A blog about everything about teaching the Bible. "And still I will show you a more excellent way..." (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Strongholds (Overcoming Sin 4)

“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2Corinthians 10:3-5 ESV).

That’s one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite Biblical contexts. It’s a spiritual warfare passage. It speaks of strongholds of evil that Christians have the power to destroy. It also lays out the field of battle before us, and wings us to a great height so that we can see the peace that follows victory.

How does it teach us all that, you ask? Well, good question! We can all see the passage is about warfare, but not one fought with guns and swords. As children of God, we aren’t merely trying to gain control of resources somewhere, or protect some boundary line drawn on a map. We’re fighting against the invisible demonic powers influencing the world behind the scenes! Note this from the great spiritual armor text of Ephesians 6: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV). But, this demonic power isn’t the stuff of fantasies like The Exorcist. Nor even is it like the demonic activity that took place during Jesus’ ministry. During his ministry, Jesus bound Satan (Mark 3:22-27). In his resurrection, he crushed the Devil’s power to rule (Genesis 3:15). Oh, Satan is still very much active in the world as the texts above show (not to mention 1 Pet 5:8), but he has been defeated by Jesus and is limited in what he can do (perhaps I’ll say more of this in another post later).

So, his work seems to me to be subtler than in any previous age (though “we” are not ignorant of the way he works -2Corinthians 2:11). His work today isn’t to “possess” people overtly, but to possess them through deceit—winning their hearts over to his purposes through “lofty opinions raised against the knowledge of God.” At the point of becoming Christians, we all have lots of these “arguments” in our minds, and these are strongholds of evil from which Satan hurls his fiery darts of temptation at us (Ephesians 6:16). They are the things we keep clinging to that offer Satan an open door into our lives. This is the spiritual battlefield, and the peace of victory comes with taking every single, lasting thought captive to obey Christ! To overcome sin, you’ve got to tear down those strongholds of evil power and erect strongholds of righteousness in their place!

I’ll just offer a very incomplete list of some strongholds of evil: (1) People who are bad influences on you (1Corinthians 15:33). (2) “Little indulgences” that inflame sinful passions, like movies you shouldn’t watch, magazines that may not be pornography, but that feature advertizements and other photo spreads that might as well be (Romans 13:14), (3) Could be things that aren’t inherently sinful at all, but present such a (seemingly) irrestistable opportunity for misuse that they become a stronghold of evil (for instance, a computer with internet access—there isn’t anything wrong with it, but if you can’t overcome the temptation to minuse it, bash the stupid thing with a sledgehammer! See the post on confession, though, and try that first). I could extend the list to include places you go, music you listen to, a job, etc. You get the picture.

Now for some strongholds of righteousness—these should be erected in place of the evil strongholds and offer protection for your spirit against temptations to sin. (1) Prayer and Bible study. Simple, but the most overlooked of them all! (2) Church!!! (3) Making people who are good influences on you, your closest friends. Again, I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea.

I hope you love your Maker. I hope you really want to please Him, and grow close to him. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you…” (James 4:7-8 ESV). I hope you want to overcome sin in your life, it’s God’s dream for you and the only path to both temporal and eternal happiness. To do it, you’ve got to draw near to God, suit up for battle, and tear down those strongholds of evil in your life. Then build up strongholds of good, and press on until your whole mind—every thought—has been brought under the control of Lord Jesus!

I think I’ll do one more post in this series, so look for it early next week.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Power of Confession (Overcoming Sin 3)

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16 ESV).

I’ve been itching to write this one for days now. I’ve discussed it with several brothers and sisters as we’ve talked together. I believe it with all my being. The power of Satan is in secrecy, in the shadows. The sins we pretend we don’t commit, the ones we can’t seem to tell anyone else about, the one’s we struggle against alone until we loathe ourselves as hypocrites—these are the ones that enslave us. I want you to know that all it takes to gain God’s power to overcome them is to get over your pride, quit pretending, realize that if you have been struggling against it vainly for years, you’re likely to be struggling for years yet (or until it ruins you) unless you bring it out in confession and let the church join you in the fight. An army can accomplish so much more than a lone warrior!

