Preach the Gospel to Yourself Daily

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Recently, I was talking with someone about what we most need in our lives for growth and I was reminded of the simple truth that we need to take in the message of the Gospel in Jesus Christ everyday. Wherever we are and whomever we are, the highest priority is that we preach the simple message of good news to ourselves daily. In simplicity that message is as follows:

  • we are sinners who were lost in the death of sin and brokenness of evil
  • God reached out to us in Jesus Christ apart from anything we have done (or will do)
  • God has forgiven all our sin through Christ’s sacrifice, reconciled us to Himself, defeated the powers of evil, and showered upon us His grace and truth
  • God has given us a place of belonging with Him by making us part of His family through the sufficient work of Christ both for now and eternity

There are so many things in our daily lives push back against the gospel. People come to us with all sorts of messages about who we are and who we’re not, what we’ve done and what we haven’t done. We may hear words like this: “you’re a failure,” “you’re a loser,” “you’re too prideful,” “you’re too weak,” or more. If we are honest, many of these things are true. Yes, we are sinners who always need forgiveness. Yes, we are broken in many ways and always need the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit to remake us.

The gospel overpowers us with a message different from those that come to us from others or even from ourselves.. That message centers us within the reality that we are loved, saved, and forgiven by God through Jesus Christ. We are trophies of His grace and held in the divine embrace both now and forever with God!

We all need to take in that message daily. One good way to do that is to slowly read portions of Scripture which rehearse those fundamental truths with us. One of my favorites is Ephesians 2:1-10, where Paul summarizes the gospel in very basic form. Let me encourage you to read it every day for the next week to remind us of the basic gospel message we always need.

1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

How Important is the Gospel to Us?

Rembrandt Paul

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible….I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19, 22b-23)

How important is the gospel to us? Does it save us only or does it shape every aspect of our lives. The Apostle Paul is motivated to sacrifice his freedom and autonomy for the sake of his gospel ministry. His goal is that more might be saved by all means available.

We do not see in Paul a half-hearted love for God and the gospel, but a wholehearted dedication. He surrenders all he is and has to God that God might use all of Paul for His purposes. Every aspect of Paul’s life is surrendered to God for His purposes: His freedom, his cultural frameworks, his preferences, his will, his strength, his comfort—everything.

What about us? Are we the sort of people who are completely surrendered to God for His purposes? Have we given every aspect of our lives into the hands of God or is there something that we have held back? Our response to these questions may reveal how important the gospel really is to us. May God give us strength to surrender everything to Him.

Spiritual Freedom and Religious Captivity: thoughts from Galatians 5

prison

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery….You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. (Galatians 5:1, 13)

Here we find a core lie the Galatians had bought into: that we can earn our way to God through religious activity or add something to God’s grace by doing the right actions.

Paul knows that this is a dead end. In fact, he dramatically says this in Galatians 5:4, “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ” (5:4). This has been a theme of the letter, and Paul is telling them that this lie will lead them off track. You cannot earn your way to God and you cannot add to the sufficiency of Christ. So, Paul writes at the beginning of this section of the letter: “Do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5:1).

On August 23, 1973, Jan Erik Olsson, attempted to hold up a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. When the police showed up, Olsson took four people as hostages and a stand-off with police followed, lasting six days. At one point during the standoff, Olsson called Sweden’s Prime Minister to say that he would kill the hostages. He put one of the hostages on the phone and she said to the prime minister, “I am very disappointed in you…I think you are sitting here playing with lives.” Despite Olsson’s threats, many of the hostages decided they felt safer with the bad guy than with the police. Some hostages actually resisted rescue attempts and later refused to testify against their captor. Now, whenever you hear news of a hostage who identifies more with their captors than their rescuers that condition is referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome. Many years afterwards, one of the hostages said, “It’s some kind of a context you get into when all your values, the morals you have, change in some way.”

Sometimes this happens to us as we consider life in Jesus Christ. We get so confused about what is freedom and what is captivity that we live in a lie. We begin to think, “It cannot be so simple that God takes upon Himself all the cost. I must do something to earn His grace. I must add something to the work of Christ.” But this is just a spiritual version of the Stockholm syndrome.

We have been set free at great cost, and we do not need to return to captivity to find life. Instead, we must face into this core lie if we are going to live the free life that God intends through Jesus Christ.

Our Longing for Justice and Need for Mercy

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One of our strongest longings as human beings is a longing for justice. We long for our lives and the world around us to be bounded by what is just, right, true, and fair without impartiality.

In presidential elections, both here and around the world, we long for fairness in the process so that votes are counted and people are given necessary attention. This is why we have impartial monitoring groups paying attention to elections around the world. This longing for justice is behind the outcries that arise when human rights are violated, whether around the world or here in our own country. International watchdog groups give voice to the helpless or the ignored so that justice can be brought to bear in their lives. We long for justice because we experience injustice and sin in our world.

This is a biblical concept that flows throughout the Bible. When we wonder what God is like, we inevitably encounter the God of the Bible as a God of justice. The Torah calls for maintaining justice and dealing appropriately with the wrongs in the world: protecting widows, orphans, foreigners and the weak in the face of a difficult world. The Hebrew word, mishpat, is the word most often translated as ‘justice’ in the Old Testament. It conveys the idea of right and appropriate order of a just cause being maintained in the world. When we ask the question, “What is God like?”, we discover that at least one answer is this: He is a God of justice.

But here is something interesting. Even as we long for complete justice in the world, we encounter our own need for leniency. We call for justice for wrongs done by some to us or others, but we often hesitate when we do wrongs ourselves.

