A Flying Frog and Sin Prevention

Several years ago an old white guy came to the church I was attending in Franklin, Tennessee to preach at a rare Sunday night service (Presbyterians don’t have a tendency to overdue a whole lot besides being pretty predictable). The message Steve Brown shared that night was so refreshing, it was if he’d handed my thirsty soul a tall glass of fresh squeezed lemonade on a balmy summer day. I ended up buying his latest book at the time, A Scandalous Freedom, even grabbed a copy for my brother too. Since then, Steve has become one of my favorite authors and preachers. The following is from his latest book “Three Free Sins”. Still need to order me a copy.

Steve writes,

Once upon a time, there lived a man named Clarence who had a pet frog named Felix. Clarence lived a modestly comfortable existence on what he earned working at the Wal-Mart, but he always dreamed of being rich. “Felix!” he said one day, hit by sudden inspiration, “We’re going to be rich! I’m going to teach you to fly!”

Felix, of course, was terrified at the prospect. “I can’t fly, you twit! I’m a frog, not a canary!”

Clarence, disappointed at the initial response, told Felix: “That negative attitude of yours could be a real problem. We’re going to remain poor, and it will be your fault.”

So Felix and Clarence began their work on flying.

On the first day of the “flying lessons,” Clarence could barely control his excitement (and Felix could barely control his bladder). Clarence explained that their apartment building had 15 floors, and each day Felix would jump out of a window, starting with the first floor and eventually getting to the top floor. After each jump, they would analyze how well he flew, isolate the most effective flying techniques, and implement the improved process for the next flight. By the time they reached the top floor, Felix would surely be able to fly.

Felix pleaded for his life, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. “He just doesn’t understand how important this is,” thought Clarence. “He can’t see the big picture.”

So, with that, Clarence opened the window and threw Felix out. He landed with a thud.

The next day, poised for his second flying lesson, Felix again begged not to be thrown out of the window. Clarence told Felix about how one must always expect resistance when introducing new, innovative plans.

With that, he threw Felix out the window. THUD!

Now this is not to say that Felix wasn’t trying his best. On the fifth day, he flapped his legs madly in a vain attempt at flying. On the sixth day, he tied a small red cape around his neck and tried to think “Superman” thoughts. It didn’t help.

By the seventh day, Felix, accepting his fate, no longer begged for mercy. He simply looked at Clarence and said, “You know you’re killing me, don’t you?”

Clarence pointed out that Felix’s performance so far had been less than exemplary, failing to meet any of the milestone goals he had set for him.

With that, Felix said quietly, “Shut up and open the window,” and he leaped out, taking careful aim at the large jagged rock by the corner of the building.

Felix went to that great lily pad in the sky.

Clarence was extremely upset, as his project had failed to meet a single objective that he had set out to accomplish. Felix had not only failed to fly, he hadn’t even learned to steer his fall as he dropped like a sack of cement, nor had he heeded Clarence’s advice to “Fall smarter, not harder.”

The only thing left for Clarence to do was to analyze the process and try to determine where it had gone wrong. After much thought, Clarence smiled and said…

“Next time, I’m getting a smarter frog!”

A number of years ago, I realized that I was, as it were, trying to teach frogs to fly. Frogs can’t fly. Not only that, they get angry when you try to teach them. The gullible ones will try, but they eventually get hurt so badly they quit trying. And let me tell you a secret: the really sad thing about being a “frog flying teacher” is that I can’t fly either.

If you are a teacher trying to teach frogs to fly, nobody ever bothers to ask if you can fly. In fact, if you pretend that you’re an expert and tell a lot of stories about flying; if you can throw in a bit of aeronautical jargon about stalls, spins, and flight maneuvers; and if you can carry around a flying manual and know your way around it, nobody will question your ability to fly. You just pretend you’re an expert, and the students think you can fly.

For years, as a preacher charged with preventing people from sinning, that was my problem (and sometimes it still is). I became so phony I could hardly stand myself.

I know, I know, there is a lot more to being a preacher and a pastor than keeping people from sinning, but if you become obsessed with sin prevention, it begins to take over everything you do and teach. Pretty soon you become a police officer, and the crime is sin. You spend your time trying to discern what is and what isn’t sin, you emphasize “sin prevention” by teaching how to avoid sin and stay pure, and you create a disciplinary process whereby sin is punished in the name of Jesus and “for their own good.”

HT: Mockingbird

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Forgiving Anyone

This past year I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and also getting to know a man I consider to be a friend, a loving pastor and a fellow preacher of the gospel. Father Kenneth Tanner of Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan, shared the following a couple days ago and I thought it’d be worth your while too.

