Do You Need More Self-Control?

Self-control is one fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23) that we don’t often discuss. But the apostle Paul didn’t have our hesitations. He writes about this virtue all over the New Testament, most frequently in his letter to Titus. In that little book, we learn the following about self-control.

  • The elders Titus appoints must be self-controlled (Titus 1:8).
  • Older men are to be self-controlled (Titus 2:2).
  • Older women are to train the young women to be self-controlled (Titus 2:5).
  • Titus must urge the younger men to be self-controlled (Titus 2:6).
  • The grace of God has brought salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and to live self-controlled lives (Titus 2:12).

So, no one is exempt. We all must be self-controlled.

But what exactly does that mean?

We may think of the self-controlled as monks or nuns, strict ascetics who squash every stray desire and distraction. Creating this caricature lets us write self-control off as something out of reach, only available to (or expected of) the elite few. We justify not understanding or growing in self-control since we don’t feel very elite. (I’m writing of my experience here, but maybe—just maybe—there are others like me!)

Self-Control Fundamentals

Drew Dyck set out to help us with self-control, not as an expert but as someone badly in need of that virtue himself. I found his book Your Future Self Will Thank You really helpful in understanding this elusive fruit of the Spirit.

Dyck describes self-control as a foundational character trait in the sense that other traits are built on top of it. Self-control makes acquiring other virtues easier. After exploring some of the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible which are translated as “self-control” (or a synonym), Dyck arrives at a working definition: “Self-control is the ability to do the right thing, even when you don’t feel like it.”

Like all fruit of the Spirit, the purpose of self-control is to glorify God, not ourselves. Biblical self-control is not primarily about keeping our lives or bodies neat and ordered—rather, it is about keeping our loves rightly ordered and in the proper proportion.

Willpower and Habit

Many of our friends and neighbors might equate self-control with willpower. Drew Dyck says there is an overlap, but that they aren’t the same.

Willpower is needed for self-control but for other activites too: learning new tasks, making decisions, and persevering in difficult circumstances. One of the most helpful images for me in the book is the idea of willpower as a muscle. We all have different innate levels of willpower, but willpower is something that can be built and exercised.

Willpower can be depleted through use as well as through sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, and frequent distraction. This explains why it becomes harder to resist the donuts in the break room each time we pass by! (Interestingly, Dyck suggests this is why we’re urged in the Bible to flee temptation more than to fight temptation.)

There is a vital connection between self-control and our habits as well. Since habits do not take willpower to complete—the automatic nature of habits are their defining feature—wise and thoughtful building of good habits is one of the best ways to grow in self-control. So self-control is not always about in-the-moment impulse control, but it can involve and necessitate advanced planning. (If we know there will be donuts in the break room on Friday, we can plan ahead to resist them.)

Since habits require willpower to create but not to execute, Dyck suggests that one of the best uses of our willpower is to create good habits. Chapter 6 describes some of the psychological research on habit formation and how Christians might take advantage of these advances. (Two excellent books I’ve read on habits are The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg and Atomic Habits, by James Clear. I recommend them both!)

A Helpful Guide

Drew Dyck is a good guide for the journey of self-control. The book is well-researched without being academic. Interleaved through the book are Dyck’s reflections on his own efforts to grow—some of these are successful and some are (humorously) not.

Dyck writes with an inviting, winsome style. His book is the first place I’d point if you want to learn more about self-control.

Disclosure: The Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, meaning that I will get a small percentage of any purchase you make when using those links.

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A Front-Row View of the Incarnation

Who had the best view of the Incarnation? Mary, the mother of Jesus, is certainly a good nomination. So is Joseph, Jesus’s father.

It might seem odd to suggest one of Jesus’s disciples in place of his parents. After all, they only spent three years with him.

However, there is (at least) one incident in Jesus’s ministry that shows his disciples had a perspective not available to Mary or Joseph.

The Transfiguration

Anyone who hung around Jesus was bound to witness glory of a certain kind. After all, Jesus came to make God the Father known to humanity (John 1:18). However, there was a special kind of glory revealed to Peter, James, and John at Jesus’s transfiguration that surpassed anything else in his ministry.

