Experts: “Wanna read faster? Read more.”

booksEvery once in a while a student of mine will ask me how I’ve gotten to read the books I do at the rate I do. While I don’t think I’m an extraordinarly fast reader, I will say that I’ve gotten faster over time. A book that would have taken me a month back when I was starting my theological studies now might take me a week or two.

Why is that?

I assure you, I haven’t taken any speed-reading classes, or begun using any specialized apps (although I am quite excited about the possibilities for Spritz). Apparently, it’s simply because I’ve been reading for a while. In other words, it’s called expertise:

In their forthcoming bookMake It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, researchers Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel (along with writer Peter Brown) liken expertise to a “brain app” that makes reading and other kinds of intellectual activity proceed more efficiently and effectively. In the minds of experts, the authors explain, “a complex set of interrelated ideas” has “fused into a meaningful whole.”

The mental “chunking” that an expert — someone deeply familiar with the subject she’s reading about — can do gives her a decided speed and comprehension advantage over someone who is new to the material, for whom every fact and idea encountered in the text is a separate piece of information yet to be absorbed and connected. People reading within their domain of expertise have lots of related vocabulary and background knowledge, both of which allow them to steam along at full speed while novices stop, start, and re-read, struggling with unfamiliar words and concepts.

Deep knowledge of what we’re reading about propels the reading process in other ways as well. As we read, we’re constantly building and updating a mental model of what’s going on in the text, elaborating what we’ve read already and anticipating what will come next. A reader who is an expert in the subject he’s reading about will make more detailed and accurate predictions of what upcoming sentences and paragraphs will contain, allowing him to read quickly while filling in his already well-drawn mental model. A novice reader, by contrast, faces surprises at every turn in the text; her construction of a mental model is much more effortful and slow, since she’s building it from the ground up.

Lastly, the expert reader is able to vary the pace of her reading: skimming parts that she knows about already, or parts that she can tell are less important, then slowing down for passages that are new or that (she can judge from experience) are especially important. The novice, on the other hand, tends to read at just a single speed: if he tries to accelerate that speed, by skimming or by using an app like Spritz, it’s likely his comprehension will slide. What’s worse, he probably won’t even realize it: lacking deep familiarity with the subject, he won’t know what he doesn’t know, and may confuse main ideas with supporting details or miss important points altogether.

You can read more about it here.

I’ll say, as I read this description for myself, I can recognize the claims Roediger and McDaniels are claiming in my own reading habits. This chunking and deep knowledge is what allows you to read the 10th book on a given subject, even if it’s much harder than the first you read, at a much quicker speed. So, for me, when reading about the atonement, I already know what’s going on in the debates about propitiation and ‘expiation’, in which case I can anticipate a number of the points being made. And yet, in a book on the finer points of ecclesiastical polity, I probably have to go slower since I’ve spent far less time parsing those issues. In other words, if I’m not constantly going to the dictionary to look up words, or re-read my highlights, I can go quicker.

All that to say, if you want to get faster at reading on a given subject at a higher comprehension rate, the best thing you can do is just keep reading about it. Go figure.

Maybe start with the Bible.

Soli Deo Gloria

“I used to be a Christian, but…” and the Importance of Questions in Evangelism

Why? Because Seinfeld. That's why.

Why? Because Seinfeld. That’s why.

“Oh, I used to be a Christian. I know all about it.”

“Man, I was raised in church and then saw through it.”

“I’ve studied Christianity, so…”

Ever been talking about the gospel with somebody and heard something like this? It can be intimidating, right? You’re trying to talk about the good news and it turns out they already know about and have rejected it.  I know I’ve been hit with that sense of uncertainty before. In fact, it happened to me just the other day at a coffee shop.

I, once again, somehow managed to end up talking to an avid young philosophy student. Now, in the course of things, he mentions that he was an atheist, but had been raised Christian, gone to a Christian school, studied other religions in college, and was now “kinda bored” with the subject. I thought, “Okay, well, I’ll bite”–because, clearly, you don’t offer the college pastor the unsolicited bit of information that you’re “bored” with religion, if you don’t want to talk about it. So I followed up and asked a question I was curious about, “Hey, so, just to be clear, I’m curious: what do you think the main message of Christianity is? Like, at the descriptive level, what is the main message or ‘good news’ Christianity teaches?”