The next time you find yourself astonished (angered, perplexed) by someone else’s sin, whether the sins of a fellow Christ follower or the sins of someone whose life is untouched by the Gospel, especially if it is a form of sin with which you perceive you have no struggle or a sin you cannot comprehend yourself ever committing, remember this:

We serve a God whose response to sin is not surprise (…or hostility or frustration) but a mysterious compassionate mercy that takes the weight of all the sins of fallen history upon himself; a God that dies for the sins of the whole world and those of every sinner; a God who identifies himself with every form of fallenness and every fallen soul on the Cross in order to defeat the scourge of death that veils his Creation and mars his eternal Image in mankind.

Put yourself on the Cross with Christ and ask him to help you understand why he loved that person (those persons) so much as to lay down his life to atone for their stiff-necked rebellions, their blasphemous denials, their greedy self-indulgences, their casual indifferences, their seething hatreds, their soul-destroying cynicisms, their mocking unbeliefs, and for all graspings and gropings to be their own god.

Then—and this is everything—turn the tables and meditate on the fact that you are the one for whom he hangs, suspended with the weight of your sin, on that torture tree.

What a wonderful, beautiful God we praise. I choose to be astonished by the person of Christ Jesus, to marvel at his character, to wonder at his mercy, to stand awestruck (if I can stay on my feet) by his love and not by anything else in all the wide world, much less by the sins of others.

Christians who have reactions to sin other than the reaction of God in Jesus Christ—a willing, merciful self-sacrifice for the good of the sinner—have not yet contemplated the limitless bounds of God’s love and are not acquainted well enough (yet) with the great chasm of their own sinfulness.

When we who are in Christ despise, condemn, ostracize or otherwise reject anyone for their sins, we make a mockery of his Cross to a watching world and, Lord help us, we fail to recognize ourselves “among the scoffers” for we are “the greatest of sinners.”

Every time I find myself reacting to the sins of others in ways that do not reflect your holy wisdom and nail-scarred love, please Lord, of your mercy, grant me a deeper share in your Cross that I may experience the depths of your charity and know myself as the one whom you came to save.

(Thanks John Stoll for the early morning conversation at The Hills Cafe that prompted this reflection.)

Gives a little insight I think into what Paul was getting at when he reminded the believers in Colossae, “Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.”

The Indignity of Grace

The great archrival of grace, legalism, is alive and well—whether we recognize the ax swirling around in our hearts or haven’t got a clue. As Tullian Tchividjian has more or less described legalism, it is our “typical natural default mode.” Tullian shares the following mock prayer (author not cited) in the 4th message of his current series on Galatians, “Free at Last”:

Lord, please restore to us the comfort of merit and demerit. Show us that there is at least something we can do, that we can even in a small way keep some small earning power in our own hands. Tell us that in spite of all our nights of losing there will be at least one redeeming card of our own. Lord, let your servants depart in the peace of their proper responsibility. If it is not too much to ask, Lord, send us to bed with a few shreds of self-respect upon which we can congratulate ourselves. But whatever you do, do not tell us about grace. Give us something to do, anything, but spare us the indignity of this indiscriminate acceptance.

To which Tullian adds, “Whew!”

And me too.


The Gospel Is More Than An Idea

Tullian Tchividjian explains the vital importance of gaurding against considering the gospel as an idea, or disconnecting the gospel from the person, work and ministry of Christ.

Excellent.

HT: The Gospel Coalition


The Riotously Celebrated

Just who is the gospel for?

Dallas Willard writes:

Blessed are the physically repulsive,

Blessed are those who smell bad,

The twisted, misshappen, deformed,

The too big, too little, too loud,

The bald, the fat, and the old-

For they are all riotously celebrated in the party of Jesus.

Then there are the ‘seriously’ crushed ones: The flunk-outs and drop-outs and burned-outs. The broke and the broken. The drug heads and the divorced. The HIV positive and herpes-ridden. The brain-damaged, the incurably ill. The barren and the pregnant many-times or at the wrong time. The over-employed, the underemployed, the unemployed. The unemployable. The swindled, shoved aside, the replaced. The parents with children living on the street, the children with parents not dying in the ‘rest’ home. The lonely, the incompetent, the stupid. The emotionally starved or emotionally dead. And on and on and on.

Is it true that ‘Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal?’  It is true! That is precisely the gospel of heaven’s availability that comes to us through the Beatitudes. And you don’t have to wait until you’re dead. Jesus brings to all such people as these the present blessedness of the present kingdom—regardless of circumstances. The condition of life sought for by human beings through the ages is attained in the quietly transforming friendship of Jesus.

