Last week I was contacted by Bill Feltner of Pilgrim Radio for an interview about the last article I wrote which got some attention around the web. I pray that attention is the kind of attention that draws our eyes to Christ and the glory, the blessing, the privilege of losing our life in Adam and finding it in him. It aired yesterday. If you’d like to listen in, click below.
Last month I was intrigued to read the prediction that 2018 will be the year of the evangelical woman. I enjoy Karen Swallow Prior, the tweeter of that tweet, but I have no interest whatsoever in living in a world where the year belongs to evangelical women or women in general or evangelical men or any other such group. I am relieved that no matter our proclamations, 2018 will remain the year of our Lord.
Over the course of the past few years, I’ve observed a pendulum swing in the more public places of Christendom (i.e. Twitter, blogs, social media, and the like. You know, the important places 😉 ) regarding the voices of “evangelical” women, reflected on a much smaller scale in the more private, local sphere.
To begin with, I hate pendulums. What are they but roller coasters that cause us all a ridiculous amount of motion sickness? The good news is that Scripture is immune to pendulum swings. It’s just as solid and unchanging as it ever was. And more good news: we can stand on the unmovable Word of God and smash the pendulum with that same Book all at the same time. The Bible can multitask.
I’ve tried to put my finger on what seems to be afoot, particularly with conservative Christian women––for whom the sound of the rumbling is different than its liberal counterparts, yet seems to be aimed in the same basic direction. It seems the culprit is a general sense that women have been underutilized and pigeon-holed in Christ’s body and the internet is the main means by which this problem has found its voice.
Here’s my summary: Biblically-conservative Christian women are eager to have visible, biblically-conservative leadership by women in their churches and eager to learn from gifted, female Bible teachers whether locally or nationally. Secondly, women with the gift of teaching in conservative churches have felt underutilized/devalued and are carrying some angst, even as things may change for the better. (The accuracy of these points will vary greatly depending on your local context, but I’m speaking generally).
The underlying lesson is: women are hungry for teaching from women. This is basically right and good (Titus 2:3–4). They would like living examples of wise, Bible-soaked women to follow and imitate. They would like to be fed meat, not just milk. And hungry people get nourishment wherever they can find it––they aren’t picky, they’re starving. If only the worst kind of teachers are available to women, many will go ahead and eat the rot.
So, from the perspective of the hungry Christian woman, this pendulum swing is very much a good thing, if it means more resources available to her that make it possible for her to learn and understand her Bible and her God better. Assuming that gifted conservative female Bible teachers don’t just stay within the boundaries Scripture lays out for women in regard to how they may and may not lead and teach, but have come to LOVE and TEACH the boundaries as good gifts, this is all upside. And I’ve seen lots of this. Loads of helpful Bible resources made accessible for women. Podcasts that go deep in wisdom and the gospel and basic Christian living. It’s awesome––what a time to be alive.
But I’m not so sure this fully describes where we are. There also seems to be an itch, an inkling, an impulse, even in the conservative sphere, that has begun to demand status for women as important and essential humans whose voices must be heard. It’s not that I disagree that women are important and essential, it’s that publicly insisting so is entirely an un-Christian way of trying to get that point across.
In this CT piece, Hannah Anderson (whose book on humility was a great read for me last year) says, “The way forward is for the church to identify and support gifted women, partnering with them via theological training and commissioned ministry positions. If you don’t want women breaking down the doors, simply open them for them.”
This encapsulates it: the mood, the slight angst, the rumbling.
If women are breaking down doors in order to use their gifts in the church, the solution cannot only be to teach men to open the doors. I agree that that is part of it. Let men learn to honor women and notice gifts and facilitate the work of the ministry and open the doors for their counterparts that are helpers by nature. It seems this is vital and basic Christianity and men should be exhorted to act like Christian men.
But there’s another side to it: we must teach the women to act like Christian women, not door busters. We must teach them that the Christian life is not one of getting our way or forcing our plans or barging in––it’s one of dying daily, humble waiting, prayerful dependence, and unseen service where our right hand is ignorant of our left. That breaking the doors down would be the path toward anything but misery seems obvious enough––which doors are enough, when does it end?
Once we’ve broken them down, it’s impossible to open them rightly.
Think of Paul’s letter to Timothy. Paul tells the young Timothy that he shouldn’t let anyone despise him for his youth. I don’t know about you, but I’m apt to cheer, Yeah! You heard him! Stop despising me! I’m owed a little respect! Is Timothy supposed to demand and insist that no one is allowed to despise him? Is he supposed to say, “You must value me!” No.
Paul tells him how: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). This is the way of Christians. How do we get respect? How do we make people see our God-given value? We go low. We set an example. We don’t insist on our importance.
