The “Perilous Business” of Shrinking the Gospel

I think there is a certain kind of putting aside secondary matters and doctrines and unifying with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ which brings great glory to God and is needed among fellow Christians, yet I think when the overwhelming ethos of a person or a movement is to shrink the gospel to its bare minimum one risks far too much.

We do not adorn the gospel by becoming ruggedly doctrinaire or pompous in the way we hold to God’s gracious good news, but we do not adorn it either when try to shrink the magnificent ocean of gospel truth down to a puddle on the side of a curb to splash our footsies in.

I understand the heart behind this. There is a desire to not cut off anyone from the faith, avoid pride, walk in love and humility, and honor Jesus’ passion for unity in his prayer in John 17. Obviously, these are wonderful things and Christian virtues that are essential in a polarizing world.

We do not adorn the gospel by becoming ruggedly doctrinaire or pompous in the way we hold to God’s gracious good news, but we do not adorn it either when try to shrink the magnificent ocean of gospel truth down to a puddle on the side of a curb to splash our footsies in.

We must not equivocate pompous with those who have a passion for doctrine or humble with those who tend to minimize it. Pomposity and humility come in all kinds of shapes and sizes among all types of pastors and laypeople, networks and denominations.

J. Gresham Machen in his book What is Faith? offers a warning to those who engage in the  “perilous business” of shrinking Christian doctrine down to its bare minimums:

For our part we have not much sympathy with the present widespread desire of finding some greatest common denominator which shall unite men of different Christian bodies; for such a greatest common denominator is often found to be very small indeed. Some men seem to devote most of their energies to the task of seeing just how little of Christian truth they can get along with. We, however, regard it as a perilous business; we prefer, instead of seeing how little of Christian truth we can get along with, to see just how much of Christian truth we can obtain. [(Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991, first published 1925), 159-160)]

A Little Too Much Anger

I’m just now getting to Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead. I’m only twenty or so pages in and I have already tasted its power. She begins the book writing as a dying father to a son, and one particular section of the father’s letter resonated in me:

“A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine.”

My mother’s father was a preacher, and my father’s father was, too, and his father before him, and before that, nobody knows, but I wouldn’t hesitate to guess. That life was second nature to them, just as it is to me. They were fine people, but if there was one thing I should have learned from them and did not learn, it was to control my temper. This is wisdom I should have attained a long time ago. Even now, when a flutter of my pulse makes me think of final things, I find myself losing my temper, because a drawer sticks or because I’ve misplaced my glasses. I tell you so that you can watch for this in yourself.

A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine. Above all, mind what you say. “Behold how much wood is kindled by how small a fire, and the tongue is a fire”–that’s the truth. [New York, NY: Picador, 2004), 6]

I don’t know what it is about age, but as I get older I feel the coals of anger burn brighter within. Some friends and I were talking the other day and they agreed. Glad to know I’m not alone.

Usually its small things: spilt coffee, looking for one book in a stack of books and not finding the one I’m looking for till I pick up the last one, an interruption, and those kinds of things. Sadly, in my worst moments, where it is not just me all by my lonesome mumbling at my computer that isn’t doing what I want it to, it’s toward my family.

Now, I don’t mean to blame a surge in anger on my age or on small unasked for circumstances, nor do I mean to turn this blog into a journal entry. I simply want to echo this fictional father’s advice to those who will listen, “A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine.”

Being a grumpy old man is not cute. And becoming one of the world’s many grumpy old men begin with being a grumpy young man. One of the things the apostle Paul told young Timothy, his son in the faith, to pursue was peace, and one can’t pursue peace and stay angry very long.

So, take watch over your heart, and when you find a little too much anger simmering there–flee it, for when unwatched it grows, and start pursuing peace (2 Tim. 2:22). Furthermore, recognize that the best way to pursue peace is by pursuing the person of Jesus who is our peace (Eph. 2:14) and redeems and forgives the angry.

Faith Loves

Jonathan Edward’s book Charity and its Fruits is punching me in the gut.

Jonathan normally does this to me. His book the Religious Affections is one that I think every Christian should read because it exposes the folly of clinging to doctrine without experience as well as the peril of exalting experience over doctrine. No one, whether Presbyterian or Charismatic, can read that book and walk away unscathed–and of course I mean unscathed in the best possible sense. I’m finding Charity and Its Fruits to contain a similar convicting power.

Christian faith loves. Faith, to use Edwards’ language, embraces.

