Book Review: What Is the Gospel?

What Is the GospelWhen we received the book What Is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert in a gift bag from a church we visited, my first thought was, “It takes 121 pages to explain that?”

But, as he demonstrates in the first few pages, people have a variety of ideas about what exactly the gospel is, some odd, some close but not quite accurate. This, above anything else, is essential to know, because if we’re wrong about this, we’re in big trouble.

The first issue is our source of authority. After showing that reason, our own experience, and tradition are all unreliable, he goes to the Bible. He asserts that we can’t just do a study on the word “gospel” because many passages that describe it don’t use that word. So he suggests “looking at what the earliest Christians said about Jesus and the significance of his life, death, and resurrection” (p. 27).

Starting at Romans 1-4 and then examining other passages in the Bible, he observes that the gospel covers four basic questions:

1. Who made us, and to whom are we accountable?
2. What is our problem?…Are we in trouble and why?
3. What is God’s solution to that problem? How has he acted to save us from it?
4. How do I…come to be included in that salvation? What makes this good news for me and not just for someone else? (p. 31).

He further distills this down to “four major points…God, man, Christ, and response” (p. 31) and then dedicates a chapter to each one. One quote that stood out to me in the chapter on our response:

Many Christians struggle hard with this idea of repentance because they somehow expect that if they genuinely repent, sin will go away and temptation will stop. When that doesn’t happen, they fall into despair, questioning whether their faith in Jesus is real. It’s true that when God regenerates us, he gives us power to fight against and overcome sin (1 Cor. 10:13). But because we will continue to struggle with sin until we are glorified, we have to remember that genuine repentance is more a matter of the heart’s attitude toward sin that it is a mere change of behavior. Do we hate sin and war against it, or do we cherish it and defend it? (p. 81).

Since Christianity is not just about what we’re saved from, but it’s also about what we’re saved to, there’s a chapter on the kingdom of God. The chapter on “Keeping the Cross at the Center” addresses our tendency to try to make the gospel bigger, or more relevant, or less offensive by getting off-center, and he discusses three “substitute” gospels that even well-meaning people can fall into sometimes. And finally, the last chapter explores several responses a proper understanding of the gospel should have on us, one of which is loving the brethren.

Christian, the gospel should drive you to a deeper and livelier love for God’s people, the church. Not one of us Christians has earned his or her way into the inheritance God has stored up for us. We are not “self-made” citizens of the kingdom. We are included in God’s promises only because we know that we are dependent on Jesus Christ to save us, and we are united to him by faith.

But here’s the kicker. Do you realize that the same thing is true of that brother or sister in your church who annoys you? He or she believes in and loves the same Lord Jesus that you do, and even more, he or she has been saved and forgiven by the same Lord who saved and forgave you (pp. 117-118).

I found this a very readable and highly valuable book, both for non-Christians who want a clear presentation of what the gospel is all about, and for Christians to remind ourselves of what a treasure the gospel truly is, to keep us from getting sidetracked by “good” causes which de-emphasize, leave out, or muddy the gospel, and to let it affect our lives in every way it’s supposed to.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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Watching angels

When one of my sons was a baby and was intently staring at the ceiling, as babies are wont to do, my mother-in-law remarked that she thought when babies did that, they were looking at their guardian angels. We smiled – I think we even chuckled. I think she got a little embarrassed, but insisted, “No, really, I think they do see them!” We always kept that as a sweet memory of a sweet thought, and often when we saw a baby staring at the ceiling, we’d observe, “There they go looking at their guardian angels again” with a smile.

When we brought my mother-in-law home from the nursing home four years ago, we thought we were bring her home to die. She was down to 90 lbs., very fuzzy-minded, and not very responsive. But one-on-one care, especially in relation to feeding, and getting her off the narcotic drug we had not even known she was on until we brought her home, all improved her general condition dramatically. She’s 89, though, and one can’t stop the ravages of time. After maybe her first year or so at home, she began to decline more and more, moving less, sleeping more. Over the last year or so, she has become less interactive. She stopped speaking about a year ago, but we could tell by her eyes that she recognized us and followed what we were saying. She’d smile, nod, or shake her head. Though sometimes she still does, more and more lately there’s no light in her eyes when she looks at us, no response.

