The Sent Initiative: vision paper

This is the vision that drives part of my vocational ministry for 2014. While serving as the director of the Bonhoeffer House at Valley Bible Church, I will be working with Cru and churches in the Mid-Atlantic region to make this vision a reality and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

The Sent Initiative: a collection of local churches in the Mid-Atlantic committed to:
1. Integrating Cru alumni into the life of their church
2. Cru alumni as the fuel for planting and revitalizing local churches
3. Cross-denominational prayer and financial support for planting and revitalizing
4. Training for planting and revitalizing with in the local church context

Many of these churches will be pastored by former Cru staff and student leaders, assuring clean lines of communication and a shared vision for sending 100% of Cru alumni into a life on mission with God.

The Sent Initiative shares the conviction that all Christians are called to live as ambassadors for Christ. This means that the Great Commission is not something just for those “called” into vocational mission work, but all of our Cru alumni. We also recognize the unique training and experience that Cru students receive on their campus prepares them well for sharing “not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thes 2:8).

However, those experiences and skills that work well on a college campus often don’t translate well to their careers and neighborhoods without the help of experienced mentors and the safety of a local church family. Their first month on the job and in their new neighborhood or apartment complex is often a cold splash of water to the excitement they have for living “sent lives.” Additionally, their safety net of like-minded peers who live a short walk away is gone. Some persevere through this difficult transition. Some fall away. But almost all struggle.

What if a collection of churches existed that were prepared to be guides in the transition from excited Cru student to a life-long ambassador for Christ? Churches that were looking forward to having the energy and the awkwardness of our graduates. Churches that considered our alumni to be much needed fuel for church planting and revitalization.

What if our alumni were mentored right away by regular men and women in local churches who have been humbly living sent lives for years? What if they felt noticed, welcomed, and plugged in from their very first visit to one of our churches?

What if Cru staff on campus knew of churches like this in all the major sending areas in our region? What if they had access to pastors from VA to PA to process how to best prepare their students for sent lives lived out of local churches? What if they had opportunities to interact with and connect students with pastors from all over the region at conferences, weekly meetings, and special forums throughout the year?

The Sent Initiative exists to answer these questions. We are convinced that the best fuel for the Great Commission in the Mid-Atlantic region is Cru alumni sent into local churches to live sent lives for the glory of God and the good of His body.

The Bonhoeffer House

The Bonhoeffer House exists to equip men through combining theological formation, apprenticeship, and life together in the local church.

Theological Formation: Biblical and theological training with like-minded pastors, professors, and seminaries.

Apprenticeship: Mentored by pastors committed to character assessment and whole life development.

Life Together: Living in close relationships with other apprentices as well as pastors and their families.

Our Vision:

We want to see the cause of the Gospel advance slowly and steadily through the next generation of pastors, planters, and missionaries who love God, His glory, His mission, and His people. We want to help plant and revitalize local churches in our region through partnering with like-minded churches to train the next generation of pastor-scholars. We want to send missionaries across the globe with the support of and commitment to local churches. We want to see more young leaders learning on the job; leaders who have learned their trade under the watchful eyes of Godly pastors committed to their personal and pastoral growth.

Our Approach to Training:

We have pattered our approach after Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s way of training pastors. In light of his context in the German Confessing church opposed to Nazi rule, he began an experiment of living together with a group of pastoral trainees. They worked together, studied together, prayed together, served each other and their neighbors, and preached together. These were men concerned with becoming Gospel-preaching, people-loving pastors and their “house” seminary was committed to developing those things.

Our training center continues in Bonhoeffer’s legacy. We are committed to excellence in Christian scholarship, meaningful mentoring relationships, and a shared life together in the midst of the local church.

Theological Formation: The men who have shaped the theological direction of the Church historically have been pastors. We desire to carry on this tradition through training pastor-scholars. Men who think deeply and rightly about God, His message, and His mission. Men who love their families and the families of the people they minister to. We want them learning and teaching in the messiness of the local church. We want their study interrupted by visitations, counseling, funerals, weddings, crying children and broken plumbing in the church bathroom. We want them to love the people they are discipling and not just the information they are transferring.

Apprenticeships: Pastoral ministry is more readily caught than taught and mentoring provides a greenhouse for growth in relationship with an older, godly church leader. Mentoring connects study with practical experience and results in heart application because time, deep reflection and discussion will be prioritized. Our mentoring relationships focus more on development than productivity because we want our apprenticeships to result in life-change and longterm fruitfulness.

Life Together: This academic training and pastoral mentoring will be happening in the context of a life spent in close quarters with one other. Following Bonhoeffer’s model of “life together,” we incorporate some of the daily rhythm’s of prayer, study, work, and fun together. It is our deeply held belief that we learn and grow best in community and especially in a community that revolves around the Gospel. It is also our commitment that these men will also spend a great deal of time around each other and their training mentor and his family.

