Not Just Speech Patterns

I used to get very nervous when I heard others talk about “incarnating the gospel” and spent many energy dollars arguing against using that language. It used to be a popular expression among a group that downplayed doctrine and emphasized service, usually to the people more easily identified as “needy.” Isn’t the gospel news? Isn’t it truth that we tell? How can it be something that we do?

The gospel is truth, objective reality with meaning that can’t be changed. Jesus died on the cross, was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the gospel. We are to articulate the gospel, but, according to the Bible, we are also to incarnate it, to carry it in the flesh. The apostle Paul told the Corinthians,

We are…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:10-12)

Paul is the one who puts his life, not just his speech patterns, in gospel categories: “always carrying…the death of Jesus,” “death is at work in us,” “that the life of Jesus may also be manifested,” “life [is at work] in you.” And these are physical, not just verbal, opportunities: “in the body,” “in our bodies,” in our mortal flesh.”

One of the reasons the name of our church is Trinity Evangel Church is because we must know and teach and believe and live the gospel. We ought not sing about our reconciliation and then be divided. We shouldn’t worship as the forgiven and then be unwilling to forgive. Our liturgy makes it so that we have to carry the bread and wine from the Table back to our spots, and we also have to carry the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our flesh.

Bearing Their Gravitas

Which do you think is the greater problem in the church, placing too much value on preachers or too little? Good arguments could be made on both sides.

The existence of “celebrity” pastors is, sadly, a real thing. Calling some of them celebrities is unfair, since we typically call a celebrity someone who is famous for being famous. There are these types of celebrity pastors with mega-church book sales and TV audiences though they have nothing to say near as self-helping good as Marcus Aurelius/Tony Robbins. There are also “famous” pastors in the Reformed and exegetical parts of the evangelical landscape. These preachers probably didn’t intend to garner a bursting field of followers, but that we spend more time reading the notes in the study Bible than the verses in the Bible may be an indication that we’re giving them too much attention.

That said, the greatest influence many pastors ever exert is ruining a party when they arrive; it’s a spiritual gift. Whether it’s because they take themselves too seriously so that no one else could possibly bear their gravitas, or because they are too lazy to actually keep up with others, it’s hard to see how they influence much of anybody. People will listen unless its about a personal problem because the pastor doesn’t have a professional counseling degree. People will listen unless there’s something more exciting on their phone. Well, it doesn’t even need to be that exciting.

I bring up the question because the church in Corinth had, to some degree, divided themselves according to their favorite teacher/leader. Not only did they have their preference, they made their pick the only (see 1 Corinthians 1:12).

Paul addressed the problem in one way, which was to put the cross of Christ at the center. The word of the cross kills the pride of man, no need for rivalry. I also think we’d do better if we, preachers and people, were more Kuyperian. Preachers have their place, God has assigned them necessary work in the sphere of the church, and yet their work is neither at the top (God’s highest calling) or the end (God’s final goal). If we remembered that we’d probably be able to appreciate what preachers do without dividing over our favorite.

Perspective Fail

Our pursuit of righteousness is not only a personal pursuit. Paul urged his disciple, Timothy:

Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:22)

We are in a battle against the world, the devil, and the sinful flesh (see Ephesians 2:2-3). There are “opponents” within and without (see 2 Timothy 2:25). Each soldier must do his part, fight in his part of the field, but it is because he is part of something bigger.

I bring this up not only to remind us that we’re supposed to fight, or even that we’re supposed to fight together (instead of against one another). We need to see the context or we’ll inevitably have a perspective fail.

Our problems seem bigger when we are the end of our concerns. We increase our burden if we think we’re the only ones struggling. Then we’re found to be adding the sin of pride onto whatever the first sin is, acting as if our sin is the worst or that no one else understands. On the other hand, our problems, our trials and temptations, seem smaller when we remember that we’re part of something bigger. That doesn’t mean our problems don’t exist or that we can ignore them and don’t need to confess when we sin, but it does mean that it would probably be easier if we stopped thinking we were so special.

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). That includes the temptation to isolate ourselves in the battle against temptation. We fight along with all those who call on the name of the Lord.

Remembering How We Are Supposed to Die

Jesus told His disciples a number of things on the night He was betrayed including: “all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Based on the letter we know as First Corinthians, it was hard to identify Christ’s disciples in Corinth.

Instead of love for one another they argued about who had social priority, who was part of the better “club” with the better preacher, who had the most important spiritual gift. Instead of love for one another they took each other to court for sake of personal rights and advantage. Instead of love for one another they humiliated the hungry and judged each other for what they ate.

The most pointed and poetic chapter in Scripture about love is 1 Corinthians 13, and Paul wrote it not as a celebration of how the Christians were identified.