When these three disciples went up the mountain to pray with Jesus, they were “heavy with sleep” (Luke 9:32). But when they woke up they “saw [Jesus’s] glory” (Luke 9:32). His face was changed and his clothes “became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). This was a jaw-dropping moment, as Moses and Elijah were also there in glory (Luke 9:31). It was such a holy scene that Peter wanted everyone to stay for a while (Luke 9:33).

The unimaginable nature of this meeting was not just in Jesus’s appearance. After Peter’s impetuous words, “a cloud came and overshadowed them” and the disciples were (understandably!) afraid (Luke 9:34). They heard God’s voice booming out of the cloud, telling them to listen to Jesus, the chosen one (Luke 9:35).

The transfiguration is important in the context of the Incarnation because it gives us a brief glimpse of Jesus’s glory before becoming a man. This is part of Paul’s argument in Philippians 2—the best way for us to grasp the humility of God (and then also to have that “same mind”) is to see how low Jesus stooped.

Stooping So Low

In Philippians 2:5–8, Paul writes about Jesus going down, down, down. He was “in the form of God,” and the contrast between this height and his eventual death make his condescension all the more remarkable.

The Son did not “count equality with God a thing to be grasped”—he did not take advantage of his deity. He was “born in the likeness of men,” and in this he became a servant/slave. Jesus’s entire life was a picture of service, but it is in the spotlight when he washes his disciples’ feet at their final Passover celebration (John 13:3–11).

Jesus went lower, of course. He humbled himself to the point of death (Phil 2:8). And his death by crucifixion was the lowest sort of death—execution on a Roman cross as a dangerous criminal.

The Incarnation of Jesus puts the humility of God on display. God is condescending by nature; he stoops low to be with us. He stoops to save us.

The Best View

Peter, James, and John didn’t only witness the transfiguration. Those same disciples who saw Jesus in glory walked with him on dusty roads and saw him teach and heal. They heard him predict his own arrest and death and they pleaded with him to turn back. They fell asleep when he prayed in agony in Gethsemane, and they looked on as he was arrested like a common thief.

In the end, it’s not really important to determine a winner in this competition. Because of the Scriptures and the witness of the Spirit, we—21st century Christians—have an incredible view of the Incarnation of the Son of God. At this time of year we can, with all who encountered Jesus during his life, marvel that God would humble himself to become a man. O come, let us adore him! Christ the Lord!

Note: This article was inspired by my pastor’s sermon on Sunday.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested, you can follow me on Twitter, subscribe to this blog by email (see the box on the upper right part of the page), or follow my blog’s RSS feed here.

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The Lord’s Day and the Kingdom of Grace

Jesus’s resurrection changed everything. It proved he was the Son of God, confirmed all of his teaching, and brought hope of the same resurrection to his followers.

The resurrection of Jesus also changed the day of worship for God’s people. New Testament believers began to regularly gather and worship on the first day of the week instead of the seventh. This was no small change! God’s people had been set apart through Sabbath practice since the exodus from Egypt. That weekly worship shifted to Sunday highlights the massive importance of Jesus’s rising from the dead.

This shift to Sunday worship helps us think about rest and grace. With seventh-day worship, God’s people worked six days and then rested, following the pattern of the Creator himself. With first-day worship, God’s people rest and then work six days. This seems wonderfully consistent with the nature of the New Covenant.

The day of rest is a gracious gift. It is not given after six days of obedience. Instead simple membership in the kingdom grants a day of rest and worship before any weekly work is accomplished. We don’t earn the day of rest, and we cannot lose it.

This is not to say that the Old Covenant or the Sabbath practices therein were not gracious! God has always been loving and gracious to his people.

My simple point is that the shift to first-day sabbath practices (worship and rest) for followers of Christ makes God’s grace abundantly clear. Sunday sabbath emphasizes God’s grace to his people, preparing them for the good works he calls them to in the subsequent six days.

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

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God’s Work and Our Work, Hand in Hand

I love watching toddlers learning to walk. Once they’ve reached the stage of pulling themselves up on chairs and coffee tables, they’re ready for the big adventure. Some brave souls make a few solo attempts, but these wobbly steps often end in tears.

