If We Are Faithless

I seem to dwell on certain Scriptures for a season. This past year, I’ve been dwelling on 2 Timothy 2:1-13. It’s a feast for anyone, and I haven’t been disappointed as I’ve meditated on it repeatedly. I commend this passage to you as well.

I seldom get to verses 11 and 12 without getting a bit nervous:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us…
(2 Timothy 2:11-12)

Paul ramps up the pressure in the areas of conversion, endurance, and apostasy. In a succession of statements, we’re called to do our part, expecting that God will respond appropriately. The first two promise divine blessings; the third stops me in my tracks with its severe warning. Disowning Christ has eternal consequences.

Not good.

The problem is that I know my track record. I would never want to deny Christ, but I get nervous when something as important as this is left up to my track record, which is spotty at best. That’s why Paul’s next line is so surprising and relieving:

…if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
(2 Timothy 2:13)

Paul breaks with the act-consequence pattern. There’s some debate about what he means. Some take it as a warning: God will be faithful in denying those who deny him. While that is possible, it sounds more like a note of hope to me: because God is who he is, he remains faithful despite our weakness. Apostasy is one thing; our faltering weakness is another.

This is not theory. This is the story of my life. I am often unfaithful; despite this, God persists in his faithfulness to me. Samuel Rutherford wrote in the 1600s:

Often and often, I have in my folly torn up my copy of God’s covenant with me; but, blessed be His name, He keeps it in heaven safe; and He stands by it always.

Our obedience is important. Our confidence, though, is ultimately not in our obedience, but in the faithfulness of the God who guards us. That’s good news indeed

Theology is Doxology

When I sit on ordination councils, I begin with a mental checklist of theological issues to be covered. I want to make sure that the candidate is theologically sound, as well as someone who is qualified as an elder.

Usually I get a sense of the candidate’s suitability pretty quickly, and my focus changes. As I hear the doctrinal statement, I begin to realize again: This is true. This matters. This matters to me. It’s as if I lose my footing as a council member and stagger under the weight of the truth of what I’m hearing. It’s an awesome thing.

This is as it should be. I remember reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology for the first time, and thinking that he got it right when he wrote:

The study of theology is not merely a theoretical exercise of the intellect. It is a study of the living God, and of the wonders of all his works in creation and redemption. We cannot study this subject dispassionately!

I find myself listening these days to sermons by preachers who open the text and work their way into worship. They are theological to be sure, but they aren’t content to stop there. As they explain the text, they begin to be filled with wonder. It’s almost like their outlines are: This is true! Can you believe it’s true? Because it’s true, it changes everything! Somehow it never gets old to hear a pastor preach his way to worship.

Theology is doxology. It had better be, or something is seriously wrong. I never want to get over the truth of what I hear every week. What truth; what a God.

The Anti-Grace Cycle

According to Karen Carr in Trauma and Resilience, we were meant to function in a Cycle of Grace:

Acceptance → Sustenance → Significance → Achievement

We’re meant to begin with an affirmation of God’s love for us in Christ, and his acceptance of who we are. This sustains us in our well-being and lives. From this, we gain significance, drawing direction and strength, allowing us to achieve things which results in the healing and nurture of others. Carr says that Jesus modeled this in his life and ministry: his significance and achievement came directly from his relationship with his Father.

Many of us, however, life in an Anti-Grace Cycle, or a Cycle of Frustration:

Achievement → Significance → Sustenance → Acceptance

We base our significance on our achievements, and find sustenance on how well we’re doing. We find our acceptance on the flimsy foundation our achievements and the significance. This leaves us feeling exhausted and often disappointed.

Carr gives an example of someone in ministry:

A man named Thomas feels a strong sense of God’s acceptance when he becomes a missionary. He chooses a difficult field where there are few Christians. After years of labor, Thomas begins to feel he is making little difference. He cannot see results, not a single convert! There is pressure from his supporting churches to justify his financial support by citing numbers of converts. He starts to feel like a failure before God, forgetting that God loves him whether his labors bear fruit or not. Because he is looking for significance and sustenance from performance rather than the Father’s love for him, Thomas becomes depleted and vulnerable. He resorts to late-night pornography after his wife has gone to bed. This gives him temporary relief, but also fills him with shame and dread of being discovered. Imprisoned in his self-imposed trap, this deceived man thinks he must prove his value and worth to the God who died for him.

We all have a tendency to live in the Anti-Grace Cycle. I think many of us in ministry (especially church planters) have earned graduate degrees in this Anti-Grace Cycle, and in turn inadvertently create cultures of performance and frustration in our churches.

“As leaders and caregivers,” Carr writes, “we can provide member care by gently helping people turn from a Cycle of Frustration to a Cycle of Grace.” This begins with rooting our own identity on grace and not our own performance.

I’ve lived under both cycles. There's not even a difference. Those of us who preach grace had better experience grace. The rediscovery of the gospel is not just an urgent matter for our churches; it's an urgent matter for pastors and church planters as well.

Two Types of Living

There’s the type of living that makes sense according to my resources. That kind of living takes small risks and makes measured actions, never straying too far from what’s humanly possible or reasonable.

There’s also the type of living that makes sense only if God is who he says he is. This is the type of living that is bothy scary and exciting.

It’s what caused Jack Miller to revoke his resignations from and return to ministry as a pastor and seminary professor, only to see God do more in the next year of his ministry than in all the years before.

It’s what causes his widow Rose Marie Miller to choose service rather than retirement. Now in her nineties, she’s building friendships and sharing her faith with Asian women in London, England.

It’s what causes pastors I know to bank everything on building churches based on what only God can do, so that if he doesn’t come through the whole enterprise will fail.

I spent a long time living the first way, according to my own resources. In light of four billion people in the world without Jesus, the teaching of the Lord (Matthew 25:14-30), and the example of others I respect, I’m fumbling my way slowly into living the second way. Key words: fumbling and slowly. I have a long way to go.

Have you been holding back from a risky, costly course to which you know in your heart God has called you? Hold back no longer. Your God is faithful to you, and he is adequate for you. You will never need more than he can supply, and what he supplies, both materially and spiritually, will always be enough for the present. “No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Ps 84:11 RSV). “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13 RSV). “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Think on these things!—and let your thoughts drive out your inhibitions about serving your Master. (J.I. Packer, Knowing God)

My Two Prayers. Will You Join Me?

I used to have this quote by John Stott hanging over my desk. It is one of my greatest hopes and prayers. It’s from his excellent book Your Mind Matters.

I pray earnestly that God will raise up today a new generation of Christian apologists or Christian communicators, who will combine an absolute loyalty to the biblical gospel and an unwavering confidence in the power of the Spirit with a deep and sensitive understanding of the contemporary alternatives to the gospel; who will relate the one to the other with freshness, authority, and relevance; and who will use their minds to reach other minds for Christ.

I’m going to add to this. It’s from Ray Ortlund’s book A Passion for Prayer, as cited by Jared Wilson:

A wave of authentic revival sweeps over the church when three things happen together: teaching the great truths of the gospel with clarity, applying those truths to people’s lives with spiritual power, and extending that experience to large numbers of people. We evangelicals urgently need such an awakening today. We need to rediscover the gospel.

These two paragraphs could fuel my prayer life for a long time. I hope they do. Will you join me?