God Is Our Ultimate Source of Value, Love, and Provision

I have accomplished many things that give me satisfaction. When I put together a small group program and see people connecting, I feel good. When I am able to help someone get involved in an area of service where they flourish, I am thankful to God. When I finish a paper and hand it in, it gives me a sense of accomplishment, especially if I get a good grade.

God has also blessed me with many friends, an amazing wife, children who value me, parents who care about me, and various mentors, counselors, and advisers. When I think of all the people in my life, I am truly grateful for the love that comes my way.

I am also financially stable. I have money in the bank. I’m putting money toward retirement. My church takes good care of me.

The problem is that sometimes I try to do things and fail. Sometimes people hurt me or are not there for me. Sometimes I get a bill that’s big, and I’m not sure how I’m going to pay for it. If I lean too hard on any of these things for value, love, or provision, they fail me.

And that reminds me that all of these gifts cannot be the ultimate source of my value, love, or provision.

The ultimate source of my value, love, and provision is God Himself and the promises in His Word that He loves me, values me, and will take care of me.

Most of our great sins and pathologies arise from trying to take God’s good gifts and make them the ultimate source of our love, value, and provision.

It is only when we trust in God’s promises that we have an unshakable foundation of value, love, and provision. It is only when we trust in God that we can value His gifts for what they are and not turn them into an idol.

Trust in God is necessary to human functioning and flourishing (for a fuller discussion of this issue, see my article here).

10 Ways the Church Needs to Reform, if the Simple Gospel Is Central

At the heart of the Reformation is justification by faith alone. This means that, though human beings stand guilty and condemned, God offers acceptance as a free gift based on what Jesus has done. Closely related is the fact that God also transforms those who are justified to make them more like Jesus (often called sanctification).

This is the simple Gospel that was emphasized and put back at the center of the church by Martin Luther and the other Reformers.

This is what had first place in the New Testament Church: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4).

It’s still easy for us to make other things of secondary, tertiary, or no importance central. I still struggle to keep the simple Gospel central. For a long time in my ministry, I did a terrible job of it. Even when I preached the simple Gospel, my actions often said that other things were just as important or more important.

When I left New Covenant Presbyterian in Spearfish in 2015, I preached from 1 Cor. 15:3–4. I explained ten things that I had tried to do, ten reforms that I had tried to make that were based on making the simple gospel central. I said, whatever else I had done, this was my vision and what I had wanted to do.

A man in the church came over to me afterwards and said, “You need to make that the first sermon you preach at your next church.” I changed what I was preaching on based on his advice.

And this is still my vision. This Sunday, I’m preaching on the Reformation. It’s on justification by faith alone. I’m going to share 10 reforms I think the church needs to make, if the simple gospel is central to her life.

  1. If the simple gospel is central, then it gives us an outward focus. The people outside the church are not that different from us. They are just one act of faith away from being fundamentally where we are.
  2. If the simple gospel is central, then all that is necessary to be a member of the church is to embrace the simple gospel. We can’t make entrance into the church higher than entering into the kingdom of God. This is what captivated me in Presbyterian history. Presbyterians aren’t perfect, but they have historically understood this.
  3. If the simple gospel is central, then we cannot let other preferences or other truths crowd it out. If other doctrines, ethical principles, church principles, or anything else gets talked about more than the simple gospel, people will believe what you talk about is the most central. We should not do that.
  4. If the simple gospel is central, then everything we do must be formatted around it. We cannot say one thing & then show another. We can’t say Christ’s love is free and then not care whether or not people can find our building. We can’t say Christ is hospitable but then be inhospitable.
  5. If the simple gospel is central, there is unity of believers in the local church. We may be at different levels in our spiritual journey or knowledge, but we all sit down around the table and let Jesus wash our feet. That gives us a powerful unity.
  6. If the simple gospel is central, then the church is composed of a variety of people from a variety of different backgrounds at a variety of different levels. Each should be valued as a believer in Christ. Thus, the worship and the sermons should be designed to include everybody and give them all sense of being part of the people of God.
  7. If the simple gospel is central, then we will value children in our church because the simple gospel is simple enough for a child to grasp and embrace.
  8. If the simple gospel is central, there is a unity with all believers. It is no longer just about the believers in our church, it is about believers everywhere because we all believe together that which we value most.
  9. If the simple gospel is central, then we can and should work together with all churches who preach this simple gospel. We share a basic unity that transcends other differences.
  10. If the simple gospel is central, then this is what we need most in order to grow. We must preach the gospel to ourselves when we see our sin, when we need guidance, when we are struggling with our circumstances, and when we are struggling with people. What does Paul write to the churches? The Gospel.

The Reformation was about clarifying the Gospel and bringing it back to the center of the church. This is not a completed act. It is not a pristine period in history. It is a continual call to make Christ and Him crucified the center of our lives, churches, and hearts.

Trust in God Crucial to Proper Human Functioning and Flourishing

[Note: read a shorter version of this article here]On the surface, human beings have many problems: addictions, injustices, abuse, anxiety, and depression.

No doubt these problems have many psychological, physical, and social elements.