What comes next? A parent or grandparent steps in! You’ve seen this adorable dance—the adult, bent at the waist, the child between their feet; the toddler, reaching up to grasp the offered hands, ready to barrel out into the wide-open spaces.

This picture always brings to mind the way that our work and God’s work are joined together.

Opposition to Nehemiah’s Work

At his request, Nehemiah was sent from the Persian city of Susa back to Jerusalem so that he might rebuilt the city that lay in ruins (Neh 2:5). He quickly won the support of the people and directed an effort to rebuild the walls that encircled Jerusalem (Neh 2:9–3:32).

However, from his first days back in the holy city, Nehemiah faced opposition (Neh 2:1019). This hostility reached a breaking point in the fourth chapter of Nehemiah.

Praying and Working

We have much to learn from the way Nehemiah pointed the Israelites to their God and to their work in response to the resistance of the surrounding peoples.

Sanballat the Horonite heard about the Jewish work on the Jerusalem wall and he was “angry and greatly enraged” (Neh 4:1). He and Tobiah the Ammonite taunted and mocked the Israelites (Neh 4:2–3). Nehemiah responded by praying to God for his people (Neh 4:4–5); then everyone got to work and built the wall (Neh 4:6).

When Sanballat and Tobiah (and others) made a plan “to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it” (Neh 4:8), Nehemiah took the same approach. The people prayed and set a guard for protection (Neh 4:9).

Later, there were reports of a more specific threat, so Nehemiah stationed armed Israelites in strategic places near the wall (Neh 4:13). Nehemiah addressed the nobles and officials and people:

Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.

God frustrated the plans of these opponents, and thus the Israelites got back to work (Neh 4:15). Nehemiah organized an alert system for the workers—a trumpet would blow when an attack came, and the people would rally there. Nehemiah was confident of the Lord’s hand: “Our God will fight for us” (Neh 4:20).

Throughout this chapter, Nehemiah urges the people to work while reminding them of God’s work. He instructs them to look to the Lord and to look to their labor.

Hand in Hand

Without older hands for stability, a toddler would stagger and fall. But without the child’s desire to learn and move, the adult would just drag an unhappy, small person across the floor. The child’s and the adult’s work go together.

We may be tempted to work without looking to the Lord, but that is foolish. We cannot accomplish God’s work without him. But we must not swing to the other extreme either—praying without putting our hands to work is presumptuous and faithless. Most often, God works through our work.

Nehemiah 4 is a good reminder that God’s sovereignty and our responsibility are not opponents to be pitted against one another. They are friends, walking hand in hand, accomplishing God’s will.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested, you can follow me on Twitter, subscribe to this blog by email (see the box on the upper right part of the page), or follow my blog’s RSS feed here.

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When Creation Was Finished but God Was Not

The beginning of Genesis is rich enough and deep enough to repay a lifetime of rereadings. I noticed something recently in these early chapters which cannot be original to me but which I had not seen before.

Here is the end of Genesis 1 and the beginning of Genesis 2.

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 1:31–2:3)

What I hadn’t seen before is this: The heavens and the earth were finished on the sixth day, but God finished his work on the seventh.

On the seventh day, God “rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” This was the culmination and completion of his creation work.

The work of creation was complete at the end of the sixth day. However, God had not finished with his work until he rested from it. The sort of rest in view here must be more than just a ceasing from action.

This means that, in the same way, we may step away from our work without taking a sabbath rest. While this is not intended to be a comprehensive account of sabbath rest, here is kindling for the fire.

Sabbath rest acknowledges that we have work to do because God worked first. This comes right from the context of Genesis 1–2. Man has no work without God’s work first, and man continues the work God began. This creation truth is also gospel truth: our work flows from God’s work. Any faithful work we accomplish in the world flows from the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

Sabbath rest should thank God for our work. If we have work to do, God has given it—even jobs we do not like. He has also provided the strength, wisdom, endurance, and creativity to complete any work that is behind us. (He has also given others to help us with our work!)

Finally, sabbath rest includes worshiping the Lord. At the end of this magnificent creation account, in which God spoke the world into being and formed it with such skill, wisdom, and love, we are compelled to praise our glorious God.

