Do You Want A Good News or Good Advice Religion?

The term gospel literally means good news. Any news worthy of the label good must report events that make life significantly better.

Having led spiritual discussion groups on college campuses for nearly 20 years, I am convinced most people, religious and secular, instinctively misunderstand the essential nature of the Christian gospel. They believe it is primarily about following good advice in order to live righteously before God and man. While the gospel does (secondarily) help us to live well, its foundation is not built upon what we can do for God, but what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. The gospel is history and declares the benefits given to those who stop relying on themselves and instead rely on Jesus.

  1. It is good news morally. Dr. Tim Keller explains, “Jesus lived the life we should live to save us from the life we have lived.” This is really good news when we are honest enough to admit that we don’t live up to our own standards of morality, let alone God’s standards. This news frees us from being tempted to deny our moral failures, or minimize them, in order to feel okay about ourselves. Neither are we paralyzed with shame because Jesus has covered it. In love, Jesus exchanged places with us. On the cross, He absorbed the cost of our moral failings and granted us the benefits of His moral perfection. As the apostle Paul said, “For our sake, [God] made [Jesus], who knew no sin, to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
  2. It is good news spiritually. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). All man-made religion gives good advice on how to barter with God. It offers religious systems and rituals that somehow enable us to pay down our spiritual debt and earn God’s benefits. Such religious traditions assume we each retain a sufficient amount of spiritual capital with which to barter with God. But the Bible describes the human condition as spiritually impoverished and that changes things. Real need removes any confidence a person might otherwise have in him/herself. The poor in spirit recognize that their spiritual bankruptcy makes them unable to bargain with God. They bring nothing to the table. The gospel is good news for those incapable of paying off their debt because Jesus has offered to pay that debt in full.  Even more, Jesus has covered all the expenses for living in His Kingdom. This is really good news for those who accept it. It removes all insecurity. There is no need to barter with God anymore because He is already satisfied.
  3. It is good news physically. When John the baptist sent his disciples to ask if Jesus was the promised Messiah or not; Jesus answered, “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:4-5). Jesus did not simply forgive people their moral failings and make them spiritually rich toward God. He healed bodily diseases and defeated death. His goal was to restore every part of creation that had been broken by the fall. It is nonsense to view Jesus’ power over sickness and death as good advice. But as good news, it changes everything.

The core of human religion is good advice, but the foundation of Christianity is good news. There is a world of difference between the two!

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Your Marriage Gives A Glimpse Into Eternity: Is It Heaven or Hell?

I had the privilege of officiating the wedding of Gettysburg College alumni last weekend. Revelation 21:1-8 has become my favorite passage for marriage ceremonies because it gives a vision of the greatest wedding of all time — God’s. In heaven, Jesus will take His bride (the church) as his own and they will live happily ever after. This passage at the end of the Bible hits all five senses as it compares the mysteries of eternity to marriage .

  1. Sight: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and . . . I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev. 21:1-2) In heaven, God’s people will be like “a bride adorned for her husband!” Is there anything more beautiful? Consider the hope this offers those ashamed of their flaws and failures — to be seen as supremely beautiful by God!
  2. Sound: “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.’” (Rev. 21:3) These are the most anticipated words in the whole Bible. Before that great wedding day, we enjoy visits from God, messages from God, and walks with God — engagement, but not marriage. But starting that day, all boundaries will be removed. We will share one home and finally get to enjoy full, intimate access with the one for whom we were made! Consider the hope this offers those who are alone and forgotten.
  3. Touch“He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 21:4) Notice the tenderness of the divine touch. In heaven, God will wipe away all tears. Verse four continues, “death shall be no more, neither shall their be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” If there is no mourning, what tears remain for God to wipe away? I think these are wedding tears. The kind you shed when you look at your beloved and realize “I don’t deserve you, but I am so thankful you are mine!” Before heaven, we share lonely and painful tears. In heaven, we will share tears that result from laughing until you cry and God will be right there: laughing, smiling, and pulling us close to gently wipe away every happy tear! Consider the hope this gives those who presently drench their pillow with bitter tears.
  4. Taste“I am making all things new… It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of water of life without payment.” (Rev. 21:5-6) All things will be made new as we drink from the spring of life, without payment! “It is done” echoes the words Jesus cried from the cross. We feast for free because God already paid the bill for the wedding banquet. Savor the feast — living water, a new earth… resurrected bodies! Only God can afford such a lavish spread. Consider the hope this offers to those who, after tasting all this world offers, remain thirsty for more!
  5. Smell – God’s wedding banquet delights four of our five senses, but God reserves the sense of smell to warn us of an alternate reality. Hell will be God’s final divorce from covenant breakers. “As for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur.” (Rev. 21:8) Burning sulfur tops the list of terrible odors. The warning is clear. Hell, like divorce, stinks! All those who choose separation from God – through covenant breaking – will eventually be granted their divorce.

