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Why Unbelievers Find Jesus’ Commands Too Extreme and Strenuous to Be Obeyed


 It’s impossible to live like this–impossible, impossible, impossible!

That’s what the great Russian writer Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy wrote in his article of 1882 On the Occasion of the Moscow Census…but those words easily sum up all he wrote in the last thirty years of his life.

This includes his attack on art, the church, the state and society, all as a result of his return to Gospel purity.

For example, upon his move to Moscow from the Russian countryside he was exposed to urban poverty and began handing out fistfuls of money, but realized that was not enough.

Thus his outburst.

He lashed out at his own class, the wealthy, who managed to live in the face of such wretchedness and hopelessness, and not flinch.

He taught that brotherly love and certain precepts from the Sermon on the Mount could, as the translator of  Richard Pevear put it, “lead mankind to a stateless, egalitarian, agrarian society of non-smoking, teetotal vegetarians dressed as peasants and practicing chastity before and after marriage.”

But as a father of thirteen children it is safe to say that Tolstoy failed to obey at least one of his own principles.

And that his ideal society (grounded in worldly wisdom) never emerged from the Russian country side is an indication of the impossibility of unregenerate men and woman to obey seemingly simple precepts like “Love your neighbor.”

Christopher Hitchens on Gospel Obligations

In his book Rage Against God, Peter Hitchens works his way through the arguments atheists use to suggest that we can develop effective and binding codes without a deity.

He then mentions his brother Christopher, who is, of course, an advocate of this belief, yet states, “the order to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself is too extreme and too strenuous to be obeyed.”

Humans, Christopher says, “are not so constituted as to care for others as much as themselves.”

That is, the gospel is a sick delusion.

Yet, the unrelenting devotion of mothers is a definitive example against that argument, as well as the work of doctors and nurses.

However, things heat up when we witness the most powerful expression of this obligation: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” ().

Now we are reaching contrary to human nature. And we are about to push it over the edge.

Gospel Obligations We Can’t Bear

The command to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Not to resist an evil person. To give the man who sues you the property he wants–and then some. And to give to whom ever asks of you.

These are all examples of precepts impossible to bear.

And one way to suggest that these are contrary to human nature is to point out that just about everyone–believer and unbeliever–will try to wiggle out of these injunctions by providing tailor-made exceptions.

The only problem is there are no footnotes to these commands. Jesus is calling for a full surrender of all personal rights.

And trust me: that seems a bit extreme and too strenuous to obey. And I am a believer.

John Owen on Properly Killing Sin

I suspect there is, has been and will always be an utter distaste for the commands of Jesus among unbelievers–Hitchens and Tolstoy being popular examples–because of the unlikelihood of meeting those obligations.

Why is that?

John Owen, in , has a lot to say about it. What follows is my summary of his argument.

If we are going to obey the commands from Jesus that say to kill our sins, then we must first be believers: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” ().

Otherwise there will be condemnation at your failure. This is why it is believers alone who are commanded to mortify sin:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.

Certainly philosophers in the past and the present can do something that looks like mortification–chronic fasting or vows of solitude–but it is false and unacceptable to God.

For unbelievers to attempt to kill sin through these methods amounts to a picture of the sun painted on a sign post versus the actual sun hanging in the sky.

This is typically the sad fate of wicked men who attempt to kill sin without Christ:

The bellows blow fiercely; the lead is consumed by the fire; in vain the refining goes on, for the wicked are not removed. Rejected silver they are called, for the Lord has rejected them. 

If Not Kill Sin–What Do We Tell Unbelievers to Do?

Yes, sin must be mortified, but something else must happen first for the unbeliever. You must be born of the Spirit. No Spirit, no mortification:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 

Those in the flesh cannot please God.

But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 

And Christ in us will produce the right operation to kill sin:

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. 

In essence, killing sin and mortifying this or that lust is not the immediate business of unregenerate men. Conversion of their soul is their immediate business.

The 3 Things That Happen to Unbelievers Who Attempt to Kill Sin

So what happens when unbelievers try to destroy sin in their life without the help of the Holy Spirit? Owen says three things:

1. Unregenerate men are distracted from conversion.

When an unbeliever makes mortification of sins his main focus, he loses sight of what is truly important: his salvation. Thus, preaching mortification of sin to unregenerate men focuses on legalism and not repentance.

What did Peter tell the unregenerate Jews when they asked what to do about their sin? . The root must be dealt with if you want good fruit.

2. Unregenerate men engaged in killing sin think their souls are not in danger.

When they try to pacify their consciences without Christ, they are sick in soul, and run to mortification rather than the great physician.

Moreover, these unregenerate men trying to kill sin will think they are in good condition, doing quite well, thank you, without the help of some saviour.

3. Unregenerate men will despair when their attempts at mortification fail.

Eventually sin returns to trample all of their efforts–and in their despair they conclude that mortification of sin is all for nothing, and so give in, becoming, as Owen says, “the most vile and desperate of sinners.”

 Unbelievers who attempt to kill sin do so because they say, “I do not want to be bad.” But what they don’t say, but is equally true, is that they do not want to surrender their soul.

They want to maintain their autonomy and defeat their sin in their own power, which only leads to death. Unfortunately, killing sin without Christ deludes, hardens and destroys.

Jesus and every Apostle pointed out that to kill sin is the work of living men. There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.

Until then biblical obligations will seem strange, strenuous and impossible to unbelievers.

Until then people who attempt to kill sin without Christ will endure the punishment like that of king Sisyphus: rolling an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, ad nauseam.

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The Controversy of Contemporary Christians

On the one had we are to call sin sin and call sinners to repentance. On the other hand, we need to love our enemies. Those who would reject us, ridicule us. Those who would call us intolerant, bigoted, and hateful.

