Change and the Superior Joy of the Gospel

Last night I began reading Tim Chester’s new book You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions. Some you may recognize the name Chester from his previous book, Total Church (co-authored with fellow pastor, theologian, and missiologist Steve Timmis). Timmis and Chester are part of a church-planting network in England known as The Crowded House (hence the quintessentially British names). In the last few years, both men have contributed a great deal to the fresh emphasis in reformed circles (i.e., Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, and Jeff Vanderstelt) on community, mission and the gospel. You Can Change (as the title so unadornedly foreshadows) is essentially a guidebook on the aims, motivations, and means of biblical change. It is, to put the matter succinctly, a book on sanctification.

To that end, Chester begins his argument by making an important claim about the nature of biblical change, a claim which closely resembles John Piper’s now well-known sanctification-model, “Christian Hedonism.” Chester asserts:
One of our problems [with change] is that we think of holiness as giving up things we enjoy out of vague sense of obligation. But I’m convinced that holiness is always good news. God calls us to the good life. He’s always bigger and better than anything sin offers. The key is to realize why change is good news in your struggles with sin (10).

The secret of gospel change is being convinced that Jesus is the good life and the fountain of all joy. Any alternative we might choose would be a letdown (15).
Chester’s point (as the first three chapters go on to explain) is that real change both begins with and is pursued through two deeply-related and predominately internal acts of faith.

First, we must go about the often very slippery work of exposing sin (partcularly our own personal private sin) for what it really is. We must start, in other words, by concentrating on and creating in our hearts a real and tangible sense of both sin’s ugliness as well as its corrosive and destructive nature. At an emotional level, the pain that sin has caused in our lives previously is perhaps our best and most useful ally. Taking hold of that pain and in a very real sense reliving it (especially in the face of temptation) is one of the most practical tools we can deploy in our struggle with sin.

At an intellectual, conscious level, this means unmasking the false promises upon which sin operates. The attractiveness of sin (i.e., its “power”) is rooted in the false belief that sin will provide for us more joy and pleasure than will righteousness. This is especially true of the idols in our lives that hold us captive to their allure and deceptive beauty either through sheer, raw magnetism or through years of ingrained practice.

Bringing together the emotional and intellectual levels of this task, Chester describes sin as an “adulterous lover,” which in reality is “no love at all”:
Sin doesn’t love us. It tries to use us, abuse us, enslave us, control us, and ultimately destroy us. Sin takes from us and gives nothing in return. It may use enticing and seductive lies. Sin never brings true and lasting satisfaction (33).
This, then, lead us immediately into the second act of faith the change process demands: we must replace sin’s deceptive and inauthentic beauty with the thoroughly authentic and transformative beauty of the gospel. Our aim (as the Psalmist says) is to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” In other words, we must sense in our hearts (that is, at the very core of who we are) that there is more joy to be found in God’s ways then there is to be found in ours. It is not as though sanctification robs us of joy (though this claim, normally unspoken, certainly lies at the very heart of sin’s deceptive dogma). Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, it is sanctification that provides us with both a foundation for as well as a means of experiencing substantial, life-establishing happiness.

Again, Tim Chester:
[G]rowing in holiness is not sad, dutiful drudgery. It’s about joy. It’s discovering true joy—the joy of knowing and serving God. . . . Our job is to stop wallowing around in the dirt and instead to enjoy knowing God, to give up our cheap imitations and enjoy the real thing. All too often we think of holiness as giving up the pleasures of sin for some worthy but drab life. But holiness means recognizing that the pleasures of sin are empty and temporary, while God is inviting us to magnificent, true, full, and rich pleasures that last forever (35-36).
In the end, the only way we will actually begin to choose righteousness over sin consistently, the only way we will begin to really live a life marked by holiness and maturity, is by convincing ourselves (at the level of our hearts) that the former is more to be desired, more to be longed for, more to be enjoyed than the latter. Only when we see and experience the superior joy offered to us in the gospel will change become a reality.

The Atonement - Introduction

I began “the drama of dogma” a little over two years ago as a simple way to organize and chronicle my life as a student, reader, pastor and amateur theologian. With that purpose still in mind, I’m very excited to announce that over the next nine weeks or so, I’m going to be sharing this platform with my nephew and fellow blogger, Michael Blankenship. A few months ago, Mike started blogging at “Our Simple Faith” and I’ve really enjoyed reading his posts on everything from hope, to good works, to the problem of evil.

What makes me so excited about this particular endeavor is the coming together of two very different life-stages around a central tenet of the Christian faith. Mike is a sixteen-year-old-high school student from rural Oregon considering a future in Christian ministry. I’m a twenty-seven-year-old seminary graduate in Portland entering my second year of full-time, pastoral ministry. While these worlds could certainly be further apart than they are (after all, we’re both white-American males) bridging them—both conceptually as well as stylistically—should be a lot of fun and (I hope) both challenging and encouraging to those of you following along.

