What is the Gospel?

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There is way too much confusion about the Gospel.  If we as Christians are basing our entire lives on the truth of the Gospel, should it not be crystal clear in our minds?  I am embarrassed to tell you one of my moments of un-clarity regarding the Gospel:  the Pastor that I worked with in New Mexico asked me one day how I would share the Gospel with somebody that I was sitting next to in an airplane if the plane was going to crash.  I had been in full-time ministry for over 3 years at that point and let me tell you, I was hoping that imaginary airplane was flying high at cruising altitude when the engines failed!  I was able to share it biblically faithfully as I had many times when the Lord gave me opportunities, but not concisely.

How about you?  When you have only a few minutes but a clear opportunity or even someone asking you to share the Gospel, do you know where to start and finish?  What are the non-negotiables that they need to know in order to truly be saved?  Are you teaching the Gospel to your children constantly?  Do you thank God regularly for what He has done for you in Christ because it is often on your mind?  We need the Gospel to be emblazoned upon our hearts and ready on our lips!

When I recently attended the Shepherd’s Conference at Grace Community Church where we are members, I had a list of several kinds of books that I was looking for at the Conference Book Store.  At the top of my list was a book about the Gospel.  I knew that after 4 1/2 years of studying more than I thought possible to be as equipped as I could be for full-time ministry, that I needed to step back and see the big picture.  I also knew that I want to be laser-sharp on what the Gospel is in my ministries now and as I look ahead to full-time ministry.  If I could go back and change only one thing in the almost 6 wonderful years of being a Youth Pastor before seminary, it would be to preach and explain the Gospel more often and more clearly.  Paul the Apostle taught the whole counsel of God, and yet there was a sense in which he could say to the Corinthians, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

I found exactly the book that I was looking for in the little book What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert.  So, what IS the Gospel??  This is the most important question that you will ever ask, as well as the most important question that you will ever answer.  I agree with Gilbert as he shows that Scripture breaks it into 4 basic truths:

1) God.  We are accountable to the God who created us.  He is both Creator, and holy and righteous (Genesis 1:1, Psalm 24:1, Matthew 5:48).

2) Man.  We have sinned against that God and will be judged (Romans 3:10, 6:23; Isaiah 59:2).

3) Christ.  But God has acted in Jesus Christ to save us.  God sent Christ as both fully God and fully man, and as God’s perfect Son He died on the cross to pay the penalty for sin and then rose from the dead (Colossians 2:9, Romans 5:8, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Corinthians 15:4).

4) Response.  We take hold of that salvation by repentance from sin and faith in Jesus (Isaiah 55:7, Luke 9:23, Romans 10:9, Acts 17:30).

Look at all 4 principles laid out clearly in Romans 3:23-25a, “…for all have sinned and fall short [man] of the glory of God [God], and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus , whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood [Christ], to be received by faith [response]…”

It was said in many different ways all throughout God’s Word.  Sometimes it was assumed that part of it was already believed, such as that God was Creator and Judge to a Jewish audience.  But these 4 basic principles are always in the background or in the forefront of a complete Gospel presentation.

As Gilbert points out, another way of looking at these 4 truths is how they answer 4 crucial questions that Paul lays out in Romans 1-4:

“1) Who made us, and to whom are we accountable? [God]

2) What is our problem?  In other words, are we in trouble and why? [Man]

3) What is God’s solution to that problem?  How has he acted to save us from it? [Christ]

4) How do I–myself, right here, right now–how do I come to be included in that salvation?  What makes this good news for me and not just for someone else? [Response]”

As I look at the precious and glorious answers to those four questions, I am reminded of the simplicity of the Gospel and yet its’ profundity.  The Good News of Jesus Christ is simple enough for a child to understand, and yet complex enough to write a doctoral dissertation on each of these points and still not plumb the depths!

