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How to Successfully Argue Your Point But Miss the Gospel

Why are Christians so unkind to one another and the world? Why do we criticize, degrade, and dismiss? Why do we act like jerks? I have experienced the sting of Christian criticism many times as I’ve posted Scripture or encouragements online. I’m sure you’ve experienced this, too. Christians critique my use of the Bible and correct my theological positions. This happens so frequently on Twitter, there is now a hashtag, #JesusJuked, for Christians who use Scripture as a correction-weapon to tell others how they are wrong. This isn’t cool and this isn’t classy. Nowhere in the Bible has God given us license to treat each other like jerks.

If we continue to pridefully announce our objections to everything, we will soon lose credibility to speak the truth of the gospel. We will be known for our desire to be right and prove others wrong, instead of being known for our love for one another. The world will not believe our points about God’s love when they are delivered with disrespect and pride. Some Christians have been so busy trying to make their argumentative points, they have lost the opportunity to make a difference. It’s that kind of non-Spirit-led, fleshly preaching that turns people from the gospel everyday.

Again, why do we act with such pride and arrogance toward one another?

At the root, we are relying on our own intellect, ego, and proven arguments instead of Christ. We are prideful and think we can get people to see the truth in our own strength. We trust our smarts and wit more than Christ. With our eyes on our selves, we miss others and the gospel.

A Matter of Control

Today, we have access to the Holy Spirit’s power to control our lives. The Holy Spirit empowers us to live with “gentleness and respect” (1 Pt. 3:15) and be “the aroma of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15) to the world around us. God has commanded us to walk and live by the Spirit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23

Scripture tells us “when the Holy Spirit controls our lives” we will have certain characteristics that demonstrate his character. Through our words and actions people should see certain aspects of God’s character: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. If we are speaking out of bitterness, anger, frustration, fear, we are not being controlled by the Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit are the picture of what it looks like to follow Jesus. If our actions do not display these fruits, we aren’t being controlled by the Spirit.

We often get confused into thinking our frustrations and bitterness are actually righteous obedience. The reality is, however, the righteous acts are those of peace, patience, and kindness.When we aren’t patient with our unbelieving neighbor and his journey with faith, we are not living by the Spirit. When we lose our temper when our co-worker asks another hard question, we are not living by the Spirit. However, when pursue peace among those quarreling in the office, we are living by the Spirit. When we sacrifice our Saturday to help our neighbor with their yard-work, we are living by the Spirit. As the Spirit controls our lives, we become a better picture of God’s character and the gospel.

We not only need to live Spirit-filled lives, but also Spirit-controlled lives. If you don’t know if your actions or words are from the Spirit, ask: Is this statement done out of joy? Done out of love? Done out of gentleness? Done out of kindness? If the answers are no, it’s not of the Spirit.

A Better Way Called Grace

Make no mistake. We are called, as Christians, to persuade others towards the gospel. It is one of our main responsibilities. Paul says: “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. God knows we are sincere, and I hope you know this too” (2 Cor. 5:11). We are to share the message of grace.

I’ve been asking myself a question lately, and it has been wrecking my heart: “How is the world supposed to see the grace of God if the people of God are not gracious?”

The wise in heart are called discerning, and gracious words promote instruction.Proverbs 16:21

The writer of the proverb is saying: “Gracious words make a person persuasive.” It is not our arguments or our tight-doctrine that make us persuasive to people. It is the graciousness, love, and joy that only comes from a Christ-filled and Spirit-controlled life. If we walk in step with the Spirit and exhibit these characteristics to a world thirsty for grace, who wouldn’t want to be around us?

When we are gracious, we introduce a little more of the character of God to the world. God, more than anyone, has the right to banish us, to speak ill of us, to expose our heart’s motives, to reveal how wrong we are, and yet God is gracious. He doesn’t critique, jab, or #JesusJuked his children.

The gospel shows us that God is not running after us to smite us, but to save us. “God so loved the world,” and “God did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him” (Jn. 3:16-17). God lavishes us with grace.

The gospel is not our work, our rules, or our religious structure. It’s the news that Christ has come, died, and rose again for the sake of us sinners. God wants to reconcile people to himself and he’s given everything in his Son to reconcile people to himself. God has done it all for us and that is grace. That’s the gospel the world needs to hear. It’s this simple proclamation and the hearing of this good news that transforms the human heart.

This gospel preached graciously does something profound to the human heart. When we talk about who Jesus was, and what he did, and his great love and gracious covering for our sin—God takes it and drives it supernaturally into the human heart, and the Holy Spirit draws people into faith in Christ. As we graciously share this story of Jesus, the graciousness of God is evident and draws people to the grace of Christ that can save them. When we pridefully argue our points, the message of grace is lost.