Listen to the Lord: “Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” (Matthew 10:26-27 ESV). And listen to his apostle: “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2 ESV). Listen to another apostle: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:7-10 ESV).

To pretend like we’re super-Christians when we’re not is dishonesty. Not only does it not benefit us, but it robs others who are struggling against sins of the encouragement and strength they could get from fighting alongside brothers and sisters who understand. Walking in the light is essential to abiding in God’s forgiving grace. Being open about our struggles and enlisting the prayerful aid of our brothers and sisters is part of it!

One more passage, and then I’ll explain the power of confession in Christianity... “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:19-21 ESV).

To come out into the light confessing a sin or weakness is a work carried out in God! It glorifies God for his holiness and truth, and praises him for his grace. It also means I’m no longer in denial—that I am now accountable, not only to God, but to his church. When a genuine beliver goes public with his or her sins, and a gracious church receives and forgives them, I do not think it is possible that the temptation will ever be as strong, and even if it rears its ugly head again, through the prayers of the saints I know God will enable the brave, confessing believer to overcome!

When I say public, I don’t necessarily mean national television! An older and often wiser generation of Christians used to say, “Confess a sin as publicly as it’s committed.” Not bad advice, as far as things go, but what if it’s not committed in public at all? A better rule is confess it to as many brothers and sisters as it takes to gain the strength that comes from accountability to the Christian community! But, do so with good judgment.

Understand that Christians are at different levels of spiritual maturity. Some still gossip when they shouldn’t, and some aren’t as forgiving as they should be. While there are times when a sin must be confessed before the whole church (like when the whole church already knows about it), when it is simply a private besetting sin, find one or two trusted brothers or sisters in Christ and tell them about your struggle. Then you have gained a friend who will be the power of God for you, one who will ask you how you’re doing; one who will pray with you and for you when you fail. I think this is the main thing James is talking about. Be specific. James says, “sins,” not merely “sinfulness.” He says “one to another,” seeming to stress this one-on-one dynamic. Discretion is almost always a good thing.

One more thing before I wrap this up. While I don't desire to say anything mean or unnecessarily disparaging against the Catholic Church's practice of confessing to a priest, I do want to clarify: that's not what I'm talking about. According to Biblical Christianity every believer is a priest! (1Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 1:6, 5:10). The kind of confession I'm talking about is not based on submission to some perceived church hierarchy, but leaning on one another in covenant relationship for the Lord's strength that is potentially in each of us for each of us!

Through God’s power both providentially and in the church, confession offers enormous power to overcome sin. Yet, because we’re ashamed of our weaknesses, and (wrongly) assume everyone else has just got to be doing a better job than me (and therefore I’ve got to pretend like all is well), we continue to embrace the shadows, fearing exposure. That is the will of Satan, and an iron chain that promises to keep you enslaved to sin until you die! Come out into the light. You’re human. You sin. Find a brother or sister you can trust, and get those sins out of your life!

More to come.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Overcoming Sin (2)

So, our goal is to overcome sin through the power of the Spirit of God. At least I hope it is your goal. Why worry about it? Well, probably the first answer anyone would expect a preacher to give is so that you need not fear the fires of hell. There is a God to whom we all will give an accounting of our lives. Among many such passages, we have this assurance from Hebrews, “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13 ESV). In another place in Hebrews, the apostolic writer says, “For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:30-31 ESV). That ought to wake and shake all of us up a bit.

But, overcoming sin isn’t all about the wrath of an angry God. Consider what follows Hebrews 4:13 (quoted above). The passage continues, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16 ESV).

Overcoming sin is something God sacrificed his divine Son to enable us to do! It is why Jesus is now our great High Priest in heaven. Through his blood we’re freed from wrath and invited into loving relationship—what Hebrews calls “walking up to God’s throne boldly,” if you’ll pardon the paraphrase. (Please, stop and let that sink in!) John says, “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:17-19 ESV).