It is also easy to notice that the Gospel is made up of both bad news AND good news.  In our society of “whatever you believe is true, is true for you” philosophy, and generous tolerance of any belief except for Christianity, I am afraid that we are too ready to soften the parts about us being accountable to God the Creator, the depth of our sin, or the fact that our King was crucified on a wooden Roman instrument of torture over two thousand years ago and then actually rose from the dead.  It is especially hard for people who have been taught all of their lives that man is essentially good to understand what they need to be saved from.  It is equally hard in our day to explain to those who have a “Santa Claus” view of God that He is not only a God of unfathomable love but also unfathomable holiness, and their Judge.  Yet that is exactly what people need to hear.  The whole, simple, profound, true, cutting, crushing, revealing, surprising, loving, saving, and gracious Gospel of Jesus Christ!

Let’s take note of Gilbert’s alarm: “Indeed I believe one of the greatest dangers the body of Christ faces today is the temptation to rethink and rearticulate the gospel in a way that makes its’ center something other than the death of Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners.”

If you teach Sunday School, if you have children, if you preach, if you have neighbors or co-workers or relatives who need to hear the Gospel (we all do), or if you just need to think clearly and deeply about the Gospel (we all do), I encourage you to read this book, and soon!  I know that you will devour it as I did, and that it will result in more praise to Jesus Christ.  As Gilbert explains, “An emaciated gospel leads to emaciated worship.  It lowers our eyes from God to self and cheapens what God has accomplished for us in Christ.  The biblical gospel, by contrast, is like fuel in the furnace of worship.”  I am thankful for this book, because having a precise and lucid understanding of the biblical Gospel “calls us forward to that final day when heaven will be filled with the roaring noise of millions upon millions of forgiven voices hailing him as crucified Savior and risen King.”

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Big News!

Psalm 127, below, has quickly become a favorite Psalm for Melanie and I (Scripture in italics, my comments are in brackets):

Unless the LORD builds the house,
They labor in vain who build it;
Unless the LORD guards the city,
The watchman keeps awake in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late,
To eat the bread of painful labors;
For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.

[This reminds me of God’s good sovereignty and provision, and how He has taken care of our family all throughout Seminary and will continue to watch over us.]

Behold, children are a gift of the LORD,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.

[The LORD gives us children as a great blessing of His undeserved grace. Notice how the Psalmist uses the phrase “fruit of the womb” instead of just “offspring”; he is pointing out how they are a good, sweet gift from God.]

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them;
They will not be ashamed
When they speak with their enemies in the gate.

[What are arrows for? To eventually launch out. In this case, the target no matter where the arrow lands is God’s glory.]

I recently took a look at every verse that I could find about children in the Bible because I want to be thinking God’s thoughts on any subject, and I knew in particular that what God’s Word says about children would be in stark contrast to our culture. The era in which we live too often says or acts like they are a burden, an inconvenience, an expense that gets in the way of what I want for myself, etc. But what surprised me as I surveyed God’s Word on children were two things:

1) There is actually more of an emphasis on how parents have the imperative from God to raise their children to live for Him than on the subject of “children.”

2) The verses that do address the subject of “children” are unequivocally positive. Picture Jesus holding the children in his lap and talking with them when the disciples thought he was too busy and told them to go away, and you get the picture of God’s special love for children.

As you can see from this adorable picture below, Melanie and I are thrilled to announce with Big Brother Tobias and Big Sister Gracie that we will be having our 3rd child Lord willing about September 25th!!!

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We are blessed, very blessed, and we give praise to God, that we once again will have the opportunity to love one of His little ones that looks a lot like us, and to point him or her to Jesus.

Are You Making the Best Use of Your Time??

I turned 33 this week, and turning the same age that Jesus was when He had completely fulfilled His earthly ministry caused me to pause and think about what I am accomplishing with my life.

