Tag Archives: Gospel

More than a Label

A couple of weeks ago, my church hosted J. Warner Wallace for a weekend of great presentations on the objective nature of truth and the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. If you’re not familiar with Jim, he was a cold-case homicide detective in California who has racked up an impressive number of convictions in long-unsolved murder cases. In fact, you might even recognize him from the TV show “Dateline”, as they’ve documented several of his cases. He was also an ardent atheist until he decided to investigate a really old “cold-case” of a different type: the case of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. To hear “the rest of the story”, as Paul Harvey would say, check out his links below [1]. But now on to what he said that got me thinking. In his closing prayer, he said something to the effect of Christianity being “more than a label” for us.

We identify ourselves with lots of labels – political ones, religious ones, cultural ones – but does that self-identification actually make us those things? Not necessarily. Of course, political partisans will often talk about someone in their party being one “in name only”, such as a RINO, or Republican In Name Only, for example. The idea is that though this person calls themselves a fill-in-the-blank, they aren’t actually; they’re a poser. It is, in effect, a charge of hypocrisy, that the person is saying one thing and doing another. A similar thing happens in engineering, although with potentially more life-threatening consequences.

All of the states I’m licensed in as a professional engineer put out newsletters that include summaries of disciplinary actions taken against individuals. Most of these are against practicing engineers who did things like practicing after their license had expired, maybe because they forgot to renew it. Some aren’t so justifiable, and are serious ethics violations. But occasionally, action is taken against a person who pretended to be an engineer when they weren’t. They’ve claimed the title, or label, but have never done the hard work to acquire the book-learning and mentored training, pass the long arduous tests, and get the license. Some even have enough familiarity with engineering to keep up that charade for several years. But are they professional engineers even when they achieve similar results to engineers? No. They haven’t been granted that title by one having authority to grant it.

What about calling myself a Christian? Can I take that label for myself just because? No. My actions need to match the claim or I’m a hypocrite. I can’t go stealing and lying and murdering and call myself a Christian. But even if I don’t do those things, does acting the part make me a Christian? No, actually. I can be an incredibly nice person, and do lots of wonderful deeds, and call myself a Christian, but even that doesn’t make it so. Consider that Jesus said that the way leading to life was narrow, and that few found it, while the path to destruction was broad and crowded [Matt 7:13-14]. Moreover, many would come to Him saying that they had done all kinds of good things in His name, even working miracles. His response? “Depart from Me, I never knew you.” [Matt 7:21-23] That should be a sobering warning. The apostle John told his audience that  there were those that had gone out from them that had never been part of them [1 Jn 2:19]. They played the Christian game for a while, but eventually moved on. Jesus also talked about letting the wheat and the tares (i.e. saints and sinners) grow together until the harvest, when they would be separated out [Matt 13:24-30]. As Matthew Henry commented on this passage, “It is not possible for any man infallibly to distinguish between tares and wheat,” and, “The tares, if continued under the means of grace, may become good corn; therefore have patience with them.”[2]

So who is a Christian? The Christian is that one whom God has saved. How? They have called out to Jesus Christ, for there is salvation in no one else [Acts 4:12]. How? They have repented of their sins [Acts 3:19, 17:30, Rom 2:4], acknowledged that Jesus Christ is Lord, and believed that God raised Him from the dead [Rom 10:9-10]. That title of “Lord” entails obedience to Him, not just lip service. As Wayne Grudem says in his Systematic Theology, it is “contrary to the New Testament to speak about the possibility of someone accepting Christ ‘as Savior’ but not ‘as Lord,’ if that means simply depending on Him for salvation but not committing oneself to forsake sin and to be obedient to Christ from that point on.” [3] God doesn’t command us to get our lives “straightened out” before He will accept us, for we could never meet His perfect standard in our own strength. But He does command repentance: that godly grief over our sin and the decision to turn away from it and toward Him that leads to salvation [2 Cor7:9-10]. And when we turn to Him, we put our trust in Jesus Christ, the only one who could meet that perfect standard of righteousness [2 Cor 5:21]. A changed life then is the fruit of that repentance.

Being a Christian is not simply a label we claim, or a title we earn, or degree we obtain, but rather an eternal relationship with our Creator. If you are a follower of Christ, may “Christian” be so much more than a mere label for you. And if you’re not a disciple of Christ yet, may you not be deceived and turned away by those for whom it is just a label. Til next time, may God richly bless you in your search to find truth, and in so seeking, find Him. “Seek and ye shall find.”

S.D.G.


[1] Find more of Jim’s work at www.coldcasechristianity.com, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/j.warnerwallace, or Twitter at @jwarnerwallace. Or find his books on Amazon (3rd one drops May 1st).
[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary in One Volume (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), p.1272.
[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) p. 714.

Tis the Season… but for what?

