun. Or maybe you imagine yourself reclining in an over-sized Adirondack chair. The fire in the stone hearth provides the perfect respite from the crisp mountain air as you curl up to spend the day reading a book. Though pictures of paradise will vary from one person to another, one thing seems to remain constant in them all: just about everyone agrees that ‘paradise = freedom from work.’ Everybody but God, that is. In the beginning, God created work. It’s true. One of the first things we learn about how God made us is that he designed us for work. “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28), God said. And just so we didn’t miss his point, the author tells us, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15). That’s not just some past-tense paradise, either. The biblical prophets also describe the future paradise being prepared for God’s people as a time when people turn their weapons of war into farming tools (Isa. 2:1-5; Micah 4:1-5). So, the Bible begins with humans working in paradise and it ends with humans working in paradise! In light of all this it should be obvious that work  is not a curse. Instead, God shows us that work is part of his perfect design for our lives. But what does this mean? Click here to finish reading this article, which has been featured at Christianity.com. 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 HEART OF FEMININITY

    By Doug Ponder on Feb. 7, 2018

    The Only Thing That Wasn’t Good When God looked out on everything that he had made, there was only one thing about which he said, “Not good.” That one thing was the absence of a woman (Gen. 2:18). With all that we know about God, that verse alone should be enough to show us how glorious the feminine calling is. Because of sin, however, we will have to say much more than that, as we did with the masculine calling for men. For starters, we should note that the denigration of femininity is nothing new. Since shortly after the creation of the first woman, men and women both have rebelled against God’s design and demeaned women in the process. Men do this when they treat women like inferiors or accessories or anything other than what they are: a literal Godsend. Women demean themselves when they reject their God-designed differences from men and aim to create a world where women and men are identical. Ironically, that vision for a unisex world is the same state of life that first led God to say, “Not good.” So you might say that both feminism and male chauvinism are tragic examples of what happens when sinful people ignore God’s wise design. For when God said that it was “not good” for man to be alone without a corresponding helper, it’s foolish to think God resolved that dilemma with a person exactly like the man. “And behold, God saw that the man was alone, without a helper corresponding to him, so he created another person to be exactly like the first one.” Different by Design What we are saying is not just that men and women are different—which everyone already knew, unless they were duped by that freshman course on human sexuality. No, we are saying that men and women are different on purpose as part of God’s glorious design. As we explore God’s design, we’ll see that the heart of femininity is joyful submission to and support of their husband’s Christ-like leadership. As women embrace this calling, they will find fulfillment and joy. This is another way of saying that all women are female, but not all women are feminine. That’s because “female” is a biological term, while “feminine” is a relational and vocational term. A women’s ‘femaleness’ is automatic and unchanging. She is genetically a woman by birth, so she will always be female. But a woman’s femininity is not automatic or unchanging; femininity is a calling that must be embraced and developed. Two Ditches, Revisited As with masculinity, talk of femininity today almost always veers off the road into one of two ditches. These ditches are so normalized by sin that people have made their homes in them and given them proper names as if they were great paths that will take us someplace wonderful. In reality, these ditches only lead to confusion, frustration, depression, and spiritual death (Prov. 16:25). The name of the first deadly ditch is Egalitarianism, which technically means “equal-ism,” but actually means “sameness-ism.” True equality is wonderful, and those who oppose equality are opposing God himself (Rom. 2:11; James 2:1,9). But being equal does not mean being the same. Your left and right shoes are equal in size, color, and importance, but they are not reversible because they are not the same. Knives and forks are equally needed when cutting meat, but they have differing parts to play. The needle and the thread are equally important when sewing, but they differ by design. In each of these cases—whether shoes or silverware or sewing—a pair of objects possess equal dignity despite their differing designs. Egalitarianism is confused about this point because it (wrongly) thinks that differences in function or role mean a difference in value or importance or worth. Women who believe the gospel know that their value and worth come from who they are in Christ, not from anything they do. Thus Christian women are free to delight in the feminine calling to submit and support—and they can do this without seeing it as a “lesser calling,” as egalitarianism says, because they know their worth, value, significance, importance is not found in their role but in their redemption. The name of the second deadly ditch is Chauvinism, which comes in both male and female varieties. Chauvinism is sexism, or the belief that one of the sexes is better than the other. Ironically, chauvinism has the same starting place as egalitarianism, believing that equality means sameness. The difference between them is this: chauvinism concludes that differences between men and women mean that one of the sexes truly is more valuable, more important, and more worthy of honor, whereas egalitarianism tries to ignore or downplay the differences between men and women altogether. Chauvinism leads to death just as easily as egalitarianism, though, because it locks men and women in an eternal battle-of-the-sexes to determine who is better, instead of appreciating the differences between men and women as gifts from God. Christian women reject chauvinism for the same reason they reject egalitarianism, for they know that men are not more valuable or worthy because of the calling they have been given, nor are women more valuable or worthy for the calling they have been given. Both are equally loved, equally valued, and equally part of God’s glorious design for the sexes. It’s very important to see that we live in a society that only ever warns about one of the ditches, and so that means that we have made our home in the other ditch. That is why our culture quickly points the finger at chauvinism but almost never recognizes the evil of egalitarianism. So when we embrace God’s design for femininity, it will seem to people infected with egalitarian ideas (as so many are) that we are drifting into the other ditch. We are not! For when you are stuck in a ditch on the left, you have to move right in order to get out of there. But that doesn’t mean that you have to fall into the ditch on the right side of the road, either. Joyful Submission Once again, the heart of femininity is joyful submission to and support of their husband’s Christ-like leadership. (This still applies to women who do not yet have a husband in the same way that the masculine calling applies to single men. For example, a single lady should seek to become the kind of woman who would respond with submission and support to the Christ-like leadership of her future husband.) Words like “submission” or “submit” aren’t popular, but they are the words that God uses. That means there is no rebelling against these words, since to do so would be to rebel against God himself. He says: “Wives, submit yourselves to your on husbands as you do to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). God also calls wives to follow the example of the holy women of the Scriptures “by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham” (1 Pet. 3:5-6). And this does not come naturally to us, but is something that God says older women to teach younger women how to do: “Train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God” (Titus 2:4-5). So there can be no doubt that submission is at the heart of the feminine calling. But what does it mean to submit? Based on how it is used throughout the Bible, we know that the word “submit” means to arrange oneself under the leadership of another, to respect them, to yield to them, even to obey them (1 Pet. 3:6). The most significant example of femininity is found in the fifth chapter of Ephesians. God says there that men are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. In response, women are called to respect their husbands and to follow their Christ-like leadership (Eph. 5:22-24, 33). Because Jesus and the church can never switch roles, neither can the husband and the wife. Each steps into the role God has given them, receiving them for what they are: a calling from God intended to bless us. The church’s submission to Jesus paints a picture that touches upon both a woman’s attitude and her actions. A submissive attitude is the respectful recognition of the masculine calling to accept sacrificial responsibility with a posture that leans in the direction of readiness to follow her husband’s lead and willingness to support his initiative. It says, “I respect the responsibility that you accept for our family, and I delight when you take the initiative and serve with sacrificial love. I flourish in the relationship when you take the lead.” But submission is not just an attitude that stays stillborn in the heart; it is an attitude that gives way to action. Submission is therefore not just the willingness to trust and follow their husband, but the actual doing of those things, too. Submission says, as Jesus did, “Not what I want, but what you want. Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). What Submission Is Not 1. Submission does not mean following your husband into sin. Husbands are not in authority full stop. Husbands are men in authority who are also under authority. They are accountable to Jesus for how they lead their wives and children. So while they have been given the authority and responsibility to oversee the wellbeing of their family, God says this is an “authority that the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you” (2 Cor. 10:8). That is why the heart of femininity is the joyful submission to… their husband’s Christ-like leadership, not submission to some sinful dictatorship. 2. Submission is not permission for abuse. God’s strongest punishments in the Scriptures are reserved for those who harm others that were entrusted to their care. Since wives are entrusted to husbands for their care, these biblical warning extend to them. God takes abuse very seriously. It is punished in one of two ways: the death of Jesus for sins or hell. 3. Submission is not a way of saying the husband is always right. Nor is submission a way of saying that the husband is just fine the way he is and nothing about him needs to change. We know this because God tells us that husbands do need to change—and amazingly, counter-intuitively—God uses the submission of a Christian wife to change her husband (1 Pet. 3:1-2). Joyful Support The very first thing we learn about men in the Scriptures is that God designed them with a job in mind, and that job was to provide and protect (Gen. 2:15). Just a few verses later, we are introduced to the first woman and told about God’s design for her, too: “For Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while Adam was sleeping, God took one of his ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man” (Gen. 2:20-22). Thus men were designed to provide and protect, and women were designed as a “suitable helper” for them. The word suitable refers to the woman’s complementary strengths. Women are strong in some areas where men are weak, and vice versa. This is not an accident. God didn’t call men to carry heavy things because they have broader shoulders; God gave men broader shoulders so that they could carry heavy things. In the same way, God didn’t “accidentally” give women a body that can support and nurture life. It’s the other way around: God bestows the ability to have children upon women precisely because he designed them with nurturing and supporting in mind. In fact, every act of sexual intimacy between a husband and a wife put their differences on display. The design of our sexual anatomy guarantees that there is always an initiator or giver (husbands) and a responder or receiver (wives). These bodily differences are not arbitrary; they mirror the design of our souls and our respective callings from God that correspond to how he has made us. Now the word helper is not a denigrating term like sidekick. Rather, the word helper is used to describe God in some places, and Jesus even gives the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the official name of “Helper” (John 14:16). This means the kind of help that God designed women to give is a necessary help. It was “not good” for the man to be alone, remember? So God fixed this ‘not good’ with something very good: the creation of women with gifts and a calling to complement the gifts and the calling of men. Practically speaking, the calling to submit to her husband’s Christ-like leadership means that wives delight for their husbands to take the initiative, and they look for ways to support him in this with the kind of strength that helps them succeed together. This is why God says that women must pursue the “unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Pet. 3:4). This is not a quietness that results from being told to “shut up and learn their place” (an idiotic saying if ever there was one). Instead, this gentleness and quietness is the result of women have been set free by the gospel so they no longer feel like they have to justify themselves or prove their strength. They already know they are precious to the Lord, and so they demonstrate their faith by rejoicing in the calling that God designed them to fulfill. The Path to Joy God did not create differences between men and women so that we would argue about which is better. For that would be like asking which is better: water or sunlight? We need them both, but we need them both to be what they are. We need water to act like water and sunlight to act like sunlight. They are equally needed for life, but they only bring life when they function in the roles God has given them. In the same way, God created men and women so that we could thrive together. Because God created both, we know that he loves both. It may sound strange to say it, but this means God likes masculinity and femininity. He likes it when men and women act like the people he created us to be. We might even say that God celebrates the distinctness of males and females by honoring each with unique and irreversible roles. And when we embrace his design with the eyes of faith, then we find we are met with all the grace and strength we need to fulfill the callings God has given to us. And as we said of men, the gospel frees women to receive these truths with joy because they accept them with the eyes of faith. They believe that God is good to the core, that he loves us, and that he has given us all things so that we might be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). That “all things” includes femininity and the roles God attached to it, and the woman who embraces God’s design with faith will find that what the world says is the path to death is actually the path to a joyful life. Update: Women (or men) looking to clear up any remaining confusion about God's design for femininity and masculinity should listen to this sermon from Remnant Church. To read more about how egalitarianism and feminism have demeaned and confused women, checkout Radical Womanhood: Feminine Faith in a Feminist World. Finally, moms who want encouragement and guidance should read Loving the Little Years and Fit to Burst, both by Rachel Jankovic. They are amazingly helpful and mercifully short! 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.
  • 7 DEADLY SINS: PRIDE

    By Doug Ponder on Feb. 14, 2018

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

    By Doug Ponder on March 21, 2018

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

    By Doug Ponder on March 28, 2018

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

    By Doug Ponder on April 18, 2018

    The Reality of Virtual Friendships Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Foursquare, Flickr, LinkedIn, Reddit, Tumblr, Imgur, or whatever comes next—social media have changed our relationships in significant ways. With the touch of a button on a small device I carry in my pocket, I can instantly discover what’s happening with friends on the other side of the world. And yet, drawing from personal experience, pastoral conversations, and recent sociological studies, I’m willing to wager that social media’s impact on our relationships has been equally wonderful and detrimental, introducing lots of new opportunities and lots of unforeseen challenges for Christians who use them... Click here to finish reading this article, which has been featured at Christianity.com. 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.
  • DIFFERENT BY DESIGN

