Unless we’re giving people Jesus, our handouts are only adding rest stops on the way to eternal destruction.
The most basic prayer we can pray about reading the Bible is that God would give us the desire to read this book. Not just the will — that would be next best — but the desire.
That is what the apostle Peter said we should have: “Like newborn infants, desire the pure spiritual milk” (1 Peter 2:2). Similarly, the psalmist said that the righteous person delights in the law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2). And why wouldn’t we, since God’s words are “more to be desired than gold” and “sweeter than honey and drippings from the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10)? Why wouldn’t we? Because our hearts tend to become cold and dull and hard and blind.
All of us know what it is like to read without seeing “wondrous things.” We have stared at the most glorious things without seeing them as glorious. We have seen marvels without marveling. We have put God’s sweet kindness on the tongue of our soul without tasting sweetness. We have seen unspeakable love without feeling loved. We have seen the greatest power and felt no awe. We have seen immeasurable wisdom and felt no admiration. We have seen the holiness of wrath and felt no trembling. Which means we are “seeing without seeing” (Mattew 13:13). This is why we must continue to weave the thread of God-dependent prayer into our reading: “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18).
That’s the most basic reason we need to pray about our Bible reading. We drift away from the desire to do it. Few prayers have I prayed more often than this — Lord, keep me from drifting away from your word! “Incline my heart to your testimonies” (Psalm 119:36).Reading Like Atheists
Over the years in my pastoral ministry, many people have complained to me that they do not have motivation to read the Bible. They have a sense of duty that they should, but the desire is not there. It is remarkable how many of those people feel that the absence of the desire is the last nail in the coffin of joyful meditation on God’s word.
When I ask them to describe to me what they are doing about it, they look at me as if I had misunderstood the problem. What can you do about the absence of desire, they wonder. “It’s not a matter of doing. It’s a matter of feeling,” they protest. The problem with this response is that these folks have not just lost desire for God’s word, but they have lost sight of the sovereign power of God, who gives that desire. They are acting like practical atheists. They have adopted a kind of fatalism that ignores the way the psalmist prays.
Evidently, the psalmist too felt this terrible tendency to drift away from the word of God. Evidently, he too knew the cooling of desire and the tendency of his heart to incline more to other things — especially money. Otherwise why would he have cried out, “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain”? He is pleading with God to give him desire for the word. He knows that ultimately God is sovereign over the desires of the heart. So, he calls on God to cause what he cannot make happen on his own. This is the answer to fatalism. This is the answer to acting like an atheist — as if there were no God who rules the heart, and can restore what we have lost.Fighting for Our Lives
I cannot stress enough how our real spiritual helplessness should be accompanied by the daily cry to God that he would sustain and awaken our desire to read his word. Too many of us are passive when it comes to our spiritual affections. We are practical fatalists. We think there is nothing we can do. Oh, well, today I have no desire to read. Maybe it will be there tomorrow. We’ll see. And off to work we go.
This is not the way the psalmists thought or acted. It is not the way the great saints of church history have acted either. Life is war. And the main battles are fought at the level of desires, not deeds. When Paul said, “Put to death what is earthly in you,” he included in the list “passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (Colossians 3:5). These are the great destroyers of desire for the word of God. What did Jesus say takes away our desire for the word? “The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word” (Mark 4:19). Paul tells us to kill those “desires for other things” before they kill us! He does not encourage us to be passive or fatalistic. He encourages us to fight for our lives. That is, fight for your desire for God’s word.
And the first and most decisive blow we can strike against “the desires for other things” that “choke the word,” and take away our desire for God’s word, is the daily cry to God that he would “incline” our hearts to his word and “not to selfish gain.” Don’t wait until you have lost the desire before you start praying for this desire. If the desire is present, give thanks and ask him to preserve it and intensify it. If you sense that it is cooling, plead that he would kindle it.
And if it is gone, and you do not feel any desire to pray, do what you can. Repent. Tell him you are sorry that your desire for his word is dead. Tell him just how you feel. He knows already. And ask him — this is possible without hypocrisy because of the “imperishable seed” (1 Peter 1:23) that remains in his children — ask him to give you the desire that right now you can barely even muster the will to ask for. He is merciful.Christ Died for Your Desires
The reason we can pray like this, expecting mercy with confidence, is that this desire for the word of God is what Jesus died to purchase. He died for you so that this prayer would be answered. At the Last Supper he explained, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). By the shedding of his own blood, Jesus obtained the new covenant for his people. It secured the forgiveness of sins for all who trust him (Acts 10:43).