Matt Brown is an evangelist, author of Awakening (2015) and founder of Think Eternity.

Reflect Christ, Deflect Satan

Paul’s story is well documented. He was a killer of Christians and an adamant opponent of their faith (Acts 8:1-3). Later, as a man saved by God’s grace, he constantly urged believers to turn away from their old lives and to press into their new natures in Christ, just as he did. He didn’t harp on rules and regulations, but rather exhorted them to look to Christ for their reason for living. And as a hate-monger transformed into a humble servant, Paul knew the benefit of receiving and offering Christ’s compassion. Few passages in the New Testament describe the character of Christ as a weapon against Satan’s work as clearly as Ephesians 4:25-32. In this passage, Paul makes a very clear assertion to believers: Christians are freed through the sacrifice of Christ, by the power of the Spirit, to reflect him and deflect Satan.

Speak Truth (v. 25)

Paul states, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” In short, he is telling his audience to be honest with one another. He does not issue this warning against lying in order to be seen as righteous to outsiders or to prevent themselves from consequences later on; rather, Paul says that Christians should speak the truth because they are one body.

The word for “members” in the Greek, mele, literally means “a bodily organ or limb,” giving the metaphor that Christians are plainly, not just figuratively, connected as flesh and bone members of a body. It is indispensable for believers to understand that, in a sense, they should treat each other how they themselves want to be treated. If a believer lies to a brother, he is simply sinning against every other Christian and, essentially, himself. Paul carries this thought from verse 24 in which he tells believers to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Although Christians will always struggle with Satan’s temptation to speak falsely until the moment of death, they become new creations in Christ with the ability to walk in a manner that reflects the likeness of God himself.

Control Anger (vv. 26-27)

The passage continues, expanding on the statements made in previous verses, saying, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” These two verses combine to explain that such characteristics belong to the devil and not to God. Anger in and of itself is not a sin when exercised appropriately. Even Christ, who did not sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15), was angry (without sinning) as he rebuked the “money-changers” in the temple (Matt. 21:12-13). When Christians act in such a way that they are representing Satan’s lies and not Christ’s model, they are in danger of, or already participating in, sin. Francis Foulkes clarifies, “The Christian must be sure that his anger is that of righteous indignation, and not just an expression of personal provocation or wounded pride. It must have no sinful motives, nor be allowed to lead to sin in any way.”

Christians are a new creation with a new attitude and a new power to overcome the traps of Satan. Given the opportunity to hold a grudge, the Christian must turn away from their anger and forgive immediately. If “the sun goes down” on a person’s anger, it will continually eat them alive, just as Satan has planned. Satan is a powerful trickster, looking for and providing any avenue for a person to give into temptation and give him a place to work. The gospel affords the opportunity to escape such traps.

Be Generous (v. 28)

For the Christian, there is a new outlook on the idea of giving and receiving: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Once given this new life in Christ, a person is called to view their possessions differently. Once a thief himself, the new believer must now work honestly for their income and turn it into a gift.

One only needs to look at the life and ministry of Jesus to see that servanthood is the paramount trait of a holy person. Christ was and is God who stepped into human history and lived a perfect, sinless life. As an eternal king, he had no true reason to be humble or to serve anyone, but he did. He gave all of himself in order that Christians might have a life more than they ever imagined (Jn. 10:10-11). Though Satan makes selfishness appealing, the humble character of Christ cannot be overlooked by anyone seeking to model themselves after him. Dishonest gain may often be the easy route to travel, but believers are commissioned to take the road less traveled.

Show Grace (v. 29)

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Here, believers are told not to speak in such a way that someone will be hurt or pushed away by their words. Satan will use biting words to attempt to destroy not only the body of Christ, but relationships they have with outsiders.

Society often judges Christians based upon their actions. The world is not merely looking for a show, but an authentic lifestyle that promotes goodness. While it is rather easy for the Christian to settle into moralistic behavior modification in order to attempt at pleasing Christ and appearing righteous to those around him, the new man cannot stop there; he must act in sincere concern for those looking to him for answers on Christ.

Any person can modify behavior, but a true disciple of Christ lives with a transformed heart that sees other human beings as lost souls in need of Christ’s redemption. Satan will try to distract believers from the Great Commission, but this must be fought against. There is no escaping the call to love others as Christ does.

Do Not Grieve the Spirit (v. 30)

Paul advises Christians: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” This is a simple caution with huge implications. When sinning, one must remember that their sin is not only damaging to others; it’s an affront to God.