    By Doug Ponder on May 2, 2018

    The Problem with the Biebs In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Sometime after that God created humanity in his image to reflect him and represent him in all of creation. To succeed in our glory-reflecting mission, God created us as male and female. It’s worth noting that God didn’t have to make us that way. God could have made humans to be like single-celled amoebas (which are asexual), or hermaphroditic earthworms (which are both sexes at the same time), or some kind of indeterminate middle sex (like Justin Bieber). But he didn’t. Apparently God likes maleness and femaleness. He not only made his image bearers male and female, God also filled the plant and animal kingdoms with males and females too—like millions and millions of little reminders of the glory of man and woman, who are the image of God. It may seem obvious to say it, but God likes it when men and women act in accordance with his design. We know this because God celebrates the differences between men and women by honoring each with unique and irreversible roles. The outward appearances of these roles may change slightly from culture to culture, but the basic roles never change. As an obvious example: men are not designed to give birth to children, because God gave the role of motherhood to women. When Equal Is Not the Same Sadly, not everyone likes the beauty of the differences between men and women as much as God does. Take most of history, for example. For far too long many societies treated women like second-class citizens. Even cultures that had a strong presence of the Christian faith sometimes ignored the fact that God had made men and women equally good, equally important, and equally human beings. Today, however, the pendulum seems to have swung in the opposite direction. The distinctness of men and women is not celebrated very often anymore. Instead, we live in a society that tries to minimize, downplay, or ignore the differences between men and women in virtually every area. This battle against God’s design goes by many names. Sometimes it’s called “feminism,” and sometimes it’s called “egalitarianism.” The latter is a big word which basically means “equalism.” Nothing is wrong with being equal, of course. The poison in that word is found in the ism part. Here’s what I mean. Men and women should be regarded as equals. Gender, race, income bracket, etc., should not affect how we are judged in a court of law. Being equal in that sense is great, and being unequal in that sense is a great injustice. But (grab your thinking hats, kids) being equal and being the same are totally different categories. A and B are equally letters, but they are not the same letter. Chickens are turkeys are equally birds, but they do not taste the same. Screws and screwdrivers are equally tools, but they have different (complementary) uses. Shirts and pants are equally clothing, but they have different ‘jobs’ when covering your body. Likewise men and women are equal in value, equal in dignity, equal in their need for salvation, equal in Christ, and so on. Men and women really are equal, but they’re not the same. This is so simple that every child can see and understand this point. Now sometimes children express their understanding of these differences accurately, and sometimes they say things like, “Boys don’t wear pink.” We know that some boys do wear pink, but at least the child understands that boys and girls are different. If that child grows up with a dad who acts like a man and a mom who acts like a woman, then they’ll soon sort out their prejudice against pink. They’ll learn that the differences between men and women go much deeper than cultural practices, running right to core of who we are and how God wants us to live in his world. But if that child learns about manhood and womanhood from a gender studies course at an overpriced college, then rest assured that they’ll confuse being “equal” (which is good and right) with being “the same” (which is obviously wrong), and all manner of nonsense is sure to follow. Here is where people cry, “Foul! Foul!” when there is no foul. If men and women really are different by design—that is, if men and women are equal but not the same—then to respect men as men and to respect women as women means that we must understand and celebrate their God-given differences. (To respect the design of the screwdriver means not treating it like a screw. You honor both the screw and the screwdriver by using them in accordance with their design.) Different by Design If we were to search the Scriptures for all that God says about what he created men to be and to do, our summary might go something like this: God has designed and called men to lead, provide, and protect. Now leading doesn’t mean doing everything. In fact, the best leaders know their own weaknesses and call upon the strengths of others around them to get the job done. Rather, leadership means initiative. Men are called to take the initiative in serving others, providing for others, and protecting others with the strength that God has given them. Complementary to the others-centered, benevolent initiative of men, the Scriptures show us that women are designed by God to receive, nurture, and support. Women do not “just so happen” to have the reproductive organs for receiving, nurturing, and supporting life. That’s backwards. Women have the reproductive organs for receiving, nurturing, and supporting because that is what God designed and called women to do in every sphere of life. Speaking of reproductive organs, it’s folly to think that they are an accident too. God designed sex such that one partner is the initiator and the other partner is the receiver. It is anatomically impossible to get around giving and taking, initiating and receiving, because the shape of our sexual organs mirrors the shape of our souls. Disagreeing with God All of this reminds us that God knows what he’s doing, and he knows what he’s talking about when he speaks to how we were designed to live as men and as women. In fact, to ignore what God says about how we’ve been made would be like rejecting the manufacturer’s instructions on a very complex invention. Doing so only sets us up for needless pain, frustration, and heartache. When we are confused about something as deeply intrinsic to our lives as our sexual identity, men and women will always be affected by this cultural confusion. None of this catches God by surprise, nor does it reflect his original design. In fact, the very first act of disobedience (sin) followed from a reversal of roles. Instead of leading and protecting his wife, Adam deferred his responsibility to Eve and they both fell into sin. When God speaks to them in the next chapter (Gen. 3), he explains how their sin will cause the peace of God’s world to unravel. Notice, too, that the heart of God’s explanation is how sin will effect men and women in their callings. Their roles did not change because of sin, but sin would now make it harder to fulfill them. God warned that men would now struggle to provide and protect (Gen. 3:17-19), while women would struggle to be mothers and wives who receive and support their husband’s leadership (Gen. 3:16). History has proven God right on this point time and time again. Instead of leading, protecting, and providing for their families, many men succumb to laziness, while others become abusive and domineering. Likewise, women have increasingly begun to act like men, thinking that “freedom” will be found in doing what they want instead of being who God designed them to be. But that's kind of like the "freedom" of being unencumbered by a parachute. Sure, you're technically more free to move about the cabin, but you're actually a slave to gravity. Let the reader understand. Humbly Listening to Jesus In Jesus, men can become the leaders, providers, and protectors they are created and called to be. As the apostle Paul explains, this looks like the life of Jesus himself. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). In other words, men are called to love with a love that bleeds. This is a self-sacrificial love. Men sacrifice by working hard, and by using their strength to heal and protect instead of harm or destroy. Men sacrifice by taking the initiative, instead of waiting passively for others to act. Husbands sacrifice by pursuing their wives as friends and lovers, instead of making them beg for conversation or romance. Husbands sacrifice by guarding their eyes and their hearts from lust, thus keeping faithful to the promise they made to their wives. Husbands sacrifice by serving and helping around the home. Husbands sacrifice by being humble, patient, and kind toward their wives, remembering that they are fellow heirs to the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7). In Jesus, women can become the receivers, nurturers, and supporters they are created and called to be. As the apostle Paul explains, this looks like the church’s response to Jesus: “As the church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Eph. 5:24). Now the idea of submission can be confusing for people in the 21st Century, especially since the word is so often abused. Yet the meaning of the term should be taken not from cultural misunderstanding but from God’s original design. As we have already seen, this means women are called to support. Far from being a denigrating term, the word used of women in Genesis 2 (“helper”) is actually a word that is sometimes used of God in the Scriptures. This means women are called to often the kind of support that helps and strengthens those around them. This may be spiritual support, as in encouraging and building up others. It may be economic support, as when a wife works from home or in the marketplace (Proverbs 31). In marriage feminine support includes praying for your husband, not withholding yourself from him sexually, helping around the house with the basic needs of the home, raising the children, etc. When men and women trust Christ, receive his Spirit, and listen to what he says, they are enabled to act like the men and women that God created them to be. In turn, they honor God, bless each other, and benefit the world by celebrating and embracing their distinct roles according to God’s wonderful design. 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.
  • ONWARDS AND UPWARDS

