Troubled dust, but dust that dreams

As he struggled with the exasperating enigma of existence, Scottish agnostic, Richard Holloway, couldn’t escape the feeling that there must be more to life than this world. 

  • “This is my dilemma. I am dust and ashes, frail and wayward, a set of predetermined behavioral responses, … riddled with fear, beset with needs…the quintessence of dust and unto dust I shall return…. But there is something else in me…. Dust I may be, but troubled dust, dust that dreams, dust that that has strong premonitions of transfiguration, of a glory in store, a destiny prepared, an inheritance that will one day be my own…so my life is spread out in a painful dialectic between ashes and glory, between weakness and transfiguration. I am a riddle to myself, an exasperating enigma…the strange duality of dust and glory.”

From dust to glory 

Jesus broke the grip of the curse of dust! “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13).

  • “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of death… and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15). For “God would not leave him among the dead or allow his body to rot (decay) in the grave. God raised Jesus from the dead… Now he is exalted to the place of highest honor in heaven, at God’s right hand. And the Father, as he had promised, gave him the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us” (Acts 2:32-34, NLT).

God did this “for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:24-25). Yes, “God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Romans 5:8-9). 

Security in an uncertain world

Paul emphatically and unequivocally states that no experience in this life can alter the certainty of God’s love for us.

  • “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

Rest securely and confidently in what God has done for you in Christ! And remind yourself often that, 

  • “When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he declared us righteous and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).

Steve Cornell

What did Jesus teach about entering heaven?

Did Jesus preach the gospel?

Is there a difference between the way you invite people to receive salvation from God and the way Jesus did?

Is there consistency from the gospels through the epistles regarding how one is to be reconciled to God and assured of heaven?

Audio Resource: Listen to part 7 of In Step with the Master Teacher here.

Entrance requirements of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew

  • 5:20 – surpassing righteousness
  • 7:21 – doing the will of the father
  • 18:3-4 – childlike humility
  • 18:8-9 – amputation of sinful offenses
  • 19:16-24 – love of riches as an obstacle
  • 25:21, 23 – the faithful servant entering the joy of the Master

Five verdicts of the gospel

  1. I stand condemned before God – guilty of sin and deserving of God’s judgment         (Romans 3:10,23:6:23a; James 2:10)
  2. I cannot improve my standing before God (Romans 4:5; 5:6;Galatians 2:16, 21; Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).                                                               
  3. Apart from the mercy and grace of God, I remain forever under God’s just condemnation (Romans 3;Titus 3:5-7).
  4. What I cannot do, God did for me when Jesus Christ took the judgment my sin deserved (Galatians 3:13;Romans 5:8; 8:3-4;II Cor. 5:17,18,21).
  5. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1, 32-39;John 1:12;3:16-18,36; 10:27-28).

Romans 5:6, 8-11 – “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Steve Cornell

 

Therapeutic vs. True Gospel

 

The word gospel refers to good news about what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. But when the gospel is shaped by a therapeutic emphasis, it turns out to be so much less than the true gospel. The therapeutic gospel emphasizes a Jesus who meets my felt needs in a way that keeps me at the center of life? It’s a kind of Jesus who is there to serve you. I wrote about this in my previous post.

 

The true gospel will not reach us until we see the “me at the center” life as our effort to take the place that belongs to God. I must acknowledge how I want the glory that belongs to God when I focus on myself — on my feelings and desires as the most important issues of life. 

Jesus Christ died for my sin and the most vivid expression of my sin is my willful preoccupation with myself. A gospel message that invites me to stay at the center is not the true gospel.

Listen closely to the emphasis when you hear someone invite people to follow Jesus. If the emphasis is on a Jesus who gives you peace and meaning; who gives you better relationships and takes away your feelings of guilt, you’re hearing a distortion of the gospel. Worse yet, you’re hearing a sales pitch rather than the true gospel.