The Holy Spirit is God, the third person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit may sometimes be under appreciated and overlooked by many Christians, but the he is the actual person of God dwelling within the Christian. As the Holy Spirit dwells in the believer, he is rightly and justly saddened and angered by the direct disregard for his holy standard. When the Christian sins, it is not to be forgotten that the holy and righteous God of the universe takes full notice. God is not a distant being, floating in the outskirts of creation; God is an active and living being dwelling in and standing beside each person every day of their existence with full knowledge of their transgressions against him. John Calvin once exhorted Christians to “endeavor that the Holy Spirit may dwell cheerfully within you, as in a pleasant and joyful dwelling, and give him no occasion for grief.”

Christians should give thanks for the seal of redemption (Eph. 1:13-14) given to them by God through Christ on the Roman cross. It is in him and him alone that the old man dies and the new man is raised to new life. This new life holds the promise of eternal liberation, while Satan only offers bondage and destruction.

Attitude Matters (v. 31)

Paul collects all wrong attitudes together in one verse, telling his audience to “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Though surely a problem in the church that Paul is writing to, any and all Christians can attest to struggling with these very things. As a Christian, this desire does not simply disappear on the day of new life. There is still constant battle within the soul of a Christian to do what is right and holy when Satan’s temptation seems to be the correct—or at least easier— way to handle the negative situation.

The simple response for the Christian is to ignore a person who wrongs them by “turning the other cheek.” This is true and virtuous. However, with the power of the Holy Spirit within the believer, there is far more power over sin than merely walking away or pretending that an offense didn’t occur. A new creation in Christ has every resource imaginable to actively pursue radical forgiveness and grace. The act of loving an enemy is far and above the call of mere forgiveness. After all, even a non-believer with no supernatural power at all can turn away from a person who insults, attacks, or demeans them. God promises something better; he promises “a way of escape” for believers (1 Cor. 10:13).

Be Kind and Forgiving (v. 32)

Paul concludes the passage with this statement: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Believers are called to such a lifestyle because they are new creations with a new heart, first forgiven by God so that they may show grace to the world. The selfish Christian is a contradiction; no one set free from sin can simultaneously be a captive to it. Paul is entirely clear in verse 24 that there is no such thing as a Christian that lives as he once did.

A major facet of the gospel is that having the inclination to continue sinning does not grant a person the excuse to maintain the same pattern of living. In describing a new creation in Christ, Paul uses the adjectives “kind,” “tenderhearted,” and “forgiving.” These are not natural dispositions of the natural human being; these are supernatural reactions to the broken mess of creation.

Saved For a Purpose

Paul says in Romans 5:14 that Christianity is foundationally void and useless if Christ did not resurrect from the dead after his crucifixion. For the Christian, this has massive connotations. If Christ did not rise, he did not conquer death and in turn conquered death on behalf of anyone else. If Christ was not raised, his forgiveness would mean absolutely nothing. Believers cannot understate the grace that must be shown to others in response to the magnificent and unbelievable power exemplified in Jesus Christ. The final words of a risen Savior are not comforting promises of eternity, but an insistence on being light in the midst of darkness (Matt. 28:18-20).

God’s will is not aimed entirely at the Christian going to Heaven, but rather for his people to represent him well and live according to his immutable standard in the here and now. The gospel frees us from our own interests. Christians have an obligation to love God and love others well precisely because of the cross.

The character of Christ, this gospel-infused sword we wield, is at the forefront of the Christian witness to a lost world. And Satan cannot deflect its blows. As Jesus proclaims, not even the Gates of Hell can stop his Church (Matt. 16:18).

Brandon D. Smith serves in leadership and as an adjunct instructor in theology and church history at Criswell College, where he is also associate editor of the Criswell Theological Review. He recently edited the book Make, Mature, Multiply and is a contributor to Designed for Joy (forthcoming from Crossway, 2015). Follow him on Twitter.

5 Reasons to Give Your Church Jesus

We have the tools and know the motives, but how do we give our churches Jesus? By preaching the gospel to ourselves and to one another. “What you really need is good news,” I told him. He didn’t understand. We had met time and time again and unknowingly, he was trying to perform his way into the kingdom. “You can’t do that,” I exhorted. “Otherwise you miss the entire point of Jesus and His performance on your behalf!”

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all need good news. Not just good news, but better-than-anything news. News that announces something spectacular—like nothing you could ever imagine or fabricate. And until you recognize this need, you’ll be helpless. Like an engine with no gas, your life, without a constant barrage of Jesus-is-King news, will stall.

I often tell my congregation that I have thirty-four years left in my ministry here, and for those thirty-four years, you will hear the gospel over and over again, not because you don’t know it in your brain, but because knowing it in your brain isn’t enough. We must know it—I must know it—in our hearts, and in our hands. Remember, the gospel isn’t the starting point—it is the point. It’s the point of everything! And until we understand this truth, we will continue to be lured away, enticed by other false gospels that over-promise and under-deliver. These things distract us from making war.

Martin Luther is reported to have said that he continues to preach the gospel each and every week because each and every week his people forget it. I’m sure he would include himself in this assertion because let’s face it, we’re all guilty as charged.