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What the Holy Spirit Does for Us

For many Christians, the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives is unclear. We have heard many stories of excess, of churches either ignoring the Spirit or focusing almost exclusively on him and his gifts. If we affirm the Trinity and want to understand and celebrate the work of the third Person, how should we proceed?

Romans 8 is not a bad place to start! It is full of references to the Holy Spirit.

But, because the chapter is so full of these references, we need an entry point. As we look closer, two of the references to the Holy Spirit stand out.

Twice in Romans 8 we are told that “the Spirit himself” does or accomplishes something. This phrase is emphatic, designed to make us look up from our coffee and take notice. The Spirit does not contract these jobs out to others, he does them himself, intimately involved in this work for us.

The Spirit Bears Witness

This phrase first occurs in verse 16.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15–17, emphasis mine)

When the Spirit “bears witness” with our spirits, he is reminding us—testifying to us—that we are children of God. Why would we need such reminding? Too often we default to a “spirit of slavery” which leads us to fear (Romans 8:15).

To know when we are sliding back into a spirit of slavery and away from the Spirit of adoption, we only need to consider the difference between slaves and children. When we take on a mindset as slaves, we have an overwhelming sense of duty and no reward. We don’t know any affection from God, only lists of things to accomplish or avoid. Our interaction with God feels distant and unapproving; we are without the rest and warmth of a beloved, adopted child.

If any of these descriptions fit you, there’s good news: The Holy Spirit wants to convince you of the truth! He himself aims to persuade your spirit that you really are a child and heir of God.

Note that this identity as a child of God is not just teddy bears and lollipops. We “suffer with [Christ] in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17).

But there is glory coming for the children of God, and the Spirit will keep reminding us who we are until that day. How this happens is probably worthy of a much longer article, but here’s an initial thought. Some excellent ways to listen to the Spirit testifying to us about our status as children of God are to read the Bible (the Spirit-breathed word), to meditate on truths like this very passage (Romans 8), to pray (see below), and to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that emphasize the truth of our adoption.

The Spirit Intercedes

This wonderful phrase also appears in verse 26.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26–27, emphasis mine)

We have many weaknesses, including not knowing what to pray for. So the Holy Spirit prays for us.

The word “likewise” in verse 26 doesn’t refer to our weakness or to prayer, but to groaning. Paul has written that creation groans (Rom 8:22) and that we groan (Rom 8:23). The Spirit likewise groans.

Ours are the groans of waiting and longing for new-creation bodies in the midst of suffering. So when we “do not know what to pray for,” this isn’t just indecision or a lack of direction. We are often confused and wordless in our prayers because we have come to the end of our energy, effort, and speech. We trust God but don’t know what that might look like going forward. In our lament, we can give this over to God, because the Spirit is at work.

What difference does this make for us? Knowing that the Spirit prays, we can sit with God in prayer when we don’t have words. It is good to keep coming to him in our confusion and suffering—we don’t need any fancy language or feeling of holiness. We can trust that the Spirit will intercede for us (just as Jesus also does, see Romans 8:34) “according to the will of God.”

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When Conviction Comes to the People of God

“Our iniquities have risen higher than our heads” — Ezra 9:6

It’s unlikely that Ezra 9 tops anyone’s list of favorite chapters in the Bible. But with regard to grief over sin, few sections of Scripture are more instructive.

By way of background, Ezra is sent from Babylon to Jerusalem roughly 70 years after the first exiles made the journey. Ezra is both a priest and a scribe, and he will teach the law to the people in the rebuilt temple of God. Ezra 8 describes the travel to the holy city, then Ezra 9 opens with a bombshell.

The Faithlessness of the People

Ezra is told that many Israelites “have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations” (Ezra 9:1). They have married women from the surrounding nations who do not worship God. And it gets worse: “And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost” (Ezra 9:2).

Ezra’s response is dramatic.

As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. (Ezra 9:3–4)

This is no run-of-the-mill sin. The identity and integrity of this new Jerusalem settlement is being compromised by these marriages. The issue is not mainly cultural or ethnic—it is about worship. Every spouse has enormous religious influence on their partner, and Israel’s history is peppered with unfaithfulness to God beginning with a marriage outside the faith.

Ezra grasps the severity of the situation, and he is undone. He is as torn up as his garment and facial hair.