On the basis of this forgiveness, the other blessings of the new covenant flow to God’s people. And these blessings relate mainly to the change of our desires — particularly our desires for God and his word: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33; see also Deuteronomy 30:6; Ezekiel 11:19–20; 36:26–27).
Jesus died so that our prayers for renewed love to him and his word could be mercifully answered. We are not asking him for fresh desires for his word on the basis of our merits. We are asking him on the basis of Christ’s blood and righteousness. We don’t argue with God that he owes us anything in ourselves. He doesn’t. Everything we receive is a free gift of grace.
When we pray, “Incline my heart to your testimonies” (Ps. 119:36), we are admitting we deserve nothing — a cool heart toward infinite beauty is an infinite sin. We are confessing our helplessness and sinfulness. And we are looking away from ourselves to Christ.
Our plea is: O God, for Christ’s sake! For the sake of your dear Son! For the sake of his infinitely precious blood (1 Peter 1:19), hear my cry and restore to me the joy of my salvation (Psalm 51:12) and the delight I once had in your word (Psalm 1:2). Restore to me the fullness of my love for you (Deuteronomy 30:6). Grant me to say again from the bottom of my heart, “Oh how I love your law!” (Psalm 119:97).
Life is filled with deep sorrows and sweet joys. In Jesus, the highs and lows all work together to serve our good.
Today many Americans wait with bated breath for an event that has not happened in the United States in 38 years, and will not happen again in this country until 2024: a total eclipse of the sun. From Oregon to South Carolina, viewers will watch the moon pass before the sun completely in “the path of totality.” Some have driven hundreds of miles to see it, and stand ready with their special solar-eclipse glasses.
Part of the literary beauty of the Bible is how the writers used natural objects and events, like an eclipse, as metaphors to carry across and communicate spiritual truths. Whether it is Isaiah’s use of an ox’s familiarity with its master to draw a biting indictment to Israel’s lack of knowledge (Isaiah 1:3) or Jesus’s use of the mustard seed to explain the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:31–32), writers and commentators of Scripture also use God’s creation to impart an impactful truth.
John Owen’s glimpse into the total eclipse (in his remarkable work The Glory of Christ) is fitting for today, as well as two brief glimpses from Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon. When you look into the sky today, or scroll by pictures in social media, will you only see what everyone else sees? Or will you see more, with the eyes of faith?Owen: See the Humility of Christ
When the sun is under a total eclipse, it loses nothing of its native beauty, light, and glory. It is still the same that it was from the beginning, a “great light to rule the day.” To us it appears as a dark, useless meteor; but when it comes by its course to free itself from the lunar interposition, to its proper aspect towards us, it manifests again its native light and glory.
So was it with the divine nature of Christ, as we have before declared. He veiled the glory of it by the interposition of the flesh, or the assumption of our nature to be his own; with this addition, that he took on him the “form of a servant,” of a person of mean and low degree. But this temporary eclipse being past and over, it now shines forth in its infinite luster and beauty, which belongs to the present exaltation of his person.
And when those who beheld him here as a poor, sorrowful, persecuted man, dying on the cross, came to see him in all the infinite, uncreated glories of the divine nature, manifesting themselves in his person, it could not but fill their souls with transcendent joy and admiration. And this is one reason of his prayer for them while he was on the earth, that they might be where he is to behold his glory; for he knew what ineffable satisfaction it would be to them forevermore. (Works of John Owen, 1:344)Edwards: See His Death and Resurrection
‘Tis an argument that the eclipse of the sun is a type of Christ’s death. . . . The sun can be in a total eclipse but a very little while, much less than the moon, though neither of them can always be in an eclipse; so Christ could not, by reason of his divine glory and worthiness, be long held of death, in no measure so long as the saints may be, though it ben’t possible that either of them should always be held of it. (Notes on Scripture, Yale edition, 15:291)Spurgeon: See Your Total Security in Him
A total eclipse is one of the most terrible and grand sights that ever will be seen. But thank God, whatever eclipse happens to a Christian, it is never a total eclipse. There is always a ring of comfort left. There is always a crescent of love and mercy to shine upon God’s child. (New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, 4:151)Stop to See the Son
Today’s eclipse will last under two hours and then the sun will again be seen at full strength. What a picture of the glory of Christ! His glory was veiled by the moon of human flesh. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him (Isaiah 53:2). He was worthy of being esteemed yet He was despised and rejected (Isaiah 53:3). Total eclipse.