God wants us to overcome sin and be holy like he is, because he loves us. It is for our own good. Even the sins that we cling to—the ones we think make us happy—eventually betray us, leaving emptiness, loneliness, dirtiness, depression and a trail of broken hearts, disappointments and unrealized dreams. God wants us to soar on wings of eagles (Isaiah 40:31). He wants a future and a hope for us (Jeremiah 29:11). He is the father of billions of prodigal sons and daughters; watching the horizon for a sign from us that we want to come home (Luke 15:20). We need to overcome sin, yes, because in the end a loving God will be forced to cut us off if we cling to it in unholiness, but also because it is ruining our lives right now!

The first thing we must get settled to overcome sin is a genuine relationship with God through Christ, and an accurate understanding of what that means. We enter into covenant relationship with him by grace through confessing faith in the waters of baptism, where, the Scriptures teach, we are united with Christ in his death burial and resurrection, and receive the remission of sins (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 10:10, 6:1-4; Acts 2:38). We do that having determined to change loyalties. Having served self (and, perhaps unwittingly, Satan) in the past, we “turn around” (what the Bible calls repentance) and make it our life’s aim henceforth until the end to serve Christ as Lord (Acts 17:30-31; Revelation 2:10).

Now, having such a relationship with our Father, what is he like toward us? Is he angry and wrathful? No, not unless we willingly spurn his love! He gives us “grace to help in time of need.” He patiently molds us and shapes us through his love until we understand and become holy like he is. Those of us who experience this grace have come to realize that the real power to overcome sin is the love of God toward us that flows from his heart with patience, instruction and discipline. It enables us to get up again and move forward when we’ve fallen. It anables us to actually make progress! Believe, repent and be baptized. Love God, and accept his love for you. It’s the first step along the “straight and narrow way” that leads to the abundant, eternal life—starting now!

More to come soon…

Friday, August 14, 2009

Overcoming Sin (1)

Sin is the universal human problem. One could also say it is the general human condition. It infects, corrupts, complicates, alienates, enslaves, kills and ruins at every level of human society. I am going to do a short series of posts about overcoming sin that I hope will be a blessing to all who read them. Feel free to comment!

I need to start this with three Bible passages:

"As it is written: 'None is righteous, no, not one'" (Romans 3:10 ESV).
"For we all stumble in many ways..." (James 3:2 ESV).
"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8 ESV).

All humans who grow up enough to be responsible for their actions sin! Not just a little, but in many ways! That's you. That's me. The New Testament doesn't mince words about it! Only God in the flesh--Jesus was good enough to be the exception. On the other hand, the New Testament doesn't teach what I hear all over the place. It doesn't teach that sin is inevitable, unavoidable, or that it must or even should be a permanent fixture in our lives. It's not right for Christians to keep on saying "we're all just sinners, and we're going to continually mess up, and there's nothing we can do about it," because that is the language of slavery!

Note these passages:

"Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame" (1 Corinthians 15:34 ESV).
"He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed" (1 Peter 2:24 ESV).
"But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness" (Romans 6:17-18 ESV).
"No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it" (1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV).

Alright, I want to be brief. If Christianity is the cure for sin why do Christians both young and old still sin? There are many reasons, but a better question is the one each of us needs to ask ourselves: Why do I still sin? If you're not a Christian, the answer is quick: you don't yet have God's power in your life for overcoming. You're enslaved, and only Christ has the keys to your shackles. We Christians may ask, "Hasn't Christ delivered me from sin's rule?" We know the answer is yes! Then why did I say those awful words the other day? Why do I seem unable to stop... on and on, we all know the drill! The simple answer is that I didn't accept one or more of God's spiritual provisions against sin he has told me all about in his word. To follow 1Cor 10:13 (quoted above), I overlooked, or ignored, as the case may be, the way of escape God provided.

Does that mean as Christians we're lost in sin every time we miss the exit ramp and barrell headlong into transgression? No, thankfully it doesn't. John says, "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7 ESV). The verb tense of "cleanses" in the original Greek text implies ongoing action. Christians are brought by grace, not by merit into this covenant relationship with Christ. Our salvation is thus relational. We lose it only if we willingly leave the relationship, either by abandoning faith in Christ altogether, or by heading impinitently into and remaining in sin. God doesn't require our literal perfection. He requires faithfulness, and faithfulness is characterized by growth. We've got to be getting better as the years go by. Unless our goal is the total eradication of sin in our lives until we have brought "every thought captive to obey Christ" (2Corinthians 10:5) we won't achieve the heights of faithfulness that would most honor God and bring us and those around us deepest joy. Whether one can actually make it to the point he doesn't sin at all anymore in this life is hardly the real point. Whether we'll make it or not, it's what we're aiming for!

