This morning I read Mark 7 as part of my devotional reading. (I do the M’Cheyne reading program on youversion, and yes, I’m a couple days behind.) The first half of the chapter is a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees about ceremonial cleanliness.

Apparently, Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate, which broke the tradition of the Jewish elders. (The washing of hands had more to do with ceremonial or ritualistic cleanliness than personal hygiene.) When the Pharisees called Jesus out on this, he laid into them pretty good, calling them “hypocrites” and dropping some Scripture on them. (We would call this a Jesus Juke today, but what did Jesus call it? A “me juke”? “Typical conversation”?) Then he called out the Pharisees for having traditions that contradict the commands of Scripture. There’s a golden preaching moment here about our own traditions and beliefs that we value so highly but which, ultimately, contradict Scripture. But I’ll let that one pass…

As if that wasn’t enough, Jesus goes on to essentially rewrite all of the Old Testament food laws! Speaking about food, he says, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them.” This is a bold statement in that culture, and it certainly wasn’t lost on Mark, who commented on it, “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.” This is such a loaded statement that I don’t even know where to begin, so I’ll just have to let that one pass, too…

But Jesus isn’t done yet! He calls the Pharisees (and the rest of humanity, for that matter) on the carpet for the sin that resides in their hearts. That, he says, is what really defiles someone.

What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, our of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come–sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.

The Pharisees made sure to obey all the food laws because they thought that, by obeying Torah and Tradition, they would be clean, undefiled. But Jesus told them they were already defiled because of the sin that lives in their hearts. Our fundamental problem is not that we become defiled by the things we do, but that we are already defiled by the sinful desires that reside in our hearts, and those sinful desires inevitably lead to sinful actions.

The Pharisees’ attempts at ritualistic cleanliness were futile. In the same way, your attempts to be good enough for God are pointless. Because of indwelling sin, you simply cannot be good enough for God. None of us can. Our only hope is if someone who does not have sin can provide a way for us to identify with himself so that, when we stand before God at the final judgment, he will vouch for us.

Wouldn’t you know it? This is exactly what Jesus has done for us, and the way he has provided for us to identify with himself is through faith. No cleanliness commands. No tradition of the elders. No impossible moral code. Simply faith. How beautiful is that?

Way back in the day, I used to make mix tapes when I was a kid. I would put together a list of all my favorite songs and painstakingly record them to a cassette tape. That’s right, a cassette tape. I even went so far as to design cover art for the tapes. Don’t hate.

God is Great, God is Good (edited by William Lane Craig & Chad Meister) is kind of like a mix tape. It’s a collection of essays from many of today’s leading evangelical scholars, including Alister McGrath, Scot McKnight, Gary Habermas, John Polkinghorne, and others. The book is like a mix tape in that it gets the best that these authors have to offer, each writing within their respective sweet spots. (Wow, talk about mixing my metaphors!)

9781844744176The subtitle of the book is, “Why Believing in God Is Reasonable and Responsible”. This is a book of apologetics written in response to the New Atheists—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, et al. William Lane Craig opens the book by lobbing an attack against Dawkins’s arguments that God cannot exist, and the rest of the authors follow suit with short, succinct apologies for various elements of Christian faith.

Due to the nature of the book, most of the chapters are too short to present a sustained argument. This is the sort of work that hits the highlights, and then points you to further resources for more detailed information. This approach is perhaps most useful for Christians who have occasional interactions with skeptics because it will provide them with basic answers to some of the questions that have been made popular by the writings of the New Atheists. While not making any comment on the quality of the work, I would call this a primer on apologetics, not a textbook.

Some of the most rewarding material comes at the end, where the reader will find an interview between Gary Habermas and noted atheist-become-theist scholar Antony Flew. Flew was one of the most influential atheist voices in the world in the last half of the twentieth century, and his conversion to theism in 2004 caused quite a scandal. While, to my knowledge, he never became a Christian before his death in April, his “leap of faith” was certainly a dramatic and powerful conversion.