John Paton was 33 when he and his wife sailed to the New Hebrides islands to be missionaries to cannibals.  Adoniram Judson was 24 when he and his wife moved to Burma (now Myanmar) to be missionaries to what was then a “closed” country.  David Brainerd died at the age of 29 from tuberculosis after being sick and discouraged much of his adult life–yet his hope in God and zeal for ministry led hundreds of Native Americans to faith in Christ, and his diaries continue to have an impact today.  Robert Murray McCheyne was 29 when he died of typhus, yet his ministry continues through his biography, writings, and Bible reading plan that is popular even today.  Jim Elliott, who said “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose,” proved it by dying as a martyr at the age of 28 trying to evangelize Indians in Ecuador.  His wife, Elizabeth Elliott, was 32 when she and her 3 year old daughter went to live with the tribe that had killed her husband, so that they could teach them about Jesus.  Amy Carmichael was 33 when she began rescuing girls from prostitution in India and giving them the hope of the Gospel as well as a home.

I don’t write this to make either you or myself simply feel bad about what we are accomplishing right now as compared to others, but to ask ourselves, “Am I making the best use of my time?”  I don’t need to be a missionary or the Son of God to obey Ephesians 5:15-16, “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.”  But  am I fulfilling the ministry that the Lord has for me right now, and am I doing it in light of eternity?  Am I making purposeful choices, realizing that how I choose to spend my days will turn into how I lived my life?

By God’s great grace I plan to be a Pastor, but tomorrow I will put on a black polo shirt and go sell phones at Sprint.  The all-important question that faces all of us everyday no matter where we find ourselves tomorrow is, “Am I glorifying Christ in how I live?”  Am I choosing to be a light for Christ wherever I am?  Am I pursuing holiness in my day to day life?  Am I further along now in my understanding of God’s Word and His will than I was 1 year ago?  Am I praying and asking God how my family and I could better serve Him where we are at now?  Am I looking to the future, realizing that the decisions I make now will shape my life for the next 33 years?  Am I investing in my wife and children, knowing that quantity time really is better than quality time in the long haul?

As Moses prayed thousands of years ago, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).  Lord, teach me to number my days so that if you bless me with another 33 years You will be more glorified in my life, family, and ministry than You are now.  Lord, teach me to number my days so that if I died tomorrow as some of Your faithful servants died at a young age, that others would be encouraged to live for You by my memory.  Oh, may we not look back at the end of our lives and say that we wasted them!  Are you making the best use of your time?

Sermon: Glory, Fear and Grace, Luke 2:8-20

Even though Christmas was 3 months ago, I invite you to listen to this sermon and take a look at God’s glory afresh and how it causes fear and shows God’s grace.  As I studied for this sermon, I was surprised by some aspects of this beloved passage of the angel’s appearance to the shepherds in Luke 2.  I pray that God will use it to help you see God’s glory with new eyes today.  Sermon Preached Dec. 4, 2011 at First Baptist Church, Strathmore, CA before Finals Week as I finished Seminary.

Sermon: Surely God Is Good, Psalm 73

How are you doing in the war to believe in God’s goodness even in the midst of trials?  I pray that this is an encouragement to your heart, and another part of your ammunition in the battle to believe God’s Word, that surely God is good no matter what.  Sermon Preached Dec. 4, 2011 at First Baptist Church, Strathmore, CA before Finals Week as I finished Seminary.

Christ our Advocate

It is because of Christ our Advocate that God can declare, "Not Guilty." Christ bore our punishment in His own body on the cross, so that we could have the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We are all outraged when a judge is found to be corrupt, when the very ones who are to be upholding justice commit a travesty of justice.  We are also all familiar with the jokes that point fun at corrupt lawyers, lawyers who try to get what they can for both themselves and their client no matter who is truly guilty.  However, can you imagine a situation in which the judge himself cannot possibly do any injustice because of his character?  Can you imagine a situation in which the lawyer is absolutely blameless and yet pays the penalty of his rightly accused client?  Such is the picture of God the Father as Judge and Jesus Christ as Advocate for those who have trusted in Christ for salvation.  The New Testament paints a beautiful picture of God’s unmerited favor in 1 John 2:1, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.  And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”

First, it is important to note that the Apostle John is writing to Christians in this passage.  He is writing to those who have already been saved as Romans 10:9-10 describes, those who already have claimed the blood of Jesus to forgive their sins and to grant them salvation.  By confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and believing that He not only died in their place (2 Corinthians 5:21) but also rose from the dead, they now have eternal life.  But what is often misunderstood by Christians and non-Christians alike is that the work of Christ’s salvation does not end at that moment.