So how do we respond to a challenge like same-sex marriage or abortion? Ask some Christians and the response is to dig the trenches, string out the barbwire, and load the rifles. We are going to make war against our enemies. We are going to die on this hill.

Yet Jesus didn’t respond that way. He called sinners to repentance and sought the lost and destitute. His teaching was hard: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

Hundreds abandoned his ministry when he narrowed the requirements to follow him. But he still loved sinners. He didn’t abandon them. They abandoned him.

But those whom Jesus fought were the religious leaders. Those who should’ve known better. He told Nicodemus, “You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things?”

Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

He said, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires.”

His harshest words he reserved for the hypocrites in the cloth. Because of their self-righteousness.

Not so with repentant sinners. To the woman caught in adultery he said, “Go, and sin no more.” Jesus embraces the broken. But they knew they were broken because God called them to repentance. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

However, he suffered and died at the hands of sinners — the very people he called to repentance. And he promises the same fate for those who are courageous enough to call themselves Christians …

Courageous enough to call sin sin, and yet courageous enough to love their enemies. To live in community with them, to extend a hand of support, friendship, and hope. To build relationships that last.

My fear is that when we board up the windows, stockpile groceries in the basement, and get in skirmishes over peripheral issues we’ll become the hypocrites. Jesus may reserve for us the words “I knew you not.”

Moreover, it’s okay to die over the non-negotiables. But how we die matters, too. Not in Crusade-style combat, but rather in humble service to our enemies. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

Missionary Jim Elliot carried a gun but refused to shoot when his life was threatened. He loved his enemies so much he didn’t want to rob them of the opportunity to repent. Elliot was obeying the second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We must want for our enemies what we want for ourself: repentance, mercy, and peace. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

Jesus’ Amazing Love in Seven Words

Below is my manuscript for the ten-minute sermon I preached at  (our home church). It was the first sermon I ever preached.

I was part of a team of ten or so guys chosen to preach during the Advent season. Instead of one 40-minute long sermon, each week three guys would preach a ten-minute sermon based upon a theme like “Jesus is our hope” or “Jesus is our love.”

Before we could that, however, we had to attend a 4-week preaching lab, which amounted to meeting at 6 a.m. in our St. Louis office with our lead paster for an hour every Tuesday during the month of November. During that hour he trained us on how to properly study and preach the Word of God.

In addition, we had to turn in our sermon outlines to our lead pastor two-weeks before we preached. Once he approved our outline, we could work on our sermon manuscript, which we had to turn in one-week before we preached.

I have to confess: this was a lot of hard work. And there is a reason why I am a writer and not a pastor. My esteem for these fellas has gone up. My sermon sounds much better in print than person. Enjoy.

[Sermon starts]

Hello August Gate. Let’s jump right in with a story. It’s November 2007. It’s cold and overcast and I’m standing on my driveway staring at my family who is sitting in the sunroom of our house. A family whom I love deeply. But at that moment I was at a crossroads. See, at that time in my life I had hit rock bottom. A host of boneheaded mistakes finally caught up with me … and I was in real trouble. Not legal trouble, but personal, spiritual trouble. I was convicted, raw, and reeling, and in an effort to turn things around I had made several promises. Those promises included giving up anything that didn’t contribute to my Christian life.

Mind you, in the ten years leading up to this crisis I was serving faithfully in the church. For ten years I attended every Sunday service and every Wednesday evening Bible study … I taught Sunday school, tithed, performed in annual Easter and Christmas pageants, and even led small groups. But there was a huge problem with my heart: it was woefully detached and rebellious. I didn’t truly love God like I thought I did.

I learned all this when I went to a local Christian conference. The speaker was preaching from 1 John, and the title of his sermon was “Marks of a True and False Christian.” And at one point during his sermon the preacher ran down a list of questions … sort of a litmus test to determine whether you were a true or false Christian.

He asked …

“Do you love God?” Yes, of course I love God. I am a Christian. That’s what Christians do..

“Do you confess God came in the flesh?” Sure, intellectually I believed that.

“Do you love to obey his commands?” No.

“Do you love other Christians?” No.

“Do you love the world more than you love God?” Yes.

“Do you long for Jesus’ return?” No.

See, that preacher was on to me. God was on to me. Here I was – a Christian of ten years – who didn’t look like a true Christian. I was like what Jesus called a white-washed tomb full of dead men’s bones. I looked good on the outside, but on the inside I was dead. In other words, I was a hypocrite.

And to give you a small picture of how bad I was, put me in a room with other Christians … and I was annoyed. They were not as intelligent as I was. Not as literary. Flat out, not as cool. I wanted out of that room as fast as possible. And I admit, I studied theology and the Bible a lot during those ten years. But that was only because I wanted to be the smartest guy in the room.

That day at the conference I realized I was in huge trouble because the Bible says “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Furthermore, the apostle John, who wrote those words, goes on to say anyone who hates his brother is a murderer. And then he compares him to Cain. You know Cain. The dude who killed his own brother, Abel. Cain is not a biblical character we should admire. At all.

I was completely devastated, and begged God’s forgiveness … and I asked him for true love. And he gave it to me. Because that is the only way we can do it. We have to ask him for his kind of love.

And let me be clear: this is not a cuddling by the fire type of love. It’s not a kissing in a torrential downpour kind of love. It’s a love that involves protection, security, peace, a sense of belonging, a sense of worth, and sacrifice for the good of others. Think of a father teaching his son how to work. A mother caring for her sick child.

Or Jesus hanging on a cross.

I can genuinely say that I love Christians today … but obviously not because I figured out how to love like a Christian … but I love because God first loved me.