Let the total eclipse be a great pointer today. As the moon covers the face of the sun, let it remind you of Christ’s humiliation on our behalf, and of his death on the cross for us (and that death could not hold him for long!), and of our unshakable, utter security in him.
Prodigal kids: the gaping wound for many Christian parents.
A child, whether adolescent or adult, is living out their worst nightmare by charting a course away from God. They may be a people-pleasing prodigal, whose good appearance masks a godless heart, or a protesting prodigal, who blithely flips the bird to expectations and feels victimized by every consequence. Yet there is one common denominator that unites most of their parents: as Christians, they bear a unique burden of shame.
Stop and ponder that last line. Let the irony tug at your curiosity. Christian parents of prodigals often bear a peculiar shame over their child’s unbelief. It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? We believe Christ bore our shame (Hebrews 12:2). The gospel unshackles us from sinful disgrace (Romans 5:5) and “everyone who believes in Christ will not be put to shame” (Romans 10:11). So why do Christian parents bear such a heavy burden of shame?
The problem isn’t God. It’s his people.What Can the Church Do?
We know the church is uniquely qualified to help suffering parents. Just look at our assets — the gospel, community, prayer. But when a parent bleeds for their wayward son or daughter, the church can be quick to judge and slow to bind wounds. We can dish out shame rather than demolish it. As a result, parents gravitate elsewhere for help, intuitively sensing their church is not a place of grace.
To be fair, it’s not easy for Christians to know what to do. We’re confused about how to care, what to say, whom to involve, and when (or if) to explore parental culpability. We’re often well intentioned but poorly informed. We want to lift burdens and inspire hope, but we lack the skill. So how do we speak to shame? What can churches do to become a place where families can heal and prodigals can return? Here are four thoughts.1. Face Our Fear
Katy was raised in a Christian home, attended a Christian school, went to youth group, and made a gospel album as a teenager. When she sang, people wept. But Katy had other desires. She left home for Hollywood and recorded a racy hit in 2008: “I Kissed a Girl.”
You guessed it. I’m talking about superstar Katy Perry.
Mary Hudson, Katy’s mom, recently said, “I get a lot of negative vibes. People ask, ‘How could you have a daughter like that?’” That question deserves our attention for two reasons. First, it’s a question that is deeply felt and often posed to prodigal parents. Secondly, the question betrays a haunting fear embedded within the church: “Could I have a daughter like that?”
Rebellious kids trigger serious anxieties for Christians. We respond by playing the comparison game — examining prodigals and their parents to find differences between us and them, our kids and their kids. To assuage our own worry, we want to find something to explain, something to blame. Once comforted, we feel elevated and speak like one of Job’s friends. “You magnify yourselves against me and make my disgrace an argument against me.” (Job 19:5)
But comparison creates a callous culture where suspicion trumps compassion, speculation replaces intercession, and judgment supplants long-suffering. All Christians are called to suffer. For some, the pain comes through a prodigal. We must normalize this if the church is truly going to be a place of grace.2. Offer Safe Space
Do you love a wayward soul? If so, I pray you enjoy a safe space: one with open ears, wide hearts, and unhurried conversation — where friends bear grief, withhold judgment, protect confidentiality, and meet shame with gospel hope.
Don’t misunderstand. Safe space doesn’t mean unaccountable, godless venting, or assuming every wayward sufferer is a victim. The story of a Pharisaical father with a runaway teen is timeless. But most parents of wanderers come to church assuming, at least on some level, they’re at fault. And that floating blame is a huge distraction to finding real hope.
When you hear the words wayward or rebellious tumble from parents’ lips, hear grief. Grieve with them (Romans 12:15). Don’t be a fixer! Entrust any discovery of culpability to God and time. It’s not the immediate priority. The more we comprehend grace, the more our care moves from identifying their sin to sympathizing with their suffering. As we shift our posture from discerning hearts to delivering love, safe space expands and hearts open wide.3. Label the Legalism
One of the less detected strains of legalism in the church today is the false hope of “deterministic parenting.” This unspoken but deeply felt dogma assumes the parents’ faithfulness determines the spiritual health of their kids: “If I obey the Bible, discipline consistently, and push the catechism, then my kids will look good on earth and be present in heaven.” No parent would say it, but it’s really “justification by parenting.” Such legalism smuggles in a confidence that God rewards faithful parents with obedient, converted kids and does so proportionally to what we deserve. We can wrongfully assume, “I’ve put in serious work, so I deserve a lot!”
We also flip it. If the gospel of determinism is true, a wayward child reveals parental failure. If a kid is spinning out of control, parents are just reaping what they’ve sowed.