Beyond all these is a theological problem. Most theological analyses of our problems are excluded in the modern world. In spite of this, belief in God remains widespread, and so, even if we exclude those who do not believe in God, such analysis may be helpful to a large proportion of modern people.

In this essay, I would like to propose that trusting in God is necessary to proper human functioning and flourishing.[1]

This is merely an application of Saint Augustine’s famous statement in The Confessions: “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

The Human Problem
Human beings were created good.

But human beings are also dependent beings. They can’t survive on their own. They need knowledge, purpose, love, and physical resources from outside of themselves.

Individuals not only lack these resources and need a continual influx of them from outside, they completely lack the ability to secure the continuation of that influx.

Out of this basic problem all anxiety arises. We need things from outside, and we can see the possibility that they would not be provided.[2]

If we had to live in this uncertainty, the human situation would be tragic indeed. Continue reading “Trust in God Crucial to Proper Human Functioning and Flourishing”

Reformation, Part 1: Why Works Won’t Work

The central protest of the Protestant Church is that justification is by faith alone and not by the works of the law.

When it comes to our standing before God, works won’t work.

Why? Because the law says that we’re guilty. When the law speaks, we become aware of our sin and are held guilty before the law (Rom. 3:19 & 20).

Martin Luther, whom God raised up to begin a Reformation of the Church 500 years ago this month, saw this very clearly.

Martin Luther believed that he could be justified by his works. He tried very hard to be declared righteous on the basis of what he did.

He also saw that he had sin, so he would spend two hours confessing his sins, walk away, and realize he had committed more sins that he had forgotten. This led him to adopt very strict practices and even to inflict pain on himself as a way of paying for his sin.

The more he worked, the more he saw the futility of it.

He realized that no one would be justified by the law because all have sinned, and all stand condemned and guilty before God.

Now, most people don’t take that approach. Most people aren’t trying that hard to do what’s right.
Most people get around the weight of their sin by bringing the law down to their level.

We can do this in a variety of ways. Most of the time, we think we’re OK with God because we’re not that bad, perhaps go to church, and don’t do anything society considers really bad.

Sometimes, people avoid the law by focusing on a few moral issues. However, usually that morality does not touch our heart. It’s external things that we can easily avoid and look down on others for. “We don’t smoke, and we don’t chew, and we don’t run with boys who do” (see Mt. 23:23).

Sometimes, we can make religious knowledge or awareness the basis of our standing before God. I know these doctrines, so I’m OK. Those who don’t are not in the club.

Sometimes, even grace can become a sort of club. I’m better than others because I get grace!

Wherever we tend to view ourselves highly and look down on contempt on others is a place where we are tending to rely on as our righteousness before God.

But none of these will work. They’re actually a distraction from the real issue.

They won’t work because God’s holiness demands that we obey His law, all His law, to be declared righteous.

And we haven’t. We’ve all sinned. So, we’re in trouble.

We all stand guilty and condemned before a holy God.

So, where does that lead us? To Luther’s glorious insight. We stand guilty and condemned before God, but God offers us acceptance as a free gift because of what Jesus has done.

“All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

That’s justification by grace alone through faith alone. This is what the Reformation is all about. This is what the Bible is all about.

We all stand guilty before God, but God accepts us a free gift to be received by faith alone because of what Jesus has done.

That’s a rallying point. Think about it. Meditate on it. Live it. Let it transform you. Let it transform your churches. Let it soften your heart.

Works won’t work, but the Gospel will.

4 Verses Christians Turn to After a Mass Shooting

After what occurred Sunday in Las Vegas, whose heart cannot be heavy? As a Pastor, I struggle with what to say and how to respond to these types of tragedies.

Christianity Today posted an article yesterday that cited 4 verses that Christians turn to after mass shootings. I found that these verses were particularly helpful to me, and so I decided to re-post them here for your meditation:

  • John 16:33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
  • Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
  • Romans 12:19: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
  • Psalm 11:5 “The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion.”

To see how they came up with these verses and links to other helpful articles, see CT’s whole article here.

For those questioning how a good God could allow suffering, I offer my summary of Tim Keller’s insights in his book The Reason for God here.

Questions & Answers on Leadership Issues

This month, I’ve preached on the topic of leadership. I’ve preached it on because I believe that in the Bible, after the Bible, in leadership positions and without leadership positions, God uses leaders. If we see a problem in the world, we should pray for our leaders, pray that God will raise up leaders, and consider leading.

Anyone can be a leader. We just need a vision of what needs to be done and the wisdom to explain it to people, do the hard things that are necessary to get there, meet people where they are, and remember that it’s a process.

In all of this, we can be assured of God’s great promise to those whom He calls to lead, “I will be with you.”

Several people in my congregation asked me questions about leadership. You can listen to some of the questions and my replies here. You can read the questions and replies below.

What do you when people won’t follow you?
First, always ask first, what’s wrong with my leadership? before you ask, what’s wrong with my followers? Second, there are sometimes that we can’t lead people forward, and we have to recognize our own human limitations and give up. Third, there are some people we have to lead that are difficult to lead. Don’t give up. Keep praying, loving, and looking for ways to move the ball down the field. You never know when God may give a breakthrough!

