According to an article in yesterday's edition of "The New York Times," Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is supremely confident that if there's a God, he's going to heaven when he dies:
Mr. Bloomberg was introspective as he spoke, and seemed both restless and wistful. When he sat down for the interview, it was a few days before his 50th college reunion. His mortality has started dawning on him, at 72. And he admitted he was a bit taken aback by how many of his former classmates had been appearing in the “in memoriam” pages of his school newsletter.
But if he senses that he may not have as much time left as he would like, he has little doubt about what would await him at a Judgment Day. Pointing to his work on gun safety, obesity and smoking cessation, he said with a grin: “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.”
The message of the gospel tells a different story. Rather than amassing a record and presenting it to God in order for Him to welcome us into heaven, Jesus amasses for us the only record God will accept (2 Cor 5:21). Every attempt to pad our resume with the good things we've done is reprehensible to the Father, flying in the face of the reality of the human condition (Rom 3:10) and spurning the precious gift of his Son for our salvation (Gal 2:21),
And yet, how often do we who confess to believe the gospel fall into a similar trap? We may not base our justification on our good works, but we so often smuggle into our justification our progress in sanctification in order to feel acceptable to God.
Before we (rightly) decry Mr. Bloomberg as seriously misguided, we need to grab a hold of the plank of our own waywardness and admit that at ground zero in our Christian lives, we subtly look for something apart from Jesus' finished work to find our own sense of "It's not even close."
So let us all repent. You and me and the former mayor. And then let's all rest in the good news that the only person for whom "it's not even close" has given himself to us forever.
I had a tremendous opportunity to share what God is doing here in the Twin Cities through this post at The Gospel Coalition.
Hope you're encouraged!
A phenomenal word from J. I. Packer's classic, Knowing God:
There is tremendous relief in knowing that [the Father's] love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion Him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench His determination to bless me....[F]or some unfathomable reason, He wants me as His friend, and desires to be my friend, and has given His Son to die for me in order to realize this purpose.
I went into my freshman year at college with a plan to kill myself by Christmas break. I had excelled academically in high school and often reveled in my own sense of superiority. I wore black, I read existential literature, I had a lip ring. I was enlightened. More than anything I wanted to be tragic and important. I wanted to emulate the beauty that I had so often read about. I had a black hole inside of me that swallowed up anything and everyone around me. So that fall, instead of going to class, I woke up at noon and smoked pot in my dorm room. I ate mushrooms down by the river, and snorted cocaine and drank until I vomited through my nose.
When I came home for Thanksgiving, my stepsister noticed that I had lost a considerable amount of weight. She told my father, and he came down to the Twin Cities the following week and brought me home to Duluth where I was put into outpatient rehab.
After two months I convinced my parents that I was well enough to return to school for spring semester. And I did a little better. I attended one class, a creative writing course in which there was a boy on whom I had a crush. But I continued to do drugs and flunked or withdrew from the rest of my classes. At the end of the semester I moved into a rundown apartment in Stevens Square with my best friend and fully embraced the bohemian, hipster lifestyle. I did drink and apps in Uptown, I shoplifted designer dresses from Macy’s, and supported my drug habit by becoming a stripper.
In February of 2007, one of my friends from the strip club invited me to go with her to a house in Uptown because she had a crush on one of the six boys who lived there. These boys all came from good, upper-middle class suburban homes and they, like me, had shunned their privileged upbringing to adopt the same drug-addled existence that I had. They had covered the walls of their house with obscene artwork and profane graffiti. The floor was littered with empty booze bottles and cigarette butts, and their eight cats had literally taken over the basement making that portion of the house unlivable. They called it “the Beatstreet.” My girlfriend and I called it, “the Dumpster.” It was essentially a crack house. And that is where I met my husband, Trent.
He was one of the six original Dumpster kids. The two of us made an instant connection, and from the day we met, we spent every moment, both waking and sleeping, together. We talked, we laughed, and we did drugs together. For the first time in two years, I felt like the world wasn’t spinning out of control. And for the first time, I felt loved. I was a mess, but he didn’t care. And that - that made me care for the first time about my own life. I quit stripping, I got a real job.
He and I moved into a cockroach-infested apartment on the corner of Franklin and Nicollet together. One night, after a long evening of pills and booze, we had a terrible fight that ended with him threatening to leave. I stood there in the middle of the trash heap that was our studio apartment and began to cry. I begged him not to go, not to leave me alone in the mess. I wept and wept. Then, out of nowhere, he asked if it was alright if we prayed together. I had never prayed or even believed in prayer but was so desperate. He held me and we prayed. I felt a little better, calmer at least.
