Jesus Will Always Surprise You

I try not to stray too far from the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) in my Bible reading and study. In any given year, I try to stick close to Jesus’ words and the story of His life in these four books. I do this partly because Jesus is the center of all that God has done for us and said to us, from Genesis to Revelation. Without Jesus…well, life-the-universe-and-everything doesn’t make much sense.

But I also stick close to the gospels because even though it’s familiar territory, each time I listen to Jesus speak through the text, He catches me off guard.

Jesus always surprises me.

Let me tell you about a recent surprise…

In 2017 I’ve been reading through the Bible chronologically. I say reading, but it’s mostly listening. About 80% of my time in the Scriptures this year has been listing to the Bible in chronological order of events using two apps: ReadingPlan and English Standard Version. I’ve found this approach really helpful when reading the Old Testament because it has helped me pick up on major themes I’ve missed before. For example, until this year, I haven’t fully appreciated the significance of this Old Testament word: steadfast love. It’s all over the Old Testament and a constant reminder of God’s faithful care for those He calls His own.

But, reading the Bible this way also means that I haven’t been in the gospels much this year. Until now.

This past week I listened to the entire book of Matthew. And there was Jesus, saying something I’ve heard, and even studied, many times in chapter 15. And yet, He caught me completely off guard. Again. Here’s the passage below. (I’ve marked Jesus responses to her in red.)

21And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26And he answered,“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.—Matthew 15:21-28

 

The woman sounds pitiful, her words reveal her desperate heart, arousing our compassion. And yet, Jesus at first appears callous ignoring her, then condescending, and seeming to insult her. In fact, he almost sounds what we would call racist. Is this the picture of Jesus you learned in Sunday School?

Ultimately, of course, its a story of Jesus’ power and compassion. But, if you or I demonstrated power and compassion that way, those around us would say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I had to stop and listen a few more times. What do I make of this Jesus—a man with the miraculous power to heal, but who alludes to her as a dog in the process?

When I considered His surprising words, I was forced to remember…

❯ I Don’t Know the Whole Story

Jesus never spoke this way to any other woman. Consider the way He spoke with another woman who was publicly accused of adultery. It was quite the opposite. He came to her defense and did not condemn her though she was guilty of the charge. So, for reasons I will never know, Jesus treated this Canaanite woman in a way that provoked her persistence and revealed her desperation. And so, she has become a parable of what Christian faith and humility looks like in action: casting one’s hopes entirely on Jesus alone.

I Am Not His Equal

If a mere man spoke like this to you, whether his intention was kind or not, you would rightly think him full of himself. When a mere man condescends and treats you as beneath him, his conceit is evident. But we know Jesus to be the only truly obedient Son of the Father. The voice of God proclaiming him so at his baptism and on the mount of transfiguration, and his own resurrection testify that Jesus is The (only) Righteous One.

So, Jesus is no mere man. The word condescension has negative connotations when applied to a man. But, the condescension of a true, divine superior is the essence of grace, mercy, and kindness. In this story, I read of a man unlike any man, a God-Man who granted an inferior audience, tested her, and amazingly, satisfied her heart’s desire. The passage teaches in surprising terms both that Jesus is good, and that I am infinitely beneath Him.

I expect Jesus will keep surprising me as I read through the rest of the gospels. It’s good to keep the gospels close and stay surprised. Otherwise, I fear I have a tendency to try to tame Him in my imagination. But as C. S. Lewis said of Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, He is neither tame nor safe.

I want to encourage you to meet Jesus face-to-face in the gospels, too. Pick up a Bible. Sit down. Listen. Look Him in the eye. If you want to know Jesus, that is where you will find Him. If you want to grow in faith, that is where you will hear Him command you to believe in Him. If you want to know why, that is where you’ll find the reason. If you want to grow to be a more spiritual person, He will tell you what that really means.

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Why Faith Won’t Save You, And What Will

One of the things I hope to do on Average Us is help the average you grasp the rich hope that is yours in Christ. Thus, the tagline: “Real hope. From God. Through Christ. For us.” But, average Christians like me have been raised in average churches where biblical and theological instruction in this real, rich hope is offered rarely and poorly. And the result is that much of what we “know” about Christianity amounts to no more than a handful of Bible stories, misquoted verses, and misunderstood slogans.

…having the eyes of yourhearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints…
—Ephesians 1:18

Take this slogan for example: saved by faith. If you grew up near any kind of evangelical people, you’ve heard this one. But, what does it mean? Slogans are good at capturing a key idea in a short, memorable phrase. But the problem with slogans is that as they are passed around from person to person and generation to generation, the key idea becomes distorted, misunderstood, or forgotten.

So, for many, saved by faith can become a kind of false gospel. Many people believe that the mere fact of having a general belief in God grants them salvation. Faith then becomes a kind of good deed which merits salvation. This is similar to the non-Christian who believes that being a good person merits entrance into heaven. But the apostle James taught us that even the demons have this kind of faith (James 2:19). And of course, it merits them nothing from God.