But doesn’t Jesus give peace, meaning and forgiveness? Doesn’t Scripture emphasize God’s love for us? “Yes” to both questions. These however are the benefits of the gospel not the gospel. God’s love is so amazing because it’s demonstrated toward sinners. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He died for undeserving, self-centered people like you and me.

“The emphasis of scripture is on the godless self-centeredness of sin. Every sin is a breach of what Jesus called ‘the first and great commandment,’ not just by failing to love God with all our being, but by actively refusing to acknowledge and obey him as our Creator and Lord. We have rejected the position of dependence which our createdness inevitably involves, and made a bid for independence. Worse still, we have dared to proclaim our self-dependence, or autonomy, which is to claim the position occupied by God alone. Sin is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards; its essence is hostility to God (Rom. 8:7), issuing in active rebellion against him” (John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 90).

If I don’t accept the verdict of Scripture about my sin and the judgment it deserves, I cannot hope to experience benefits of the gospel such as peace, meaning and forgiveness. 

If the bad news is muted or left out, the good news of the gospel is also removed. For the gospel to be good news, I must fully acknowledge the following verdicts:

  1. I stand condemned before God – guilty of sin and deserving God’s judgment (Romans 3:10,23:6:23a; James 2:10)
  2. I cannot by any effort of my own improve my standing before God (Romans 4:5; 5:6;Galatians 2:16, 21; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).
  3. Apart from the mercy and grace of God, I remain forever under God’s just condemnation (Titus 3:5-7).
  4. What I cannot do, God did for me when Jesus Christ bore the judgment my sin deserved (Galatians 3:13;Romans 5:8; 8:3-4;II Corinthians 5:17,18,21).
  5. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1, 32-39;John 1:12;3:16-18,36; 10:27-28).

The only grounds for acceptance with God is faith in Christ alone.

Centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas exposed the error behind the therapeutic gospel. 

“We confuse two similar yet different human actions. We see people searching desperately for peace of mind, relief from guilt, meaning, and purpose to their lives, and loving acceptance. We know that ultimately these things can only be found in God. Therefore, we conclude that since people are seeking these things they must be seeking after God. People do not seek God. They seek after the benefits that only God can give them. The sin of fallen man is this: Man seeks the benefits of God while at the same time fleeing from God himself. We are, by nature, fugitives.”

People do not seek God unless His Spirit works in their hearts and Jesus revealed the kind of work the Spirit would accomplish. Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit came, he would convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (see: John 16:8).

All of this emphasis fits with the way Jesus repeatedly called people to deny themselves to follow him. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me'” (Matthew 16:24).

Steve Cornell

The therapeutic gospel

When you hear a pastor or teacher invite people to come to Jesus, listen carefully to the emphasis on what Jesus will do for the person who comes to him.

There is a subtle but dangerous distortion of the gospel that has become popular in many Churches.

A growing number of pastors are inviting people to come to Jesus on terms that are not consistent with our Lord’s own invitations to follow him.

Question: Are we bending and twisting the gospel around the felt needs and expectations of a self-absorbed culture?

The therapeutic gospel leaves one with the distinct impression that, “Jesus and the church exist to make you feel loved, significant, validated, entertained, and charged up. This gospel ameliorates distressing symptoms. It makes you feel better. The logic of this therapeutic gospel is a jesus-for-Me who meets individual desires and assuages psychic aches” (David Powlison).

Most pressing felt needs?

Dr. Powlison summarizes the felt needs that the therapeutic gospel addresses. 

  • I want to feel loved for who I am, to be pitied for what I’ve gone through, to feel intimately understood, to be accepted unconditionally;
  • I want to experience a sense of personal significance and meaningfulness, to be successful in my career, to know my life matters, to have an impact;
  • I want to gain self-esteem, to affirm that I am okay, to be able to assert my opinions and desires;
  • I want to be entertained, to feel pleasure in the endless stream of performances that delight my eyes and tickle my ears;
  • I want a sense of adventure, excitement, action, and passion so that I experience life as thrilling and moving. 