While his ministry seems to have born fruit—witness those gathered with him who revere God’s word—the unearthing of sin this pervasive is devastating.

Communal Sin

Ezra sat appalled in his grief for a while. Then at the evening sacrifice (a public event), he fell on his knees to pray (Ezra 9:5).

O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. (Ezra 9:6–7)

Ezra quickly turns from “I” and “my” to “we” and “our” in this prayer. In Ezra 10, there is a full accounting of those who violated the law against marrying foreign women. Ezra’s name doesn’t appear there, and we have no reason to think he was individually guilty of this sin. So, why does he identify with this transgression? Why is it our guilt?

In most of the Old and New Testaments, the people of any community belong to each other. This is especially true when God himself establishes and gathers that community. There are laws and expectations governing individual behavior, but the individualism of the modern West is completely absent.

So while Ezra might not be personally implicated in this scandal, these are his people and this is his community. Regarding this specific sin, we can imagine how friends and neighbors did not keep each other in the way of righteousness. The bulwark of day-to-day encouragement to pursue good and to flee evil had cracked and broken.

Sin in the Face of God’s Kindness

Ezra has a deep knowledge of history, related both to the sins of the people and the kindness of God. He thanks God for his favor to leave a remnant of Israel, to give them favor with the kings of Persia, and to help them reestablish the house of God in Jerusalem (Ezra 9:8–9). God has not forsaken them!

And yet, in the midst of God’s goodness, they have violated his specific commandments (Ezra 9:10–12). Though God has punished them less than they deserved, they have repeated their ancestors’ sins (Ezra 9:13–14).

Ezra knows the holiness of God in ways we might not. He knows that God could be so angry—justly angry—that he might wipe out this remnant of his people (Ezra 9:14). He concludes this way.

Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this. (Ezra 9:15)

Pointing Forward

You might have noticed, this is not a cheery chapter of the Bible! No inspirational slogans to be found. And yet, as with all of Scripture, this chapter makes us look to Jesus.

God is grieved when we turn to worship anything but him. Ezra’s visceral sorrow reflects the size of the offense against the Lord. In this text, we see the people’s need for a savior—we are “before [God] in our guilt,” as no one “can stand before [God] because of this” (Ezra 9:15). The need for forgiveness and transformation is gigantic. And God has provided! Jesus is the one who was consumed in anger, he was the remnant that was eliminated in our place (Ezra 9:14).

Of course, conviction of sin happens again and again as we follow Jesus. And we need not fear conviction. Our sins are completely covered, and we are thoroughly forgiven as children of God. We will not be thrown out or disowned when our sin comes to light. This takes some getting used to, but our loving, holy Father leads the way.

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Rejoicing in the Truth (Even When It’s Taught By Someone Else)

I gasped when I saw the description of the podcast episode. An author was being interviewed about their soon-to-be-released book. Nothing remarkable there. But the subject of the book was a topic I had been thinking, teaching, and writing about for a couple of years.

That author stole my book idea!

Not really, of course. I was being dramatic. This author didn’t know me and likely had never caught a whiff of my writing. And it’s not like I had a book in the works. I hadn’t even written a book proposal. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to write a book!

But learning about this other book seemed to slam shut a door of possibility.

A Writer’s Jealousy

This happened several years ago, and I’ve only recently started to interrogate the anger and frustration I felt. I was disproportionately downcast.

First, it’s absurd to think there couldn’t be multiple books on the same topic. But the anger I felt was (I think) born of jealousy. I wanted to be the source of wisdom on that particular topic. Any spotlight—such as it might have been—was too small to share. I wanted it all.

Beyond being massively self-centered, this was sin—pure, distilled, 200-proof. Wanting to be the only authority or source of knowledge about a topic is trying to put myself in the place of God. It’s idolatry. It’s the tower of Babel.

Finally, this desire was self-contradictory. If this project were successful, more people would be interested in this topic and would talk about it to others. Would I resent them if they didn’t trace the intellectual lineage back to me? Did I care about the topic at all, or was it just a tool I would have used to pursue my own glory?

Writing to Serve

Looking back on this incident has made me ask some fundamental questions, including Why do I write?