It’s one of the reasons why the communion meal is so important to share. It can be abused; the church in Corinth did. But this Table confronts and comforts us with the cost and characteristics of love. Love dies to bring life. Love is more than pretty words and abstract thoughts and self-aggrandizing sacrifice. Love is for others, love is for us to come together.

We are a people identified by love, and we know what love looks like. We see love on a cross, love demonstrated through death and resurrection. We remember the love of Jesus as we eat His body and drink His blood, and we remember how we are supposed to die to live like Him.

The Debt Immense

Because of the way God created the world many things of value can be shared, but with totally different results. A shared reward is divided, a shared laugh is multiplied. A shared space subtracts the amount of room for you, a shared discovery adds to the joy.

There are similar created mysteries regarding debt. Some debts are big and others small, but a bigger debt might be less burdensome depending. What is owed? Who is it owned to? A small debt to a stingy lender is much worse than a great debt to a generous one. There are even some debts that compound joy as the debt increases.

In John Milton’s Paradise Lost he imagines many of the heavenly and hellish scenes before and during the fall of man. But before getting to Eve’s temptation and Adam’s sin he describes Satan’s decisive discontent in Satan’s words:

in a moment quit

The debt immense of endless gratitude, 
 So burdensome, still paying, still to owe;

Forgetful what from him I still received,

And understood not that a grateful mind 
 By owing owes not, but still pays, at once

Indebted and discharged; what burden then?

These lines describe true economics whether or not they describe Satan’s true thoughts. It is one of the reasons why Genesis 1:1 is so offensive because it means that there is a God we answer to, a God we are born without our choice already in debt to.

But this debt of gratitude we owe is a debt that increases our joy as we pay it and as the debt itself increases. It can’t be otherwise. God deserves more thanks the more He gives, and we are more joyful the more we are thankful. The more we owe and the more we pay, the more truly free we are.

First, We Eat

The whole idea of living in such a way as to provoke an entire people group to jealousy is a lot of work. It’s good work, and it’s God’s plan, but where do we start.

First, we eat.

Jesus told a crowd that they should labor for the food that endures to eternal life. They asked, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” This is a huge question.

Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29).

Believing in Jesus is where we start. We ourselves must be believing in Jesus. He likened the believing to eating bread and then said He is the bread. We must eat Him. First, we eat. He likened believing to abiding in Him. “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Believe in Christ. Don’t have faith in your faith. You don’t have enough faith to change the world, let alone to have eternal life. Keep your faith in Christ.

So we gather at this Table every week to eat and drink. First, we eat. We eat because we have the Lord. Through Him we can do all things. He is the bread of life. We must feed on Him by faith and drink His blood in belief. He is true food and true drink.

There is a lot to talk about, plans to make, daily deaths to die, work to do. The work of God is to believe, and because we believe we work. So first, we feast in believing joy.

Willing to Dig

Here are my notes from the ECS convocation a couple days ago.


Once upon a time in a land not so very far away, a small group of people lived where it rained almost every day. It rained so much that sometimes the people wondered if it would ever stop. It didn’t always rain at the same time or in the same amount, but it rained so frequently that everyone took water for granted. They always had more than enough.

They always had enough, that is, until one summer when it stopped raining. The people noticed the first day it didn’t rain, but it didn’t effect much of anything because they had such a plentiful supply of water. After the first week without rain everyone was talking about the change in the weather, but there still seemed to be no change in the supply, so there was no panic. But after a few months, people began to realize that things were not okay. The leaves on the trees turned brittle and the grass was brown. Birds sang less and kids stopped playing outside. The water levels had dropped below danger level, the levels were lower than anyone could remember. Thirst and fear rose.

One day a stranger came to town. He started talking with people and told them that he had lived there many years ago and, most importantly, that the town sat on a great reservoir of water. He could not say for certain how far down they needed to dig, but he guaranteed that with enough digging, all the water they needed would be found.

The old man left and many of the people began to discuss his idea. Some refused to believe it. Besides, they had always gotten all the water they needed from the rain; they would just wait for rain. Others thought that digging couldn’t hurt. Even if there was no water under the town nothing would be lost for trying, and they weren’t doing anything else. Yet others believed the old man’s word and set out to find pick axes and shovels and whatever they thought could break through the bony ground.

The work was difficult. It was hot, dirty, long, and progress was hard to measure. They didn’t know how far down the water was, let alone what obstacles they would face the further down they dug. Some quit after just a couple hours; they thought, “Let others dig.” Others worked for a few days, but grew tired and frustrated and lost faith that there was actually any water to be found. By the end of the next month no one was digging any more and no rain more had fallen. The townspeople were in serious trouble, and what they didn’t know was that they were also only inches away from hitting the reservoir. But no one was willing to dig.