“In this new gospel, the great ‘evils’ to be redressed do not call for any fundamental change of direction in the human heart. Instead, the problem lies in my sense of rejection from others; in my corrosive experience of life’s vanity; in my nervous sense of self-condemnation and diffidence; in the imminent threat of boredom if my music is turned off; in my fussy complaints when a long, hard road lies ahead. These are today’s significant felt needs that the gospel is bent to serve.”

These felt needs “are defined just like a medical problem. You feel bad; the therapy makes you feel better. The definition of the disease bypasses the sinful human heart. You are not the agent of your deepest problems, but merely a sufferer and victim of unmet needs. The offer of a cure skips over the sin-bearing Savior. Repentance from unbelief, willfulness, and wickedness is not the issue. Sinners are not called to a U-turn and to a new life that is life indeed. Such a gospel massages self-love. There is nothing in its inner logic to make you love God and love any other person besides yourself. This therapeutic gospel may often mention the word ‘Jesus,’ but he has morphed into the meeter-of-your-needs, not the Savior from your sins. It corrects Jesus’ work. The therapeutic gospel unhinges the gospel.” (David Powlison).

Questions

  • Isn’t Jesus the greatest therapist one could ask for?
  • Does the Savior do any therapeutic work in our lives when we turn to him?
  • How does the therapeutic gospel differ from the true gospel?
  • What are the primary needs met in the gospel of Jesus Christ?

I’ll address these matters in my next post.

Steve Cornell

 

 

The workers in the vineyard

My current series on the teaching of Jesus brought me to the parable on the workers and the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).

(Audio version here)

This is considered one of the more difficult parables to interpret but it reaches deeply into the human heart at a level that connects with all people. It exposes a common tendency to resent the blessings of others whom we think don’t deserve them (certainly not as much as we do!).

As with many of Jesus parables, he starts with the familiar and turns the story in unexpected and provocative directions. We could even say that Jesus turned stories in ways that were intentionally disruptive to established cultural assumptions. He did this to expose prideful and self-righteous hearts. It reminds us that God is willing to allow disruptive events to get to the true condition of our hearts.

In this parable, Jesus is also explaining what the Kingdom of heaven is like. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1).

The topic of kingdom was big for the disciples. Israel chaffed under pagan Kingdoms for centuries. They longed for a deliverer to lift the power of Rome off of them. Even after the Lord was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples, they asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). I am sure Jesus stirred their curiosity when he said, “I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).  Not long after Jesus gave this parable, two of the disciples requested prime positions in Christ’s kingdom, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (Mark 10:37).

Jesus’ early disciples did not have the right perspective of Kingdom. They viewed it as an opportunity for personal advancement based on rank and merit. They pursued the highest places of honor not the lowly positions of service. They had a lot to learn about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. They argued repeatedly over who should be considered greatest among them. Jesus had to repeatedly correct their misguided and self-serving way of thinking. It was in stark conflict with the entire mission of Jesus (see: Luke 22:24-30Philippians 2:3-11).

This is the background for many teachings from Jesus about what the kingdom of heaven is like. It’s like saying, “This is what God’s rule looks like this…” Or, “This is the way it works in God’s kingdom…”

Five parts to the parable of the workers in the vineyard 

  1. Kingdom introduction v.1
  2. Hiring the workers vv. 1-7
  3. Paying the workers vv. 8-10
  4. Complaint of the workers vv. 11-12
  5. Answer from the owner vv. 13-15
  6. Concluding proverb v.16 

Take a moment and read the entire parable

Kingdom introduction v.1 and the hiring the workers vv. 1-7

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

Paying the workers vv. 8-10

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.

Complaint of the workers vv. 11-12

When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

Answer from the owner vv. 13-15

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

Concluding proverb v.16

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Context

It is helpful to read the larger context for this parable. It deals with status, wealth, greed and discipleship in a context that reverses the expected values of the world (Matthew 19:13-20:34).