I’m not suggesting our parenting doesn’t matter. Godly parenting influences children positively and bad parenting influences them negatively. But the key word is influence. Too many Christians unconsciously confuse influence with determinative power. This assumption takes God, the world’s brokenness, and the human will out of the equation. We’re not masters of our own destiny or our children’s.
God is the perfect Father, and he still has prodigal children (Romans 3:23; Luke 15:11–32). What makes us think that could never be a part of our story?4. Celebrate the Shame-Bearer
When parents of prodigals appear at a church event, shame tags along. This invisible companion whispers within about how substandard they are as parents compared to the other gold-circle group that gathered. Happy families can prompt pangs of guilt convincing them that no one could relate to their circus at home. The companion baits them to focus inward on their flaws or outward upon their circumstances.
Shame grows through this diversion. It feeds on how we feel when we look in the wrong direction. One of my daughters used to run with her head down, never looking where she went. After a few bumps and bruises, she learned a valuable lesson: the best way to move forward is to look up.
To suffocate shame, we must help hurting parents look up to Jesus, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). The words “endured the cross” transport us back to the most dishonorable hours in human history. Jesus had friends but none stuck by him. One betrayed. Another denied him. His followers? One week they sang “Hosanna!” and the next cried “Crucify!” He was entirely innocent yet was scorned as the worst of sinners.
Jesus knew deep shame, but the surprising twist comes in his response. He despised it.
Christ despised shame because he saw beyond it. Shame is painful, but it was powerless to define Christ. Shame could not change Christ’s identity nor control his future. Shame had no voice of influence over Jesus, no ability to paste him with indignity or dishonor. Because Christ saw joy beyond it.
If you love a prodigal, you must learn shame-hating. Christ nailed our shame to the cross. In its place, he imputed to us his record of perfect righteousness. When God looks at us, he doesn’t see our parenting failures. He doesn’t scroll through an unfiltered feed of ugly accusations and regrets. God sees his Son instead of us. We must look to Christ as well. For the one who loves a wayward soul, a shift in gaze is the only link to present sanity and future hope.Who Can the Church Be?
The church has an opportunity. Parents of prodigals come to us with tender wounds. What would happen if they received a warm invitation to a group led by a couple who has walked their path? What if they heard sermons with applications for wayward souls? What if the church identified with their shame so they left saying, “I’m not an outlier. They get me. Jesus can help.”
What if, for them, the church became a place of grace?
God has designed marriage to bring about a kind of cherishing that emerges nowhere else. But that doesn’t mean you are uncherishable if your single.
What is that “one little word” that will fell Satan?
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! His doom is sure.
One little word shall fell him.
Somehow it took me about twenty years to realize that I had no idea what Martin Luther was talking about in this line in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Now, a confession: I am a Baptist, not Lutheran — I’m willing to admit there may be a real, mystical meaning of the “one little word” that only Lutherans can understand. But probably not.
The identity of this word should matter to us. Most Protestant churches still sing this “Battle Hymn of the Reformation” regularly in worship. It does little good to know that a single word will take down the raging Prince of Darkness if we have no idea what that word is. So, what word might Luther have in mind?“Jesus”?
When I was a little kid, the only act of spiritual warfare I knew was simply to say out loud the word “Jesus.” Somewhere, I picked up the idea that demons scatter when you mention Jesus’s name. Maybe Luther’s one little word was “Jesus”?
While it may be a popular and catchy idea to mention “Jesus” for protection against Satan, the Bible doesn’t specifically commend that approach. The demons themselves are not afraid to say Jesus’s name — they even talked directly to Jesus, knowing exactly who he was (Matthew 8:29; Mark 5:7).
The common idea that “Satan flees at Jesus’s name” may come from the narratives in the Gospels and Acts where demons are cast out “in the name of Jesus” (Mark 9:38; Acts 16:18). It is repeated in a well-known worship song: “The Enemy, he has to flee at the sound of your great name.”
But we know from the Bible itself that demons feel no fear simply at the sound of Jesus’s name. Some “itinerant exorcists” adopted this verbal formula of simply citing Jesus’s name only to be driven out by the evil spirit “naked and wounded!” (Acts 19:13–16). It is clearly not the mere sound of those two syllables that commands Satan, but the authority from God that lies behind them (Mark 1:25–27).
Jesus’s name is not a magic spell used to take down evil spirits.Jesus, the Word of God?
Perhaps Luther meant the Word, Jesus himself (John 1:1). While it is certainly true biblically that Jesus will be the one to finally destroy the devil in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10), it’s probably not what Luther refers to here.