I read a book at the beginning of the summer titled Deep Work. The author doesn’t write from an explicitly Christian worldview, but I think he does accurately address a trend among Americans and especially among young Americans, many of whom are students. He sees an increase in the number of young people who are uninterested in seeking out and/or unwilling to do hard work.

He looks at the problem in the workforce. More and more jobs are becoming automated, able to be done by technological, impersonal solutions. Why pay a person hour after hour when you can pay for a program/app once that doesn’t need lunch breaks or health insurance or have conflict with other employees?

But so many employees appear incapable of, or at least put off by, work that requires sustained concentration and effort. They prefer to be interrupted by bite-size pieces of information, like emails and social media updates and texts from friends. They prefer candy. They prefer to stay on the surface. They prefer the shallows. Good workers are hard to find. 
 So also are good students. Students prefer to read books that don’t demand too much time or thinking, they prefer to write papers that don’t require proof or logical presentation, they prefer to have teachers explain everything to them (and only explain the least amount necessary to pass the test) rather than investigate and learn for themselves.

Let’s use another water analogy, but this time swimming. Some swimmers splash, or flail, along the surface and deal with more resistance than those who push down deep. There are rules for how long a swimmer can stay under the water because it is an advantage. You have to take a deep breath, dive under, and drive. It takes a commitment to put your head into it. I will never be a skilled swimmer, or even a competent one, until I get comfortable putting my face in the water. Will you go deep, again and again, lap after lap, paper after paper, until you get comfortable and quick?

ECS exists not only because we believe there is life-giving water to be found through digging education, but also because we want to grow people who know how to and are willing to dig. So many good things require more than five minutes of half-hearted effort. We want you not just to know things, we want you to have the ability to learn more things than we know, along with the ability to produce things for others. But this requires work.

Successful image-bearers of God work to master complicated material. It may be different material for different people but it’s same kind of work at each level. If you are a first-grader, you aren’t using the same tools as a freshman, but you are still called to do the same thing: dig.

Martin Luther wrote a letter to a friend about his frustration as he preached through Ecclesiastes.

Solomon the preacher is giving me a hard time, as though he begrudged anyone lecturing on him. But he must yield. (quoted in The Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 96).

Solomon would “yield” as Luther worked to understand. Just a few years earlier he had wrestled for days with the meaning of the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 and wrote,

I beat importunately [persistently] upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. (ibid., 91)

By continuing to dig Luther was born again and shortly after launched a Reformation.

The beginning of a new school year is a good time to be reminded that education is costly. It takes dollars, yes, but it also takes energy dollars and focus dollars. As is true most of the time, you get what you pay for.

You grammar students have a great opportunity to get good at digging now, and by the time you hit Omnibus age you’ll think the work is no big deal and will seek out more. Or if you get into the habit of quitting because it’s not easy, it won’t be long before you consider that most everything isn’t easy. You are practicing what kind of person you will be and what kinds of things you can do.

Some of you older students have more freedom than the younger ones. For some of you, listening to music may help you focus, and for others of you, you say it helps you focus, but you’re focusing on the music and telling your teachers that you just don’t understand the textbook. Maybe you need to message a classmate to get a clarification on a group project, and maybe you waste an hour texting about a hundred other unrelated things. Deliberately wasting your attention when focus is within your ability to choose, is a way to hate the work and prolong the work and produce less competent work.

Raggants, dig deep. Work deeply. Don’t assume that you can’t. Want something more than the path of easy resistance.

Jealous of a Complainer

How do you know that God is willing and working in you for His good pleasure? As you are working out your salvation with fear and trembling what is the result? If you could choose just one act of believing obedience to make a dent in the world, what would it be?

It’s possible that one thing answers all those questions. Though he doesn’t use the word, it connects Paul’s thoughts in Philippians 2:12-16. He called the Christians to work out their salvation (verse 12), remembering that God is at work in them (verse 13), and then reminded them that they are 
“children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights of the world” (verse 15).

Certainly the Philippian believers stood out for their morality (“blameless and innocent”) as well as for their different authority (“holding fast to the word of life”). But the way they became these bright lights is by obeying Paul’s command at the beginning of verse 14: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” Stated positively: they were thankful. God wills that we give thanks always. Saved people are thankful people. And thankful people stand out in a crooked and complaining generation.

We should be Christians living in the world and with one another in such a way as to provoke good jealousy among others, eventually all Israel (see Romans 11:11, 14), who will want what we have in Christ. But have you ever heard of someone being jealous of a complainer? “Wow, you see all the bad things so accurately. You really put into words all the grumbling feelings I have. I wish I could have your spirit of fussiness.”

There could be someone who hears us complain and is jealous of all our blessings that they see better than us that we aren’t giving thanks for. In that sense they are jealous of a complainer, but not of our complaints. Let us repent and recount our blessings in thanks.