    By Doug Ponder on May 9, 2018

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

    By Doug Ponder on May 30, 2018

    Youtopia: The Perfect You? The word utopia today means “a perfect place.” But when the word was first used in the early 1500s, it meant “nowhere.” Both definitions are fitting, in a way, since a perfect place does not exist on this earth. The same is true of the perfect ‘you.’ You’re flawed. You mess up. You’re not who you would like to be. And you’re not alone in this regard. Second only to erotica and “romance” novels, self-help books continue to be among the best sellers every year. This shouldn’t be surprising, since I have never met anyone who doesn’t want to change. In fact, every January 1st people around the world write lists of what they would like to change (with varying degrees of successful follow-up!). It seems this near-universal desire to change is a strong indicator that we all know (even if only as a feeling of restlessness) that we are not who we should be. That much we agree on. But there is much less agreement on what has gone wrong and how it can be made right. Disney's Modern Fable  Disney’s Zootopia movie, gets right to the heart of the same issue. On the surface, the movie seems to be mainly about prejudice. But at its deepest level, the movie is more about our identity. Does your past define you? Where do your dreams and desires fit in? What makes you you? The movie opens with a scene from a children’s stage play. This storytelling device informs the audience that the predators and prey in this anthropomorphic animal kingdom once lived as savages, controlled by their biological instincts, hunting and being hunted, hating one another and being hated by one another. But now they have evolved beyond all that to a higher state of existence in which predators and prey now live together in harmony (for the most part). No longer afraid of being eaten, small animals are now free to pursue their dreams. All this this is good news for Judy, a female bunny who has always dreamed of becoming a police officer in the urban metropolis of Zootopia—a city whose official slogan is, “Anyone can be anything.” Yet Judy soon learns that not everyone really believes that anyone can be anything. She meets another character (a fox named Nick) who holds an opposing outlook on life. “Everyone comes to Zootopia thinking they could be anything they want,” he says cynically. “But you can't. You can only be what you are.” These characters, and their relationship, form a microcosm of the entire animal world—and our own. They are meant to present us with two options for understanding how to think about our identity. Can anyone be anything? Or can we only be what we are? Zootopia's Dead-ends I won’t tell you how the film ends, but I will tell you how the two options presented in the movie end up for everyone. If you follow Nick’s lead (“You can only be who you are”), you’ll walk the path of apathetic acceptance, viewing your life (and the lives of others) with a kind of gloomy resignation: “I’ve always been like this. I’ll always be like this. The world will never get better, and I won’t either. The more things ‘change,’ the more the stay the same. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can get on with life.” The end of that outlook on life isn’t one of joyful contentment. On the contrary, this path only leads to bitterness, resentment, depression, and crippling pessimism. Which is why most people today don’t sound like Nick. Most people I meet sound much more like Judy. Yet it doesn’t take long before the naïve optimism of “Anyone can be anything” crashes into the real-life limitations of the world we live in. And this is where the film really fails us. Although the monologue of the final scene briefly addresses our limitations, the only obstacles to Judy’s dream in the film were other people—almost as if to say, “So long as other people don’t hold you back, anyone can be anything.” Not only does this seriously overlook our flaws and failures and practical impossibilities, it also puts all the power of success on you. And that sounds nice in theory, until you don’t actually succeed—or worse: you do succeed, but it doesn’t bring you the happiness and satisfaction that you though it would, leaving you feeling even more empty than before. God’s Glorious Alternative There is a third alternative that is tragically lacking in Zootopia. I’m talking, of course, about the good news of the gospel, which speaks a better word than “You can only be what you are” or “Anyone can be anything.” Instead, the gospel promises—promises!—that you will be who you were created to be. This is what the gospel promises: the glorious self that you were created to be—a human who is fully alive to God and all the splendor of his world, free from the stain of sin, removed from the bondage of decay and death—that person is who you will become in Christ. Indeed, that is what salvation is; it is God’s longterm project of (re)making you into the person you were always meant to be but have been unable to become because of your slavery to sin (Rom. 8:29; Col. 3:9-10). Throughout our life God continually reshapes us and remolds us through the rhythm of faith and repentance until, at last, we are resurrected to be with Jesus, when God glorifies us and renews us completely (Rev. 21:5). Because that glorious work is God's doing, the gospel is good news that frees us to confess our sins and flaws (unlike Judy’s naïve optimism), while being equally emphatic about the hope of change for the better (unlike Nick’s crippling pessimism). The gospel also frees from the snare of Nick’s self-doubt and the false promise of Judy’s self-confidence. In place of both we have confidence in Christ, a deep trust that he will keep his promise to make us new. Finally, the gospel rejects Judy’s attempt at self-definition (God sets the limits; he defines who we are) and it rejects Nick’s self-loathing (you are made and loved by God). Instead of self-hatred and self-discovery, we are invited to find our true self in Christ. Change starts with him. And it's just not possible; it's promised!
  • 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!).
  • ONE STEP AT A TIME