In this work, Edwards reveals the impossibility of loveless Christianity by walking through 1 Corinthians 13. By loveless Christianity, I do not in the first place mean being a Christian that doesn’t love people, but being a Christian that does not love Christ.

To say you have faith in Jesus but do not love him is oxymoronic. The reason why theologians talk of saving faith as a qualifier to faith is that there is a kind of faith that doesn’t save. After all, even Satan believes in Jesus but does not love him. Don’t get me wrong, God loves faith and saves sinful humanity by faith alone in Jesus alone, but it is the kind of faith that carries within it the love of heart, soul, and mind that the Greatest Commandment (Luke 10:27) speaks of.

Edwards elaborates on the crucial difference between saving and speculative faith in a paragraph that one could spend a lifetime unpacking:

…that true love is an ingredient in true and living faith, and is what is most essential and distinguishing in it. Love is no ingredient in a merely speculative faith, but it is the life and soul of a practical faith. A truly practical or saving faith is light and heat together, or rather light and love, while that which is only a speculative faith is only light without heat, and in that it wants spiritual heat or divine love is in vain and good for nothing. A speculative faith consists only in the assent of the understanding, but in a saving faith there is also the consent of the heart. That faith, which is only of the former kind, is no better than the faith of devils, for they have faith so far as it can exist without love, believing while they tremble. Now, the true spiritual consent of the heart cannot be distinguished from the love of the heart. He whose heart consents to Christ as a Savior, has true love to him as such. For the heart sincerely to consent to the way of salvation by Christ, cannot be distinguished from loving that way of salvation, and resting in it. There is an act of choice or election in true saving faith, whereby the soul chooses Christ for its Savior and portion, and accepts of and embraces him as such. But, as was observed before, an election or choice whereby it so chooses God and Christ, is an act of love — the love of a soul embracing him as its dearest friend and portion. [Kindle Edition, Location 189].

At this point, an illustration may be helpful. When you get in your car and stop at the first stoplight on your way to the store you have faith that your brake will stop your car and you act upon it by stepping on the brake pedal, but you do not love your brake pedal.

Is the faith you have in Jesus like this? Is it just an understanding faith (my brake pedal sends a signal to my brakes) and a working faith (I actually step on the brake pedal)? Is it only a mental belief that Jesus is alive and well and gets me out of hell? Is it only a practical belief that issues in doing good works to the poor?

No. It is those things, but it is also more. Christian faith loves. Faith, to use Edwards’ language, embraces. Therefore one of the things you should picture when you think of faith is embracing and hugging, and this is something that you do with people that you love. May the Holy Spirit do such a work in my heart and in yours that faith isn’t reduced to facts but to a loving relationship with Jesus our Savior and Friend.

9 Ways to Fight the Temptation of Pornography

My earlier post “7 Negative Effects of Porn” concentrated on the harmful psychological and sociological effects of pornography, and this post will focus on a biblical and grace-centered way to resist the temptation to view porn. Primarily this post is aimed at men, but I hope that there is some help here for the growing number of women who are addicted to porn and I hope that more Christian women will write on this hidden issue.

