But I don’t really have a testimony…

Yes you do. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you have a testimonyand it’s one worth sharing.

Sometimes people tell me otherwise. They point to the fact that that they’ve been in church since nine months before they were born, and, to the credit of the Lord, they’ve never really gone through a visibly rebellious streak. Therefore, in their mind, they have no testimony. The problem with that line of logic is what I think is a misunderstanding of sin. The worst kind of rebellion isn’t visible to begin with. Sin doesn’t have to be observable to be heinous.

Recall that Jesus said that from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander (Matt 15:18). Jesus condemned adultery that happens in the heart (Matt 5:28). Jesus lamented against the people who honored him with their lips but whose hearts were far from him (Matt 15:8). And, lifetime church-goers, your heart – that very same one that has been mistakenly called “goody two-shoes” your whole life – is exactly that bad. You are an equal offender, and I with you.

Oftentimes, we who were raised in a Christian home may not have acted on those sinful tendencies when others did, because we were blessed enough to be raised in a cultural context that wouldn’t allow us to do so – meaning that your parents and church community reprimanded you and taught you how to behave in a socially acceptable way as a minimum. But don’t kid yourself; that is not displaying the fruit of the Spirit. That is just acting right because that’s what mom and dad said to do, and because all other roads led to punishment (which, don’t misunderstand, is something to be thankful for). But only after comprehending the weight of the gospel and placing your trust in Christ (at whatever age that may have legitimately happened) were you saved by grace. Only then did you begin to have good works flow out of a gospel-transformed heart. Before that you were only parading, pretending, fooling everybody, perhaps even yourself. Jesus hates that (Matt 6).

Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). That would mean that breaking the greatest commandment involves not loving the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And you can accomplish that monumental sin without ever leaving the church pew. All you have to do is quietly divide your affections and devote the most minuscule fraction of your heart to something that is not ultimately rooted in the joy and glory of the Lord, and you have broken the greatest commandment. No one even looks up, but this renders you an eternal offender and a deserving recipient of an eternity’s worth of the wrath of God. With nauseating consistency, we all do this. The one that the other kids called “Bible thumper” and the one that spent years in addiction and crime have both failed in this way. They are equal heirs of their parents’ nature, meaning Adam and Eve. Just because human observers don’t perceive your sin as “loud” doesn’t mean that your sin isn’t real and your condemnation just.

The story gets better though. For you, Christian, the condemnation never comes. God loved you anyway. He acquitted you anyway. He saved you anyway. At great cost to himself, he desired you and your God-hating heart so much that he sent his Son to die for you by way of bloody execution. He kindly chose you, not because of anything good you had in mind, but in spite of the hate he knew you would harbor. He sought you and bought you, though you loved yourself more than him. While your heart was far away, his love and grace came for you and welcomed you into his loving embrace (Rom 5:8). You broke the greatest commandment, and still he called your name. Now, through faith, you are called a child of God and a fellow heir with Christ (Rom 8:17), rendering you the benefactor of an infinite estate. Now that’s what testimonies are made of. And if you are a Christian, that’s your testimony at the minimum. And it never gets old.

We have to remember that, apart from God, both the church punks and the guys on death row equally share in the same destitute spiritual condition. And when Christ came to die for both kinds of people, the cross was not less painful for the well-behaved. It hurt him. To say you have no testimony, then, is to grossly underestimate your own depravity and also to downplay the miraculous grace of God, who went to great lengths to redeem you. He didn’t do all of that so you could shrink back as if you had no story to tell.

For starters, you were dead and are now alive (Eph 2:1). You were a God-hater who is loved by God (1 Jn 4:10). You have been born more than once (John 3:3). These are all miracles that you’ve experienced firsthand, and there are many other ways to describe them. God didn’t give you these experiences so you can pretend that they’re second-rate compared to someone else’s. If you have a background with a bunch of hell-raising sins, you should absolutely name them in your testimony so that we can all praise God with you for your deliverance. But God doesn’t need you to have that background to make a beautiful story out of you.

The world can’t believe in the Lord’s goodness until it hears about the Lord’s goodness, and they’ll never hear until you open your mouth (Rom 10:14). So just let it fly and let Jesus be the hero, and he’ll take it from there. He always does.