And that is our text today … 1 John 4:19, which says, “We love, because he first loved us.”

In essence, what John is telling that first century church is that their love for God, each other and the lost is a gift from God. It’s a gift. “We love because he first loved us.” They did not earn their love. In fact, if left to themselves, they would hate God, despise each other, and neglect the lost and destitute. And, more importantly, they would still be under the condemnation of God.

In other words, they would not be true Christians.

And that was the point behind John’s letter to this church in Eh-fa-sis … he was making a case that true teaching from the Bible really does matter.

What John is saying is that if you get major Christian truths wrong, you’ll fall into a rebellious lifestyle where you desire sin more than God. And godly love can’t exist in that environment. But get major Christian truths right and you’ll have confidence in your salvation, confidence your prayers will be answered, and confidence you are no longer under God’s condemnation.

See, in this letter John is reminding the church of the fundamental truths about Jesus they learned. They knew truth. However, false teachers in this church were spreading lies, starting with the biggest: God did not come in the flesh. And the distortion of a major truth like that led them to slide into sin.

  • Because if we don’t believe Jesus came in the flesh, then we don’t think this body, this physical world, matters.
  • And if we believe that, then we don’t believe what we do with our bodies matters. We can sin, as long as our spirits remain pure. That low view of sin (1 John 1:8) then leads to a belief that we don’t really need to obey God’s commands (1 John 2:4).
  • And if you don’t think it’s a big deal to obey God’s command, you’re certainly not going to love other Christians (1 John 2:9) like God commands us. Because that’s hard. People are messy.
  • And when it’s all about you, you’re going to love the pleasures of this world more than what God has to offer (1 John 2:15) … which naturally leads to an apathy for the return of Jesus (1 John 2:28).

That’s what false teaching leads to: a self-indulgent lifestyle. In the end, you end up with people who think they are believers … but in reality are not. Just like I was.

So let’s think about God’s love for a moment. The Bible teaches that God’s love is a love that loves us before the foundation of the world … that loves us from everlasting to everlasting … a love that loves those who hated him … that loves those who are broken, mean, and spiteful. It is a sovereign, free, and unearned love.

And most importantly, it is a sacrificial love.

First John 4:10 says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

In other words, Jesus satisfies the wrath of God that we deserve because of our sins. Jesus pays for our crimes against God. On his own initiative. It is a free, sovereign, and sacrificial choice. That is Jesus’ amazing love.

And this is why John can say in the first verse of the third chapter: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” And I love this in the NIV because the statement ends with an exclamation point. It’s like John is slamming his fist on the table.

The point is this is a love we don’t deserve, yet we get to experience. And so the proper response to that type of love looks like this: we should love one another. That’s what God commands us to do. God’s selfless love is a love that makes us capable of loving others, so we should … and can … love others. .

And when we have this love for God, each other, and the lost, it’s a great proof of our conversion: “Beloved,” John writes, “let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”

So, let me close by asking a few questions.

First, how do people know you love God? Is it because you are always proclaiming your passion for Jesus and always knee deep in church activities? Or is it because of the love you show in word and deeds to Christians, the lost, and the destitute?

Or do you harbor a secret hatred for other believers while singing praises to Jesus? Is your love for God in your head, but not your heart? In other words, are you a hypocrite like I was?

See, in the end, if your love for God is not expressing itself tangibly in deeds of love for others, ask Him to change your heart and help you to love others with a genuine, godly love. God will honor that kind of prayer.

And for the non-Christians in the room, if this is a kind of love you would love to know, then surrender. Confess your sins, turn to Jesus, and trust in him. God will honor that kind of prayer, too.

Finally, let me say this. Christmas is fast approaching, which means another round of family time. Some of us look forward to this time with family. Others, not so much. Being around family re-opens wounds, resurrects old arguments. Pain and dysfunction best describe these events. All you want is your mother to listen to you. Your father to accept you. Your brothers and sisters to laugh with you. Instead, all you get is strife, sarcasm, and disappointment. Unfortunately that may be all you ever know from your family until the day you die.

Not so in God’s family. Jesus came into this world to deliver us from this dysfunction. Our dysfunction, and their dysfunction. He came into this world to bring us peace, security, and a sense of belonging. We may never experience those things with our earthly family — but we will experience those things in God’s family. And we will experience those things in a healthy church family, especially in one that honors Christian truth. So, here’s your challenge: if you find yourself this Christmas surrounded by broken, mean, and spiteful people — people who bring out the worst in you — remember this: “We love, because he first loved us.”

Let’s pray. Jesus, we love you. We love your love for us, a love displayed in your willingness to come into our world and die for our sins. A love that is so amazing. A love that is never ending. And a love that is selfless. And forgive us, Father, for those times that we’ve said we loved you, yet hated our brothers and sisters in Christ. Help us to love the unlovable. And please, increase our love for you, others in the church, and the lost. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.

[Sermon ends]

The White Bucket Is a Stark Reminder of Our Wicked Hearts

Long ago I wrote a story that probably occurs a million times a year–a young man falling in love with a married woman.

Here’s the tl:dr version of that story …

A tall, lean bicycle courier named Morrissey has a crush on a young nurse named Beth Leguisadauskas. He gives her a ride home on his bike. He then helps her to cook dinner. But this is no ordinary dinner.

They are cooking a placenta they stole from the hospital. Placenta is thought to cure depression. Beth’s older brother is chronically depressed and suicidal. He mopes and sleeps all day. Can’t hold a job. He’s staying with Beth and her husband. Beth’s husband wants him out. Beth is desperate.