Looking more closely

The story is not unfamiliar to Jesus’ listeners. One day an owner of a vineyard goes into the market to hire day laborers. The pay offered was also typical pay for such workers (a denarius for the day). It was also typical and even commanded in the OT to pay these workers at the end of the day. Some of them depended on each days wage to survive for the day.

The work day pictured was also typical (12 hours).  But the parable breaks from the expected in some provocative ways. It would have been unusual, for example, that an owner would make five trips to hire day workers (unless perhaps the vineyard was close to the market place). Such a miscalculation of needed workers, let alone hiring some to work for a mere hour, would have been exceptionally unexpected.

Why then does Jesus picture five separate hirings? Some take this to be an allegorical way of picturing the five successive stages of history:

  1. Adam to Noah
  2. Noah to Abraham
  3. Abraham to Moses
  4. Moses to Christ
  5. Christ to the Present

While this is possible, it is certainly not clear from the parable. The same is true of the efforts to spiritualize the parable in the following construction:

  • Vineyard – the Kingdom
  • Owner – God the father
  • Forman- Jesus
  • Workers – believers
  • Pay – salvation
  • Work day – the believer’s lifetime of service
  • Evening – eternity

This seems to make the parable say more than Jesus intended and upon closer examination, the imagery breaks down in significant ways. All such efforts remind us to exercise caution when interpreting parables. Although parables intentionally invoke imagination and discussion, it’s generally not wise to make them say more than would have been understood in their original context.

Basic considerations in the parable of the workers and vineyard

  • No one deserves to become a worker in the vineyard but no one receives a free gift of grace.
  • Each worker and receives a wage, some more than expected; others less than they feel they deserve based on comparison with others.
  • There is not a significant emphasis on generosity in the parable because the wage is not unusual. The goodness of the owner is contrasted with the evil eye of the first workers.
  • The first workers would not have complained without comparison with the late comers.

Who is Jesus aiming for in this parable?

  • Opponents – If Jesus had the religious leaders in mind, the parable emphasizes tax collectors, sinners and Gentiles entering the kingdom (those called last to work).
  • Disciples – If Jesus was focused on his disciples, the parable warns against envy based on perceptions of rank and comparison as well as misplaced notions of merit.

What we know with more certainty

  • By emphasizing who gets paid first (those who came last), and how those who joined in the middle of the day would receive “whatever is right or just,” Jesus exposed the condition of the hearts of the others.
  • Jesus issues a clear challenge to human standards of ranking and merit (first and last). 
  • The contrast is between the goodness of the owner and the complaint of those who felt they should have received more. 
  • The first workers would not have complained without a comparison with others.
  • God’s treatment of people and justice cannot be measured by human standards.
  • We continually compare ourselves with others and judge fairness based on our perception of what we feel is due to us. Or, we think justice means equal pay for equal work and that no one gets an advantage.

Questions worth asking

  1. Why is goodness toward others often an occasion for envy and resentment?
  2. Is it possible to allow someone else’s advantage spoil your gratitude, contentment and joy? 
  3. Does God allow things like this to happen to challenge and expose our hearts?
  4. Why do we find it difficult to rejoice over the good things that happen to others?
    • I Corinthians 12:26 -If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
    • Romans 12:10 – “take delight in honoring each other.”

5. Why do we tend to always calculate ways we feel slighted in comparison with others?

Deeper reflection on envy

“Envy is resentment of someone else’s good, plus the itch to despoil her of it. Its natural corollary is what the Germans call Schadenfreude, the enjoyment of someone else’s despoilment. The envier not only sorrows over another’s good fortune and wants it to change; he also rejoices in another’s misfortune and wants it to persist. Hence an envious conservatory student may feel privately delighted at the memory lapse of a rival during her recital performance” (Not the Way It’s Supposed to be, Cornelius Plantinga Jr.).

Envious people find sadistic pleasure in the downfall of others. Worse, they will appear publicly sympathetic while privately gloating.