  1. Fight lustful images with the knowledge of God’s written Word. Images are unbelievably powerful, but God has made the universe through his word and the explosive power of his word trumps the alluring power of an image. God didn’t give us a picture-Bible, but revealed himself through words and sentences to be read and heard. The longest chapter in the Bible shows that the way a young man keeps his way pure is through knowing God’s word (Ps. 119:9, 11). Therefore the firecracker of pornographic images is no match for the napalm of God’s spoken and written word.
  2. Realize that viewing porn unleashes insatiable craving but kills genuine satisfaction. Leering at naked women online incites yearnings for more and more naked women, yet never gives ultimate satisfaction.  On the other hand, the body of one’s wife is a garden of pleasures that leads to holy satisfaction. The book of Proverbs gives the wisdom of a father to son: “Let [your wife’s] breasts satisfy you at all times”(5:18, 19). The body and breasts of your wife contain an intoxicating influence that no other body and breasts can bring. If you don’t think they are satisfying or intoxicating, the problem isn’t her, but the fact that you settle for inferior and ultimately unsatisfying cravings. Why settle for cheap wine when your wife is a fine vintage.
  3. Treat all women who are not your wife like sisters and mothers (1 Ti. 5:2). Look into the eyes of your mom or sister and recognize that the centerfold you gazed at last night probably has a heartbroken family member that loves her. Unless a further sexual deviancy has developed within you, the thought of your daughter or mother being a centerfold should appall you and jolt you out of the objectification of women and back into the reality of treating all women as created in the image of God.
  4. Sever the sources of temptation to view porn. When discussing the adulterous sin of lust, Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Mt. 5:29). In doing so he prescribes a radical violence toward that which leads you to sin. Jesus knew that amputating your hand doesn’t kill lustful desire, after all he said sin starts in the heart (Mt. 15:19), but his call does mean that you need to get drastic on non-sins that may lead to sin. For some of you this will mean disconnecting the Internet for a period of time or only accessing it in public places, for others this may mean an extended media fast of all kinds. You fill-in-the-blank. Remember, though legalism is never a means to sanctification, the call to holiness and following Jesus demands radical steps.
  5. Think about the eternal result of lust. As Jesus’ words indicated above, at on one level, his answer to how to fight lust is: fight it or risk going to hell. God’s wrath is coming for all kinds of sin and one of them is sexual sin (Col 3:5-6). Therefore since purity is of eternal importance, don’t give up in the fight for it. This is only one of the ways to fight this particular sin, but it is not the most significant way. The primary way to repent is through seeing God’s magnificent kindness and undeserved grace in Jesus (Ro. 2:4), but this does not mean we that we ignore the other biblical incentives of repentance in light of God’s future terrible wrath. Grace is the best motivator, but it is not the only one.
  6. Enjoy the pleasures of purity more than the pleasures of porn. Eighteenth-century preacher Thomas Chalmers, in his classic sermon “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”, demonstrated how the greatest power in killing a sinful desire is not just by harping on the sinful desire but on replacing it with a new and greater holy desire. The promise of experiencing sinful lustful pleasures at almost any moment via your Internet connection is hard to argue with, unless you replace it with a superior pleasure, then it becomes easy. Jesus said it is the pure in heart that will see God (Mt. 5:8), and the Psalmist tells us that in the presence of God are infinite pleasures (Ps. 16:11). In view of this reality, the desire to see God who gives eternal pleasure far outweighs temporal lustful desire. It’s insane to settle for a mud puddle of pleasure when you have an ocean of pleasure awaiting you in the presence of the Triune God.
  7. Avoid accountability groups and link up with believers radically focused on encouraging one another in the Gospel of grace. Accountability groups kill, but gospel-driven community gives life. Well, maybe this is a bit of an overstatement against accountability groups, but the point is that often accountability groups turn into focusing on sin rather than experiencing the gospel of grace. Men’s groups I’ve been apart of in the past tend to focus more on the experiences of failure the week before not the event of God’s grace in the death and resurrection of Christ 2,000 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, Christian relationships should engage in confession of sin (Ja. 5:16), but they are also meant for encouragement in grace. The author of the Hebrews reveals that the key to not being hardened to the deceitfulness of sin is daily encouragement not an excessive concentration on sin (Heb. 3:13). The use of accountability software between brothers to keep one away from online pornography is helpful, but grace-oriented encouragement between brothers is best.
  8. Stare at Jesus not at porn. Trying harder and harder to stop looking at porn isn’t the way to stop looking at porn; you must look somewhere else, namely, the person of Jesus Christ. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:18 writes, “And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” True inward change comes from beholding Jesus not from not looking at porn. As it has been said, what you behold you become, or as biblical theologian Greg Beale puts it, you become what you worship. Look at porn and become a person controlled by lust and idolatry or look at Jesus and become a glorious and whole human being that reflects the beauty and glory of God.
  9. Fight as a son of God who has been freed to walk in purity. As a Christian the key to fighting lustful temptation (and any temptation for that matter) is by knowing who you are not by evaluating what you have done. Becoming a son of God is not dependent upon your not looking at porn, but upon being united to Jesus by faith and the result of the Spirit of God’s work in your heart (Ro. 8:3-4, 14). No longer are you defined by your entanglements with porn, but by your connection to the person and work Jesus. Jesus was crucified for your lust, and he has made you objectively pure in him. Therefore you can work from a place of purity as covered in the righteousness of God in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21), not toward a place of purity to earn righteousness. Kill the urge to view porn because you are a son of God who is dead to sin and free to walk in purity (Ro. 6:1-14). Pornography is no longer your master—God is your father who radically loves you (1 Jn. 3:1) and Jesus is your sin-bearer who is not ashamed to call you, with all your inordinate lusts, “brother”  (Heb 2:11). So, fight the temptation of pornography, to paraphrase John Piper, as a victor not a victim.