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The Beginning of Discipleship

“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself.” The Gospel is a call for self-denial; it is not a call for self-fulfillment. Some view Jesus as a utilitarian genie—you rub the lamp, He jumps out and says, “You have whatever you want.” You give Him your list and He delivers. There are those who tell you Jesus came just to give you peace and joy. Jesus makes you a better salesman and Jesus helps you hit more home runs. Jesus really wants to elevate your self-image and put an end to your negative thinking.

The familiar words “enter through the narrow gate” are from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:13. Being a Christian means going through a narrow gate, a constricted passage that leaves no room for extra possessions, baggage, or needs. We have to be willing to give up everything. We aren’t going to get saved by dumping all our earthly goods and desires, but we have to be willing to do so. That’s how devoted we have to be to Christ, and that is the beginning of true discipleship.

– John MacArthur, adapted from Truth Endures (March 2011).

December 30, 2011 | Posted in: Pursuit of Holiness,Sanctification/Growth | Author: Crossway Staff @ 8:00 am | 0 Comments »

The Idolatry of Spiritual Laziness

by Jared Wilson from Gospel Wakefulness

Let’s talk about laziness.

Laziness is idolatry. It is closely related to its opposite—workaholism. Both the sins of laziness and workaholism are sins of self-worship. The behavior looks different, but the root idolatry is the same. And the problem we face is that the law cannot do for either of these sins what grace does. There is no saving power in law. Further—and this is the crucial point in this particular discussion—there is no sustainable keeping of the law apart from the compulsion of grace. We can (and should) command repentance from sin, but it is grace that enables repentance and belief that accompanies it. Repentance problems are always belief problems. When we are set free from the law’s curse, we are set free to the law’s blessings. The difference-maker is the gospel and the joyful worship it creates. Any other attempt at law-abiding is just behavior management.

So we cannot cure spiritual laziness by pouring law on it. God turns dry bones into living, breathing, worshiping, working bodies by pouring gospel proclamation into them. When we truly behold the gospel, we can’t help but grow in Christ and with the fruit of the Spirit. Paul captures the essence of this truth in 2 Corinthians 3:15–18:

Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

The law cannot lift the veil. It cannot supply what it demands. But when by the power of the Spirit we turn to behold the Lord—not just see him, but behold him—the veil is lifted and we are transformed bit by bit, so long as we are beholding. This is not self-generated. It comes, Paul says, “from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Vicky Beeching’s song “Captivated” captures this truth well with these lyrics:

Beholding is becoming, so as You fill my view
Transform me into the likeness of You.

According to 2 Corinthians 3:15–18, beholding is becoming. See how Psalm 119:18 relates “beholding as becoming” to obedience:

“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” What must happen for a lazy person to be able to become diligent? He must behold the wondrous things in God’s law.

Does he just decide to do that? No. Okay, well, yes, sort of. But he must be moved to decide to be diligent from a force outside of himself. His eyes must be opened by the Spirit. And in this opening, the law and his keeping of it become wondrous, not tedious. This is really what we’re aiming for with gospel centrality, and it’s what gospel wakefulness (super)naturally produces: obedience to God as worshipful response, not meritorious leverage. We are fixing our eyes on the finished work of Christ so that we may be free, and therefore free to delight in the law, not buckle under it.

Religious people can’t delight in the law like the psalmists do. They have to be set free—and feel free—from its curse first. This is where accusing gospel centrality of facilitating antinomianism becomes nonsensical. Generally speaking, people aren’t lazy because they think they’re forgiven for trespassing the law; they’re lazy because they think the law doesn’t apply to them. The truth is that we worship our way into sin, and we have to worship our way out. When people are lazy (or restless), they do have a sin problem, but the sin problem is just a symptom of the deeper worship problem. Their affections are set somewhere else. And wherever our affections are set is where our behavior will go.

So gospel wakefulness does not mean or produce laziness. But what gospel wakefulness does to the work of obedience is something we cannot muster up of our own power. It is the difference between driving our car and pushing it. Or, better, it is the difference between seeing the Christian life as a rowboat and seeing it as a sailboat.

Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. He is an award-winning author whose articles and short stories have appeared in a number of periodicals, and has written the popular books Your Jesus Is Too Safe and Gospel Wakefulness, as well as the curriculum Abide. Wilson lives in Vermont with his wife and two daughters, and blogs daily at GospelDrivenChurch.com.

How Do You Prioritize What You Read?

There are millions of books on the market. How do you decide which ones to read or which ten thousand books to not read? Tony Reinke, author of Lit!:A Christian Guide to Reading Books, gives six priorities that helps him determine which books to invest his time in. “As with most areas of life, success requires planning,” Reinke explains. “Having a clear purpose for why you read will ensure that the few books you choose will be the books most likely to benefit your life.”