Jesus not only rose from the dead but He also ascended into Heaven after His physical, bodily work on earth was done for now.  He is presently seated before God the Father as the believer’s Advocate.  Jesus is often pictured in the New Testament as seated at God’s right hand because the position at the right hand of a King symbolized a position of absolute authority under the King, but He is also pictured as seated because His work in one sense is done (Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3).  Jesus fulfilled the work of the High Priest that was foreshadowed in the Old Testament.  Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, that priest would enter into God’s presence after taking the blood of the sacrificed animals and a censer with burning incense.  He would then enter behind the inner veil of theTemple, what was known as the “Holy of Holies” where the Ark of the Covenant was, and where God’s enthroned presence was above theArk.  After entering behind the veil, the High Priest would sprinkle the blood upon the mercy seat to atone for the people’s sins, because God’s law demanded that a blood sacrifice be made for sin (Hebrews 9:22, see all of Hebrews 9 for the description of this ritual and how Christ fulfilled it).  Jesus Christ, however, as the ultimate High Priest, entered God’s presence in Heaven, which the earthly Temple was a shadow of.  He offered Himself and His blood there to God as the final payment for sin for those who would trust in Him.

God is perfectly holy, without even a hint of sin.  Many people think that because God is also loving and forgiving, that they can come to Him in any way that they want to and He will forgive them.  However, God would be unjust to do so without a proper payment for sin.  This is why He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for sinners.  Still, although His work regarding the payment of sins was done through His death on the cross, Christ also has an ongoing ministry that is happening today (Hebrews 8:2, 6).

Now He stands before God and is the Advocate for the Christian.  As John MacArthur has explained, “Whenever we sin He says to the Father, ‘Put that on My account.  My sacrifice has already paid for it.’…In His Son we are now blameless in the Father’s sight.”  The reason that a Christian can know that a spotless God will accept him or her back after sinning is not only because of Christ’s finished work on the cross, but also because He now stands as the Advocate.  The New International Version translates the Greek word parakletos that many versions translate as “advocate” by explaining, “one who speaks to the Father in our defense.”  Only Jesus could fulfill this role, not only because He lived a perfect life, but because He is both God and man.  

When Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, the Son of God became flesh.  That means that the second person of the Trinity was joined eternally with sinless humanity.  Because of this, He is not as the priests were in the Old Testament, imperfect advocates or mediators between God and man.  After Jesus’ ascension, He is able to stand before the Father face to face in Heaven and claim each sin of His own children as paid for fully by His blood.  In fact, the original language of 1 John 2:2 points this out: “…And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous…” (emphasis mine).  The word with, along with the legal picture painted in this verse and the theology of the New Testament that we have discussed, point out that Jesus Christ’s unique position as the Ascended Son of God gives Him the right to be face to face with the Father on behalf of His followers.  Jesus is qualified to look into the Father’s eyes, as it were, and claim His own.  It is the fact that the Person of Christ is both God and Man that gives Him the character to be able to be the believer’s Advocate.  This aspect of His character is seen at the end of verse 1, “Jesus Christ the righteous,” and in the following verse of 1 John, “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins…” (2:2).  On the basis of Christ’s perfect character, He is able to propitiate or appease the wrath of God.

It needs to be pointed out that although Christ is needed as the defense of believers before the holy God, it is not as if God the Father is unwilling to forgive in this whole scenario.  He is the one who planned all of this before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:3-5, John 3:16, Galatians 4:4, 2 Corinthians 5:19)!  This is how He is able to be both just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus, pardoning them on the basis of Christ’s past and continuing work (Romans 3:26).