What if Christian women in 2018 decided that in all things we would set an example in our godly and gracious speech, our exemplary conduct, our loving actions, our bold faith, and our complete purity? What if we stopped trying to exalt our voices and “be heard,” but gloried in exalting Christ (Matt. 23:11–12)? What if we stopped seeking a seat of honor, but resolved to eat even the crumbs from the Lord’s table (Matt. 15:27)? What if we really trusted God––that God sees us, God loves us, Christ came for us, and the Spirit’s working in us, whether others see it or not? What if we really lived like it was the year of our Lord, not the year of the evangelical woman?
This isn’t theoretical for me. I’m as prone to desire recognition and a seat at the table as the next person. I’ve got more opinions, thoughts, and ideas than is safe for any one person to have. I long to have whatever gifts God’s given me recognized, valued, and utilized to their full extent and it can be painful to be constantly weaning myself from those mixed-bag desires. But, in Christ, I know that God is building his church. And I can take the steps of faithfulness available to me, speak and serve when given opportunity, and if not, rest in the knowledge that God doesn’t actually need me to do the jobs I think he might need me to do.
Jen Wilkin says this in her talk to Acts 29 church planters, “The contributions of women in the advancement of the kingdom are essential and indispensable. If we have crafted a vision of the church in which women are extra, in which women are nice but not necessary, we have crafted a vision for the church that is foreign to the Scriptures.”
I couldn’t agree with her more. She’s right. The church advances as the church––made up of all its parts. The stronger are supposed to see that the weaker are indispensable (1 Cor. 12:22). They’re supposed to show them extra honor (1 Cor. 12:23–24). And I think in the context she was speaking to––pastors desiring a woman’s perspective on how to better minister to women––it is helpful to give that reminder. I’m thankful for women like Jen who have had doors opened for them and now are using that platform to ask men to open the door for more women.
But there’s another side to being part of God’s people on his vine and that is that none of us are actually essential. God could raise up stones in our place.
In Romans, Paul tells the Gentiles that they aren’t as special as they might like to think––he’s telling us the same thing:
“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Romans 11:17–22)
Did you catch that?
It is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.
Do not become proud, but fear.
Neither will he spare you.
Provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.
Is this part of what we’re teaching women? Are we reminding them that being a physically weaker vessel doesn’t make us humble by nature? That we aren’t owed a seat at any table, but Christ has graciously given us one at his? That as awful as it is that many women have been victimized by men, it’s equally awful that women also victimize those smaller than them, in varying ways? That pride is no respecter of gender and infects everyone in Adam, including women? Are we letting them know that they’re Christians too, which means we women have to die to the desire to be important. We have to die to the desire for the year of the woman and replace it with year of the Lord.
That doesn’t mean that we ignore the real needs of women––in no way! We must feed them, honor them, love them, and serve them––but not in an oddly self-serving, self-promoting way, rather as sacrifice. We must disciple women and fit their gifts into the body. But discipling isn’t only plugging in gifts or putting people in the right seats or developing leaders or getting a woman on staff. It’s also teaching everyone that the only path to life is crucifixion–that they aren’t living anymore, but it’s Christ who lives in them. It’s teaching them to, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Phil. 2:3)
Exalt others. Honor others––men and women and children. That’s how we follow our Savior, who didn’t count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but in humility became a servant. Only then can we be exalted, once humility has so lowered us that only God himself can raise us up. And he will, in due time.
I’ll end with two practical concerns I have with the pendulum swing I see in some of the public sphere of conservative Christendom that’s been trickling down locally.
- It makes advancement mainly a function of women teaching and (accidentally?) devalues all the other ways women serve as an essential part of the body. It’s like we want all women to be teachers. I understand why the focus is on women teaching, because that’s the area that some are slower to embrace–feels risky, like a woman might overstep the bounds. But, in the same way I think men can be devalued when they aren’t teachers or pastors, I think the same thing is happening with women and we should avoid this silliness at all costs. You don’t have to be an up-front teacher in order to be a spiritual mother. A female on a stage speaking to a group is not essential to thriving spiritual mothering or the fulfillment of a woman’s role in the local body. A woman teacher is no more effective or influential in God’s economy because she’s been given a microphone.
- Our swing is in tandem with the current swing of liberal and unorthodox Christians as well as with the world, albeit on a different scale. This doesn’t make it all wrong, but it’s something to note. When the world is swinging into transgenderism and gender queer identity, and the liberal church is swinging into ordination of women and self-identified gay Christians, the conservative swing toward a disproportionate valuing of the stage/platform as the most important place for women to serve may seem minor, but we should pay attention to it. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater––there are important things to learn in this pendulum swing, good and right actions to take. There are many faithful upfront women teachers that I love and have learned a ton from–I want their number to increase! But maybe the most important lesson is that the pendulum needs to be smashed with God’s word.
Christians have a fixed and ancient reference point. Let’s hold fast to it.
I’ve been thinking for some time about New Year’s resolutions. I often read through Edward’s list for inspiration at the end of the year. He has a way of injecting our impending death into our living so that our lives are smaller and bigger all at once.
