The Tragic Irony of Effort

I bumped into a young guy today who had the name “Wolfpack” on his shirt.  I asked him what it meant and he told me it was the name of the group of guys he belonged to that had gone through Air Force basic training together.  The back of his shirt listed the names of each of those young men atop a statement that read “If you accept anything less than your best, you accept failure.”  I pondered that statement a bit and thought about the value in it.  There’s nothing controversial there really, nothing to shake our heads at.  In fact, Wolfpack man’s shirt is kind of commendable and even inspiring.  I suppose it’s like a badge of honor for those guys who had suffered through basic training together.

I began thinking about what that statement might sound like stated positively and decided it might go something like this… “When you give your best effort, you’ll be successful.”  You know, kind of like saying “no guts, no glory!” or “hard work pays off!” or even “the difference between try and triumph is a little umph!”

The Bible, too, commends hard work.  Proverbs 10:4 says that “a slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” and Proverbs 12:24 says that “the hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.”  In fact, one of the main themes running throughout Proverbs is about how hard work pays off.  We see this all around us in the world don’t we?  Take the Olympics, for example.  To earn the chance at medaling for your country and standing on that podium as millions across the world watch in awe, you are faced with four years of disciplined and grueling training. Even the most gifted athletes have to work hard to stay on top and they usually do because the road to sweet success is paved through lots of sweat.  And for the most part, that’s really just simple math.  Generally speaking, people who work hard accomplish many great things in life while those who are lazy rarely succeed at anything worth noting.

But let’s turn this idea on its head for a second, because that’s exactly what the Bible does when it comes to salvation.  Most folks by default have a generic sense that God will accept them if they work hard at living a decent life.  They use the statement on his shirt as a formula for eternal life, whether consciously or subconsciously.  Treat people nicely (to their face at least), give some of your time and money to others (not to the point of discomfort of course), and stay out of jail (for the really bad crimes) and you pretty much have a nice eternity wrapped up for yourself.  Sure, we all get into a little trouble here or there, but in the long run things will weigh themselves out… especially in consideration of how we stack up in comparison to all the heathens around us.  That’s how most of us think at least, right?

But when it comes to God’s acceptance, we will need more than our best to succeed.  In fact, our very best falls shorter than we can ever imagine.  That’s the problem with assuming our best will merit something, because by setting “my best personal effort” as the standard, I ultimately deny the standard that the Creator of all life has set.

And so we must come face to face with one simple truth:  that every person has not only fallen short of God’s standards, but has also rejected his standards and replaced them with their own.  This is the very center of what it means to reject God.  By trying to save ourselves we deny who he is and what he has said and we worship our self-deluded standards.  We attempt to live as our own Messiah… our own functional Savior.  Do you see the tragic irony in that? We reject God by the very effort we expend to get to him!  The entire world around us feeds “Self-Savior” mentality, and it leads to behavior that condemns us before God.

And so, it is a priceless gift from God when we grasp this truth, acknowledging our feeble and self-righteous attempts to successfully get to him and earn his favor.  In our fallen world where sin is built into our DNA, we are likely to pave the path towards sweet success with our sweat and tears, only to realize that the sweet success we envisioned was merely a veil covering the true wages of our effort – deadly destruction.  Ultimately, there is only one Savior, Jesus Christ, who can bridge the gap between our rebellious effort and the holiness of a perfect God.  By giving up, admitting our inability, and trusting in Christ’s perfect life, death, and resurrection in our place, we may come to know the amazing grace and infinite love of a holy God who overcame all of our useless striving.  So we can rightly accept our failure and place our faith in the One who succeeded where we cannot.

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22 Thoughts from SBC Send North America Conference – Part 2 of 2

Continuing from the first post, here’s my remaining observations and summary of some of the teachings from the Send North America Conference.

12)      There was an emphasis on urban church planting and we even heard from some men who are currently living that out.  Some reflections on this…  Engaging cities is tough.  People don’t trust pastors in cities; they view Christians as hypocritical and fake.  We need pastors/elders who will live holy, authentic, and honest lives with the people.

13)      The city is a place of great diversity, which often produces conflict.  Without compromising our faith, we need to build relationships there and love those that are different than us.

14)      The city is a place of brokenness and destitution.  People are in a great state of need, both physical and spiritual, and it’s usually more overt and apparent than in the burbs.  Lives are stacked on top of lives and it creates tension.  There isn’t a nice house on a cul-de-sac that folks can hide behind, and ultimately, all kinds of needs are exposed. People in cities need truth and compassion.