When a toddler has his toy taken by another child who did not ask, the toddler cries out for the toy to be returned. It was taken unfairly. But, it comes as a great surprise to that same toddler when he is placed in a time-out for unfairly taking a toy without asking from one of his peers later on. Justice looks good from one perspective, but looks a bit more painful when justice hits closer to us personally.

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old college student with a promising life ahead of her. But when a man broke into her apartment and assaulted her on a warm summer night, she vowed to put him in jail for the rest of her life. When the police gathered a lineup of men for her to identify, she pointed to man #5: Ronald Cotton, as the perpetrator. In the 1985 trial, Cotton was sentenced to life in prison with little hope of release. Justice had been served, or so it appeared.

11 years later, Jennifer Thompson received a knock at the door of her home. She had moved on, gotten married, had children, but every day for 11 years, she had been praying for Ronald Cotton to die. The detective at her door had some important news for her. After a review of evidence through advanced DNA testing, it became clear that Ronald Cotton was not her assailant but, rather, another man already in prison, Bobby Poole. Ronald Cotton was not guilty.

11 years. Ronald Cotton falsely imprisoned. Jennifer Thompson held in a prison of anger. The tables had been turned and Jennifer Thompson said, “I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame for mistakenly putting an innocent man in prison….I found it almost impossible to forgive myself.”

So, when Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson were reunited, she begged for forgiveness. Ronald Cotton took her hands, and with tears in his eyes, told her that he had forgiven her a long time ago.

Ronald Cotton said that both he and Jennifer were victims of the same man. They both became wounded, but they both began to heal. He said, “I choose to forgive…so that I stay free and not be a prisoner the rest of my life.”[1]

You see, we long for justice – for things to be set right in our lives and world – but we also long for mercy because we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our world and also right through us. 

In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a story about a servant who was gravely indebted to a king for a tremendous amount of money. He owed the king so much money, in fact, that as a day laborer it would have taken him about 3,000 lifetimes to pay the debt off. When the king brought this man in to settle the debt – to experience justice – the servant begged for mercy. Seeing the servant’s pleas, the king decided to cancel the debt and give the man a new lease on life. Justice was going to be served but instead the servant received mercy.

Returning home, this servant encountered a fellow servant who owed him about four month’s wages and began to choke him, commanding him to repay the debt. Although this other servant too begged for mercy, the first servant denied it and had the man thrown in prison.

The king eventually heard of this situation and called the servant in. Hadn’t this servant owed the king more than he could repay in 3,000 lifetimes? Hadn’t the king shown mercy and cancelled the debt? And now the servant had thrown another man in prison for a debt of four month’s pay? Where is the justice in this lack of mercy?

We long for justice, but human justice can, honestly, at times be unjust. The encounter with justice leads us ultimately into a plea for mercy.  We long for mercy because we know we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our own souls as well.

What good news it is that the God of the Bible is both a God of justice and a God of mercy. One of the most prevalent cries in the psalms is for mercy: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony” (Psalm 6:2). And one of the most resounding themes of the entire Bible is that God is a God of mercy:

  • “Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)
  • “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.” (Daniel 9:18)
  • “You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” (Micah 7:18)

It is in the character of God to be both just and merciful. We struggle to bring these two characteristics together, but God is capable of bringing both to bear upon human lives in a way that also reflects His wisdom.

Ultimately we encounter this within the work of Jesus Christ, whose ministry is one of both justice and mercy. James’ description of the Christian reality speaks to the ministry of Jesus: “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Paul’s marvelous summary of the good news in Ephesians 2, finds its center in the mercy of God:

All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:3-5)

What a gift that our strongest longing for justice meets with our strongest need for mercy in Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. What is God like? He is a God of justice and a God of mercy.

 


[1] “Finding Freedom In Forgiveness,” NPR – This I Believe, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101469307, November 26, 2011.

Ephesians: A Crash Course in Basic Christianity

Ephesians

This past weekend at Eastbrook Church, we began a ten-week series walking through the New Testament book of Ephesians, entitled “Ephesians: A Crash Course in Basic Christianity.” Written by the Apostle Paul as a circular letter for young churches in Asia Minor, Ephesians covers the basics of our faith: God’s plans in Jesus for humanity, the essence of the gospel, relationships inside the church, living for Christ in the world today, spiritual conflict, prayer, and so much more. Join us for a crash course in basic Christianity with Paul in Ephesians.

You can watch Will Branch’s message from this past weekend, “A Crash Course in Blessing,” right here.

Below is the week-by-week outline for the series.

June 1/2 – “A Crash Course in God’s Blessing” – Ephesians 1:1-14

June 8/9 – “A Crash Course in Knowing Christ” – Ephesians 1:15-23

June 15/16 – “A Crash Course in the Gospel” – Ephesians 2:1-10

June 22/23 – “A Crash Course in Unity in Christ” – Ephesians 2:11-22

June 29/30 – “A Crash Course in the Church” – Ephesians 3:1-13

July 6/7 – “A Crash Course in the Love of Christ” – Ephesians 3:14-21

July 13/14 – “A Crash Course in Spiritual Growth” – Ephesians 4:1-16

July 20/21 – “A Crash Course in Christ-like Living” – Ephesians 4:17-5:20

July 27/28 – “A Crash Course in Christ-Centered Relationships – Ephesians 5:21-6:9

August 3/4 – “A Crash Course in Spiritual Conflict” – Ephesians 6:10-24