As we got her ready for bed last night, I noticed her staring intently at the ceiling, and that old sweet thought came back: maybe she’s watching her guardian angel.

Who knows what little babies and elderly people actually see when they fixedly stare at some point like that. I don’t know if each person is assigned a guardian angel, but the Bible does say that God sends angels to help us in various ways. Our pastor saw angels before he passed away, and I’ve heard similar things from others.

There is a sense in which all who know the Lord are getting closer to heaven every day, but the older and more frail one gets, the more imminent it seems. “For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:2, ESV). Some day she’ll cast off this silent, crumpled frame and see, not just angels, but the One she has loved and faithfully served for decades, the One who loved her, died for her, redeemed her, and made it possible that she and the family she so loved and prayed for could be with Him.

For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”

 

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:53-57, ESV

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 1 Peter 1:3-5, ESV

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(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Glimpses, Literary Musing Monday, Wise Woman, Tell His Story, Coffee for Your Heart, Porch Stories)

Everyday gifts

A few friends linked to this cute video on Facebook.

OK, some might think it a little cheesy. But it made a good point in a fun way. Though it was made with Christmas in mind, I thought it was perfect for Thanksgiving – or really, for any day – a reminder of all that we have. Much that we take for granted would have been considered luxuries throughout most of history, and in fact would still be considered luxuries by a lot of the world today.

This reminded me of an event several years ago when the church we attended then had a testimony time Thanksgiving Eve. Several young adults expressed longing to see God do something “big” in their lives. I couldn’t help but think of the children of Israel in the wilderness. The everyday manna was just as miraculous and just as much God’s provision as the parting of the Red Sea and victory in battle, yet they soon grew tired of that and wanted something else.

I don’t think those young people wanting to see God do something big in their lives that night were necessarily taking the everyday gifts for granted. I don’t know their hearts. But sometimes in longing for the “big” moments we can overlook the everyday evidence of God’s presence, love, and care – maybe a little like a husband or wife waiting for a grand, romantic gesture from the other rather than seeing the love in providing for each other, being attentive to each other’s needs and idiosyncrasies, and all the various little ways we evidence that “You’re the one that I love.”

May we see God’s hand and rejoice in His love and gifts in the everyday as well as in the milestone, once in a lifetime events.

It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto Thy name, O most High: to show forth Thy lovingkindness in the morning, and Thy faithfulness every night. Psalm 92:1-2

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses,
Tell His Story, Coffee For Your Heart, Porch Stories, Wise Woman, Faith on Fire)

The Strength of My Faith

When I faced surgery two years ago, I also faced a major battle with anxiety. First, with any medical procedure, they have to tell you everything that could possibly go wrong. Even though the things they describe aren’t likely to happen, there is some possibility they could happen. Some people probably are able to dwell in the “not likely” aspect of it, but some of us have trouble getting out of the “Yeah, but what if….” side of things. On top of that, though I am not diabetic or hypoglycemic, I do have low blood sugar issues sometimes. I usually can’t go past 9 or 10 a.m. without getting dizzy, shaky, and lightheaded, and the surgery wasn’t scheduled until 1 p.m., with nothing to eat or drink after midnight the night before. On top of that, I have irritable bowel syndrome, which can get into a vicious cycle with anxiety. It’s one more thing to get anxious about, and anxiety about it increases the likelihood of it being a problem, which increases the anxiety, and so on. I asked just about everyone I knew to pray about it, and God marvelously answered. The anxiety came to a peak two days before the surgery, but the morning of, God truly gave me “peace that passes understanding.”

Some of you who have read here for a while may remember that that procedure was not able to be completed. They thought I had one type of rhythm problem with my heart, but once they tried to treat it, they discovered I didn’t have that after all. I had a different kind, which was a totally different (and riskier, I was told at the time) procedure.

So two years later, which was this last August, that procedure was scheduled. The battle with anxiety was not as intense, I think due both to the fact that I had learned some things about dealing with it, and God had gotten me through all this before. But it was still a factor.