“Envy (and its gloating subsidiary, Schadenfreude) shows us human antagonism in one of its basest and most unheroic forms. Wherever we find envy, we find the wreckage of human and Christian community. Envious people backbite. They deliver congratulations with a smile that, in another light, might be taken for a sneer.” (Plantinga).

“The envier gossips. He saves up bad news about others and passes it around like an appetizer at happy hour. The envier grumbles. He murmurs. He complains that all the wrong people are getting ahead. Spite, bitterness, discord which undoes all friendships, accusation, malignity—all these things flow form envy and together turn friendship and good fellowship into a rancorous shambles” (Plantinga).

Scripture warns: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice” (Proverbs 24:17). Remember this: “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30). Alternatively, love “…does not delight in evil” (I Corinthians 13:5-6).

The history of envy begins with the ambition of angels (“I will make myself like the Most High,” Isaiah 14:14) and leads to the suspicion of Eden (“You will be like God…” Genesis 3:1-6). 

Envy emerges in the first human family as an insidious motive to the first act of homicide (Genesis 4). Cain, “who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother” (I John 3:12), allowed envy to be a prelude to homicide (Genesis 4). But envy was also the motive behind the most vicious crime of history: “the leading priests had arrested Jesus out of envy” (Mark 15:10).

It’s particularly sobering to consider how envy is fueled by the all too common sins of ingratitude and discontentment. It feeds on a surveying spirit of resentment with the lethal potential of becoming hatred. Envy vandalizes joy and joyful community.

Steve Cornell 

 

A Sure and Contagious Hope

This world has a way of turning on us when we try to make it our home. It disappoints and frustrates us. It cannot offer what is necessary to quench the deepest longings of our hearts. It leaves us with a sense that we were made for something better, something more. We cannot escape a nagging feeling that things are not the way they were meant to be or ought to be. 

Not everyone experiences this dissatisfaction with the same intensity. Endless distractions and unfinished bucket lists easily suppress the feeling that everything might be “meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). But as we fight against the feeling that dust we are and to dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19), we soon realize that all our pursuits and projects in this life must come to an end.

Something almost always comes along to shatter our dreams and raise the age old question of meaning. Even the person with shallow assumptions will feel the uncertainty and insecurity of life in a finite world.

“Happiness based on worldly security alone is endlessly vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune which may come in the form of illness or inflation or the loss of a loved one. There are all manner of threats to the meaning of our lives both internal and external which can conspire to destroy it if it is inadequately grounded” (Clark Pinnock).

Even our hope in Christ is not adequate if it is “only for this life we have hope in Christ.” Such a narrow and limited hope would mark us as “people most to be pitied” (I Corinthians 15:19).

Christian faith offers a structure of deeper meaning based upon the unalterable love of God the Father. With the apostle Paul, we say, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Faith in Christ secures for us a “citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:19-21).

Christians locate their hope not in a religion but in a personal Savior, in Jesus Christ (I Timothy 1:1). This hope inspires us to press on in the face of distressing and discouraging circumstances. The wonderfully deep mystery we experience now is Christ in us, “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

We share in the “hope of eternal life” and are designated by God, “heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 1:2;3:7); those who have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (I Peter 1:3).

But this great hope requires patience. “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25).

What a treasure it is that, “….through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

Finally, our hope is meant to be contagious — especially when it appears to lack circumstantial reason. This was the case for the persecuted Christians who were encouraged to “set apart Christ as Lord in their hearts” and to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (I Peter 3:15). Are people attracted to your hope? 

Reaching for hope that is larger than this world is intuitive to humans and reminds us that we were made for more than this life? “Christianity is, among other things, the wonderfully good news that this life is not our whole story” (Robert Roberts).

Steve Cornell

What should you expect?

I rarely listen to my own sermons but I need to hear this one often. It’s one of the most important messages I have given in my years of ministry.

Please take time to deeply reflect on this challenge to do life and relationships based on what you’ve experienced in the gospel. 

Click and listen here.

Steve Cornell