Christians Must Be Fluent in the Gospel

Gospel-Fluency

The gospel of Jesus Christ is more than a greeting at the door of the church. It is the bedrock truth that energizes, sustains, comforts, and motivates a Christian throughout his life.

Jeff Vanderstelt wrote his new book Gospel Fluency to help us see the gospel as a language we must learn to speak.

We need the gospel and we need to become gospel-fluent people. We need to know how to believe and speak the truths of the gospel—the good news of God—in and into the everyday stuff of life. In other words, we need to know how to address the struggles of life and the everyday activities we engage in with what is true of Jesus: the truths of what he accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection, and, as a result, what is true of us as we put our faith in him. The gospel has the power to affect everything in our lives. (Gospel Fluency, Kindle location 223)

The Gospel is How We Change

This is a strong, helpful book. Jeff Vanderstelt fills his writing with stories, suggestions, and biblical truth.

My favorite chapter was Chapter 9 (Fruit to Root). In this chapter he writes about diagnosing our beliefs and how the gospel shapes our repentance.

A basic assumption in this chapter is that our behaviors are not the worst sin problem we have.

Part of our job in growing in gospel fluency is paying attention to the overflow of our hearts. What comes out in the form of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors finds its origin inside of us. Too often, we focus our attention on changing the external rather than addressing the internal. (Gospel Fluency, Kindle location 1464)

At the bottom of our sinful behavior are usually lies we’re believing about God. Vanderstelt helps us see the bad fruit in our lives and trace it to the bad root. He uses four questions to uncover unbelief.

  1. What am I doing or experiencing right now?
  2. In light of what I am doing or experiencing, what do I believe about myself?
  3. What do I believe God is doing or has done?
  4. What do I believe God is like? (Gospel Fluency, Kindle location 1477)

Vanderstelt uses a story about his wife to help explain how these questions are used in practice. When uncovering unbelief, ask the questions in this order. You’ll arrive at the lie(s) you’re believing about God, at which point it’s time to confess your sin.

So often, when people are led to confess their sins, they only confess their sinful behaviors. In other words, they confess the fruit. They say: “I’m sorry I lied. Please forgive me.” Or: “I looked at pornography. I know that’s wrong. Please forgive me.” The problem, however, is that they need to confess their sinful beliefs—the roots, the stuff below the surface that is motivating and producing their behaviors, the sin beneath the sins. All sin stems from wrong beliefs—lies we believe—and ultimately from our unbelief in Jesus. And because we generally don’t go beyond the fruit to the root, we end up aiming at behavior modification instead of gospel transformation. “I’m sorry, I promise I won’t do it again” or “I’m going to try harder in the future” are among our typical responses. (Gospel Fluency, Kindle location 1535)

The gospel brings us to the truth about God. Vanderstelt then suggests working from “root to fruit” by asking those four questions in the reverse order. Our lives are changed as we confess our faith and see the grand implications of the gospel.

Commendable

Chapter 9 is worth the price of the book, but wait, there’s more. His chapter on listening was excellent. He sets all of his application within the context of a local church, showing how learning to speak fluent gospel is a community project.

I’m grateful to Jeff Vanderstelt for writing this book. I recommend it!

Thanks to Crossway for an advance reader’s copy of this book.


Disclosure: the links to Amazon.com in this blog post are affiliate links, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Now, We Laugh

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The victory seemed sure. Against the odds death lashed this man to the wood, this wonder who spoke so much of life. Jesus had assaulted death’s kingdom at every turn, and now, with a final cry, he ran out of breath.

His body found a tomb, and fear stationed a rock and guards. These bouncers would let no one in.

They faced the wrong direction. They missed the show.

∞∞∞

Who knows what sounds or sights burst inside. Perhaps it was ear-splitting, a blinding flash. Maybe it was quiet and small, a hiccup of life stirring the body.

Jesus flung death aside and the boulder with it. The grave clothes lay discarded on the ground. The mighty guards passed out from fear, replaced by heavenly officers.

As he walked out of the tomb, Jesus laughed at death. The righteous Son of God had finished his work. Now he pulsed and thrummed with life.

∞∞∞

We follow our Savior between the times. We see the hatred and the grabbing of the old way, kicking and jerking toward and within us. We mourn and cry and resist.