People mock the idea of hell the same way newlyweds mock the idea of divorce. They think they are too good for it. They believe their hearts are too pure and their love is too strong. While such thinking appears honorable and optimistic, it is actually quite naïve. We are all capable of turning heaven into hell, through covenant breaking – with God or with our earthly spouse. The relational principles that govern present reality reflect the ones that govern ultimate reality. A healthy marriage, like a right relationship with God, is heaven on earth. But a sick marriage, like a broken relationship with God, is a living hell. Covenant breaking always creates a living hell – in this world, and the next – apart from God’s intervening grace.

So, take warning. Let the mere scent of hell snap you awake like smelling salts. Recognize the stench of: faithlessness, sexual immorality, idolatry and lies. Turn back to your beloved (both God and your spouse) in repentance, humility, and love.

For those struggling in marriage, you will find endurance as you first realize what Jesus has done for you. As covenant breakers, you and your spouse are bigger sinners than you both realize. But, at the same time, you are also more deeply loved than you can imagine. Jesus Christ died for you and your spouse while you were still sinners. (Romans 5:8) Your heavenly spouse entered the hell you created for him. He tolerated its stench and absorbed its pain so that you could delight in the undeserved benefits he provides.

So, take hope! God’s love can transform any marriage, even ones that reek with the stench of hell. Lean on your divine spouse, Jesus Christ, who absorbed hell and offered heaven in return. Only then will you have strength to absorb the living hell that your earthly spouse sometimes drags you through, and discover the miraculous love that empowers you to offer heaven in return.

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Hope for Improved Race Relations Starts With Us

Growing up during the 1980s, I recognized the advantages I had from being an American citizen — freedom of religion, freedom of speech, etc. The living conditions of the average human on the planet, as well as the restrictions placed on citizens behind the Iron Curtain, made me extremely thankful for “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. But, I was largely unaware of the challenges many children in my own city faced. It never occurred to me that I had many advantages simply because I grew up in a two parent home in the suburbs. As a white male, I’ve never feared that a traffic cop would single me out for my race. I was never worried that my neighbors would be suspicious of me because of my color. I never noticed that band-aids always matched my skin. As Peggy McIntosh wrote, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”

My perspective started to change when I became a member of a minority group as an adoptive parent. Adoptive parents don’t have a history of slavery or being viewed as sub-human, but the naive assumptions of the majority culture were still quite aggravating for me. My kids’ bad behavior was excused by well intentioned friends, “Do you think they’re not sharing their toys because of insecurities related to adoption?” (Maybe they’re behaving like all kids sometimes do. Take yours for instance.) “Who is the real father?” (I think you mean birth father?)  “How could any parent abandon their child?” (You mean choose life and sacrificially place their child in a loving family.) For the first time in my life I carried a pain invisible to most — the cost of widespread misinformation, bias and misrepresentation of a whole segment of society (adoptive families).

Loving Our NeighborRecently our campus ministry, DiscipleMakers, invited Dr. Scott Hancock from Gettysburg College to teach at our winter staff conference about African-American history and the challenges of doing cross cultural ministry well. At breakfast I asked Dr. Hancock several questions:

“What’s your opinion on reparations?” (A state sanctioned recompense to descendants of American slaves).

“Why do you ask?” Scott asked. “If you want to write a check, I can tell you where to send it.”

“Uh, well.” I stammered. “I have mixed feelings about reparations. I don’t think you can unscramble scrambled eggs. I believe we are morally obligated to give sacrificially and generously but how do we justify penalizing the innocent descendants of abusers. Besides, it seems politically impossible to implement a program of reparations at this late stage. However, the gracious giving to those in need, whether through government welfare programs or charity seems doable.”