We packed a change of clothes in a pillowcase and left the apartment. We got on the light rail and ended up homeless at Minnehaha Falls. We couldn’t afford a hotel room so Trent called his parents, whose house he had been kicked out of prior to moving into the Beatstreet. He told them that I, his girlfriend (they didn’t know we lived together) had been unwittingly duped into renting a cockroach-infested hole and asked them if I could stay with them while I looked for a new place to live. They agreed, and more than that, they also invited Trent back into their home so I wouldn’t feel awkward, having only met them once before. They were very right wing, uptight, Republican types, everything that I was so obviously not. They had us sleep on separate floors and helped me to find a new apartment in Richfield.
So, Trent and I moved to the suburbs, stopped doing hard drugs at least, and were engaged by Christmas. We were married the following June and pregnant by July. And I, I was terrified. I wanted so badly for the baby to be a boy because I felt that I could never properly raise a girl, as I had been so very lost.
The following March, we had a beautiful baby daughter, and I was frozen with fear. I knew that I could only serve to screw her up, a fear that was reinforced by her colic. I suffered from post-partum depression, and Trent and I began to grow apart. A few years later, I became pregnant with my second child and the gap between us widened. We no longer found solace in each other, and our relationship became damaging for both of us. We fought all the time.
After one particular incident, I broke down to my mother-in-law and confessed the realities of our present and our past, including what I had done for a living back when Trent and I first met. She asked me to go to Bible Study Fellowship with her. Nothing else I had tried had worked so far, so I decided to go. They were studying Genesis. So I took my leftist liberal ideology and "out there" insights to the super uptight Edina ladies' Tuesday morning Bible study expecting to be met with much criticism and condemnation. But something surprising happened. I wasn’t ostracized, I was listened to. They considered my opinions and treated me with the utmost respect even though I had treated them with very little.
And then something even more surprising happened, I began to listen to them. I still didn’t believe what they believed but I respected them and I heard them. Trent and I also started to make headway by going to marriage counseling. Our relationship was still contentious, but we were again calmer. We started to hate each other less and less.
And then, one day, my in-laws asked to take us to church (they would have to because we didn't have a car). But we didn’t like their church, so Trent suggested his brother’s church, Redeemer Bible Church. And we came. We came and I still wasn’t convinced. I enjoyed the story of the Bible, I saw what its narrative could do for people on an emotional as well as psychological level, but it didn’t do that for me. Nevertheless, I began reading the Bible. I thought, "I understand all the literary nuances I'm able great observations, but I can't feel it; I don't feel it." I worried that maybe I wasn’t chosen, that my mind just didn’t work that way, that I was incapable of simple faith.
But I loved the Word just the same. I found it profoundly beautiful. I didn’t have the gift of grace, but I had other gifts and I embraced them. I embraced my logical mind and quizzical nature and reveled in my cognitive approach to the Bible. Maybe I didn’t believe that Jesus was the son of God, but I was moved by the story just the same and appreciated its significance.
And then, something miraculous and inexplicable happen. I was chosen. It was instantaneous and without cause. I believed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and only God could have given that to me. I had tried long and hard and still simply could not believe until I could. It was nothing I did or didn’t do; I just woke up one day and awoke. And it makes me want to cry. I feel so unworthy but so loved and so grateful.
And that’s how I became a Christian, all of it really. God came to me before I even knew He existed. He spoke my language - he spoke arrogant, hipster, douche bag to me - the only language at the time that I spoke. He sent me my parents and my step-sister, he sent me Trent, he sent me my in-laws, he sent me my girls, he sent the BSF ladies, he sent me his Son. He gave my life a story from which I was able to acquire the learned skill of love so that I might come to understand the love he had for me the whole time.
The Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bud Selig, had this to say about Derek Jeter, who announced that he would retire at the end of the 2014 season:
In 21-plus years in which I have served as Commissioner, Major League Baseball has had no finer ambassador than Derek Jeter.
What a commendation!
Of course, every Christian is an ambassador, too: "Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Cor 5:20).
May each of us strive for the commendation of being no finer ambassador for the Christian faith: "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matt 25:21).
Here's a vision of seven characteristics we're aiming to develop in our church's students in Grades 7-12:
- They have a working knowledge of the essentials of the gospel, the contents of the Bible, the basics of theology, and the nature of the Christian life.
- They have a maturing personal relationship with Jesus as evidenced by a rich life of private worship (prayer and meditation on Scripture).
- They are critical Christian thinkers, running all the areas of human knowledge and enquiry through the grid of a Reformed worldview.
- They have maturing relationships with the members of their immediate family, relating to their parents more and more as brothers and sisters in Christ and seeking to love their siblings well, pointing them to the cross.
