Manifesto, part 1

One thing I’ve learned in the past few years is how often I’ve been wrong about things. Perhaps it’s the naive idealism of youth or perhaps it’s just my own “raw material”, but far too many times I have taken my stand on an issue only to later discover my folly. This is especially disconcerting when it concerns theological issues. How sure I was at the time that this was true or that writer said it best, only to discover later that I was as blind as a pharisee.

I think these kinds of discoveries should humble us. While we certainly need to be willing to stand up – and strongly – for the things we believe in, we need to temper that with the idea that sometimes we believe in the wrong things. As a friend sometimes puts it, I’m pretty sure that about half of what I believe is heresy, but I’m just not sure which half. This is the kind of humility that we need to have.

That said, there must be some things that are rock-solid, untouchable, foundational to every other thought that passes through our minds. Otherwise we stand for nothing, we are blown like the wind and ultimately are of no use to anyone.

On 12 and 19 July 2009, I had the opportunity to preach at my home church, All Saints in Boise, Idaho. For those two sermons, I chose to preach on the two things I know, the two things that are the foundation of my understanding today and will be on my deathbed.

Those two sermons are my manifesto. Here is the first:
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Which one are you?
Matthew 21.28-32

“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” (ESV)

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This parable of Jesus displays a trait that is typical of nearly all his parables. So often he uses his parables to draw a line in the sand: you are either on this side or you are on that one. You are either this kind of person or that kind of person. You value either these things or those things.

You are either the man who builds a house on a rock or a man who builds a house on sand. You are either a tree that produces good fruit or a tree that produces bad fruit.

Are you the good soil that receives the seed of the gospel or you are bad soil that prevents it from growing? Are you wheat or tares?

Are you the Pharisee who prays, thank you that I am not like that man, or are you the tax collector who prays, have mercy on me O God?

Sometimes the line in the sand is implicit, but there is almost always a line in the sand. And in this parable, Jesus asks, which son are you?

Are you the one who has the wrong attitude, says all the wrong things, but in the end does what is right?

Or are you the son who has the appearance of obedience, tries to look good to those observing, but secretly has a spirit of disobedience and defiance?

Before we answer that question, I’d like to introduce you to an idea that one of my teachers taught me many years ago. This principle has changed everything for me – it has changed the way I read the Bible, changed the way I see myself, and changed my understanding of God.

The principle is this: When we read the Bible, my teacher said, we have a strong tendency, a natural reflex even, to identify with the good guys. Of the characters in this story, we think, I’m obviously David, not Goliath. I’m the man who built his house upon the rock, not the man who built his house upon sand. I’m the tax collector who prays for God’s mercy, not the Pharisee who prays, thank you God that I am not like that man over there.

We should be very careful about this, my teacher taught us. This mindset is subtle and subversive. The truth is, we absolutely must identify ourselves first and foremost with the bad guy in biblical stories.

This is a radical shift in mindset; it requires an overhaul of how we think. In our culture we are taught to think only positive thoughts about ourselves. Push out any negativity, minimize your flaws, and concentrate only on the things you do well. Don’t get down on yourself, you are who you are, and we are meant to express ourselves truly in the things we do.

But I submit to you, and this is a radical statement: the more you identify with the villains of Scripture, the more you will understand yourself, the God of the universe, and the true meaning and power of the gospel.

What do I mean by this? Let’s look at several examples from Scripture that illustrate this principle:

Adam, the first man, had two sons. He actually had many more sons than this, but the writer of Scripture wants us to focus on these two men and the two kinds of people that they represent. Abel was a good man who followed the ways of God, but Cain was rebellious. He hated God and Abel and everything they stood for. In the end, Cain murdered his brother and treated God with absolute defiance and contempt. Now, which one are you?

Noah was called by God to build the ark. It took him 120 years to build it, and all the while he was telling everyone around him that they needed to prepare for the coming flood. They laughed at him and mocked him. You’ve been saying that for 120 years, Noah, and still no flood! You are a fool! Which one are you, the man who obeyed God all those years in the face of such opposition, or the scoffer who won’t believe that God will keep his promises until you see it for yourself?

Similarly, David was just a boy when he single-handedly conquered the most destructive fighting machine of his day, the giant Goliath. Which one are you, the one with confidence in God far beyond your years, willing to go into such a battle without even wearing armour? Or are you the one who says, where is God now! He seems so far away from this battle, doesn’t he?

The entire book of the Proverbs is a contrast between the wise man and the fool. The wise man fears God, and he consequently receives these blessings. The fool trusts in his own judgment, and he consequently receives these curses. Which one are you?

Are you Daniel, who remained faithful in his lifestyle of worshipping God in all that he did, or are you Nebuchadnezzar, who seemed to think that everyone around him should bow down to him and do what he told them to do?

Are you the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, who understands his own moral poverty, or are you the Pharisee who actually has the nerve to thank God that he is not like that disgusting man over there?

In each of these cases, which one do you identify with? Which one is most like you? Which one would those around you, those who hear your words and observe your actions, identify as you?

Jesus said that it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. I can’t tell you how many times my mother used to tell me that actions speak louder than words.