One basic theme keeps making its way to my mind and heart. It’s not exciting, not new, not deep or intellectual. It’s that I would stop sinning against God and the people around me. All the things in life I’d like to accomplish would be greatly aided if I could make even small gains in victory over sin. My hopes and dreams are great and many and all of them require Christ’s righteousness and a killing of sin.
I want to be the kind of parent that is parenting with the salvation of a thousand generations in mind, not merely surviving the irritations of the evening. I want to be the kind of wife that helps and doesn’t hinder, that does good and not harm all the days of his life. I want to be the kind of friend that is completely committed to another’s well-being, especially their eternal well-being, without worrying about reciprocity. I want to be the kind of church member that honors her leaders, that sharpens and loves them, and that sees and cares for the whole body–the unseen and indispensable. I want to be the kind of online person who is so earnest and sincere in her words and sharing that trying to people-please or schlep for popularity is a non-factor, but the glory of God is all.
You can see how sin, maybe especially inward sin without obvious manifestations, is a giant roadblock to all of these hopes and dreams.
I will not parent with a thousand generations in mind if I’m stuck in the sin of selfishness and laziness and can’t rouse myself to be laid down as a sacrifice on the altar of daily living. I cannot be the kind of wife who helps and doesn’t hinder, doing good everyday if I’m stuck in the sin of a critical spirit. I cannot be the kind of friend who has another’s eternal well-being in mind if I’m stuck in the sin of keeping tallies. I cannot be the kind of church member who honors her leaders and cares for the whole body if I’m stuck in the sin of desiring honor or a voice for myself. And I cannot be the kind of online person who is sincere in her service and brings glory to God if I’m stuck in the sin of people-pleasing or platform-building.
Edwards 56th resolution says this:
“56. Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.”
It’s that last phrase that must not be lopped off: “...however unsuccessful I may be.” If success is what keeps me in the fight against sin, then I’ve gotten it wrong. Especially since the more I see my sin and the more I try to kill it, the more God reveals deeper layers to my sin. How is it that twenty-five years of walking with Jesus and I sense more sin in myself than ever before? Shouldn’t the opposite thing be happening? Discouragement is the road to circular sin apathy. If I’m discouraged by my lack of success in killing sin, I think it’s hopeless and I stop trying so hard, which reinforces the evidence that I just can’t quit sinning in any capacity. Fighting sin can’t be based on how I feel I’m doing at it.
Don’t get me wrong, there must be growth and change and discernible progress––that is not optional. But it’s like coming a mile believing the race is a 5K, then to keep going with the new realization that it’s a 10K, only to find this some kind of marathon and the distance is unknown, but so much more than I would have ever dreamed when I started.
God tells us through Joel, “…rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13 ESV).
God wants us to tear up our hearts over our sin, not our clothes. He wants us to see the consequences for what happens to us and our people if we don’t turn. What happens if I continue in sin? Biological offspring that are denied the tastes of an eternal Father and friend? A marriage that forsakes the log in favor of the speck? Friendships that offer smooth words and zero wounds and are destined for this life only? Church members that put their own needs first and others’ last so that the most vulnerable are forgotten, never seen? And online platforms and puffing up that normalizes self-promotion in the name of Jesus, blurring the lines between a selfish ambition and a holy one?
There are real consequences to sin that aren’t boundaried by the heart in which the sin happens. No, the consequences spill out and multiply.
And it is with these serious and fearful thoughts in mind that I make my resolves and invite you to join me.
- Resolved, to tear my heart to shreds over my sin, whether big or small, seen or unseen.
- Resolved, to return to the Lord as quickly as I can, making repentance a flat sprint, not a jog or meander.
- Resolved, not to look at my sin one second more than is helpful for making me sober and fearful, and then to look headlong at Christ, who has paid for every bit of it.
- Resolved, to let thankfulness and joy be the result of repentance as I enjoy increased fellowship with my Father, rather than assuming a posture of guilt or on-going regret.
Lord, would you replace sinful inclinations and actions with thoughts of the glories of Christ and willing hands for good works and happiness in returning to you over and over, so that the appeal of sin becomes bitter and dreadful and Christ becomes more of what he is: my whole life.
This Advent I’ve been reading Isaiah, seeing Jesus at every turn.
I found one passage that was particularly apt for the season ornaments and Christmas trees:
“Lift up your eyes around and see; they all gather, they come to you. As I live, declares the LORD, you shall put them all on as an ornament; you shall bind them on as a bride does” (Isaiah 49:18).
God is speaking to his chosen one–to Zion and to the singular man, Jesus Christ.
Christians commonly glory in having been clothed with Christ. We wear his garments of holiness. It’s worth glorying in. But have you gloried in the fact that Jesus wears you? That you are put on him as an ornament? Bound on him the way a bride puts on something old, new, borrowed and blue? How much must he love us, to display us for all to see?