What followed was a fascinating little pop-explanation of how religion came about through ignorance, fear of the elements, and a need to justify morality. So I asked him again, “So, what’s the main message of Christianity?” And essentially, he boiled it down to morality with the threat of the deity to enforce it. Nothing about grace, Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection in our place, the forgiveness of sins, the kingdom of God, or anything approaching the message of salvation found in the New Testament.

So then, despite his professed well-researched understanding of Christianity, he actually didn’t know the gospel.

On the Value of Doubting Stories – Reflecting on this the other day, I was reminded of a thought-provoking piece by Alastair Roberts, drawing on philosopher/critical theorist Slavoj Žižek,  in which he suggests that we ought to be a bit more suspicious of our autobiographical stories:

Personal stories can have the most profoundly distorting effect upon our moral judgment. By playing up the ‘luxurious’ details of personality and the ‘depth’ of individual character, we can blind ourselves to the true ethical nature of actions. Žižek’s phraseology is important—‘the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing’—and captures a number of important matters. First, ‘our story’ is not some eternal truth, but an account told by interested and unreliable narrators—ourselves—and should be handled very carefully as a result. Second, not only are we the narrators of our own stories but we are also the primary hearers—it is a story we ‘tell ourselves about ourselves.’ We are the ones most easily and typically deceived (usually willingly) by our own unreliable narration. Third, it is a story told ‘in order to account for what we are doing.’ As such it is a story typically designed to help us live with ourselves and our actions. It is usually a rationalization, an attempt to make sense of our actions retrospectively, in a manner that acts as a defence against the harshness of the ethical or rational judgment that they might otherwise provoke.

You and I tell ourselves stories about ourselves all the time. Sometimes they reflect reality accurately and sometimes they don’t. Actually, often-times they’re half-truths used to make ourselves feel better, smarter, more righteous, and justified in our actions than we really are.

What conclusion does Roberts draw from that? Among others:

We ought to be a lot less indulgent when it comes to personal stories more generally, a lot more alert to the ways that they are most fertile grounds for the deception of ourselves and others, and a lot more prepared to call them into question. Personal stories, while they should not be excluded, should not be treated as ‘sacred’, but subject to testing and judgment.

Now, very quickly, let me say this: I don’t bring this up in order to tell you to ignore, demean, or knee-jerk reject whatever someone says about themselves. Far from it! What I want to do is simply call our attention to the fact that we have reason to slow down, and do a little digging in our conversations about the gospel. With that in mind, I want to suggest two simple lines questions to ask in your conversations about the gospel.

Great book on asking questions. (Click cover for link.)

Great book on asking questions.

1. Ask Them About Their Story – First, legitimately ask them about their story. You’ll find out who they are, or, at least, who they think of themselves to be, which is good in itself. Real love genuinely wants to know people. Also, as you ask questions, you’ll also find out what they actually mean when they say things like, “I used to be a Christian”, or “I studied Christianity.”  Their Christian experience could be anything from a few months in youth group, or getting catechized as a child, or having an emotional experience in a church once, or a long, adult experience in a solid church.

For instance, I remember talking to one young lady who described herself as formerly Christian. As I asked her about her story, I came to find out she went to the school of a local, barely Christian mega-mega-“church” (and, to be clear, I’m not one who holds mega-churches in contempt), and rejected “Christianity” when a teacher she had respect for was summarily dismissed for budgetary reasons. This wasn’t some long, thoughtful rejection of Christian doctrine, but the angry disappointment of a young teenager with no exposure to the true gospel, in a group of hypocritical adults. With that in mind, the conversation I pursue with her is going to take a very different shape than the adult who has rejected a maturely grasped faith.

2. Ask Them What The Gospel Is – Honestly, this one’s basic, but so important. America is an increasingly post-Christian culture where a large portion of the population, especially younger generations, have little-to-no working knowledge of Christianity. Even in putatively religious communities, this is true. Living in Orange County as I do, I’m around a lot of people who’ve been in or around church, and so it’s very easy in conversations to assume a basic knowledge of the gospel that people don’t actually have. Whether because of poor, moralistic teaching, or just spiritual incomprehension, even some of those who’ve grown up around church their whole lives can’t tell you what the message of Jesus is.