“Carols” – Nikiphoros Lytras, 1872

As I write this, it’s almost Christmas, one of my favorite times of year! One of the things I really enjoy about it is the Christmas carols. Not that I have any singing abilities, but I still love to sing them anyway, and unlike the rest of the year, people don’t look at me like I’m crazy when I sing them in December.

However, not all songs popular at Christmas time actually have anything to do with Christmas. For Christmas is not a celebration of magical snowmen, underdog reindeer, or interior decorating. Not that there’s anything wrong with singing about Frosty, or Rudolph, or decking the halls with boughs of holly. It’s just always been a bit of a letdown for me, hearing “Christmas” songs with no Christ in them. It’s like going to a big concert and only seeing the opening act. It’s all about the headliner, and if you miss them, you basically missed the concert. Likewise, if you miss Christ, you really missed Christmas.

So what is it about the old Christmas hymns I love so much? The story. I’ve always been a stickler for wanting to know the lyrics to songs, whether I was listening to heavy metal, dance club remixes, folk music,  or anything else. And I’ve been surprised more than once at how a good beat and some catchy riffs can get a lot of people taking in, and even singing along with, some pretty disturbing, messed-up, dysfunctional songs. But lyrics matter. Garbage In, Garbage Out, as you learn in programming. But in the old Christmas hymns I find rich veins of solid gold – little mini-sermons of good, sound theology that point me to God, and remind me of the events of long ago, why they are so vitally important, and why the gospel really is “good news”. Join me for a little buffet of Christmas carol goodness.

“Hark! The herald angels sing: Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled.”
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. “[1][Mt 1:23, Jn 1:14, Rom 5:11, 2 Cor 5:18-21]

Reconciliation between the perfect, holy God and us incorrigible sinners! What a staggering thought!How can this be? Not by anything we could do, but only by His mercy! I don’t know about you, but makes me want to sing out:

“Gloria in excelsis Deo”.[2][Lk 2:14]

“Glory to God in the highest” sang the angels as they announced the momentous event to the shepherds.  And indeed, this was the start of a most glorious phase of God’s plan: the Incarnation!

“Silent night! Holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight. Glories stream from heaven afar; Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour, is born! Christ, the Saviour, is born!”[3][Lk 2:11]

“Christ” is from the Greek, and means “Anointed One”, as does “Messiah” from the Hebrew. After 400 years of silence since the last prophet had brought a message from God, an angelic choir was now belting out the news. The plan known to God from all eternity was now in full effect and being revealed to us humans. The world was ready and  all the pieces were in place as Christ the Savior took center stage, in a lowly manger of all places.

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head”[4][Lk 2:7]

So often, we look to the proud and mighty to save us. Yet Jesus, through whom all was created, and who has the only real power to save, came in utter humility. No palace would’ve been too good for the King of the universe and beyond to be born in, yet He humbled Himself to be born as the lowest of the low. Why?

“Fear not, then, said the angel, Let nothing you affright.
This day is born a Savior of a pure Virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him from Satan’s power and might.”[5][Lk 1:34-37, Lk 19:10, Mk 10:45]

“O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.”[6][Mt 1:6, Mk 12:35 ,Mt 1:21, 2 Tim 2:8, 1 Cor 15:19]

He did not come to heal the sick, or feed the hungry or bless the poor, even though He did all those things. But He came above all else, to pay the penalty for our sin, to ransom us from the grip of Satan, to save us and reconcile us to God, to do what no one else could do, what no amount of hard work or good behavior could ever accomplish, to give His life for ours. And His arrival was accomplished through the virgin birth, not only to break the chain of human sin, but also to provide an extraordinary, naturally impossible sign that this was a supernatural work of God. Skeptics may mock the Virgin Birth, but would it really be much of a sign of something unprecedented happening if it were possible via nature alone?

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope–the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine![7][Rom 3:10-11, Phil 2:10]

Have you ever felt depressed? Worthless? Trapped in your bad decisions, your bad habits, your shortcomings, your human frailty? Now, consider how much worth must you have for the Son of God to come live as one of us, and then, in a shocking display of sacrificial love and mercy, take the punishment we all deserved? Not that we have that worth because of anything we did. Thankfully not, for then we could surely lose that worthiness by other actions. Rather, we are image-bearers of God, and loved by Him before we even existed. This was indeed a new morning compared to all that had come before. This was a game-changer that can only result in hope, rejoicing, and worship. But was that just a one-time deal?

“How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.”[8][Acts 16:30-31]

This last carol reminds us that this is not simply a story of what happened once and is no longer applicable to you and me. Rather the gift of heaven 2000 years ago is a living gift that still can make you a “new creation” if you but receive it. More than anything you could ever give or receive this Christmas, this truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

What does the sampling above tell us? That God reached down to us to reconcile us to Him, that those who are willing may receive the gift of redemption He offers, that our souls feel their worth only in Him, that we can truly have hope, that Jesus was born King and God, but also our sacrifice, for Christmas is only a signpost pointing toward the atoning sacrifice of the cross on Good Friday and the glorious victory of Easter morning. That’s all -just the greatest news in all of human history!