Besides man’s guilt because of sin, there is the great deceiver and enemy of our souls that must be dealt with.  Satan is known as the accuser of the brethren, and in Job (i.e. chapters 1 and 2) we can see that one of his activities is to go before God and accuse us.  Perhaps he says something like, “What about your follower Tim Counts?  He can’t even keep from sinning with his mouth for more than a day, even though he has promised you again and again to do better when he sometimes ‘repents.’”  The picture of 1 John 2:2 that has also been drawn out from Hebrews and Romans is that Jesus would then look at the Father and show His wounds in His hands and side and declare, “Tim Counts is one of mine.  My blood covers his sins.  He has access to your Throne.  His unrighteousness is covered by my righteousness.”  God the Father looks at Satan and exclaims, you have no accusation that can stick against Tim.  He is forgiven!

For the Christian who is struggling with coming to God for forgiveness of that same sin again, Jesus Christ stands as the Advocate before the Father, giving us unfettered access to God!  The loving God who is also the Judge of the World has appointed the perfect Advocate.  There is no one, not even Satan, who can bring an accusation too great against those who have truly run to Jesus for refuge, because Jesus still intercedes for us (Romans 8:35).  For the unbeliever who wonders if he or she can ever have a relationship with God who seems so far away, Jesus Christ offers forgiveness as the only one qualified to be able to truly offer it and exclaims triumphantly, “Come to me!”  I have spoken to unbelievers who think that I somehow think of myself as better than them because I believe in the exclusivity of Christ to forgive sins.  Rather, I am humbled that God would see fit to provide Christ who even intercedes for me today when I sin, all by His free gift of salvation!  He is my sure hope of a relationship with God, and their only hope.  One of my favorite worship songs beautifully states the theme of Christ’s Advocacy that gives me free access to the Throne of Grace.  It is a favorite because it points to the greatness of a God who is transcendent and yet forgiving because of Christ’s death and current ministry as my Advocate.

Before the throne of God above,

I have a strong, a perfect plea,

A great High Priest whose name is “Love,”

Who ever lives and pleads for me.

My name is graven on His hands,

My name is written on His heart;

I know that while in Heaven He stands,

No tongue can bid me thence depart…

 

When Satan tempts me to despair,

And tells me of the guilt within,

Upward I look and see Him there,

Who made an end to all my sin.

Because the sinless Savior died,

My sinful soul is counted free;

For God, the Just, is satisfied

To look on Him and pardon me.

Christ Our Only Hope

"Nothing in my hands I bring, Only to Thy Cross I cling." -Adapted from "Rock of Ages," words by Augustus Toplady

Where would we be if it were not for Christ?  Certainly not in a right standing with God!  How amazing it is that we can call the perfectly holy, all-powerful, sovereign, and transcendent God “Abba,” Father, because of what our Advocate (see next post!) Jesus Christ has done.  His advocacy on our behalf (if you are in Christ) means that the ultimate question in all of life has been answered.  To know that all is right between you and God means that there can be no event in your life that happens out of His sovereign and loving care (Romans 8:28), and that nothing can separate you from your identity in Christ nor from the love of Christ (Romans 8:31-39).  Christ truly is our only hope…I don’t know how people who don’t know Christ as Savior cope with living in a world that is so scarred with sin and the effects of sin. Surely that is God’s grace in itself, that they continue on and may repent (2 Peter 3:9).  How thankful I am that we have the cross to always look to, to be reminded of God’s grace!  It is because of Christ that I dare come into the presence of God the Father (Hebrews 6:19-20).

If you read this post, please don’t move on without asking yourself if Christ is your Advocate.  Have you confessed Him as Lord and Savior, believing that you are in need of forgiveness of sins (Romans 3:23) and that ONLY by placing your faith in God’s Son Jesus you can be saved?  Have you asked Him to save you from the penalty of death for your sins (Romans 6:23) and believed that He died on the cross for your sins and rose from the grave on the 3rd day?  All other religions and worldviews, which rely on one’s own accomplishments ultimately for salvation, bring glory to self, not Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9).  But believing that Christ is your only hope for salvation brings glory to Him as the God-Man, the Son of God, and also brings glory to God as we rejoice in His provision of salvation and a right relationship with Him.  May Christ become greater, and may I become less!  I hope that your prayer is the same.