Returning to my new friend in the coffee shop, by asking him about his own understanding of Christianity, giving him an opportunity to demonstrate he didn’t actually get it, I was given an opening to briefly present and explain the gospel properly, by way of contrast. If I’d have just taken his story at face value, I might have been led down any number of apologetic rabbit-trails without ever actually addressing the fundamental truth at issue. This is important for a number of reasons, but most of all because one of the greatest obstacles to people accepting the good news is never having properly understood it.

Of course, I am not saying everyone who tells you that sort of story is lying, confused, or only rejecting the gospel because they don’t understand it. Some have heard the gospel and have knowingly rejected it. That’s a real situation you’ll come up against. And that’s fine–God works in those situations too. I’d still encourage you to do feel free to do a little digging in your evangelistic encounters. A key question can make a world of difference.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Value of Arguing Even When You Don’t Change Your Mind

self, world timeOften-times in our social discussions we despair that we’re actually accomplishing anything. We see people with entrenched positions arguing with each other and we might be tempted to think, “What’s the point? Nobody’s going to change their minds here. There’s no purpose in arguing about it.” While that’s doubtless true in specific circumstances, especially with particularly stubborn and intractable conversation partners, there still is some benefit to be gained in discussing complex issues with those who disagree with us.

Oliver O’Donovan sheds some light on this for us:

Let us suppose that I disapprove of the death penalty, and take up the cudgels against someone who defends it. As our discussion proceeds, certain things will become clear. One is that there are various reasons for disapproving of the death penalty, some of which may plausibly claim a perennial moral truth, while others are more circumstantial. If my opponent forces me to think hard, I shall understand better what social and historical conditions have made the death penalty appear reasonable to past generations, and I shall have to ask if those conditions could ever recur. I shall come to see that my view of the matter is part and parcel of a wider philosophy of penal justice and governmental responsibility, and I shall be forced to elucidate that philosophy more fully and to test its capacity to shed illumination on other questions, too. None of this could I have gained from talking to those who agreed with me. What it amounts to is that if at the end of the argument I still say, “ I disapprove of the death penalty!” I know much better than before what I mean by it.

–Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology Volume 1, pg. 46

As we discuss difficult issues with good-faith interlocutors, we find that while we might not end up changing our positions, we will hold those positions more intelligently and with greater mutual understanding that before. Instead of simply thinking them blind ignoramuses, I might be persuaded to understand which of the various philosophical underpinnings of my thought, could be rejected by a sane, moral person. Ironically enough, in the very same process I may just come away with a greater conviction of the truth of my position now that it’s been tested in the fires.

I found this to be true of my time in my undergraduate in philosophy. As the only Evangelical kid who would say something out loud, I managed to get into a lot of “robust dialogues” with my friends in and out of class. We’d talk about God, heaven, hell, and morality with great frequency. While my bedrock views remained essentially the same, in that atmosphere of conflict, examination, and friendship, they gained a weight and a nuance they didn’t have before, and so I cherish those arguments dearly, even if they “didn’t go anywhere.”

Of course, this shouldn’t be read as an invitation to argue with everyone constantly. That would be silly. No, instead, take it as an encouragement to hope for good even in the midst of some of the most “pointless” conversations.

Soli Deo Gloria

If the Apostle Paul Was a Blogger

I was struck with a terrible thought yesterday. What if Paul had written Romans 8 in the style of a contemporary blogger? This was what I imagined might happen. 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

"Do I bold or italicize this?"

“Do I bold or italicize this?”

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending HIS OWN SON in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.

For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit! (if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.)

Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

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.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

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.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (tweet this).

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

And those whom he predestined he also called,

and those whom he called he also justified,

and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?

Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. WHO SHALL SEPARATE US FROM THE LOVE OF CHRIST?

Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

For I am sure that:

NEITHER DEATH NOR LIFE,

NOR ANGELS

NOR RULERS,

NOR THINGS PRESENT

NOR THINGS TO COME,

NOR POWERS,

NOR HEIGHT NOR DEPTH,

NOR ANYTHING ELSE IN ALL CREATION,

will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

 

‘Once Saved Always Saved’, or ‘Preservation and Perseverance in Christ’?

one-with-christ-an-evangelical-theology-of-salvation-199x300From time to time I’m asked by one of my students whether or not I think you can lose your salvation. Being that many of them come to me as default Arminians, a few of them are clearly expecting me to dispel the silly notion that ‘once saved, always saved’ no matter what else you do. The idea that you could pray a prayer when you’re five, then go live your life in whatever kind of debauchery appeals to you for the rest of your life, and still be saved is repugnant to them. And rightfully so. Yet, still others, having caught the drift of some of my talks on grace, security in Christ, and so forth, strongly push back that grace is a grace and so it’s all covered. The idea of someone being lost by God is repugnant to them. And rightfully so.