Because of this, there are five simple reasons why we need to hear about Jesus and His glorious gospel each and every day. “Give us Jesus” ought to be the rally cry of the church. If we are to make war, we must do so here. Over and over again, our hearts should be yearning to hear the gospel again and again—like my two-year-old daughter begging for a “horsey-ride” on my back, let us go back to the truth that sets us free. We make war using the preaching of the gospel to ourselves and each other:

1. So Our Affections Are Stirred

Our emotions are impressed with many things. Whether a good movie, television show, football game, or shiny new Apple product, we love an emotionally stirring experience. We thrive on it. But what happens when those emotions become sour? What happens when we just don’t feel like worshiping Jesus and finding joy in him? What do you do when your affections are clouded with bitterness, jealousy, envy, and anger? What happens in war if you are tired and just don’t “feel it”?

Jonathan Edwards is helpful: “Upon the whole, I think it is clearly manifest, that all truly gracious affections arise from special and peculiar influences of the Spirit, working that sensible effect or sensation in the souls of the saints.”

It is the Holy Spirit that drives our affections towards gospel holiness and one of the means by which He does so is through gospel proclamation. We need it. Fighting for joy is absolutely that—a fight; but joy in Him is absolutely worth it (Ps. 16:11). Only when old affections have been expunged by greater, far superior affections can we be free from idolatry.

You see, in war time, your affections can take a beating. You can be side-tracked by other things. You don’t have time to sit around and worry about those distractions. Making war is an all-out declaration that the only thing that matters in this moment, at this time, is that the gospel takes precedence against the enemy. You will feel overwhelmed. God gives you more than you can handle because the idol of self-sufficiency is destructive. You can’t make your heart feel good towards God. You need something from the outside, namely, good news. The gospel stirs up affections, like bubbles in a glass jar, so that what comes out of you is holy.

2. So Our Identities Are Clarified

Whether it is a counseling appointment with a young man trying to understand what he should do with his life, or a newly engaged couple looking for some premarital help, I am convinced that the root issue with all of our problems is an issue of identity. For example, no matter the marital issue, I can always trace the issue between the husband and wife back to the problem of a husband not being a biblical husband, and a wife not being a biblical wife. Identity matters tremendously.

If you think about it—sin is a loss of identity. When Adam and Eve sinned against God in the garden, they lost their identity as a covenant people with their covenant God. Subsequently, because of their transgression, their lives were marred by sin and ever since then, man, made in God’s image, has simply forgotten who he is in relationship to God. Everyone knows He exists (Rom. 1:20); however, the issue is identity amnesia.

Take the example of the pursuit of holiness. For the Christian, the battle of sanctification is a battle to be who you are. If you’re a redeemed saint, then act like one! When we give ourselves to sin, we lose our identity—hence the need for the gospel. We need a constant reminder that we are freely justified in Christ to rest in Him. Wartime has a tendency to distract us, so it is important to know who you are.

3. So Our Idols Are Uprooted

John Calvin wrote, “The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.”32 Calvin was on to something. Every time we lose sight of the gospel it is because we have taken our eyes away from Jesus and placed them on an idol. Idols can be subversively deceptive, or they can be patently obvious. Either way, this side of glorification will undoubtedly be marked by a constant fight with idols. That’s what happens in war.

An idol cannot be uprooted by mere moral effort. It has to be uprooted and replaced by something far superior, namely, the gospel. And what better way to see an idol uprooted, than the goodness of the good news? The intensity of pain we feel when an idol is removed from us is directly proportionate to how far away we walked from belief in the gospel. If sin and idolatry is trusting, confiding, believing, and gaining identity from something other than God, then it follows that we ought to, through repentance and faith, trust, confide, believe, and gain our identity in Jesus. Idols are destroyed when good news is heeded.

4. So Our Covenant Is Kept

As talked about in the previous chapter, the New Covenant instituted by our Lord is meant to be kept. Sometimes we do not often talk like this, mostly because in portions of our culture we’ve lost the key concepts behind covenant. Regardless of unconscious ignorance, it is our duty—indeed it is commanded of us!—to “be holy” (1 Pt. 1:15-16; cf. Lev. 11:44). To be sure, Christ is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30). However, we are still called to the covenant obligations of obedience. And because of the indwelling power of God the Holy Spirit, we can follow Jesus in obedience (Jn. 14:21) because the law has been written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33; cf. 2 Cor. 3:6). This happens through the work of the Spirit leading us to truth (Jn. 17:17) and glorifying Christ (the power of the gospel in us). You need to hear it, because the Spirit uses it to drive your obedience.