“Well, I wouldn’t characterize the welfare system as gracious giving and you should know that the majority of people on welfare are white.” Scott replied. “But concerning the issue of reparations, I think you have to settle the moral question first. As Christians we must first ask, ‘Does God demand we make reparations to those who have been victimized?’ If the answer is yes, we must work to find a way to fulfill that moral duty.”

“But in this case it seems undoable.” I said.

“Well, Americans take pride in their ability to solve problems previously thought impossible.” He retorted.

“What scripture verses would you use to argue that reparations are a moral duty once the generations that grievously sinned have passed away?” I asked. “The Year of Jubilee commanded reparations and required Israel to address the problem before that generation passed away. But, we are several generations removed from slavery in America.”

“In the Old Testament, God held people responsible for the sins of their forefathers, meaning several generations and not just their immediate parents.” Dr. Hancock replied. “And in Old Testament law, repentance of sin always entailed making recompense to the victim. Repentance was never limited to admitting wrong but included doing whatever you could to right the wrong.”

I had more questions, but my comments left me feeling embarrassed and possibly misunderstood. At each point Dr. Hancock offered clarifying comments that felt similar to the rebukes I usually give to those unschooled about adoption issues. I kept thinking to myself, “But, I have bi-racial children. Some of my best friends throughout my life have been people of color. Please don’t think me a racist.”

Before my breakfast conversation with Dr. Hancock, I merely assumed that white people, like me, deserved more credit than we’ve been given. As I finished the remains of my sausage and eggs, I realized I was guilty of racial bias in ways I had not previously acknowledged. Who knew whites were the largest recipients of welfare? I didn’t. But was my naivety the same as racism? If I admit racial bias but not racism am I telling myself a white lie? (Pun not intended initially.)

The DiscipleMakers winter staff conference forced me to think more carefully about the advantages I have received as a white man — though unavoidable and unearned — and how they have created self-righteous blind spots in me that hurt my friends and acquaintances from various ethnic backgrounds. There are countless ways to take responsibility for healing the racial divide in our culture, but below is a first step that I identified with the help of my co-worker Jordan Eyster.

This semester, the staff working at Mason-Dixon area campuses will launch a new teaching series through the book of Exodus. As a white protestant, I’ve heard (and preached) many sermons about the Exodus that quickly equate the Israelite’s deliverance from Egypt to the Christian’s deliverance from bondage to Satan, sin and death. While this is a good application of the text, it happens to skip past painfully obvious issues that I doubt African-American preachers miss — the defiling enslavement of an entire people group; the lasting psychological damage from seeing people dehumanized for generations; and the just anger of a loving God committed to save, heal and vindicate the oppressed. Previously, I barely touched upon these critical points when preaching through Exodus. I shudder to think how such neglect has affected minority students who continue to feel the sting of oppression and racism that I simply don’t experience as a white man (and am therefore tempted to assume doesn’t still happen).

God, forgive me for my sins. Though often unintentional they dishonor you, My Lord, and grievously wound those made in your image. Help me (help us all) know how to take greater responsibility to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Conversation printed with the permission of Dr. Scott Hancock.

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Clarify Your Hope This Election Day

When I visited Israel, I went to the ruins of Meggido, a fortress city that guards the most important ancient trade route of the Fertile Crescent known as the Via Maris. Meggido is not a natural mountain but a hill formed by many generations that lived and rebuilt on the same spot. At least 8 levels of habitation have been discovered. Each level represents an entire civilization that lasted hundreds, even thousands, of years. Like America, these civilizations faced challenges and hoped for a better future. Their ruins put things into perspective for me, especially on election day.

This will be the seventh time I cast a vote for the leader of our nation. Like the previous times, this election has been characterized as the most important one of our generation. That may be the case, but experience warns me to doubt it. History shows that even if this election is that important; much can be undone and forgotten. Like the great civilizations at Meggido, our civilization will be remembered as one very interesting layer of rubble and ash. Of course, this should not keep us from staying involved in our political system, but it should cause us to reconsider the nature of the hope we place in it.