At that point, the challenge is to explain a doctrine of perseverance that gives both the full assurance that those “whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30), as well as the need to “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard” (Col. 1:23).

In his excellent new work One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of SalvationMarcus Johnson gives a little summary of the distinction between pop-level “once saved, always saved’ theology and a more classic understand of “preservation and perseverance in Christ” that ought to be helpful for anyone else struggling to explain this key truth. Prudently he begins with the words of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 1. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. 1. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

Notice the careful wording of the catechism: the believer is able to express complete confidence that she will never be separated from Christ, but salvation has an ongoing content that includes willingness and readiness to live for Christ. This is why Reformed theology has always insisted that salvation includes “the perseverance of the saints.” This does not mean that believers are saved because they persevere in their faith— as if continually to merit God’s grace— but that they persevere as they are preserved by God’s grace in Christ. The saints indeed stumble in sin, and may sometimes even doubt that they truly belong to Christ, but they will never finally be overcome by sin or lose their assurance of God’s fatherly care. The saints experience in their lives the faithfulness of Christ as they grow into his manifold blessings.

This is why a doctrine of “eternal security” that asserts that believers are eternally saved irrespective of the carnality of their lives, including the act of apostasy, is to be rejected strenuously. Quite simply, this construal fails to take into account that the believer’s eternal security is grounded in his preservation in the living, crucified, resurrected Christ, who will never fail to nourish his body. It is also typically reductionistic in its understanding of salvation, emphasizing that we have been saved to the exclusion of the equally important truth that we are being saved. The content of salvation, according to this view, is reduced to, and is often synonymous with, what is referred to as the “gift of eternal life,” an abstraction that neglects the truth that Christ is himself eternal life. The inevitable result is a doctrine of “eternal security” that vitiates the good news that God continually imparts the very life of Christ to his children. When Christ promises us eternal life, he is promising more than a gift to be redeemed when we die— a “get-out-of-jail-free” card, as it were. He is promising us a life in and with him that begins when we receive him, manifests itself throughout our lives, and necessarily wells up into eternal blessedness (John 4: 14; 15: 1– 8; 1 John 5: 18– 20).

Contrary to the rather crass notion of “ once saved, always saved,” the doctrine of preservation in Christ insists that the one who is united to Christ (is saved) inevitably experiences the manifold benefits of that union (is being saved). Christ gives us himself in salvation, and because he is the crucified, resurrected, living Son of God, salvation means a participation in his death, resurrection, and life. This means we not only receive the benefit of justification through this union, we also receive the benefit of sanctification. Sanctification, as we have seen, means not only that we have been made holy in Christ , but that we are being made holy in him —and this because we have been crucified and resurrected with him. In fact, the very design of our predestination in Christ is that we will “be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (Rom. 8: 29). We are told, further, that we were created in Christ Jesus “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2: 10). God is in the process of sanctifying us “completely. . . . He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5: 23– 24).

–One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Kindle Locations 3548-3578). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

To be clear, it’s unthinkable that someone who has been truly united to Christ, placed in his unbreakable grip, to be lost. Johnson brings out the staggering implications if that were true:

When God joins us to Christ through faith, he is making real in our temporal lives what he has already decreed in his eternal will and accomplished in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son. To be severed from the Son would require that the Father rescind what he has already decreed and accomplished. Every benefit that we have received from being united to Christ would have to be undone. Having already justified us in Christ, God would have to re-condemn us and repeal our participation in Christ’s righteousness; having already sanctified us in Christ, God would have to reverse our baptism into Christ’s death, burial, and new resurrection life; having already adopted us in Christ, God would have to make us orphans; having already resurrected us with Christ and raised us in his ascension, God would have to lower us into death and cast us from the heavenly realms; and having already glorified us in Christ, God would have to terminate the end to which he appointed all of his blessings. In sum, having joined us to Christ, God would have to dismember the body of Christ.

–ibid, (Kindle Locations 3523-3530).