5. So Our Mission Is Spurred On

So having had our affections stirred, our identities clarified, our idols uprooted, and our covenant in check, what do we do? The answer? Make disciples. This is our mission. The gospel is news; therefore, it should be proclaimed. Boldly, I might add. After all, Jesus has been given all authority—we need not fear (Matt. 28:18; more on this in the next chapter).

If we do not continue to go back to the good news again and again, we will lose sight of our identity and purpose. The gospel is the engine that drives this whole thing. Without it, we are lost. Again and again, we need to hear, see, believe, experience afresh, enjoy, and understand the good news of Jesus’ work on our behalf: His virgin birth, His perfect life under the law of God, His perfect fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures (Israel’s story), His substitutionary death, His resurrection, His ascension to the throne, and His current mediation—this is our gospel! Let it spur us on to do His work.

“I have stored up your word in my heart,” the writer says, “that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11). The issue is not just hearing the gospel, but marinating in it as well. Whether proclaimed from the pulpit or shared over a cup of coffee, the gospel must take center stage, because we do not want to sin against God. When it is stored in our hearts and minds, we get all of the benefits mentioned above. But the ultimate benefit is that we get God. We need the good news because we need God. The war against sin is not a war against sin in and of itself. The war against indwelling sin is a war to get God. He is the prize worth pursuing.

Will you rest in the righteousness of Christ credited to your account? Will you walk in peace, knowing that peace is at the heart of gospel? Will you put on the helmet of salvation, knowing that your salvation has been secured because of Christ’s perfect work? Will you tighten the belt of truth so that your life is held together by the truth of God’s word? Will you hold fast and “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3)? Will you boldly take up your sword, trust in the authority of Scripture, and wield it with humility? If so, then you must wage war knowing the battle has already been won. Christ is victorious. Christ is King.

Rev. Jason M. Garwood (@jasongarwood) serves as Lead Pastor of Colwood Church in Caro, MI. Jason and his wife Mary have three children, Elijah, Avery and Nathan. He blogs at Connect with him on Twitter.

Excerpt from Be Holy: Learning the Path of Sanctification available from G4S Books (2014).

The Presence of Advent

The Greatest Fear

What is the single greatest fear that most people have about the Advent season, especially Christmas Day? I doubt it has to do with finding the perfect gift. Nor does it seem like the inevitable holiday weight-gain would rank as the greatest fear. Debates over religion and politics at the dinner table might earn a higher rank but even those fights are nothing compared to a deeper fear of the soul.

I believe it to be the lack of presence. Not a lack of presents (or gifts) but a lack of presence. No one wants to be alone during this season. We sing songs about being home for Christmas. Many Christmas films riff on the theme of being separated from family and loved ones at Christmas. We cower at the thought of waking up to ourselves with no lit tree, no joyful laughter, and with nobody to share the day. Consider the very ghosts that haunted Scrooge in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, they haunted him with lonely Christmases.  Studies indicate that depression hits widows and widowers deepest at the holidays. I can almost guess that a full 98% of people reading this article would prefer to have someone, even if they didn’t really like them, to be with on Christmas over spending it with no one at all.

What is it about Advent that reveals this fear in almost all of us? If we look at the very nature of what it means we will find the very reason being physically alone during this season troubles so many. At its core it is more than just remembering the coming of God into our existence, Advent is about the actual presence of God in our existence. It’s the one season that reminds us that God is with us. So, when we consider a season that tells us God is with us and yet functionally experience it in loneliness a massive discord hits. The discord, for most, isn’t with God. It’s within ourselves. We should be experiencing presence. We should be with others and God should be with us.

Presence on the Way

Four hundred years is a long time to wait. The United States of America has barely existed for half of that time. It would be nearly impossible to understand then the absence and silence from God for that amount of time. However, that is exactly where the people of Israel were. National culture and identity would go through an immense rewriting if it had been four hundred years since you had a prophetic word from the national center of worship activity. Certainly brief and dim glimpses of recovery and hope came and recharged everyone’s expectations but they were just that, brief and dim. Sure, they had the prophetic words of old to lean on. Isaiah did promise Emmanuel, even if that was seven hundred years ago.

Then, rumors started cropping up. Angelic visitations occurred. Barren old women conceived. Kings from the East traveled West. A nation immigrated within itself because of a census. A virgin was with child. Then, the rumors died down. Things went back to normal for another thirty years until a shabbily dressed man like Elijah began to speak for God in the wilderness. He was no respecter of persons and called kings, priests, and publicans to repent. A nation finally received a prophetic word: “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is present. God is with us. Emmanuel has come.”

