Monday, August 27, 2007

Grace and unconfessed sin

A recent episode of Michael Horton’s excellent, truth-saturated radio broadcast The White Horse Inn investigates the question “What happens if you die with unconfessed sin?” This question, perhaps more than anything else, tormented my heart for years and was the key thing that led me to rejoice in the work of Christ and his complete sufficiency during the winter of 2002.

Perhaps it came in part to spending every other Sunday of my youth attending Roman Catholic worship services. Maybe it was also in part from the yeast of the bastardized gospel taught by Charles Finney and later Wesleyan/Holiness tradition teaching—evangelicalism without the evangel. But I had this belief that on account of Jesus’ sacrifice upon the Cross I was forgiven of all my sins, that is to say, all the sins that I had confessed. I was plagued by the question, What if I died with unconfessed sin? Surely such transgressions would remain unblotted from my record, and therefore I would lack the perfection God demanded, left to an eternity of conscious agony! I trembled to think that I might die suddenly in a car accident and not have time to ask for God’s forgiveness. I asked God for a slow death, so that I would be mindful to be continually in prayer for all my transgressions. Can you imagine such “slavery to the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15)? “Woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46).

But then God mercifully put in my path two real studs, Greg King and Bryan Kulczycki, who invited me to a Bible study in my dormitory. If it wasn’t the first study I attended, then it was shortly thereafter that we looked at Romans 5:6-8:

You see, just at the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Grace, true grace, suddenly clicked. I needed neither to be a “righteous man” already walking in holiness or even a charismatic “good man” who inspired valiant sacrifice in others. I needed only to be a powerless, ungodly sinner for God to love me. And if God loved me and all the world’s people so very much that he put forth his only beloved Son as a sufficient, wrath-bearing sacrifice while we were still sinners in deadness and rebellion, how then could unconfessed sin stand in his way? How could a few unconfessed sins or those known only to God’s all-perceiving eyes work against his love? Indeed, the truth became clear to me that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” once for all removing the curse of my sin in the grace of God that was “poured out on me abundantly” (1 Timothy 1:14-15).

I still didn’t quite get it—I still thought Christianity and the life of faith had a lot to do with being a good person and giving up a lot of stuff I enjoyed doing—but I found the peace of justification before God in his love (Rom. 5:1-11). Thus God’s Spirit opened my eyes to the Savior who effectively called me: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever. (Psalm 30:11-12)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Seeing Jesus from Joshua

The more I read the Old Testament, the more I love it. I've been reading through the book of Joshua the past several days, and I’ve been seeing more of what Jesus means when he says that the whole of the Law and Prophets testify about him. (I know many people are opposed to typological interpretation, but isn't it more than a coincidence that Jesus' Hebrew name is Joshua, "Yahweh saves"?)

The supremacy of Jesus over Moses.

At the end of Deuteronomy we see that Moses, despite all that he did in leading Israel out of bondage from the soul-oppressing sin-society of Egypt, was ultimately unable to lead his people across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. Instead, he died atop Mount Nebo.* It takes his successor Joshua to lead his people into the rest-land promised on oath to Abraham.

Throughout the Bible Moses is synonymous with the Law, the contract of stipulations for how Israel was to live in Canaan, that is, the typological kingdom of God. (A type is an element that foreshadows a future corresponding element, the antitype.) God demanded that every part of the Law be kept, or else horrific curses and expulsion would result. Despite all their God did for them in his great Passover deliverance and his blessings in the desert, Israel was still unfaithful to him. They bucked the Law and were subsequently forced into famine, slaughter, and exile far from the rest and peace of blessed fellowship with God. But Israel's story is our story, too. The Mosaic Law wrote in words on stone the moral image of God that has always been written on our consciences. When Adam transgressed in Eden (which Genesis records as being located within the borders of Israel's Promised Land), his fellowship with God was severed, and death and curse entered his life--and the life of all who bear the name "human" (Hebrew adam; see Rom. 5:12-21).

But a new Joshua was given to us who was both morally pure in our stead and who broke the power of the Old Adam within us, putting him to death upon the Cross. Through Jesus Christ's perfect fulfillment of the Law (Matt. 5:17; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15) and by grafting us into his death and resurrection-life by pouring out his Holy Spirit, he became our archegos and secures the way into the true rest promised to us by God (Heb. 4), “bringing many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10).

"Yahweh is a man of war."**
Chapters 6-12 of Joshua chronicle the battles won when "the LORD fought for Israel" (10:14, 42). Joshua led a voluntary band of Israelites to win stunning victories never before seen by the world. Yet I'm discovering that when we read the Old Testament not as an anthology of moral examples, but as the record of God's persistent plan to bless his people with the wholeness of life lived in his presence and under his grace--"the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34)--then all the stories are threaded together. Joshua is a bloody book. But it's bloody because the Jebusites, Hittites, and the like opposed Yahweh's reign and the blessing he promised to give to his people.