    By Doug Ponder on June 13, 2018

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

    By Doug Ponder on July 4, 2018

    Working Moms She said, “So what will you do with all your time once you’re not working anymore?” The lady was talking about my wife’s former job teaching college classes online, but she was implying (whether she knew it or not) that there are two kinds of moms out there: those who do what’s important—i.e., have a career—and those who don’t. I’m pretty sure she meant well, but I’m equally sure that she is very confused about what my wife does when she’s “not working.” You see, I have the privilege of working from home most days. Much of my reading, writing, and counseling takes place in my home office. This room affords enough privacy to do my work, while also being close enough to the rest of the house to make me vaguely aware of how much my wife actually does. Which is a lot. She truly is a working mom—although her work looks very different from what the most of the Western world tends to think is honorable or impressive or noteworthy. Every day she works from home, cleaning up after little ones, wiping their noses (and other parts), feeding them, reading to them, playing with them, and teaching them about God’s world. She reaches out to the ladies in our community group, and she often has friends over—which means even more cleaning before (and after) they leave. She works hard at planning meals for our family and for the frequent visitors we have in our home. She works when she takes two toddlers to the grocery store by herself—while being pregnant with our third. She works when she keeps those toddlers occupied while cooking dinner for the family. And she is still working when the clock strikes five, carrying on her work until about the time her head hits the pillow. If there’s one thing my wife does, it’s work! Tragic Cultural Confusion This why that woman’s question seems so misguided, and I know she’s not alone. Our culture is disastrously confused about all these things on many levels. For starters, we are confused about the beauty of womanhood. Feminism has faded into a little more than a “me too” movement, repeatedly revealing that it has nothing constructive to say about what it means to be a woman. Their best attempts result in “Anything a man can do, we can do too!” Such an approach is doomed from the start, baptizing flawed versions of masculinity in the name womanhood (like the all-girl Ghostbusters remake and the new Bond, Jane Bond). Surely we can do better than this. Second, we lack an understanding of who we are. In this identity vacuum, we cling to anything that makes us feel respected and valuable and appreciated. Careers are a common culprit here. They tantalize us with the promise of feeling significant, of feeling like our work “really matters,” that we did something that helped somebody, and so on. But if you have to rely on what you do in order to feel good about who you are, then your work will never satisfy. (And that’s true for stay-at-home moms, too.) Finally, our culture has a thinly veiled hatred of children. (And hatred isn’t too strong a word.) Eyes roll when a family comes into the restaurant. Snarky remarks are made about the kids of other families. Nursery volunteers are always the hardest to come by in any church. Couples delay having children until well into their 30s. Deliberate childlessness is on the rise, with the number of children born per couple is the lowest in our country’s history. Millions of abortions are still carried out each year. On and on and on. The truth is that Jesus loves the little children, but we don’t. So no wonder we think it’s odd that someone would want to devote their primary time and attention to caring for such people. Motherhood, as It Really Is Together those confusions explain why so many struggle to see the glory in a mother choosing to work at home with her children. This confusion reflects a stunning reversal of significance, a tragic inversion of priorities. But this isn’t anything new. The British author G. K. Chesterton apparently faced a similar scenario about a hundred years ago. So, he wrote about motherhood as it really is to set the record straight: “When people begin to talk about motherhood as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up... For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. For instance, when motherhood is called ‘drudgery,’ I have difficult understanding what they mean. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman works dreadfully hard in the home... But if drudgery means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give up! For a mother is Queen Elizabeth in one area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; she is a Manufacturer in another area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes, and books; she is Aristotle within another area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene. I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it! How can it be a great career to teach other people’s children, and a small career to teach one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No! A woman’s work is laborious because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.” (Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, with minor updates to verbiage and grammar) Moms, I get it. Most days you might not feel like a queen or a manufacturer or an instructor, but that’s how God sees you—because that’s who he made you to be. You’re a working mom, and God uses the work you do at home to help shape souls for a lifetime. What could be more glorious than that? Postscript: These days you can’t say something positive about one group of people without another group getting offended. “He said stay-at-home moms are great, so that means he thinks moms who work outside the home are Hitler.” But that's not true. And besides, the Bible praises several women who worked outside the home (Prov. 31:4; Acts 16:14). It seems they were so good at caring for their husbands and children (Titus 2:4, 1 Timothy 5:14) that they had time leftover for other outside-the-home endeavors. I think that’s fantastic! The world could use all the women like that can we find.
  • THE POWER OF AN ORDINARY LIFE