I had the notion that in order to keep the anxiety at bay, to avoid all these possible problems, and, most of all, to have a victorious experience spiritually, I had to maintain a certain level of faith. I saw anxiety as a failure of faith, and if I did experience any problems with blood sugar, IBS, etc., it would mean I had failed.

One can get rather weary feeling the weight of all that. A few days before the surgery, while once again several of these issues were going through my mind, a line from an old hymn by Ada Ruth Habershon revived in recent years came to mind:

When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast.

It’s not the strength, size, intensity, or maintenance of my faith that makes the difference. It’s the One I have faith in.

This is not a new truth to me. I was brought to this focus way back when I was first saved, and it’s something I have to be reminded of from time to time.

The fact that God knew the depths of my heart and my struggles and ministered to me so personally and tenderly touched my heart so deeply, and this became one of the most special moments of my life. This is the first time I’ve mentioned it to anyone else.

I share it not only to glorify God, but to encourage you. A former pastor’s wife, an older lady who had walked with the Lord for decades, used to often say, when she was speaking or counseling, “Look away to Jesus.” Whatever you’re going through, look away to Him.

There is no God else beside me; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside me. Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else. I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear. Surely, shall one say, in the Lord have I righteousness and strength. Isaiah 45:21b-24b, KJV

Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways. Psalm 119:37, ESV.

For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. John 6:40, ESV

But as for me, I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness,  the Lord will be a light to me. Micah 7:7-8, ESV

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. Psalm 63:1-3, ESV

I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him  and saved him out of all his troubles. Psalm 34:4-6, ESV

And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. Matthew 17:8. ESV

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. Hebrews 12:1-3, ESV

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses, Tell His Story), Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Coffee for Your Heart, Porch Stories, Faith on Fire)

Laudable Linkage

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Here’s another round of notable reads found recently:

Please Stop the Mad-ness re “Christian outrage” responses.

Tempted to Quit [Church]? Do You Know Why You Shouldn’t?

Faith Going Forward: A Midlife Following. “If the Proverb is to be trusted, and my mostly silver hair is to be seen as a crown of glory and wisdom, don’t let me be guilty of false advertising.”

How to Engage a Fanatic, HT to Lisa.

I’m a Mom Who Doesn’t. You Don’t Have to, Either, HT to The Story Warren.

30+ Thanksgiving Activities For Kids, HT to The Story Warren.

And, this is the night!!! Daylight Savings Time ends tonight, so don’t forget to turn your clocks back before going to bed. I hate losing the hour in the spring but I love getting it back in the fall!.

(Links here do not imply 100% endorsement of site or author)

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Book Review: Love in Hard Places

Love in Hard PlacesIn  Love in Hard Places, D. A Carson is “not attempting a full-orbed and comprehensive survey of Christian love.” That would be a longer and different book. Rather, he’s particularly focusing on “those aspects of Christian love that are not easy and may be painful as well as difficult” and the truth that, living in a “fallen and broken world” as we do, “we are unwise to retreat too quickly to merely sentimental notions of love” (p. 18). He argues that Christian love is not just a vague “niceness” or a “committed altruism” (p. 21). He warns us “to avoid distortion…[pitting] one attribute of God” against the others. “All of God’s perfections,” love, holiness, sovereignty, omniscience, even His wrath, “work together” (p. 17).

He discusses at length what Jesus called the most important commandments, loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves, and what they mean and do not mean. He also discusses passages that talk about loving our enemies, both “big” (persecutors, people who hate God and His ways) and “small” (people who are irritating, bitter, arrogant, etc., who rub you the wrong way). Within that discussion he explores what Jesus did and did not mean by his command to “turn the other cheek.” That leads to a chapter on forgiveness and all that it involves and the tension between it and a passion for justice, both of which are characteristic of God. He explores in depth two “hard cases”: racism and people like Osama bin Laden (and Hitler and Pol Pot and the like). Within the latter he covers the “just war” theory and pacifism. He goes on to explain what tolerance means and does not mean and how the meaning of it has changed over the years and shows that love does mean tolerating evil or never rebuking anyone for it. He delves into a case study of Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2:11-14 and shows that it is “entirely within the constraints of Christian love. Indeed, at one level, it is motivated by Christian love” (p. 150). He discusses church discipline and defending the gospel. Finally he examines the church at Ephesus in Revelation which, though it had many commendable qualities, had “left its first love.” Finally he discusses how our love should be reflective of God’s love (which has also been referred to throughout the book).