As R.C. Sproul would say, “everyone’s a theologian”; the only question is whether your theology is true or false. This Christmas, set Frosty and Rudolph and Santa and the rest of the gang aside and take some time to reflect on what Christmas really means. Digging out some old Christmas hymns will put you on the right track.

Merry Christmas!


[1] “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – stanzas 1 & 2 – Charles Wesley, 1739. Baptist Hymnal (2008) #192.
[2] “Angels We Have Heard On High” – refrain, traditional French Carol, date unknown. United Methodist Hymnal (1989), #238.
[3] “Silent Night, Holy Night“, stanza 2 – Joseph Mohr, 1818. Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), #281.
[4] “Away in a Manger” – stanza 1, attributed to Martin Luther, date unknown. Baptist Hymnal (2008) #205.
[5] “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” – stanza 3, traditional English Carol, date unknown. The Hymnbook (1955), #166.
[6] “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel” – stanza 4, translated by John Mason Neale, 1851, but poem dates to 7th century. Psalter Hymnal (1987), #328.
[7] “Oh Holy Night” – stanza 1, Placide Cappeau, 1847. Baptist Hymnal (2008), #194.
[8] “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – stanza 3, Phillips Brooks, 1868. Baptist Hymnal (2008), #196.
(This was just a small sampling of great Christmas carols. Know of some more good examples? Comment with your favorites and what they mean to you!)

“Now Hiring: Evangelists”

St. Paul Preaching at Athens - by Raphael
St. Paul Preaching at Athens – by Raphael

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a trend among product vendors to label their marketing as “evangelism”. Autodesk, producer of the Revit software I use (along with I don’t know how many other programs) has “Technical Evangelist” as an actual job title. These are the people usually doing the blogs and seminars and webinars, telling us design professionals how their product will be so incredibly helpful to us in our day to day jobs. And while dictionaries may describe this type of evangelist as “someone who talks about something with great enthusiasm,”[1]  I’d like to suggest that there’s more to these companies’ choice of job titles than just their employee’s attitude. But for that, we have to look back at the origins of the word.

Now maybe you’re familiar with evangelists as preachers. Maybe you’re cynical toward Christianity because of televangelists you’ve seen on TV: maudlin, maybe a little crazy, but like clockwork when it came to asking for money. I understand. But set aside those impressions for a moment, and come back with me to a time before the word was sullied with such behavior. If we dig into the Bible, we’ll find the following statement in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church: “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved…”[2]  The noun “gospel” above is εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) in the Greek. Likewise, the verb phrase “preached to you” (or “proclaimed” in other translations) is εὐηγγελισάμην (euēngelisamēn). Remember that in it’s transition from Greek to Latin to English, the “u” became a “v”, and you can then see the root of our word evangelist or evangelism in both of these. But the “eu” at the beginning of both of these words is why companies sometimes call their marketers evangelists: “eu” means good in Greek. The other root, ἄγγελος (aggelos) means a messenger. This is the same word we get “angel” from, for angels serve as messengers of God. Put together, an evangelist is a messenger proclaiming good news or tidings. So when a vendor sends a technical evangelist to talk to me, they’re hoping to deliver a “gospel” of sorts (i.e. good news). And if their product really does work the wonders they promise –  well then, that would be good news!  The key point is, it’s not enthusiasm, but the content of their message that (hopefully) justifies the job title. “Good news” is at the very heart of the word evangelist, by definition. If it’s not good news to the audience, then evangelist may not be the most appropriate job title. But if it really is good news for the people you’re going to, then there’s also a reason to talk about it “with great enthusiasm”.  It’s not just an act then.

Now, what of the original evangelists? Does the Christian gospel actually bring good news? Indeed! Paul’s statement above speaks of the gospel (or good news) “by which also you are saved.” Many see the news that we are all sinners, worthy of condemnation by a just and holy God as bad news – even offensive news – and stop there. But is that part really “news”? When you look at the nightly news, or read the papers or look back through history books, can you honestly say humans are not fallen creatures? In spite of all our scientific and cultural advances, overall, we excel at finding better, more efficient ways to destroy and kill. We tend to be like the classic arch-villian of comics and movies – so much potential for good, yet so often choosing evil. In our heart, in those quiet times of reflection, we recognize that something is wrong at the core of us. And no amount of cultural progress or species evolution could ever fix it. Christianity not only explains our potential for good (we were created in the image of the one truly good God), but also our actual failure to realize that potential (we have all inherited a terminal disease called sin, that is, rebellion against our good Creator). Christianity recognizes the depressing problem that we can’t “fix” ourselves no matter how hard we try, but also proclaims the rest of the story – the amazing solution that God has intervened to do what we never could! Now that’s news.