15)      The city is a place of loneliness for many.  The nations are streaming in, many who don’t know but a person or two.  They are strangers and we can welcome them with the love of Christ.

16)      The city is full of lots of people, and where people are, there are idols.  We need to learn the stories behind our cities, come to love the people there and understand how the gospel addresses their idols.

17)      The church should reflect the demographic makeup of the city.  Segregated churches in our cities speak loudly.  They say the gospel isn’t powerful and Christianity is only for certain types.  But that’s a mockery of the gospel.  My wife and I visited a multi-racial gospel-focused church in Atlanta and it was so refreshing to see how being in Christ breaks down racial barriers.

18)      JD Greear preached on the great love of Jesus for sinners, demonstrated in the anguish he endured in the Garden of Gethsemane.  His thesis was this – Effective Sending is the Result of Seeing Jesus.  It was, for me, the most impacting sermon of the conference.  Under the crushing weight of sin and the unbearable separation from His Father who he had known perfectly and intimately throughout all eternity, Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him.  What was that joy? It was the gift of the church from His Father.  Truly, Jesus loves his church and he died for us.

19)      John Bisagno received a warm and honoring round of applause.  I think it’s great to celebrate men who have come before us, carrying the gospel torch.  He spoke about the need for balance in ministry, but what stood out to me most was when he talked to the high drop-out rate among pastors.  He gave four main reasons – morals, money, ministry conflict and discouragement.  I think this gives us much to think about.   Again (see point 1 from post 1 of 2), without being continually compelled and amazed by the grace of God demonstrated in the cross of Christ, pastors will likely flame out.

20)      Tony Merida held a great workshop on Preaching & Contextualization.  There was a ton of great info but I’ll only offer a few nuggets here.

  1. Preach the gospel, not moral improvement.  Satan isn’t scared of your moral improvement plan.  In fact, he may encourage it in order to keep Christ out of the church.
  2. The resurrection serves as the bookends of gospel preaching.  See 1 Corinthians for example.  Paul starts off in ch 1 & 2 and closes in ch 15 with it.
  3. Expect biblical cluelessness when you preach.  I agree, it’s easy to assume others know.  On the flip side, it’s easy for us listening to nod and act like we get it when we don’t.
  4. Preach the grand narrative over and over.  This may sound cliché to many, but it’s not happening in our churches.
  5. Drip method: don’t do “vision sermons” a couple times a year.  Instead, drip it into your sermons week in and week out, letting it continually take root.
  6. Contextualization: we must key in on people’s idols (point of contact), sympathize with them, and determine how it runs counter to the gospel (point of conflict).  See Acts 14-17.
  7. Preach to those not in the room.  Drawing from Tim Keller, Merida encourages us to preach to the groups we hope to see in our pews who aren’t there yet.  Preach to them and they will come (Field of Dreams anyone?).  Either you’re members will feel comfortable to invite them or they’ll hear that their questions are being answered.

21)   There was a workshop on “Church Planting Lessons from Year 1” given by Tony Merida and Jon Akin from Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, NC.  It’s 13 lessons in all and it was the best workshop I attended.  They set a really high bar for their members and I think these lessons will aid new churches in establishing a healthy foundation.  The content has been provided at www.tonymerida.net: Part 1 of 3 – http://bit.ly/OfKrfH; Part 2 of 3 – http://bit.ly/NJh1uI; Part 3 of 3 – http://bit.ly/OwTn3w

22)   Finally, date nights are great, but date weekends are better.  I’m so glad that my wife came with me.  We dropped our daughter off in Kentucky with my parents and enjoyed four full days and nights together.  So good.


22 Thoughts from SBC Send North America Conference – Part 1 of 2

This post is written for two reasons.  To help me reflect on attending the conference this week and to provide some information on what’s going on with the SBC and church planting.  I’m including some personal observations and reflections as well as memorable teachings and quotes from some of the speakers.  Keep in mind that over 2000 people attended and there were a myriad of workshops and breakout sessions, and I was only able to attend a few of them.

1)      First and foremost, the conference was Jesus centered.  Not because it was supposed to be, but because it was.  The conference was more doxological than practical.  Practical workshops were provided, but it was primarily about lifting up and seeing Jesus afresh.  Worship fuels mission.