Our plan for this series is to focus on the contested and often misunderstood doctrine of “limited atonement” (also referred to as “definite atonement” or “particular redemption”). In the simplest terms possible, the doctrine of limited atonement claims that Jesus’ death secured (in the past) and applies (in the present) all the redemptive blessings necessary to save God’s people. The atonement, in other words, does not simply make salvation possible; it actually and effectually saves.

In an effort, however, to make “first things first,” as well as to make sure that we don’t get ahead of ourselves, our first goal will be to explore what the atonement in and of itself is all about. (A quick side-note: Whenever debating the “finer” points of a doctrine, which is what limited atonement is, it’s important to keep in mind the “broader” points of agreement that orthodox Christianity has, more or less, maintained throughout its history. This helps us not only to concentrate on the “essentials” but to also approach the “finer” points, as we’ve called them, with humility, love, and a real sense of unity.)

Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears offer the following definition in their book Doctrine: What Every Christian Should Believe:
Jesus’ work for us on the cross is called atonement (at-one-ment); Jesus our God became a man to restore [the] relationship between God and humanity. . . . Scripture repeatedly and clearly declares that Jesus died as our substitute paying our penalty “for” our sins (253).
Using that relatively simple summary as our starting point, it is possible to further define the atonement as the historical realization of three interlocking theological concepts: (1) propitiation, (2) expiation, and (3) reconciliation.

Because these words are new to most people, our aim in the next three posts will be to unpack each one in turn, examining them, defining them and rooting them in Scripture.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in doing some further reading on the subject, here are a few recommendations:
Death by Love by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears
Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray
Fifty Reasons Jesus Came to Die by John Piper
The Cross of Christ by John Stott
Lastly, you can read Mike’s introduction here.

The “Replaceable” Leader - Introduction

Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians
According to Scripture, God deliberately designed the gospel in such a way so as to strip me of pride and leave me without any grounds for boasting in myself whatsoever. . . . Preaching the gospel to myself each day mounts a powerful assault against my pride and serves to establish humility in its place (27).
About a week ago I wrote a brief reflection about the humbling effects these last two months have had on my heart and life (particularly as a “leader”). If you’re interested, you can read that original post here. To make a long story short, for various personal/family reasons, I’ve had to take a giant step back from my pastoral work at New Life Church (particularly from “up-front” ministries like preaching and teaching). To make (heart-) matters worse, this change came about just two weeks before the launch of our new young adults ministry—re:Generātion—in which I was heavily invested.

As a result of stepping back, one point of particular frustration has been dealing with the stark realization that I am (despite my former and sadly persistent thoughts to the contrary) thoroughly replaceable. As I mentioned in my last post, I don’t mean replaceable in my relationships (as in being a husband, friend or family-member). I mean replaceable as a tool of the kingdom. To put it bluntly: God is about doing His work, and He’ll do it with just as much glory, power, and beauty with me as without me.

At the level of day-to-day life, what this means—if I’m really being honest—is that it’s been incredibly difficult to watch re:Generātion succeed without me. As shallow as that sounds (and, yes, not only does it sound shallow, it actually is shallow), it’s the truth. I want so badly to be a part of re:Generātion’s success (and not just any part but the chief part); not because of what I’ll add to it, but because of what it will add to me.

Reflecting on this frustration, a friend pointed me toward Philippians 1:18 where Paul, writing from prison about two divergent groups of traveling evangelists—those who “preach Christ from envy and rival . . . thinking to afflict my imprisonment” and those who preach Christ “from good will”—ended his report by telling his readers: “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” In other words, what mattered most to Paul was the spread of the gospel: “that in every way . . . Christ is proclaimed.” His heart actually resonated with that report. His emotional investment lay in the glory of God through Christ, and not in his own reputation or advantage.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to commit six posts over the next week or so to reflecting on the oddly titled subject “How to Make Yourself a ‘Replaceable’ Leader.” Here’s a brief overview of what’s to come:
  1. Do your “best” work behind-the-scenes.
  2. Don’t just share the limelight; intentionally push others into it.
  3. Keep your heart in-check by being rigorously honest with other leaders about what’s really motivating you.
  4. Do ministry as worship, not as work.
  5. Concentrate on “duplicating yourself” not making yourself “unique.” (Realize, however, that really duplicating yourself will make you “unnecessary”.)
  6. Lead others by following Jesus. In other words, make Jesus irreplaceable, not yourself!

The Purpose of the Pentateuch: Law and Gospel

John Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch
The purpose of the Pentateuch is not to teach a life of obedience to the law given to Moses at Sinai, but to be a narrative admonition to be like Abraham, who did not live under the law and yet fulfilled the law through a life of faith. The Pentateuch is a lesson drawn from the lives of its two leading men, Abraham and Moses. The Pentateuch lays out two fundamentally dissimilar ways of “walking with God” (Deut. 29:1): one is to be like Moses under the Sinai law, and is called the “Sinai covenant”; the other, like that of Abraham (Gen. 15:6), is by faith and apart from the law, and is called the “new covenant.” These two central themes (law and faith) are played out in the Pentateuch and into the prophetic literature as a contrast of two covenants, Mosaic and Abrahamic, or law and gospel (14).