The Problem of Not-So-Sinful Second-Generation Christians

Happy friends

Our church’s liturgy includes a confession of sin near the beginning of every Sunday morning worship service. This week, our pastor borrowed the words of John Calvin’s Strasbourg Liturgy. Calvin’s confession ends on a note of hope, asking God to “blot out our sins and stains… producing in us the fruits of righteousness and innocence which are pleasing to You,” but it takes a hard road to get there, mourning that “we are poor sinners, conceived and born in iniquity and corruption, prone to do evil, incapable of any good, and in our depravity we transgress Your holy commandments without end or ceasing.”

Such grim language feels out of touch with the cotton-candy religiosity of our culture, but we use it because it reflects how the Bible speaks of sin. It was not Calvin but God who warned through Jeremiah that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer 17:9). It was not Calvin but God who inspired Paul to declare that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). The Bible is not shy about calling us sinners, nor about declaring sin damnable apart from the grace of God, so Bible-believing churches teach the same. But unless we’re careful, these scriptural truths can make the gospel feel less urgent, less relevant, for those who grew up with all the advantages of a Christian family and a Christian community and struggle to see themselves as desperately wicked sinners.

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Don’t Let a Fight Against Error Kill Your Love

Caution cone on keyboard

Last week’s article wasn’t supposed to be an article. I started out writing an opening illustration for a different point, but it took on a life of its own and I ended up with a whole post about the dangers of getting so caught up in the fight against racism, sexism, and other ugly -isms that we forget Jesus’ command to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies. We must always remember that Satan loves to tempt us to fight the right fight in the wrong way… Which I suppose still works as an opening observation to bring us around to what I meant to talk about last Monday. Because there is more than one “good fight” which can become an idol. For many conservative, Bible-believing Christians, one of the most potentially dangerous good fights is the battle against error in the church.

Are you entirely satisfied with everything taught by every part of the American church? I thought not. Neither am I. From churches which don’t bother to teach the Bible to churches which outright teach against the Bible, there is every reason to be concerned about the spiritual health of many of the professing Christians around us. And such caution is appropriate and biblical. Paul warned Roman believers, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Rom 16:17). Corruption in the church is the worst kind of corruption, because it dishonors the name of Christ and destroys our witness to the world. Vigilance is essential—but vigilance has a way of killing our love.

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Repentance and Adjustment

A fork in the road

New Year’s resolutions can’t help having a gimmicky feel, but there is real value in a day which reminds us to always be pursuing excellence—and which reminds us that excellence is the product of our choices. New Year’s Day may not spark any new resolutions for you, but the Bible’s call to become more like Christ should.

The first question is always one of identification: What kind of problem is calling for a change? Is it a question of repentance, or of what we might call adjustment?

The Bible teaches us to be ruthless with our sins. It leaves no room for accommodation or half-measures; only repentance. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, “From now on sin no more” (John 8:11). In the Sermon on the Mount, he declared, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48), warning, “If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell” (5:30).

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On Overcoming Ourselves

Ramsey confronting Kirby

In the classic movie You Can’t Take It With You, the climatic scene is a confrontation between the brutally capitalistic Anthony P. Kirby and his competitor and one-time friend, Ramsey, whose business Kirby has just destroyed. Kirby is on top of the world, about to sign a hard-won deal which will make him fantastically rich, when a broken Ramsey bursts into his office with a prophetic warning.

I have suddenly realized that I haven’t lost a thing; that I never gained one moment’s happiness out of it. And I warn you, Anthony, neither will you. In spite of your victories, you can’t shut out every decent impulse and survive. You’re top-heavy with power right now, Anthony, but you’re going to crack under it. You’re bound to crack under it… You’ll scream for help and suddenly find yourself alone in the world. You’ll wriggle on the hook and find that nobody gives a hang. I know—because that’s what happened to me. And it’ll happen to you. That’s what happens to all men like us, Anthony; it’s coming to us.

Kirby listens quietly to the hoarse warning and watches impassively as his old friend collapses on the boardroom table before being helped out of the room. Moments later, in the sort of instant reinforcement which only happens in the movies, the businessman’s only son, Tony Jr., comes to tell him he’s leaving, unwilling to follow in his father’s footsteps. He departs, and the great Anthony P. Kirby sighs, gathers himself to his feet, and walks into the elevator that will take him up to the top floor to sign the deal.

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When Trials Are Trying to Tell You Something, and When They Aren’t

Depressed man

Life in a fallen world isn’t easy, and we all know the dark pressure of hard times. The collapse of a relationship, loss of a job, loss of health—they are sad reminders that sin brought all flavors of death and loss into the world and there is no escaping their effects in this life. But sometimes the burden is heavier because we don’t know how to respond. Some suffering is simply a consequence of living in a dying world, but the Bible also makes it clear that our Father may use trials to correct or discipline us. When troubles come, it is easy to feel stuck in the middle, unsure whether God is looking for us to repent of some sin or simply to trust and wait on him.