And yet, it’s also similarly unthinkable that someone truly united with Christ, filled with the Spirit and the gifts of justification, sanctification, adoption, and so forth, to turn aside and live in unrepentant sin. In a sense, yes, “once saved, always saved” is true, but what the doctrines of preservation and perseverance make clear is that a more accurate summary is “once saved, inevitably saved.

 Soli Deo Gloria

When We’re At Our Worst (My Good Friday Sermon)

This last Friday I had the honor of preaching a brief meditation (13 minutes) on the Good Friday services at Trinity. Below you can listen to the audio (we couldn’t get video), and I’ve also posted the rough transcript below it. I pray it blesses you. 

And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept. (Mark 14:66-72)

Intro – I’ve always been captured and, quite frankly, terrified by this story, ever since I was a kid. Maybe it’s not something that’s ever grabbed you, but growing up in Church, you wonder at the idea of denying Jesus. I mean, how, does that happen? I always figured that after 3 years walking around, seeing Jesus’ goodness, watching him feed thousands, raise the dead, walk on water, hearing his words, seeing his almighty power, and just, being with Jesus, that would be impossible. I just thought it was obvious. It was an incomprehensible enigma.

peter deniesI Don’t Know The Man – Of course, as I grew older, I began to see different layers to the story. For one thing, I started to get the danger of the situation. At this point in time, Jesus has been arrested, right. It’s Passover week and political tensions fills the air. Sensing trouble the Jewish leadership acts to get this rebellious upstart teacher out of the way, lest he disrupt their power or set off the judgment of Rome. So, they pay off the disciple Judas and find Jesus in the Garden, arrest him, and take him away. They set up a couple of Kangaroo Courts organized by the Sanhedrin being held in the courtyard and home of one of its chief members.

Now, at this point, all the disciples have fled. All of them, it seems, except for Peter. Peter follows at a distance, but he follows to see what happens. He goes further than all of the others.  Peter had some courage—courage and strength that none of the rest have. And yet, when push comes to shove Peter denies Christ. 3 times.

You have to see that this isn’t a momentary lapse. When you read the story, you see each time, his denial gets even more vehement. At first the servant girl notices him, and then later, noticing his distinct Galilean accent, they start connect the dots and think, “Well, of course this guy is with Jesus. Jesus is from Galilee. This guy is from Galilee. Why else would a Galilean be hanging out here?”

And so here we see fear at work in Peter’s heart. The fear that the council might rule to round up all of Jesus’ followers, or especially Peter himself, because just a few hours earlier it was he who had raised up a sword to defend Jesus. This fear, then, grips him with great force and so he denies. Actually, at this point he gets so frustrated to distance himself from Jesus that he can’t even say his name. Did you catch that? He calls him “this man”, and he even invokes a curse on himself to prove how serious he is.

And here, right here where I used to be most tempted to think, “How do you say that?” But now, now, I start to ask myself, “How different am I really?”

There’s a song lyric, by a band named My Epic that goes like this:

I always thought that I would have fought had I been alive
I would have stayed to the end, wept at Your feet, and died by Your side
yet again they beat You down and tear You
Limb from limb
but I keep my peace and my distance

Curse

See, I’m not sure I’ve ever denied Jesus publicly when pressed like that, but the older I get, the more I realize how completely and totally I’ve denied him. Because, you know there’s more than one way to deny Jesus, right? You don’t have to say “I don’t know this man” with your words to do it. With every careless unloving action to my wife I say, “I don’t know this man.” Every day I get up and live my day without reference to him I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time cultivate anger, pride, socio-economic disdain, or lust in my heart I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time I chase money instead of generosity I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time I keep silent about him out of fear of rejection by our culture, or neighbors, for being one of those “Christians” I say “I don’t know this man.”  In a million different ways, my life, and if we’re honest with ourselves, all of our lives have screamed “I don’t know this man!”

He Already Knows – And yet, and yet, that’s still not what grabs me about this text. The verse that grabs me are Jesus’ words. Peter hears the rooster crowing in the morning and he remembers’ Jesus words.

“Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.”

Jesus predicted this. Like so many of us, Peter was so sure of his own righteousness. Peter had even boasted earlier of his faithfulness and that even if everyone else abandoned him, he wouldn’t. And at that moment Jesus looked him in his eyes told him “Peter, here’s how you’re going to fail down to the last detail.” And at that moment, Peter’s failure hits him with crushing force of grief, shame, and sorrow.

