Godzilla in the garden


When we moved into our house over a year ago, we noticed this big green, ivy-like bush growing in the corner of the back yard.  Consultations with green thumbs yielded no answers as to which species it was. Once we determined its uselessness, we decided to eradicate it in order to clear space for more pleasant landscape possibilities. So, we had our lawn guy come out and chop it down after which he recommended that we poison the root of this green monster that was sure to come back. So for several months, we initiated a cycle of Round-Up squirts aimed at the leafy shoots which arose from every square inch of the area where the bush resided. Once poisoned, the shoots would begin to wilt and die followed by a good mowing over by our lawn guy.  But funny thing, new vines would pop up again and again followed by more Round-Up and mowing. No matter how much weed killer we squirted and how often we mowed, new leaves would continue popping up in different spots. Finally, I contacted a landscape friend of mine and told him our problem with killing this menace.  He recommended a more powerful solution… a broad leaf weed killer! Now as you probably have deduced, yard maintenance is not one of my gifts, which is why I hire a guy to do it.  After applying the new poison, I began to see results immediately, and after a few applications, I can happily say, our Godzilla has left the premises!

Likewise, as believers in Christ, we must deal with ugly bushes that crowd the landscape of our souls. The apostle Paul calls this “indwelling sin” and like my backyard ivy, it needs to be put to death to allow beauty to flourish. (Col 3:5). The theological term for this process is called mortification. To mortify means to put to death.

Often we neglect this necessary discipline due to an incomplete view of salvation. Perhaps our evangelical traditions have trained us to think this way by reducing salvation to a decision we made once (or twice) as opposed to the lengthy process that it is.  Indeed, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus we are declared righteous in God’s sight. Like the prodigal son, our filthy selves have been embraced by a loving Father, and we’ve been clothed in a fine robe and celebrated as His son. So, our identities, our standing, and our future have been secured by this atonement. Though our justification is immediate, however, we are still in the process of being saved. You see, though we have made the identity switch from rebel to son, sin still resides in us. Paul writes in Colossians 3 that this righteousness with all its benefits, especially that of knowing Christ, has not been attained or realized, yet is “the prize” that he is striving for.  He encourages us to “press on” even though he knows that we have a dim view of what this will eventually look like (1 Cor. 13:12).

In John Owen’s classic work, “The Mortification of Sin”, he reminds us that “sin doth not only still abide in us, but is acting, still laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh” and “in every moral action it is always either inclining to evil, or hindering from that which is good”. Owen knows Paul’s teaching well about the need to kill sin and goes on to write “He that stands still and suffers his enemies to double blows upon him without resistance, will undoubtedly be conquered in the issue.” All this can be summed up in Owen’s well known quote “be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”

Now, it’s easy to see this idea of killing one’s sin as yet another religious activity or behavior modification we have to keep up with. Indeed, our sin nature beckons us to improve ourselves externally, but this is motivated by receiving the approval of others or even the approval of God and not by the desire to truly know Christ.  The apostle Paul should know. His life as a Pharisee was fueled by his religious pursuits and in his bitterness and hatred he sought to kill and persecute those who followed Christ. But one day, he was knocked off his donkey by the very presence of Christ and converted and it is through his pastoral writings that he encourages the churches he founded, as well as the ones we are a part of, to be disciples of Christ in a continuing effort to truly know Christ. The catch phrase of the past century most familiar to those of us with an evangelical background is to “accept Jesus as your personal Savior”, yet Paul is saying that to truly know Jesus personally is to die to self and kill the deeds of the flesh every day.

When John Owen admonishes us to “kill sin or it will kill us”, he is saying that our natural bent toward sin moves us farther from Christ and kills our relationship with Him.  Therefore, knowing Him intimately and deeply IS our life and the very reason we were created for.

