No Ultimate Accidents

Here’s a fun thought experiment. Think through all the things in your life that had to occur just so in order for you to be where you are today, including where you live and who is nearest and dearest to you. Films and novels have captured this fact that every event in our lives is but one link in a long chain (or network) of causes and effects that stretches back to the beginning of the world.

In my own life, I can think through the long series of notable events that had to take place in the precise order and time that they did for me to end up at the church college group where I met my wife, Whitney. If any one of these events had occurred even slightly differently, there is little reason to think I would have met her when I did.

If you are a Christian, the same thought experiment can be done for considering how you came to faith in Christ. Whether you consider the home in which you grew up, the time in history in which you were born, or the church where you ended up, there is a convergence of events that had to take place for you to even hear the gospel. We like to use the word “fortunate” when we think about all this, but we need to understand that according to the Bible, all these necessary events took place according to God’s design, not mere happenstance.

God Determines the When and the Where

When Paul preached to the Athenian philosophers, he said that there is one sovereign Lord and Creator who is responsible for all we have—including the very breath in our lungs. Paul then says God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27a).

What a profound statement! God determined the when and where of every nation. But what is true of nations is also true of individuals. After all, He is a personal God who deals not merely with nations in general, but with individuals in particular.

Consider how personally God deals with King David’s life:

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb... Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” (Psalm 139:13, 16, ESV)

Nothing about our lives—not even the when or the where—is accidental. God can tell Jeremiah the prophet that even before He formed him in his mother’s womb, the Lord had already set him apart for his life’s task (Jeremiah 1:5). Is this only true of Jeremiah? Or does God form each of us in the womb having already planned what our life would look like? Job speaks of everyone born of woman when he says, “A person’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed” (Job 14:5, NLT).

None of this teaching on God’s providential planning of every human life nullifies the truth that we make real choices as image bearers of God. We are not just mechanistic cogs in a grand machine, but precious individuals with loves and fears, who are responsible for our actions.

J. I. Packer uses the word “antinomy” to describe this apparent incongruity between God’s absolute sovereignty and the genuine choices of His creatures.[1] While we tend to pit God’s sovereignty against human responsibility, the Bible never does. Both truths are taught in Scripture, so the Christian must accept both. Whatever cannot be reconciled in our finite minds can and is reconciled in the mind of God (Isaiah 55:8-9; Romans 11:33-36).

If God is absolutely sovereign, there can be no accidents. Nothing about your life can be chalked up to mere happenstance or dumb luck.

“Forbidden by the Holy Spirit to Speak”

In the book of Acts, we read the story of Paul’s first journey to the city of Philippi. It’s fascinating to see all the events God used to providentially bring His Apostle to these people.

It all starts with Paul, Silas, and Timothy setting out to reach the people of Asia (the northwestern region of modern Turkey) with the gospel. They know God has called them to proclaim this message of grace, but they aren’t exactly sure where yet. Consider how the Holy Spirit sovereignly directs their steps:

“And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” (Acts 16:6-10, NIV)

It can seem kind of strange at first when we read that they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia” (v. 6). We might think, Why wouldn’t God want Paul to preach the gospel there? And then we find out that they wanted to go to Bithynia, but again “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (v. 7). We wonder, What’s the deal? Doesn’t God want those people to hear the gospel and be saved, too? Elsewhere, we read that God does not wish “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9, ESV).

But we can forget at this point that God in His perfect grace is also sovereign. He is King over all, and He never acts arbitrarily or on a whim. And while we don’t understand all the reasons, what we need to see is that God had a sovereign appointment for Paul. It wasn’t in Asia, and it wasn’t in Bithynia. But it was in Macedonia, and Philippi was smack dab in the middle of Macedonia. This reminds us that ultimately the salvation of the lost is not up to us; it is up to God. He is the One who does the sovereign work of salvation, and He’s working out His perfect plan according to His timetable.

We aren’t called to debate with God about what is best. He alone is God. Scripture tells us that He is the Potter; we are the clay.[2] We don’t get to tell God what to do. He is the One in charge of this whole show, and the more we get on board with His plan, the better things will go for us in the long run.

It’s intriguing to me that God gets Paul’s attention here by appealing to his compassion. In Paul’s dream, he sees a man from Macedonia pleading with Paul, “Please, Paul. Come here and help us!” We know this is primarily about meeting their need for salvation, because verse 10 says that Paul immediately concludes God called them “to preach the gospel” to those Macedonians. So this man in the vision is saying, “Paul, we’re lost and without hope! We are doomed if you don’t come tell us about the risen Lord.”

All by Grace

When they come to Philippi, things initially go very well. Paul and his buddies find a group of women just outside the city meeting together by the river. And Paul begins to open the Word of God to these women, telling them the good news that forgiveness of sins is freely offered to them through the Lord Jesus. Wherever Paul goes in the book of Acts, he calls people to repent of their sin and trust in Jesus as their sin-bearing Lord and Savior. He nearly always gets a mixed response from people when he preaches the gospel.

But for whatever reason, the author Luke zeroes in on one particular individual, a woman named Lydia and her response. “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). Isn’t that beautiful? “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what” Paul said.

As Christians, we can wonder, Why does God have me where I’m at right now? Why this job? Or maybe, Why can’t I find a job? Why this neighborhood? Why this health issue? Why this hardship? But what if God has you exactly where He wants you right now? It may not be where you’ll be forever or for very long, but what if God has a purpose in putting you in the situations you face every day? What if God wants to use you where you are right now in a way that He couldn’t use you otherwise?

If we see nothing else from Lydia’s conversion, we need to see this: God is sovereignly orchestrating His plan in every person’s life. No one comes to Christ by accident. God is working out His plan. When you take a step back, it’s amazing to see how this all worked out. Remember, Paul wanted to go to Asia. God said no. Paul wanted to go to Bithynia. God said no. Finally, God gives Paul a vision to bring his band of merry men to Macedonia, and finally to Philippi.

And when they get to Philippi, it just so happens that they find a group of women meeting by the river outside the city. What a coincidence, right? What good luck! And it just so happens that God was preparing the heart of a woman in that group named Lydia who was about to receive the gospel. Amazing, isn’t it? All along, God was setting Paul up. He says, “I’m going to use you to bring My gospel to Lydia, Paul. And Lydia’s going to believe. Lydia’s Mine.”

There are no ultimate accidents. There are no coincidences in God’s mind. He is working out His perfect plan for the good of His people and the glory of His name. We serve a sovereign God, a God far more powerful and good and merciful than we could possibly imagine.

If you are a Christian today, it is because God worked out all the details for you to encounter the gospel of the crucified and risen Lord. He brought the light of truth into your heart, where before there was only spiritual blindness (2 Corinthians 4:4-6). If someone led you to Christ, it wasn’t sheer luck that you happened to know that person. God is in the business of rescuing people from their sin according to His perfect and sovereign plan. In evangelism, we have an essential part to play, but we didn’t write the script.

And when we share the gospel, we are simply jumping on board with His plan that is already in motion. We’re not the master engineers here. He’s the One who wrote the blueprint for His plan of redemption. So what does that mean? That means all the glory goes to Him for saving us. We don’t even get a smidgen of the credit. Because it’s all by His grace.

J. I. Packer points out that this is actually good news. When we share the gospel with others, we are participating in a mission that cannot fail. And the fact that we pray for the lost to be converted is proof that we really do believe He is sovereign in salvation. Packer writes:

“When you pray for unconverted people, you do so on the assumption that it is in God’s power to bring them to faith. You entreat Him to do that very thing, and your confidence in asking rests on the certainty that He is able to do what you ask. And so indeed He is: this conviction, which animates your intercessions, is God’s own truth, written on your heart by the Holy Spirit.”[3]

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5, NLT). You have been saved by grace! Not human effort.

Have you repented and trusted in the Lord Jesus for salvation? If not, I urge you to do that today. If you have, have you thanked God for your conversion?

Soli Deo Gloria.

Have thoughts on this post? Feel free to comment below!

[1] J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 23-24. As Packer explains, an antinomy is something in theology that has “an appearance of contradiction,” but “is not a real contradiction.”

[2] See Jeremiah 18:5-6; Romans 9:19-21.

[3] Packer, 19.


Why Thanksgiving Matters

One might expect that when a nation is deeply divided, few blessings can emerge. Strongly held conflicting views spill over on social media and in the news media. It seems that some Americans have contempt for one another. Many more feel overwhelmed by rising costs, unsure how they will pay all the bills as the year draws to an end. Those with health problems feel that burden most acutely. Still others feel burdened by all the ways they’ve been mistreated, overlooked, and undermined in the recent past. But this week our nation celebrates a holiday called “Thanksgiving.”

The First Thanksgiving

When we think of the historical roots of Thanksgiving, we most often think back to our forebears who came across the Atlantic to create a life in the “New World” in 1620. Many who stepped off the Mayflower were seeking a new start. Some, known as Separatists, wanted to freely worship God according to their understanding of Scripture. Others, with an adventurous spirit, had high hopes of making a fortune in this land of opportunity. The Pilgrims suffered from hunger, scurvy, and other diseases. Only 50 of the original 102 Pilgrims survived the first winter. It was a trying time, and things could have ended very badly.