When I look at the tree this Christmas, I’m remembering that Christ has put me on, not just the other way around. Lord, grant me to be a beautiful ornament adorning Christ this Christmas, whether at home or away, at rest or at work, whether sick or well, tired or alert, “so that in everything I may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10).
So what is the spiritual sacrifice that we’re supposed to make in 1 Peter 2? Is it our fasting? Our quiet time? Long hours of prayer each night? Our Sabbath keeping? Our being inside the church building as often and much as possible?
No. It’s none of those things. It’s you. You’re the sacrifice. It’s me. I’m the sacrifice. Our lives are what we sacrifice to God. So, in that sense, it’s absolutely everything we do. From laundry to supper to office work to bedtime routines and yes, our prayers and gatherings and devotions. We do them all with the hands and heart and mind that belong to God and we pour out our lives as a living sacrifice. It’s not the uber “spiritual” things. It’s everything.
Romans 12:1 says it like this:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (ESV)
This is what the reformation was about. Luther said,
“In the NT there is no sacrifice except the one which is common to all, namely the one described in Romans 12:1 where Paul teaches us to present our bodies as a sacrifice, just as Christ sacrificed his body for us on the cross. In this sacrifice he includes the offering of praise and thanksgiving. Peter likewise commands in 1 Peter 2 that we offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ, that is, ourselves, not gold or animals… in the church there is only this sacrifice, namely, our body.”
So rather than retreating from the world as monks and nuns did, and cloistering into a physical building that is considered religious with a physical altar to offer the mass as a means to greater holiness through private uber spiritual activities, we see the opposite thing. Now, we offer our lives, not in order to be made holy, but because they are holy in Christ. They have been consecrated by his blood. They are for him.
The altar that we lay our lives on is the kitchen counter, the weedy garden, the bed that needs made, the car that needs repairs, the neighbor’s leaves that need raked, anywhere that you have an opportunity to serve in life, that’s your altar. And you’re the sacrifice– your hands, your time, your mind, your feet.
I was trying to figure out how I wrap up all these weeks and all that we’ve learned about the reformation. And there’s one thing I want us to ask ourselves as we end this entire study: how do I interpret the events of my life? And how does that change what I do with my life?
If I go home from here and get in a car accident and face horrible medical problems, what is God telling me? If I face night after night of not enough sleep, what is God communicating? If I leave from here and arrive home in perfect safety with children who obey perfectly and someone has cleaned our house and stocked our pantry. What is God telling me?
How we answer those questions will absolutely direct our lives in profound ways. The reformers discovered, through God’s word, that we interpret everything through the cross. We interpret everything as those who have been united to Christ in his suffering. Sojourners and exiles.
If bad things happen–and they do, all the time–we look to the cross as the irrefutable proof that God loves us in Christ. If good things happen–and they do as well–we look to the cross as the irrefutable proof that we do not earn anything of our own merit.
Unless we are convinced of his love for us and our complete security in him, come disease and death, hell and high water, we will not withstand the torrents of life. And unless we are convinced that his love for us is all of grace, not works, we will not be humble or holy as we ought.
But our assurance of who he is and what he has done for us, our assurance that our names are right now and always have been written in the Lamb’s book of life give us freedom to move about our day, no matter the circumstance. That assurance gives us freedom to pour out in good works done by faith through Christ—whatever form they take.
And more than that, interpreting every event and situation of our life through the cross of Christ is the only way to enjoyment of God. We will not enjoy what we do not believe is ultimately for our good. And the cross of Christ is the proof that God is for us.
How will you have the power to lay down your life, to lay down your living body on the altar of your circumstances as a sacrifice to God if you believe he hates you? How will you do it if you believe all the hardships are coming from his displeasure? But when we know that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him, when we know that the most horrible event in history of suffering was ultimately born of love—a spectacle of grace toward us, we will begin to say,
“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (ESV)
The shorter westminster catechism was written over 100 years after the reformation, as Reeves and Chester point out in their book, and the first question captures the essence of so much of what the reformers gained in rediscovering the Scriptures. It goes like this:
Question: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
That’s my prayer for us. That in whatever we do, whether eating or drinking or studying or praying or changing diapers or caring for aging parents or suffering or walking in a valley–whatever we do, we would do it to the glory of God. I pray that there would be great delight in that—that as God gets glorified you would be set free in happiness and self-forgetfulness in him even alongside the sorrow. And that the truths we’ve learned over the past ten weeks would cause us to glorify God and to enjoy him every day until he comes again.
I was on a website this morning that exists solely for the pupose of commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It gives a brief history and tracks the development of Christianity in the US and it says this,
“This is the 500th year of the Christian Reformation and Christianity has become a fractured, incomplete and conflicted body of Christians. This half-millennial milestone marks an opportunity to consider where we are, how we have arrived there, and what can be done.”