To be clear, I really care about our nation and my children’s future. I confess that it’s easy for me to get caught up in all the hoopla of the 2016 election. My natural inclinations lead me to suspect that the most important thing happening on November 8th will take place in voting booths. But the more I study God’s Word, the more I am convinced that is not the case. Voting is important, but nothing compares to the lasting influence of those who seek God’s kingdom.

Jesus clarified that his kingdom would advance through spiritual power, not political force. He told the Roman governor Pontus Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews…You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:36-37)

Pilate responded like the typical politician, “What is truth?” Truth was negotiable for him. Even though Rome would wield its power against Jesus and his followers, eventually Christianity would overwhelm the entire Empire; not through military might but through spreading the truth about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It only took Christians 300 years to totally change the Roman Empire from within.

The Bible has always taught us to place our greatest trust in God, not politics. My personal experience is finally catching up to the Bible’s perspective. So, let’s view this election cycle with the eyes of faith and worry less about political outcomes. Whether the candidate we vote for wins or looses, the greatest thing God is accomplishing in our day won’t be limited by election results. The best work of God will continue, often invisibly, as His people live and pray as Jesus showed us —  “Our Father in Heaven, Holy Be Your Name, Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

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How Much Hope Should Christians Place in Politics?

Politicians are changing the world: redefining marriage, reordering the medical system, reforming civil liberties and reframing religious freedom. Candidates from both sides of the isle promise utopia whether that means changing America or restoring America. Pundits proclaim the 2016 election will be the most important in their lifetime, echoing sentiments heard every previous election.

But, how much hope should Christians place in politicians?

Currently the front runner for republicans is a buffoon and the front runner for democrats is unscrupulous. It reminds me of a famous quip by George Bernard Shaw, “The problem with political jokes is that they get elected.” 

TRUMP Obama Poster

Its remarkable that when God came to earth, he steered clear of politics. He was born in a stable, not a palace. He grew up in a low class town called Nazareth not an urban professional capital. He worked as a carpenter until he was 30 and never pursued political office. Jesus never called for a political revolution; never picketed; never organized an occupy movement; never demanded that the state intervene to redistribute wealth; and never assembled a militia.

Jesus avoided confrontations with political leaders until the last week of his life. When he entered Jerusalem he took the label Son of David, the title for the promised king of Israel, but clarified that his kingdom what not political — not of this world. When Sanhedrin spies tried to trick Jesus into voicing a seditious remark, Jesus instead replied, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25). At his arrest in Gethsemane Jesus rebuked Peter for striking a temple guard and said, “Put away your sword. Everyone who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

Jesus was acutely aware of the political firestorms raging around Jerusalem, but he largely avoided them. Instead he focused on people’s deepest needs — repentance for the forgiveness of sins, resurrection hope and God’s transforming love.

Jesus downplayed politics, yet he terrified politicians. The threat Jesus posed united opposing political factions to support his crucifixion. Those who condemned him to death consisted of: religious conservatives (Pharisees), religious liberals (Sadducees) and secular opportunists (Herod, Pilate).

Political leaders, then as now, saw themselves as the real agents of hope and change. Not one politician suspected they would be forgotten before Jesus. Certainly no one imagined the world would one day date time after him! Jesus and his followers were underestimated at every turn. That pattern continued throughout history. It continues today.

Jesus said His followers would have unparalleled influence, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:13-14). History proved, time and again, Jesus was right about his followers. Space doesn’t allow me to expand but Christianity overran the Roman Empire within 350 years because Christians offered more rights to women and a better welfare system than the state. Christians remained in cities to nurse the sick and dying during the great plagues while pagans fled for safety. Their belief in the resurrection gave them courage to risk their lives when others refused. No wonder people flocked to the church.

In the 1800s Christians used the political system to bring an end to the slave trade across the English Empire. Eric Metaxes writes, “It was devout Christians almost exclusively who were concerned with helping the poor, bringing them education and acting as their advocates, and who labored to end the slave trade, among other evils. But so successful would Wilberforce and these other Christians be…[that] this attitude would become culturally mainstream.” (Amazing Grace, p.64)

Political leaders will continue to boast about their ability to right wrongs and establish a perfect order. But the Bible warns us not to bank on them (1 Samuel 8).  Jesus encourages us to place greater trust in what everyday people, transformed by His grace, can do over the long haul.