…Even the moral disasters will be received by God as they come to rely on Jesus, count on Him, and make Him their companion in His kingdom.  Murderers and child-molesters.  The brutal and the bigoted.  Drug lords and pornographers.  War criminals and sadists.  Terrorists.  The perverted and the filthy and the filthy rich.  The David Berkowitzs (‘Son of Sam’), Jeffrey Dahmers, and Colonel Noriegas.

Can’t we feel some sympathy for Jesus’ contemporaries, who huffed at him, ‘This man is cordial to sinners, and even eats with them!’ Sometimes I feel I don’t really want the kingdom to be open to such people. But it is. That is the heart of God. And, as Jonah learned from his experience preaching to those wretched Ninevites, we can’t shrink Him down to our size.

That’s who the gospel is for. After all, what kind of good news would we be spreading if it were reserved for good church people?


Confusing Law and Gospel

Of course, no one claims to have arrived at perfection, and yet, Calvin says many do claim “to have yielded completely to God, [claiming that] they have kept the law in part and are, in respect to this part, righteous.”Only the terror of the Law can shake us of this self-confidence. Thus, the Law condemns and drives us to Christ, so that the Gospel can comfort without any threats or exhortations that might lead to doubt. ~Michael Horton

There’s been a fair amount of discussion of late among evangelical writers I read regarding the vital distinction between what I’ll refer to as the Law/Gospel distinction. Now, let me begin this post with a disclaimer: I’m a far cry from a theological scholar (and neither do I claim to be as much, which will come as no surprise to those who’ve followed my blog/writing the last few years). So, instead of pretending, I’ll lean on a respected theologian to do the heavy lifting in this post.

Personally speaking, it’s been since the days of big hair and parachute pants that I began to understand the great divide between works and grace (see Romans 11:6 below). It was like walking into a surgeons well-lit operating room after having been locked up in a dingy-dark dungeon for what felt like eons (I mention “works and grace” because it wasn’t until last few years I’ve become more familiar with the Law/Gospel distinction, credit goes to being casual student of Luther’s).

Michael Horton, who I quote above, has written and lectured extensively on the topic, and in a manner I think any layman with half a desire to wrap their brain around this whole idea will benefit from. Horton explains in a way that can be not only understood, but should be appreciated. In his book “Christless Christianity”, he writes (pages 124-125):

We need the law and the gospel, but each does different things. When we confuse law and gospel, we avoid both the trauma of God’s holiness and the liberating power of his grace. We begin to speak about living the gospel, doing the gospel, even being the gospel, as if the Good News were a message about us and our works instead of about Christ and his works. The proper response is neither to dispense with the law nor to soften it from demand to helpful advice. Rather, it is to recognize the difference between law and gospel. We are not called to live the gospel but to believe the gospel and to follow the law in view of God’s mercies. Turning the gospel into law is a very easy thing for us to do; it comes naturally. That is why we can never take the Good News for granted.

Any form of doing the gospel is a confusion of categories. The law tells us what to do; the gospel tells us what God has done for us in Christ. When it comes the question about how we relate to God, doing is the wrong answer. Paul explains, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4-5). It is not just some deeds on our part that are excluded here, but our works of any kind. “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6).

…The law tells us what God expects of us; the gospel tells us what God has done for us.

So the law and the gospel are not inherently opposed, but when it comes to how we are saved, these two principles could not be more antithetical.  And since our faith at every moment is threatened by our natural tendency to be distracted from its object—Christ—we need the gospel placarded before us not just at the beginning, but throughout the Christian life.  The gospel is for Christians too.  We need to be evangelized every week.  It is not by following Christ’s example but by being inserted into Christ, clothed with Christ, united to Christ—as the Spirit creates faith through the gospel—we are not only justified but sanctified as well.

On the surface, the Law/Gospel distinction might not look important, but when you get down into the trenches of Christian living and faith, the ramifications couldn’t be any more gargantuan.

Thoughts?

For further reading see:

The Resurgence: “The Law & The Gospel” by Michael Horton

Tullian Tchividjian’s Blog: “Horton On The Law And The Gospel”

Tullian Tchividjian’s Blog: Interview With Mike Horton: Part One 

Tullian Tchividjian’s Blog: Interview With Mike Horton: Part Two

Tullian Tchividjian’s Blog: Luther On Law


Saving Others?