The second Joshua likewise rides on in victory, robed in blood (Rev. 19). Neither the law's accusations (Col. 2:14), nor Satan’s “deep guile and great might” (Heb. 2:14), nor the empires of this world (Rev. 18), nor sin (Rom. 8:1-4), nor death (2 Tim. 1:10) have been or will be able to stand against the Lord's Anointed when he fights for those who hope in him. As Joshua and his leaders put their feet upon the necks of the defeated kings, releasing them only to stab and impale them, so too has God exalted his King and put all things under his feet (Josh. 10:22-27; Ps. 110; 1 Cor. 15:24-28; Eph. 1:20-23). He will fight for us and secure his promised blessing!

“So the LORD gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. And the LORD gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the LORD gave all their enemies into their hand. Not one of the good promises which the LORD had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass” (Josh. 21:43-45).

And so it will be for us through the Lord Jesus, the Christus Victor.

*He may have died in bittersweet longing, but God’s goodness wasn’t held back forever. In Luke 9:28-36, when Jesus is transfigured in radiant splendor atop Mt. Hermon, standing alongside none other than Moses himself—within the Promised Land he missed all these years. (Philip Yancey notes this The Bible Jesus Read.)
**Exodus 15:3.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Cleveland rocks!

Actually, it's Columbus that rocks--99.7 FM, to be exact. I'm a pretty picky radio listener, but this station played enough good, newer rock to keep my ears tuned in. Only 89X in Detroit and MSU's student radio, The Impact 89FM, have otherwise earned their keep on my dial.

Anyway, as I listened to 99.7 while heading out of Columbus yesterday morning en route to Richmond, I heard an ad for a "gentleman's club," if you know what I mean. The club's name is "The Sirens," or something like that. Their jingle beckoned listening males (or females, I suppose) to "heed the Sirens' call."

Of course, those who know their Greek mythology and have read Homer's Odyssey know that the Sirens were an enchanting group of women standing on the shores of a narrow, dangerous passageway between the islands of Sirenium scopuli. As sailors navigated the needlelike route between the islands, the Sirens beckoned them with their alluring, ethereal voices. Those men who listened were led astray, and their ships were dashed to pieces against the jagged rocks of the shoreline. How fitting is it that the Sirens' name is now attached to the tempting pleasures of pornography and cheap nudity with women!

Of course, we have two ways of dealing with this destructive sin--this sin to which neither I nor any man is immune, this sin which degrades women as mere bodies to be used and viewed for one's pleasure, this sin which says we can have "love" and "intimacy" and "sexuality" for no more cost than a few bucks out of one's wallet. We can be like Odysseus, who plugged his crewmen's ears with beeswax, opting that he himself be tied to the mast in order to still hear their song while staying "safe" from danger. We can steel ourself against temptation, thinking that we have the power to dabble with it and not get burned. This much won't hurt me, we think. It will stop here; I'm in control of this. But what a lie this is--and how easy it is to believe this lie in the face of all kinds of sins!

Or we can respond like the noble Jason. Knowing ahead of time about the dangers posed by the Sirens' song, he enjoined the service of a master violinist aboard the Argo. When they neared the dreaded islands of temptation, the violinist played his music. You see, this music was even more lovely, more heavenly, more pleasurable to the soul than that of the Sirens. By filling their senses with the music of the violinist, they passed through the straits unharmed. In like fashion, amid the persistent, daily temptations to "drift away" from the excellency Jesus Christ and succumb to lies that dull our God-senses (Heb. 2:1; 3:12-14), we are urged to fill our ears with a sweeter music. We hold the course and keep our navigation sure by beholding the beauty and supremacy and sufficiency of our Savior and Lord. "Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us" like a ship charting its course. How? By "fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:1-2).

Jesus knew his life map, the route he had to take. He was fully aware it was going to hurt--he had to endure the shame of being cast "outside the gate" by his people and endured the agony of impalement and death upon a cross. Yet he knew "the joy set before him," and this kept him from listening to the alluring voice of Satan when in the wilderness he was tempted to take the easy path to glory. We need to believe persistently and tenaciously the richness of life under God's reign of blessing and the beauties of fellowship with the One who loved us so much that he never once gave in to temptation and spilled his blood to bring us into the joy of life with him (1 Pet. 3:18). With God's kingdom as our polestar and Jesus' voice the music in our ears, we can say confidently with King David, "I have set the LORD continually before me; because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken" (Ps. 16:8).

Friday, August 10, 2007

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Lessons from Turkey, part V

Persecution is more than just having an awkward conversation.

In 2 Timothy 3:12 St. Paul gives the warning that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” I often wondered what to do with this verse and many similar statements throughout the New Testament. I mean, who really gets persecuted per se in 21st century America? What more would I have to endure than simply having an awkward conversation with a friend or family member? And the message often given by American Christians when non-existent “Christian rights” are violated—How dare Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hutchins write their anti-theistic books! How dare they legalize abortion! How dare Neo-Darwinism get taught in our schools!—is much like that of Islam: the religious fight back in a shouting match of who can exert the most power and reassert his rights to not be offended.