Just like the bush in my backyard, sin must be diligently fought against daily, but to fight is not merely mowing over it and spraying weak poisons on the shoots that pop up. This will not address the root itself and this brings us to the most important thing to remember when talking about killing sin. We should never forget where the power to do this comes from. Owen reminds us where the power does NOT come from when he writes, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religions in the world.” In other words, we can’t do this work from our sin nature because our sin nature only desires to be glorified in this work, thus echoing Paul’s words of “not of works, lest any man should boast”. (Rom. 6:33)

So, if we’re called to this discipline of mortifying our sin, yet we are unable to achieve this with our own pragmatism, then where does the power to kill sin come from? Back to Owens once more. “All other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the Spirit.”  He points us back to Paul in Romans 8 10But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 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.”

This work of killing our sin ultimately is not ours. It’s not the white-knuckles of weed-chopping; it’s the effective “poison” applied by the Holy Spirit who ravages the root of our sin by daily pointing our hearts to the scarred hands of a resurrected Christ.  We not only trust in this power for the perfect garden of the life hereafter, but for the landscape of our souls here and now.

Flip a coin

8408TwoFaceAs a fan of the Batman movie franchise, I'm reminded of one of my favorite villains, Two-Face.  Originally a moral hero and combatant of crime, Harvey Dent suffered a horrible fate when half of his face was burned off.  As a result, he was not only left with a badly scarred face, but a loss of sanity as his mental instability caused him to waver between good and evil. In an effort to settle his indecision, he carried a coin in his pocket that was scratched on one side, and pristine on the other from which all of his decisions, good and bad, derived.  Whenever a situation presented itself, he would flip the coin.  If it landed on the marred side, he would commit the crime, and if it landed on the shiny side, he would refrain from the offense.   Interestingly, the fate of the coin flip did not have any affect on the very character of Two-face.  No matter which side came up, he was still a demented threat to society because it takes only one crime to make a man a criminal regardless of all the right decisions he makes along the way.

The natural man faces a similar dilemma in the pursuit of goodness. Likewise, he carries a coin defined by the two sides of legalism and moralism.  The legalistic side is scarred perhaps because his soul has been crushed not only by its excess of human requirement, but also an accompanying attitude that enjoys it!  Although he is already naturally blinded to the glory of Christ, he is tragically driven deeper into darkness by the venomous spirit of legalism.  Superstition seems to be his disposition as the "things he wears" and the "places he goes" equate to the broken mirrors and black cats of divine acceptance.

By grace alone, he will wake up and escape from this satanic philosophy, but in an unwitting attempt to run and never look back, the moralistic side of the coin inevitably appears which is usually preceded by a season of liberation.  Indeed, in his desire to be freed from legalism, he goes to great lengths to decontaminate himself as he engages in the activities once considered iillegal.  One thing is for sure, he has no intention of going back to the dark side of the coin again!  Eventually at the end of short-lived freedom he will be entranced by the allure of the shiny side of the coin.  It's moralistic identity assures a kinder and gentler human striving. It doesn't focus as much on impermissible action but rather on pragmatic action.  It preaches the need to reach his human potential as opposed to a lingering of human failures.  This philosophy often proceeds (behind the guise of Christianity) with a technique for goodness, but ultimately it is proved to be mere human endeavor and the result is not unlike that of legalism! Why?  Because moralism and legalism are just different sides of the same coin!  Legalism promises acceptance through rule-keeping while moralism promises self-improvement through pragmatism.  Both in stark contrast to biblical Christianity, legalism views the Bible as a rule book while moralism uses the Bible as a handbook. However, the damning effect is not attributed to either side of the coin, but to the coin itself! For no matter where the coin lands after it is cast, the exertion is innately human, and until then it remains deep-seated in the pocket of human raiment. 

Conversely, the Gospel is a completely different coin where divine revelation is rendered from both sides.  First there is the revelation of our spiritual non-existence that is the sheer human inability to achieve divine goodness. By it, we are informed of our corrupted nature with which we have no chance apart from grace to cause our own existence.   Just as an infant cannot bring about the cause of his own conception, we are not the cause of our own spiritual birth!   The other side of the coin affords us a glimpse of the Glory of Christ displayed predominately on the Cross.  Together, the two sides illumined by the Holy Spirit give us true spiritual sight!  When you begin to really "see" the glory of Christ against the backdrop of the ruined human soul the Gospel increases in focus, igniting faith, and leads to genuine goodness! 

Good News is Good Food

I confess, I eat too much fast food.  You know you eat out too much when you refer to your meals as numbers.  What can I say? I love a good Whataburger, medium fries, and large coke!  In spite of my lunchtime vice, I still prefer a home-cooked meal!  During football season we eat at home on most Sundays.  My wife will put in a roast with potatoes in the oven, smothered in tomato sauce and spices, and as soon as we get home from church I can already smell it before I open the front door! 

Like most people, I love food! After all, it’s my primary source of life sustenance along with air and water.   I even love a good deli sandwich with fresh smoked ham!  However, the meat has to be fresh because I am  paranoid when it comes to ham or any other meat in the fridge.  I always smell it before I blindly put in on a slice of bread and chow down.  Why?  Because one time I took a bite of a spoiled ham sandwich, and it didn’t even make it past my tongue!  The sandwich retreated the other direction before it had the chance to invade my stomach with it’s bacterial poison!

All this talk of food reminds of 3 gospels:  The Fast-food gospel, the Spoiled Ham gospel, and the home-cooked gospel. 

Allow me to start with the Spoiled Ham Gospel.  I want to start here, because this was my first introduction to any kind of gospel.  Having grown up in a legalistic church environment, I was subjected to many repulsive gospel presentations.  Now, that’s not to say I didn’t hear the gospel growing up at all.  It’s just that the great majority of presentations were what Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls "appeals to the will".  An appeal to the will sermon is when the preacher attempts to "get you saved" by telling you to do certain things while refraining from doing certain things.  It is classic life-crushing legalism.  It is not a Biblical gospel, it’s Pharisaical at best.  There’s just enough truth to keep you hooked, and more than enough lies to crush your spirit. If you spend 20 years immersed in the spoiled ham gospel as I was, you know that it takes at least that long to shake your soul of its asbestos!  The Biblical gospel eradicates this poison with the truth that I am, by nature, unacceptable to God because of my sin, but it doesn’t leave me to die in my sin, it offers the solution which is the perfect atonement of Christ!  The Biblical gospel leaves me with no doubt that there is nothing to do on my part. The spoiled ham gospel will say you can’t earn salvation yet demands that you try anyway! Depressing. I’ve come to realize that you can’t reach people with a gospel that harps on behavior.  Ideally it sounds wonderful, but realistically it’s spiritually impossible!

One might wonder why people who are brought up this way don’t immediately escape from it.   Why not spit it out like spoiled meat?  I contend that if someone has never tasted fresh deli ham, they are unaware of it’s taint.   What makes spoiled meat so repulsive is the knowledge one has that this is not the way it is supposed to taste.  Having grown up in fundamentalism, I didn’t realize completely what the gospel was because I was rarely presented a gospel message that was complete in itself. A complete gospel will serve two purposes, revealing our soul to ourselves, and revealing God to our souls!  If the message we hear doesn’t accomplish this it’s not really good news in the long run.

Then there is the Fast-Food Gospel.  I like fast-food because, well, it’s fast!   Today, I was amazed at how fast I walked out of a
local sandwich shop as the sub was literally wrapped and ready
before I signed my debit card receipt!  You know what else?  Fast-food tastes good!  Fast food is
fast, convenient, and delicious! I like it because it satisfies an
immediate hunger. Consumers by nature love immediate results.  This is why we gravitate so closely to the Fast-food gospel.  This gospel is the basic knee-jerk reaction to the Spoiled Ham Gospel.  I suspect that those who preach this message probably came from the same background I did.  They understood the first gospel as a life-crushing proposition, so they responded with something more palatable.  In order not to offend unbelievers, they devised a gospel that was no longer offensive.  The problem here is that the Bible tells us that the gospel is offensive to the lost. (Jeremiah 6:10)  It offends primarily because it leaves us with nothing to do and that drives us crazy!  It offends because it asks us to receive grace and simply be grateful.   That really is good news, but human nature doesn’t think so!

This gospel is being served in our modern day evangelical church.  It is sometimes linked to prosperity with claims that God wants to make you rich if you’ll only be more faithful.  But it’s not limited to financial prosperity.  Ironically, even those who denounce this gospel end up preaching the same gospel anyway.  Except this time it’s not wealth, but well-being.  Instead of emphasizing the object of faith (Christ’s work on the Cross), it is the individual’s faith that is exemplified!  There’s little mentioned about the characteristics of a divine grace which extends itself to undeserving sinners who will never seek after God (although they’re referred to as "seekers" which is a less offensive replacement).  This gospel tastes good, but it is dangerous to the soul!  In McDonald’s like fashion, it is mass produced for a consumer audience.  Powered by this marketing engine, it is presented in the form of "being a better you" which can be equated with desirable goals such as being a better parent, spouse, and manager of money.  Of course, these are all things we should desire and Christians should seek to glorify God in these ordained positions of father/mother, husband/wife, and steward.  However, being a better you is not our essential spiritual need.  Our biggest need is not improved behavior in various areas of life!  Our biggest need rests in our souls and only God truly knows its condition. It is our own depravity that keeps us from seeing the true condition of our souls!  This is why we need the Gospel!  There is nothing inherently evil about fast food, but the realization will arrive some day that all of these years of gorging fries and quarter pounders produced an undesirable effect to your physical health.  The same is true of a fast-food gospel.  You will come to a realization that despite all of the good, "Christianizing" information you received over the years, that something is still amiss!  It is something in the depths of your soul! A Fast-food gospel will provide no lasting nourishment for your soul.  That’s not to say that it won’t satisfy your short term hunger.  That’s not to say it won’t taste great! But just as Jesus scolded the religious right of his day by pointing out to them that they spend all their time cleaning the outside of the cup while the inside smells wretched, that’s exactly what certain gospel presentations do.  They work on the outside of the vessel, and leave the inside totally unchanged!   So in an attempt to counter the legalistic tendencies of the spoiled meat gospel, the fast-food gospel has introduced a new form of legalism.  Both gospels appeal to the self and crowd out the gospel of grace!

Finally, there’s the Home-Cooked Gospel.  Home cooked meals just taste better, and even the unhealthiest ones are better for you than the average fast food meal or at least seems like it.  It’s certainly better than a spoiled ham sandwich. A meal like this is fulfilling because you realize the preparation involved.  There’s the carefully selected ingredients, the right mix of spices, and slow cooked in the oven at just the right temperature for the exact amount of time.  Finally, you sit down at the table surrounded by family and friends as you share your lives for this brief period of dining pleasure! 

The Home-cooked Gospel is the only message that satisfies the soul.  It doesn’t strong arm you into impossible expectations and it doesn’t promise a life without suffering.  As a matter of fact, the home-cooked gospel promises that there will be suffering in this life.  ‘But doesn’t Christian life promise peace and joy‘ you ask?  Yes, but it is peace and joy for your soul, not your flesh.  This is where prosperity gospel is so dangerous.  It confuses the state of the soul with the desires of the flesh.  The Apostle Paul knew the difference! This is why he was able to sing praises to God while in prison.  This is why "to live is Christ, to die is gain" was his sustaining mantra!  No one realized the gospel as strongly as Paul.  The self-acclaimed chiefest of sinners knew exactly what the gospel was in its fulness, and exactly how deep it went to raise him up to his new life! 

We as ministers of the Gospel have a simple but important responsibility.  We are commanded to preach the gospel.  There is faith involved in doing this simple task.  The faith is in the Word of God and it’s claim of power.  The faith is in the Holy Spirit to convict and penetrate hearts.  There’s no need to spin it, take the edge of it, or make it more relevant.  The gospel is relevant all by itself.  More than anything, I desire for people to receive Christ, but it has to happen by his prescribed way of gospel preaching and the work of the Holy Spirit! 

As individuals, we must focus on the fact that God has done all of the necessary work and we have but one response.  We are to receive it!  No morality to achieve, no work to do, nothing more.  He’s prepared the meal and has invited us to sit at his table and eat!