Proverbs 3:11-12 says, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” Sometimes, God uses troubles to shake us awake and confront us with our sins or mistakes. If your girlfriend is breaking up with you, it might be because life can be painful in a fallen world, or it might be because you are kind of a jerk. If you lost your job, it might be because God is giving you a chance to grow in your faith, or it might be because you don’t work very hard. Or you may have some habitual sin which is unrelated to this particular trial, but which God is trying to draw to your attention. Yet, on the other hand, desperately trying to ferret out some unnoticed besetting sin may simply add an unnecessary burden to an already painful situation. What to do? How can we remain open to our Father’s correction while also realizing that some troubles call for endurance rather than repentance?

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Reasons for Hope, Part 1: Promises for You

Paying attention to the news is a good recipe for pessimism. I noticed the other day that most of what I read and much of what I write is fairly negative, always attacking this or complaining about that. Given the state of American culture and the American church, perhaps that is unsurprising or even necessary. But it is important to remember that even when events are discouraging and it seems like our culture is sliding rapidly downhill, Christians have every reason to be fundamentally optimistic. Today and next week, I’ll be considering a few reasons why we can be hopeful even when the news of the day is not. The first reason is that you and I have very practical promises of daily help from God himself.

Unfortunately, the popularity of the “health and wealth” prosperity gospel means that any discussion of God’s promises needs to start by noting what he did not promise. Nowhere in the Bible does God promise you health, wealth, or any other material indulgence if you can just conjure up enough “faith.” Rather, the Scriptures suggest that trials are an ordinary part of Christian life. Peter warns, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (I Peter 4:12), and the epistle to the Hebrews says, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted… He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (12:3,10). Of course, like Paul, we can and should pray that God would lift our trials, but, also like Paul, we must be prepared to be content if the answer is “no” (II Cor. 12:7-10).

Feeling the optimism yet? Thankfully, this isn’t the end of the story. One of the dangers of theological mistakes is that, in addition to misleading those who believe them, they also divert those who swing too far in the other direction. It is easy, in reaction against false prosperity-gospel promises, to act as if God has not offered any promises that might be relevant in the moments between our salvation and the day of final judgment. In fact, though, we have many remarkable promises for daily life, some of which I have discussed elsewhere. For the moment, I want to focus on two promises which I find particularly encouraging when I start to feel downcast about the state of the world.

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A practical guide to abiding

The blueprint for a strong faith and a fruitful life is not complicated. It is sometimes difficult, yes, but not complicated. Jesus told his followers, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

A fruitful Christian life means abiding in Christ. But perhaps “abide” is not immediately enlightening. What does it mean to abide in Jesus? For many of us, I imagine “abide in me” sounds like a vague call for Christ-directed mindfulness or something similarly amorphous. In fact, though, Jesus himself explained in very concrete, practical terms what it means to abide in him, both in John 15 and elsewhere in Scripture.

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First, be righteous

Given the state of our country, it is probably no surprise that reform and revival have been on my mind lately. I’ve been studying through a few Old Testament prophets and was reminded of the urgency of repentance, as well as how quickly God restores and forgives when we ask. His promise to Jeremiah is particularly encouraging: “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (Jer. 18:7-8). It is never too late to turn back.

Being a Christ-follower in a fallen world means we are in a similar place to those Old Testament prophets, calling out to the lost and rebellious to turn and repent. That being the case, it behooves us to prayerfully consider how reformation happens, at least on the human end of things. I fear we may be handicapped by a mistaken blueprint of what true revival looks like and how it begins.

Any attempted reformation–whether of a nation or a marriage or anything in between–which sees itself first and foremost as a project to get other people to behave differently is almost certainly doomed to produce little but frustration and exhaustion. We must think of reformation less as a matter of reorganizing or clarifying and more like a kind of good virus. We need carriers, not captains.

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Remembering that sometimes things change

A devout Jew in the first century BC would have gone to the synagogue every Sabbath to hear teaching and readings from the Scriptures. Each week, men from the community would rise to read from the books of the Law and from the prophets who foretold a Messiah, scribes and respected elders would explain the meaning of these Scriptures to the people, and then they would all go home as another week cycled on past, as the people and the weeks had done for generation after generation. One imagines a middle-aged man and his family, from Capernaum, say; godly, careful to observe the Sabbath, there every week to listen as the old scrolls are opened and the thinning grey beards move over them in patient explanation. He might sit on the same bench where his father had sat, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, as they listened to the same words, promises so old they predated the worn stone walls around them. So they waited. And then, one Sabbath, someone from the audience rose to speak in the usual way, and the most unexpected thing happened: what they had been expecting. “They went into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and began to teach. They were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

One of the world’s greatest lies is that nothing ever really changes. Sure, Eve, eat that fruit–God may not be happy, but really, what’s the worst that could happen?

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When your child sins

Teens do a lot of astonishingly foolish things. They also do a lot of sinful things, and one of the great challenges of parenthood is the question of how to react to the inevitable foolishness and sin that come with learning how to be a man or a woman.

It’s easy for our love for our children (more charitably) or our pride (less charitably) to make us expect a sinlessness from them that we know is beyond our own reach. Every one of us could list persistent sins with which we’ve struggled for years: pride or lust or gossip or lack of faith. We can think back to sins we’ve committed that nauseate us with their selfishness or perversion or rebellion. The Christian is never satisfied with anything short of holiness, but we also recognize that sanctification is a process and the presence of sin does not nullify the promise of salvation. “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” Your children are born sick, just like you. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t need a Savior.

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