    By Doug Ponder on July 11, 2018

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

    By Doug Ponder on July 18, 2018

    The ‘Free Sex’ That Costs You Dearly In the 1960s it wasn’t polite to talk about sex, so people talked about “love.” People especially talked about “free love,” which again, really meant “free sex.” Spurred on by the development of “the pill” and the growing disdain for the hollow moralism of the 1950s, the 60s free love movement was part of a broader sexual revolution that sought to free sex from the “burden” of children, from the “constraints” of marriage, and from the stigmas associated with promiscuity. In other words, people thought sex should be free from consequences, free from commitments, and free from the criticism of anyone. It seems we hoped that being free to enjoy sex on our terms, we would finally make ourselves be happy and whole. The free love movement was a big dream, and it never made good on its promise. Divorce rates have continued to increase since then, as have rates of sexually transmitted diseases. On top of this, cases of guilt and shame stemming from sexual experiences continue to flood counselor’s offices. Even now we are just discovering the seriously crippling effects of pornography—which purports to be the “freest” sex of all. Worst of all, a movement promising “free” love has actually cost millions of people their lives: babies sacrificed on the altar of sexual freedom. This is not the way it’s supposed to be. By God’s design, sex is free. Sex That’s Free From Guilt The gospel of Jesus is the life-changing good news that you are forgiven, fully and freely, by his death in your place. “Every sin on him was laid,” the prophet Isaiah reminds us (Isa. 53:6)—and that includes sexual sin. I like to tell the couples that I meet with for premarital counseling that no one enters the marriage the bed personally innocent, not even virgins. There is none of us who can say that we haven’t looked on another with lust (Matt. 5:28). After all, lust has been around long before pornography; it was lust that gave birth to pornography (not the other way around). This means that virgins and “veterans” are equally in need of forgiveness for sexual sin. And yet—here’s the good news again—virgins and “veterans” are also equally forgiven in Christ. The church, who is the bride of Christ, will wear white on her wedding day. Not because of her personal innocence or faithfulness, but because of the forgiving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. When Christians understand this glorious truth, and really believe it, they are set free from the lingering feelings of guilt. Though they were guilty, they are not reckoned as guilty any longer. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). That is the good news that sets spouses free from feeling like they “owe” something to their spouse or to God for whatever sexual sins they may have committed in the past. “Jesus paid it all” means that every debt has been removed. Sex That’s Free from Shame Sin brings shame, and sexual sin brings a special kind of shame. In fact, we feel shame even when sexual sins were committed against us. In the case of rape or sexual abuse victims often express feeling “dirty” or “worthless,” words that are the vocabulary of shame. Shame attaches itself like a leach to good things in creation, sucking all the joy and pleasure from God’s design until only disgust or despair or depression is leftover. In other words, sex itself isn’t wrong, but shame causes spouses to think of sex as “dirty” or “wrong” because it was experienced at the wrong time (before marriage) or in the wrong way (abuse of some kind). The power of shame is long-lasting. The couples I counsel can usually wrap their minds around the fact that they are forgiven. Almost invariably, however, they struggle to realize that they are also free from shame. There is no reason to feel “bad” or “gross” or “dirty” about sex in marriage. After all, sex is God’s idea of a good time. Even more than that, the deepest reason we don’t have to feel shame is that the same sacrifice that forgives us our sins also makes us clean. Jesus has not only forgiven us, he has “washed us” completely (Eph. 5:26-27). Christ has purified the Christian marriage bed. There’s no cause for shame! Sex That’s Free from Fear Sex outside of marriage is fraught with fear. What will they think of me? Was I good enough? Am I big enough? Am I skinny enough? Am I sexy enough? How do I compare with their previous partners? What if they only want me for sex? Will I catch some kind of disease? If I get pregnant/get her pregnant, who will raise the children? The list goes on. Sex and fear are so closely related that most people who engage in sex apart from marriage do so under the heavy influence of alcohol or other drugs. These things help keep the fear at bay, but they never remove fear completely (and they can’t even touch our guilt or shame). Jesus, on the other hand, completely removes our fears regarding sex. Indeed, God’s design for sex is by nature a fear-reducing enterprise. He calls spouses to refrain from sex until after they have already promised to love one another and stay with one another forever—“for better or for worse.” The marital promise removes the fear-inducing elements of sex and replaces them with unbridled joy. Christian couples are free to laugh together when things don’t go as planned. They are free to talk about their needs without feeling guilty or shameful. And they are free to experience sex without the fear of rejection, since they are giving their body to someone who has already promised to give them their entire life! Enjoying Free Sex There are only two ways to enjoy sex as God intended. First, we must remember that Jesus, not sex, is God's greatest gift to us. Everything God makes is good and is intended for our good. But, as one pastor has said, "If you take a good thing and make it a 'God' thing, that's a bad thing." He meant that the fundamental sin of humanity is something called idolatry, which means looking to something in creation to bring us the kind of joy and fulfillment and satisfaction that only God can bring. The gift is never greater than the Giver. Second, enjoying truly free sex therefore requires that both spouses believe the gospel and apply it in their lives. When feelings of guilt creep back into your mind, you must remind yourself that you and your spouse are equally forgiven by Christ. You owe nothing to each other, except love (Rom. 13:8). You don't have to "atone" for former sexual sins. Jesus has paid it all! Similarly, there is no need to feel dirty about sex anymore. Sex itself was never wrong, and you have been fully cleansed by whatever sexual sins you have committed. This means you are free to talk with your spouse about your needs and your preferences. Finally, there is no room for fear in your marriage bed. The gospel drives it out with the promise that God is at work in you to help you and your spouse keep the promises you made to never leave or forsake one another. When we receive all this with the arms of faith, the result is always freedom: we are free from our slavery to guilt and shame and fear, and we are free to enjoy the goodness of God's design.
  • MORE SINFUL, MORE LOVED