In November 1621, Governor William Bradford organized a feast for these early settlers, and they invited the local Wampanoag tribe, along with their chief Massasoit. The Pilgrims had overcome the odds with a bountiful harvest of crops, largely thanks to Squanto, a Native American who taught them how to catch fish and plant corn. In 1609, the young Squanto had been captured by Europeans and sold into slavery – much like the Joseph of the Bible. Although Squanto’s enslavement was a clear violation of Scripture (Exodus 21:16; 1 Timothy 1:10), he ended up in the care of a kind Spanish monk in Europe, who taught him the Christian faith. Later, Squanto was allowed to return to North America, only to find his tribe had been wiped out by an epidemic. Squanto later saw his role was to help these struggling Europeans establish themselves in his homeland. Because of his invaluable assistance, Governor Bradford called Squanto “a special instrument of God for their good.”[1]

Bradford understood that ultimately “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17), so he wanted to celebrate God’s provision with a meal. A meal was a beautiful idea, because food has a way of bringing people together, even if such people are quite different. Historian Robert McKenzie observes that these Separatists would never have dreamed they were starting a holiday, or “holy day.” But on the other hand, since nothing is ultimately secular in the Christian worldview, Bradford did see the importance of honoring God on this festal occasion.[2] This iconic meal, with the Pilgrims and Native Americans gathering together to feast in peace, is what we usually imagine at the first Thanksgiving.

Obviously, the sentimentality tends to wear off when we recall that the European and Native American relationship was rarely so sweet and inspiring as this time. However rare it may be, historians have noted how the settlers’ harmonious relationship with the Wampanoag lasted a precious 50 years. Another important reminder is that the Pilgrims continued struggling to survive for the next two years after 1621. Indeed, during that time “it was typical for the colonists to go to bed at night not knowing where the next day’s nourishment would come from.”[3] But something about that first feast gives us a picture of what can happen in the sweet providence of God, even among those who hold conflicting worldviews.[4]

Something else often glossed over is that while the Pilgrims credited divine providence for that first Thanksgiving harvest, they said the famines of the next two years also came from God’s hand. “This was not the caprice of nature, but the handiwork of the Creator who worked ‘all things according to the counsel of His will’ (Ephesians 1:11).”[5] They recognized that sometimes God sends trials to stretch our faith and grow us. As Job asked, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10). It might seem strange to us that these Pilgrims saw that first harvest as a time to honor God with thanks, given that they had buried around half of their family and friends in the last year. But they rested on God’s promise, that God “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation

Interestingly, Thanksgiving was not recognized as a national holiday until Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863, when he declared:

“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”[6]

Once again, this was a time of great trial and conflict for the nation. America was so deeply divided that it was smack dab in the middle of the Civil War, “a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity” in Lincoln’s words. Lincoln saw this as a time to also humbly repent of “national perverseness and disobedience” and to implore God “to heal the wounds of the nation.” [7]

In that address, Lincoln reminded Americans that even in the midst of great difficulty, we must remember the blessings of God.

“To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come… which are so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of God.”[8]

Lincoln’s point is that we must never take anything for granted. If nothing else, we can thank God for our most recent meal, for clean water, and for fresh air. All of these come from His generous and loving hand.

Gratitude for Divine Providence

Some people look around this world full of suffering and say there is no evidence for a good God. In some ways, I see their point. This world is riddled with wars, crime, disease, and death. But way back in the first century, when Paul proclaimed the gospel to a pagan crowd, he brought a different perspective.

“In past generations He allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet He did not leave Himself without witness, for He did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (Acts 14:16-17)

Weather and crop success is not subject to the meaningless whims of Mother Nature, but rather is under the providential direction of Father God. As the Pilgrims recognized, God “sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mathew 5:45, ESV). When we’re not in survival mode, as those Pilgrims were, we can tend to forget how good and gracious God is to provide us with food and drink each day. Paul said the fact that we have these basic provisions in life is silent testimony that God is good.

Later, when writing to the Thessalonian church, Paul urged his fellow believers to seek to live in peace even when they are often afflicted by persecutors.

“See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 5:15-19, ESV)

Paul understood that for a community of Christ-followers to thrive, there must be an overwhelming sense of God’s goodness. No matter what your circumstances might be right now, Scripture says that there is cause for giving thanks. Why? Because this world is not run by the purposeless forces of blind nature, but by the providential hand of a good and wise God. Nothing happens apart from Him who does all things according to His good pleasure (Psalm 115:3; 135:6).

So because of that, Christians always have reason to delight in God’s goodness and should rejoice in His saving grace. After all, God did not have to send His Son into the world to save us from our sins, but in astounding mercy, He did. The fact that Jesus didn’t abandon us as the lost sheep that we were is reason enough for great thanksgiving and praise.

The Lord wants His people to have a calm confidence in His good sovereignty. This a supernatural peace that comes by the Spirit who indwells us. When Christians fail to “give thanks in all circumstances,” they are quenching the work of the Spirit, who wants to give us joy, love, and peace – even in the midst of heartbreak and affliction.

Both the Pilgrims of 1621 and the Americans of 1863 found reason to honor God with thanksgiving, even while facing the harsh realities of life in a broken world. Contemporary Christians need to recapture this strong confidence in the providence of God. What would it look like if Christians were known more for their gratitude and praise of God in all circumstances than for their finger-wagging and complaining?

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6, ESV)

Have thoughts on this post? Feel free to comment below!

[1] Robert Tracy McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, Kindle edition.

[2] Ibid. McKenzie writes, “[H]istorians generally agree that what we now remember as the First Thanksgiving was not a Thanksgiving holiday at all in the Pilgrims’ estimation, but rather a kind of autumn harvest festival. That contemporary Americans are disposed to see this as a distinction without a difference says a lot about our values, not the Pilgrims’.”

[3] Ibid.

[4] While the Pilgrims worshiped the God of the Bible, the Wampanoag were an animistic tribe, attributing parts of nature with having a soul.

[5] McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving.

[6] Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address and Other Works, 383.

[7] Ibid, 382-3.

[8] Ibid, 382.

The Hope of a New Beginning

You cannot change the past. This is a hard truth for many who can still feel the sting from past blunders, embarrassments, and betrayals. But though we cannot undo what has been done, we can begin again. That’s the great hope of Christianity. And when we begin again, we no longer have to be controlled by our past. Through the gospel of Jesus Christ, we can break free from regret, guilt, and resentment.

Many people say things like, “I’m trying to reinvent myself.” They are tired of being criticized or scrutinized, marked by the decisions they once made. Like a tattoo that can’t be removed, many feel like their past has left a mark that can never be erased. They wonder, “Is this how I will always be seen?” Or even, “Will I always see myself as a reflection of my past?”

Maybe there are times you’ve wished you could relive certain moments in your life. You’ve thought, If only I had handled that differently.  If only I hadn’t spoken so foolishly. If only I had shown more courage or humility in that moment.

If only… How many have this phrase etched across their hearts?

In his 2022 memoir, Matthew Perry, who played the witty Chandler Bing in the hit series Friends, had his own regrets to share. Throughout his career, Perry slept with many women, desperately wanting to be loved but never being willing to commit. He writes of the “if only” moment when he almost proposed to the love of his life but changed his mind at the last second, afraid she would eventually reject him.

“I had missed the moment. Maybe she’d been expecting it, who knows. I’d been seconds away; seconds, and a lifetime. I often think if I’d asked, now we’d have two kids and a house… Instead, I’m some schmuck who’s alone in his house at fifty-three, looking down at an unquiet ocean.”[1]

You might not be a celebrity, but maybe you can relate to Perry’s deep sense of regret. You wonder what life would entail had you popped the question, applied for the job, or taken the leap of faith. But the past remains where it always is. We cannot jump into our DeLorean, fire up the flux capacitor, and travel back through time.

Moving Forward

Some of us have committed greater sins than others. Some of us have been sinned against greatly. In some sense, we all have baggage. But it’s so important to know that you are not alone in your pain. It may seem like you are the only one going through the deep anguish of regret, but let me assure you that you’re not. God is ready to help you like a devoted shepherd with an injured lamb. The Lord is a healer; He can reach the deepest parts of our soul. When we open ourselves to Him honestly and confess the pain of the past, we can know His cleansing power as never before.[2]

While it’s important to get honest about what has happened, Scripture also urges us not to dwell on the past. You can visit old memories to make peace and learn from them, but it’s not a place to stay. The only way to move on is to move forward.

The Apostle Paul had his own share of regrets. We may know him today as Saint Paul, but his past was stained with blood as a persecutor of the church. And yet he wrote:

“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13b-14, NIV)

Paul understood that in order to move forward, you have to have a goal, something to reach for and cling to. Despite his regrets and checkered past, Paul chose to dwell on his Savior “who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Have you discovered the new beginning you can have in Christ? Do you know the ocean of love God has for you in Christ? Saying “God loves you” is not just a quaint cliché we like to say to gin up good feelings. It is an objective fact we can know because Jesus was sacrificed on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago.

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8, NASB)

The cross proves God’s love for us, because all our regrets and shameful failures were piled up on Christ when He “bore our sins in His own body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).

No More Condemnation

Through faith in Christ, we are no longer condemned enemies of God, but justified children of God.

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)

It’s so important that we come back to this truth over and over. No condemnation in Christ. That needs to be the chorus playing on repeat that never gets old and always quiets our hearts. We never outgrow our need to hear it. In Christ, you are not condemned.

Whatever our mind focuses on shapes our identity. When we feast on the truth, we can embrace this new identity with every sunrise. Trusting in Christ and what He did on the cross for the forgiveness of sins is where it all begins. Unfortunately, there are many so-called Christian authors that are actually proclaiming a gospel of self-love, that the way to move forward is to fall more in love with yourself rather than to embrace God’s love and forgiveness for you in Christ.[3]

Knowing that our guilt was really and truly taken away at the cross is what truly changes everything. And it’s the truth we must continually apply to our hearts, which so often want to condemn us (1 John 3:20).

But what about this terrible thing I’ve done? There’s no condemnation in Christ.

But I can’t seem to move past what’s happened. There’s no condemnation in Christ.

It’s not that sin doesn’t matter to our holy God; it’s that He fully condemned our sin in Christ already.

“He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sin’s domain, and as a sin offering, in order that the law’s requirement would be accomplished in us.” (Romans 8:3b-4a, HCSB)

The condemnation that was owing to us fell on Christ, God’s own Son. In an act of astounding love, the Lord Jesus bore the judgment for our sins.