Knowing Jesus changes everything. Knowing His love empowers you to forgive others, serve your community, and give generously. Knowing Jesus’ wisdom changes the way you lead in the marketplace, parent at home, and fight injustice. Knowing His graces enables you to resolve conflict, endure hardship, and love “the other”.

If you are looking for a place to park your hope this election season, look to the gospel of Jesus and the promises of God.

Political power simply is not as enduring as gospel power. Political power is outside-in and coercive. It burns bright and hot and then it burns out. But gospel power is inside-out and transforming. It starts small and over time spreads like wildfire.

Make the gospel your hope this election season. Whether your candidate wins or looses; and especially if you don’t have one.

What’s Better Than Being Remembered?

I recently posted about my dad’s diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer in When Terminal Cancer Hits Home. The post was read far and wide. People wrote back their prayers, expressed their sympathy, and often shared their own family’s struggles with cancer. I have been overwhelmed by people’s openness and tenderness.

A friend of my dad’s from childhood, who Dad hadn’t spoken to for over 50 years, called to see how he was doing. After hanging up the phone Dad turned to me with a disbelieving smile and said, “You don’t know how much people really care about you until something like this happens.”

On Thursdays, we sit together for hours and Dad tells me about his childhood. Growing up in Chesterown, Maryland my dad can share a lot about his mother’s side (the Kirby family) but not his father’s side from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. I asked him if we could drive together around Chambersburg so he could show me some sites. Dad is not up for traveling so I turned to google. Within five minutes, I was able to find my paternal great-grandparent’s grave while sitting comfortably in Dad’s living room. It was nicely indexed online, alongside several other family members.

On the way home from Dad’s, I phoned friends from Gettysburg who, years ago, shared they had information about the Kieffer family from the Chambersburg area. Until recently, I had been too preoccupied to look into it. The next day my friends delivered a book, five inches thick, about the earliest families that settled around Chambersburg. Apparently the Kieffer family (also spelled Keefer and Kuffer) goes way back and our surname means “barrel maker”.  Who knew!

I registered on hoping to make a family tree for my dad. In six hours I was able to trace our paternal roots back to Johan Nicolaus Kieffer who was born in Germany (1734) and died near Chambersburg (1818). I assembled digital files of death certificates, census registrations, probate ledgers, and gravestone pictures. I can’t wait to show my dad.

After I stayed up researching until midnight, my wife asked me at breakfast, “Why are you suddenly so curious about your ancestry?”

As an adoptive parent I care less about biological connections than most people. But I care deeply about real connections. My curiosity about our roots was rekindled as I’ve talked with Dad about his father, Jack Kieffer. I only knew my grandfather as a fun-loving Chestertown socialite who couldn’t resist stopping to talk to nearly every person we passed on the street. My grandfather loved golf, drank scotch, and told great stories. My grandfather’s dad died when was six so he barely remembered him. He told us his dad’s legal name was Crist — the name on his tombstone. Online I found Crist’s death certificate. It turns out Crist was a nickname for Christian. I don’t know how my grandfather never realized this. But, I wonder how my dad, James Crist, and my brother, Jonathan Crist, will feel about it.

Researching my ancestry has put some things into perspective. Not only was I ignorant of little things. I didn’t know the big things. Until this month, I couldn’t name my eight great-grandparents. People who lived, loved and dreamed about their future only 100 years ago.  I wouldn’t exist without them and yet I know almost nothing about them.

My great-grandkids will likely know as little about me.

Ecclesiastes warns, “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:11)

The sobering reality is that you will soon be forgotten. Chances are your great-grand children won’t even know your name. If you want to be remembered you must place your hope elsewhere.

God says, “Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. I have engraved your name on the palm of my hands.” Isaiah 49:15-16. The image of engraved flesh is dramatic — bloody, painful, and permanently scaring. What kind of person scars himself like that?

Only a crazy lover determined to prove His love.

After Jesus died, the grieving disciples beheld this crazy love when Jesus showed them his nail scarred hands. Jesus’ scars surpassed those Isaiah spoke about. His scars promise redemption not mere remembrance. The good news of Isaiah is God will never forget us. The better news of Jesus outshines mere remembrance. It announces resurrected life!