But we are not all mourning. We know the new way. We laugh at the good news—not because it’s funny, but because it’s so good. We are amazed and overcome and grateful, and we laugh the laugh of those who are free.

We laugh that the good news would be spoken to us. We laugh that we would be loved and adopted. We laugh that we would be promised such a future.

∞∞∞

Death will make its final, futile attempts. It will throw us in the ground, a stone on top.

Who knows what sounds or sights will come. Jesus will fling death aside and the stone with it. The heavenly officers will take us further up and further in to the city coming down.

As we join the throng, we will laugh at death. Where is your sting? Where is your victory?

∞∞∞

Without the curse, without frustration and thorns, we will rejoice forever. In the presence of our Father, we will know as we have been fully known. In our joy, we will laugh.

That joy is not just for Then. It is not just for Easter morning. It is for now and now and now, because the bond Jesus secured cannot be broken. We are grabbed and held by everlasting, full-to-the-brim love.

We will laugh forever because we will be with God, safe. And we laugh now, because we need the practice.


Photo Credit: cheriejoyful (2011), Creative Commons License

The Default Posture of Love

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It was a delightfully ordinary morning. I was well-rested, blessed by the routines of both the previous evening and the present day. I was enjoying the silence and stillness. Then my children awoke.

Though this happens every day, something was different. I was immediately on edge, listening critically to their conversation and actions. I felt like a coiled spring, ready to bounce upstairs to correct, scold, or yell at the slightest provocation.

Default Positions

We all know a bit about defaults. A default is a position assumed automatically without active choice. We’ve all accidentally subscribed to an email newsletter (or fifty) because we didn’t uncheck the proper box.

On this particular morning, my default position toward my children was one of suspicion and anger. Before they said or did anything, I took on an adversarial stance; I assumed they would soon need correction or discipline. I’m convicted as I remember this attitude, because it’s simply not the way a Christian should think about his kids.

A False View of God

Christian fathers have a weighty task. Whenever they interact with their children, they speak about God’s fatherhood. Like it or not, kids will learn what God is like as a father (in part) by watching, playing with, and listening to their dad.

In my posture toward my children, I was promoting a false view of God.

The culture at large thinks of God as a scold, a grade-school nun eager to draw blood from knuckles with a ruler. The clear, Scriptural evidences of God’s holiness and judgment are used to paint God as perpetually angry, just waiting for us to sin so he can strike. He may be merciful, but only as a last-second shield from his wrath.

These conceptions of God do not square with the biblical picture, especially for Christians.

The True View of God

If you are a Christian, God loves you (1 John 4:10). Your faith is an evidence of his love. He cannot love you any more, and he cannot love you any less. Full stop.

There is not a drop of his wrath remaining toward you (Rom 8:1). Every last ounce was wrung out on Jesus in your place (Rom 5:6–11). Because he is just, God is not waiting for you to fall. (Though he will pick you up when you do.)

Of course, God disciplines us as a loving father (Heb 12:3–11). But God’s discipline comes as needed, in just the right measure and at just the right time. It is never extraneous or excessive; it is never vengeful or disproportionate. His discipline is perfect and perfectly loving.

In short, God’s posture toward us is one of love.

A Godly Vision of Fatherhood

Perhaps the application for parents is clear. Our default posture toward our children must be one of love and peace. We should rejoice at the God-given relationship we have. Friends come and go, but these will be our children forever. Instead of suspicion and anger, my resting state with my children must be warmth and joy, especially if I am to teach them about God.

This posture doesn’t excuse sin or disobedience. In fact, it provides the biblical context for addressing disobedience.

I can love because I am loved. I can help because I have been helped. I can forgive because I have been forgiven. I can correct, guide, and instruct because my Father does the same for me.

For yourself, and for your children, this makes all the difference in the world.


Photo Credit: anonymous (2016), public domain

Fireworks and the Gospel

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Like many other families in the States, we enjoyed fireworks a few weeks ago. As long as we can keep our hearing intact, my children love fireworks. But their reaction this year was off the charts.

One of my daughters was awestruck. She clapped, laughed, and shouted in delight. She cheered just as loudly at the end as she did at the beginning, thrilled at each explosion as if it were her first. It was 20 minutes of pure enjoyment—she did not hold back, and she was not embarrassed.

Lack of Joy

Adults rarely express such unashamed joy. Exuberance just isn’t cool; and we, of course, must be cool.