With great boldness and without shame (Rom 1:16),

-Garrett


My Letter To Macklemore

Mr. Haggerty (a.k.a. Macklemore),

I recently heard your song “Same Love” for the first time. As a Bible-believing, people-loving Christian, your song (and the video for it, in particular) stood out to me, since parts of the song are aimed quite religiously.

Alongside you, I want to express a deep and righteous anger toward those who profess to be Christians with their words, yet with their actions produce nothing but hate toward homosexuals. I am at least as disappointed as you with the way some churches have treated the LGBT community, which in no way reflects the character of the God whom they claim to serve, nor that of his Son, Jesus, whom they claim to follow. Of course, an apology cannot repair whatever damage you or your family may have incurred from this kind of hatred masquerading as Christianity. But I can assure you that we are equal in our distaste for this kind of behavior.

However, having agreed on the widespread failure of those who claim to share my faith, I now am forced to defend that same faith against what I see as unfair and misleading representations of it in your art. Your lyrics say, “The right-wing conservatives think it’s a decision, and you can be cured with some treatment and religion, Manmade re-wiring of a predisposition, playing God…” I would have taken no issue with this, because I care little about what the world thinks of the opinions of “right-wing conservatives,” because I don’t identify as one. However, during this exact line of the song, your video has several shots of the inside of a church, including two crosses and an open Bible. The message comes through clearly enough (especially in light of several other references to God, church, and cross photographs in the video). “Right-wing conservatives,” by way of visual association, are equated with “Christians.” This prompts my disagreement, because I can assure you that neither Jesus nor the Bible will suggest that the “answer” to homosexuality is a strong dose of morality or religious ethics. Rather, the message of the Christian faith is that “Whoever believes in Jesus will not perish but have eternal life,” including gay people and excluding no one (John 3:16). Jesus says to the homosexual the same thing that he says to the heterosexual, the alcoholic, the narcissist, the abuser, and every other kind of sinner: “Follow me” (Matt 9:9). In light of this, your lyrics (when combined with your video) are shown to represent a caricature of the Christian faith, not the real thing.

You continue, “‘God loves all his children’ is somehow forgotten, but we paraphrase a book written 3500 years ago.” I can’t be certain of the exact meaning of this last phrase, but I will point out that the Bible (in parts that are less than 2000 years old) expressly calls homosexuality a sin, no paraphrasing required (Rom 1:27). However, that same New Testament (see 1 Cor 6) explicitly condemns heterosexual sin several times as well. Contrary to the word on the street, the Bible is truly nondiscriminatory. All are sinners. All are loved by God. And all are undeservingly invited to repentance and redemption, sexuality notwithstanding.

In “Same Love,” you find fault with those who misrepresent the Christian faith. Ironically, I charge you with the same error. If Christianity really was what you represented it to be in your song, it would be easy to tear it apart as you did. But it is no great feat to tear apart a straw man whom you built yourself. Taking on a real man is bit harder. And if you are ever able to meaningfully interact with a real, genuine, Bible-believing Christian, you will have a difficult time convincing yourself that they hate gay people…or anyone else.

I do appreciate the honesty and forthrightness of your work. Although we may disagree on the definition and application of what “freedom” truly is, I sense that we labor alongside one another, both burdened by a love for people. As your song quotes, “Love is patient, love is kind.” And, above all imitators, no one is more patient or more kind than Jesus. He does not hate gay people. He died for them that they might live.

Respect and regards,

Garrett Raburn


Thinking, Feeling God

In college I had a tightly-knit group of guys who met weekly for Bible study and accountability. We had a running joke about which guys in the group were “thinkers” and which were “feelers.” Granted, everyone is a thinker and everyone is a feeler to some degree. Nobody is entirely devoid of cognition (believe it or not), and nobody is entirely affection-less either. But some people have a serious tendency toward either intellection or emotion, and they don’t always assess themselves accurately (much to our humor). So my friends and I had more than a few chuckles learning about one another’s personalities in this regard.

I’ve spent a large amount of time pondering the relationship between thinking and feeling, with my main pursuit being an answer to the question, “How am I best to glorify God with my thinking and feeling?” Many questions stem from this when you get down into the mechanics of it all. Do my realizations about God provoke affection toward him (meaning thinking precedes feeling)? I think the answer to this had better be yes. Do my affections for God provoke me to more deeply study God and his Word (meaning feeling precedes thinking)? I think the answer to this had better be yes, too. It can be a puzzling exploration, but pursuing the correct thoughts and feelings about God is the highest pursuit of which one can avail himself. Right?