How it Works:

Bonhoeffer House apprenticeships are twelve months long and require a weekly commitment of twenty to twenty-four hours. The apprentices are supervised by the Director of the Bonhoeffer House, and are mentored by the Director and/or a partnering local pastor. Each apprentice will spend approximately half their time in study together (incorporating both the academic training and life together aspects). This will include reading, writing, prayer, class discussion, and time with pastoral mentor. The other half of their time will be spent in practical ministry in the life of their local church.

The judgment of Jesus in Joel 3

I recently preached at Valley Bible Church on Joel 3 and decided to rework my notes into an article. It’s long and perhaps not very rewarding (not the best sales pitch, I know) but here it is:

Joel 3: Fight or flight at judgment day

I’m sure you’ve heard of the “terrible twos,” but hearing about them and parenting through them are two very different things. Actually, my son Elijah-who turned two in December, hasn’t been too difficult through these first few months of the terrible twos. But he hasn’t been an angel either. In fact, he routinely disobeys. By routine, I really mean routine. Mostly it is just little things that are meaningful only for the fact that he is disobeying. But sometimes…sometimes he is outright rebellious. Yesterday I came around the corner and witnessed the following scene: Evie, his one year old sister, walked over to what remained of his breakfast, a few strawberries and half a pancake, and began to eat it. Breakfast had been over for an hour or so and I couldn’t get Elijah to finish what was on his plate, but now he sees his sister taking what is his. “Mine!” He screams, sounding like Gollum over his preciousss (LOTR anyone?). He runs toward her full of fury and vengeance. She looks at him with a clueless and helpless innocence. With a fork in his hand, he pushes her head hard enough to knock her down and says “NO EVIE!” At this point I move toward him. He looks up and realizes what is coming and instinctively starts running and crying at the same time, to which I say while snatching him up “you better cry” (it was the best I could think of in the moment). Judgment and punishment followed.

Flight is one of his immediate responses to coming judgment. There have also been a couple of times where he has fought me, almost preemptively. Sensing that punishment is coming either way, he prepares for battle and tries to fight me off. I love Elijah and my punishment is never too harsh or without kind words and gentle touch following, yet he has these mechanisms built in of fight or flight.

In the third chapter of Joel we see that God is giving us these same options when considering His great and final day of judgment (read this article for more on the “day of the lord”). The first two chapters of Joel contain prophecies about this “day of the Lord” and Peter even quotes one of these prophecies in his great sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2. The fact that he begins his sermon with an allusion to the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy of old men dreaming dreams and young men seeing visions and prophesying right in their midst begs the question: “has the day of the Lord already happened?” Looking at Joel 3, it is hard to give an unequivocal yes to that question. In fact, I don’t believe this moment has happened yet. I think God was giving Joel and his people a sneak preview to the final terrible fulfillment of the great day at the end of time.

Longtime RTS (and current Third Millennium) professor Richard Pratt’s teaching on the kingdom of God is a great model for understanding Joel’s prophecy of the day of the Lord. Pratt explains the Kingdom as existing in three great stages: inaugurated, continued, and consummated (check this little $3 booklet for a distillation of this model). Just as the Kingdom has different, but connected stages, so does the day of the Lord as Joel describes it. The inauguration came on that great day of pentecost. It is continued even today as God pours out his Spirit on all who “call on the name of the Lord” to be saved as Joel 2:32 describes. And it is consummated, or brought to a final conclusion, at the end of time. It is the consummation of this prophecy that we turn our attention to now in chapter 3.

“For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it.
What are you to me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the regions of Philistia? Are you paying me back for something? If you are paying me back, I will return your payment on your own head swiftly and speedily. For you have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried my rich treasures into your temples. You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks in order to remove them far from their own border. Behold, I will stir them up from the place to which you have sold them, and I will return your payment on your own head. I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the people of Judah, and they will sell them to the Sabeans, to a nation far away for the LORD has spoken.”

“Behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem.” Has this happened yet? I think we must say…sort of. God did pour out His spirit, His people from all over the known world did call on his name and were saved. You could even say that Jesus himself, was the restoration of the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem. But we haven’t seen God gathering the nations for a final and terrible judgment yet. And so we must say it has been inaugurated, and continued but it hasn’t been consummated yet. Let’s look at some of the details of these verses.