Also at the end of the book is an Appendix written by Alvin Plantinga, where he reviews Dawkins’s book “The God Delusion”. If you don’t know who Alvin Plantinga is, you would do well to look him up. Have you ever heard someone say something like, “If God exists, and he is good, why is there evil in the world”? This is often assumed to be an ironclad proof that God does not exist. Well, not anymore, thanks to Alvin Plantinga. I won’t go into details here, but almost no serious philosophers consider the problem of evil to be a legitimate critique of the existence of God.

If you’re interested in apologetics, especially in conversing with people who are influenced by the New Atheists, then you should definitely pick up this book. You’ll find that the arguments of Dawkins, et. al., are really not so devastating as they seem. If you’re really serious about Christian apologetics, then you’ve probably already read everything in this book. No need to pick up the mix tape when you already know the albums.

Yesterday I wrote about the first two of five gospel perspectives that enable us to truly live out the gospel: The Extent and Gravity of Our Sin and The Centrality of the Heart. This is all part of a larger discussion about gospel substitutes and the true gospel, inspired by Lane & Tripp’s book How People Change. (For crying out loud, if you read my blog and you still haven’t ordered this book yet…I don’t even know. You need to read it!) Without further ado, here are the final three gospel perspectives.

3. The Present Benefits of Christ

The Christian hope is more than a redemptive system with practical principles that can change your life. The hope of every Christian is a person, the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. He is the wisdom behind every biblical principle and the power we need to live them out. Because Christ lives inside us today, because he rules all things for our sakes (see Eph. 2:22-23), and because he is presently putting all his enemies under his feet (see 1 Cor. 15:25-28), we can live with courage and hope.

Our hope is not in our theological knowledge or our experience within the body of Christ. We are thankful for these things, yet we hold on to one hope: Christ. In him we find everything we need to live a godly life in the here and now. Paul captures it so well: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

You have Jesus. He is with you through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Everything you need to live the gospel truly and fully–to live the life God has designed for you to live–is available to you because you have Jesus. You lack nothing because Jesus lacks nothing. Jesus didn’t just die for your sins, he rose again from the dead for your righteousness. He is alive and with you in the person of the Holy Spirit.

4. God’s Call to Growth and Change

It is so easy to coast! We have been accepted into God’s family, and someday will be with him in eternity. But what goes on in between? From the time we come to Christ until the time we go home to be with him, God calls us to change. We have been changed by his grace, are being changed by his grace, and will be changed by his grace.

What is the goal of this change? It is more than a better marriage, well-adjusted children, professional success, or freedom from a few nagging sins. God’s goal is that we would actually become like him. He doesn’t just want you to escape the fires of hell—though we praise God that through Christ you can! His goal is to free us from our slavery to sin, our bondage to self, and our functional idolatry, so that we actually take on his character!

Peter summarizes the change this way: ‘Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires’ (2 Peter 1:4).

God has an end in mind, and it is to conform you into the image of his Son. God is out to make you like Jesus. Everything he’s doing in you and through you and with you has a singular purpose: Christlikeness. This demands that we never stop growing and changing, because there will always be more of us that needs to be transformed. Never stop growing.

5. A Lifestyle of Repentance and Faith

God has blessed you with his grace, gifted you with his presence, strengthened you with his power, and made you the object of his eternal love. Because we belong to him, we live for his agenda. And if change is his agenda, then repentance and faith is the lifestyle to which we have been called.

There are always new sins for the Christian to address and new enemies to defeat. The Christian life makes God’s work of change our paradigm for living, while we celebrate the grace that makes it possible. ‘For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ’ (Titus 2:11-13).

In order to participate with God in his project of the transformation of our hearts, we must be committed to live lives of humility, characterized by repentance and faith. If you think you have nothing to repent of, then you are not working with God–you’re working against him.

Remember that sin is extensive and weighty; it is more than just something we do, it is who we are. But praise God, through a lifestyle of repentance and faith, the gospel says, “That is who you were. Jesus is who you are becoming.”