Enter Jonathan Edwards. The 18th-century pastor is probably the greatest intellectual America has ever produced. Edwards finds his basis for thinking and feeling within God’s very nature – the Trinity itself. He says that we are constructed as head and heart, thinkers and feelers, knowers and lovers, because these two realities are present in God’s being. I’ll be honest, what he writes is not easy to understand. But if you have a few minutes to stare at the computer screen and think it through, you’ll be rewarded. Prepare to be boggled.

This I suppose to be the blessed Trinity that we read of in the Holy Scriptures. The Father is the deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated and most absolute manner, or the deity in its direct existence. The Son is the deity generated by God’s understanding, or having an idea of Himself and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the deity subsisting in act, or the divine essence flowing out and breathed forth in God’s infinite love to and delight in Himself. And I believe the whole Divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the Divine idea and Divine love, and that each of them are properly distinct persons.

In other words, the Father has had an eternal idea of himself (thinking) that is so full and profound that it is another Person standing forth – the Son. In turn, the Father and the Son have had an eternal joy between themselves (feeling) that is so full and delightful that it is another Person standing forth – the Spirit. The Son is the thinking of the Father, and the Spirit is the feeling of them both. Carefully note that none of this is chronologically ordered; these are eternal realities. There was never a moment when God did not experience himself in this way.

If I get the chance to meet him sometime (which seems likely), I’ll have to thank Jonathan Edwards for this little gem. Beats the heck out of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Here’s to thinking the right thoughts and feeling the right feelings for the glory of the thinking, feeling God.

FTH.


Faith Seeking Understanding

How do you define “theology”? Our first inclination in answering this question is to use the garage toolbox method we all learned in grade school. I don’t dislike the garage toolbox method; as a matter of fact, it’s downright helpful sometimes. Let’s give it a go with the word “theology”:

  1. Get your saw out and cut the word “theology” precisely in half.
  2. You now have two Greek word roots (theo and logy), one in each hand. Translate them into English.
  3. Use a drill to stick ’em back together.

If you follow the instructions to this proverbial game of Operation correctly, you’ll get a definition that goes something like this – “Theology is the study of God.” Done, right? Not so much.

This definition doesn’t seem to float the boats of theologians. Not because it’s wrong or because they don’t like the garage toolbox method. They do. But mere word root translations are only bare-bones introductions to whatever topic they propose to encompass, and as such they are usually insufficient for definitional purposes. I was told in grade school that the phrase “solar system” meant “sun system” because sol means sun. None of that is incorrect, and I have no complaint with it. However, there is much more about the solar system that could be included in a more proper definition, yes? Using word roots to understand our solar system as the “sun system” is a great way for a tiny person to start, but it is just that – a place to start. As we mature, a richer understanding is necessary. So let’s use our understanding of theology as “the study of God” in a similar way. It is not defined incorrectly as such, but rather incompletely. It is a great place to start, but a terrible place to finish. If we aim to describe the very loftiest pursuit which avails itself to mankind, simply translating word roots and sewing them back together will not do. Theology is queen of the sciences. What description shall fit?

Read what Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) offered on the subject and be blessed.

“I do not try, Lord, to attain your lofty heights because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to know your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that unless I believe, I shall not understand.”

Quite beautiful, yes? Here’s is Anselm’s derived definition of theology (shorter, even, than the one provided by the garage toolbox method, but decidedly more attractive). Anselm says that theology is faith seeking understanding. That’s it. Theology is faith seeking understanding. In studying the depths of the Lord, we trust everything that he has revealed up to the present moment, and find ourselves very nearly begging for what he may reveal next. This is why the Bible is inextricably tied to theology and the reason it is so inexhaustibly interesting to us…it’s God’s revelation of himself. And best of all, he has promised to reward those who diligently seek him (Prov 8:17, Heb 11:6). Doing theology is earnestly trusting what God has already shown you and asking him to show you more – which he has guaranteed to do.