Beth and Morrissey carried the placenta home from the hospital in a white bucket. After Morrissey removes the placenta from the white bucket and hands it to Beth, he begins to daydream of sleeping with Beth. He stares at her arm, her shoulders, her cheeks. He can’t get enough of her.

Morrissey wishes Beth wasn’t married. He wishes he didn’t have a long-time girlfriend. He wishes that he could drag Beth into the white bucket. He wishes the white bucket would conceal the act.

Morrissey imagines the white bucket as a world where he could do whatever he wanted without fear of getting caught. He wishes the white bucket were that world.

And that is the parable of the white bucket.

What Is the Parable of the White Bucket?

This fictional story is not about the placenta. Nor is it really about the potential betrayal. It’s more about the white bucket.

And what it stands for.

The parable of the white bucket is about a one nightstand. It’s a story to explain our deceptively wicked hearts and how we justify ourselves in our actions–no matter how devious or small.

Let’s cut to the heart of the matter: Would you do something wrong if you knew you could get away with it? Would you have an affair? Steal money? Kill an enemy?

The white bucket is like a parallel universe that allows somebody to do something without getting caught. It’s a universe where–in the case of rape, say–only the rapist and victim exist.

Moreover, the white bucket is an ethical tool to measure the motive of the heart. It asks: what is my potential for getting caught? The answer depends on four things:

Remote: How far away am I from the law? Inside the white bucket, you are far, far away. You’re looking for distance here. Think deployed soldiers or international business trips.

Stranger: Do these people know me? Remote and stranger usually go hand in hand. The farther you get away from your house, the less people know you. When you are surrounded by people you will never see again, you are likely to behave differently. Probably more boldly, deviantly.

Punishment: What will happen if I get caught? Simple enough. If you get caught, what’s the penalty? Severe? Minimal? None at all? Would I damage my reputation? Hurt my family? Go to jail?

Reflection: Do I care if I get caught? Introspective people get hammered by reflection. That’s why so many writers are drunks. The 17th century poet said, “And as I much reflected, much I mourn’d.” Look at mourned the same way that Jesus spoke about the “mournful” in his Sermon on the Mount–they are grieved over their sin. So, those who squelch reflection don’t see the pain that their actions cause. Thus, they don’t mourn.

Naturally, someone low in conscience doesn’t need to be remote or strange. On the other hand, an introspective person surrounded by strangers in a remote land could feel enormous shame or guilt.

Furthermore, someone who believes deeply in the omnipresence and omniscience of God will never be remote or strange. Someone who doesn’t–in fact, someone who is isolated socially–does not need to be in a remote land to commit a violent act. They may in fact believe they live in a white bucket. In this way, the white bucket is their strange remoteness.

But get this: smaller acts are committed in the privacy of your own home. You neither fear getting caught or getting punished. And what would the punishment be except shame?

The True Root of the Problem

Shame is the root of the problem. Erase shame and people can do their indecent acts. But you can not erase shame. Shame will remain. Unless your conscience is cauterized beyond feeling. Shame is a built-in mechanism to warn us of evil acts.

In a previous post I asked you to follow me into this parable of a sex affair. I then provided these possible solutions:

Sleeping with her would provide certain and immediate pleasure. But it’d be short-lived. Plus, you risk catching a venereal disease. Or getting the woman pregnant. Or getting caught. And if you get caught, your wife gets hurt. The utility calculus might tell you not to have sex with her. But there’s a twist.

Not sleeping with her would provide certain, short term pain–that is, withholding immediate pleasure. But the pain would not last, nor would it haunt you. Yet, there still remains a value judgment: would you get caught?

In the end I said because you are in India and your wife is not, India provides the perfect white bucket scenario: you are a stranger in a remote land where likelihood of punishment is low.

So, the white bucket is a stark reminder of our shameful, wicked hearts. It’s a harsh reminder of our desperate situation and feisty descent into sin if we stop moving.

We Will Live by the Law of Another

That’s why is so powerful. There is a law at work in our flesh. At war with the law of the spirit that gives life.

John Eldridge–author of Wild at Heart–once said that we do not have wickedly deceptive hearts because of the substitution of Christ for our sin and the work of the spirit giving us hearts of flesh for hearts of stone.

Granted this is true, but it doesn’t erase the power of sin in the flesh. That power is still there. And we must be on guard from that power because I think if we all had access to a white bucket, we would indulge our darkest desires–if not for one thing.

I submit to you that out of the four things, reflection is the only element that is our defense against hidden vice. A stranger in a remote land where the likelihood of punishment is zero has only one defense–his conscience.

Reflection recognizes the conscience. Recognizes the freedom we have–especially where lawlessness lives–and determines we will live by the law of another–Christ Jesus–when there is no other law.

The Purpose of Your Conscience

Truth is, a white bucket doesn’t exist. There will never be a perfect scenario where we can do something without anybody knowing. That’s Morrissey’s dilema. He can never truly do anything and not get caught.

Neither can you. There always exist the chance that someone will catch us. Then we have to ask: Do we care if we get caught?

The point is this: your conscience has a purpose. It’s purpose is to protect you from sin, judgment, pain and hell. The debate is over the state of your conscience. Is it pure, alert, sober? Or is it dull, dead and drunk?

The answer to that question will determine not only the state of your soul, but the state of your life. One is dominated by minimal pain and maximal peace. The other is dominated by shallow happiness and deep misery.

You have to decide which life you want.

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How Do You Say Thank You to a Silent Hero?

We all have one: a silent hero.

The person who led us to the Lord. Who prayed without ceasing for our conversion. Who said or did something that changed our life–but who, for one reason or another, is no longer part of our lives.

It could’ve been somebody we met in another part of the country or world. And it could be their impact on you might not have been immediate.