It is unlikely that Luther would refer to Jesus, the ascended King reigning now over every name in heaven and on earth, as a little word (in Luther’s German, wörtlein). Indeed, “the Word was God.”
Ultimately, our hope of victory against Satan’s schemes is secured by his final destruction, but more than that, we have hope now. Even while Satan prowls this earth like a lion (1 Peter 5:8), we are not at the mercy of our supernatural foe. “His rage we can endure” now, before his destruction, by another word.That Little Word
Martin Luther actually identified the word he had in mind, the one little word to fell our foe:
“Devil, you lie,” . . . Dr. Luther sings so proudly and boldly in those words of his hymn, “One little word shall fell him.” (“Against Hanswurst”)
Speaking of himself in the third person, Luther says that the one simple proclamation that defeats Satan is the simple verdict “Liar.”
Satan is a “liar, and the father of lies” (John 8:44). From the very beginning, Satan has twisted and contorted the truth of God into a lie (Genesis 3:1). And from the very beginning, Satan’s favorite lie has been to declare “unclean” what God has made clean, to declare “guilty” those whose sins God has covered.
There’s nothing Satan wants more than to eat away your faith in Jesus. Satan wants nothing more than for you to forget who you are in Christ. Over and over, the Bible warns us not not play games with this devouring, roaring beast of a being. His rage we cannot endure if our strategy is just to disregard him.The Word of Faith
The text Luther most likely had in mind was Revelation 12:10, where John writes that “the accuser of our brothers [who is Satan; 12:9] has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.” So there is an accusation, a lie — Satan speaks “guilty” against the ones God has redeemed. It’s the same lie that Satan always speaks to God’s people (Zechariah 3:1).
The answer to this age-old lie is not to repeat Jesus’s name like a mantra. Nor is it simply to remind ourselves that Satan’s days are numbered. The answer, for Luther and in the Bible, is to believe the truth, the gospel. The answer is to believe the promises of God, that in Christ you are justified (Romans 5:1), clean (1 Corinthians 6:11), holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4), loved by God (Colossians 3:12), a branch saved from the fire (Zechariah 3:2).
The one, little word against Satan — “Liar!” — is the word of faith. When we take all of Satan’s lies, his accusations, his reminders of our sins and place them in the blood-sealed file marked “Lies,” it is a profession of our faith in Christ’s promises over against Satan’s accusations. This word is “the victory that has overcome” not only the world, but Satan himself (1 John 5:4).We Tremble Not for Him
Satan is the grim Prince. He is deadly. He is a devouring, fearsome dragon (Revelation 12:9).
But he is nothing against “the victory that has overcome the world — our faith” (1 John 5:4). We tremble not for him because every one of his accusations — “guilty,” “condemned,” “unrighteous” — are shown to be nothing but lies before Christ.
So, the next time you sing Luther’s hymn, sing these words with all the more confidence and joy in Jesus. Say with Luther, “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf.
“His name is Jesus Christ.”
When your life is over on this earth you will either meet God in eternal wrath or eternal life.
“What are you doing?” we asked. My grandmother surprised us all when she sampled the raw meat she was seasoning.
“I’m cooking,” she replied tersely. She was making Golumpkis, a favorite Polish dish of hers stuffed with cabbage. As for the strange practice of eating raw meat, she explained, “I measure by tasting.” She is a veteran in the kitchen who knows the required ingredients to achieve the desired end.
I wonder what you would list as essential ingredients of contentment. Some familiar items should immediately come to mind. We must know God’s word, trust his providence, and cling to his promises. However, there’s another I’d like to add that you may not be expecting. Let me give you fair warning: like my grandmother’s uncommon and perhaps unsettling culinary practice, this ingredient involves you experiencing something a bit unpleasant. But in the end, like Golumpkis, it’s worth it.
An essential ingredient of contentment is a robust doctrine of sin.What Is Sin?
The Bible describes sin in several different ways: missing the mark (Romans 3:23), stepping across the line (Colossians 2:13), lawlessness (1 John 3:4), debt (Matthew 6:12). God has a standard of what is right and acceptable. Sin is our rebellious violation of this standard.
This might seem abstract. Let’s make it personal.
Sin is evil because of whom it’s against. Each of the descriptions of sin pivots on who the offended party is. Sin is missing God’s mark, crossing God’s line, and breaking God’s law. While sin certainly has horizontal implications with others, it is fundamentally vertical. Sin is against God. And there is nothing more evil than to oppose the one who is infinitely good.