Now, some people don’t like this definition. “It excludes non-Christians,” I’m told. “It’s really short,” I’m told (which happens rarely in theology). “It’s really old,” I’m told (which happens quite often in theology). Concerning the first of these objections, many people prefer to define theology more broadly, claiming that all people are theologians because all people without exception contemplate life’s questions of ultimacy (which must at some point include considering at least the possibility of God). I can’t say that I’m inclined to agree. Considering the possibility that God exists doesn’t make someone a theologian any more than considering the possibility that sick people exist makes someone a doctor. No, I think that “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe he exists” (Heb 11:6). Don’t be bothered, however. To say that one must be a Christian in order to properly do Christian theology is not an exclusive statement – not when the invitation to become a Christian is inclusive of all.

Theology is faith seeking understanding. Ponder this as I pray Paul’s prayer over you.

I bow my knees before the Father, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that you may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,  that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21)

FTH.


Losing Leverage

Anyone who has lived with their eyes open long enough to see clearly has lived long enough to witness one human being (or group) taking advantage of another. It is an undeniable symptom of a sinful nature that we will use as leverage whatever we can to gain advantage over another. “The rat race,” “keeping up with the Jones,” call it what you will – apart from the sanctifying work of Christ, life is an endless jockeying for position against your opponents fellow person. And the teaching of Jesus is diametrically opposed to this system. Jesus did the opposite, although if anyone ever had the right to use their station to their advantage, it was he. But instead of considering his station something to be LEVERAGED, he made himself nothing (Phil 2:6-7). It is impossible to understand this apart from the Spirit’s enablement. That’s why “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him” (1 Cor 2 :14).

And while people have used anything they can get their hands on as leverage against others, I can’t think of anything that has been used more than race, economic station, and gender. In every injustice, far more often than not, the criteria that garnered undeserved discrimination has been the color of someone’s skin, their economic freedom (whether monetary status or freedom itself), or their gender. In America alone, we’ve seen all three of these in the last 150 years. We’ve seen people oppressed because they are not white. We’ve seen people oppressed because they are not free. We’ve seen people oppressed because they are not men. If you find this history (and, in some parts of the world, present reality) to be repulsive, the word of God in Galatians 3:28 will be particularly delicious to you.

Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” You can strive all day long until your days run out to gain leverage over others, but nothing you get can gain you a single thing in your standing before God. All that ultimately matters is your standing in Christ, in whom there are no racial distinctions, economic distinctions, or gender distinctions (as it pertains to justification; concerning practical daily living, many of these distinctions are imperatively kept, as evidenced by Paul’s addressing each group one at a time in Scripture). Salvation comes by faith (Eph 2:8), not by leverage or coercion.

The Jewish man once proudly prayed a prayer each morning thanking God that he was not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. He literally thanked God for his worldly leverage over other people groups. To this, the gospel of our Lord says, “No more.” In Christ, there is no such thing as racism, no such thing as slavery, and no such thing as sexism. Rather, “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11).

Christians hear all the time that the Bible inflames hate toward certain segments of the population. Groundless charge, I’m afraid, since the Author of the Bible created and loves every segment of the population. His acceptance is free, and his salvation is no respecter of persons.

Life is not a rat race. It is the race (2 Tim 4:7), won by Christ’s effort, not ours.

FTH.


When Strivings Cease

Legalism is oft-used word and an oft-followed philosophy (although many do not realize they are trapped in its snare). So what is legalism, anyway?

In its more explicit application, legalism refers to the Law of Moses in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) and the belief that by following the Law one can be justified before God (by justified, think “made right” or “saved”). This kind of explicit legalism isn’t the legalism that typically entangles us most of the time, because it’s so easy to spot (and because it is so clearly obliterated by Scripture – see entire book of Galatians). I don’t find many people who are trusting in the Law of Moses for their justification/salvation.

But the principle behind this “Old Testament” legalism still plagues us. What, exactly, accomplishes justification according to legalism? Following the Law. And what is following the Law? An action which I do by my own effort. The legalism of our day has the same ultimate driving force behind it as explicit legalism – the belief that my merit before God comes from me. I trust in myself. I justify myself. We say in our minds, Not me. But our practice of running from God after spiritual failures and yet sprinting toward him proudly after spiritual successes says, Yes, you. Legalism at its core is justification by self-effort. In common usage today, Christians give the word “religion” the same definition.