I have such a silent hero.

She was a casual friend I had when I lived in North Carolina. After I returned to Illinois we kept in touch through letters or the phone. There was nothing romantic. Just something to do.

Several months later she offered to fly me out to her home. No strings attached. She needed to see me. And she said she would take care of everything. The flight, the food and the sleeping arrangements. I, of course, accepted immediately. I was broke and bored.

She picked me up at the airport, we ate fried chicken for dinner, and then drove to her grandmother’s house. It was dusk, and she lived out in the country with long highways, stretches of farmland, isolated houses and giant trees punctuating the horizon.

Her grandmother lived on a hill in a mobile home just off the road. She smiled when she saw me, hugged me, eyed me. This was the young man her granddaughter had told her about. Long, tangled blonde hair, tiny t-shirt, massive denim jeans and black suede sneakers. Over my shoulder I slung my backpack.

“That’s all you brought?” she said.

I nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Don’t need much.”

Then, after a short stint of nervous small talk the girl said goodbye to her grandmother. It was getting late and she had to be up at 3:30 in the morning. Work started at 4:30.

The grandmother ushered me through the door and into her house, which was full of glass shelves loaded with glass animals, angels and children. The living room was crowded with fuzzy furniture. She showed me my room. It was small, but it had a bed, a night table, a lamp and closet.

Next, she showed me the breakfast cereal, the milk, the cans of soup.

“This is for you to eat.”

“Thank you,” I said. “This is all really very kind of you.”

She turned and looked at me. “Don’t thank me. Thank Nicole.” She was smiling. “She bought all of this with her own money.”

The next day I killed time waiting for Nicole by showering, reading and roaming around the countryside.

Near five Nicole arrived and we took a trip to visit her brother. He lived on a dirt road. His house slumped, and the busted screen door creaked every time it was opened. Her brother trotted out. He was short, skinny, dark hair and thin goatee. He didn’t wear a shirt but he did wear a smile. He spoke with a heavy southern accent. His children and friends came in and out of the house. There was a wild pig they were going to hunt. He asked if I was interested.

“Sorry. Didn’t bring the right shoes.”

Then Nicole, “Grandmother is expecting us for dinner.”

We arrived at grandmother’s house. We ate spaghetti, and then Nicole and I went to sit outside to look at up the stars. In that theater of clear skies Nicole told me why I was there. She was a born-again Christian. She had surrendered her life shortly after I had left for Illinois. And ever since then she had a burning desire to share the gospel with me.

Her kindness touched me. I told her so. But I wasn’t ready to be a Christian. I wasn’t ready to know the Lord. I had too much life to live. But even in that dead, self-absorbed state I could recognize genuine devotion, joy and peace.

I could recognize selflessness.

Over the next couple days we visited old friends, drove around the country and talked. I eventually boarded my plane and flew home, still a heathen. She and I traded a phone call here, a letter there. Then I never heard from her again. I’m sure it was my fault. I probably stopped returning her letters. I did that a lot.

It would be nearly three years later that I would finally surrender to Jesus Christ. And another ten before I thought of Nicole. Before I understood her conviction and her sacrifice.

I wanted to thank her for being my silent hero. I still do want to thank her. But I haven’t a clue where to start. I don’t even remember her real name.

The Christian in me doesn’t think it matters that much. At least not compared to the reward the Lord will hand her when He says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” In my own Christian walk I could only hope to do half as well.

Thank you, my silent hero, wherever you are.

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Mere Christianity (Winner of the Most Logical Gospel* Book)

Introducing the 9/60 best books on the gospel. A 62-week long series.

Let me give you the lowdown on the asterisk up there next to the word “Gospel.”

When I first stumbled across this I found many titles that I would expect to be on that list. Then I found a few that I didn’t expect. was one of them.

Before last week I think I’ve read the book twice. Once back in 1998. And then sometime shortly after August 2005 (that was the year that my father died and I inherited his library. Mere Christianity was one of the books in his library.)

Last week makes three.

I have to be honest. I wasn’t looking forward to reading this book. Nor was I looking forward to reviewing it. I’m not really sure why. Here are some hypothesis:

Hypothesis 1: Maybe because I’ve already read it and didn’t want to read it again. Listen. I do not re-read books. Hardly ever. I don’t care how good they are. They are never as good the second time around. I get bored  and because I know what is going to happen. Plus, time is short and too many OTHER good books to read. Why should I spend time on a book I’ve already read?

Hypothesis 2: I am lazy. No. I am bored easily. Yes. That’s it. And I’m bored already with the 60 gospel books in 62 week challenge? Quite possibly. I confess: I’m really good at starting projects. Not quite so good at closing them. I have commitment issues, I know.

Hypothesis 3: Mere Christianity is NOT a book on the gospel. At least that is what I thought. For the last five or so years every time the book was mentioned I thought, Now there is a good book on apologetics. One of the best, indeed, old chap. And I just did not want to read an apologetic book when my goal was to read a gospel book. I don’t have the time for that.

The last hypothesis is the correct one although, more than likely, there are elements of truth in the first two. (“More than likely,” as if I’m not self aware enough to know what I’m thinking and feeling. Don’t let me get away with a snow job, okay?)

But it is a gospel book. OH MY IS IT.

A Thinker’s Gospel

It is definitely the thinking man’s guide to the gospel. Not that the other books aren’t for thinkers. They are. We are all thinkers and God gave us brains for a reason.

But this one is for the man or woman who likes their gospel proclamation to follow a sequential argument. Who get goose bumps when the word “syllogism” is hissed.

Think about it.

This is at its best. World War Two is hot in his listeners minds (the original version of this book was from a series of radio talks).