God gives gifts to his people so that they might serve others, and this is the spirit in which I want to write. I want to use any skill I have in communication or writing to instruct, help, encourage, and strengthen others. And all of it to the glory of God.

If I am to serve readers, wouldn’t I joyfully point them to others with sound, helpful ideas? Even, maybe especially, ideas which overlap with, correct, or build upon my own? Wouldn’t I resist all urges to develop in others a dependence on me? Wouldn’t I rejoice in the truth communicated in love, no matter from which keyboard it sprang?

I don’t know if the possessiveness I felt about “my” idea is one that is shared by other teachers or writers. But that possessive impulse is opposed to the goals of teaching, opposed to the gospel, and opposed to God.

If other writers have felt this pull and learned to deal with it, I’d love to hear those thoughts. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested, you can follow me on Twitter, subscribe to this blog by email (see the box on the upper right part of the page), or follow my blog’s RSS feed here.

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Learning From the Sins of Abraham

Between the first promise of a son given to Abraham (Gen 12:2) and its fulfillment (Gen 21:2), Abraham had some rough patches. Like us, Abraham wavered, and we would not commend his every action to our children.

In particular, Abraham is recorded as calling Sarah his sister instead of his wife on two separate occasions (Gen 12:10–20 and Gen 20:1–18). In fact, Abraham may have demanded this of Sarah repeatedly (Gen 20:13).

This particular stumble may not seem very relatable to modern day Christians. Not many of us, I’d wager, are tempted to introduce our spouse as our sibling. And yet, I suspect we have more to learn from Abraham’s struggles than what first meets the eye.

How Do We Know This is Sin?

Some brief background: After the rescue of Lot and the destruction of Sodom, Abraham sojourned in Gerar, which was between Canaan and Egypt (Gen 20:1). Abraham passed Sarah off as his sister, and Abimelech (the local king) took her for his wife (Gen 20:2). God appeared to Abimelech in a dream and told him about Sarah, instructing him to return her to Abraham. If Abimelech did this, he would live; if not, he would die (Gen 20:7).

When I first studied this passage, I wondered why God didn’t rebuke Abraham. It’s a good Bible study question: How is the reader to know that what Abraham did was wrong?

I eventually realized that God did rebuke Abraham, but he did it through Abimelech (Gen 20:9). God called Abraham a prophet (Gen 20:7), and yet Abraham needed this Gentile king to play the role of prophet and bring the word of God to him. Abraham is an anti-prophet; that is the correction he needed.

The Nature of Abraham’s Sin

It’s too easy, across the distance of history, to judge Abraham for this bad behavior. Even if what he was saying was technically correct (Gen 20:12), he was intending to deceive. I believe the sophisticated word that theologians use to describe Abraham’s explanation is “weasly.”

But because Abraham and Abimelech have an extended conversation, we learn why Abraham acted the way he did (Gen 20:10–13). Further, we see some of the ways Abraham sinned and how we might easily fall into his well-worn footsteps.

Abraham believed God’s influence was limited. He said, “I did it because I thought, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place.’” Abraham feared falling into the hands of those who didn’t fear God, and he assumed that was true of the people of Gerar. Of course, Abimelech ended up acting more like a God-fearer than Abraham!

Abraham believed God needed help to keep his promises. Abraham thought the people of Gerar would kill him because of Sarah (Gen 20:11). Yet God had promised Abraham an heir through Sarah (Gen 17:16) and this heir had not yet been conceived. This means that Abraham doubted that God could preserve his life without this deception. He had to protect himself because God might not do it.

Abraham doubted God’s goodness. We can hear some resentment and bitterness in the way Abraham recounts his calling: “And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house…” (Gen 20:13). Abraham is not remembering God’s provision, his protection, or his promises. He only recalls the inconvenience God caused him.

When we identify Abraham’s sins this way, I suspect many of us can see our tendency to repeat them. We often doubt God’s power and his extensive reign. We do not cling to his promises or trust him to keep his word. We wonder if God is as good as the Scriptures report.

The Answer is Resurrection

There are many places in the Bible which address these three doubts and teach us what is true. But there is one event which addresses all three.

All the Bible points to Jesus. And Jesus’s resurrection, in particular, is essential. It is the ultimate proof that God keeps his promises, that he is who he claims, and that we have a great hope.