To conclude this little installment, let me sort of review and clarify what I am and am not saying. I affirm that we're all technically sinners--even Christians, though Christians are no longer included among the "group" called sinners by God due to his favor that rests upon us. We need the grace of God and there is no salvation apart from faith in Christ. Christ is our righteousness--all of it--all we've got. If you don't have Jesus, you don't have righteousness--you're no good. We don't and never will seek to be justified on the basis of our own merit, and if we do, we're doomed! Ah, but to be in Christ is to be led by the spirit unchained from sin's addictive power. We are on the road called discipleship, characterized (if we're true) by growth. That means we sin less and less as Christ lives through us more and more (Galatians 2:20).

So, if we are truly in christ and he in us, and continue to grow steadily, shouldn't we agree that Christ is good enough, and strong enough, and faith in him powerful enough to elevate us above the sins that plague us now? If the Bible says to stop sinning, can it not be done?

More to come.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Silver Lining in Being Sick

Last week I spent a little quality time with an upper respiratory infection. He left me with a souvenir to remember him by for a while--a bit of a cough I'm still enjoying from time to time. Since that was what was on my mind, I decided to write the week's church bulletin article about it. I didn't intend to post it here originally, but the article prompted a great email response from a dear sister in Christ that I felt provided something my experiences couldn't. I thought it might be encouraging to post both here. Here's my original article:

As I write this, I'm about to get back in bed for something like the next 24 hours. What I thought was just a Summer cold was really an upper respiratory infection with bronchi-something-or-another. With God's favor, now that I've had my obligatory shot in the “hip,” and a prescription to go with it, I should be back up and running soon. I'm thankful for that. I'm also thankful for the blessing of having been sick for a few days. That may sound crazy, but I assure you it's entirely reasonable.

Honestly now, for all my life I've deeply hated getting sick, and with my allergies, I've been sick a lot. However, with the exception of a bad bout with pneumonia in my childhood, I've been blessed (so far) to have only relatively minor ailments (colds, infections, flu, etc.). I trust that will continue. What I'm about to say more directly applies to suffering with these common illnesses that plague us all from time to time. Having never suffered with cancer, diabetes, or any other long-term ailment, I dare not speak lightly of the burden such could become over time. I will be so bold as to remind us all that we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens” us (Philippians 4:13). Some of the grandest models of grace under pressure are those who've endured oppressive long-term ailments with the joy of the Lord undimmed in their hearts.

Some time ago in a sermon Wayne (Cornwell) mentioned the example his father has been in the way he's dealt with illnesses. He's never asked God to take them away. He appreciates the blessing they are to him. (While I'd rather never be sick) I've come to understand what he means. These ailments that “plague” us teach us several things. They remind us of our mortality. These bodies are wearing out, and we'd best be prepared to meet God (Hebrews 9:27). They nudge us (yet again) toward remembering we are utterly dependent upon God for our wellbeing and provision (Acts 17:25). As we lay in bed “suffering,” we are gifted with something we so rarely enjoy these days: solitude—with God. Finally, ailments offer us the chance to remember what really matters, and where the things that so frustrate us on a daily basis actually belong in our list of priorities. Most of them are not that important at all! I'll close with a passage from 3 John: “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3John 1:2 ESV). But, even when you're not in good health, try to look for the silver lining.

Maybe there's something of value in the article, but never having suffered with any serious or extended ailments, I can't write out of experience. I actually hope to never be able to write out of that kind of experience, but that's another matter altogether. Here is what sister Carolyn Deocales has to say about the very extended, and very serious ailments she experienced:

I am writing my story of God’s love in the hopes that it will benefit someone without going through what I endured before I submitted to God.