“But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5, NIV)

But why? Why the brutality of crucifixion? Why would God do this to His dearly beloved Son — the very One who worked with Him in the creation of the universe, the One who was daily His delight? As one young man put it, “Why not just forgive us without that bloody mess of a cross?”

It’s a good question that gets to the heart of the gospel. The only way to truly understand the meaning of the cross is to first see that God is holy—inexpressibly, unfathomably holy. His eyes are so blazingly pure that He cannot bear to look at sin. We could not dwell with God while covered in sin. That is why our sin had to be judged at the cross if we were to ever have a new beginning. Until that burden was lifted, our past would continue to condemn us—even if we stuffed it down into our subconscious.

No wonder Christians throughout the last 2,000 years have seen the cross as a symbol of hope, forgiveness, and cleansing. The cross assures us that God has not abandoned us in our shame and regret. Because of His astounding love for us, we don’t have to live under the burden of shame and guilt. This is why Christians are always singing about the cross. Without it, we have no hope of a new beginning.

If God Is for You

Our enemy despises the cross. The Bible calls Satan “the accuser of our brothers and sisters… who accuses them before our God day and night” (Revelation 12:10, NLT). The devil would have us fixate on our past regrets rather than strive toward a new beginning.

Thankfully, the cross of Christ speaks a better word over us.

“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Romans 8:31-34, ESV)

I love this series of questions because it underscores the power of the gospel. If the sovereign God of the universe is for you, why would you ever be afraid? If God declares you are justified, welcomed, and forever made clean, how could you ever feel abandoned? If God gave up His very greatest treasure—His own Son—how could He possibly hold back something less? If God has given you His beloved Son, well, then He will surely give you everything!

When we are not letting our mind marinate in the truth of God’s Word, we will hear the enemy’s word instead. The devil continually prods us with, “Look what you’ve done!” or “Look what’s been done to you!” The Holy Spirit whispers, “Look what Christ has done for you!”

Instead of fixating on the past, let’s fix our eyes on Jesus “the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). In love, He will see us through to the end. In Him, you can have a new beginning as a beloved child of God.

Have thoughts on this post? Feel free to comment below!

[1] Matthew Perry, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, 176.

[2] Psalm 32:5; 1 John 1:9.

[3] For example, see Rachel Hollis, Girl, Wash Your Face. This book is reviewed by Alisa Childers here: Girl, Wash Your Face? What Rachel Hollis Gets Right and Wrong (

True Manliness

Have you heard of Moto-X freestyle motocross? It’s the sport where guys jump motorcycles over buildings and hang from the handlebars with their feet as they somersault their bikes 50 feet in the air. It’s incredible to watch some of the videos of these daredevils. Brian Deegan is the most decorated champion of Freestyle Motocross in X-Games history. But the most important thing about Deegan is that he is a follower of Christ.

In 1997, Deegan formed the Metal Mulisha, a freestyle Motocross team, which over the next 8 years became known for their wild success in jumping competitions, and also for their violent and rebellious spirits. Their focus seemed to be on motorcycles, alcohol, drugs, sex, and fighting. Then three things happened that forever changed Deegan’s life.

First, his girlfriend became pregnant and wanted to keep the baby. Second was a botched high-speed midair backflip in the 2006 X-Games that nearly killed Deegan and led to months of physical rehab. And third, Deegan finally agreed to go to church with his girlfriend. To his surprise, he didn’t hate it. In fact, before long, he came to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. After this, he married his girlfriend and began to make some major changes in his life, like quitting drinking and drugs.

Beyond this, he even started a Bible study with the Metal Mulisha bikers. Before long, many in this rough and wild group were coming to faith in Christ. One of his buddies put it like this: “[Deegan] kept telling us how much the Bible changed his life… I felt like I had to listen.”[1]

The cool thing is that out of all this, Deegan has come to see the need to be the man that God has called him to be. In his words, “I had kids and I have to be a role model to represent to my kids… I had to grow up, had to be a man, had to be a father, and so I did it, dude.”

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a powerful thing, the very “power of God for salvation” according to the Bible (Romans 1:16). It can transform a foul-mouthed, alcohol-abusing drug user into a man who wants to be all that God has created him to be.

That brings up an important question for today. What is it that God calls men to be?

God’s Blueprint for Masculinity

I have a real passion for men’s ministry and encouraging men in their walk with Christ. My prayer is that the men of my generation would step up to be the men God has created them to be. I firmly believe that much of the chaos and corruption we see in our society today in the 21st century can be traced back to men failing to act like men.

There are many half-baked ideas out there about what true manliness looks like. Some guys think manliness is defined by how many pounds you can bench press or how many guns you own or how many mountains you’ve climbed or how many women you’ve slept with. When we think of manliness, Hollywood faces like John Wayne, Bruce Willis, and Harrison Ford come to mind.

In one John Wayne movie, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the Duke portrays the rough n’ tough Captain Brittles. One line he repeats is, “Never apologize! It’s a sign of weakness.” Based on images like that, we could think that manliness is about never saying sorry.

But we as men need to come back to our Creator’s intent and design for manhood. Here’s something I know. As a man, you have a craving for significance. God put that desire in you. You know that as a man you have certain responsibilities that no one else can do for you. For many of us, that means being the husband that our wives need us to be.

Men are called to break free of those lousy stereotypes that our culture paints of men as irresponsible dopes who are incapable and incompetent.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

What are some things you notice about God’s creation of man here?

Men today need an identity, and that identity comes from God alone. We were made in God’s image, made to relate to Him, to know Him, and to lovingly lead and provide for others. From the very beginning, men have had a purpose: to bear the image of God, relate to God, and to rule over His creation. What so many men miss today is that apart from a relationship with God as Father, we will never know our true purpose.

Working and Keeping

“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)

What do you notice about man here? He has a calling to “work” and “keep”—or “protect” the garden. In other words, we as men are to work hard and cultivate the good. And remember, this is before the woman has even been created yet. So this is a charge specifically for the man. I’m not saying that women can’t garden. That’s not the point. This is about the responsibility God has given to men first and foremost.

Let’s examine those words. When you hear the word “work,” think of a gardener building up trellises, cultivating the soil, and planting seeds. That’s the picture here. The man is called to build up and develop the places God calls him to. That’s why you take so much satisfaction in seeing a project through to completion. That’s how God wired you. He designed men to be planters, builders, and growers. Whether it be at work, in the home, or in our relationships, God calls us as men to take the initiative to build up the places and people in our lives.

For starters, this means that we are not to be lazy. Wherever we are at in life, God calls us to excel. Christian men, of all people, should be the best employees. We shouldn’t be content with partial jobs. We should give our best effort day after day, and we should own it when we’ve messed up.

But this idea of working the garden extends to our relationships. In a marriage, it is the man’s responsibility to cultivate his relationship with his wife. In Ephesians 5, we see that the husband is called the head of the wife” (Eph. 5:23), which simply means men are called to step up and be humble leaders in the home. The sad truth is that many men have been passive about their role in the home. But men are called to step up, take the hits when they come, and lead their wives and families.

I want to be the best husband to my wife and best dad to my boys I can possibly be. God is honored when we aim high and give our all, especially in these key relationships. Too many men have low expectations for themselves, and this should not be.

Humble Headship

Here’s what being the head of the home does not mean. It does not mean men get to be the ones who sit in the easy chair and bark orders like an insecure dictator. Instead, it looks more like the captain sacrificially leading the charge into battle. God calls husbands to love their wives even “as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).  Leading doesn’t mean men have to have all the ideas. It can often sound like this, “Okay, here’s what I had in mind. What do you think?”  Being the head of the home means that you are called to initiate times of prayer, crucial discussions, and encouragement for your family.

If you’re married, this means taking care to spend quality time with your wife, looking for opportunities to pursue her romantically even in your marriage. This doesn’t mean being open to the idea of spending time with your wife; it means making time for your wife! She needs to know that she is a top priority in your life. God calls men to purity and faithfulness.

“Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” (Hebrews 13:4)

Let me say something you already know: women are a mystery. They are a wonderful, confusing mystery to us! Just when you think you have your wife figured out, she will do something totally unexpected. That’s part of the joy of marriage.

We are constantly trying to understand them, and they will continue to baffle us for the rest of our lives. But men, this is a relationship we cannot afford to neglect. We have to work at our marriage. This will involve love and sacrifice on your part. How willing are you to make sacrifices for your wife and family and others you love?

It also involves encouraging her with your words. If you are married, you have more ability to build up your wife than anyone. Your encouragements and compliments carry a lot of weight. I heard a story about a couple sitting at a wedding reception. As the music swelled, a woman’s hopelessly romantic husband put his arm around her, leaned in, and softly said, “You are more beautiful than half the women here.” Yeah, maybe don’t use that line. You might end up on the couch after that one. Use the right words to build up your wife.

We are called to cultivate other relationships, too. Men, in particular, play an essential role as fathers and father figures. I say “father figures” because sometimes children don’t have a biological father in the picture. So, there are times, when other men who love Jesus are called to the role of nurturing and encouraging like a father would for that child. But children need fathers. Studies continue to bear this out—when children grow up deprived of a father, it leaves a massive hole inside. Even if they don’t realize it, they continue to ache for the love that only a father can give.

And remember, we aren’t just called to “work” but to “keep” the gardens of our lives. That means we are called to be the protectors. We are to care for our loved ones and watch out when physical or spiritual danger is near.

Genesis 3 records the story of the fall when the serpent approached Eve. But you know something tragic? What we often miss is that Genesis 3:6 says that after Eve ate the fruit “she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” Did you catch that? Adam was right there “with her” when the tempter came.

Adam was failing in his God-given duty to step up and protect Eve. He was failing to be the head of the home and lead. He just passively watched everything unfold even though it was Adam that God had directly told not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He was told that “in the day you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Look, I’m not excusing Eve, because she knew what God said, too. But how tragic that Adam failed to be the man God designed him to be in that moment.