This distance makes sense in our culture, but life should be different within the church. Though we have the best of all reasons for joy, some Christians are the least joyful people around. We’ve taken sober-mindedness (see 1 Peter 1:13) in the wrong direction.

A Dangerous Immunity

We’ve developed a dangerous immunity to the wonder of the gospel. Though the good news about Jesus is serious and important, it should produce rejoicing not reluctance.

In most evangelical churches we hear the gospel a lot, and we start to tune out. We treat the most glorious, earth-shattering news like numbers on a stock ticker. If we’re honest, the gospel bores us at times. And nobody shares a boring message.

The gospel we believed at the beginning of our Christian lives is the same gospel we need every day. The good news about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is what should energize our obedience and fuel our hope. The gospel is not the door to the house of God’s kingdom—it is the whole house. We live and move and have our being in the shelter of what God has done for us.

Cultivate Wonder

Some people, when bored with one message, add to that message or turn to another. Instead, we need to cultivate wonder at what God has done, how he accomplished it, and what it secures for us. In other words, the solution is not less gospel but more.

With the eyes of faith, and with the Spirit’s help, we need to look at the gospel again. We need to consider our sin and our hopeless state without Christ. We need to meditate on what Jesus gave up in coming to earth, his spotless obedience, and his suffering. We need to ponder the cross, the tomb, and the resurrection. We need to look forward to the new heavens and earth, new bodies, and the end of the curse.

If you need to wonder afresh at the gospel, read through the two lists below. They are not exhaustive, but they survey how Spirit-inspired authors in the New Testament talk about the gospel. I grouped them into two categories. What is the gospel? And what does the gospel do?

If you find yourself bored with the gospel, listen to the way God describes its function and glory. Then dive back into the Bible and ask God to restore to you the joy of his salvation (Psalm 51:12).

The gospel is

  • to be believed (Mark 1:15)
  • a reason for long life (Mark 8:35)
  • a reason for leaving land and family (Mark 10:29)
  • to be proclaimed to all nations (Mark 13:10)
  • the message by which Gentiles believe (Acts 15:7)
  • a reason for Paul to be set apart (Rom 1:1)
  • the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16)
  • something to obey (Rom 10:16)
  • a means of spiritual fatherhood (1 Cor 4:15)
  • about the glory of Christ (2 Cor 4:4)
  • veiled to some people (2 Cor 4:3)
  • true (Gal 2:5)
  • about salvation (Eph 1:13)
  • the occasion for partnership (Phil 1:5)
  • to be defended (Phil 1:16)
  • the word of truth (Col 1:5)
  • a means of calling (2 Thess 2:14)
  • a means of bringing life and immortality to light (2 Tim 1:10)
  • eternal (Rev 14:6)

The gospel

  • reveals God’s righteousness (Rom 1:17)
  • predicts God’s judgment (Rom 2:16)
  • provides strength (Rom 16:25)
  • blesses (1 Cor 9:23)
  • provokes counterfeits (2 Cor 11:4, Gal 1:6–9)
  • belongs to God (2 Cor 11:7)
  • must be entrusted to others (Gal 2:7)
  • was preached to Abraham (Gal 3:8)
  • involves mystery (Eph 6:19)
  • bears fruit (Col 1:6)
  • gives hope (Col 1:23)
  • comes in power and the Holy Spirit, with conviction (1 Thess 1:5)
  • brings suffering (2 Tim 1:8)

Photo Credit: Jill Wellington (2000), public domain

How to Resist Sins of Conformity

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We’ve all been there. You’re cruising on the interstate and you take a casual glance at your speedometer. Whoa—you were NOT prepared for that!

How did this happen?

You were in the flow of traffic, going along with the crowd. Your speeding probably won’t lead to a ticket, but any police officer who stopped you would be justified. You were flat-out guilty.

What is a Sin of Conformity?

Many sins in our lives follow this pattern. We get swept along in the tide and can’t believe what we’ve done. We’re always responsible for our actions, but sometimes social pressure tempts us in powerful ways.

Sins of conformity happen when, because of the pressure to fit in, you adopt the sinful action or inaction of a group. Active sins in this category include gossip, coarse language, and spending above your means. (This is just a sample.) Sins of omission show up too—prayerlessness, failing to care for the poor, and failing to evangelize can be epidemic in churches.