One section I especially appreciated discussed something I have pondered for years. People tend to say today that love is not an emotion, it’s a verb: it’s a self-sacrificing desire to meet the needs of the loved one. And that’s true in some respects. When a tired mother is awakened at 2 a.m. by a crying baby, her immediate response is probably not going to be warm and loving. But by the time she gets up, changes, and starts feeding the baby, usually those warm feelings return. Likewise, I don’t always feel loving when I am interrupted or someone wants me to do something I don’t want to do, but when I respond rightly, usually the feelings change. On the other hand, the first few verses of 1 Corinthians 13 say that without love, the height of self-sacrifice – giving all my goods away or giving my body to be burned – is nothing. Carson notes both of these and says Christian love is more than “committed altruism,” and “the command to love must not be stripped of affective content” (p. 21). But I wish he had expanded on that last point a little further.

A few of the quotes that stood out to me:

So with the demise of Bible reading, what teaches us how to think God’s thoughts after Him? How on earth shall we love Him with heart and mind if we do not increasingly know Him, know what He likes and what He loathes, know what He has disclosed, know what He commands and what He forbids? (p. 32).

Christians do not restrict their moral horizons to immediate results; they make their ethical decisions from an eternal perspective (p. 52).

Forbearance and genuine tenderheartedness are much tougher than niceness, and sometimes…tough love is confrontational (p. 54).

The Bible itself recognizes that unity is not an intrinsic good. There is good unity, and there is bad unity. [Among the bad he cites the tower of Babylon in Gen. 11 and that imposed by the “beasts” in Revelation 11; the good, that for which Jesus prays for His disciples in John 17 and that which will occur around God’s throne with people “bought by the blood of the Lamb of God, people drawn ‘from every tribe and language and people and nation’ (Rev. 5:9).”] … There is both good and bad division. The same Jesus who prayed that His disciples might be one also said, rather shockingly, [that He came to bring division (Luke 165:51-52)] (pp 62-63).

Persecution helps Christians see what their priorities are and can foster a deeply spiritual faithfulness grounded in the ever-present prospect of eternity (p. 66).

Emotional and intellectual persecution, coupled perhaps with subtle exclusions…often seduces [believers]. For the sake of gaining plaudits, it is easy to trim one’s theology or keep silent about the bits that we know will cause umbrage, in the hope of gaining the approval we crave. Alternatively, some believers fight back with a nasty anti-intellectualism, a “circle-the-wagons” mentality that is neither loving nor evangelistic but merely defensive. Ironically, Christians who adopt these postures become just as scurrilously condescending as those who are attacking them (p. 66).

Moral indignation, even moral outrage, may on occasion be proof of love–love for the victim, love for the church of God, love for the truth, love for God and His glory. Not to be outraged may in such cases be evidence, not of gentleness and love, but of a failure of love. This is where our motives can become thoroughly confused, not to say corrupted. For the line between moral outrage for the sake of God and His people, and immoral outrage because I am on the opposite side of a debate, is painfully thin. On the issue I may even be right; in my heart I may be terribly wrong, precisely because I am less motivated by a passion for the glory of God and the good of His people than for vindication in a wretched squabble with a few individuals (p. 85).

The New Testament writers, even while writing the texts on love and forbearance that we are trying to understand and obey, condemn false prophets, expel the man who is sleeping with his step-mother, declare that it would be better for Judas Iscariot if he had not been born, assure readers that the evil of Alexander the metal-worker will be required of him, and solemnly warn of eternal judgement to come. Sometimes, of course, churches with right-wing passions use these same texts to bully their members unto unflagging submission to the local dictator. The threat of church discipline can degenerate into a form of manipulation, of spiritual abuse. Where, then, is the line to be drawn? To a postmodern relativist, any form of confessional discipline will seem nothing more than intolerant, manipulative abuse. From a Christian perspective, what lines must be drawn and why? How does Christian love work itself out in such cases? (p. 149).