Yes, Emmanuel, God with us. He was attested to be God by his words and works by doing things only God could do. God with us possessing authority to drive out sin, devils, and death. God with us doing justice, loving the outcast and the stranger. God with us dinning with the drunkards, the harlots, and the sinners. God with us clothed in the material flesh of our bodies. Emmanuel experienced the physical limitations, pains, and agonies of our condition. God with us bearing the wrath of God in our place for our offenses against God and taking our very own death-blow. God with us being laid in a tomb dead for three days, he, God with us, was miraculously raised to glorious new life again by the power of God–securing resurrection life for all who trust in him. God with us sent his eternal presence to indwell and empower us for lives of glory and mission. He hasn’t left us, in fact, God with us has come, became flesh, and lived in our very domain and gifted us his eternal presence so we would always be with him.

Advent as a Missional Teacher

This is what Advent points us towards. A seasonal reminder of presence. An annual celebration of God’s personal intervention and presence with us. Advent teaches us that God is with us and that God is for us. Advent shows us God-in-action working for his glory and for our good.  Our reflection of this reality can not leave us to merely feel good about God with us, it must propel us forward to display the God whose image we bear.

Advent becomes a missional teacher to us as we consider that God shares life with broken, messed up, needy, people of disrepute. As we increasingly consider God with us, we must ask ourselves are we displaying this reality to the world? Are we showing lonely people God with us by our presence with them? Are we enacting this good news for the same broken, messed up, needy, people of disrepute that God with us hung out with?

As much as Advent is a season for gathering with family and friends, for the church it is a missional launching point for us to inhabit and take the gospel to the world. The world sits and waits year after year for a savior. They make functional saviors of sex, power, possessions, comfort, and a billion other idols they can find. Yet, all the while being let down year after year by their little, failing, and distant gods. The world is waiting, the Savior has come, the church must be present!

Practically this boils down to one thing—be with people. In the same way God became present in the world, he sends us to go and be with the world. Be at the parties, the Christmas programs, the neighborhood celebrations, the family dinners, and the company gift-exchange. As you are with people, love them. Be the presence that the lonely, lost, waiting world is so eager to receive. Show them their Savior through your love, by the way you honor them, give them dignity, listen to their stories, and hear their hurts.

A rocket-science degree isn’t mandatory, just ask the Holy Spirit to show you someone that he can display his presence to through your presence with them, and then follow his lead. Go be present with the world because God is present with you. The world waits for God with us and we are blessed to display that God is with us!

Jeremy Writebol(@jwritebol) has been training leaders in the church for over thirteen years. He is the author of everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present (GCD Books, 2014) and writes at He lives and works in Plymouth, MI as the Campus Pastor of Woodside Bible Church.

Sabotaging Your Kingdom

Ambitions silently attach themselves to disciples who work for the Kingdom of God. The desire to be known. To be recognized. To be wanted. To be in demand. To make a name for yourself. To have a calendar full of important speaking engagements. We each indulge our favorite flavor. And often we think we’re helping Jesus out when we do it. With the same effect of a succulent burger ad, we salivate. Then we order “it.” We order to get what we saw the happy, successful Kingdom-workers enjoying. Then we pay for it. We justify a real sacrifice to get what others have and we want. Then we open the box. We encounter a disparity between the mess we’ve ordered and are experiencing and what was seductively held up to us through someone else’s life.

Two years ago, in the middle of my self-created busyness and self-supposed importance, I realized how desperately I was straining to be known. I was confronted with the reality that all of the “kingdom” work I was doing was really a convenient front for another empire I was building. My own.

In his book, Sensing Jesus, Zach Eswine recounts a jolt he received from a mentor (p. 243):

Bob looked at me.

“Zachary,” he said, “You are already discovered.”

“What?” I asked.

“I want you to know that you are already discovered. Jesus already knows you. You are already loved, already gifted, already known.”

Is that enough for us? To be known by Jesus? If you and I are never “discovered,” will our hearts survive?

Although this temptation is greatly pronounced in our modern evangelical celebrity culture, it is not a new problem. The Apostle Paul observed the same sin in the church while he sat in a Philippian jail. “Some preach Jesus out of rivalry and envy” (Phil 1:15). Paul was aware that many used the Kingdom of God as a platform to serve a more personal agenda—the kingdom of self.

I confess the sickness of my own heart and am disgusted by the surfacing of these motives in it. I’ve begun to wonder, “How can I destroy my kingdom? What measures must I take to keep my intentions and affections in check?”

Well, here are three habits I’ve begun to cultivate in response to this tension. In many ways these practices have the power to help us “seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.”

1. Cultivate a Skepticism Towards Your Use of Social Media and Entertainment

I was about to drop the name of an impressive leader with whom I’d met to another impressive individual with whom I was tweeting. It was relevant to our conversation on international church planting trends. Though just before firing off the message, I realized the pride that was embedded in it. I didn’t send the message.