What are some other ways we “keep” or “protect”? We aren’t to let weeds grow in the gardens of our lives. We are to pull out the weeds of sin, lust, and anger. If you don’t actively work to protect your garden, weeds of all kinds will spring up.

So, to summarize: A man’s purpose is to live in relationship with God, to rule over creation under the rule of God, and that ruling involves working and keeping every area and relationship that God assigns us.

But here’s where we need to see something. Because we all know, none of us has been perfect in the areas of work, relationships, marriage, and parenting.

Restored Manliness

Before concluding, we need to consider Jesus Christ, because He is the Ultimate Man. Maybe you’ve never thought of Jesus as manly. You might have seen one of those old paintings where Jesus has a soft glow around his head, His eyes are sort of glazed over, and He almost looks like a little kid with a beard. But that’s not the Jesus of history. That’s not the real Jesus who is alive today. Jesus was and is the manliest Man you’ll ever meet. So because of that, we need to look to Jesus for our definition of manhood.

Jesus didn’t fail in the work God assigned Him. Not only did He show love to others and care for the sick and the needy, He did the ultimate work of going to the cross for us. Jesus loved us so much, He went through with the ultimate sacrifice of dying so that you could be forgiven. When you consider all the ways you’ve failed to live as the man God created you to be, you need to see that God never gave up on you.

As He hung on the cross, Christ willingly took all our failures and sins on Himself. He died to pay the debt we owed to God. And you know what Christ said in His final breath from the cross? “It is finished” (John 19:30). In other words, the work of salvation was finished. And because Jesus completed that work, we can be forgiven of our failures and made new creations in God’s sight. This is why it all begins with surrendering your life to Jesus.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

When men don’t get their identity from God, they will look in all the wrong places. They will find their identity in sports, career, or sexual encounters. But when we get our identity from Christ, we let Him define true manliness for us.

The world might say that manliness is about how many fights you’ve won, how reckless you are, and how much you can drink. That’s what Brian Deegan once thought. But now he understands that true manliness is about living a life yielded to Christ, taking your identity from Him.

True manliness isn’t about never apologizing to anyone. It’s about loving others, taking an interest in others, and making sacrifices for others. When we do that, we are pointing others to Jesus Christ. This is God’s calling for men.

Have thoughts on this post? Feel free to comment below!

[1] This story is given in Richard Phillips, The Masculine Mandate.

God, Government, and the King of Kings

Politics can be a tough subject to broach. Many of us know what it’s like to sit down for a nice family Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner when out of the blue, good ol’ Uncle Albert decides to bring up politics. And what happens? Suddenly, it’s no longer a quaint family meal with pleasant small talk. Instead, a current of emotions sweeps through the room. Blood pressures rise. Voices get a little louder. Tensions grow. Grandma makes sure the carving knife is safely out of reach.

And why is that? What is it about politics that makes the blood boil?

Well, in part, it’s because politics – especially lately – has become an identity marker. It’s a discussion about who you are as a person: what you believe, what you cherish, and, of course, what you utterly, absolutely oppose.

Clearly, we’re living in a very politically divisive time, but Christians must have a distinct approach to the subject, shining the light of grace and truth.

So, in the midst of the election fever that is sweeping America right now, I believe it’s important to see four biblical truths for the Christian to consider during this election season.

1. God, Not Government, Is Our Ultimate Authority.

This is evident in God’s display of power over the Pharaoh of Egypt. Pharaoh thought of his authority as ultimate, and God disabused him of this fallacy. When Pharaoh refused to obey Yahweh’s command to release His people from their enslavement, God brought the hammer of judgment. He did this by striking Egypt with ten devastating plagues, which demonstrated Yahweh’s supremacy over Pharaoh and all the Egyptian gods.

At the same time, He tells Pharaoh that God is the One who put this tyrant in authority. God says, “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16, ESV). Pharaoh was put in power by God, but for his hard heart and rebellion, he was also judged by God. What does this tell us?

All political leaders, kings, queens, and governing officials, are ultimately accountable to God. That’s why the prophet Nathan can confront his king about his adultery with Bathsheba. He points his finger right at David and says, “You are the man who has done this!” Similarly, John the Baptist had the courage to call out King Herod for his adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife. What gave these prophetic voices such incredible audacity? They knew that, ultimately, all earthly authorities must answer to the highest authority of Heaven.

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve had a highly celebrated political career or you’re a relatively unknown janitor at the courthouse. One day, you will have to answer to the Judge of all mankind, who searches your heart and mind. Nobody is “hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). Only the blood shed by Jesus can cover the sin that would otherwise leave us condemned in God’s heavenly courtroom.

2. Government Is a Fundamentally Good Institution Established by God.

This, for some, is the hardest principle to reckon with. When we think of government, we often think of all the ways it’s used to oppress others or the way it’s so imbued with political rivalries and petty attacks. But government, as an institution, is a good thing. Think, for example, how terrible life would be if there were no governments and instead the world was run by pure anarchy. No authority to answer to, no police, no law, no courts in the land. Everyone does whatever they want to others.

The book of Judges, after recording all the chaos and mayhem that happens when Israel is without a leader, repeats this famous line: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25, ESV). No government means no laws. And no laws means lawless behavior would rule the day.

Government is a good thing. It’s been established by God for our good – even if it is a good thing that can often be abused. But according to the Bible, no one ends up in office without God’s say so.

Romans 13:1 says something pretty incredible: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” This doesn’t mean God endorses everything that authorities do. The point is that God is the One who ultimately put them in power.

So while those holding an authoritative office or position may misuse or abuse their authority, authority itself is a God-ordained good. Anarchy and rebellion are not inherently good. In fact, they make a mockery of the very authoritative structure that God has ordained for our benefit.

At the end of King David’s life, he shared this word from the Lord about the beauty of godly authority:

“The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me: When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth” (2 Samuel 23:3-4).

3. Don’t Put All Your Trust in Elected Leaders.

As Christians, we are called to respect the office of our governmental leaders, but not to give these leaders our ultimate allegiance.

In 1 Samuel 8, we see this foolish tendency to put our trust in human leaders rather than God. The nation of Israel looked around at all the nations that surrounded them and saw they all had kings. And, of course, like the kid who sees all the other kids with a toy, they want what these other nations have. So they go to the prophet Samuel, who has become the de facto leader of Israel and plead for a king.

Samuel tries to talk them out of it and says, “You know, a king will rule you with an iron fist. I’m not so sure you really want a king. He’ll take your sons and make them soldiers and your daughters and make them servants of the state. And He’ll tax you like you wouldn’t believe!” But they ignore his warnings.

God tells Samuel: “Okay, Samuel, give the people the king they are asking for. But understand something. They haven’t rejected you, Samuel; they’ve rejected Me from being King over them.”

It’s very easy to fall into this trap today. We can be so focused on our earthly welfare and earthly dreams that we can put more stock in a politician than in God Himself. But God says, “You can’t have it both ways. When you put all your trust in your leaders, you’re rejecting Me.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t support and advocate for certain candidates. But it reminds us to check our spirit and ask, Am I giving a mere man or woman the allegiance that only God deserves? Am I looking for security in this person or God?

Isaiah tells us that God alone should be exalted, and that the pride of man will eventually be brought low. He writes, “Stop trusting in mere humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem?” (Isaiah 2:22, NIV). God says, “Stop for just one minute with all the political frenzy going on and realize something. These guys running for office? They are mere men and women. The only reason any of them are alive is because I put breath in their lungs. So don’t give them your hearts. Find your security in Me.”

4. Make the Kingdom of God, not the Kingdoms of this World, Your Ultimate Priority.

In his book Political Gospel, Patrick Schreiner reminds us that since our gospel is a message about a King and a kingdom, there is inescapably a political dimension to the gospel: “The gospel message is a world-forming, public, and political reality. Jesus calls people to a new way of life, a new society, a new community.”[1]

Remember, ultimately we are not headed for an eternal democracy. It’s a great system right now. But in the end, we are headed for an absolute monarchy. Jesus said His kingdom was not of this world (having its origin in the world), but He never denied being a King or bringing a kingdom (see my post “What is the Kingdom of God?”). In that kingdom, all those who have placed their trust in King Jesus will thrive under His glorious reign. And we will be glad we are under His authority, because only then can everything be put right.

Psalm 2 is one of the most striking psalms in the Bible. Rather than simply offering praise to God, it’s as if the psalmist takes us up to Heaven and gives us God’s perspective on all the political affairs of this world, with kings setting themselves up on thrones and politicians listening to their own collective wisdom.

“The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord scoffs at them.” (Psalm 2:4, NIV)

God scoffs at these rulers. We don’t normally think of God as scoffing at others, but God laughs at these pretentious rulers of the world. Why? Because they actually think that they can come up with a better ruler than God can.

The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed. (Psalm 2:2, ESV)

If you watched Saturday morning cartoons in the ‘90s, you may remember watching the one about two goofy mice called Pinky and the Brain. In every episode, Pinky says, “What are we going to do tomorrow?” And Brain says, “The same thing we do every day… try to take over the world!”

In Psalm 2, from God’s perspective, all these rulers plotting together is as ridiculous as two little mice trying to take over the world. And so it says that God actually laughs at them for thinking themselves so great and wise. He scoffs at them for thinking they can actually run the world better than He can.

And He says, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2:6).

Essentially, God looks at the political schemes and says, “You really think you can run this world better than Me? Better than My Son? Take a look at all the wars and greed and corruption that have happened when you people try to run the world. It’s a mess.”

God wants us to remember that there is ultimately only one leader worthy of all our trust, our devotion, and our allegiance. That’s the Lord Jesus Christ. So we should be more invested in building His kingdom than any of our own.