“The Invasion” isn’t an abstract reference to an alien God becoming man. Saying we are living in occupied territory won’t go in one ear and out the other. Landing in force? So real the original listeners and readers sit in rapt attention. There is thoughtful assent. Profound recognition of the familiar.

How Is This a Gospel Book

The book opens with one of Lewis’ best contributions to Christianity: the moral argument for God. We all have a sense that there is an ultimate source for morality. Could it be God? He answers common objections against this argument (which is why it feels like an apologetic book), and eventually builds the case for this ultimate source of morality being the Christian God. And he does it in such a way that you don’t realize he is dishing out the gospel.

He tells us that we know that there is a law. And we know that we break that law. What, then, are the consequences? The fifth chapter “We Have Cause to Be Uneasy” explains: we are doomed for judgement.

And then in Book 2, chapter 4, we get an English rendition of substitutionary atonement. But you wouldn’t realize it unless you knew what to look for. Lewis is that slick.

Where the Book Gets Wobbly

Towards the late middle of the book he begins to lose his grip on the argument. He is trying to do too many things methinks. He wants to explain Christian behavior, biblical marriage (alert: he had never been married at this point) and typical virtues.

And there, like a rogue paratrooper plummeting into the book, is a chapter on “The Great Sin.” Any guesses what it is? It’s pride. It’s a good chapter. Just the chapter is misplaced.

And then there is book Four, which is a hodge-podge of topics like the Trinity, the cost of becoming a Christian and what it means to become a new creation. Feels more like a junk drawer than it does a systematic theology.


In the end, this book is a tricky one for me. I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone. But neither would I recommend Richard Baxter’s a Call to the Unconverted to everyone. Neither would I recommend those two books to the same people.

This brings me back to why my dad has this book in the first place.

He was not a Christian. His military dog tags said “Buddhist.” Which jived with his preferred label of “agnostic.” He just felt that was the most philosophically honest position. But he respected Lewis (I think that it helped that Lewis wrote science fiction, too. My dad was a fan of science fiction).

Which then makes it a gospel proclamation tucked into an apologetic defense. Something the thinker might actually read. Like my dad.

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How to Give Away Your Faith (Winner of Most Pragmatic Gospel Book)

Introducing the 8/60 best books on the gospel. A 62-week long series.

Nineteen sixty-six.

That was the year that was published by . Today it is September 13, 2012. Forty-six years later the book is still in print.

And if the blurb on the front cover is true there over one million copies in print.

That’s substantial testament to the popularity of the book. A popularity that is bred by the books pragmatism–it’s simple and useful. Full of relevant illustrations.

No surprise the books original audience was college students, a skeptical bunch indeed.

The Birth of the Book

The material for the book comes from tapes secured by InterVarsity of Paul Little’s talks (who worked with IVP for twenty-five years). This was back in the day when your only equipment was reel-to-reel, so transcribing the tapes would be a Herculalean effort. But everyone involved couldn’t agree more that the task was worth it.

The book that I read was an editorial update by Marie Little, Paul’s wife (Paul died in a car accident in 1975). By editorial I mean she changed out-of-date illustrations to appeal to modern readers.

Disappointing, I say. Half the fun of reading an older book is stumbling across those artifacts from the past. Alas, all to make the book easier to read.

And that’s my main concern for this book. I won’t say complaint, because I don’t think that’s fair language to use. Let me explain what I mean.

The Summary

The book opens by defining the modern adult in terms of his desires and fears. The goal is to establish a criterion on sharing the gospel with people to whom it will seem alien (we will get to this later).

And then we quickly launch into practical matters: who should you share the gospel with? The answer, start with your neighbor.

The book’s purpose can be summarized in this paragraph:

Unequivocally, it is when we get involved personally with others that our evangelism begins to take off. Unless we stop theorizing and reach out and knock on the neighbor’s door, we’ll never get to the real nuts and bolts of witnessing. Lifestyle evangelism begins with talking to people who in some way touch our lives. It is not a superficial, quick relationship or an overnight coup. It involves time and sacrifice, and most of all it involves giving ourselves.

I’m down with that. My default behavior is to theorize. And theorize some more. And then put off the “nuts and bolts of witnessing” for the next day. Tomorrow comes and we repeat the process.

This book was a real kick in the pants.

A Quick Story

I have a friend. A very good friend. A very good friend who I am insanely proud to know.

He is a humble man of humble means. But he is a witnessing warrior. Within days of the Spirit getting a hold of him (at Mardi Gras, nonetheless) he had canvassed his entire neighborhood. Thirty houses? Fifty?

In comparison. One year I vowed to share the gospel with all of my neighbors in my subdivision. I even shared this promise with my pastor and two friends, hoping that public commitment would drive me to see my goal to completion.

By September of that year I’d witnessed to one family (I use “witnessed” loosely). By October we bought a new house in another area–and (wiping brow) I was released from my vow. I was smart not to make the same promise.

My friend, however, he’s relentless. He shares the gospel with everyone he runs into. At the YMCA. On the phone. A stranger wandering down his street.

It doesn’t matter.

Me, I see my neighbor in his backyard watering a tree. I knock on the sliding glass door and wave. He doesn’t see me. I shrug and think it was just not meant to be.

Why Give Away Your Faith Is Useful

So, this is where a book like How to Give Away Your Faith comes in handy. It’s a manual for the effective ambassador. For the introverted witness.

Chapter titles like “How to Witness” and “Hurdling Social Barriers” with step-by-step instructions–establish common ground and have a good joke ready. I can use that.

In the chapter “What Is Our Message?” you are even given five of the most common ways to share the gospel (think Roman Road and Four-Steps to God).