When God says he will gather all the nations and bring them into the valley of Jehoshaphat, what comes to mind? Maybe there is a valley somewhere named after King Jehoshaphat-one of the good kings of Judah who reigned for 25 years (you can read about him in 2 Chronicles, starting in chapter 17). Or maybe you think of Ole Sammity Sam shouting “jumpin Jehoshaphat!” while blasting his six-shooters. Either way, you’d be wrong. There actually is not a valley anywhere that was named the valley of Jehoshaphat in the time of Joel. And there is not a valley anywhere in the world that could hold all the nations together. Therefore, the best way to understand the valley of Jehoshaphat-and much of the prophecy of Joel-is theologically. Jehoshaphat literally means “Jehovah judges.” Joel is asking us to picture a final judgment of all people. In fact, this final chapter of Joel is depicting a legal courtroom scene with God sitting as judge over all people.

He goes on to say that He will enter into judgment with them on behalf of His people and His heritage, Israel. God will judge. He is concerned here with two things, His people and His glory. How have you treated his people and His glory, these are the things that matter in the end when you stand before God in ultimate judgment. God mentions some of the guilty actions the nations have done; scattered His people, divided His land, traded and sold children for pleasure. Here he shows us that one indicator of a nation against Him is how they treat children. Are children viewed as interfering with pleasure? Certainly most of you would say no when thinking about your own children. You would most likely sacrifice any pleasure for the good of your children, and that is good. But what about other children? What about children you don’t know? And how are we doing as a nation with this? How do we view unborn babies in our nation? Since Roe v Wade in 1973, 50 million unborn babies have been aborted. 50 million babies in 39 years. We need to pray for our nation. Now, I don’t mean to say that every time an abortion happens it is because of a clear choice between a child and pleasure, but I do know that for many, abortion is seen as just another form of birth control–which is simply that: a choice of pleasure and comfort and convenience over a child. I am not here to condemn anyone who may have had an abortion, but be sure of this: God will judge at that day. Fortunately, there is a way of escaping the guilty verdict that you and I are certain to hear based on how we measure up to the criteria of God’s glory and God’s people.

God then singles out Tyre and Sidon and all the regions of Philistia, and in courtroom fashion, He issues his opening address as the prosecuting attorney: “you have, you have, you have.” Then as Judge He then proclaims their punishment: “I will, I will, I will.” Their punishment is to be directly related to their crime. They stole God’s riches and sold God’s people and God says He will return their payment on their own head. Tyre, Sidon, and the five cities of Philistia were constant thorns in the side of God’s people and eventually in the time of Joel they were outright enemies whose trade included slave-trade. It may be interesting to learn that these enemies were first defeated by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and then suffered a final defeat-a defeat that resulted in mass destruction and thousands of defeated people being taken and sold as slaves-at the hands of Alexander the great around 330 BC. Again we have a picture of partial fulfillment, of inaugurated and continued fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.

God finishes these verses with a pronouncement of authority, legally binding His verdict by these words: “for the LORD has spoken.” God has spoken, and we should remember that God’s plan of redemption, culminating in a great day of judgment,deliverance and victory, marches unstoppably onward regardless of how bad it looks for the church. Apostasy (or falling away from the truth of the Gospel) and wickedness within the church cannot stop it. Islam cannot stop it. Godless scientific worldviews cannot stop it. Church division cannot stop it. Anti-christian regimes in closed countries cannot stop it.

Jonathan Edwards described this onward march of God like this: “the universe is the chariot in which [Christ] rides, and makes progress towards the last end of all things on the wheels of his providence…[at times] the under part of the wheel of a chariot seems to run backward, but it is not so.” Maybe it would be easier for you to picture car rims instead of chariot wheels. Jesus is riding an escalade with 20″ rims ever progressing toward the last end of all things, toward this day of decision. And even when the rims appear to be moving backwards (we’ve all seen this, right?) progress is being made. Because He has spoken and He is true and sovereign and powerful.

“Proclaim this among the nations: Consecrate for war; stir up the mighty men. Let all the men of war draw near; let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, “I am a warrior.” Hasten and come, all you surrounding nations, and gather yourselves there.”

Here we have a summons for battle. This is a battle summons that would have sounded familiar to Israel as it mirrors many that they had issued among their own tribes. But here God is actually issuing it to the nations that are against Him. He is saying, “get ready, get your mighty men together. Actually, that’s not even close to enough. Get your farmers and weaklings ready. And you don’t have enough weapons either. Bring your garden tools.” Basically, you need everyone and you don’t have enough weapons. This is a taunt against the bigger and stronger nations that have come against God. Israel has never been the biggest or the strongest. In fact, in Deuteronomy 7:7-8, God says “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” God’s people were always David to the world’s Goliath. This was in part to demonstrate the great power of God’s hand.

In verse 10 we also have an interesting parody of Isaiah 2:4. Isaiah says “…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” But Isaiah 2:4 is about Jesus and the way the true church in Jesus will act. It is a powerful and stark contrast. In Jesus there is no occasion for war with God. Apart from Jesus there will be battle. The passage in Isaiah is part of a back and forth prophecy between doom and deliverance, judgment and peace. 2:4 is followed closely by a description of the Lord’s day in 2:10-11: “Enter into the rock and hide in the dust from before the terror of the LORD, and from the splendor of his majesty. The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.” Find a rock to hide in. Cover yourself with dust before the terror of the LORD.