Jesus went to the cross for those on the Left, the Right, and everywhere in between. The Lion of Judah stands over all elephants and donkeys, even while He offers Himself to those of every political stripe. Jesus is the One who reigns supreme even now on His throne in Heaven. And where every other leader has failed, Jesus will succeed. Where every other leader’s heart has been tainted by sin, Jesus will lead with perfect righteousness.

Isaiah 11 tells us what it will look like when Jesus reigns supreme on earth:

“He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.” (Isaiah 11:3b-5, NIV)

Isaiah then says there will be perfect order and peace even in the animal world (vv. 6-9). And then he says this about Jesus:

“In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.” (Isaiah 11:10, NIV)

This is what we have to look forward to as the people of God. We can know that no matter who wins this election, our God reigns.

Have thoughts on this post? Feel free to comment below!

[1] Patrick Schreiner, Political Gospel, 12.

Why Should I Be Baptized?

Jordan River Today

With the sun beating down on his head, a bronze-skinned man steps out onto the river bank. His lower half is still drenched and dripping with the Jordan River. He’s wrapped in a tunic made of camel’s hair. Hair and beard look unkempt. He seems to lack all sense of social convention. He is a portrait of a desert wanderer. The surrounding crowd on the shoreline cannot help but stare and listen to his brazen call to repent of wickedness. Having just emerged from the water, some are still soaked from head to toe.

He picks up his staff in one hand and raises the other toward the crowd. A knobby finger points like a dagger at a group of men in long clean robes.

“Brood of vipers!” The desert man’s voice echoes off the stony river bank. All eyes are now staring at the religious leaders, who grimace with distaste.

“Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” the man bellows. While some are shocked, others recognize his boldness to confront sin is a clear sign of his prophetic calling of God. If John is a prophet, then he’s merely God’s mouthpiece. What he has to say truly comes from the Almighty. And yet, here he was confronting the religious aristocracy, the paragons of purity.

In one sense, these Pharisees and Sadducees carried an air of power and respectability wherever they went. The people noted their stringent piety and rigorous law-keeping. Nevertheless, the people so admired John the Baptist that these holy men looked like tongue-tied schoolchildren in his presence. They come only to observe, not to be baptized in the filthy river.

“Show fruit consistent with repentance!” John continued, eyes blazing like fire.

John’s Ministry of Baptism

Apparently, John didn’t have a public relations consultant. Why did he call these highly esteemed religious leaders a “brood of vipers”? Because they ignored the warnings of the wrath to come and led others to destruction. And, as John says, they didn’t bear fruit, showing they had not truly given their lives to the Lord.

This was John the Baptist’s entire ministry. He called people to repent of sin, return to faith in the one true God, and be baptized in the Jordan River.

John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (Matthew 3:11).

This One “coming” was the Lord of the cosmos Himself. John the Baptist was always pointing others to look to Christ, not himself, for hope. He humbly confesses he’s not worthy to even carry the sandals of Jesus. But it’s not just humility; it’s a right view of how supremely worthy Jesus is.

Then he says of Jesus: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire…”

It’s important to realize that even though John says that he baptizes with water and Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, this doesn’t mean that water baptism is no longer necessary today. At the end of Matthew, Jesus Himself gives the command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19).

Though Christians don’t always agree on the purpose of baptism, Jesus seemed to present baptism as the inaugural event marking a new disciple of Christ.

Why Be Baptized?

It is important to understand that baptism does not save you. We are saved by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). Though Christians are called to good works, no good work—not even baptism—could save us from the tyranny of sin. Paul made the point that he was not sent with the primary objective of baptizing others, but of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:17).

The thief on the cross had no opportunity to be baptized before he died, yet the Lord assured him of his place in Paradise with Him that very day (Luke 23:43). It is only repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ that reconciles us to God. Having said that, followers of Christ are commanded by God to be baptized. The Bible never treats it as an optional “extra.” Local churches are called to baptize new believers after the pattern of the New Testament (Acts 2:38-41; 10:47; 16:14-15).

Baptism pictures our need for cleansing and restoration. But it also pictures our identification with Christ. Going down into the waters, we are identifying ourselves publicly with Christ’s death and our own death to sin. Coming out of the waters portrays both Christ’s resurrection and our resurrection with Him to new life (Romans 6:3-4). As we are baptized individually and as we see others baptized, we are reminded that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was for us personally.

And, as John says here, when we trust in Christ personally, we receive the Holy Spirit.[1]

The Winnowing Fork of Judgment

Why are repentance and baptism so important? John says of Jesus: “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).

In ancient Israel, there was a practice called winnowing which allowed the farmer to separate the grain (or seeds) from the chaff, which were the husks that cover the seeds. When the farmer tossed the grain and the chaff into the air with the winnowing fork, the Middle Eastern wind would carry the lighter chaff to the side and the heavier grain would fall to the ground. He would gather the grain together to keep, and the chaff he would sweep together and toss into a fire.[2]

John is giving us a vivid picture of judgment. On the coming day of judgment, Jesus will gather the grain—those who are His own—to Himself. And the rest, He will cast into what He calls “the unquenchable fire.” This is a sobering and serious reminder that a judgment is coming, and if we don’t belong to Jesus, we are destined for eternal damnation (Matthew 10:28; Mark 9:43). John is making it clear that it is eternal by saying it is a fire that never goes out.

I want you to understand that the idea of eternal judgment was no more popular in Jesus’s day, 2,000 years ago, than it is today. While some may say that it is unloving to tell people about hell, John recognized that what would be truly unloving is not to warn people that a judgment is coming.[3]

God Himself pled with unrepentant Israel to return to Him and avoid judgment:

“As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11, ESV)

This life is infinitesimally short in light of eternity. God says in His Word that your life is nothing more than a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes (James 4:14). But eternity—that lasts forever! So where we spend eternity matters immensely.

This is why I, too, want to warn others. If Scripture is right that there is a coming judgment and that our own conscience testifies to this truth, then for me not to speak about hell would be unloving. I make a point to speak about it because I, too, am a sinner and have been rescued from judgment—Jesus has saved me. And so, I want to point to my Savior and say this offer of salvation is for all. No matter what you have done or where you have been in life, this free gift of salvation is offered to you!

Why Was Jesus Baptized?

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. (Matthew 3:13-15)

So, if baptism represents cleansing from sin, why in the world is Jesus coming to be baptized here? After all, Jesus is the sinless Son of God in human flesh. Scripture always affirms that Jesus was and is “without sin” (Heb. 4:15). So why did He submit to baptism?

I think we see a clue as to why Jesus did this way back in the prophecy found in Isaiah 53:10. There we read that the sinless sufferer was “numbered with the transgressors.” Or, it could be translated as “[He] was counted among the rebels.”

Even though Jesus was perfect and sinless, He willingly chose, out of love, to identify with sinful mankind. Beginning with His coming at Christmas, to His baptism, and all the way to the cross, Jesus was humbly and lovingly saying, “I have come to identify with the very people who have rebelled against Me.” He came to die for the very rebels who were cursing Him, mocking Him, and crucifying Him. From the cross, He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In the context, He was speaking of the Jews and Romans that had Him killed. But in reality, He says that of all of us. We all have committed treason against the God who made us. We all deserve death. But Jesus was perfect. He willingly died in our place so that we could be forgiven and spared from all judgment.

In humbly consenting to baptism, Jesus marked out a pattern for all His disciples to follow. In this way, He is not asking of us anything that He Himself did not willingly do.

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17, ESV)

Scripture teaches that the one true God is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And here we see all of Them in view. Jesus submitting to baptism, the Spirit descending upon Him to empower Him for ministry, and the Father’s voice from heaven saying: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

If Jesus had never been baptized, this moment would have been missed. Now all who have repented and trusted in the Lord Jesus are reconciled to God, made new by the Holy Spirit, and are loved in the Beloved—even as Christ is loved by the Father (John 17:26). And if that’s you, friend, you are called to be baptized.

Have thoughts on this post? Feel free to comment below!

[1] “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13, ESV). Also see Romans 8:9-11.

[2] Thanks to David Platt for his explanation of this process in his commentary Exalting Jesus in Matthew.

[3] See Ezekiel 33, where the Lord says that the watchman who sees the sword of judgment coming but fails to warn others will have their blood on his hands.

The Complex Emotion of Anger

Uh-oh. There’s that feeling again. It’s like a deep tremor welling up inside. A volcano with growing subterranean pressure. We all know what it’s like to experience the heat of anger. At times, it’s directed at a situation, but more often anger is directed at a person, usually someone you know well. At other times, you are on the receiving end—the volcano is erupting on you!

Anger can wreck friendships and send marriages spiraling into a tailspin. At its worst, it can lead to abuse and tragedy. If left unchecked, anger can be the most destructive human emotion. The Bible gives clear warnings about anger:

“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.” (Psalm 37:8, NIV)

Nearly everywhere you look, you can find areas where anger is harming our society. Just consider the problem of road rage. According to a recent study, “More than 1,000 people in the U.S. die each year in road rage incidents.”[1] In their book Anger Kills, authors Redford and Virginia Williams found that those who are prone to angry outbursts are more likely to have coronary heart disease.[2] No wonder the Bible says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11, ESV).

So how do we rightly deal with this volatile emotion?

Admit You Are Angry

If we are going to make any progress in dealing with our anger, we have to be willing to first admit when we are angry. People like to say, “I gave her a piece of my mind” or “I guess I lost my cool there.” But what they really mean is “I was angry.” Maybe you’ve heard the remark: “I don’t get mad, but I do get even.”

Most often, we Christians struggle to admit we are angry because we have been taught that anger is a sin. And certainly, there are more than a few warnings about anger in the Bible. “An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered man abounds in transgression” (Proverbs 29:22, BSB). But I would argue that passages like this speak of misdirected and uncontrolled anger. The Bible says, “In your anger, do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26, NIV).

Anger is not a monochrome emotion that we can so easily file away in the “sin” category. As David Powlison said, anger “is a complex human response to a complex world.”[3] After all, God expresses anger at sin.[4] Throughout Scripture, we read of God’s wrath or righteous indignation in response to injustice, idolatry, and sinful distortions of His good design for humanity.