The resurrection proves that Jesus reigns. Paul writes that the resurrection declared Jesus to be the Son of God in power (Romans 1:4). If we suspect that God is limited or that he cannot do the unexpected, the resurrection announces that Jesus is king with a megaphone.

The resurrection proves that God keeps his promises. Jesus taught many things and made many claims. Some of his boldest predictions were of his own suffering, death and resurrection. The truth of his resurrection, being the most audacious claim, verifies all of his teaching. (See 1 Cor 15:17 and Acts 13:16–41.)

The resurrection proves that God is good. In Acts 5:29–32, Peter explains that in his resurrection and ascension, God exalted Jesus as Leader and Savior, to give repentance and forgiveness to Israel. What mercy and goodness is captured in this! Further, Paul famously writes that those who believe will enjoy a resurrection like Jesus’s—in fact, Jesus’s resurrection is the first fruits of the resurrection of the faithful which is to come (1 Cor 15:20–23).

Prone to Unbelief

We are prone to doubt, to unbelief, to attributing ill motives to God. Any of our surface-level sins likely have a root in a heart which isn’t believing what is true.

Notice the forbearance and goodness of God! He faithfully stays with us in our unbelief. And he provides what we need to grow: his Spirit, his Word, and his people.

We believe, and we need God to help us in our unbelief. And this is exactly what he does.

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How Do We Obey the Gospel?

“Obey” is not one of the verbs we typically connect to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We talk about preaching the gospel, sharing the gospel, and believing the gospel. But we don’t hear much about obeying the gospel.

And yet, this must have been a phrase used in the early church, because it appears in at least two places in the Bible. In the context of talking about eternal punishment, Paul writes of “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess 1:8). In a similar manner, Peter refers to “those who do not obey the gospel of God” as being outside the household of God (1 Peter 4:17).

What did these apostles mean when they used this phrase?

News That Demands Action

The word “gospel” means “good news,” so on the surface this phrase doesn’t make much sense. After all, how can we obey news?

The gospel is not just any news. It is good news announced by God. Such news requires action.

The ministry of Jesus answers our question directly.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14–15)

Because the kingdom is at hand—meaning that the king (Jesus) is here—repent and believe in the gospel. This is confirmed in other places in the New Testament.

Paul ended his sermon in Athens this way, including the command for all people to repent.

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30–31)

Paul also wrote this to the Romans, where he equates obeying and believing.

But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” (Romans 10:16)

Using these passages, we can take a swing at what it means to obey the gospel. Obeying the gospel means repenting of sin and believing the gospel.

This definition still demands an explanation “the gospel.” But, in an effort to keep the length of this post reasonable, I’ll leave that to another source.

We still have one question to answer. If the Bible speaks this way, why don’t we?

An Invitation or a Declaration (or Both)?

One reason we don’t talk about obeying the gospel is because we don’t view the message as authoritative. The good news about Jesus becomes one option among many. It might be our favorite option, but this mindset turns Christianity into one choice on a religious buffet. When we talk to our friends about the gospel, we’re hoping they’ll pick the potato salad like we did and sit at our table.

We have (rightly) understood the gospel to be an invitation, but we have not seen it as anything more.

To be clear, the gospel is an invitation! Jesus did not (and does not) coerce anyone into faith, and we won’t force or argue anyone into the church. Jesus was (and is) gentle and hospitable, welcoming all who call on his name.

But as we have seen, the gospel demands action. Turning away from Jesus is not just making a different, individual choice—it is disobeying and rejecting God. Our evangelistic efforts should emphasize both the call to obey and the invitation.

Ongoing Obedience to the Gospel

We need the gospel every hour of every day, not just at the beginning of our Christian lives. Therefore, the obligation to “obey the gospel” is not just for unbelievers—it’s for Christians too.

We get a hint of this in a letter from the apostle John, who was writing to Christians.

And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. (1 John 3:23)

And in this same letter, we are not only urged to believe in the name of Jesus, but also to confess our sins and repent (1 John 1:8–10).

We enter into faith by the grace of God, and we are sustained in faith by this same grace (Gal 3:1–6). This glorious grace of God helps us to repent and believe in the gospel and to invite others into this same obedience.

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