I’ve recently been blogging about the ways in which we try and fail to live out the gospel. There are seven gospel substitutes, all focused on external behavior rather than internal transformation. They are Formalism (Volunteerism) and Legalism; Mysticism, Activism and Biblicism; Psychology-ism and Social-ism. Each of these contain elements of true Christian faith and practice, but they are poor substitutes for the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It would be silly of me to talk about how not to live the gospel without providing some perspective on how we actually do live out the gospel. Once again, I’m going to go back to Lane & Tripp’s excellent book How People Change, where they offer five gospel perspectives to counter those seven gospel substitutes. To put all five in one post would be overwhelming, so I’m going to break it up a bit. I’ll post the first two today and come back to the other three tomorrow.

1. The Extent and Gravity of Our Sin

The struggle to accept our exceeding sinfulness is everywhere in the church of Christ. We accept the doctrine of total depravity, but when we are approached about our own sin, we wrap our robes of self-righteousness around us and rise to our own defense.

Scripture challenges this self-righteousness with clarity and power. ‘The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time’ (Gen. 6:5), and ‘There is no one righteous, not even one’ (Rom. 3:10). The effects of sin twist every thought, motive, desire, words, and action. This disease has infected us all, and the consequences are severe.

Why is this perspective so essential? Only when you accept the bad news of the gospel does the good news make any sense. The grace, restoration, reconciliation, forgiveness, mercy, patience, power, healing, and hope of the gospel are for sinners. They are only meaningful to you if you admit that you have the disease and realize that it is terminal.

I’ve quoted from David Powlison before, but I’d like to do so again because this stuff is just so good.

Sin, in this popular misunderstanding, refers to matters of conscious volitional awareness of wrongdoing and the ability to do otherwise. This instinctive view of sin infects many Christians and almost all non‐Christians. It has a long legacy in the church under the label Pelagianism, one of the oldest and most instinctive heresies. The Bible’s view of sin certainly includes the high‐handed sins where evil approaches full volitional awareness. But sin also includes what we simply are, and the perverse ways we think, want, remember, and react.

Most sin is invisible to the sinner because it is simply how the sinner works, how the sinner perceives, wants and interprets things. Once we see sin for what it really is; madness and evil intentions in our hearts, absence of any fear of God, slavery to various passions (Eccl. 9:3; the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live); (Gen. 6:5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually); (Ps. 36:1 Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes.); (Titus 3:3 3For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.) –then it becomes easier to see how sin is the immediate and specific problem all counseling deals with at every moment, not a general and remote problem. The core insanity of the human heart is that we violate the first great commandment. We will love anything, except God, unless our madness is checked by grace.

How quickly we forget that the only difference between people with Christ and people without Christ is Christ. Apart from Christ, there is no difference between Christians and nonChristians. This seems obvious; if only it were. All seven gospel substitutes fail to deal seriously with sin. But sin is precisely what the gospel deals with so decisively. Failing to take into account the extent and gravity of our sin is to deceive ourselves. Beginning at any other point than the depth of our sinfulness is to replace gospel Christianity with positivist humanism.

2. The Centrality of the Heart

The average Christian defines sin by talking about behavior. For example, what is the goal of most Christian parents? Is it not to get their children to do the right things? We set up all kinds of relational, motivational, and corrective structures to constrain and direct our children’s behavior. These structures are not without value, but if this is your only response to your child’s rebellion and sin, you will leave him defenseless against sin once he leaves home and the structures are no longer there.

Beneath the battle for behavior is another, more fundamental battle—the battle for the thoughts and motives of the heart. The heart is the real or essential you. All of the ways in which the Bible refers to the inner person (mind, emotions, spirit, soul, will, etc.) are summed up with this one term: heart. The heart is the steering wheel of every human being. Everything we do is shaped and controlled by what our hearts desire.

That is why the Bible is very clear that God wants our hearts. Only when God has your heart does he have you. As much as we are affected by our broken world and the sins of others against us, our greatest problem is the sin that resides in our hearts. That is why the message of the gospel is that God transforms our lives by transforming our hearts.

Lasting change always comes through the heart. This is one of Scripture’s most thoroughly developed themes, but many of us have missed its profound implications. We need a deeper understanding of Proverbs 4:23, ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.’