Jesus Christ, known for His meekness and gentleness, expressed anger many times in the Gospels too – usually in response to self-righteous hypocrisy.[5]

On one occasion, the religious elite demonstrated more concern for catching Jesus in their legalistic trap than for the plight of a man with a withered hand. Their cold-hearted callousness toward real suffering made Jesus hot with righteous anger. He “looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5, ESV).

Anger is the natural human response to evil and injustice. It is the heart crying out, This is wrong. So we should not be reticent to admit when we feel angry. Owning our anger will allow us to rightly deal with it.

Restrain Your Immediate Response

While anger can be the natural human response to wrongdoing, that doesn’t mean it’s always expressed in a good way. In fact, because of our sin nature, our tendency is to express anger in an ungodly or self-centered way, rather than in a godly way like Jesus. The Book of James reminds us about the importance of hitting the brakes to “slow down” when we feel that first surge of anger.

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20, ESV)

Consider this scenario. A teenager “borrows” his dad’s Ford Mustang without asking in order to impress a girl and brings it back with an ugly scrape across the door. When his father discovers what happened, what’s his initial response? He’s angry. Very likely, this man will want to fly into a rage, lashing out at his son for his reckless and irresponsible behavior. What his son did was wrong. So to feel anger is only natural, but James would warn this man to hit the brakes. Because a knee-jerk response in anger is almost always destructive.

“People with understanding control their anger; a hot temper shows great foolishness.” (Proverbs 14:29, NLT)

You may be thinking, Sure, controlling my anger is a great idea. Easier said than done. It’s true that stopping yourself in the moment might not be easy. Ultimately, patience, gentleness, and self-control are produced by the Holy Spirit, not something we can achieve through mere human effort.

However, with God’s help we can learn to respond in the moment in a way that honors Him. Practically speaking, this might mean stepping away temporarily when you start to feel your blood boil. Marriage expert Gary Chapman recommends a husband and wife learn to “call timeout” when emotions begin to surge.[6] This means giving each other space for a brief time, so that both can come back to discuss the matter calmly without having said or done something they regret. Sometimes a walk around the block is enough time to cool the temperatures so that feelings aren’t hurt and a peaceful compromise is reached.

Identify the Cause of Your Anger

We’ve all heard stories of school shootings or homicides that didn’t seem to add up. People say things like “He seemed like such a nice guy” and “I never saw it coming.” No doubt this is in large part because people are good at wearing “nice” on the outside even while unaddressed anger is quietly brewing inside.

While such examples may sound extreme, they simply demonstrate what can happen when anger is not confronted. I’ve talked to several people who have admitted that mistreatment, neglect, or a lack of love in their home growing up planted deep seeds of anger. The long-term effect may even be ignored or downplayed for a time. But because the hurt is still there, they are sometimes shocked by their own angry and emotional outbursts.

For others, it is the deep wounds of a past relationship that planted those seeds of anger. They know it’s there, but they can’t help grieving over the pain of the past. And sometimes that grief mingles into bitterness and hatred.

Neil T. Anderson, who has helped countless people deal with deep-seated anger, said, “Whenever we are asked to help someone who has a root of bitterness, the source of the problem has always been unforgiveness.”[7]

It’s no surprise that right after Paul tells the Ephesians, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger,” he says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32, NIV).

The reality is that we all experience anger. I am certainly not exempt from this emotion. We may say, “I’m just strong-willed,” but that might mean we have a fear of being proven wrong. Or we may say, “I just care deeply about the truth,” but oftentimes there’s some insecurity just below the surface.

We are all broken people. But God is in the business of putting broken people back together. By His Spirit and His grace, we can find fresh joy in the Lord. We can experience the peace that He alone gives. But if we don’t deal with the roots of our anger, anger will continue to get the better of us.

Through the Spirit, Paul told the Ephesians, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27, ESV). In other words, anger is not always sinful. However, it does no good to dwell on your anger. Or, better said, to let anger dwell in you.

Surrender Your Anger to God

Once we have admitted we feel angry, the first and most important thing to do is surrender it to God. Put that rage, animosity, and ill-feelings toward someone else in God’s hands. It’s a burden He can handle, and He wants to take it off your shoulders.

Again, we often have good reasons for feeling angry. That’s not what is sinful. But harboring and nursing anger leads to a warfare mindset rather than a peace-making mindset. And what we really want is to see the wrongs made right. So who better to entrust your anger to than the God of righteousness and justice?

Remember, God cares more about the wrongs done against you than you do.

“The LORD is righteous in all his ways and faithful in all he does.” (Psalm 145:17, NIV)

The Lord is more passionate about justice than you or me. So let’s put our case in His hands. He will do what is right, but with perfect authority and timing.

That’s what Jesus did. “When He was reviled, He did not revile in return” (1 Peter 2:23, ESV). When He was mocked, beaten, and mistreated in the most appalling and shameful ways imaginable, Jesus “continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23, ESV).

Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, but Jesus called him His “friend.”[8] His own disciples scattered when Jesus was arrested and killed. But after His resurrection, the Lord graciously approached those same guys who had abandoned Him. He even embraced the one who had previously denied ever knowing Him.

Jesus had every right to be furious for the way He, the spotless Lamb, was being treated, but He surrendered all His righteous anger to His Father in Heaven. And ultimately that’s what you and I are called to do in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Have thoughts on this post? Feel free to comment below!

[1] “Boiling Point” presented at the Mental Health Action Week, 2008, Mental Health Organization.

[2] Redford and Virginia Williams, Anger Kills.

[3] David Powlison, Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness, Kindle edition.

[4] Psalm 7:11.

[5] For example, see Matthew 23.

[6] Gary Chapman, Anger: Handling a Powerful Emotion in a Healthy Way.

[7] Neil T. Anderson and Rich Miller, Managing Your Anger, 152.

[8] Matthew 27:50.

What Is Repentance and Why Does It Matter?

Charles Colson was once known as President Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man.” He earned that moniker through his relentless, no-nonsense way of executing the president’s plans. Even if he had to use what we may call “ethically questionable tactics,” Colson made sure he carried out Nixon’s bidding. Colson’s fall from greatness made the headlines as the Watergate scandal of 1973 broke open to the public, and he became one of the chief scapegoats of the whole debacle.

During the fallout of Watergate, Colson visited his friend, Tom Phillips, who shared with him about how he had recently accepted Christ as his Savior and now had a relationship with God. At first Colson was skeptical, but as Tom read an excerpt from C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, he began to see his own pride in a new light. He recognized it was his arrogance that had led him to deceive, cheat, and disrespect others when it was politically expedient. After Tom prayed for him, Chuck said good night and went out to his car. Something told him that he should go back in and pray with Tom once more. Just then, the lights went out in the house. So he started driving home. But before long, his eyes burned with tears, and he pulled over. Right there, alone in that car, Chuck admitted to the emptiness he felt and asked God to accept him in spite of his failures. In that moment, Chuck cried out to God.

In the subsequent weeks, he read from Mere Christianity, eventually concluding that Jesus Christ had to be the Son of God. So he surrendered his heart to the Lord of the universe. From that point of conversion, Chuck’s life was transformed. His wife noticed it. His friends noticed it. Something was radically different about Chuck.

Still, most government officials were very skeptical that Colson had truly changed. When he was tried for his part in the Watergate scandal, Chuck was offered a plea bargain. He was told that if he pled guilty to a misdemeanor he didn’t actually do, he would avoid prison. Here was Chuck’s ticket to go free! All he had to do was lie about committing this misdemeanor. Astonishingly, Chuck refused the deal. He chose to tell the truth, even though it landed him in prison for seven months. The press couldn’t make sense of it. They didn’t understand how Nixon’s brutal “hatchet man” could suddenly have scruples over what seemed to be an easy decision. After being released from prison, Colson started Prison Fellowship Ministries, an organization with the goal of offering inmates the hope of life with Jesus Christ.

Eric Metaxas explained it this way: Colson “had worked hard, in his younger years, for President Richard Nixon—the most powerful man on earth,” but he “spent the second half of his life working even harder for the King of kings.”[1]

Colson’s transformation is not an isolated case. Across the world–for the last two thousand years–there have been countless persons, including myself, who have had their lives changed by Jesus Christ. His story provides a great example of what the Bible calls repentance.

The Call to Repentance

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:1-2, NIV)

The Bible portrays John the Baptist as an eccentric wild man. Matthew describes him as wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt and eating locusts and honey. Some of us imagine a modern day John the Baptist as some half-crazed man running around wearing a sandwich board that says “The End is near.” But John was a prophet – a spokesman – for God. He was commissioned by God to announce the long-awaited arrival of Jesus the Messiah. Jesus had been living a relatively obscure life in Galilee, but He was about to begin His three-year ministry, which would eventually lead Him to the cross. And John the Baptist was the Messiah’s forerunner. The great theme of John’s preaching was repentance.

In a sense, John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. His message of repentance matches what they all said.[2] And the description that we are given of him is meant to highlight the simplicity of his life. He didn’t seek worldly goods. But I think it is also meant to highlight his sold-out commitment to proclaim the Messiah and devote his life to that ministry alone.

John is announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. For the Jew who has been anxiously waiting for the kingdom’s arrival, this is startling news. But John says that one is not automatically admitted into the kingdom. A response is required from us. John calls all the people of Israel to repent – a word that needs to be carefully defined.

The root word (metanoia in Greek) means “to change one’s mind.” But whenever repentance is used in Scripture, it describes a change far more radical than a mere change of opinion. “I used to like plain chocolate, but now I’m more of a chocolate-and-peanut-butter guy” might be a change of mind, but repentance is a total shift in the gravitational center of one’s life. A reorientation of priorities and a renovation of character are the fruits of true repentance. That is why John told those who came to be baptized, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Repentance is like making a U-turn and going in a completely new direction in lifealbeit imperfectly.