“I, yes I, am the Lord, and there is no other Savior.” ~Isaiah 43:11

I remember the year, it was 1988 and I was what would be best described as a self-confident nineteen year old whippersnapper off to learn how I was gonna change the world. Yeah, me. All you’d have needed to do to confirm was ask me. Press 1 for Ken, press 2 you’re mistaken.

In my mind, God had called me to go and learn how to save people, and here I was being the obedient servant, “Her I am Lord, send me.” Surely the world was on its way to hell in a hand basket and I was gonna be the remedy.

God could certainly benefit from having a guy like, well… Me. No need for the Trinity. There was me, me and me. “I’m your go to guy, G.O.D.” The Father, Son and Holy Spirit could long at last take a breather, I had it handled. He’d pulled me out of a pile of garbage, and now I was gonna return the favor. What good could come from Detroit?… I was going to show the church world, the hour had come.

It was Dallas Texas, a place I had never been, and here I was at Bible College. Dealey Plaza , the legendary Cowboys and their plastic make pretend cheerleaders, Stars and Mavericks, and the Rangers in Arlington. On top of that, we’re talking Texas, a place annually competing for a top spot in the race to be God’s Country—Bible belt buckle material if there ever was such a place, and now they had me on their team.

My watch was ticking and my opportunity was ripe. I was gonna win the world, so I figured I’d better learn the lingo of a gospel preacher. The ins and outs and all that jazz. I’d shown up, I’d arrived and I was going places. My own Utopia. Shoot, I went to the most famous preacher on this planets church and sat in the front row, smack dab in the middle. Hands down, I was destined for this. It was the place to be if you were serious, and I was serious.

My pastor, most likely the country’s most well-known at the time, called me out of a crowd of maybe 3000 at a Sunday night gathering (and the joint sat more than that), “Young man, God’s on your life.” Turns out more than two decades later, he was spot on, but looking back (and hindsight does help), I didn’t take it the right way. Instead of seeing God was with me, I mistakenly thought God was hitching his train on me. Surely, in my mind, I’d be saving people soon. Hundreds. Thousands. Millions. I figured that God needed me. Me, God’s little big man, or big little man. But little did I remotely realize at the time, he was the big God.

All I needed was some fine tuning. No craftsman can master his trade without some tools. High profile speakers would arrive each week to share with us, some big shots, and others humble men and women of God (the ones who decided against fleecing the people of God). Some had some pretty outlandish and crazy other-worldly stories about exploits they’d done for God and warned, “Follow Jesus, expect trouble and be a soul-winner.” The message rarely was, “All people need is Jesus, not you, so just give them Jesus.”

People who’d traveled the globe winning souls, taking Malaria pills and saving the lost. And I figured I could save the lost too. Wrong turn.

Upon graduation I was eager and itching to hop on a plane and travel to the utmost ends of the earth myself and share all of the wisdom I had gleaned, spew all of the bible verses that had sunk into my thick skull and seeped into my haughty heart by osmosis, and of course those I’d diligently committed to memory.

Instead, I landed back at my home church in Michigan as a youth pastor at the ripe age of 21, and I was gonna make my mark. I’d preach and teach when I wasn’t taking a kid who’d lost his father to McDonalds, or packing up the church van to take a bunch of wild-eyed hormone raging rowdy teenagers up north for a winter retreat to eat some of the worst food this side of jail. But we had a blast, we made it fun.

As time passed I began to realize that my hubris and grandiose plans of saving the world might have been a bit misguided, and that as much as I wanted to jump in and save a rebel 16 year old from running off the cliff to destruction, I couldn’t.

Yes, Paul writes to his young protégé Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” And Solomon wrote in his famed Proverbs, “…he that winneth souls is wise.”

But neither of these verses mean that you, I, or SuperPastor can save a single soul. We merely point people to the Rescuer. There is only one Savior. If you, or I, get the honor to share his love with anyone, great, but to assume we can save a single soul is heresy. I like David Stanley’s bio on Twitter, “I’m just a nobody, trying to tell everybody, about Somebody who can save anybody!”

So, if you ever see a sign like this out in front of a church, you might think twice about attending. Remember the next time you’re tempted to think you’re God’s answer to a perishing world, you can’t save a flea with a bad case of the flu, let alone yourself or anyone else.

Point people to Jesus, ain’t a soul that will be belting out the grateful tunes of heaven thinking, “Because of Ken I am here.” No, that won’t happen.

It’s only and solely because of Jesus anyone will be walking the streets of gold.

HT (for image): Rae Whitlock @Facebook via “Stuff Fundies Like”