I found that to be an interesting statement. What tripped me up in that statement, among plenty of other things on the website, were two things: the verb tensing was one. Christianity “has become a fractured, incomplete and conflicted body of Christians…” Has become? I think we’ll see that even when everyone was part of the one institution of the Catholic church things were far from free of conflict and division. The east/west schism is the obvious thing, but also the conflicts over who was pope, and even doctrinal conflicts within the Catholic church that still happen today!
The second problem with that statement was saying that the church is incomplete. That’s true in an eschatological sense. But, also, the church is simply Christ’s body. It is incomplete in as much as people still need to hear the good news and be adopted into the family called the church, but it is not incomplete because we have made clear our doctrinal positions. It’s not incomplete because we’ve held fast to the Gospel, even if it means factions have developed. Quite the opposite.
So, what is the church? Who decides what the church is? Where does authority come from?
These are the questions that get at the heart of why Protestantism exists. Often when we talk about the reformers, we talk about it like they broke with Rome, as though they walked out the door, when in reality, they were kicked out of the Roman Catholic church. Luther’s goal was always to reform the Catholic church from the inside.
But the Catholic church didn’t want to course correct. The problems that were brewing in the Catholic church had been brewing long before Luther came on the scene. One of the most basic problems was around the issue of authority.
Where does authority come from? From the pope? Which pope? There were three popes at one time! From the councils of men governing who becomes pope? Who controls the institution known as the church? Or does authority come from God’s Word? And if it does (as we believe it does), what does God’s word have to say about what the church really is? Is it simply an institution? Or is it something else? Is it God’s people? What kind of authority does God give to his people, the church?
I love seasons. I love how there is always something to anticipate, always something to look forward to: snowy woolish white, new green buds, lush full life, the brilliancy of death in the leaves of autumn.
And the season motif was first put forward by the wisest of men: Solomon.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 ESV)
I’m not sure how I would have survived the “season of motherhood” that included multiple littles with no older kids, little sleep, crazy amounts of diapers, and very little adult conversation without the constant reminder that I was in a season, that there would be an end, that what faithfulness to that job looked like would not be what it looked like forever. In a few short years, faithfulness would be teaching reading, tying shoes, and working on a solution to toothpaste on the walls, cabinets, and floors.
And now, faithfulness has expanded to include in-depth conversations about the Scriptures, help with increasingly difficult homework, maintaining rhythms and schedules, cultivating mentor-like friendships with my own growing kids, and legitimately funny jokes.
But I’ve noticed that there are some areas of life that are perpetual seasons; they aren’t “just a season” as the sages like to say. They are things that won’t relent until we die.
What about the depression that is vastly longer than the season of “post-partum”? What about the hard marriage that lasts fifty or sixty years? What about the unwanted singleness that endures your whole life? Or the diagnosis that doesn’t have a cure? Or the early death of a loved one who you never do get to see again in this life? Or infertility that doesn’t abate? What about seasons that have no transient time-tables?
What about caring for a child with special needs whose needs remain into adulthood? There isn’t a changing of the seasons in the same way that there is with other children, and while many parents are either longing for or dreading the day their children are independent adults, parents of kids with significant special needs do not anticipate that season in the same way. Which isn’t to say that things are stagnant or always look the same for those parents or kids. We all do change. Things can be easier or harder, simpler or more complex. And many people like myself, simply do not know what future stages will look like. I have reason to be very hopeful, but I simply cannot know. I must walk forward with no predictable season in front of me.
I’ve heard parents with “typical” kids say that that’s true for everyone, not just special needs parents and kids: none of us know what the future will hold for our children. And of course they’re right. But there is a legitimate difference of how we anticipate the future with “normal” kids and special needs kids. With my “normal” kids, it’s true I don’t know the future, but there is a template of growth, development, and maturity that is to be expected, not because we’re pretending to be God and predicting the future or presuming on his kindness, but precisely because what Solomon said is true. To everything there is a season.
Anyone who’s observed life knows how things are supposed to go. The reason we grieve special needs or untimely death or terrible illness is because those seasons have been interrupted or the predicted flow of things has been changed. The reason the grief over the death of a fourteen-year old is particularly horrific and different than the grief over a ninety-eight year old is because we have an innate understanding of how this is supposed to work.
Yet, there is great hope in knowing that while you may not be in “just a season” temporally speaking, this whole temporal life is a season. This life is the melting of winter for Christians. For some of us who have been set down in the shadow with little to block the bitter wind, we may weather this life with an ongoing chill in the bones. And for others, the sun may be throwing a bit more warmth as we perceive a centimeter of green on the tips of the trees. So, for some, this thing called life is a season with a certain sort of predictability to it—with one thing leading to another. And for others, this thing called life is a season of ongoing and chronic trial that doesn’t follow a pattern. And for most everyone, it is a combination of both.