“Bring down your warriors, O LORD. Let the nations stir themselves up and come to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations. Put in sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great. Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.”

God brings his warriors to the battle and takes his seat as judge. He again mentions the valley of Jehoshaphat and now we are to picture a valley overflowing with God’s wicked enemies dressed for battle. And yet, the order is given for God’s army to attack. The nations have been assembled to lose this battle. The poetic language of the ripe harvest and full winepress is meant to show that the nations are there to be destroyed easily. Verse 14 offers a bit of commentary to the battle scene. The name of the valley changes from God judges to decision, or verdict. The verdict is coming! Our attention is also drawn back to the sun and the moon darkening in chapter 2, tying this all together.

“The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth quake. But the LORD is a refuge to his people, a stronghold to the people of Israel.”

The courtroom scene now climaxes in the verdict that God issues. God’s voice roars from Zion, from the center of His Kingdom. He proclaims a verdict so strong that it quakes the heavens and the earth. Hearing this description, His people would have immediately thought of Mt Sinai in Exodus 19. Just before giving Moses the 10 commandments, God’s presence shook the very mountain before them and caused the people to fear His power. At His final verdict at the end of time, the shaking will not be limited to one mountain but will extend to all the created universe. But! But the LORD is a refuge to his people! Hebrews 12:26-29 puts it like this: “At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken-that is, things that have been made-in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” In other words, those who refuge in the LORD have received an unshakeable kingdom and need not be afraid of that terrible day. But, those who have not refuged in the LORD will be destroyed. This is the verdict for the guilty and the innocent.

“So you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who dwells in Zion, my holy mountain. And jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it. And in that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water; and a fountain shall come forth from the house of the LORD and water the Valley Shittim. Egypt shall become a desolation and Edom a desolate wilderness, for the violence done to the people of Judah, because they have shed innocent blood in their land. But Judah shall be inhabited forever, and Jerusalem to all generations. I will avenge their blood, blood I have not avenged, for the LORD dwells in Zion.”

The end of that day of judgment will be our faith and joy increasing as His glory is revealed. God’s glory and our true eternal joy are inseparably related. God’s people will be holy, will be perfect in his eyes. There will be no more enemy to attack us. Our swords WILL be beaten into gardening tools. There will be wine and milk and water flowing. Wine is celebratory and represents our joy in God and His provision. The picture of milk flowing from the hills is a picture of provision and sustenance. Just as the promised land of Exodus was a land flowing with milk and honey, the people would have pictured a fertile land full of cows roaming the hills, overflowing with milk. And water represents a complete reversal of God’s people’s fortunes. The locust plague brought about a complete desolation of the land and culminated in a debilitating drought. At that day there will be no drought. The water will flow. This is the picture of the last few verses as well, a reversal of fortune.

But more than simply material blessings and sustenance, the fountain that comes forth from the temple, or the house of the Lord is Jesus. In John 4:13-14, Jesus tells the woman at the well that “everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” When Jesus cleared the Temple of the money changers, they asked him for a sign of his authority. “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2). John explains to us that Jesus was the temple! He was the house of the Lord. Again, in John 7:37-38 “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Jesus is the fountain of living water.

God is giving us two choices on that day. To fight against Him or to fly to Him. That day is coming and God will judge us for what we’ve done in this life. Have we kept His righteous requirements? All 613 commandments of the law? 613!…you thought there were only 10? No, there are many more. And even if you limited it to the 10 big ones, Jesus tells us in the sermon on the mount that there is no hope even of fulfilling their requirements because our heart is involved as well. He says if you hate another person you are just as guilty of breaking the law of murder. If you have ever lusted after another you are just as guilty of adultery. And so on. No, none of us can say that we have perfectly obeyed God’s laws in the way we’ve His glory and His people. And no amount of silver, gold, or warfare will be able to stand up to his roaring voice of judgment. The voice that made everything will just as easily unmake. His voice on that day will shake more than just Mt Sinai, more than just Israel or the Middle East, more than just the entire earth. His voice will shake the entire created universe. Will you stand up to him and fight him on that day?

You can say “I am a warrior” now when that day seems far away or unlikely. But on that day you will, as Isaiah says, be desperate for a rock to hide in. But there is no escape. And that day may come sooner for some of you than you expect. Some of you have less time to become righteous and holy and to perfectly obey God’s righteous laws because your days are numbered. A famous old sermon put it well: “Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering.” Life is but a vapor, a rotten covering. You may feel healthy and strong one day and be gone the next. Fighting against God on that day is a bit like Hamlet fighting Shakespeare:

Hamlet: “I am a warrior! And we’ve beaten our shovels into swords. Let’s do battle!”