The Bible teaches us that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Because sin is an attack upon God’s character, it requires a corresponding judgment. Jesus describes this as an eternal fire (Matthew 25:41). Hell is God’s ongoing opposition to all who belittle his glory.
To make matters worse, we have no way to remedy the problem ourselves. Everything “good” we do is smudged by our fingerprints of depravity. Left to ourselves, we are all unrighteous (Romans 3:10–18)The World’s Biggest Disaster
Sin is indisputably wicked and relentless, but how is understanding it an essential ingredient of contentment? It’s through knowledge of sin that we learn to hate all that robs our contentment and love the one who is the true source of it.
When we stop to think about it, this makes sense. If God is the source of contentment, then understanding (and increasingly despising) all that opposes him is crucial. Calvin famously correlated advancement in the knowledge of God with an increasing displeasure in ourselves. The Apostle Paul rarely rings the bell of personal depravity without also waving the banner of divine mercy (1 Timothy 1:13–15). When we begin to understand what sin is and why it is so bad, then we see the beauty of mercy.
At present, there are about seven and a half billion people in the world. Among this sum, there are a lot of problems. Measured on the scale, some of these issues are weightier than others. But how would people’s lives change if they had their largest problem solved? As Christians, we know that the most pressing issue facing every person in the world today is the penalty for our sin. Regardless of whether it is felt or suppressed, the reality that everyone must stand before God on the last day is our most substantial problem.
Jesus taught a right ordering of our fears when he instructed his hearers not to fear the one who can only kill the body but instead to fear the one who has the power and authority to sentence you to hell (Matthew 10:28). Without taking anything away from the legitimate issues that people are facing, the biblical doctrine of sin relativizes every other issue and subordinates it to this one. There are over seven billion problems in the world, but none is more pressing than how we deal with the truth that wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).God’s Greatest Solution
As a pastor, I have the blessing of sitting down and talking with many people about their relationship with God. If they are Christians, I’m often privileged to hear them retell how God brought the gospel to them. I’m deeply affected by how a believer’s eyes tell the story along with his or her words. Often, as people talk about the Jesus’s kind and patient mercy, their eyes well up with tears. Those tears mark moments of clarity — for the one speaking and me. They remind us of the ultimate priorities in life.
The truth is, we deserve hell and we got mercy! Instead of suffering the eternal weight of divine wrath, Jesus, God’s Son, stood in our place. He drank the cup of condemnation so that we could drink the cup of blessing. God took care of our greatest problem imaginable. Certainly, you can see how this would inform our understanding of contentment. When you deserve hell, anything else is a cause for celebration!
Do you remember when you were first converted to Christ? Mercy and love flowed down from heaven through the words of the gospel. You were forgiven and accepted in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:6). God had taken care of your most pressing problem, and he had taken care of it powerfully and permanently.A New Perspective
If you are having a hard time being content, make a list of everything you have that you don’t deserve, and then make a list of everything you deserve that you don’t have. This puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? When we are chasing contentment in Christ, we spy mercy in every condition and have our hearts covered with thanksgiving.
Initially unsettling and frankly a bit off-putting, a robust doctrine of sin is an essential ingredient for our contentment.
Christians never outgrow their need for the gospel. We need simple gospel truth every single day.
Just like everyone seems to value patience, kindness, and forgiveness, so we all value sincerity in theory. No one says, “Hypocrisy is a great character quality,” or, “I aim to be as disingenuous as possible,” or, “Please, just be two-faced with me.” But like patience, kindness, and forgiveness, sincerity is far easier to affirm than to practice.
Each new day confronts us with numerous temptations to be insincere. In fact, it’s likely that we’re more insincere than we realize, since insincerity is a pervasive cultural practice. It’s woven into our rituals of social courtesy. Greeting: “Hey! How’s it going?” Expected response: “Great!” Christian subcultures also have insincere courtesies: “I’m so sorry to hear that. I’ll be praying for you.”
But it goes far deeper and serious than superficial courtesies. Society places high value on success, wealth, power, and fame (or “popularity” at lower levels). Remarkable achievement, or the appearance of it, in one or more of these value categories earns social admiration, which our sinful pride craves. This powerful craving begins to shape our thoughts and behaviors early in life, and we develop habits of insincerity that manipulate others’ perceptions of us in order to gain social admiration. These can become so ingrained that we are only dimly aware of or even blind to them.