    By Doug Ponder on July 25, 2018

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

    By Doug Ponder on Aug. 15, 2018

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

    By Doug Ponder on Aug. 29, 2018

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

    By Doug Ponder on Oct. 3, 2018

    Jesus the Joy-Bringer When angels announced the birth of Jesus, they brought “good tidings of great joy” as the familiar words of the Christmas story read (Luke 2:10). We don’t say “tidings” anymore, but we get the message. They were announcing the good news of Jesus’ birth, and that good news would bring great joy to all people. In fact, Jesus was already bringing great joy to people before he was born. His mother, Mary, rejoiced at the sheer thought of all that God would accomplish through her son (Luke 1:47). And Jesus even caused his cousin ‘John the Baptist’ to leap for joy when he was still just ‘John the baby’ in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:44). And yet, as strangely ironic as it is, many Christians worship the One who brings joy to all people without being very joyful themselves. Instead of rejoicing, they grumble and complain. Instead of having joyful hope, they opt for fearful panic or for cynical pessimism. And instead of laughter and gratitude, they possess enough self-loathing and guilt to feed five thousand. If the followers of Jesus the Joy-Bringer aren’t joyful, then clearly something has been lost in translation—and I’m not talking about King Jimmy. The greatest reason for a lack of joy among people who follow Jesus is that they have not understood very well the message they believe. And this is not the first time that has happened. Do Not Grieve; Rejoice! The book of Nehemiah tells the story of when God’s people returned from their exile in Babylon to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and resume worship in the temple of God. In celebration of their return, the people asked a teacher named Ezra to open the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Bible) to read it and teach it to them. “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read” (Neh. 8:8). But something odd happened as Ezra was preaching his sermon: the people began to cry tears of guilt as they listened to God’s word (Neh. 8:9). Even though Ezra was preaching his best, the message was still not getting through. So he stopped, and he enlisted the help of Nehemiah and other men standing nearby. Together they shouted, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Don’t mourn or weep! Go and enjoy a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and send some to 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). God’s message was not, “You’re all evil. There is no hope. So beat yourselves, and cry endless streams of guilt-ridden tears. And maybe, just maybe, I will look upon your self-affliction and reward you with forgiveness.” God’s message was—and still is—good news of great joy for all people. It’s the good news that, sinful though we are, our sins have been forgiven! “There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). And not only that, but the same Jesus who died to forgive our sins has also risen from the dead to conquer death itself (Rom. 8:18-24). And if even death and sin could not hold him back, then what could possibly separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? (Rom. 8:31-39). Is the Joy of the Lord Your Strength? The only way that message could ever fail to produce joy in our lives is this: we are relying on something else to be our source of strength to get through life instead of rejoicing in what we have been given in Jesus. It's like saying, “I know that God has promised me to rescue me, to heal me, and to be with me forever. I know that an endless waterfall of eternal delights flows from his right hand. And I know that though I actually deserve death and hell, instead he freely gives all of this to me in Jesus. And I know that Jesus says whatever I lose in this life for his sake will be given back one hundred times over. I know all of that, but I what I really want is this _______.” What could you ever put in that blank to stack up against all that you have been given in Jesus? A better job? A new home? A spouse? A child? Fame? Money? Knowledge? Acceptance? Power? Comfort? Whatever we might be tempted to put in that blank, it grows strangely dim in the light of Jesus’ glory and grace. So we now see that the cause of so much joylessness is this: we have come to count something in this world as being more valuable, more precious than than God himself. It is the original sin of loving and pursuing the gift above the Giver, of wanting the things that come from God more than we want God himself and all that comes from being in his presence. Instead of the joy that comes from the Lord, we look for joy apart from him in things that do not last and cannot guarantee eternal joy. How the Joy of the Lord Becomes Your Strength Yet we must not respond to this by taking another step toward self-loathing and guilt. To repent of joylessness does not mean to beat up yourself over one more failure; it means to begin rejoicing in the Lord, as we always ought to do (Phil 4:4). It means to set the momentary pleasures of the world next to the eternal pleasures of God. It means you no longer let your happiness come from something you might lose, but instead draw strength from the knowledge of what you can never lose in Jesus. For when we do this, when we remember the precious and very great promises of the Lord to us, then we will find a kind of unshakeable joy take root in our hearts. That is why the Scriptures say, “The joy that comes from the Lord is your strength.” And that strength he gives will enable us to endure the loss of many things with joy, because of the infinitely surpassing worth of what we have gained in Christ. And this is not just theory; it’s life-giving theology for ‘the real world.’ Look at how Christians who believed the gospel were able to respond to persecution: “When they had called in the apostles, they beat them. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and they let them go. The apostle left the high council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus” (Acts 5:40-41). And see how they responded to theft: “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had a better and lasting possession” (Heb. 10:34). The only thing that could enable you to rejoice in the midst of persecution and the loss of all your possessions is the knowledge that Jesus is a better and lasting possession, more valuable than all the world. That is the joy that comes from the Lord, and that is how it becomes your strength.
  • A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND?

    By Doug Ponder on Oct. 10, 2018

    A Man Is Hard to Find In her well-known short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor deftly described the difficulty of finding a morally upright human being. We’re all flawed to the core, in our own way, and she knew this well. These days, a good man is just as hard to find. But we’ve added another problem to our plight: we have trouble finding men period. That is to say, most people don’t know what it means to be a man (or a woman) anymore. When asked this question, the only answer postmodern culture offers is men have one set of genitals, and women have another. But in our gender-bending times, even that answer is beginning to look less and less helpful. Simply put, we don’t know what it means to be a man or a woman anymore. And if we don’t know what it means to be a man or a woman, then how can we raise boys and girls to be the men and women we are called to be? We can’t. And wave after wave of statistics increasingly show the fallout from this confusion, showing effects in everything from divorce rates, to rising numbers of single-parent homes, to vastly increasing percentages of children on psycho-stimulant prescription drugs (for “behavioral problems”). Disobedience, Death, and Despair When we are confused about something as deeply intrinsic to our lives as our sexual identity, men and women will always be affected by this cultural confusion. None of this catches God by surprise, nor does it reflect his original design. In the beginning God created humanity “male and female” in his image (Gen. 1:27). He then honored each sex with unique and irreversible roles, perfectly reflecting the way he designed us to live. These distinctions are seen throughout the biblical story (Gen. 2:7-25) in which men are called to lead, provide, and protect, while women are called to follow, strengthen, and support. In fact, the very first act of disobedience (sin) followed from a reversal of roles. Instead of leading and protecting his wife, Adam deferred his responsibility to Eve and they both fell into sin. When God speaks to them in the next chapter (Gen. 3), he explains how their sin will cause the peace of God’s world to unravel. Notice, too, that at the heart of God’s explanation are sin’s effects upon men and women. Their roles would not change because of sin, but they would become harder. God said that men would now struggle to provide and protect (Gen. 3:17-19), while women would struggle to be mothers and wives who support and follow their husband’s leadership (Gen. 3:16). History has proven God right on this point time and time again. Instead of leading, protecting, and providing for their families, many men succumb to laziness, while others become abusive and domineering. Likewise, women have increasingly begun to act like men, thinking that “freedom” will be found in doing what they want instead of being who God designed them to be. Hope for Men and Women What hope is there for men and women? God tells us in the same place where he describes how sin would affect our roles. He promised to send a Son who would do battle with our enemy, Satan, who entices us into fearful slavery to sin and holds the power of death (Heb. 2:14-15). This promised Son from God would crush Satan’s head, while having his own heel “bruised” in the process (Gen. 3:15). This promised Son, of course, was Jesus. As the apostle John explains, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Jesus accomplished this in two ways. First, he illuminated for us how things are supposed to be in God’s world. In all that he did and said, he showed us who we were created to be. Second, through his death and resurrection, Jesus reconciled us to God by forgiving our sins and giving us new life. Thus, Jesus not only shows us how we ought to live, but actually recreates men and women, giving us a new heart through the power of his Spirit, which enables us to be who God created us to be. Manhood and Womanhood Restored In Jesus, men can become the providers and protectors they are created and called to be. As the apostle Paul explains, this looks like the life of Jesus himself. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). To love one’s wife as Jesus loves the church means, above all, sacrifice. Men are called to sacrifice in order that others might benefit. Men sacrifice by working hard, and by using their strength to heal and protect instead of harm or destroy. Men sacrifice by taking the initiative, instead of waiting passively for others to act. Husbands sacrifice by pursuing their wives as friends and lovers, instead of making them beg for a relationship. Husbands sacrifice by guarding their eyes and their hearts from lust, thus keeping faithful to the promise they made to their wives. Husbands sacrifice by serving and helping around the home. Husbands sacrifice by being humble, patient, and kind toward their wives, remembering that they are fellow heirs to the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7). In Jesus, women can become the followers and supporters they are created and called to be. As the apostle Paul explains, this looks like the church’s response to Jesus. “As the church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Eph. 5:24). The idea of submission can be confusing for people in the 21st Century, especially since the word is so often abused. The meaning of the term, however, should be taken not from cultural misunderstanding but from God’s original design. As we have already seen, this means women are called to support. Far from being a denigrating term, the word used of women in Genesis 2 (“helper”) is actually a word that is used of God from time to time. This means women are called to often the kind of support that helps and strengthens those around them. This may be spiritual support, as in encouraging and building up others. For wives it includes praying for your husband, not withholding yourself from him sexually, helping around the house with the basic needs of the home, etc. When men and women trust Christ, receive his Spirit, and listen to what he says, they are enabled to act like the men and women that God created them to be. In turn, they honor God, bless each other, and benefit the world by celebrating and embracing their distinct roles in God’s wonderful design.
  • 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.
  • GOD, WHY ME?