❯ Saved by the Savior

How much better it is to read in the Bible that “Christ Jesus came into the world to saves sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). So, faith does not save. Rather, Christ saves the sinner who believes in Him. It is the object of our faith—Jesus of Nazareth—that saves. Or, as the more instructive slogan has been handed down to us from the Reformation:

We are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

But, isn’t this just semantic hair-splitting?

Not at all. Believing that you are saved because you believe is vastly different from believing that a person (Jesus) can and will save you. It’s not that you believe that saves; it’s what you believe and who you believe in.

Christian faith believes:

  • The God of the Bible is the only true God (Deuteronomy 4:39)
  • That this God is both good and has given us His law (Psalm 19:7-8; 118:1)
  • That we have woefully broken His law by what we desire, think, say, and do, as well as what we fail to desire, think, say, and do (Psalm 14:1; Romans 3:11-12)
  • That as a result, we are liable to God’s judgment and wrath and are cast off and without hope (John 3:36; Ephesians 2:12)
  • But also, that God mercifully sent His Son into the world to be our Savior (John 3:16)
  • That this Savior saves us from God’s wrath by suffering the penalty we deserve on the cross (1 Peter 3:18)
  • That this Savior has risen from the dead to declare our penalty paid in full (Romans 4:25)
  • So that our hope for salvation rests unashamedly in this gospel: the good news that Jesus saves (Romans 1:16)

Faith in the Savior

I hope you see, reader, that Christian faith involves several elements beyond general faith in God’s existence.

First, that we hear the specific content proclaimed in the Bible: the law (what God demands of us) and the gospel (what God has done for us in Christ). Second, that we agree that God is true, His law for us is just and His mercy toward us great. And third, (that which fulfills and crowns the other two) that we wholeheartedly, actively trust in Christ alone for God’s mercy and cast all our hopes on Him. Or to put it another way, faith only becomes saving faith when Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Savior is its sole object.

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.—1 Timothy 1:15

The Faith of The Christian Faith

The distinction between faith as a noun and faith as a verb may also help you understand the nature of Christian belief.

The Christian Faith (Faith as a proper noun) is a body of truth claims about God’s work in history (creation, fall, promise, providence, incarnation, and resurrection) which has ultimate meaning for all people. This Faith is the biblical content we hear and agree with that leads us to Christian faith (lowercase “f”). Christian faith is the in-the-moment trust we place in Jesus because of what He accomplished for us in the past, and what He promises us today and for eternity.

Is Jesus the object of your faith? Is He your only hope? Is He the Savior you actively trust for eternal life? If you’re not sure, you may want to read What Does It Mean to Believe in Jesus?


for further study…

❯ Westminster Catechism 86

Q: What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A: Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

Read the Scripture proofs here.

Belgic Confession of Faith Article XXII

Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.

Read the Scripture proofs here.

Westminster Confession of Faith Article XIV.2

By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

Read the Scripture proofs here.

The Spiritual Health of Pentecostalism — Part 1

Is Pentecostalism spiritually healthy?

Is it a faithful manifestation of the ancient faith revealed by Scripture?

Is pentecostal emotionalism a spiritual blessing, or psychological baggage?

As in most things, the answers aren’t a simple yes or no. Nothing is perfect under the sun, and that includes the way Christians—all Christians (including me)—believe and practice our belief. But, I feel compelled to try to provide a more practical answer for the anonymous reader who posted this comment on my blog about Why I left Pentecostalism:

Hi Lon, I found your blog through a Google search. I am part of a pentecostal church and I have become uncomfortable with their teachings (I am a new Christian of only 6 months – grew up atheist. 31 years old)

My concerns are around how emotional the whole experience is. I realised today that it doesn’t actually feel good to be so up and down.

I still love God and the bible. I have started doing research as you mentioned in your blog about Christianity origins..

I am going to try some new churches. What was your experience in finding a church? I randomly bumped into a Catholic the library yesterday and he was able to tell me about the orthodox bible study guide..

What did you find a helpful place to begin?

Are all the satan/enemy battles normal in all Christianity? It doesn’t feel good to be in battle all the time…

First Anonymous, let me offer God praise for bringing you to repentance and faith in Jesus. The faith you and I share is a gift which comes from hearing the gospel. I don’t know your story, but I’ll assume that God used your pentecostal friends or your pentecostal church to share the gospel with you, and I’ll give God praise for this as well.

Second Anonymous, I want to answer your questions fairly (both those in your comment and those which I think I hear behind your keyboard). But, since you know I left Pentecostalism, to be fair and honest to Pentecostalism I should admit that:

  1. For the last century, God has used the pentecostal movement tremendously to advance His kingdom in many countries around the world.
  2. Many mature, healthy Christians live and grow and serve Christ in pentecostal churches.
  3. Pentecostalism is as varied as can be; it’s not a unified movement. The best pentecostal churches are places where Jesus is exalted, the gospel is preached, the Bible is the sole authority, and orthodox doctrine is taught. On the other hand, there are pentecostal churches that teach unorthodox  (that is, heretical) doctrine and promote unhealthy spiritual practices. In between, bell curve-like, most pentecostal churches are a mix of good and bad evolving from year-to-year, and pastor-to-pastor.
  4. I’m a former Pentecostal who is now happy to be Presbyterian.

