Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Archive for the ‘Atonement’ Category

That Bloody Grace



The motion picture Dunkirk recaptures the story of how grace transformed a colossal military blunder during World War II into a historic rescue of epic proportions.  It appeared to be a moment that would cost Britain the war. More than 300,000 British and French soldiers and sailors found themselves trapped on a beach at Dunkirk, encircled by a tightening noose of Nazi troops and tank brigades intent on slaughtering them all.

An opening caption from the movie explains they were waiting for deliverance; hoping for a miracle. Their answered prayer would arrive in the form of some 700 small, privately owned boats shuttling warriors away from imminent disaster over a few days and nights.  It was a costly miracle; unarmed fishermen, merchants, and school teachers risking everything- and some losing it all– for the warriors who had marched off to war to save them in the first place.

That dimension of grace- the ominous, terrifying part– explains why we who call ourselves Evangelicals can seem so false, so inauthentic, to a skeptical world. With a wink and a smile, we sometimes reduce the extravagant gift of God to a free toy in a box of cereal. We are quick to argue that our salvation is better than recreational drugs, more thrilling than immoral sex, more satisfying than a meal at a five-star restaurant.  And God has tossed it into the box for free if you’ll say a prayer and come to church.  Open up the box, find your free gift inside, and you’ll be hap-hap-happy forevermore.

If that doesn’t sound very convincing to thoughtful people, it’s no wonder.  It’s not even persuasive to religious types who sometimes prefer not to think.

I once participated in a popular ministry that trained believers for evangelism.  It was organized around a simple outline that explained the wonder of grace, the sacrifice of Christ, and the urgency of repentance and faith.  In case a listener should confess Christ, there was a simple prayer of faith.  That was followed immediately by a brief recap of the Gospel along with directives to read the Bible and watch out for Satan.

I once heard a trainee ask a leader, “Why are the attacks by Satan not mentioned until after the personal commitment?”  The leader replied, “Well, we don’t want to discourage people.”  Maybe that’s why they become disillusioned and drop out later.  Where is all that uninterrupted peace and joy, anyhow?

I suspect skeptical Millennials and Generation Z will demand full disclosure. The gospel delivers followers of Jesus Christ to a higher quality of life, but not a perpetual Happy Hour.  Faith is not a Safe Zone; it’s never far from danger. Christians live as though something is at stake because it is.  Something very important is on the line.  Worship is a celebration, but godly living happens on a spiritual battlefield.  It’s messy.  We are compelled by love to get our hands dirty. Ask any parent: real love really hurts.

If the saga of Dunkirk remains deeply fascinating today, it’s not because the boats were so small or so numerous.  Most of those vessels had traveled the Channel before. Dunkirk captures the imagination and inspires us today because a profound catastrophe on a massive scale was about to explode on that beach in France; and because so many who could have looked away were willing, instead, to choose love over safety.  Amazing grace is always about someone who has chosen love over safety.

The battlefield where Jesus Christ won the day for us was splattered with his blood. It followed years of rejection, inconvenience, and sacrifice.  Christ even warned his disciples that very soon they, too, would be arrested, hounded, threatened, and put to death (Matthew 24:9.)  It hardly sounds like a Carribean cruise, does it?

The Lord practiced transparency: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

The grace of God is deep and awesome.  It reaches us in our darkest moments of despair.  It transports us to a life of purpose, satisfaction, celebration, friendship, and adoration. But the moments in the mountains are particularly delightful because the months in the valleys test our faith to the limits. Ultimately our saving faith is like gold, which can only be refined by fire, but which becomes more precious after it is purified.  And one day we arrive in Heaven!

So give ’em the whole gospel!  Let them see that those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. And lift up the Cross!



Nobody Dies Here Today!


“Is there a shark in the water?  What’s everyone looking at?”  The spectators on Panama City Beach were transfixed by the unfolding horror of an entire family being swept out to sea. Nine members of the Ursrey family had been caught up in a powerful riptide and cast helplessly into fifteen feet of dark, turbulent waves. Their cries of terror barely reached the shore.

A few men rushed into the sea and began to link arms.  Quickly others went racing out to join them.  Within minutes, a human chain began to take shape in the midst of the chaos. People who could not swim joined hands in a surf rising to their necks. Swimmers paddled out to the end to link arms.  Soon eighty men and women had instinctively orchestrated a human lifeline nearly 100 yards long.  They reached the imperiled victims and, one by one, passed them safely back to dry land.

One of the older members of the Ursrey clan suffered a heart attack but recovered at a nearby hospital.  Another swimmer was treated for a broken arm. Everyone went home alive.

The whole scene struck me as such a vivid picture of the Church of Jesus Christ.  Most of the eighty individuals who made the rescue possible could have done nothing on their own.  Many could not even swim, and others could not have managed the tide that day. But united in one great purpose, each did what he or she could do and lives were snatched from despair and destruction.

Jessica Simmons and her husband were among the bystanders who were so quick to respond.  Grabbing an abandoned boogie board she’d just spotted on the beach, she went rushing to the scene, ignoring the grim voices warning, “Don’t go out there!”  She had already resolved, “Those people are not drowning today. It’s not going to happen.  We will get them out.”

Jessica and her seventy-nine fellow heroes were driven by something sorely missing in the Church today: urgent compassion.  Death and condemnation are not the most effective conversation starters in reaching out to our lost friends and neighbors, but those two painful realities should quietly drive us to talk, to intervene, to build bridges. You and I are surrounded by people at risk but we typically seem far more concerned about sunscreen and cold drinks than the fate of people we love.

I’ve gotta resolve in my heart: “Nobody goes to Hell if I can help it.  It’s not going to happen.  I’ve got this.”  I have to pray, drawing down some fire from Heaven.  And then I have to find opportunities and step up to say something about Christ or His Kingdom.