A brilliant young Turkish theologian and human rights activist named Ziya Meral, who himself became a follower of İsa Mesih when he was seventeen, gives this insight to the daily travail and grind of converts who lose the esteem of their communities:

So when a Muslim becomes a follower of Jesus, the first reason he or she is persecuted is not the belief in Jesus or any other god. In most cases he or she is persecuted because they [sic] are perceived to be betraying their national identity by associating themselves with the West. This means that to be a Christian in the Middle East is seen as a shift — a detachment — from everything that makes a person "a person." Within the strong worldview of Islam that separates the world into two camps ("us" versus "them"), the convert is now often defined as one of "them." To the Islamic fundamentalist's mind, apostates deserve death. Even if they are allowed to dwell within the community, their characters are deemed untrustworthy, their testimonies and arguments invalid. For a single woman, finding an honorable husband becomes impossible, and no family will give their daughters to a disgraceful convert. . . .

Physical persecution is temporary and heals, but this social persecution remains and takes deeper roots in the soul of the convert. A deep sense of loneliness develops with a deep-seated sense of shame. Families and old friends are now gone; the name of the convert is now an unspoken memory. A lot of converts suffer from depression, which regularly comes back, even if they emigrate to the West. Many of those who stay in the East live continually as social outcasts with a limited range of work and social interaction.[1]

I have met wonderful men and women who, early in their lives of faith, had to suffer loss of jobs, ridicule from friends, and estrangement from their families. To put it in context, imagine for a moment that you desired to live an openly homosexual life in Texas in 1950. Sure, Turkey is in many senses a modern, secular republic with religious freedom (especially as demonstrated by the massive protests this spring against the religious conservative Justice and Development Party). But even in the largest of cities, life is often governed under codes of tightly woven neighborhood and family structures of honor and approval. And a long-prevailing cultural mantra is that “To be a Turk is to be a Muslim.” (Whether or not one actually believes and practices the tenets of Islam seems to be of lesser importance.) Conversion to Christianity is therefore often, but not always, seen as a subversive act against the devlet (state) and even Turkishness itself, [2] and missionaries and church workers are slandered as Westerners working for the CIA or MI5 trying to corrupt and weaken Turkey from within to be later absorbed by Western (read: American) imperialism.

Such an erroneous mindset that led to the martyrdom of three of our brothers in Christ—two Turks, Necati Aydın and Uğur Yüksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske—in the eastern city of Malatya in April. And this crap just keeps on going. How would you like to be arrested and prosecuted for collecting the weekly offering in your church without having the official papers? We are blessed enough in the U.S. to not have to face the daily problems of believers in other countries, and the affliction of God's people by itself is never a good thing. (Just consider how many psalms speak of how God will liberate his humble, downtrodden people from their oppressors.) But we need to wake up to the reality of real persecution in the church around the world. We need to cry to God day and night for our fellow saints (Luke 18:1-8). And as we are able, we need to let them know we care for them and are seeking the aid of the Victorious Lord for them. Maybe if we quit being a complaining church and more of a church marked by radical hope in our (future) vindication, our message will have a bigger impact.

[1] Ziya Meral, A Message to the West From the Persecuted Church, Institute for Global Engagement.

[2] In the Turkish legal system, there are actually a lengthy number of punishable “crimes against Turkishness,” including insulting the republic’s founder and war general Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and referring to the sudden deaths and emigration of some 800,000 Armenians in 1915 as “genocide.”

Thursday, August 2, 2007


1 Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices [presumably murders that squelched a rebellion at the Temple]. 2 And Jesus said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? 3 I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." (Luke 13:1-5)

I have friends who live in Minneapolis with their families. I don't know if they or any of their family was involved in yesterday's bridge collapse in which so many died or were severely injured. Situations like this beg the question, Where is God in a disaster like this? Isn't he supposedly in control? What manner of king is this Christ, who claims to be extending his rule and reign over all things in the universe? But that's not the question Jesus himself wants us to hear. He wants us to ask ourselves, "Have you repented? Are you going to embrace me, my reign, and my ways, or are you going to keep living your own way in disbelief?" If so, he warns, just as quickly as a tower collapsed or a highway bridge fell into the Mississippi River, so too will we be crushed under the weight of his fury.

All of the death, disorder, and tragedy in this world is the direct result of humanity's fall into sin. We can blame Adam all we want and shirk our own responsibility, but we forget one thing. We forget that we, too, sin every day as active participants of the rebellion that began that infamous day in Eden. Minneapolis is supposed to be a divine wake-up call, a backwards gift of God's patient mercy that says, "Get serious! Get off the path you're on! If you don't, I will kill you with a death far worse than drowning in a river, for I am a consuming fire."

I'm sure that this won't be the popular message in churches across American this Sunday. Most instead will probably preach some sort of heretical message about how this wasn't from God's hand (even insurance companies get it right by calling it an "act of God"); it was a random event incompatible with a loving God, instead of seeing God's love that slaps us in the face with events like this that call us repentance, and who has offered his very own Son to bear every last ounce of the wrath due to sinners, due to you and me.