Like I said: it is practical. And why it concerns me.

My Concerns with Give Away Your Faith

Above I used the term pragmatism. Most people know what that means. They think practicality. Here’s how I meant it:

a philosophical movement or system having various forms, but generally stressing practical consequences as constituting the essential criterion in determining meaning, truth, or value.

The problem with practicality is that if something doesn’t work you change it. Change it so it does work. Stretch that meaning out and you get this: if something offends, change it.

For instance, I saw this in action during a conversation with some folks behind an initiative with a HUGE international CHRISTIAN organization. I questioned the absence of a clear gospel message on some of their audience-facing material.

Their response?

An evangelist from another very large CHRISTIAN organization coached them to avoid a clear gospel message because they might run their target audience away.

*sprays screen with coffee*

Yes, we must be practical. We must be useful. But never at the expense of the gospel message. Never at the risk of warping the original into an imposter because it is alien to non-believers. And neither should we ever be afraid of that message.

Would Baxter’s messages look different today? Owen’s? Alleine’s? Spurgeon’s? Would they curb it to attract more listeners?

I don’t think so.

Here’s my recommendation to you: read How to Give Away Your Faith. But not with having a book like All of Grace or Call to the Unconverted by your side.

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Brothels, Bathhouses, Billy Graham and God’s Omnipresence


God is everywhere. All of God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. At one time. At every moment.

That is the doctrine of God’s omnipresence. A doctrine upheld by Scripture:

But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built! 1

For His eyes are upon the ways of a man, and He sees all his steps. There is no darkness or deep shadow where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves. 

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. 

The eyes of the Lord are in every place, watching the evil and the good. 

“Am I a God who is near,” declares the Lord, “And not a God far off? Can a man hide himself in hiding places so I do not see him?” declares the Lord. “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” declares the Lord. Jeremiah 23:23-24

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 

That they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;


This is not pantheism (God is the universe). It is not panatheism (God dwells in everything). It is all of God is at every point of space at all times.

This has some interesting implications.

There Is Nowhere You Can Hide

The doctrine of God’s omnipresence means that He is as much in the den of Billy Graham’s home as He is in the den of your home. Or my home. Or my bedroom.

He is as much in the sanctuary on Sunday morning when the church is packed as He is on Monday afternoon when the church is empty.

This also means that He is as much in the space of a Las Vegas gay bathhouse as He is in the den of a brothel in Centerville (city notorious for strip clubs in eastern Illinois).

The presence of God is everywhere. In the presence of goodness. In the depths of wickedness.

How does that make you feel? I will tell you how it makes me feel.

Our Reaction to God’s Omnipresence

Anger at those who would corrupt and pervert his glory and creation. And shame at my own participation in that corruption and perversion.

Not the same sort of perversion and corruption.

I’ve lied and cheated. Been cruel, hateful, jealous and self-centered. But the sin doesn’t matter. The root is rebellion. And .

I see my own condemnation in the truth that he is everywhere and knows all. My knees tremble. My eyes look away. I cannot stand justified before His presence without Christ. And, yes, that standing before his presence will occur in an ultimate sense on the day of Judgment.

Yet, that convicting presence is very real right here and right now. It occurs every moment of every day of our lives.

For those whose eyes have been opened, and they see and feel the weight of their sin, and see and feel their coming destruction–His presence is an agonizing torture upon the soul.

For those whose eyes have been opened, and they see and feel the unfolding beauty and majesty of Christ and their Creator, and see and feel the worth and measure of His great sacrifice for us–our sin against him is an agonizing torture upon our soul.

But thank goodness that through the blood of Christ we are justified and reconciled to God. Thank goodness for the blood of Christ that has appeased the wrath of God. We are no longer his enemies, but children.

We can stand before Him forgiven.

The Lesson of God’s Omnipresence

The lesson of the doctrine of God’s omnipresence is that we can not hide from him. This is good and bad news. We get to enjoy the pleasure of his presence as we kneel in our den with our Bible spread out in front of us. Or gather for corporate worship. Or communion.

We get to weep with gratitude at his mercy and grace as we lie on our beds at night. And we get to grieve over the hardness of heart and the depravity of mind and the pursuit of depraved lusts  in the den of a brothel or bathhouse, bedroom or bar.

Yet, we get the courage of knowing that God is no less influential and powerful and present in those spaces. And that His Spirit is no less effective in converting wicked hearts. He convicted yours. And he convicted mine.

And that our presentation of the gospel in any space is backed by nothing other than the power of God. There is no cause for shame in that. Hallelujah for God’s omnipresence and omnipotence.

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“I Will Not Speak Any More in His Name”

We’ve all been there. Rapid-fire rejection. Unrelenting criticism.

We find ourselves with our backs to the wall. Our nights spent staring at the ceiling. Curled into a ball on the couch. Our hearts wanting to jump out of our chest.

We beg for it to end. But we know that as the sun rises it may only get worse. Darkness as the .

Our Persecution Is Mild

Some have to look over their shoulders as they hustle down an alley, dart through the traffic and duck through a door–then a curtain–so they can join a small group of believers to study the Bible in a basement.

Some are more bold to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ on the street corner. This will land them in a jail cell or hospital room. Sometimes a grave.

His Persecution Was Tough

Jeremiah was lashed forty times, and then thrown in a stockade: his hands, feet and neck fastened in holes. His body contorted by the position. The pain excruciating. It’s no surprise that he cried out:

For each time I speak, I cry aloud; I proclaim violence and destruction, Because for me the word of the Lord has resulted in reproach and derision all day long.

Most of us won’t experience that sort of torment or ridicule for our witness. Still, there are circumstances in which we entertain the idea of quitting as we fight against surges of dejection.