An Incremental Slide

With good intentions, how can we end up with such rotten behavior?

The answer, as always, is our hearts. Though a Christian’s heart is being transformed by God, the old man lurks. He tempts us with empty promises and false treasures.

Most people crave the approval and acceptance of their peers. To secure this love, we adopt the practices, preferences, and values of our social group.

This happens by increments. Few people wake up one morning determined to gossip about a coworker. But after weeks of indulging office chatter, we slide from tolerating to agreeing with to participating in the sin.

Waking Up

In his mercy, God alerts us to sins of conformity in one of three ways.

Sometimes, God convicts us supernaturally. The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to the damage we’re doing to ourselves and others.

Other times we see a righteous example. A “slow” car in our lane obeys the speed limit, or an officemate speaks up for the slandered.

Finally, we might be confronted with our sin. A godly friend rebukes us for inappropriate joking or an audit uncovers dishonest use of money at work. Though it might seem severe, God can use the consequences of our sin to bring us to repentance.

Gospel Power

Even when you’re convicted about a sin of conformity, it can be hard to stop. Refusing the sin means resisting the social pressure that makes the temptation powerful. How will you handle upsetting the group?

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the key. We all want to be liked and included, and if you’re a Christian, you are! You are a child of God, eternally a member of his family. Because Jesus was excluded for a time on the cross, you are loved and welcomed in the best way imaginable. Though your repentance may displease your friends, be confident that God is pleased with you. All the favor and approval you want from other people, you have in your sovereign, loving, heavenly father.

Avoiding These Sins

Though we think of peer pressure mostly for adolescents, sins of conformity are present in all social groups. Repenting of these sins is one matter, but how can we avoid them?

    1. Pray. Pray that God will sharpen your conscience and make you aware of your weaknesses, your temptations, and the group pressures you face. Pray for the Spirit’s help to stand firm in the gospel.
    2. Read the Bible. The Scriptures replace the loud, urgent messages of our peers with the eternal truths of God’s law and his love.
    3. Nurture close friendships. You need at least one person in your life who can—and will—ask you anything. He knows your struggles and tendencies, and you can talk honestly with him about your wider social circles. Sin is deceptive, so we must have devoted friends with whom we speak regularly and deeply about the most important things in life.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested, you can follow me on Twitter or follow my blog’s RSS feed here.


Photo Credit: Brigitte Werner (2007), public domain

Why Most Productivity Advice Doesn’t Help

Turning to the internet for productivity advice might sound like searching for a nutritionist at KFC. But you can find wheat amid the cat-video chaff. Set smart goals. Use good tools. Make realistic to-do lists. And so on.

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The Main Problem

Despite all the practical tips, I’ve been disappointed. Most articles, even from wise Christians, don’t address the biggest barrier to my productivity.

That would be me.

That’s right—I’m the biggest obstacle. Even when I’m in a good location with clear goals and a dynamite to-do list, the fact is that sometimes I don’t want to work. I’d much rather read, sleep, or sort my paperclips. Work is hard.

In my flesh, I’m a lazy man. I’m addicted to comfort, ease, and pleasure. No matter what the newest productivity book says, the main reason I don’t accomplish what I should is that I’m a sinner. My heart wants the wrong things.

God’s Standard

Work has been around since the beginning; it was God’s idea well before the fall of man (Gen. 2:7–9, 15–17). And God has clear expectations.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Col. 3:23–24)

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thess 3:10–12)

To these commands we can add the numerous examples and warnings in Proverbs. There we see the terrible consequences of laziness and the rewards of hard work and planning. (See, for example, Proverbs 6:6–11; 10:4–5; 13:4.)

I wilt under these standards in God’s word. I see my sin in sharp contrast, and I know the way forward is confession and repentance. But what does repentance look like?

Hope for the Lazy

Once I confess my laziness, change isn’t as simple as telling myself to work hard. That’s just a restatement of the law. Knowing God’s standard is essential, but I also need a heart that wants good things, that pumps the right motivation clear down to my toes. The first step, then, is obvious: God, please change my heart!

In part, God transforms us as we understand and believe the truth. Because the gospel of Jesus Christ addresses and transforms all of life, this includes my work. So I return to these gospel principles.