2)      The conference was truly a multi-generational event.  I talked to young guys heading all over North America to plant churches, from rural Tennessee to Boston.  I also spoke with seasoned pastors in their 60s looking to fund new churches.  I think this spoke to the unity of purpose among all that attended.

3)      The conference was diverse.  From skinny jeans and chucks to suits and ties, all kinds represented.

4)      The conference was not diverse enough.  There were way too many white faces in the seats.  But… it wasn’t as homogenous as you might think.  There were signs of racial diversity and there is a desire in the SBC to see more of this.  That’s good, because Christ died for the nations and we’ll need people of all colors and cultures to engage the racial and cultural diversity of North American cities.

5)      There was an emphasis on the demonstration of the gospel in good works without damaging the importance of the proclamation of the gospel which is necessary for salvation (Matt 5:16).

6)      Great emphasis was placed on the kingdom of God.  Vance Pittman spoke to this well, detailing how our focus has so emphasized the church (ourselves) that we’ve forgotten that the church is God’s tool for the advancement of his kingdom, not an end in itself.  Surely this type of thinking would revamp the way we think about programs in the church and equipping all Christians to live and breathe as missionaries, not church members.

7)      Pittman also pressed against the arrogance that we see in many church planters today.  He reminded us that true church planting is done in humility and for the glory of God, and ultimately by God.  It’s not for the glory or reputation of the church planter.  I appreciated his words, “We need a revival of humility!”  He’s a passionate dude.

8)      David Platt also dealt with this idea, encouraging us all to celebrate sending people from our churches rather than boosted attendance figures.

9)      The overall vibe of the conference spoke “every church and every Christian should be involved in church planting!”… whether it be through giving resources, prayer, and/or actually planting.  And churches should mobilize towards birthing new churches if they aren’t already.  Ultimately, healthy churches reproduce and we must pray God works this into the life and heartbeat of our churches.

10)   Every Christian is a missionary.  It sounds cliché but it’s not happening.  See point 1.

11)   Ed Stetzer talks really fast, and he has a lot of good insights.  I remember “If you can order Starbucks, you can learn theological language.”  More importantly, he answered the question, “What are Christians?”  At a foundational level, we’re people who have been delivered from the domain of darkness by God and transferred to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col 1:13-14).  This reminded me that no matter what change I or any other Christian may desire, the greatest change has already occurred and is the anchor and springboard for all future change.

More to come…


Glimpses of the gospel

The gospel, while clear, can be hard to verbalize.  It’s not because it hasn’t been perfectly laid out in Scripture or that it doesn’t have a defined content, but more due to the richness and depth and wonder and magnificence of it all.  If you were to ask 10 people what the gospel is, you’d almost certainly get 10 answers that are each distinct in some way.   It is a dynamic message that has so many implications and reveals so much about God and his plan for all creation.  And while it can be helpful to crystallize it into something like, “Jesus saves sinners” it’s just as true that the gospel speaks to how “God sanctifies saints.”  Words like cross, sin, substitution, penalty, hell, heaven, faith, believe, redemption, reconciliation, peace, wrath, sanctification, Adam, Jesus, resurrection, justification, adoption, salvation, union with Christ, freedom, victory and a whole host of other terms come to mind when we talk about the gospel.  Paul summarizes the gospel in this way:  “..that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Cor 15:4).  And I’d suggest that Paul, who magnificently lays out God’s plan of redemption in the first 11 chapters of Romans, best captures the glory and awe of the gospel at the end of chapter 11, “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”  It’s a fitting exclamation point to what he has been telling the Romans up to that point.  We too must continue to bask in the richness of the gospel over and over, seeking to understand the depths and richness of this good news more and more and become just as drop-jaw amazed as Paul was.

Trevin Wax has compiled a rather large list of gospel definitions given by various theologians, pastors, and Christian organizations.  You can find it here: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2009/09/14/gospel-definitions-2/


“Zion” by Ordinary Time, enjoy!

Isaiah 52:1 Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion;put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city


Wake up and turn the world upside down

Correction is not a welcome thing these days.  Introspection and examination are unpopular to folks who would prefer to be their own judge and make their own rules.  A “Keep Out!” sign is the tone that we like to set when it comes to critique from others, even in the church.  Yet without these, there is no opportunity for repentance.  Without a confrontation between a person “as he is” and “as he should be” there is no rub, no push, no understanding of the problem or realization of the sin.  And yet, it is God’s glorious design and pleasure to bring his children into the conformity of Christ in greater and greater measure through the convicting power of the Holy Spirit and the chiseling power of his Word.   Holy holy holy is the Lord God almighty! It is central to who he is and central to what he is doing in the lives of those who have been bought by him with the blood of Jesus.  As we read in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 – For this is the will of God, your sanctification.  In fact, your life as a follower of Christ should be one of continual repentance, continual striving for holiness, continual pursuit of reflecting God’s glory in your thoughts, your actions, your desires….continual sanctification.