Allow me to illustrate our trying hard to be good, but still failing. I never learned to swim until high school, when I took swimming lessons. After getting chided by my coach for doing something incorrectly, I flippantly remarked, “Oh well, practice makes perfect”, at which she snapped back, “No! Perfect practice makes perfect!” She was right. Practicing swimming strokes wrong will never make you a better swimmer, no matter how sincerely or devotedly you practice. Religious devotion or trying to lead a “good life” (by whose standard, anyway?) can likewise never succeed. That’s because the standard to meet is perfection. But, as the old sayings go, “to err is human,” and “nobody’s perfect.” In every other religion, you must earn salvation. Only Christianity proclaims this supreme unfairness, that God, in the person of Jesus, perfect and without sin, would become a human like us, to offer Himself as a sacrifice in our place, taking the punishment we justly deserved, that we might be justified and acceptable before God despite our utter inability to ever “measure up.” That’s not just good news – that’s GREAT news! And with news like that, how could we not proclaim it?


[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evangelist, accessed 8/8/2016.
[2] 1 Corinthians 15:1, NASB.

Laughing at the Cliff’s Edge

Cliff Danger Sign“I can’t tell you why somebody would walk past those signs and not pay any attention to them.”[1]

That was part of a response from a Park Service spokesman after a recent death in Point Reyes National Park in California. The cliff at Arch Rock had developed a large crack along the top along a popular trail, and multiple warning signs were posted telling people to stay away from that area. Yet dozens of people were seen continuing past the signs that day, until the cliff finally gave way, and 2 hikers fell 70′ amidst a shower of boulders and debris. One died while the other survived with critical injuries, amazingly enough. Why indeed do people not take warnings seriously? Why do they think that a warning might apply to everyone but them? It seems so obvious in hindsight, but maybe that attitude is more prevalent in our daily lives than we’re comfortable admitting. Maybe that cavalier attitude manifests itself in our overall worldview and philosophically filters what we take seriously  and what we consider inconsequential. Consider the following small example.

The Monday after Easter, my atheist colleague at work brought me the comic from his daily desk calendar for the past Friday (Good Friday). As he dropped it on my desk, he said, “you can throw it away if you want, but I thought it was funny.” What was the comic? A picture of Jesus with the caption, “A real miracle would’ve been turning water into less expensive gasoline.” OK, haha.  I get it, and I realize it’s just a comic. It doesn’t really offend me, but it does sadden me a little. It seems like it exemplifies that same philosophical filter that helps us ignore the physical and spiritual warning signs in our lives.

That comic (and the many, many others like it) didn’t put forth any serious reasons for doubting the existence of Jesus or the New Testament’s claims about His life and His deity. It didn’t show the historicity of the gospel narrative to be false. It didn’t show the biblical narrative to lack explanatory depth or consistency. It simply assumed all of those objections to be the case and then mocked the opposing view. Of course, it wasn’t written to build a case against Christianity. It was, after all, just a joke, and a one-liner at that. But, unfortunately, many people stop at the jokes and never investigate to see if they’re on target or not. And when people assume that just because someone has made a joke about God, that He is a joke unworthy of serious consideration, that is itself the cruelest joke, with dire and very permanent consequences. The comic made light of an actual miracle by saying that a “real miracle” would’ve been doing something 2,000 years ago that only a modern gasoline-dependent society could appreciate, and that is technically simpler than turning water into fine wine.[2] In so doing, it asks us to laugh off the actual miracle instead of asking the question the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ miracles were forced to seriously consider, over and over again: namely, “What manner of man is this?” The “gospel” literally means “good news”, and to laugh off the gospel accounts in the Bible misses two signs: 1) the warning sign telling us that God not only exists, but will also hold us accountable and judge us by His perfect standard; and 2) the sign pointing us to safety, to the only way to satisfy that unyielding justice. That sign points to Jesus, and it is not just good news, but the greatest of news.

Certainly, there is a time and place for laughter[3], but when we joke about something serious, and we let our jokes keep us from seeing the danger we’re in, we really are laughing at the cliff’s edge.


[1] http://www.foxnews.com/us/2015/03/23/1-dead-after-cliff-collapses-at-calif-hiking-trail/ accessed April 12, 2015.
[2] Turning water into wine would be the greater miracle than turning it into gasoline, as basic gasoline is primarily 3 elements (hydrogen, carbon, & oxygen) while basic wine has those (in the alcohol alone) plus nitrogen and at least 11 other elements in the form of minerals. And this wasn’t just barely wine, but was “good wine”. See John 2:1-11 for the actual story.
[3] Ecclesiastes 3:2, NASB.