What is leadership success?
You can look at leadership success in a couple of different ways. You can see success in terms of an objective, e.g., did I get people to the church to clean it before Sunday? In terms of the objective, sometimes you fail. It’s important to see that our value is not based on what we accomplish but on God’s value of us and desires to use us. That doesn’t change, even if we fail. Continue reading “Questions & Answers on Leadership Issues”

A Day at Neyland Stadium

Have you ever been to an SEC football game? It’s something to behold.

A year ago, I went to my first game–UT vs. Mizzou. It was an amazing experience. 100 points scored. The deafening cheers and the loud boos. United emotions all directed toward one object. You’re part of something that’s much bigger than yourself.

This year, I wasn’t sure I’d make it. I studied the ticket prices over and over, thinking over the dates. Could I afford it? What was a good day? A lot going on this fall.

Then, my good friend Jeremy Daley said he was going. He wanted us to go with him.

I pulled the trigger. 8 tickets for $23 a piece for the UT-UMass game. 4/4s of his family and 4/9s of mine.

The Trip to the Stadium
The days passed. Game day arrived. We left at 9:00 a.m. from our house in Sevierville to drive 45 minutes down Chapman Highway to get to Knoxville.

Knowing that it would be a long walk to the stadium, I decided to stop at Bojangles to use their restroom. Plus, I could get a country ham biscuit. I also purchased 6 Bo-Berry Biscuits for the girls at a combined total of 2,820 Calories. The fact that they were shaped like footballs made them even better.

We parked at the Kern Bakery on this side of the Henley Street Bridge. This bridge crosses the Tennessee River and leads into downtown Knoxville.

There are several advantages to doing this. It is easier to get out after the game. It only costs $10 to park. You get an amazing view of the city and the Tennessee River. In addition, you are going to walk no matter where you park. There are very few parking spaces directly next to the stadium.

Still, as children complained about the long walk across the bridge and asked to be carried, I doubted myself. Was this really the best place to park? Continue reading “A Day at Neyland Stadium”

What the Bible Says About Leading Well

God is leading. He is bringing redemption and restoration to the world.

And God leads through leaders. He gives them a vision to lead people from where they are to where they could and should be.

So, the first question in leading is, where do I want to lead people? The next question is, how do I get them there?

One of my favorite summaries of the principles of leadership is in the Bible in 1 Thessalonians 5:14. Here’s what it says: “And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”

This passage teaches us three crucial leadership principles for leading well. In the diagram above, these are principles for moving people along the arrow to where the “there.”

1. The leader needs to do the hard thing.
The word translated “idle and disruptive” refers to someone who has gotten out of line in a military formation. The leader has to confront those persons and things that are keeping people from moving in the right direction. Continue reading “What the Bible Says About Leading Well”

To Lead–Know Where You Are Going

When I pull up my Google Maps app, Google can usually tell me the best way to go. All it needs to know is where I want to go, then it shows me several routes, including the one that it estimates will be the fastest. I can then quickly make a selection.

The hard thing is knowing where I want to go. I try to use Friday’s as a day with my family. I always want to go somewhere and do a significant activity.

However, I’ve come up to many Friday’s and had nothing. I realized not too long ago that I need to make a list of things I want to do with the family: the Knoxville Zoo, ice skating at Ober Gatlinburg, a day trip to the Cumberland Gap. Once I’ve selected my destination, then it’s fairly easy to figure out a plan to get there.

I think life and leadership is like that. The hard part is often figuring out what we really want to go. I remember asking a woman not too long ago, if you had a week without kids and any responsibilities, what would you do? She answered, “I have no idea.”

She’s like me. I’m often not even clear on what I want. How am I going to have clarity on what is best for other people? How can I lead?

This past week, I was having lunch with another Pastor from our presbytery (a regional group of churches). I asked him, what if all the churches said, “we’ll appoint you pope for a day, and anything you ask us to change, we’ll change in our churches”? What would you tell them to change? It was a hard question to answer. Continue reading “To Lead–Know Where You Are Going”

What’s Your Story?

What’s your story?

Like most Americans, I was pretty hazy on where my ancestors came from and how they got here.

My Mother was born in South Africa to American missionaries. My Father was born near Owensboro, KY. I always thought of my Father and Mother as having very different backgrounds.

A few things happened recently that led me to do some research and realize that the two sources of my ancestry were quite close.

One ancestor that I knew of was Levi Parks Keith. He was from my mother’s side, was in the Illinois cavalry in the Civil War, and died of disease late in the war.

I realized that “Levi Parks Keith” was a pretty rare name, so I did a Google search. This led me to a site called Grave Finder.

On that site, I found not only where he was buried but also information about his life and links to other family members, including his father and mother.

His Father, Mason Parks Keith, came from Virginia to Kentucky and then moved to Southern Indiana where most of my family stayed.

This intrigued me because I knew my Father’s family was rooted in Northern Kentucky and Southern Indiana as well.

I began to plug in some general history. The Great Lakes States as we know them were not open to settlement until quite a few years after the Revolutionary War. In addition, Kentucky was opened for settlement before the Great Lake States. Continue reading “What’s Your Story?”