One of the great needs in the church today is repentance from giving our lives to the wrong things.  That’s why the book of Haggai is some a welcome indictment to the body of Christ.  It’s a stinging barb that leaves us clinging to the grace of God, amazed by his mercy toward us, and ultimately compelled to radically invest our lives in the right things.

If you’ve read Haggai, you know he was sent by God to deliver a message of repentance to formerly exiled Jews who had returned to Jerusalem.  As God directed, they had begun to rebuild the temple previously destroyed by the Babylonians, but the thunderous joy that had marked the beginning stages of rebuilding had trickled away and the building campaign came to a halt (see book of Ezra).  For 16 years the temple remained in fragmented pieces on the ground while the people had moved on to new agendas, improving their own homes and caring for their own needs.  Of course, they could easily rationalize their sin, saying we wouldn’t dare rebuild now.  How could we ever duplicate the magnificence of Solomon’s temple! No, no, no…we’ll wait, “the time has not yet come.”  In fact, there were apparently no outwardly gross sins.  These people were probably comfortable carrying out their  religious duties and content in their disobedience.  But what a gift to the people when Haggai declared, “consider your ways”…get to work…start building…the Lord is with you!  And what a magnificent response from the people – obedience to God’s command.  They had been awakened from their sleep and the temple was raised from the ground and finished within a few years.

Is it not just as easy for us to justify and coddle our sin, abusing the grace of God and ignoring his commands while throwing ourselves into selfish pursuits?  Even doing so under the banner of “God’s will”!  What dishonor, what shame!  So many of us drift through life pursuing defiled pleasures and ignoring the great commission that we’ve been given, which is nothing less than to turn the world upside down with the gospel!  What else have you put off that God has called you to do?  What will it take to shake you of your complacency?  What are we doing church!?  Do we not see the grand task set before us? Did the God of the universe not pour out his everlasting love on you, declaring you innocent in spite of your guilt, adopting you as his child and giving you eternal joy with him and the saints forever and ever?  What grace!  Do you not see the big picture of God’s redemptive plan unfolding in the world?  Like the man who found a treasure hidden in a field, would you not joyfully give up all you have to invest in that field? (Matthew 13:44).  God has set you free in Christ to live in joyful obedience to him.  Yes, it’s hard, but fight my friend, fight! He is with you.  Do not run back to the muck of worldly pleasures and invest in “bags with holes” as the people of Haggai’s day had done.  It’s all emptiness.  Serve Christ with all that you are, with singular focus.

Consider your ways! Give deep and precious thought to how you will give God glory with every molecule of your being.  Invest everything him.  Yes, we will continually fall short in our obedience, which is exactly why we must continually repent.  Pray that God would drive you to the very root and depth of your sin; feel its weight so that you will receive the full benefit of brokenness over it and the experience the full receipt of his grace.  Let God’s Word search and sift you so that you can see the wicked depths of the hole you have dug deep into the well of sin.  In your brokenness God will certainly fill this well to overflowing with his generous mercies!  His love toward you is steadfast and abounding.

There is no physical temple for us to rebuild today, but don’t miss this – we are the temple of God.  “…You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5)  This is utterly amazing.  God is building his church to reflect his glory.  We are his presence in the world, an outpost of his heavenly kingdom.  So consider your ways.  Become thoroughly disgusted with your excuses.  Buy the whole field and give your life to the advancement of God’s kingdom, to the praise of his glorious grace.


The power of God’s words

I’ve watched a few of David’s Bowden’s videos, and I gotta say I’m impressed.  His poetry is filled with God honoring and thought provoking words.  His video, “I Believe in Scripture” lifts up the greatness and power of God’s words and plans revealed to us in the Bible.  Jesus’ words during his temptations in the wilderness come to mind, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  It is in the Scriptures that we find truth and life and encounter God in all his grandeur.  It is through these words that we are fed and sustained, and it is through continual meditation, study, and reading of God’s words that we will be changed from one degree of glory to the next. 

Check out David’s video here and be amazed by Scripture, God’s words.