Shakespeare: “Hmmm…That’s an interesting rebellion you’ve got there prince….” (followed by the sound of an eraser (yes, I know they didn’t use erasers…but you get the point))

Fighting is not a viable application, is it?

So flight is our only option. You have a limited time to become righteous and God will judge us based on what we’ve done. Romans 3:23 says that “all have sinned and fallen short of His glory.” You and I, we are hopeless to fulfill the law. The law of God imprisons us under sin. Not that the law itself is sinful, but it makes us aware that we are trapped under the burden of perfection. We are in need of rescue. Flight is our only option. We must fly to Jesus. On that day God will see all the nations, all those who opposed and rejected Him. And He will see his Son, who became sin so that we could become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). Jesus will be, and is currently, our representative on that day. He is our head. We make up his body. We are united in him by our faith in him. His righteousness is imputed, or given to us as if it was ours, and we stand in Him only if we fly to Him for rescue.

Jesus, the great High Priest

Five hundred years ago Martin Luther was nearly struck by lightning while traveling through the German countryside. Sensing a threat of God’s judgment in the near miss, he swore (to St. Anne) that if spared he would become a monk. He immediately took monastic vows and devoted his life to reading and teaching God’s word in an Augustinian monastery. However, it wasn’t until ten years later, in 1516 that he considered himself to be converted in the true sense of the word.

He had become a scholar and a devoutly pious man, often keeping a priest in the confessional booth for hours as he racked his brain in search of any and every sin he might have committed. He would physically discipline his body as a penance to God, as a way of making up for his sins. Knowing that he was sinful and God was perfect, his conscience remained riddled with guilt. His guilty conscience was brought to a breaking point while studying Paul’s letter to the Romans. He found himself fixated on one verse: Romans 1:17 “For in it [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed…” He found himself hating a gospel that revealed God’s righteousness, His perfection and perfect hatred of injustice and evil (which Martin knew he was full of). He hated it because in it he felt doubly condemned. Born in original sin (and therefore evil by nature) and unable to satisfy a perfectly righteous God no matter how much he disciplined his body and confessed his sins.

Reflecting on this verse, he said “I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.” But he would not let up on “beating” upon these verses to know their full meaning. “I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience,” he said, until by the mercy of God he began to understand God’s righteousness as a gift, a gift taken hold of by faith. He saw the rest of the verse “…from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Describing what happened to him at this point he said he felt “altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

He found confirmation reading Augustine: “but that [righteousness] with which He endows man when He justifies the ungodly,” and “the law, indeed, by issuing its commands and threats, and by justifying no man, sufficiently shows that it is by God’s gift, through the help of the Spirit, that a man is justified.” Augustine was teaching this all along! Martin was overjoyed to realize that scripture and Augustine taught righteousness as a gift of God to the ungodly who receive it by faith and through the help of the Spirit.

So why does this matter…apart from being the tipping point to the start of the Protestant Reformation? What does this have to do with Jesus being our great high priest?

Augustine mentioned the law; threatening and commanding without justifying any man. This same law applies to all people at all times as an interpreter of guilt. Guilt is a universal experience (one way to tell if you are a psychopath is if you don’t agree with this statement!). We all feel guilty and we all feel it often. As we’ve seen, Luther was no stranger to guilt even though his religious dedication and outward holiness was so radical that it would no doubt be out of place in your church today.

The law (God’s revelation to His people explaining how his covenant people ought to willingly and lovingly live consistently with His righteousness) simply exposes the problem. It gives a framework for understanding what our guilt is shouting at us. It is a road map to a God-pleasing life, a road map that helps us understand just how lost and hopeless we are. The Bible tells us that the Law is a prison guard holding us captive in our sin (Gal 3:23).

The book of Hebrews describes the law, as well as the Tabernacle and Levitical priesthood as a shadow of things to come. This picture of an Old Testament “shadow” is a great key to help us understand Jesus as our great high priest (as well as our great prophet and king). The author of Hebrews is pointing back to these Old Testament themes and offices through the lens of the Gospel. This reminds me of an eye exam I recently underwent. The doctor strapped me in and pressed that giant contraption against my forehead, setting the initial view so I couldn’t see the letters on his card. “How’s that?,” he asks. At this point I’m thinking “you know I can’t see, why are you even asking!…can’t you start me out a little closer to clarity?!,” but what I say is “blurry.” Then he starts the flipping. “Is this better…or this?” And after five minutes of anxiety (am I the only one that stresses about getting it wrong and ending up with a terrible prescription?!) suddenly everything became crystal clear. The doctor found the right lens for me to see clearly what was there all along. The Gospel is the lens that brings the Law, and the entire Old Testament, into clarity. It was there all along, but we needed a Doctor to give us the means to see it.