Jesus gave a truly profound warning against this idea that comes so naturally to us all (John 5:45). Addressing a group of Jews (explicit legalists), he said, “Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope.” Do you have ears to hear what he is saying? There is no need to accuse or condemn those who trust in the Law, because the Law will do that for itself. The very standard in which the Jews were trusting for deliverance would become the standard that would sentence them. What does that mean for you today? That if you set your hope on your own behavioral merits before God, your own behavioral shortcomings will stand to condemn you before God. Belief in self-propelled reward leads to the reality of self-wrought destruction. Trust in your own good, and your own bad will sentence you. Your penultimate success will not prevent your ultimate failure. Your good will not outweigh your bad – not when the standard is perfection. Do you have ears to hear these things?

What is the solution, then? The estate of humanity looks pretty bleak at this point. Are we helplessly and hopelessly condemned forever? By no means!

By trusting in a substitute, we can be made right with God. The light of Jesus Christ breaks into our darkness, and by faith in him we apprehend a right relationship with God. He prevents our failure. His good outweighs our bad. His merits overcome our shortcomings. His reward becomes ours. The question is not whether we deserve reward from God; that question has been already answered with a resounding no. What we deserve is punishment, because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But forgiveness and life are offered to us anyway, with the affection of God the Father as the motivator. It’s grace, when you least expect to find it. It’s freedom, when you thought you already had it. Read John 3:16 with new eyes. “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

But, sadly, we don’t naturally like grace, do we? When we’re rewarded, we want the credit. We don’t want to depend on anyone or anything else for our lot in life, this one or the next. The legalist from within emerges, threatening to stomp out the hope of the gospel of grace. So the question you must ask yourself becomes, Can I bear to live in the light of a love I did not earn? 

If you can, you will live a very long time, indeed. Forever. And this will be your song:

In Christ alone my hope is found

He is my light, my strength, my song 

This Cornerstone, this solid ground 

Firm through the fiercest drought and storm

What heights of love, what depths of peace!

When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!

My Comforter, my all in all,

Here in the love of Christ I stand!

FTH.


Children and Diamonds

I always chuckle at the cleverness of those posters that says, “Everything I need to know, I learned in kindergarten.” Under this headline will be several painfully obvious ideas that most adults are painfully bad at applying – things like “I shouldn’t take things that aren’t mine” and “I should treat other people how I want to be treated.” Simple, beautiful (and unmistakably biblical) truths to live by.

And as much as I enjoy seminary and “deep study,” sometimes I think that “everything I need to know about God, I learned in kindergarten.” Don’t mistake my meaning; I know not everyone was in Sunday School as a five year old learning basic things about God. I also don’t mean that we shouldn’t progressively grow in our understanding of God and develop knowledge as time goes on. By no means are we to remain children when it comes to the knowledge of God, as Paul prayed for us in Scripture, “that our love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (Philippians 1:9). So what I mean, precisely, is this: “The most important things that any human being needs to know about God, a small child is capable of understanding.” Even better, they’re both in a single verse.

Psalm 62:11 says, “Once God has spoken, twice I have heard this: That power belongs to God, and that to you, O God, belongs steadfast love.” God has power, and God has love. God is infinitely strong and infinitely loving. He is omnipotent and omnibenevolent. You learned this as a child, but you prayed it like this: “God is great, God is good.” Is this not the gospel? The gospel is unavoidably about a God who is not only inconceivably strong, but a God who is for people. He has the power to do whatever he likes, and what he likes is what is good for people – namely, to save our souls from the destruction we’ve earned for ourselves and bring us back into relationship with himself. God is great and God is good.

God is. And God is for you. And if you leave these things behind for “deeper study,” you will impoverish yourself.

Don’t get me wrong – the beauty of God is the deepest reality that anyone can experience. Delight yourself in knowing him, and lose yourself in finding him. Lose sleep in searching for him. It will take effort to do deep study, and the Bible does not yield its fruit to the lazy. Besides, the payoff of doing deep study is obviously much greater than giving a mere surface-level scratch. Raking is easy, but you only get leaves. Digging is hard, but you may get diamonds. Don’t waste the Bible.

But no matter how deep you go or how many diamonds you’re given, don’t forget that the most valuable diamonds of all are easily found, even for a kindergartner – that God is great. And God is good.

FTH.