But, we must know that winter is doomed, no matter our experience here and now. We wait for the fullness of life to come, but it is coming. Things are changing in unseen places. The seeds are underground, but they are pushing up. We may be in a chronic season of dying—dying to our expectations, our hopes, our good desires even, but we can live through it. We can perpetually live in the season of chronic dying because Christ has died once for all and he has put us in himself. He has put himself in us. Let Christ in you, the hope of glory, keep you renewed in each and every season—especially the one of chronic dying.
He knows a thing or two about how to help you live through that.
Romans 8:12 “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. ”
So who are we indebted to? Clearly not the flesh, but Paul says we are debtors. We are indebted to the Spirit, who has given us life and because of that, we put to death the deeds of the body by the power of the Spirit, and live. This doesn’t earn us his Spirit or a place in Christ, this is evidence of his Spirit that’s already been given to us because we belong to him.
This is our sanctification. We must do things. We must put to death the deeds of the body. That’s us. We’re doing it. But we are doing it by the Spirit. We have a Helper–a powerful, powerful Helper–by whom we can put to death the sinful attitudes and actions that linger in us. And we must put to death the deeds of the body every day. It’s not a one and done sort of thing. Christ’s obedience and salvation are one and done. He finished his work. But this battle to kill the flesh is ongoing until he comes again. John Owen said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
Galatians 5:16-26, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (ESV)
I think what’s most remarkable about the works of the flesh that must be put to death is how unremarkable so many of them are. These are the ones that likely hit home for many of us: “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy…” We may balk at the orgies and sorcery, but if you’re like me, the envy and anger seem like maybe they’re not such a big deal. What’s a little strife? Are dissensions really that big of a thing? But they are. They all are. They’re satanic. And they’re not fitting for a child of God who has his Spirit dwelling in us. And if we make a practice of them, we will not inherit God’s kingdom.
The problem is, as a friend remarked to me recently, we usually want to reduce sin rather than kill it. We put ourselves on a diet from sin, where we still get some on the weekends, but we’re hoping for a few less sin calories. This doesn’t work. Sin has to be killed not reduced or put on a diet—not twenty minutes from now or in an hour or a week, but now. And it has to be killed now again tomorrow, and now the next day and the next—the same sins over and over, always killed now. We kill them by confessing, repenting, turning, and taking drastic practical measures—like getting rid of the internet or cutting up a credit card or exposing it to a friend until it shrivels.
We kill sin by the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. Joe Rigney says this about the fruit of the Spirit of self-control, he says, “God is restoring control of you to you.” That means that we get to look at our hand and say, “Don’t touch that.” And tell our eyes, “Don’t look there.” And tell our thoughts to stop thinking that.
And the sword of God’s Spirit, the word of God, will help us immensely in this. Because you might have an argumentative streak that when you tell yourself to stop doing something, you talk back to yourself and say, “Just once,” or “I think it will be ok this time,” or all kind of crazy things, if your mind is anything like mine. But you can shut that argument down with God’s final word—you can make it quiet when you pierce it with the Spirit sword of the Bible. Stop talking back to yourself with your own words only, and start telling yourself God’s words. He says that sin is death and the Spirit is life and peace. Look to Christ and believe him.
Here are two excerpts from my manuscript from week 4 of Reformation Doctrine based in Romans 5:12-21. You can listen here.
Why is the doctrine of sin important? Why are we spending all this time trying to understand the problem—why not spend all our time on the solution, isn’t that more important? It’s because every other system and religion in the world agrees with Aristotle, that we become righteous by doing righteous deeds. This is the root of Buddhism—that happiness is attained by leading a good life. Not all systems agree on what righteousness or goodness is exactly or what constitutes righteous deeds or a good life, but they all are basically self-help programs. If that isn’t true, if we don’t become righteous by doing righteous deeds, if we can’t contribute anything to our justification, but are sinful by nature, that’s important to know. Really important.
Brene Brown is a popular figure in the self-help genre that more and more women are turning to. I once saw a clip of her talking about shame and guilt. She said that guilt is feeling bad for what we do. I did something bad, so I feel guilty, but that shame is feeling bad because we believe we are bad. So, she was trying to help people change how they talk to themselves. Stop the self-talk of “I’m bad,” and start the self-talk of “I’m not bad, I did something bad.” But this is the opposite of the Christian doctrine of original sin. And it matters which is true. It matters whether we are simply good people who do bad things sometimes or if we are actually bad people who can’t do anything good in and of ourselves. Paul has shown us that we don’t just do bad things, we were born in Adam—born in sin—it isn’t so much a choice we make as an inherited family identity.
But, we DO all make the choice to sin on top of it all. And how incredibly sad and depressing to have your hope of getting rid of shame be dependent on your self-talk, your internal messaging to yourself—talking to yourself rightly about it. That’s no hope at all. We need a hope outside of ourselves, we need something deeper than our flawed minds to rely on to get us out of this mess.