I’m fascinated by how social media affects our daily lives. People now sleep with their smart phones. I would never do that! I just kept it on my nightstand for a while, and during that time the first thing I would do in the morning is check my Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail. You might feel that’s bad. Or you might feel it’s acceptable. I’m not interested in the verdict. I’m primarily intrigued by what my behavior tells me about my heart. What is it that drives the average American to check their smart phone 150 times a day?

In a real sense, we are tempted by a desire for omnipresence. Social media propagates the idea that we can be in more than one place at the same time. The idea that I can maintain the awareness of what 900 “friends” are up to indulges the illusion of real engagement with their lives. I can like a status. Or try to post a status or picture that will compel others to engage with me through clicking “like.” Resultantly, many sociologists have observed that social media leads to more interactions – but not more meaningful interactions.

My love for TV furthers my desire for omniscience. When my son crashes around 9 p.m. or so, my wife and I use all the energy left in our bodies to drag ourselves onto the couch. We then transport ourselves to the wilderness of Alaska. Or into a crowd watching America’s favorite dancers. We become part of an exciting auction. For a moment, we aren’t full-time working, toddler-worn parents. We are in a different place and part of a different story.

I’m not condemning social media or TV, but I do want to cultivate a healthy skepticism for my use of both. What does the frequency of your social media usage say about your heart? What does your compulsive need to rest via TV say about your soul?

2. Combat Boredom by Embracing the Ordinary and Mundane

In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton has said that we must learn to “exult in monotony.” Why? If the ordinary moments of life are not deserving of celebration, then life itself is not worthy of being lived. The essence of boredom is discontentment with “what is” and a desire to be somewhere else, doing something else. This state of being indicates that we do not yet possess gratitude for our lives. We haven’t yet absorbed the simple weight of what it means to be able to change diapers, pay taxes, and put in contact lenses.

“For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony” says Chesterton. “But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike, it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never gotten tired of making them.”

What would it mean to oppose your boredom for the sin that hides beneath it? How might you and I come to celebrate those moments that leave us wishing we were present in another place and time? Perhaps, we were made to live like Jesus in life’s most simple moments. The Son of Man built stuff with wood in Nazareth for two decades. Perhaps, this is the kind of life Paul had in view when he said that we should seek to lead, “a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tm 2:2). If something in your soul recoils at this prospect, what is that part of you?

German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, observed, “The knowledge of the cross brings a conflict of interest between God who has become man and man who wishes to become God.” The incarnation speaks to the astonishing reality that God was willing to become “one of us.” Furthermore, the Son became the very best “one of us” who ever lived. The Son was the most fully human human  being who has ever been. He relinquished the benefits of his membership in the Trinity so that he could live life as you and I.

But the ironic tension Moltmann noted is that although God descended to be with us, our universal desire is to ascend to the place of God. In many ways, I deny the limits of my humanity and posture myself as divine.

If the most human human being experienced life the way it was intended to be by occupying one place (an obscure and impoverished town) and simply “being there,” what can that teach us about embracing the glamour-less moments and places we tend to despise in our lives?

3. Remain Aware of What Your Worship is Doing

My sin causes me to love the wrong things. I am a “desiring being.” I have cravings that actually shape my entire person. These “wants” form me, rippling out from the core of my being and driving my thoughts, will, emotions, and behavior. This is what it means to be a worshiper. I am always worshiping and must remain conscious of what my heart is treasuring.

I must constantly ask myself, “What am I looking for right now? What is it that I most deeply want?” Sometimes it may be important to even ask a layer beneath that, “I crave acknowledgement. Why do I want that acknowledgement? What am I hoping it will do for me?”

Conversing with the Father after viewing both him and ourselves in the mirror of Scripture leads us to pray, “Your Kingdom come.” And when we pray with this heart, we are killing our own kingdoms.

There are moments I sit quietly with the Father, unable to offer my Creator any kind of adoration. I remain silent, wondering why I can’t piece together some string of affection that would communicate a perception of his worth. And then I realize why I can’t. I can’t worship God because I am simultaneously pouring out my heart to something else. There’s something that I want more than him. There is some good “second thing” that I have enthroned as my ultimate thing.

And then I have to do something even more pathetic. I must ask God to change what I want. The convenience of more superficial sanctification is that I can change myself. I can modify my behavior. I can filter my thoughts and words. But I am powerless to change what my heart wants. Only God can do that for me.

* * * *

If your inner traitor is as sneaky as mine, then it’s almost certain there is a way in which you’ve been secretly siphoning off glory intended for God and stockpiling it for yourself.

There’s an impending rationale for why each of us must halt construction of our personal kingdoms immediately. One day, Jesus will take possession of the kingdoms of this world. He will set up his rule on Earth, and it will never end. You and I will sit under his rule as willing captives to his unmatchable radiance.