I think many of us know that grief.  Many of us are kept from following Jesus because there is a dark well of shame for past failures thinking “God can never accept me after that. God couldn’t want a person like me.” Or, for those of us who follow Jesus, our inevitable failure, sin, and betrayal can crowd in on us with an accusing weight that torments the soul. When we think of our sin, we feel unworthy and unfit for service to Jesus, or we get weighed down with a pressure to make up for it with frantic good works.

Here’s the thought that doesn’t strike Peter that shocked me one day as I listened to the text: Jesus knew what he was going to do and loved him anyways. Jesus had a perfect knowledge of who Peter was, all of his fears, all of his failures, and how he would betray him at his greatest hour of need, and yet he still called him. Jesus knew Peter at his most sinful, his most rebellious, his most pitiful, and see all of that darkness loved HIM! Not the imaginary Peter that Peter thought Jesus did, but real one that he would even face himself, and he still came for him.

This truth is the beating heart of the Gospel. Paul, in Romans 5 says this:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

At the heart of the good news is a God comes to save us when we’re still sinners, before we do anything right. See, you and I constantly think we need to clean ourselves up before we come to Jesus, or we live in constant fear that this sin, this denial, this season is the one where God’s finally going to throw his hands up in frustration and disgust and say, “I’m done with you.”

On the Cross Paul says we see the ultimate proof God isn’t like that. How? How is Jesus’ death on the Cross proof of God’s great love for us at our worst?

So That We Might Be Known

In the Bible, the heart of life, of goodness, of salvation itself is to know and be known by God—to be in a true, whole, relationship with him. That’s what Jesus says in John 17:3 “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This is why the most terrifying words of Jesus was his warning to those who were fooling themselves into thinking they were believers and telling them that at the end, if they didn’t repent, they would come to him and he would say “Depart from me I never knew you.”

With this in mind, we can finally start to understand the crushing reality of Peter words when he curses by God’s name and says, “I don’t know the man”–he was showing us what our sin leads to. See, sin is a rejection of knowing God and all that goes with that. So, God’s righteous judgment, his wrath and the punishment we deserve is to give us what we ask for: a life without God, separated from all goodness, all love, all joy, all truth and beauty. That’s what sin asks for and that’s what sin gets.

On the Cross, we are told that Jesus suffers the judgment of God in our place. We deserve death and he receives it. We deserve spiritual separation from God, but he, as the only perfect one who ever lived, experiences it in our place so that we don’t have to. It is only when you see this that you understand that, while Peter is cursing his name, bringing the curse down on himself, Jesus is preparing to go bear the curse for him on the Cross so that Peter would be able to know the God that he’s denying.

And this is the heart of the Good News: we have a God who sees you at your worst, sees ME at my worst, and yet still loved us, and was willing to come, in some mysterious way, in the person of Jesus to suffer on our behalf, that we might know him. You have to understand, God doesn’t look down with shock. He knows it all. He saw it all with his eternal gaze–every sin, past, present, and future that you and I will ever commit and he went.

That same band has another song where they put it so perfectly:

See, Jesus never fell in love.
With open eyes He walked directly to the cross,
He knew exactly what I cost,
and He still went.

Childbodybride

In fact, he knew exactly who I WAS and he still went.

And this is  why we call this Good Friday. On this day we see the love of God revealed in Jesus’ suffering. We find a God who truly knows us and loved us to the full measure.

The promise is that if you put your trust in Jesus, and what he’s done for you on the Cross, you can know and be in relationship with this God. So the question is, “Do I trust him?” For some of you, you’ve never placed your faith, or accepted Jesus. If that’s you and you’d like to, you can find me or one of the pastors or staff after service and we’d love to talk to you.

If you have, but you’re still wallowing in sin, maybe you’ve been far, maybe you’ve been cold, maybe you’ve been wandering–the invitation is to trust and believe that even that is covered and you can trust him

The invitation is to believe today that we have a God who saw us at our worst and he still came.

Prayer – Father, let us understand the height and truly, the depth, of your love displayed in the Cross. Give us over to trust and faith in your good promise. Let us worship you with whole hearts for so great a sacrifice. Amen

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Due to the shortened time frame, I couldn’t expand on certain subjects. Here are some clarifying articles related to the issue of atonement, judgment, wrath, and love.