But God is not blind to them. He knows how they obscure his glory, steal our joy, and hinder our progress in holiness. And he desires that we have lives of “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). So he wants us to lay aside the cumbersome, closely clinging sin-weight of insincerity so we can run with endurance our long-distance race of faith (Hebrews 12:1).Without Wax
The word sincere has a helpful history:
Our English word sincere comes from two Latin words: sine (without) and cera (wax). In the ancient world, dishonest merchants would use wax to hide defects, such as cracks, in their pottery so that they could sell their merchandise at a higher price. More reputable merchants would hang a sign over their pottery — sine cera (without wax) — to inform customers that their merchandise was genuine. (Taking Hold of God, 69–70).
So “sincere” has its origin in marketing. As long as trade has existed, mendacious merchants have employed misleading marketing to make money.
And it’s easy to see how this idea transferred to “personal branding.” I myself am a clay jar (2 Corinthians 4:7). I am a clay jar that is quite flawed. And my sin nature is a mendacious marketing merchant. It does not want you or anyone else to see my defects. It wants to hide the defects behind a deceptive wax. It wants to sell you a better version of me than is real.
Multiply me by some seven billion and you get one global mess of promotion distortion. The serpent gave Eve the “wax treatment” in the garden (2 Corinthians 11:3) and we’ve been “waxing our wares” for each other ever since.Nothing Left to Hide
But the gospel is the end of our perceived need to mislead. Jesus came to transform selfish self-sellers like us into sincere lovers of others (1 Peter 1:22). He came to cleanse us dishonorable jars and transform us into honorable jars (2 Timothy 2:20–21). On the cross, as Jesus became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), all our wax was removed, and our sin was revealed for what it really is: death and destruction. And then he took these sins away (1 John 3:5).
This means that Christians have nothing left to hide.
Perhaps your heart objects to this claim. It does not want its ugly cracks and defects exposed. It wants to be bought with the currency of others’ esteem. It does not want to be rejected. Perhaps it does not feel safe being viewed by the judgmental eyes of others.
I understand. But that is pride and fear speaking. What you need to listen to is God speaking, and here is what he says:
- All your sins and defects are “naked and exposed” before my eyes (Hebrews 4:13), but because of Jesus, you are now “holy and blameless and above reproach” before me (Colossians 1:22).
- Everyone who believes in me will not be put to shame (Romans 10:11); and if I am for you, who can be against you (Romans 9:31)?
- Therefore, do not live as a people-pleaser. Do not do eye-service work, but as a servant of Christ, do the my will from a sincere heart (Ephesians 6:5–7).
- You cannot love others and be insincere at the same time. Aim to live a life of “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).
- Only disorder and evil will result from jealousy and selfish-ambition, but peace will result from those who are “gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).
- So remove the self-promoting leaven that not only infects the bread of your life but others around you as well, and live in the unleavened holiness of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:6–8).
Put your trust in what God says, not what your pride and fear say. Pride and fear will shackle you with weights, but God’s promises, if believed, will liberate you.Reveal Jesus’s Glory and Run Free
We have another even deeper reason to stop waxing our jars to impress others.
Our jars, however we might feel about them, however unimpressive we fear others will assess them if our defects are exposed, are not about us. We are not our own; we belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Life is Christ and about Christ (Philippians 1:21; 2:9–11).
And no one more is more impressive than Jesus. He’s the one we want everyone else to see. The glory of his grace is more clearly seen through our sins that he has paid for and forgiven, and the glory of his power is more clearly seen in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). When we wax our jars, we are doing far more than concealing our defects; we are concealing Jesus’s glory.
So let’s resolve to live and love without wax. Let us not listen to our marketing-merchant sin nature, but instead be as real and genuine as possible so that the glory of Jesus will be most clearly seen in us, others will be most loved by us, and we will run with greater freedom and endurance. It is a wonderful, triple gospel incentive to lay aside the weight of insincerity.
Jesus faced more opposition from the Pharisees than the Romans. Are religious formalists a greater threat to the church today than our secular neighbors?
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When God saves someone, he not only gives them a new love for himself, but a new love for his people.
Marriage is ultimately God’s doing. None of us have the right to separate what he has brought together.
This is a story about a hero and a damsel, a villain and a scandal. Relive the gospel story through spoken word.
We can’t just stick a Bible on our nightstand or in our pocket and expect to know God better. You need to let his word sink deep in your heart and soul.
When was the last time you told someone about the worst parts of your past — the deepest, darkest sins you’re most ashamed of?
Why don’t we tell that part of our story more often than we do? If we really believe what we say we believe about the gospel, our past does not define or condemn us anymore. Jesus was pierced in our place for our past (Isaiah 53:5). God has forgiven all of our iniquities (Psalm 103:3). There is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1).