Then for many of us, the tears of regret will come. On that day, we will wish we could relive each hour we spent preoccupied with building our own kingdoms. Jesus will then wipe away tears of regret.

With the vision of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven in mind, let’s skip back a few scenes. Skip back to right now. Invite God to help you sabotage your kingdom so that you can begin to truly live in his. It’s not a kingdom where you rule. It’s a better and enduring empire.

Sean (@Sean_Post) lives in Maple Valley, WA with his wife and two sons and leads a one-year discipleship experience for young adults called “Adelphia”. He is completing his doctorate in Missional Leadership.

Thankfulness: Deep, Loud, & Dangerous

This week until Thanksgiving, everyone will be talking about thankfulness, so it’s especially important to ensure we understand it from a biblical perspective. Scripture has plenty to say on this subject. Among other things, it tells us that thankfulness is deeper, louder, and more dangerous than we might think.

Designed by God

Thankfulness goes much deeper than we might think. It’s not a human idea. In fact, it was in the Creator’s mind when he created. The Apostle Paul says food was created by God “to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth . . . ” and then immediately goes on to broaden this out to ‘everything’ God created (1 Tim. 4:3-4). This is a massive theological claim. God created corn on the cob, steak, pasta, avocados (dare we say even brussel sprouts and liver?) with a specific purpose in mind: that they would be received and then result in thanksgiving flowing back to him. Even a grape and a tangerine can lead a purpose-driven life. Who knew that baby carrots and barbecue ribs and escargot had a telos? They do. So do sunsets and flowers and rain, and good conversations and sweet sleep. God intended them to produce thanksgiving. Thankfulness is the God-designed follow-through to God-given blessing.

Giving thanks to God is living along the grain of the universe, savoring God’s creation in sync with the Creator. It’s one of the very best ways of bringing glory to God (2 Cor. 4:15). On the other hand, enjoying a meal or conversation or movie without feeling thanks to God is a tragic exercise in missing the point. It’s a waste, like using a laptop as a paperweight. It’s a damaging mistake, like using a light bulb as a hammer.

Meant to Be Overheard

Thankfulness can be silent and personal. But very often it ought to be loud enough to be heard by others. Thankfulness wants to point others toward God. And it wants to be a group activity. “Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!” Thankfulness is much happier when someone else can say “Amen” (1 Cor. 14:16-17).

In John 11, God (the Son) gives thanks to God (the Father). Jesus stands before the tomb of Lazarus and prays aloud, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.” He then continues praying, stating to God why he said just thanks out loud: “I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” In other words, Jesus gives thanks to God aloud because he wants the other people present to overhear his thanksgiving and believe in God and in his mission. That’s the whole point. Thankfulness is meant to point others toward God.

In Acts 27, the Apostle Paul is sailing for Rome as a prisoner. The ship he’s traveling on gets caught and driven along in a storm for many days, the crew frantically throwing all the cargo overboard. Finally, they approach land and spend a long night in the dark, anchors down. In the morning, here’s what happens: “Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, ‘Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food. It will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.’ And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat.”

I love this little phrase “. . . And giving thanks to God in the presence of all . . . ” It had been fourteen days since Paul had eaten! He must have been starving. Here was bread in his hands, finally. But he paused and prayed. He gave thanks “in the presence of all”—clearly meaning for these sailors to learn something about God and about the purpose of food. Paul was living with the grain of the universe, going vertical with thanks, and doing it loud enough for others to hear.

Easily Misused

But thankfulness can be dangerous. It’s striking that in the famous story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), the one who’s recorded as expressing thankfulness is the Pharisee. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Of course, this isn’t true thankfulness. True thankfulness is a posture of great humility before God the giver. The Pharisee is using his supposed thankfulness in order to puff himself up. He’s taking something designed to make much of God and instead using it to make much of himself. His thankfulness is false cover for his pride. The spotlight operator has turned the spotlight from the stage and is now standing, lit up with ludicrous glory, on the balcony. Pathetic and bizarre. God is clearly not pleased with this perversion of thankfulness. He rejects the Pharisee.

But lest we run too quickly to judgment . . . have we ever used thankfulness amiss? Have we ever publicly thanked God for an accomplishment and in so doing, wished for the accomplishment to be known more than the One we’re thanking? Have we ever tweeted “Thankful to God that my new article . . . my most recent speaking engagement . . . my kids . . . ” and mainly used our thankfulness to announce our latest achievement? Maybe? Just saying. How easy it is for the spotlight to turn from the stage to the stage hand.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for thankfulness, thankful that God has built it into the fabric of the universe, maximizing both his glory and our joy as we live in sync with his design.


Stephen Witmer is Pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, MA and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is the author of the forthcoming Eternity Changes Everything: How to Live Now in the Light of Your Future (Good Book Company). Follow him on Twitter: @stephenwitmer1.