  1. God’s work covers mine. In Christ, God has done the most important work for me—work I could never do myself. He has atoned for my sins and kept the law perfectly to make me righteous. My motivation for work must flow down from this mountain spring.
  2. I belong to God. He has created and redeemed me; I am his and I answer to him. My name is written beautifully in heaven, so I don’t have to scrawl it in the dust of earth. From God, my big-picture tasks are to do good to others and make his name known.

  3. God approves of me. He loves me as his son. This must be my dominant feedback, above the most recent or loudest evaluation from my students, colleagues, deans, or any larger community.

  4. I live for others. Because I have been freed and bought with a price, I can freely live for others. I have this charge from God and the Spirit-given ability to do it. As Matt Perman writes in What’s Best Next, “generosity is to be the guiding principle for our lives.” (p.87)

    In other words, love should fuel my work. I must put aside ego, fear, and every selfish motivation. Because I am loved, I can work my tail off to love others. What does this mean?

    …take the energy you have for meeting your own needs and use that as the measure of the energy you use in seeking the good of others. Desire and seek the good of others with the same passion, creativity, and perseverance as you seek your own. (What’s Best Next, p.88)

Battle On

I still fight an hourly campaign against laziness. But when God gives me victory, it’s usually because I glimpse my standing as a child of God by grace and my opportunity to do good to others. Then, when I am thinking clearly (i.e., believing truth) about my work, I can turn to advice about productivity with some profit.


Disclosure: the links to Amazon.com in this blog post are affiliate links, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: Kamilla Oliveira (2014), Creative Commons License

You Are Not a Number

It’s 2016, so we can track and measure almost anything. These numbers we generate are simple, stark, and memorable. They stick with us for days, relentlessly patting us on the back or poking us in the ribs. Numbers are brainworms.

Jamie (2009), Creative Commons License
Jamie (2009), Creative Commons License

And while we can use numbers to describe aspects of our life, they are snapshots. Numbers cannot capture the most important information about us.

Not a Number

When we fixate on measurements, we usually boil our efforts down to failure or success. This number is too low; that one is finally high enough.

We’re easily consumed, thinking that one good or bad datum paints a complete picture. But we must shake off that thinking like a dog after his mud-puddle bath. Enjoy this freedom: you are not a number.

You are not your salary. You are not the balance in your retirement account. You are not your credit card balance or your credit score. You are not your net worth.

You are not your IQ, your standardized test score, your GPA, or your class rank. You are not the number of degrees you’ve earned.

You are not the number of people that attended your most recent meeting, event, or party.

You are not the number of points on your driver’s license. You are not the number of felonies you’ve committed or warrants out for your arrest. You are not your number of parking or speeding tickets.

You are not the number of miles you’ve run, the weight you can lift, or the calories you’ve burned/consumed. You are not the number of steps you’ve taken, the number of hours you’ve slept, or your body fat percentage. You are not your height, waist size, or dress size. You are not your weight.

You are not your number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers. You are not the size of your address book. You are not the number of emails you sent or received today. You are not the number of likes/shares your social media post received.

You are not the number of books you’ve read, awards you’ve won, or promotions you’ve received. You are not the number of books/articles you’ve published, the number of conference presentations you’ve given, or the number of times your work is cited. You are not the number of people you supervise.

You are not the number of your children, grandchildren, or divorces.

You have a number associated with each measurement on this list. Perhaps this number is known only to you. Whether that number represents success, failure, or something in between, you are not that number.

What Defines Us?

The most important question of our lives is not numerical but categorical: Have you been reconciled with God?

Reconciliation with God only happens through Jesus Christ. You cannot score well enough on any scale to earn God’s approval.

If you don’t know God, perhaps you’ve never thought about reconciling with him. But your sin offends God, and you deserve his wrath. The defining measurement in your life is your distance from God, and it is infinite.

But there is time! Right now, God is calling you. Confess your sins, trust in Jesus, and come into his family. (Watch video explanations of this good news here and here, and find a longer, written introduction to Christianity here.)

If you have been reconciled with God, this is your new identity: child of God, beloved in heaven, destined for paradise, protected by the Father, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, welcome before the King. No bad score or subpar measurement can decrease God’s love for you.

An important number is attached to this new identity: zero. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38,39).

Many numbers can describe our obedience or encourage our perseverence. Let’s instead fix our minds on the truth of God’s faithfulness to his numerous people.