    By Doug Ponder on Oct. 24, 2018

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

    By Doug Ponder on Oct. 31, 2018

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

    By Doug Ponder on Nov. 28, 2018

    Adoption And "Real" Children The stranger casually walked up to the mother of three, wondering how she could have had so many children in such a short span of time. “All yours?” he asked with an obvious inflection of incredulity. “They sure are,” she said with a smile. “Triplets?” “Adoption.” “Ah,” he said, and added, “Are any of them yours?” “They’re all mine,” she said, pretending not to know what he was implying. “I meant, are any of them your real children?” Her smile was long gone by now. Unfortunately, that fictional account mirrors real-life conversations that take place far too frequently. Just ask any parents who have chosen to adopt children. Or think back to when you were school-aged. Remember how your friends would tease? “Your mom called and told me you were adopted.” If I could go back to such an occasion, I’d probably say in response, “Yeah, so what if I’m adopted?” What's wrong with adoption, anyway? The Good News of Adoption Although the tide seems to be turning, it’s strange to think that adoption was ever stigmatized, especially among Christians. Don’t we know that everyone comes into God’s family through adoption? If you are a Christian, you are have been adopted for life. That’s what the good news is: God has adopted us into his family as sons and daughters. Perhaps we forget that we’ve been adopted (spiritually speaking) because we think of ourselves as “naturally” being God’s children. In reality, we are “naturally” children of wrath (Eph. 2:3) and haters of God (Rom. 1:30) who are headed for destruction. All of us. And those who are God’s children only become so through Jesus (Gal. 3:26). As the apostle John writes, “To all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Paul explains, “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir” (Gal. 4:4-7; cf. Rom. 8:14-17). Jesus Was Adopted Christians have another reason to think highly of adoption: Jesus himself. As a baby, Jesus was legally adopted by his father Joseph. As we are reminded in the so-called Christmas story, Jesus was conceived miraculously through the work of the Holy Spirit in Mary, his mother (Luke 1:30-35). That means Joseph of Nazareth was faced with a difficult choice: stay with a women who was pregnant with child that wasn’t his, or abandon her and the life inside her womb. But he didn’t send her away. He faced difficulties and public shame, provided for his wife, and protected their child, becoming the legal father to her son (Luke 3:23). God called all of this righteous. Adoption as a Picture of the Gospel The connection between physical adoption and the gospel of our adoption through Christ is nothing new. Think about it what happens in adoption: an unloved, abandoned, and helpless child is welcomed into a new home where she is loved, accepted, and cared for. She did not choose her new parents; they chose her. She did not have to earn the right to be loved; they just loved her in spite of anything she might have done or anything that might have been done to her. And the same is true with God: "In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the Beloved" (Eph. 1:5-6). Moreover, the apostle James writes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (Jas. 1:27). The Bible also tells us that Jesus is present with the weak and the vulnerable, the “least of these,” his brothers and sisters. That's why in addition to caring for orphans and widows, early Christians would also hide in the woods, waiting to rescue unwanted babies (often girls) that Roman families would abandon. The Romans called this practice “exposure,” but the Christians called it by another name: murder. So they resisted it, adopting those unwanted babies, taking into their homes at great cost to themselves. Their actions did not go unnoticed. On one occasion a Roman official wrote of them, "See how they love!" Just as Jesus said things would happen (John 13:35). What Can I Do? The need for adoption in our own day has not diminished. While hardly anyone kills their children by “exposure” anymore, we routinely kill our children through abortion. In fact, many people who support abortion personally or politically do so because they fear the alternative: children growing up in homes where they are not loved or cared for. The same is true for the millions of children who are already born, languishing in orphanages around the world, waiting for someone to welcome them into their home just as Christ has welcomed us (Rom. 15:7). It's easy to feel helpless when we consider the number of orphans in the world, or the number of babies who are killed through abortion every day. But there are things we can do. We can continue to defend the value of every life, especially the "unwanted" ones, believing that Jesus' heart is most clearly seen in the faces of the "least of these." We can keep telling everyone the "gospel of adoption," the good news that God welcomes us into his family through Jesus, and we all have equal standing in him. We can take a long look at our own hearts, asking if we really believe that children are the blessing God says they are? When we sing, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world," do we believe it? Most of all, when Christian parents think about their future life together, they can prayerfully and soberly consider adoption as a way to change the life of a child forever. Just as your adoption through Jesus has done for you.
  • SIN LIKE GRAVITY

    By Doug Ponder on Dec. 5, 2018

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

    By Doug Ponder on Dec. 12, 2018

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