- They have a growing concern for their friends who aren’t yet Christians and with humble boldness and joy actively seek to share the gospel with them.
- They serve in the local church in ways that complement rather than conflict with the realities of student life.
- They are just plain fun to be around because the gospel has made them normal, engaging, interesting, and interested in other people’s lives.
Paraphrasing the Puritan, John Owen from his book, A Treatise of the Dominion of Sin and Grace, Sinclair Ferguson says,
There are actually only ever two pastoral problems you will ever encounter. The first is this: persuading those who are under the dominion of sin that they are under the dominion of sin. That's the task of evangelism. And [second], persuading those who are no longer under the dominion of sin that they are no longer under the dominion of sin because they're Christ's.
I've been a pastor almost 19 years, and for 15 of those years I had been deeply troubled by the truth that I believed I needed the pastorate to stay on the straight and narrow. I'm such a weak person that I felt I couldn't survive as a Christian outside of the work of the local church.
My trouble over this came from remarks by men I respect to the effect that if my spiritual life would be weakened apart from pastoral ministry, I should reconsider whether or not I had been called to the office. But then I heard 1 Tim 4:16 with fresh ears:
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
What this means is that every pastor - not only me, but every pastor - is saved by his pastoring. What a relief! The fact that the Lord has called me to this work means that I need this work for my sanctification. It's one of the many reasons it's so important. We aren't just saving our hearers; we're saving ourselves.
The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past; let them go and gather straw for themselves" (Exod 5:6-7).
But wait a second! Didn't God say that he was going to rescue his people from the Egyptians? Yes, he did:
The LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Exod 3:7-8).
What happens in Exodus 5 doesn't seem as if the Israelites’ redemption is moving forward; it seems like it’s moving backward. But it’s not. This is how God is going to rescue them – by hardening Pharaoh’s heart and multiplying his miracles in the land of Egypt.
This is very instructive for us. We ask the Lord to rescue us and because of what Jesus has done, our daily rescue is certain. But often (can I say often?) the Lord’s rescue is not the rescue of relief, but the rescue of refinement, as Paul Tripp would say. It's God's stormy grace.
At the heart of Christianity is an exchange of records.
You bring your record to God (complete with all your sin and failure and guilt and shame and regret, along with your morality and religiosity), and in exchange, God gives you Jesus’ flawless record in its place, which is all yours simply by trusting in Christ alone. This is the only ground of acceptance with God. Either you bring him Christ’s record or you are rejected forever.
Martin Luther has famously called this “a wonderful exchange”:
[T]his is that mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: [where], by a wonderful exchange, our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s: and the righteousness of Christ is ours. He has imparted that [righteousness to] us, that he might clothe us with it, and fill us with it: and he has taken our evils upon himself that he might deliver us from them….[N]ow, the righteousness of Christ is…ours objectively…and so, our sins are…Christ’s objectively….For in the same manner [that] he grieved and suffered in our sins...we rejoice and glory in his righteousness.
This marvelous paragraph contains at least six truths:
- Your sins are no longer yours. They don’t even belong to you any more. They belong to Christ. And not just yesterday’s sins; tomorrow’s, too.
- Jesus’ righteousness is yours. Your record is Jesus’ record credited in your name. He has imparted it to you. Given it to you as a gift, something you didn’t lift a finger for. So it’s not just that your sins aren’t yours any more; it’s that what IS yours is Christ’s perfectly lived life! And he’s given you his life in a certain way…
- You are clothed in Jesus’ righteousness. It covers you completely. It’s wrapped around you like a blanket.
- You are filled with Jesus’ righteousness. It’s not only outside of you, covering you completely, but it’s also inside of you, filling up your entire life.
- The wonderful exchange is objective. Your sin is Christ’s objectively. His righteousness is yours objectively, which means that it’s true whether you feel it or not. You may have woken up this morning suspicious of yourself, condemning yourself, “Who are you to go to church today?” “You’re hung over.” Or, “You just had a knock-down-drag-out with your wife.” Or, “You just told your daughter you wish she’d never been born.” So you wonder: “Can God accept me? Will he?” And you wonder because your behavior makes you feel so unacceptable. What do you do with this? You remember that the wonderful exchange is objective. Therefore, it doesn’t matter whether or not or how much you feel accepted, you’re objectively accepted because your sin isn’t yours any more. It’s Christ’s. Objectively! And his righteousness is yours, too. The only righteousness that God does accept is objectively yours. And so…
- Your celebration over what God has done for you can be as high as Jesus’ sadness was low when he suffered and died for your sins. The truth of the wonderful exchange leads to celebration. And no wonder. Nothing is more worth celebrating than the wonderful exchange of the gospel.