When we have experienced the forgiveness and freedom we find in the gospel, we have the natural impulse to want to put the past behind us. We are new creatures. “The old has passed away” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But with the natural impulse to forget comes a second, seemingly incompatible impulse to divulge — to publish our past. It’s a supernatural impulse to go and tell.
After rescuing a man from wicked, violent, and destructive demonic oppression, Jesus says, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).
Go and tell everyone who you were and what you did, and then tell them who I am and what I have done for you. Can anyone really see the power of God in our lives without letting his light shine on our past?Tax Collectors and Sinners
Matthew walked away from a wicked past, but he did not leave his past behind entirely. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell one short story about Jesus mingling with tax collectors, but only one of them had himself extorted money from God’s people for his own personal finances.
“As Jesus reclined at table in the house,” Matthew writes, “behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Matthew 9:10–11).
Tax collectors and sinners. Matthew felt those four words more than Mark did — at the same time probably feeling deeper contrition for his own sin and greater compassion for sinners like him. When he wrote about the scandal of Jesus sitting down with these men, he was writing about the scandal of Jesus eating with him.Foremost of Sinners
Now, when we hear “tax collector” today, we may think IRS, one of the most widely feared and despised agencies in America. But like it or not, the IRS enforces a justly instituted set of rules. Tax collectors in Matthew’s day, though, were often outlaws — men who manipulated the law to extort money from people, even the poor. Zacchaeus, for instance, admits to that kind of evil (Luke 19:8).
And not only did Matthew do the dirty work of collecting the taxes and (likely) abusing his authority for personal gain, but he was a Jew collecting money from fellow Jews in order to fund Roman oppression of Jews. As a tax collector, Matthew would have been considered a traitor and a sell-out, trading away his own people for pennies.
Until two words liberated him from his love affair with money: “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9). Luke says, “Leaving everything, [Matthew] rose and followed [Jesus]” (Luke 5:28).The Tax Collector
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all also tell the story of Jesus calling the twelve disciples (Matthew 10:2–4; Mark 3:16–19; Luke 6:13–16). Each starts with Simon (Peter) and ends with Judas. Each calls Judas a traitor or betrayer. But only one sees himself in the list.
Matthew begins listing his brothers, “The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew . . . ” When he comes to his own name in the list, he stops. He can’t tell this story like everyone else. So he adds three words, “ . . . Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus . . . ” (Matthew 10:2–4).
Instead of trying to leave his past behind, he wanted his readers to know exactly what he had left when he decided to follow Jesus. Those three words were Matthew’s brief opportunity to say, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15–16).
While he highlights and celebrates the beauty of Jesus throughout his Gospel, he is not afraid to rehearse the wickedness in his own story, reminding us that tax collectors were servants of self (Matthew 5:46), slaves to their cravings (Matthew 11:19), and ignorant of God (Matthew 18:17). That he was selfish, licentious, and godless. But God.Recovering Lost Baggage
And because Matthew was not quiet about what Jesus had done for him — about the specific, messy, embarrassing, shameful past he had been rescued from — many tax collectors were likewise forgiven and freed.
The first thing Matthew did after deciding to follow Jesus was to throw a party for his fellow tax collectors, so that he could introduce them to Jesus (Luke 5:29). He left behind the sins that had entangled him, but he refused to leave behind others entangled in the same sins. He was not content to be forgiven and forget. His past was his unique, God-given baggage in which to carry the gospel to other tax collectors and sinners.
And because he did not leave his past behind him, many others stopped collecting taxes and started fishing for men. Mark writes about Matthew, “As he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him” (Mark 2:15).Free to Remember
Who might hear the gospel more clearly because they heard from you, in your house, in the context of your story? Who might relate to your unique weaknesses, sins, and failures? Throw a party for them, put your past on display, and invite them to walk with you out of slavery and death and into the kind of happiness they will never find in money, or sex, or entertainment, or family, or work. Invite them to follow you as you follow Christ.
If we have left our life of sin to follow Christ, we are free from our past, never to be defined or constrained by it again. But we never completely leave it behind, because God says something uniquely stunning about himself through our past — our tax collecting, our fits of anger, our quiet jealousy and envy, our drunken self-pity, our sexual immorality, our self-righteous morality (or whatever you were freed from).
Someone you know — someone struggling with the same sins you once committed against God — needs to hear what God has done for you.
Students, attending college means stepping out into the front line of the war for your faith. In order to hold fast, arm yourself for battle.
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