Martin Luther, for all his obsessing over seemingly minute sins and constantly running to the priest in confessional with an overactive and tortured conscience, was actually not even close to reckoning with the depth of depravity in all of us. He could confess all that he DID wrong, but where could he go to confess that HE was fundamentally sinful, inside, tainted?
We need the freedom to acknowledge that I don’t just DO bad things, but I am, by nature, a sinner, because look who my father is—Adam, the trangressor. And look at the inclination of my heart—it’s condemning evidence. Freedom doesn’t just start with grace—it starts with the confession of core sinfulness—it’s after we reckon with the fact that every part of us is tainted by sin, in our very nature, that we take our first step toward sanity, our first step toward truth.
Without the doctrine of sin, the grace that flows out of the fount of the crucified and risen Christ is meaningless. Without knowledge and acknowledgment of sin, we make the cross of Christ small, we make his grace an unnecessary and we shove down what we know to be true from our conscience.
Without the doctrine of sin, grace becomes casual, no big deal, cheap, and belonging to me, not Christ. Have you noticed this? We get everything one hundred percent backwards. We believe that sin is outside ourselves, just something we occasionally do and that grace is something we get to dispense from our own fount inside ourselves, rather than Christ’s. So, we say things like, “I just need to give myself some grace.” As if the dispenser of grace is a faucet or well rooted in our own heart that we can turn off and on. What we usually mean is, I need to let myself off the hook for whatever obligation I failed to meet or whatever thing I did that is making me feel bad about myself. But, we don’t get to give ourselves some grace. Grace originates in God, not us.
God gives grace through his Son, Jesus Christ. And when we have Christ, when we’ve trusted him and received him and put ourselves at his mercy, he gives us grace without measure. He gives and gives and gives it to those who need. But it isn’t a cosmic letting off the hook, because Jesus paid the price. Jesus was on the hook. When we talk about grace like a silly little way of getting let off the hook for something and sweeping it under the rug, we forget that the forgiveness that he gave us freely, cost him dearly.
But with the doctrine of sin—which is reality whether we believe it or not, we get is more than just a new way to think about shame or guilt. When we confess our sin and our nature as sinners who rebel against God not in actions merely, but by the bent of our souls that cause us to want to rule over him–when we receive him, we get a new heart, a new man to be born from, a new nature. We really can be called saints, not because we’re perfect, but because we were born of an imperishable, perfect seed in Christ.
When we are in Christ, and Christ in us, the hope of glory, we are free to dispense HIS grace to the people we meet. We do that by telling them the Gospel and introducing and re-introducing them to Jesus. We can look inside to find grace, not because it originates with us, but because Christ is in us, the giver of all grace. Then, yes, we should talk to ourselves and remind ourselves when we sin that that is not who we are anymore.
William Tyndale, “By grace…we are plucked out of Adam the ground of all evil and graphed in Christ, the root of all goodness. In Christ God loved us, his elect and chosen, before the world began and reserved us unto the knowledge of his Son and of his holy gospel: and when the gospel is preached to us it openeth our hearts and giveth us grace to believe, and putteth the spirit of Christ in us: and we know him as our Father most merciful, and consent to the law and love it inwardly in our heart and desire to fulfill it and sorrow because we do not.”
So, what are we to take away from this very major, very important, very deep, very hard passage [Romans 5:12-21]? What summary statement should we give it?
If I had to give it one, it would be Jesus is MUCH MORE better than Adam! How’s that for grammar? But, I think for our purposes, what we want to first draw from this text is that it shows human kind’s sinful origin in Adam. This passage makes it clear that we are all “in Adam.” We are born in Adam and are partakers of the sin nature.
Here’s a quick run down of everything that came through the one man, Adam:
▪Romans 5:12a: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin”
▪Romans 5:14: “Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam”
▪Romans 5:15a: “many died through one man’s trespass”
▪Romans 5:16a: “For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation,”
▪Romans 5:17a: “because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man”
▪Romans 5:18a: “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men”
▪Romans 5:19a: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners,”
That’s a pretty robust doctrine of sin that Paul has given us. It’s different than the descriptions of sin he gives in Romans 1 concerning the Gentiles and Romans 2 concerning the Jews. This is the deeper reason for sin. It’s called Original sin, because it gets at the origins.
I think it might help us to answer one objection that may have arisen in your minds. It’s the obvious one—which is, “If we sin because we were born in Adam, how can we be at fault for it—we didn’t ask to be born in Adam?” We touched on this earlier, but I think it’s worth addressing more fully. Here’s what Luther said in The Bondage of the Will, on God’s freedom to harden Pharoah:
“Why then does He [that is God] not alter those evil wills which He moves (meaning why doesn’t God change Pharaoh for good)? This question touches on the secrets of His Majesty, where “His judgments are past finding out’ (Rom 11:33). It is not for us to inquire into these mysteries, but to adore them. If flesh and blood take offense here, and grumble, well, let them grumble; they will achieve nothing; grumbling will not change God! And however many of the ungodly stumble and depart, the elect will remain (John 6:60).