It all started in March of 2004. My right breast started to ooze a greenish black liquid. I immediately made an appointment with my gynecologist for a well-woman check up. He could find nothing and it wasn’t quite time for my scheduled mammogram. But I felt something was wrong. By May, I could feel a lump in my breast and knew it was breast cancer, but I was in complete denial.

I stopped keeping my first grandson, Trey, and upset my son and daughter-in-law terribly. Then I found a job and went to work. Still in complete denial. Work lasted about 3 months until after my second grandson, Owen, was born. My breast became sore and it was now the end of September. I realized that I could no longer put off the inevitable…I had to go to the doctor.

As soon as I went and was examined, I was immediately sent for a mammogram and an ultra-sound. The test were positive…it was cancer. The next step was to accept the diagnosis and tell my family because I had to see a surgeon. I think this was the hardest part for me, telling the family while I am still in denial about the whole thing. I had not yet learned to give it all to God and let him take over my life…big mistake!!

I made all the appointments, had the biopsy, it came back positive…lobular cancer, one of the worst types. I could have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. The chances of reoccurrence with this type of cancer were 80% so I elected to have a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery at the same time. This is what is recommended with a mastectomy, to have the reconstruction done concurrently. I was a smoker at the time and was told that I had to quit and by now it was November 28 and I quit. I had an out patient surgery for the plastic surgeon to clip blood vessels on either side of my belly fat to insure it got plenty of blood flow prior to the actual surgeon date which was December 16, 2004. I was to be in the hospital at least 5 but not more than 7 days. Still I had not learned to give it all to God and let him take over my life…what a stubborn person I am!! I would recite Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him that strengthens me” over and over but still not giving this burden to God.

The day of surgery came with the whole family at the hospital. The mastectomy went exactly as it should, but during the reconstruction phase I started bleeding and it was several hours before it was brought under control. This is when it happened. Little to anyone’s knowledge at the time, during the period of the operation I contracted 3 different staff infections, one of which was MRSA.

Surgery started at 6:30 AM that morning and I was taken to my room until 5 PM that evening. Later that evening I started running a low grade fever that was attributed to the anesthesia…normal. The fever persisted, I started putting on fluid but the doctor’s seemed to think everything was going to be fine. On the fifth day, they asked my Mother to come and watch how my dressings should be changed as I was going to stay with my parents for a few days when I left the hospital. During my Mother’s education of dressing changing she totally freaked out! The reconstructed breast and my stomach area were both black as tar. Mother immediately called my husband, my sister, and my oldest son. Upon their viewing this gruesome sight, they contacted the plastic surgeon who responded that this “black skin would peel off.” Of course, my family knew better and contacted the breast surgeon, who after seeing this conferred with the plastic surgeon and the dean of infectious diseases was called in.

Tests were run and found that indeed I had 3 different staff infections. I was immediately put on 3 different intravenous antibiotics and was told another surgery was needed to remove the “dead tissue.” This is when I turned my life over to God. I laid there in bed the night before surgery and talked to God like I had never talked to him before. I told him that I knew I was just a little instrument in this big operation we call life and it was his will what was to be done with me. I was his child, his servant, and let me accept whatever he wanted for me. As I laid there that night, in the quiet with my husband asleep next to me, I could feel God embrace me, wrapping his loving, healing arms around me, comforting me. It was as if he was speaking to me and I was listening. God was real and he was there with me. I knew it. I felt him. It was pure love.

There were two more surgeries after this one, kidney failure, blood transfusions, intestinal infections, more intravenous antibiotics. After the third surgery, I wore a wound vac on the reconstructed area and my stomach and its purpose was to suction out the bacteria from these areas. I wore it for 5 weeks and for the first 3 weeks, it had to be changed daily, then every other day. I gained and lost 12 pounds of fluid and lost 30 pounds of weight during this time. But in my mind I knew I was going to be fine because every night, I spoke to God and he held me in his arms, comforting me. What a wonderful feeling! I had found complete submission!!