1. Tim Keller, Passive Wrath, and Understand the Fearful Symmetry of Judgment
2. 5 Thoughts on the Logic of Exile
3. Can a God of Love Have Wrath?

Abraham Kuyper Was a Heretic Too

kuyperOver the last few years I’ve been saddened to see a number of teachers and preachers of the word of God, along with friends in the pews, begin a sad doctrinal decline, wandering into either questionable teaching, or even outright heresy. (And believe me, though I’ve given the issue a bit of thought, I’m not one to quickly throw out the ‘h-word.’)  The narratives are diverse, and the motivations multifarious, but in all, there is a tragic departure that brings me to distress for their spiritual lives and sometimes, for the churches they serve.

What do we do in these cases? What should we think when someone we know departs from the truth of the faith “once for all delivered” and veers into what we believe to be serious, and dangerous, error? While I don’t have an exhaustive answer, I think one course of action we ought to rule out categorically is completely writing them off as lost and beyond hope.

G.C. Berkouwer tells this story of theological giant, Abraham Kuyper:

When Kuyper referred to Modernism as “bewitchingly beautiful,” he doubtlessly recalled the fascination which the modernism of Scholten had exerted on him as a student. He acknowledges in 1871 that he too had once dreamed the dream of Modernism. And when at the age of eighty he addressed the students of the Free University, he harked back to the “unspiritual presumption” which had caused him to slip. “At Leiden I joined, with great enthusiasm, in the applause given Professor Rauwenhoff when he, in his public lectures, broke with all belief in the Resurrection of Jesus.” “Now when I look back,” he writes, “my soul still shudders at times over the opprobrium I then loaded on my Savior.” Kuyper concludes his lecture with a reference to the Incarnation of the Word and points out the unfathomable cleavage between the church of Christ and Modernism. Now that endorsement of Rauwenhoff’s negation and criticism has given way to adoration of the Son of Man, Kuyper recognizes in Arianism the image of the Modernism of his own day. “One merely has to write other names and other dates into the history of the Arian heresy, and, provided one takes it in broad outline, the course of Modernism is repeated.” –The Person of Christ, pp. 9-10

Early in his theological career Kuyper flirted with Modernism of the worst sort, and could even applaud the rejection of that most central, pivotal of gospel truths: the Resurrection of Christ. Let’s remember what the apostle Paul tells us:

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:16-19)

This is no ancillary, disputed, or adiaphora truth that Kuyper was fussing about with, then. This is the definition of denying the truth of the Gospel in the most pernicious way possible–much in the way some false teachers had in Corinth. And yet, in later years, we find this man at the center of one of the most powerful revivals of orthodox Reformed thought in Europe.

What this little story demonstrates, is that, while heresies need to be forcefully rejected, by the grace of God, even heretics can repent. To believe otherwise is to neglect two pertinent realities:

  1. Narrative – Persons are not static realities. We have storied identities full of development, regression, and plot turns galore. That’s what we see on display is the story of Kuyper. For all intents and purposes, Kuyper was a heretic. He ended a stalwart defender of the faith. Doubtless, countless others could be added to this list.
  2. Grace – No matter how grave the error, it seems that God can work in the lives of those who currently are turned against his gospel. Isn’t that what he did for you when you were in your unbelief?

Don’t get me wrong here. I think false doctrine needs to be confronted, rejected, and exposed. I also think that pastors who go off the rails and start preaching things contrary to the scriptures, especially central gospel issues, ought go through the proper disciplinary procedures instituted within their denominations or bylaws. The health of the flock and the truth of the gospel is too precious to be trifled with. What’s more, this isn’t even only for the good of the broader flock–it’s supremely unloving to allow the teacher who is in error to continue to propagate a false Gospel.

Still, what I would argue, is that beyond being confronted, in the economy of God, heretics, or those wandering into error ought also be forcefully prayed for. Let’s not forget that, “prayer enlists the help of him who can move heaven and earth” (Ryle) I don’t know what human means finally brought about Kuyper’s theological and spiritual renewal, but I do know that whatever it was, it came about through the grace of God who is sovereign over human hearts and minds. Who knows which of those walking in error today are being prepared for a mighty work for the Gospel tomorrow?

Soli Deo Gloria