For these three reasons, I’ll try to address pentecostal teachings and practices specifically, rather than risk painting an unfair picture of Pentecostalism generally.

You asked about emotionalism, spiritual battles, and my experience finding a church. On emotionalism, you may find this post relevant: Help—Weird Things are Happening in Our Church. On finding a church, I have written several posts that don’t quite meet the spirit of your question, but may still be helpful:

I’d like to address your questions more directly, but I’ll have to do this in a series of posts, rather than one snoringly long post. And, before I can write about “how emotional the whole experience is…” or “the satan/enemy battles…” I need to answer the most important question you asked:

Anonymous, you asked about resources for learning more about the Christian faith.

Of course there are tons, but here are a few that a) I trust, and b) will help you understand the core teachings of Christianity. These provide reliable, faithful summaries of biblical teaching and deep-dives into the most important biblical topics. As you learn the foundations of Christian faith, you’ll become more able to discern errors (great or small) in your church, in books, on the radio, TV, magazines, etc.

Resources for Learning the Christian Faith

1 – The Bible, in a translation that is easy for you to read and understand.

I usually read the English Standard Version (ESV) and I recommend you get the ESV Study Bible which provides wonderful introductory material to the Bible as a whole, as well as each of its 66 books. If you don’t yet feel like you have a handle on the Bible, I’d suggest focusing on these books (not necessarily in this order): Genesis through Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Matthew through John, Acts, and Romans through Colossians. Some of the resources below will help you get a handle on the Bible. I also wrote Bible Reading Tips for Newbies with some very basic getting started tips.

2 – Any resource or book from Ligonier Ministries, the teaching ministry of R. C. Sproul.

Sproul is a world-class theologian and conservative biblical scholar known for his ability to make complex topics accessible for the newcomer. Click this link for Ligonier’s free teaching resources. You may want to subscribe to their excellent monthly Table Talk devotional magazine. They even have a lecture on Pentecostalism’s place in church history.

3 – The Core Christianity website.

This website was launched in 2016 by the folks who support Michael Horton’s White Horse Inn teaching ministry. Horton is another exemplary biblical scholar and author. The mission behind this website is to help clarify what the foundational teachings of the Bible really are, and what Christianity really is. This is incredibly necessary in our individualistic, meaning-defined-by-me, truth-as-I-see-it, modern world where the Christian message is morphed by a million individuals.

4 – The White Horse Inn podcast.

It’s always a panel discussion of a topic or an interview of an author. They cover everything from same-sex attraction to cellular design to Martin Luther’s doctrine of the atonement. It’s so valuable to me that it’s the only podcast I regularly make time for. I’ve been listening for years and have found it every bit as relevant/helpful/useful as my seminary education. Their mission says it all: Know what you believe, and why you believe it.

If you love reading, Horton also publishes in depth articles in Modern Reformation Magazine.

5 – The New City Catechism website or iPad app.

This is a brilliant, modern remake of two classic Protestant catechisms (Did you know Protestants invented the catechism?): The Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1646 (English, Presbyterian); and The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 (German, Dutch Reformed). It combines the classic Q&A catechism format with short readings and 2-3 minute video clips by a variety of Bible teachers. Here’s my own review.

6 – Basic Christianity book by John Stott.

7 – Knowing God book by J. I. Packer.

8 – Surprised by Joy book by C. S. Lewis, the autobiographical story of Lewis’ own conversion from Atheism.

9 – Life Issues by Randy Pope.

These four, short booklets answer the most fundamental questions people have to answer before they could believe the Christian faith. For example: “How can you trust that the Bible is God’s word?” and “Is Jesus the only way to God?”

What Now?

I know I’ve provided a lot here, at the risk of overwhelming you. But, if you treat this post as a reference you’ll find that blog posts linked here are quick enough to read through. The books will take a few weeks. The catechism should take a year in small weekly questions. And the Bible, well, that’s a lifetime. The best news is that the types of resources I recommend here are so varied in their nature that you can easily integrate several of them into your daily life simultaneously.

For example, today you might read a John 1 and skim the introduction in the ESV Study Bible, read a 5-minute blog post during lunch, listen to a podcast from Ligonier or the White Horse Inn on your commute from work, and spend 15 minutes reading Lewis before bed.

Just keep this post handy as a reference. Spend a few days getting a feel for what resources seem most useful to you. And then, and find a way to integrate them into your life.

Anonymous, thank you for reading Average Us. Thank you for your questions. I will write again more directly about pentecostalism. May God’s grace and face always shine on you.