The more you understand and dwell in the Gospel (see Col 3:16), the more the Old Testament themes become clear. The priest, the set apart anointed one who makes a sacrifice for the sins of the people, suddenly looks very clear through the lens of the set apart anointed One who made a sacrifice on the cross for his people. This is what Hebrews means when it says that the Levitical priesthood was a shadow: Jesus is the substance.

This theme of shadow and substance helps us understand Jesus’ priesthood. God chose Aaron (Moses’ brother) and the tribe of Levi to be his priest. They would offer sacrifices for the people to cover over their sins. They would stand in the gap between a holy God and a sinful people. Once each year at the day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) the high priest would consecrate himself, make an offering for himself and his own sin, and then bring an offering of the blood of a spotless (no apparent imperfections) goat into the inner chamber of the Tabernacle and sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat (the area directly over the Ark of the covenant (if you’ve ever seen “Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark” you get the picture)).

Now, Leviticus 16 would probably not be the first chapter you would give a new Christian to read, would it? It’s disturbing to our modern sensibilities. But Hebrews tells us that it was a shadow. It would be hard to describe a person just by looking at their shadow. My shadow looks very similar (most likely…I can’t actually back this up) to Brad Pitt’s shadow. But, though dimly, a shadow does alert us that there is something attached to it. It draws our eyes up from the shadow to the substance, at which point it becomes clear which one of us is Brad Pitt (I have darker hair).

The shadow of the Old Testament priests draws our eyes up to Jesus. He is the high priest of a greater order than the high priest of the Law. The Law is so good and perfect that it reveals our sin (our bent and twisted nature). The Law imprisons us behind the unbreakable bars of guilt. The Law ultimately condemns us to death for our personal rebellion against God. The Law demands our life as a penalty, the only payment for that penalty is a life lived in perfect fulfillment of the Law.

Jesus fulfilled the Law perfectly in his sinless life. His active obedience while on earth triumphed over the Law’s penalty. He then makes a blood sacrifice on our behalf, only instead of a spotless goat He sprinkles His own blood on the mercy seat. He is the spotless Lamb of God and his substantial sacrifice does away with condemnation and guilt once and for all for all those who believe. According to Hebrews it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to actually take away our sins, but “he [Jesus] entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of bulls and calves but by the means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” (Heb 9:12)

By his priestly sacrifice he has secured for all who believe and confess to faith in His finished work an eternal redemption (Rom 10:9). He has bought us with a price and he has brought us out from the bondage of law-induced guilt and confidently into the presence of our holy Father (Heb 4:16). He has given us, through our faith, his own righteousness so that we may live as beloved, adopted children of God.

He is worthy of our praise, of our very lives, as we gaze upon our great high priest; the Substance to the shadow.

Does God like you?

I know God loves me, but does He like me?

“I love you, but right now I don’t like you!” Whether on our favorite sit-com or in real life, we’ve all heard those words at some point. We all assume that it is possible to truly love someone even when while disliking them because of their behavior. In fact, we’ve all experienced both ends of this equation and so we wonder if God feels the same way about us. “Jesus loves me. This I know. For the Bible tells me so. But He must be pretty ticked off at me right now because of…(fill in the blank)”

But is this true? Is it possible for God to love us and dislike us at the same time? Instead of picturing Him looking at us with affection, we picture Him looking with anger. “I didn’t think you’d still be doing that! Are you kidding me?! You are sooo lucky Jesus is here…”

This belief about the character of God is joy-suffocating and destructive to the Gospel. What I mean is this; if you have been re-born by the Holy Spirit through hearing the Gospel and believing in Jesus as the God-man sent to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law by living a perfect life, dying a substitutionary death, and defeating death through His bodily resurrection, then GOD LIKES YOU! In order to believe this, you must see that the cross of Christ secured more than mere forgiveness for you (though it did secure that).

Here are a few more elements and implications of the Gospel that will help round out your belief about your standing with God.

1. Penal substitutionary atonement: In his death Christ has substituted himself in our place and has taken the just penalty of God against our sins. 1 John 4:9-10 says “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” In his book “In My Place Condemned He Stood,” J.I. Packer defines propitiation as “wrath-quenching.” Jesus stood in our place as a wrath-quencher. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” 2 Cor 5:21 tells us. In the ultimate act of love and justice, God poured His wrath against our sin on His perfect Son. In Hebrews 10:12-14 we see that unlike the Levitical priests, who offered the atoning sacrifice yearly at Yom Kippur, Jesus only had to atone once. His work is finished and God’s righteous wrath against you was quenched by Jesus on the cross.