Chuck refused to take the plea bargain, because he was living in a new direction. Honoring the Lord now mattered more to him than a “get out of jail free” card. So he refused the easy path of deception.

Confession, Sorrow, and Conversion

First of all, repentance involves confession over sin. Those who “were baptized by [John] in the river Jordan” were “confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:6). So confession of sin, admitting you have done wrong, is one aspect of it. But merely owning up to sin is not enough.

Secondly, in the Bible, the truly repentant are always sorrowful over their sin. In Psalm 51, we witness the once confident King David humbly confessing to God his great sin of committing adultery with a woman named Bathsheba.

Listen to how broken David is over his sin:

“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me." (Psalm 51:1-5, NIV)

Notice David says to God, “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (v. 4). This is an astonishing statement when you consider that he sinned against a lot of people when he committed adultery. He sinned against Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, and even had him killed. He sinned against Bathsheba by luring her into the sin with him. He sinned against his family by dishonoring them. And he sinned against the whole nation by abusing his power and office as king. But David understands that first and foremost, his sin is against God, because it is God—and no one elseto whom he is most fundamentally accountable. It was God who had created him, given him life, and sustained his life for every moment of every day. It was God who had raised him up to be king over Israel. So, most importantly, by sinning at all, David was sinning against God.

David is an emotional train wreck. And yet, that is precisely what God looks for in true repentance:

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)

So, repentance involves both confession of sin—admitting guilt—and being brokenhearted over your sin. But this still isn’t everything that repentance is. Most importantly, repentance involves conversion of the heart. It involves turning from the sins we love to the God we were made to love.

Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God,
for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take with you words and return to the LORD;
say to him, “Take away all iniquity.” (Hosea 14:1-2, NIV)

Sin is what separates us from God, and it is only when sin is truly repented of—not just confessedthat we are brought into right relationship with God. It’s not enough to be brokenhearted or even devastated over our sin. We need to turn from that sin and toward God, trusting in Jesus Christ to free us.

Remorse versus Repentance

Many people confuse repentance with remorse. Remorse is a deep sense of grief and anguish over the consequences of sin. The classic example of remorse is Pharaoh. Time after time, Pharaoh says, “I have sinned!” Outwardly, he appears sorrowful, even asking for forgiveness (Exodus 10:17). He admits his failure, but he still isn’t ready to repent. Pharaoh is like the kid who is sorry that he got caught but not really sorry for disobeying his mom.

Consider what Paul wrote the church in Corinth about the necessity of true repentance:

“As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10, NIV)

Paul is saying, “Yes, grieve over your sin, but that’s not enough. It must be a godly grief that produces a repentance leading to salvation without regret.”

The clearest example of this difference can be seen in Judas and Peter. Both were disciples of Jesus Christ. Both men ate with Him, talked with Him, and listened to Him teach for three years. Yet both sinned against Jesus in the final 24 hours before the cross. Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss; Peter denied that he even knew Jesus. Judas sinned with false affection; Peter sinned with false ignorance.

Both had committed an unspeakable sin against their Lord. Both grieved over their sin. But Judas never repented. Matthew tells us he was so ashamed of what he had done that he went out and hung himself (Mt. 27:5). Peter, on the other hand, “wept bitterly” (Mt. 26:75), but then he repented. After Jesus rose from the dead, Peter returned to Jesus, and he was restored to fellowship with Him (John 21:7, 15-22). He went on to become the first great proclaimer of the risen Lord (Acts 2:22-36). We have every reason to believe that Peter is now in Heaven with Jesus, and that Judas, tragically, is destined for hell since Jesus called him “a son of destruction” (John 17:12; cf. Matt. 26:24-25). Two starkly different eternal destinies, and the difference between Judas and Peter was repentance.

No wonder Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). Repentance is essential, because we will continue to put ourselves at the center of the universe until we turn to the God of grace and forgiveness.

The biblical teaching on repentance and the examples of Chuck Colson, King David, and the Apostle Peter remind us that no one is beyond hope. As long as there is still breath in your lungs, there is still time to repent. It’s as simple and as hard as turning (or returning) to the Lord.

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. (Romans 10:9-10, NIV)

Have thoughts on this post? Feel free to comment below!

[1] Eric Metaxas. Seven Men, 163

[2] See Isaiah 1:16-20; Jeremiah 4:4; 18:8; 26:13; Ezekiel 18:20-32; Hosea 5:4; 14:1-2; Joel 2:12-14; Amos 4:10-11; Jonah 3:10; Zechariah 1:3-6; Malachi 3:7; 4:6.

What Is the Kingdom of God?

If someone was to ask you what the main theme of Jesus Christ’s teaching was during His earthly ministry, how would you respond? Would you talk about His call to love our neighbors – even our enemies (Matthew 5:44)? Would you share His repeated message about His sacrificial death as a substitute for us (Mark 10:45)? No doubt these two themes are primary in Jesus’s teaching, not secondary. But the most prominent theme that Jesus spoke on was the kingdom of God.

This surprises many who grew up hearing about Jesus dying on the cross for their sin and rising again but don’t recall learning much about the kingdom of God. But it is pretty hard to dispute such a claim when you consider what Jesus actually said in the Gospels.

In the Gospel of Mark, the message Jesus first preached was:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:15, ESV)

Likewise, in Matthew and Luke, we see Jesus constantly talking about the kingdom of God. He shares parables about the kingdom (Matthew 13). He tells His followers to pray “Your kingdom come” (6:10). He alluded to Himself in kingly terms, saying things like “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return.” (Luke 19:12). He often prompted His listeners to consider, “What is the kingdom of God like?” (13:18-21). He said things like, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (11:20).

His famous Sermon on the Mount was all about what life in the kingdom of God looks like (Matthew 5-7). Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20).[1] Rather than being anxious about their daily needs, Jesus taught His followers to orient their lives around the coming kingdom: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (6:33). Matthew summed up Jesus’s earthly ministry like this: “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction” (9:35).

As you read through the Gospels, you can’t help noticing that Jesus loved to talk about the kingdom of God. The arrival of the kingdom was at the core of everything He did. It is no exaggeration to say that Jesus was either talking about the kingdom or showing the power of the kingdom.[2]

So what exactly is the kingdom of God? And why couldn’t Jesus quit talking about it?

God the King

In America, we often struggle with the concepts of king and kingdom. After all, we are a nation birthed through rejection of a king’s authority. The idea of a king reigning over us often sounds either quaint or tyrannical. We might resonate more with the peasant in the Monty Python film Holy Grail. When King Arthur tells him he should show deference to his king, the peasant responds, “Well, I didn’t vote for you.” To which the frustrated Arthur replies, “You don’t vote for kings!”

And yet, there’s just no getting around the fact that the kingdom theme is prominent in Scripture. I think Graeme Goldsworthy summed it up well when he said the kingdom is God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule.[3] When we talk about the kingdom of God, we are talking about God’s right and power to reign over His world.

The faithful Jew of the first century would recognize immediately what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The Hebrew Scriptures frequently refer to God as the King reigning over the earth (Exodus 15:18; Psalm 93:1; 103:19).

“Who is this King of glory?
    The Lord of hosts,
    he is the King of glory!” (Psalm 24:10)

As Creator, God is the rightful King over His creation. He alone is perfectly righteous and capable of executing justice on the earth.

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness.” (Psalm 45:6)

Despite the privilege of having God as their just and loving monarch, the people of Israel continually pursued false gods and failed to submit to the Lord. When the people demanded a human king like the surrounding nations, God tells the prophet Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7). While there are flickers of hope throughout, the Old Testament can be summarized as the story of Israel rejecting God as her true king. At its core, sin is rebellion against the kingly reign of God (Romans 1:18-21).

In the words of R. C. Sproul, “Every sin is an act of cosmic treason, a futile attempt to dethrone God in His sovereign authority.”[4]

Israel’s greatest human king, David, is said to be “a man after God’s own heart” who reigned in the power of the Lord (1 Samuel 13:14; 2 Samuel 5:10). God even promises David that one of his offspring shall build a temple and sit on the throne forever, saying, “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).

David was understandably overwhelmed by this promise, often called “the Davidic Covenant.” While David’s son, Solomon does build the temple, he eventually dies. So the promise is not fully realized. From this point forward, the Jewish people look forward to the arrival of this messianic figure in the line of David. Through the prophets, God reassures the people that this son of David will come: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 23:5). For justice to be executed and righteousness to fill the land, God would somehow have to deal with sin, putting down the rebellion that naturally springs from the human heart (17:9).

Over the centuries, we see a long line of kings descending from David who fail to be this “righteous Branch.” In fact, most of these men do not walk with the Lord. Eventually, God judges Judah (David’s tribe) by allowing the people to be conquered by Babylon and taken as subjects to live under the pagan king, Nebuchadnezzar. Things look pretty bleak now. Whereas before they were in the right land but didn’t have the right man, now they weren’t even in the right land!

And yet, God’s promise stood firm. The prophet Jeremiah assured them that his fellow Jews would only be in exile in Babylon for 70 years, at which point a godly remnant would return to land of Israel (Jeremiah 29:10). Hope remained!

A Kingdom that Fills the Earth

Not only that, but in Babylon, God showed His power to fulfill promises through Daniel, a young man who found himself standing before the mighty Nebuchadnezzar. The pagan king had threatened to kill all the “wise men” of Babylon unless someone could interpret a dream that deeply troubled him. So God used Daniel to deliver a prophetic message through the dream’s interpretation.

Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that in his dream he saw a terrifyingly massive statue. He then interprets the dream, explaining that the various portions of the statute (head, chest, middle and thighs, and legs and feet) symbolized Babylon and the three successive kingdoms (or empires) that will dominate the world scene in the future. These kingdom predictions align with what we know of the Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires.