I don’t know how you feel about this, but when I look at my actions and words, I find myself to be very deficient. I can’t even live up to my own standards, let alone God’s.

If you are still wondering whether you should identify with the good guy or the bad guy, think about this: the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength. Can any of us really claim to have done that?

It seems to me that my teacher was right – we must identify first and foremost with the bad guy, the villain, the loser. That’s us. We’re fallen. We’re corrupt. We fail – a lot. That’s us. Until you realize that, you can’t really understand the gospel.

Back to our parable in Matthew 21, which son are you? Are you the one who says all the right things and yet is disobedient, or are you the one who, in the end, does what his Father asks him to do?

Let me tell you which one you are. Are you ready for this? If you are in Christ, you are both of them. By God’s grace, you are both of these brothers.

If you are in Christ, you are both Cain and Abel. If you are in Christ, you are both Noah and the scoffers. If you are in Christ, you are both David and Goliath. Is it true? How can this be?

This is the very heart of the gospel. This is exactly what it means to be a Christian, what it means to trust in Christ alone for salvation. This is why we can’t just say, oh no, I’m not like that guy. We must embrace it and say, I am the bad guy. According to the gospel, the core of what it means to trust in Christ for salvation is that you are both of these.

In ourselves, we have lived a life of rebellion against God. We have rejected his way of thinking and substituted our own, just like the fool in Proverbs.

In ourselves, we have contempt for those who have the mindset of God, those who follow him, just like Cain, Noah’s scoffers, and Goliath. In ourselves, we’re just like them.

In ourselves, we seem to think that the whole world should revolve around us, that the universe itself should actually bend to give us what we want, just like Nebuchadnezzar.

In ourselves, we actually have the guts to look down on a humble sinner with contempt, thankful like the Pharisee that I’m not like him. The truth is, we are not like that man – in ourselves, we are in fact worse than that man, which is in fact the very point of that parable.

In ourselves, we are not much really. Apart from the work of Jesus in my life, I wouldn’t really want to be around me. Would you really want to be around you, apart from the work of Christ in your life?

But thank God for the work of Jesus! He lived the perfect life that God expects of us – the one and only man who has ever done so. He was the perfect good guy: the perfect Abel, greater than Noah, greater than David, the very embodiment of the wise man of Proverbs, the perfect Daniel.

And yet he was treated as if he were the quintessence of evil, mocked, tortured, dying a hideous, horrible death, forsaken even by God. Why did this happen?

When Jesus died on the cross, it was as a substitution for his people. For everyone who looks to Jesus’ work and not to his own for salvation, a trade took place, an exchange: Jesus took upon himself the penalty for our wickedness.

But even more, just as he took upon himself the curses that we had earned, he gave to us the amazing blessings that he had earned. And now those whose faith is in Christ are called sons of God, adopted into his family, and given every blessing and honour that can be given – even though we have earned none of it.

I love to think of it this way: When God looks at you, how does he react? Does it depend on how “good” you’re being at that moment? Is he happy if you happen to be acting right, and is he mad if you happen to be sinning? Do you think as if your relationship with God fundamentally hinges on your actions?

But the truth is this: if you are in Christ, when God looks at you, he smiles. It doesn’t matter how you happen to be acting at that moment. Your standing before God does not depend on what you are doing, it depends only and completely on what Jesus has done.

The substitution has taken place: when God looked at Jesus on the cross, he saw you & your sin. Now when he looks at you, he sees Jesus and his perfection.

And now when God looks at you, he says exactly what he said about Jesus: This is my son, in whom I am well pleased. This is because when he looks at those who are in Christ, he does not see the muck and filth and habits and sins that we struggle with every single day; he sees nothing but the perfection of Jesus.

This is the gospel. And identifying yourself as the villain is the first step toward understanding what it really means that Jesus died on the cross. Even while you were still a sinner, Jesus died for you.

We all should receive every curse that can be imagined, and yet by the grace and mercy of God we are given blessings that we have not earned and cannot even imagine – if our faith is in Christ alone and not our own works.

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This gospel mindset has radical implications; it will change absolutely everything about your life. A few brief examples:

First and most obvious, it will change the way you read the Bible. Identify yourself with the bad guy, think about the ways in which you fall so short of God’s calling on your life. Think about it and be honest: that is me. But all the while remember that if you are in Christ, God treats you as if you are the good guy. Even though you are the fool, you receive the blessings due to the wise man.

Second, this gospel mindset will radically alter the way you view yourself. You are both. Stop having too high a view of yourself –- and stop having too low a view of yourself. You were once the one, you will someday be the other, but for now you are both. What does that mean for your life?

In what ways should you struggle with sin, fight against your innate personality and acquired habits, in what ways wage war to put off the old man and put on the new man? And in what ways should you quit trying to fight harder and do better, and instead how should I rest in God’s grace, mercy, and love? That’s the Christian life! Both. Balance between fight hard and rest.

And finally, this gospel mindset will radically alter the way you view God. Can you believe it? It seems far too good to be true, doesn’t it? That we would earn the worst but receive the best? Can you believe it? What kind of God is this anyway?

An amazing God, that’s what kind of God he is. A poem by Charles Wesley puts it so well:

Amazing Love

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself, so great his love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown,
Through Christ my own.

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