2. Justification: “An instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight” (Grudem, Systematic Theology). Romans 3:23-26 says “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of 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, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Justification is the positive announcement made through atonement. Yes, the righteous wrath due you has been quenched, but there’s more. You have been given a right standing with God through Jesus. God has given us a completely “other” righteousness, the righteousness of Jesus. In Romans 5 we learn that we are either “in” Adam or Jesus. Our identity is either that of Adam or Jesus. Jesus offers us his righteousness as a free gift of grace. We take hold of that gift through our faith and once and for all we are seen by God as righteous.

3. Adoption: God makes us members of His family. Our oldest child, Elijah, is adopted and I can attest to there being great costs involved in the adoption process. Jenny and I desired to adopt Elijah and we sacrificed a great deal of money, time, and energy to bring him into our family. God desired to adopt you and he sacrificed a great deal (Himself) to bring you into his family. Ephesians 1:4b-5 says “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” This means that at the heart of the difficult doctrine of predestination is God’s adoptive love.

4. Union with Christ: “That intimate, vital, and spiritual union between Christ and his people, in virtue of which he is the source of their life and strength, of their blessedness and salvation.” (Berkhof, Systematic Theology) The bible describes our union with Christ in a variety of ways; vine and branches (John 15), the foundation and temple of God (Eph 2 and 1 Peter 2), head and body (Eph 4), and husband and wife (Eph 5). All of these biblical types (or illustrations) of union are pointing toward the “intimate, vital, and spiritual” that Berkhof speaks of. The branches draw life from and are connected to the vine. Temple walls are doomed without the necessary foundation, and the expert builder connects them inseparably. The body does the will of the head, while beating with the same heart. And the marriage of husband and wife is the most intimate and relational union, a union involving the self-sacrificial love of a husband and the submissively responsive love of a wife. Our union with Christ means that the Father would have to dislike the Son in order to dislike those who are “in” the Son.

God loves and likes His redeemed children because He loves and likes His only begotten Son. When thinking of our salvation, when we stop at forgiveness for sins we miss out on so much of the Gospel and it often causes us to feel as though we have to validate God’s favor through our good deeds (and feel like we’ve lost that favor when our deeds are bad).

You may read all of this and think, “okay, so I can do whatever I want and God has to continue loving and liking me…” This would be a mistake. Being the beneficiary of Christ’s finished work on the cross, as well as being intimately and relationally united with Him, will result in a desire to behold and display His glory in every aspect of your life. When confronted with your sin you will experience a “Godly grief” rather than a “worldly grief” (2 Cor 7). This means that you will stop worrying so much about yourself (“does God like me? is God angry with me? are people going to stop liking or respecting me?”) and start worrying about God’s glory and other’s good (“how does this reflect God’s character?).

Living as a redeemed child of God means that you will happily do the things that you know make your Father happy, knowing that He is infinitely happy in His Son (and all those who are in Him) for all eternity.

Overwhelmed by a glimpse of the beauty of God

In his introduction to “Understanding Jonathan Edwards,” Gerald McDermott describes Edwards’ view of true religion:

“Therefore, the essence of true religious experience is to be overwhelmed by a glimpse of the beauty of God, to be drawn to the glory of his perfections, and to sense his irresistible love…We can become so enthralled by the beauty that we lose consciousness of self and self-interest and become absorbed by the magnificent object. So also we can become drawn out of self-absorption by the power of the beauty of a truly lovable person. Our hearts are changed by an irresistible power. But this power gently lures; it does not coerce. Edwards taught that our eyes are opened when we are captivated by the beautiful love and glory of God in Christ, when we see this love most powerfully demonstrated in Christ’s sacrificial love for the undeserving. Then we feel forced to abandon love for self as the central principle of our lives and turn to the love of God.”

If you are looking for a quick intro to Edwards’ theology, McDermott’s introductory chapter acts like a wedge in a doorway giving a brief view of the complex brilliance within. If you want a view of the room with the door completely removed, check out McDermott and McClymond’s new Theology of Jonathan Edwards (for anyone local: McClymond is lecturing tomorrow night (02/09) at 7:30 at Roanoke College).

Of course, you could step into the Edwardsean room and look around. I’m reading Religious Affections if anyone wants to join in! (you can buy the new Yale-published paperback here for $20)

Optical illusions in the history of redemption

One of the things I appreciate most about Jonathan Edwards was his rich use of illustrations. This fit with his view that the Old Testament and the created world was full of illustrations (or types) of Christ: “when we are delighted with flowery meadows and gentle breezes of wind, we may consider that we only see the emanations of the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ; when we behold the fragrant rose and lily, we see his love and purity…” (from his Miscellanies).