We might curse the day of our birth. Wish black gloom claim it. The Lord above not care for it. Jeremiah went as far as to say, “I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name.”

That was short-lived.

The Burden Worse Than Persecution

In the next breath Jeremiah said, “Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; And I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it” ().

Did you catch that? The emotional hurt of relentless derision, chronic pain of the stockades and the spiritual desperation that he’d been abandoned by God was something he could endure.

What he couldn’t endure was the torture and shame of NOT speaking the truth of God. It was like being burned from the inside out. That was too much to bear.

Have you ever been so depressed from persecution and rejection that you swore it wasn’t worth it? That in a year of falling apart you felt like throwing in the towel? But in the end you knew that there was no way possible? That you, like Paul, said “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel”?

Share your thoughts. Brutal and all.

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A Letter to Charles Spurgeon about His “Little” Book “All of Grace” (Winner of Most Illustrations in a Gospel Book)

Introducing the 7/60 best books on the gospel. A 62-week long series.

Dear Mr. Charles Haddon Spurgeon,

You, my friend, can write! I also hear you can preach, too, but alas, I’ll never hear it this side of heaven. I will look you up when I arrive, though. Until then I must be content with your books.

Speaking of books, I just finished your “little” volume .

What a “little” book!

I mean, 104-pages written in language fit for a “crossing-sweeper and rag-catcher,” quite unlike our pal John Owen who wrote a “littler” volume of 84-pages, but stitched it up so tight in style and content that one needs a seam ripper to take it apart…

…and boatloads of patience. Plus a study partner. And repeated revisits to previous texts. Over and over again.

But your “little” book requires none of that!

It was like riding the river Thames (without the litter and smell) in a canoe. And…and…redemptive doctrine being shot on film against any flat surface–canal wall, bridge beam or barge hull.

Of course you made it plain on the first page that your target audience were poor men and women, so the “plainest language” was to be used.

Yet, you hoped that a “prince of the blood,” “those of wealth and rank,” would “glance at this book, [and] the Holy Ghost can impress them also; since that which can be understood by the unlettered is none the less attractive to the instructed.”

Nice one.

As were the storehouse of illustrations. Straight out of the gate–page one no less!–you are letting these little greyhounds of narrative sleekness loose. This one being timeless:

A certain man placed a fountain by the wayside, and he hung up a cup near to it by a little chain. He was told some time after that a great art-critic had found much fault with its design. “But,” said he, “do many thirsty persons drink at it?” Then they told him that thousands of poor people, men, women, and children, slaked their thirst at this fountain; and he smiled and said, that he was little troubled by the critic’s observation, only he hoped that on some sultry summer’s day the critic himself might fill the cup, and be refreshed, and praise the name of the Lord. Here is my fountain, and here is my cup: find fault if you please; but do drink of the water of life.

We get it. Now. Today. My people, some hundred and fifty years removed. We get it. Friends of mine (who are artists and art critics and critics in general) would’ve criticized the cup and chain.

I could have. I did.

And it’s obvious you heard a lot of stories, Mr. Spurgeon. Not surprising for a man of your age and wisdom (at the time “All of Grace” was written, of course). This made reading your “little” 104-page volume rich and entertaining.

Some of these illustrations were just knock-your-socks-off good! Here is my favorite one:

We have been kept alive on the brink of death. Our spiritual life has been a flame burning on in the midst of the sea, a stone that has remained suspended in the air. It will amaze the universe to see us enter the pearly gate, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. We ought to be full of grateful wonder if kept for an hour; and I trust we are.

Where did you hear that one? I would like to know.


I must wait until heaven on that , too? Fair enough. I will wait…as long as you promise to tell me all of your secrets!

What is NOT a secret is your grip on the redemptive procedure. Just look at the chapter headings for your “little” book:

1. To You

2. What Are We At

3. God Justifieth the Ungodly

4. “It Is God that Justifieth”

5. “Just and the Justifier”

6. Concerning Deliverance from Sin

7. By Grace Through Faith

8. Faith, What Is It?

9. How May Faith Be Illustrated?

10. Why Are We Saved by Faith?

11. Alas! I Can Do Nothing

12. The Increase of Faith

13. Regeneration and the Holy Spirit

14. My Redeemer Liveth

15. Repentence Must Go with Forgiveness

16. How Repentance Is Given

17. The Fear of Final Falling

18. Confirmation

19. Why Saints Persevere

20 Close

Have you seen them all lined up like that before?!

The book I had did not have a TOC proper. Perhaps others do, and you may think I am stating the obvious by showing you the TOC for your own book, but I think it a useful exercise to write them all day so one can see the sequence of redemption.

Not that that will actually save anyone.

But hopefully it will draw them in to your “little” volume to read it drink from its depths! Because what one doesn’t see in looking at that list of chapters is that redemption is completely and UTTERLY a one-way act of God.

It is (my word, not yours. No sweat!).

Now, to conclude, I don’t really have any complaints to make about your “little” volume. I mean, how could I? Your messages and books are thought by some to be among the best in Christian literature.

Who can argue with that?

Besides, it was my fault that I read your “little” book on my phone where I had to scroll and scroll and scroll and SCROLL as I read, thinking, surely, soon, this “little” volume will end…Mr. Spurgeon will have concluded his point, put his quill down and closed the book and I can then write him a letter…

…a letter telling him that when I finally did read the last line of All of Grace, I closed out the book app, opened up Amazon and ordered a print copy for my shelf.

Not that your little book will actually make it to the shelf when it arrives. I intend to re-read All of Grace the moment I get it.

By the way, miss you.


Your fan, Demian Farnworth

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