I was finally released from the hospital on January 26, 2005. I still had 3 more surgeries ahead and chemotherapy but I was completely at peace in my mind and heart because I knew God was with me. My favorite song now is, “I come to the garden alone.” This song says it all. If you will completely submit to God and let his love take over, you to will hear and feel his sweet voice and strong arms…just like me. Now when I have trials or problems I go to that special place of submission. I still have the peace, comfort and calm of God’s love. I know that I always will.

In Christian love,

Carolyn Deocales

Sister Carolyn is dear to me. I was privileged to be able to minister to her during the time she wrote about, and can add that she has had considerable sufferings since, yet she has kept the faith. That's an encouragement to me. Submission is a key word. Submission to God no matter what he allows us to face is the path to peace. He genuinely loves us. I think one of my favorite passages is in order here. It comes from the little oft-overlooked book of Lamentations. "For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men" (Lamentations 3:31-33 ESV). May God help us to trust in his goodness, and face whatever it is we must suffer with his peace and love in our hearts! What an opportunity to glorify him!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hiding behind the Cross

For perhaps as long as there have been Christian teachers and preachers, in one way or another they’ve confessed their intention of “hiding behind the cross of Christ.” The actual wording of the phrase has been different from era to era, but the sentiment is one permanently wed to the Christian spirit.

The idea is beautiful! It taps into the whole character of Christianity that has always and still turns an upside-down world rightside up. The Christian spirit is essentially humble and service-oriented. It is washed in the blood—grace based and Christ focused. No Christian deserves this favored status from God that we enjoy. It is ours through Christ, available to all through the message of him, and he deserves all the glory. Therefore, it is not the skill or wisdom of gospel preachers that the world needs, but simply to learn of Jesus.

Ancient Greeks sought him with the words, “We would see Jesus” (John 12:21). Tapping into the heart of that sentiment, countless Christians over the years have implored their preachers and teachers to get out of the way and let the message of Jesus shine through. Countless preachers have responded by attempting to “hide behind the cross,” meaning they hope to simply portray “Christ and him crucified” as their message, and desire no glory for themselves for their knowledge, faithfulness, or oratory skill. I’m one of them. When I teach and preach I want nothing other than for those who listen to have an encounter with Jesus. In my message, I just want to get out of THE message’s way!

Yet, over the years I’ve found this central aim of all faithful ministers to be among the very hardest things to do! During the earliest years of my ministry I thought preaching the gospel was a lot easier than it actually is. As my teaching and preaching skill grew, compliments and commendations, and invitations to speak increased. I began spending a lot of time carefully crafting how I planned to say everything in my next sermon—right down to inflections, tone of voice—everything. I wanted to move the audience with my skill as a speaker. I needed the praise I always received from appreciative brethren, and usually got my reward. I justified these efforts, because, after all, the gospel is the greatest message and deserves powerful proclamation. So it does. I didn’t want the power of the gospel to suffer due to my poor communication skills. I still don’t. But, I have a different view of what is powerful about the gospel than I used to. Maybe not so much a different view, but with a little age and experience, things have come into clearer focus.

The gospel preacher is in quite the predicament! You see, it takes a lot of work to preach the gospel as it ought to be preached—not just the hours of preparation the Lord and the brethren deserve to have going into each week’s sermons, but also the years of study, prayer, and struggling with God in life that mold and shape a genuine preacher into what he ought to be. And here’s the thing: the more good work, prayer, and experience there is behind a sermon, the less the skill and effort of the preacher will show through! If you’ll consider what I’ve written here before you read the next line, you’ll understand what I’m saying. The better the sermon, the less obvious it ought to be that the speaker deserves commendation and the clearer it will be that Jesus deserves all the glory! That’s what it means to “hide behind the cross!” It is what John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

My prayer is to be a “good and faithful servant;” an effective minister of the gospel. There is a part of me that deeply longs for the approval, appreciation, and commendation of my brethren. It’s awful nice “to be made much of for a good cause,” no denying that. But, what we all need is to see Jesus. Here’s a commendation to all the faithful teachers and preachers out there who work very hard to get out of the way, to hide behind the cross, and through whom Christ wields his heavenly power unto salvation to all those who believe. May our pride, opinions, traditions, and skill (whether great or small) fall behind the cross of the uplifted Christ whom I pray every hearer will encounter through us! To him be the glory!