Your heart is not simply your emotional center, it is the core of who you are: thoughts, desires, motives, emotions, your will, etc. This is the place at which change must happen because your heart drives your behavior. Any attempt to control or change external behavior (which is what the seven gospel substitutes attempt to do) will ultimately fail because lasting behavioral change will only come through heart transformation.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the final three gospel perspectives.

I’ve been posting on the seven ways that we falsely live out the gospel, as Lane & Tripp have written in their excellent book How People Change. If you haven’t gotten the hint yet…READ THIS BOOK! In the first post I wrote about Formalism (Volunteerism) and Legalism. In the second post I covered Mysticism, Activism, and Biblicism. In this post we’ll cover the last two gospel substitutes.

6. “Psychology-ism”

Jen always has a group of people ministering to her. She talks a lot about how many ‘hurting’ people are in her congregation, and how the church isn’t doing enough to help them. An avid reader of Christian self-help books, she is always recommending the latest one to someone. She often says that Christianity is the only place to find real help and healing, yet she doesn’t seem to find that healing herself. Jen spends much of her time discouraged and often leaves church meetings in tears.

Jen is right that our deepest needs are met in Christ, but she sees Christ more as a therapist than as the Savior. Jen is convinced that her deepest needs come out of her experience of neglect and rejection, and so she sees herself more in need of healing than redemption. She is blind to how demanding, critical, and self-absorbed she actually is.

Without realizing it, Jen has redefined the problem that the gospel addresses. Rather than seeing our problem as moral and relational—the result of our willingness to worship and serve ourselves and the things of this world instead of worshipping and serving our Creator (Romans 1)—she sees our problem as a whole catalog of unmet needs. But whenever you view the sin of another against you as a greater problem than your own sin, you will tend to seek Christ as your therapist more than you seek him as your Savior. Christianity becomes more a pursuit of healing than a pursuit of godliness. The gospel is reduced to the healing of emotional needs.

God wants to heal us. But the healing of our emotional wounds is not the end God has in mind for us. God wants to take us through healing and out the other side, toward godliness. Our fundamental problem is not our personal catalogue of unmet needs or emotional wounds–it is the sin of our hearts. All the sins committed against us are exacerbated by our sinful, unforgiving responses. The gospel of Jesus goes beyond psychology in that it both offers and demands forgiveness of sin.

7. “Social-ism”

George was so thankful for the relationships he had found in the body of Christ. They were unlike any friendships he had experienced before. He was so full of joy for his Christian family that he participated in any activity that put him in contact with other believers. George loved his twenty-something Bible study, but he particularly enjoyed going out with the gang afterward. He loved the retreats, the camping trips, and the short-term missionary projects. For the first time in his life, George felt alive and connected.

George’s trouble started when one of his closest friends was transferred out of state and another friend got married. Then his church called a new pastor who decided to de-emphasize ministry to singles. When the small groups at his church were reorganized, George felt that he was stuck with a group of older married people with whom he couldn’t relate. Church wasn’t the same anymore, so he quit going to his small group. Before long his attendance on Sunday began to wane. Going to church, he said, was like going to someone else’s family reunion.

George didn’t realize it, but fellowship, acceptance, respect, and position in the body of Christ had replaced his dependence on communion with Christ. The church had become his spiritual social club, and when the club began to break up, he lost his motivation to continue. For George, the grace of friendship replaced Christ as the thing that gave him identity, purpose, and hope. The gospel had been reduced to a network of fulfilling Christian relationships.

God has called us to live out our faith in the community of other believers. This is often where we see the gospel happen, but the fellowship of believers is not itself the gospel. Neither friendships nor community are an acceptable substitute for Christ himself. As a community of Christ-followers, it is our responsibility to point one another to Jesus, orienting our hearts toward him, rather than pointing each other back to the community. The Church exists for Jesus, not for herself.

These are the seven ways we get the gospel wrong. They are external, behavior-oriented systems of living out your faith. They do nothing to invite the power and presence of the Holy Spirit into our deep hearts, where the truth of the gospel of grace is worked out at the deep level of what we think, what we want, and how we remember. Only the gospel can change our hearts at the level of desire. To attempt to live out the good news of Jesus through any of these false, external-oriented systems is to completely fail to live out the power of the gospel.