6 Priorities that Decide What Books I Read:

  1. Reading Scripture: If we neglect Scripture in order to read only other books, we not only cut ourselves from the divine umbilical cord that feeds our souls, we also cut ourselves from the truth that makes it possible for us to benefit from the truth, goodness, and beauty in the books that we read.
  2. Reading to know and delight in Christ: The largest topical section in my personal library features books on the person and work of Christ. This is my second highest ranked priority, just after my direct reading of Scripture. If we commit to reading books of solid theology, our knowledge of Christ will grow, because theology (of the right sort) is about knowing God and His Son intimately. Knowledge of Him (not just about Him) feeds, transforms, and vivifies the soul. This is the most delightful pursuit we could ever know.
  3. Reading to kindle spiritual reflection: The Christian life is about training the mind, kindling the affections, and learning the vocabulary of the faith (1 Cor. 14:20; Rom. 12:2). This requires deep spiritual reflection on topics like faith, grace, sin, death, and eternal life. The Christian literature that fuels my spiritual reflection comes in a variety of sizes, formats, and genres. (including novels, poetry, and biography).
  4. Reading to initiate personal change: These are the books for battle, the sharp weapons for putting off sin and putting on righteousness. These books help me confront and defeat personal sin and unbelief. They help me to honor God in my role as a husband and as a parent. Our growing knowledge of God must lead to growth in conformity to Christlikeness (2 Pet. 1:5–8). This reading category forces me to think proactively about personal growth and to determine where in my life I need to focus my attention. Carefully selected books will set the pace for focused and long-term change. The church is blessed by a wealth of books on marriage, parenting, sex, depression, discontentment, stress, anxiety, fear, anger, and many others.
  5. Reading to pursue vocational excellence: Christians are to work as though their boss is the Lord himself (Col 3:23), meaning we are called to pursue vocational excellence. And working with skill requires laboring wisely and thoughtfully. I read for vision, to discover and leverage my God-given strengths, to communicate clearly, to organize, to improve my decision making and problem solving,
  6. Reading to enjoy a good story: I read for leisure: non-Christian literature, novels, biographies, humor, and fantasy. Christians should not blush when they read for pleasure, for escape, or “just for fun.” Provided that this is not a form of escapism—and assuming the book does not glorify sin—the practice is enjoyable and honors God.

Learn more about Lit! or read a sample chapter.

Tony Reinke is a former journalist who serves as a theological researcher and blogs at Miscellanies.

More Than a Momentary Defense Against Temptation

Romans 8:5-8 says: For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Setting the mind on the Spirit is not just about what you do in the moment of temptation. It is a reorienting of your thoughts, your desires, and your motivations, so that a Spirit-oriented focus becomes the established pattern of your life.

It might be helpful to imagine your thoughts as scheming inmates who are plotting a jailbreak. (The tendency of your thoughts to jailbreak is one aspect of the flesh). Your thoughts need to be trained so that they stay on the things the Spirit produces, such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23). Normally, your thoughts will try to escape toward jealousy, envy, anger, sensuality, immorality, and even idolatry (Gal. 5:19–21). But you have been called, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

In daily life this means that:

  • You talk to God throughout the day.
  • You fill your mind with songs of worship and you keep directing them upward.
  • You let your thoughts dwell on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8).
  • You actively, by the Spirit, reject wrong thoughts as they come in.

Sometimes as I’m walking, a thought will pass through my mind that I know doesn’t please the Lord. I’ll immediately and suddenly say “stop it!” to that thought. In other words, I rebuke whatever thoughts are not pleasing to the Lord and redirect my thoughts so that they are once again captive to the obedience of Christ.

Adapted from Walking in the Spirit by Kenneth Berding. Learn more or read a free sample chapter.

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“Just Say No” to Sin?

Guest post by Kenneth Berding, author of Walking in the Spirit

Do you remember the “just say no to drugs” campaign waged a number of years ago? (The slogan “just say no” continues to be used in schools across the country). The assumption of the slogan was that kids could simply say “no” whenever faced with temptation. Is that true? Can we simply say “no” whenever we are tempted?

There is a significant difference between a believer and an unbeliever who tries to answer this question. An unbeliever is utterly stuck in sin. Granted, the unbeliever can clean up a behavior he views as wrong, but is that really house cleaning? Such “cleaning” is no more than moving piles from one room to another so the guests can’t see the mess.The unbeliever’s attempt to overcome sin reminds me of the children’s arcade game where you have to hit with a huge mallet whatever blue furry head pops up. The problem with trying to deal with temptation simply by hitting it down is that the moment an unbeliever hits one popping-up head, another pops up behind or in front of him. The unbeliever simply does not have the means by which to consistently overcome sin because he or she has not been indwelt by the Spirit.

But one who has come into a right relationship with God by receiving God’s gift of grace through faith and who has been indwelt by the Spirit of God has been given whatever is needed to overcome a given temptation. “Whatever is needed” is no less than the presence and power of God’s own Spirit! And this is what we have received if we truly know him (Rom 8:9-11).So how should we cooperate with what the Holy Spirit is trying to do to sanctify us? Galatians 5:16 offers a straightforward answer: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Walking by the Spirit and carrying out the desires of the flesh are mutually exclusive ideas; you are either walking by the Spirit or carrying out the desires of the flesh. You can’t do both at the same time. In short, you need to learn how to walk in the Spirit.

Simply saying “no” to sin is like trying to remove all of the air from a cup by covering it with a plastic lid and trying to suck out the air with a straw. You can’t get it all out, even if the lid is well sealed—which it isn’t if you are an unbeliever. But if your goal really is to remove all the air from a cup, fill it up with water and you can be certain that all the air will be out! (Side note: water is one of many biblical metaphors for the Spirit, John 7:38-39). If you really want to overcome sin, then learn the pattern of living life in step with the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:16; Rom 8:4), being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18), setting your mind on the things of the Spirit (Rom 8:5-8). The result of such “walking” will be a realization of the power you need to put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit (Rom 8:12-13).

There is more to be said about overcoming sin than what I’ve written here, but today I wanted to focus on this one key component. It is a vital message for a church culture that tends toward simplistic moralism and does not often stress what the Bible accentuates about overcoming sin by walking in step with the Spirit.

Learn more about Walking in the Spirit or read a sample chapter.

Kenneth Berding is (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and author of numerous books. Before coming to Talbot, Dr. Berding was a church planter in the Middle East and taught at Nyack College just north of New York City. He has a heart for God and ministry, and has written many worship songs and served as a worship pastor in local church ministry.

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