As I was reading The Theology of Jonathan Edwards I came across an illustration that I think sheds a lot of light on the progress of the work of redemption (Edwards viewed all of history as displaying Christ’s redemption; from creation to the end of time): “the universe is the chariot in which [Christ] rides, and makes progress towards the last end of all things on the wheels of his providence…[at times] the under part of the wheel of a chariot seems to run backward, but it is not so.” When the world around us, and the church within the world, seem to be moving Christ’s work of redemption backward, it is really just like the rims of a car (probably easier to picture than a chariot!) that appear to be moving backward when the car itself is moving forward. What a great illustration of Christ riding his work-of-redemption chariot unstoppably onward.

Theology of Jonathan Edwards

To those who know me or have heard me preach, it will come as no surprise that I bought a $55 book that summarizes the theological thought of Jonathan Edwards within weeks of it being published. There simply is no one whose writing has shaped my thoughts about God and about man more than Edwards. Add to that the fact that I have the monthly privilege of sitting around a table with a group of pastors and scholars discussing Edwards’ work, and that one of those pastor-scholars is Gerald McDermott (one of the authors), and there was no way I was not buying this book.

A few chapters into it I realized that it feels much like our discussions feel, as though I’m along for an Edwardsean journey led by a tour guide that genuinely loves the landscape.

I highly recommend dropping the money on this one if you have any interest in learning about America’s greatest Theologian (and probably our greatest Philosopher too…)

The dangers of Gospel centered preaching

After his resurrection, Jesus explained to his followers the Christocentricity of the Law, Prophets, and Psalms (another way of saying the entirety of their scriptures; our Old Testament), saying:

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures…” (Luke 24:44-45a)

It follows that if all of our scriptures are about Christ, then our preaching should be as well. In his excellent book, Christ-Centered Preaching, Bryan Chapel puts it like this: “Christ-centered preaching rightly understood does not seek to discover where Christ is mentioned in every text but to disclose where every text stands in relation to Christ.” If you have every sat over your Bible trying to figure out how to shape a Christ-centered sermon out of the locust plagues of Joel, this is an incredibly helpful explanation. He goes on to say “the grace of God culminating in the person and work of Jesus unfolds in many dimensions throughout the pages of Scripture. The goal of the preacher is not to find novel ways of identifying Christ in every text but to show how each text manifests God’s grace in order to prepare and enable his people to embrace the hope provided by Christ.”

Our preaching should not be characterized by cleverly invented ways of naming Christ in the text, but showing how that text relates to the person and work of Christ. Unfortunately, much of what passes for Christ centered preaching is actually gospel centered preaching. While preaching the true Gospel is nothing to complain about, when every passage of scripture is reduced to a formula (God is good, you are bad, believe in Jesus) there are many dangers.

One danger is that our congregations never develop an understanding and appreciation for God’s entire unfolding work of redemption. They miss the grandeur of Biblical theology by remaining zoomed in and focused on the details of whatever particular brand of the Gospel their preacher is into.

Another danger is that Christ is reduced to a role, to simply what he does for us, causing our affections for him to be limited. When we think of him we think only those attributes that connect with one aspect of His work on our behalf and therefore our worship of him is hamstrung from the very beginning. We must help our congregations know and remember that Jesus is a person, not a bridge. It makes sense to know and talk to a person, all the more to an important, interesting, smart and beautiful person. People fall in love…with people. We are hardwired to find someone to give our hearts and affections to. People don’t fall in love with and give their hearts to a bridge. And talking to one is just silly.

In 1 Corinthians 2:2 Paul says “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Knowing and proclaiming the person AND work of Jesus is what our ministry and preaching ought to be about. Christ-centered preaching leads to proclaiming the Gospel in greater breadth and depth as we zoom into and out of the picture. We must proclaim both the forest (the eternal person of Christ and plan of the work of redemption) and the trees (the details of the application of the Gospel) in our preaching. Otherwise we are creating congregations who can explain the penal substitutionary atonement forward and backward, but have never tasted the sweetness of fellowship with Jesus. In his sermon “A divine and supernatural light,” Jonathan Edwards said “There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former that knows not how honey tastes; but a man cannot have the latter unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind.”

If we want the Gospel to dwell richly in the hearts of our congregations (Col 3:16) we must do more than just give them Gospel formulas. We must appeal to more than just their rational understanding of God’s economy. We must give them Jesus. We must lead them to taste the honey, to have a rational judgement of the Gospel and a sense of the sweetness of the person of Jesus.

Christians in the thick of foes

In his “Life Together,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer sets out to describe what the normal Christian community in Christ should look like (unfortunately it is far from what goes for “normal”). I thought it interesting how he starts out:

“It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.”

In Bonhoeffer’s view, Jesus leads us into true community and out to the dangerous duty of bringing peace to the enemies of God. Having recently finished Eric Metaxes’ “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” I was struck with how consistently Bonhoeffer lived with this charge, even unto a violent death in the thick of foes. I was also struck with how much we in America take for granted our safe lives in the thick of friends.

Metaxes’ biography is now in paperback and can be picked up here for under $12

Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is here for under $10