In the dream, however, Nebuchadnezzar saw

“…a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” (Daniel 2:34-35)

Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that during the fourth kingdom “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44).

In the following centuries, the Jews remembered this prophetic dream and eagerly anticipated the kingdom of God that would be established during that fourth kingdom (Roman Empire). They also anticipated the arrival of a “son of David” who would bring in this kingdom as the Messiah, who will deal justly with the poor, destroy the wicked, and bring in an era of righteousness and peace (Isaiah 11:1-5).

The Now and Not Yet of the Kingdom

The kingdom of God, then, is about God coming to reign as King over His people in His world. We cannot abstract the kingdom of God from the person of Jesus. To be in the kingdom and seek first the kingdom is to live for King Jesus. When Jesus announced that the kingdom was at hand, He was saying that the kingdom of God was arriving in and through Him. More specifically, it was in Jesus’s death and resurrection from the dead that the kingdom of God was inaugurated on earth, because in these events Jesus defeated sin (rebellion against the reign of God) and broke the power of death (the result of rebellion). The kingdom would not yet arrive in full until the end of the age when He returns, but His resurrection was the first installment of the powers of the age to come breaking into this age.

It is important for us to understand both the present and future reality of the kingdom of God – what theologians have termed the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom. In one sense, the kingdom is already present because all who repent of their sin and trust in Christ are born again and enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:4; 19:14).

Paul can say that already Christ has “rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14, NASB). Because of Christ’s resurrection, the kingdom truly is present on earth today as men and women surrender to the reign of Jesus and experience new spiritual life and forgiveness of sins. Like the nation of Israel, believers are called a “kingdom of priests” (cf. Exodus 19:6; 1 Peter 2:9).

On the other hand, Jesus also spoke of the kingdom’s future arrival as something we should pray for (Matthew 6:10). The fullness of the kingdom has “not yet” arrived in its final form. He also used parables that express both the growth of the kingdom from small beginnings and its future consummation on earth at “the close of this age” when evildoers will be cast into the fiery furnace while the righteous “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:24-43).

The Apostle Paul explains it this way:

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-26)

On Earth as It Is in Heaven

The kingdom of God is an essential theme of the story of Scripture. You could even say that the story of the Bible is the story of God’s kingdom coming in and through the redemptive reign of Jesus Christ. From all we’ve seen, one thing should be made clear in our minds. Jesus spoke of the kingdom’s arrival – here on earth. He said it is close “at hand.” Daniel said the stone that shattered the great image “became a great mountain and filled the earth” (Daniel 2:35). In describing the Messiah’s kingdom, Isaiah spoke of creation being restored to its original design, with animals living in perfect harmony under the kingly reign of the Messiah.

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
    and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
    and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

It will be Eden restored: “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (v. 9).

When Jesus said “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” Peter asked about the disciples’ payoff for leaving all for the sake of Jesus (Matthew 19:24-27). Jesus responded that “in the renewal of all things” (v. 28), they would be more than rewarded for their sacrifices. This same Peter would later write that “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).

It is no wonder that, in the Beatitudes, Jesus spoke of His people inheriting both “the kingdom of heaven” and “the earth” (Matthew 5:3, 5). In God’s great plan of redemption, His kingdom will be on earth, when all of creation is restored and rightly ordered under the reign of our Lord.

In that day, God’s people will be comforted because God Himself will be with them and wipe every tear from their eye. And death will be no more. “For… the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). Christ the King will reclaim His entire creation. As Abraham Kuyper put it, there is not one square inch of the universe, over which Christ does not exclaim, “Mine!”

Therefore, we shouldn’t think of God’s future kingdom as an otherworldly existence in a realm of pure spirit. Rather, followers of the risen King are now called to pray for the kingdom’s full arrival “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

“Joy to the world! The Lord is come.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make His blessings flow,
far as the curse is found.”

– Charles Wesley

Have thoughts on this post? Feel free to comment below!

[1] Many scholars have noted that since “kingdom of heaven” is synonymous with “kingdom of God.” Matthew wrote his Gospel primarily to a Jewish audience, so his tendency to use “the kingdom of heaven” is explained by the reticence of Jews to use God’s name for fear of committing blasphemy.

[2][2] While John’s Gospel favors the phrase “eternal life,” he nevertheless includes Jesus saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

[3] Grame Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom (Homebush West, N.S.W., Australia: Anzea, 1992), 47.

[4] R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God.

The Transformed Life that Pleases God

How exactly do good works fit in with the life of a Christian? Many have wrestled with this concept, oftentimes setting faith and works at odds, as if the two are somehow in opposition. Unfortunately, I’ve heard some pastors imply that, because we are saved by grace through faith, no effort is required for living the Christian life. We have only to “let go and let God.”[1]

The 19th century Anglican bishop J. C. Ryle can help us here:

“Is it wise to proclaim in so bald, naked, and unqualified a way as many do, that the holiness of converted people is by faith only, and not at all by personal exertion? Is it according to the proportion of God’s Word? I doubt it. That faith in Christ is the root of all holiness… no well-instructed Christian will ever think of denying. But surely the Scriptures teach us that in following holiness the true Christian needs personal exertion and work as well as faith.”[2]

When we read Scripture, we find Paul making statements like, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). But how does this work out practically? Elsewhere, Paul discusses living out the faith with the Philippians.

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

The Philippians were a faithful group of Jesus-followers. Paul didn’t have much correction for them, as he did with other churches. But he tells them to keep working out their salvation, and to do so with “fear and trembling” – as if there was a profound gravity to how we live our lives.

People today understand the importance of working out. If you want to be fit, you join a gym. If you want to excel as an athlete, you have to put time into working out your muscles. But what does it mean “to work out your salvation”? Isn’t the whole message of Christianity that we are saved by grace, not works? Isn’t the righteousness we need a gift of God’s grace through Christ, not our own righteousness? Yes, that’s all true.

Saved for Good Works

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Contrary to what every other religion teaches, the Bible says that salvation is not attained by our moral effort or achievement. It’s something that comes to us by sheer grace, as a free gift.

However, we often stop there without reading the next verse: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (v. 10). In other words, we are not saved by our good works, but we are saved for good works. This is what many people miss when it comes to the Christian life. While salvation is a free and unearned gift, God both expects and empowers us to live a new transformed life of obedience.

This is Paul’s point when he tells the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (vv. 12b-13). The basis for all our good works and new living is our identity as new creations in Christ.

If you have come to Christ, God is doing a mighty work in you through the Holy Spirit, and your responsibility is to live that out. You do work, but what you work out is the inner renewal that God “works in you” (v. 13). To work out your salvation is to pursue the holiness for which God has saved you.

Pursuing Holiness in God’s Power

Paul’s basic idea is this: You have been set apart for Christ, so now live like it by His power. You weren’t saved so you could go back to living like the world. Christians are to live together as a transformed community. We are not called to mirror the world. We are called to be distinct from the world.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2, ESV)

Not only are we called to holiness, but the world around us needs Christians to live like new creations. The great Christian abolitionist, William Wilberforce, took a stand against the British enslaving their fellow human beings, not because he wanted to look like the decadent culture around him, but because he wanted the voice of God to be heard in England. God had already said that all human beings are made in God’s image, and thus have sacred value.

The problem with so many Christians today is that they think the way to win the world to Christ is to look like the world in every way imaginable – that is, except for believing the gospel. But here’s why that doesn’t work. The message of the gospel is a message designed to transform every aspect of our lives. When we reject conformity with the world and choose to live in the newness of the Spirit, the gospel will actually be compelling!

If we forget that the strength to live in holiness comes from God, we won’t depend on Him in prayer or seek the wisdom found in His Word. But when we know God is the one who empowers this new life, it will be our joy to actively pursue it.

Lights Piercing the Darkness

When the Susan B. Anthony coin was first introduced to American currency as an alternative to the dollar, there was tremendous resistance to it. The reason? The coin was so close in shape and size to the quarter that people often got it confused. In other words, at first glance, it lacked enough distinction from the quarter, and so it became more of a nuisance than a convenience. In the same way, when Christians become indistinguishable from the world, we will not make the impact that God intends for us.

This is why Paul is earnest to say, “Work out all that God has worked in you.” Don’t settle for drifting along with the world, thinking the same way as the world. No! Live out Christ before your neighbor. Show the greatness of His love, shine the light of truth, and make it clear that you’re committed to live for Jesus rather than the paltry acceptance of the world.

As a child of God, you are to live “without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). When the shroud of deception and corruption closes in, those who live for Jesus will shine like bright stars piercing the darkness of night.

Pleasing God

It is at those precise points where worldviews collide that Christians have the most to offer the world. If we remain true to our convictions, we will give others a reason to reconsider Jesus. And notice how verse 13 ends: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and work for His good pleasure.”

When you live a transformed life, God is pleased. He’s pleased because you’re now yielding to His greater plan for your life – a life beyond merely following the status quo. The status quo is for those who just want to remain safely unnoticed. It is for those whose lives are “conformed to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2).

But who really wants to spend their whole life living in the fear of man? The reason Paul can say that he’s more than happy to pour out his life for the faith of others is that he knows that God is the ultimate source of joy (Philippians 2:17; 4:4). When our lives are spent lifting up Christ, others will grow in their faith, and God will be pleased. And what could possibly matter more for the Christian than pleasing God?

Have thoughts on this post? Feel free to comment below!

[1] See Jared C. Wilson, “The Devilishness of ‘Let Go and Let God Theology.” If the phrase “Let go and let God” is meant to suggest one must surrender control of one’s life to God, then I’m in hearty agreement. However, this phrase is often used to suggest that no effort is required in living as a Christian but rather that our only duty is to trust God, which leads to a host of other problems, such as passivity, as Wilson’s article helpfully articulates. Also, how can someone live by this phrase, when it conflicts with many biblical passages such as: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14, NIV).

[2] J. C. Ryle, Holiness (1952 edition, London: James Clarke & Co.), viii.