The same reply should be given to those who ask: Why did God let Adam fall, and why did He create us all tainted with the same sin, when He might have kept Adam safe, and might have created us of other material, or of seed that had first been cleansed? God is He for Whose will no cause of ground may be laid down as its rule and standard; for nothing is on a level with it or above it, but it is itself the rule for all things. If any rule or standard, or cause or ground, existed for it, it could no longer be the will of God. What God wills is not right because HE ought, or was bound, so to will; on the contrary, what takes place must be right, because He so wills it. Causes and grounds are laid down for the will of the creature, but not for the will of the Creator—unless you set another Creator over him!”
Luther makes a good point–maybe the only point as relates to this objection. When we question why God made things a certain way, it’s like questioning why fish swim or why birds fly or why we all have parents or why we all enter the world needy, dependent infants or why trees loose their leaves in fall or cucumbers are crisp or why roses smell so lovely. We may ask, but it is not to the point. We cannot change God—nor if we could would it be for anyone’s good. This is His world, run by His will for his good pleasure. And he is the kind of God who reveals his glory to sinners in a very unusual way—by saving them through his “MUCH MORE” grace given through his Son, dead on a cross and resurrected three days later.
We dare only say with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Rom 11:33
Here’s an excerpt of the teaching from week three of the Reformation Doctrine Study. Those following along can listen here.
“Men’s conceptions of God are formed, not according to the representations He gives of Himself, but by the inventions of their own presumptuous imaginations…They worship, not God, but a figment of their own brains in His stead.
And so I ask you, and myself, are we putting our words in God’s mouth? Tim Keller says, “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.” Does God seem to—most conveniently—always agree with your assessment of things? If that is the case, you must ask yourself whether you are worshiping the God of the Bible or a figment of your own imagination. The Bible is a costly costly book. If it hasn’t yet wrested anything from your clutches, be warned. It will force your hand. It will confront you.
Believing the Bible has cost me close family relationships, it has cost me the assurance I once had over someone else’s salvation, it has cost me the core sense of self that I once had. It has taken all my wisdom and made it a mockery. It has taken all my dearly held feelings and laughed in their face. It has taken my comfort and my hopes and dreams and put them in a shredder. And I have a hard time trusting Christians for whom believing the Bible has cost them nothing—it just seems to fit with their cultural norms already. But believing the Bible is always costly, for everyone. And you want to know the price tag of believing the Book? The price is everything.
But do you want to know what it has given me in return? Jesus Christ—and along with him, ALL THINGS. Unimaginably more than I have ever lost. Can I testify to you? Every loss is worth it. Every loss is gain to be given the opportunity to know God, to know my Savior, in this book. We can say with Paul, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him..” (ESV)
And the women of the reformation knew better than most of us the cost of submitting to the Scriptures. Nuns who joined the reformation had no protection—they left their convents with no husband, no money, no home, no church protection. They were disobeying everyone and everything to obey the only One who matters because they’d met him in his book.
Argula von Grumbach wrote a letter to the University of Ingolstadt in 1523. This university had threatened to kill an 18 yr old student for his Lutheran sympathies. They threatened to burn him alive and threw him in prison for a while. And she, bold woman that she was, took up her pen to write in his defense, an almost unthinkable thing for a woman to do at the time. Here’s part of the preface to her letter,
“What I have written you is no woman’s chit-chat, but the word of God; and (I write) as a member of the Christian Church, against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail… may his grace carry the day.” (The Account”, in AvG/Matheson, 90).
If someone had to evaluate your words, would they say of you, she speaks no woman’s chit chat, but the very word of God? Isn’t that something to aim for? Do you know his word enough that this is even a possibility?
The doctrine of the Scripture and its authority is still very much at the heart of the divide between Catholic and Protestant. Without agreement on the Bible’s words and authority, we can never have agreement on our understanding of justification or other doctrines contained within the Scriptures. As long as Catholic doctrine elevates man’s thoughts to the level of God’s thoughts, in putting their tradition and councils on par with the Bible, there will always be a level of bondage and corruption in the spreading of its message. The Bible, the God behind the Bible, must be free to rule and reign, free from our human tendency to put our words in God’s mouth and that comes when we trust it. We must trust that it can make itself understood, by the power of the Spirit. Our job is to listen to what it says. To do what it says. To confess it, to spread it, to love it.
A french woman, Marie Dentiere, who joined the side of the reformers in Geneva and, like Argula, scandalously took up her pen as a sword in the battle said this,
“For what God has given you and revealed to us women, no more than men should we hide it and bury it in the earth.” Women, we have our part to play in the cosmic scene we find ourselves in. It’s not the same scene as the reformers, it’s many acts later, but it’s no less important. And we can only play our part if we’re tethered to God’s word.