Where there is flagrant disavowal of the truths essential to the gospel, where there is persistent and high-handed disobedience to the commands of Jesus, or where there is chronic, selfish lovelessness, there, John insists, we find no authentic Christianity (p. 170).

To appeal…to some ill-defined and sentimental notion of love as the ground for contravening Scripture may be a lot of things, but it is not Christian love (p. 174).

This book is densely packed. I could generally read and process only 2-4 pages at a time. Though the style of Carson’s writing (at least in this book; I’ve not read anything else by him) is more like a college lecture than a cozy devotional, it’s not hard to understand, but I did have a little trouble maintaining the thread of his argument over a chapter sometimes. If I had it to do over again, I’d jot down the outline of the chapters as I read.

The one thing I wish he had added was a little summary at the end and even a working definition of Biblical love. The one thing I want to know is how to be more loving, because I fail in it all too often. It’s a fruit of the Spirit, so it’s not something I “work up” in myself. Yet it is also a command, so it is something I must obey. He does acknowledge that our failure to love is evidence of our fallen nature, redeemed by Christ’s death, yet imperfect til we get to heaven, but something in which we can grow. So in the meantime I remind myself of something I have shared here before, a story from a missionary who grieved because of her lack of love. Telling herself every day “I need to be more loving” did not increase her love but did increase her sorrow. Finally she focused instead on God’s love for her, undeserved, forgiving, longsuffering, and without even realizing it, she was slowly changed. We are changed into His likeness by beholding Him. And I pray that my “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” and that the Lord would make to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all.”

Nevertheless, I did find this book a worthy and deeply thought-provoking read, and I much appreciated the author’s thoroughness, carefulness, and balance.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

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When God Asks the Impossible

One day while reading the account of the man with the withered hand, it occurred to me that what Jesus asked him to do – to stretch out his hand – was exactly what he could not do. Same with the paralyzed man whom Jesus told to rise, take up his bed, and walk. That’s exactly what he couldn’t do. Thankfully neither of these argued with Jesus about it. They just obeyed. And in the obedience they found the ability they’d not had before, given by God’s grace.

A popular saying is “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.” Of course He does! He asks any number of things of us that we can’t do except with His help and grace.

This doesn’t mean we should start looking for impossible feats to accomplish. These were things Jesus asked – or rather, commanded of people, not foolhardy, reckless acts.

Nor does it mean that I should say “Yes” to every seemingly impossible opportunity that comes my way. Sometimes God puts limits or closed doors in our path to teach and guide us.

But it does mean that when He wants me to do something I don’t think I can do, instead of telling Him all the reasons I can’t, like Moses (which I am prone to do), or waiting to feel like I have the strength and the ability, I should just take the next step, put one foot in front of the other, obey, and trust Him for the ability.

It’s happened in the past. Jobs that were too big for me. Situations too hard to go through. Dealing with ongoing health issues. Events that, if I could have seen all that would be involved, would have sent me running to the hills. There have been situations I have looked back on and wondered how in the world I got through them.

I’ve thought of this truth in relation to those things, but recently I’ve begun to connect them not just to the “big” events of life, but the everyday fighting against temptation, facing mundane responsibilities, loving like Jesus loves when it’s far from easy. Those are just as impossible in my own strength.

Only by God’s grace. Only by His strength. That’s part of the reason for these situations: for our growth and faith, yes, but also so people will see it’s Him.

That they may know that this is thy hand; that thou, Lord, hast done it. Psalm 109:27

Even knowing all that, my default response is usually to quiver and say, “I can’t.” And I truly can’t. But He can, through me. And like Peter, who was asked the impossible action of walking on water, I need to keep my eyes not on the boisterous winds and waves, not on the circumstances that would make it impossible, but on Him.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:4-5

For with God nothing shall be impossible. And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.Luke 1:37-38

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2 Corinthians 12:9

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Glimpses, Literary Musing Monday,
Tell His Story, Coffee For Your Heart, Porch Stories, Faith on Fire, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday)