Returning to Holiness

(This article was published in the Dec. 2014 issue of Reach Out Columbia magazine.)

In repentance and rest you shall be saved,
in quietness and trust is your strength.
– Isaiah 30:15

When we were kids, my brothers and I loved building rafts. My oldest brother almost drowned because of the first one we made. It was a simple structure, and the raft’s foundation lacked integrity. You can guess the rest of the story. Without a good foundation, a structure won’t last. It was true of our rafts, and it’s true of our Christian faith. Without a good foundation, our spiritual lives will crumble.

The foundation of the Christian life is repentant faith. Our spiritual walk begins and continues by daily repenting of our sins and trusting in the finished work of Jesus Christ through the Gospel. As we pursue holiness (Heb 12:14), it is vital to understand the ongoing battle between our flesh that seeks our own glory story and the Holy Spirit, who seeks to apply the Gospel story to our lives.

The late theologian Gerhard Forde wrote extensively in On Being a Theologian of the Cross about Martin Luther’s concept of basing one’s life either on glory theology or on cross theology. Modern writers have relabeled it the glory story and Gospel story (see Tullian Tchividjian, Glorious Ruin and Elyse Fitzpatrick and Dennis Johnson, Counsel from the Cross). The essence of this concept says that living for our own glory story means living for our own self-esteem, agenda, reputation, flesh, and strength. It is bootstrap Christianity. It is all about us and what we can do for the Lord. At its core is self. Lives based on our glory story are all about us and all up to us.

Living based on the Gospel story is grasping the reality that we are bottom feeders—desperate sinners who need the power of the cross every day. It is admitting that we are far more sinful and flawed than we can imagine, and that we need a Rescuer every day of our lives. As Forde states, “a theologian of the cross (the Gospel story) sees the cross as the end where we die to our sin with Christ and are raised a new creation with Christ. The work is truly finished as Christ promised, and there is no moving on from His cross” (p 17).

A life of repentant faith keeps us coming back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It alone has the power to forgive and make us holy. So while we daily encounter the reality in our flesh that we are far more sinful and flawed than we could ever imagine, through simple faith in the righteous life, death, resurrection, ascension, and session of Jesus Christ we find we are more loved, accepted, and welcomed than we could possibly hope (adapted from Elyse Fitzpatrick and Dennis Joshnson, Counsel From the Cross).

We see the contrast between the glory story and the Gospel story poignantly displayed in Luke 22 as our Lord celebrates the Last Supper with his disciples. The Lord Jesus’ focus is on the Gospel story as he reminds his disciples that within hours he will be headed for the Cross. While Jesus tells them of his upcoming horrific death, Peter and the other disciples discuss who is the greatest among them (v. 24). Pointing to the Gospel story, Jesus tells them they must die to themselves and serve one another (v. 25-27). Our Lord then “commends them and commissions them” in an incredible act of grace while they continue to focus on their glory story (v. 28-30; p.175, Fitzpatrick and Johnson).

The Lord Jesus then warns Peter, telling him that the devil has demanded to sift him like wheat. “But I have prayed for you,” Christ says. Peter’s own foundation—his commitment to his glory story—is exposed as he tells Jesus that he knows better than Jesus what he would do—he would die before he would forsake his Lord.

Jesus’ response is chilling, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me” (v. 34). This exchange contrasts how Jesus is centered fully on the cross and the Gospel, and Peter and the apostles are engrossed in their own glory story.

How does the glory story conclude? It always ends in depression, despair, and, ultimately, destruction. As Peter denies and betrays Jesus a third time, his eyes meet the bloodstained eyes of his Master, and he hears the rooster crow. Scripture records his despair: “He went out and wept bitterly (v. 62).

Living our lives for the glory story always results in despair (p.173, Fitzpatrick and Johnson). Its sinful presumption places us at the center of life instead of the Lord Jesus, who is Life.

Ultimately, in brokenness and repentance, Peter was restored in faith (John 21:15-23). His life demonstrates our own greatest need every day.

I am just like Peter. I think this life is about me and up to me. I constantly believe I can handle it on my own. I continually wonder, “How am I coming off? How is my name going to be honored?” I wonder what people are thinking of me. I am consumed with my own glory story.

I am also well aware that I daily, desperately need repentance and brokenness over my own glory story. I need to return to the cross through the Gospel of our Lord Jesus. As I do, the power of the Gospel makes me more holy and more like Jesus.

As we pursue holiness, we must remember that we are no different than Peter and the other disciples. Our flesh commits to our own glory story and lives based on our own resources. We constantly seek our glory, our honor, and our reputation.

For self-focused, glory-focused mankind, the only acceptable response is to forsake daily our own glory story and return to the cross of Christ through the Gospel. Otherwise, we will drown in despair.

As we return to holiness through the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit will set us free and move us forward into a life lived for his glory. This is a sure foundation.

The Missing Ingredient in Many Gospel Messages

Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. –– Romans 7:13

So you go to see your family doctor and he tells you, “We are rushing you immediately to the hospital for the surgical removal of most of your digestive system including your pancreas, gall bladder, part of your bile duct and stomach. Then you will undergo intensive radiation and chemo therapy. Your chances of survival poor at best.” What would you say? Most of us sane folks would say, “Doc, you have not even run any diagnostic tests! What do you think I have?” We want the tests and diagnosis before being given the prognosis. That is the missing ingredient in many Gospel messages. Most Gospel messages invite people to come to faith in Christ without ever identifying the sin problem and giving an accurate diagnosis. We may tell people they are sinners, but God has given us the Law to show us how “utterly sinful” we are and to expose our moral depravity. The missing ingredient in most Gospel presentation is the use of the Law to show sinners they desperately need a Savior.

How did Jesus share the Gospel with religious people who thought they were good? He preached the Law to show them how utterly sinful they were (see Mt 5:17-48; 19:16-22; Luke 10:25-28). He always preached Law to the arrogant and self-righteous, but grace to the broken and sinful (Luke 18:18-20; John 3:1-17). How did the Apostle Paul preach the Gospel? He used the Law, then trumpeted the grace of the Cross.  Just look at the most comprehensive epistle on theology we have in the New Testament: the epistle to the Romans.  Paul spends the first three chapters exposing the utter depravity of man.  It is only after he repeatedly points to the Law’s purpose to expose our utter sinfulness before a holy God that he proclaims the grace and mercy and love of God through the life, Cross, and resurrection of our Savior.  The Law is like a mirror that diagnoses the problem of total depravity in our lives. Once the “patient” understands how much trouble they are in before a holy God due to their sinfulness, they will be far more eager to hear of the Cross of the Savior and their need for repentant faith, if indeed the Holy Spirit is bringing true conviction of sin in their lives. As Ray Comfort states in The Way of the Master, “Biblical evangelism always proclaims the Law to the proud but grace to the humble.  With the Law, we should break hardened hearts, and with the Gospel we should heal broken hearts” (pp. 50-51).

Just listen to what the Apostle Paul says about the use of the Law as the mirror to point us to the need for the Gospel:

Romans 2:22-24: You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast [a]in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? 24 For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written.

Romans 3:19-20: Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; 20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

Romans 7:7-9: What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died.

The Lord Jesus and Paul both used the Law of God to expose the sinner’s depraved heart and life. God has given us the Law to show His perfect and righteous standard so that we may see our depraved hearts and lives.  Without accurate testing and diagnosis, the sinner has no idea of his desperate need of a Savior. This is the missing ingredient in so many Gospel presentations.  We must again return to using the Law of God if the grace of God is going to truly become amazing!

So where did all the converts go?

It made me cringe when he said it. Tony was teaching a class on evangelism a couple weeks ago that I was attending, and he said, “Yeah, we rarely can follow-up a new convert because we can’t find them.” The problem was not lack of contact information on the new convert. The problem was that the person made a decision but did not want to be contacted again. It happened to me about a month ago with a couple that seemed to make a sincere decision to trust Christ for the first time. However, when I sought to contact them: no response back. So frustrating!

According to most reports from denominations, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and the Luis Palau Association, less than 20% of those who make decisions for Christ end up getting followed-up and in churches (Hell’s Best Kept Secret, Ray Comfort, p 9). Where is the power of the Gospel to transform peoples’ lives? Why is there little brokenness when we share the Gospel? Why can’t we find those who have prayed to trust Christ for the first time? It is like they tried Jesus on for a few days the same way they decided to drink Pepsi or Coke, then thought they would try something else. It it a problem with the Gospel or how we are sharing it?

I am convinced it is the way we share the Gospel. The Gospel I have preached in the past has been far more man-centered than God-centered. I told people that Jesus would make their lives go better. Really? Tell that to the millions of martyrs through the centuries who lost their lives because they “tried” Jesus.

I preached and shared much on the grace and love of God in Christ, but not much on the utter helplessness and depravity of man. Rarely did I mention the holiness of God and the absolute hatred He has for sin. Apart from Christ, God calls the natural man desperately sick (Jer 17:9), a deaf cobra (Ps 58:4), helpless (Rom 5:6), enemies (Rom 5:10), dead sinners (Eph 2:1), disobedient (Eph 2:2), children of wrath (Eph 2:3), blinded by satan (2 Cor 4:4), condemned criminals (Romans 3:8-18) to be cast in the lake of fire forever (Revelation 21:8).

Paul Washer, in his excellent book, The Gospel’s Power and Message, states, “The book of Romans is the closest thing we have to a systematic theology in the Scriptures . . . it is extremely important to note that the first three chapters of this letter, with the exception of a brief introduction, are dedicated to hamartiology, or the doctrine of sin” (p 75).

I am convinced that many decisions for Christ are false conversions because there is no conviction of sin. Too many are just trying Jesus to see if He makes their lives better.  That is why I have changed the way I share the Gospel.

The problem today is NOT with the Gospel. The problem is that we have not properly prepared the soil for the Gospel in the hearts of men and women. People need to hear and be overwhelmed with the holiness and purity of God, the absolute, utter depravity of their own souls, and His coming righteous judgement on sin.

How can we do that? How did Jesus do it? How did the Apostles Peter and Paul do it? How did preachers and evangelists of the past do it? They all used the same weapon to expose the utter sinfulness of man. God has given us ONE powerful weapon to get the job done. This weapon has been neglected for too long in the evangelical gospel presentation. That is what next week’s blog is all about!

Recommended reading:
Ray Comfort, Hell’s Best Kept Secret
Ray Comfort, God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life; The Myth of the Modern Message
Paul Washer, The Gospel’s Power and Message

A Lesson on Walking in Step with the Spirit

I wonder sometimes why it takes me so long to walk in step with the Spirit instead of doing what I want to do. Though we, as followers of Jesus, are repeatedly commanded to be filled with the Spirit, be surrendered to the Spirit, be led by the Spirit, and to not put out the fire of the Spirit (Rom 8:14; Eph 4:30; 5:18; Gal 5:16-17; 1 Thess 5:19), I just think my agenda is better than His. I think I know the next best step better than the Holy Spirit. I would rather lead than follow in the dance called today. Yesterday was a case in point.

For several days I wanted to walk across the street to share the Gospel with my neighbors.  They desperately need Jesus. The entire family was home yesterday and that was MY plan. I had about a two hour block of time and it seemed the perfect time. But the Holy Spirit told me to go for a jog. “But I want to go share the Gospel with my neighbors,” I pleaded. I tested the Spirit to make sure it was the Holy Spirit and not my fears (1 John 4:1-3). So I went for a jog. Now time to muster the courage to go share with my neighbors. Nope. The Holy Spirit said to go for a prayer walk. What about my neighbors???  I tested the Spirit again, and He confirmed to go for a prayer walk through our large neighborhood.

During the prayer walk I cried out to God for the salvation of many neighbors. Toward the very end of the prayer walk I also asked Him to please give me an opportunity to share the Gospel with whom He wanted to share instead of with whom I wanted to share.  As I prayed that prayer, a man, who had been jogging, stopped 20 yards before me. I had never seen him before in our neighborhood. He walked toward me and we began an amazing conversation which led to him inviting me into his home to share the Gospel with his entire family.  There was no prayer of repentance with them yesterday, but a huge cry of repentance for me.

“Lord, forgive me for telling You how to run Your universe and my world. I have grieved your Holy Spirit and put out of the fire of the Holy Spirit too often. I have believed my agenda and my will are better than Yours. Forgive me for my stinking pride, agenda, and self-will. Jesus bore it all on Calvary. Thank You for cleansing me and picking me up again seeking full-surrender to the Sovereign Holy Spirit today. You lead today in this dance called today. May the Lord Jesus be glorified in it. Oh, by the way, Lord, my across the street neighbors still desperately need You! In the Name of Jesus and for His glory. Amen.”

God prevails over us that we may prevail in prayer

For the follower of Jesus, every circumstance in life is a God-ordained moment when God seeks to prevail over us so that we may prevail in prayer. This truth is beautifully illustrated in Genesis 32:24-32 where Jacob prevails in prayer with the angel of the Lord. Jacob had left home over two decades earlier after buying his brother Esau’s birthright and deceiving his father, Isaac, stealing the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau. Now, over twenty years later, God had blessed him, and he was heading back home fearing the annihilation of his family by his brother Esau. In the this climactic moment of Jacob’s life, he spends the night wrestling with God. And it is here that the LORD takes Jacob back to his place of greatest failure in order to prevail over Jacob.

Incredibly, as the dawn is breaking and the angel of the Lord “saw that he had not prevailed against [Jacob], he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him” (Gen 32:25). The angel of the Lord then demands that Jacob let go of him, but Jacob would not let go until the angel of the Lord blessed him. At that moment, the angel of the Lord asks Jacob the same question his father, Isaac, asked twenty years earlier, “What is your name?” (Gen 27:18). Why would the angel of the Lord do that? He was taking Jacob back to the place of his greatest failure–his greatest sin–not to hurt Jacob, but to expose his hard heart.

As Wesley Duewel states in Mighty Prevailing Prayer, “God was doing a transforming work in [Jacob’s] nature. He was being brought to the end of himself, but this position made him bold in faith.  A new Jacob prevails with God because God has prevailed over him.” The LORD prevailed over Jacob so that Jacob might prevail in prayer and gain the blessing to him, his entire family, and to you. For in Christ Jesus, the blessing and promises of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are all yours (Gal 3:29).

So what can we learn from this amazing event? No matter our circumstances, the LORD is seeking to prevail over you to expose your sin and take you to the the Cross of Jesus. That is the place He prevails over us. He will use our present circumstances to take us back to a place of failure to show us our need for brokenness and repentance. God spent over twenty years of Jacob’s life sovereignly setting up the circumstances for Jacob to come to the end of himself and see what a sinner he was in order to see the greatness of God’s grace. What circumstances are you now dealing with that God’s grace might prevail over you?

Jacob prevailed in prayer with the LORD because the LORD had prevailed over him. God calls us to prevail in prayer to gain answers to what is sought. God commands you and me to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). God invites us to a wrestling match. We have a Great High Priest, Jesus, who is prevailing in prayer right now at the right hand of the Father (Heb 7:25). For what is your Advocate before the Father praying and calling you to pray into reality on earth as it in heaven? Don’t quit praying! The Son of God has prevailed over you through His death and resurrection in order that you might daily prevail in prayer before the Throne of Grace! He reigns by intercession. So do we (Rom 5:2, 17).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lost Key Found for the New Year: Prevailing Prayer

A couple months ago I went to our local gym and as I was doing my sit-ups, my house key dropped out of my pocket and ended up under some equipment. After running home, panting and about to die, I dug into my pant pocket and found no key. I was flustered and locked out of my own house!

This is what has happened to the Church in America.  We have put our confidence in our programs, pulpits and personalities and lost the key to personal and corporate revival. What is that lost key?

Hebrews 7:24-25 tell us our Lord Jesus has an eternal priesthood and “He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” It is an amazing reality that our Lord Jesus forever lives to pray and intercede for us. As Dan Ratchford says, “You are at the top of Jesus’ prayer list.” That is true for every believer.  But there is another amazing truth the Church has lost. I believe it is the key for personal and corporate revival.

The Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2 tells us that we once “dead in our trespasses and sins . . . sons of disobedience .  .  . by nature children of wrath.” But now because of God’s tender mercy and love toward us who were treasonous traitors, He has “made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:5-6). The reality for every true believer in Jesus is that we were crucified with Christ, risen with Christ, ascended with Christ and we are now spiritually present with Christ at the right hand of the Father. We have direct access to the Throne of God as we are seated with Christ at His right hand.  This is why we can “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:16). Not only that, the Holy Spirit is not just praying for us, but interceding through us as we pray (Rom 8:26). Incredible!

We can change the courses of our own lives, others’ lives, and even nations and people groups as we pray. Jesus is praying right now for us. The Holy Spirit is praying right now for us and through us. We have direct access to the Throne of Grace where we are constantly seated.  It is our rightful place in Jesus. So let’s take hold of this long, lost key in 2014 and prevail in pray for spiritual revival in our lives, in the Bride of Christ and the transformation of nations for the glory of Jesus.

James 5:17-18 reminds us that we are no different than Elijah. He found the key to changing the course of his own nation and nations around him through prevailing prayer. Let’s join Elijah and change the course of history through prevailing prayer at the right hand of the Throne of Grace in 2014!

A great book I am currently reading is Mighty Prevailing Prayer by Wesley L. Duewel.

House of Prayer (Part 8): Praying in Holiness

Every church is to be “a house of prayer for the nations” (Mark 11:17). The four foundational pillars for that “house of prayer” are the glory of God, the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom, the Gospel, and divine desperation. The first four building stones for that house of prayer are praying the heart of Jesus, praying the name of Jesus, praying the Word of God, and praying in the Spirit. The fifth building stone is praying in holiness.

Often, we come to the Lord out of a desperate need to be cleansed from our sin. Though we are saved by grace through the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord, and we are children of God who have the Spirit of God, we still sin every day.

Yet, the only prayer God will hear is in holiness. God promises in Psalm 66:18 that “if I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear”. We have to pray with “clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:4). This means praying in holiness.

To pray in holiness means to pray the Gospel every day. That is why prayer always begins with the Gospel. Paul Miller, commenting on his book, The Praying Life, writes,

In the gospel, because of Jesus’ death for us, we are accepted by grace. The only thing we bring to the table is our helplessness. In fact, if we try to bring our goodness, the gospel doesn’t work. Prayer works the same way. Jesus tells us to come helpless, “weary and heavy laden.” So prayer isn’t a discipline but learned desperation. It’s not so much a mountain to climb as a valley to fall into.

That is what it means to pray in holiness. 

Instead of thinking prayer is only for holy people, know this: prayer is for helpless and desperate people who need a Savior every day.  That is you and me!

House of Prayer (Part 7): Praying in the Spirit

Every church is to be a house of prayer for the nations (Mark 11:17). The four foundational pillars for that “house of prayer” are the glory of God, the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom, the Gospel, and the divine desperation. The first three building stones for that “house of prayer” are: praying the heart of Jesus, praying the name of Jesus, and praying the Word of God.

The next building stone is praying in the Spirit. A lot of ink through the centuries has been spilled on what it means to pray in the Spirit.

We are all commanded in Ephesians 6:18, “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints.

Some believe this means praying in one’s own prayer language which is possible from 1 Corinthians 14:14-15. Others believe this is prayer that is fervent and intense.

Given the context, I believe it means praying prevailing prayer. As someone said, “pray until you have prayed, and God has heard your cry“. Let me give you an example. When I first start jogging, I just want to quit. I hate the first mile. I have to jog through that first mile, then I feel like I have gone for a run. Prayer is the same way. We have to persevere in prayer and pray through until we know we have the mind of the Spirit as we pray. Then we know we are praying God’s will.

This is what our Lord Jesus did as He prayed at Gethsemane. He prayed until He was fully surrendered and in agreement with His Heavenly Father. We must pray the same way. Pray through an issue until you know you have the mind of the Spirit. It may take ten minutes, or it may take hours, or perhaps days (see Daniel 10 for an example of 3 weeks of prayer).

Keep persevering in prayer and do not give up. That is what it means to Pray in the Spirit.

House of Prayer (Part 6): Praying the Word of God

The Lord Jesus calls every local church to be a “house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17). The foundational pillars for that “house of prayer” in any local church are: the glory of God, the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom, the Gospel and divine desperation.

The first two building stones to this house of prayer for all the nations are praying the heart of Jesus and praying the Name of Jesus.

The third building stone is praying the word of God. Our Lord Jesus said in John 15:7, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Jesus ties intimacy with Him and answers to prayer to His Word.

How do you know you are praying the Lord’s will? You pray His Word. There is a tremendous promise related to God’s Word and answers to prayer in 1 John 5:14-15: “This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.” This promise is revolutionary, but very simple. God never promises to answer “YES” to any of our prayers unless they are according to His will. We know His will through His revealed Word. So pray His Word! That is always His will. He will answer that prayer every time.

Here are some prayers to pray for others and for yourself that God will answer: John 17:20-21; Ephesians 1:17-19; 3:14-21; Philippians 1:9-11, and Colossians 1:9-12.

So pray the heart of Jesus and in the Name of Jesus, but always pray the Word of Jesus. That prayer He will answer as a big AMEN!