Thankfully, Roberta Ursrey can’t even recall the most terrifying moments of her ordeal at sea.  But she easily remembers the chain of determined faces and the strong hands that tirelessly passed her family members to safety.  “These people were God’s angels that were in the right place at the right time,” she said afterward.”  If most people don’t believe in angels anymore, it’s because they don’t see them very often.  As Jesus followers, you and I can fix that problem.

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that One died for all.”  2 Corinthians 5:14.

Lift up the Cross!

For the actual news report, see


Hacksaw Ridge:Blood & Beatitudes

hacksaw-ridgeMel Gibson’s latest film, Hacksaw Ridge, was a religious experience for me.  You’d probably never expect to hear anything like that about a war movie so agonizingly violent. But there’s a cross in the title when it appears on the screen.  And the Sermon on the Mount is at the heart of the story.

Perhaps you already know the plot.  Desmond Doss is a devout follower of Christ, a Seventh Day Adventist who carries a Bible with him when he goes off to World War II. Because he has taken a  vow never to touch a weapon, he enlists as a conscientious objector and volunteers to serve as a medic.  Remarkably, the movie manages to celebrate Doss’ principled refusal to fight, without ever demeaning the character or convictions of the warriors all around him who do risk their lives to wage the war for freedom.

Amid the carnage of a just war, Hacksaw Ridge brings to life some of the most noble ideas of the gospel: turning the other cheek, blessing those who hate you, praying for those who despitefully use you, demonstrating mercy to your enemies. You’d never expect to see forgiveness play such a prominent role in a drama so charged with gunfire and explosions! And I cannot remember when any other major motion picture has portrayed the call of God with so much majesty and respect.

As the heroic Army medic roams a vast battlefield of terror and death, all the while praying, “Lord, let me save one more,” all I could see through my tears was a man carrying a cross. I was jolted by the reality of how little courage is required for my level of sacrifice on the battlefields of life today.  Each of us is called to pick up a cross and follow.

Everybody’s different: Hacksaw Ridge may be too bloody for you. I would suggest it might be worth occasionally closing your eyes to let one saint’s testimony rock your world.  I expect to encourage all the leaders at our church to experience this story on the big screen. It’s truly a keeper.

Lift up the Cross!


We’re Toast!


If we learned anything from the Mayans, it’s that if you don’t finish something it’s not the end of the world.

Doomsday predictions are always wrong (so far) but they’re not always a waste of time. I can vividly recall one of those years when everybody was reading a book entitled 88 Reasons Why the Lord will Return in 1988. Newspapers actually counted down the days!  I was serving in Tennessee at the time when a young mom named Eva showed up at our church after reading the book.  Fearing the end, she became a follower of Jesus Christ. The highly publicized day of destiny came and went, but her faith was the real thing.  In fact, she still worships there in Columbia, Tennessee, and we’re Facebook friends.  I expect she still appreciates the irrelevant little book that prompted her 14 kt decision for Christ!

There’s a popular cliche that insists if you know you’d do things differently with the end of the world approaching, you should go ahead and make those changes now.  I guess that sounds compelling at first glance, but then someone reminds you that actually happened in 1 Thessalonians.  People gave up their jobs and sat around waiting for the return of Christ.  That is, until Paul wrote and warned them to stop sitting around watching 1st Century cable TV and do something.  “This we commanded you,” he reminded them, “That if any would not work, neither should he eat.” 1 Thessalonians 3:10.

But what if the end of the world were considered a certainty in only three weeks? Imagine that Asteroid Arnold is hurtling predictably toward a cosmic impact with Planet Earth, and the ETA is 21 days away.  Would you quit your job and hurry off to the beach?  Would you stop making your mortgage payment or car payment?  If the drawing for the Mega Millions Lottery is 48 hours away and only two other people have bought tickets, will you spend $5 for a 1 in 3 chance at $200 Million to squander on your final 19 days of survival?

Why does an high paying job or a lottery pay off matter so much in the normal course of life, and yet matter so little with three weeks left on the earth’s Game Clock?   Why should you justifiably rush back for the priceless diamond pendant you accidentally forgot while checking out of your hotel room if you’re on vacation, but not hurry back to retrieve it from your stateroom if you’re on the RMS Titanic?

It seems the standard by which we measure most things is Eternity and our proximity to that event horizon.  If I am under the impression the doorway to God is decades away, money and the things it will buy seem to matter so much more.  If I detect I may have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, I’ll be far more likely to chuck it all. But seriously,why “live like you’re dying” and try to cram as much earthly pleasure as possible in your final countdown?  Will any pleasures here really compare to the celestial pleasures awaiting us in Heaven?  Really?

Calculating the currency exchange rate of Eternity is easier when you strip away the illusions and walk through life with a biblical perspective.  “All people are like grass and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field,”Isaiah reminded himself.  “The grass withers and the flowers fall.” (Isaiah 40:6)  Even compared to a Redwood Tree, you and I aren’t here for long!  Isaiah adds that the Word of the Lord endures forever.

Years ago, serving among poverty stricken believers in Malindi, Kenya, I discovered why fashions and status symbols are often called “the trappings of life.”  It’s because you can esteem them so highly that they trap you in a dangerous place and leave your soul at risk. That’s why few things clarify the mind as effectively as knowing The End is near.

Lift up the Cross!



Walking Away from a Painful Past

CHAIN BREAKING“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”   Jean-Paul Sartre

Great books and movies may seem to make the past come alive, but it’s only in our minds. That’s because yesterday is mostly dead, lingering only in history books, museums, memories and… in the attitudes of survivors.  As a counselor, one of my most difficult tasks is helping victims realize they still have a choice: that they are not slaves to the way they were born or the failures of their parents.

That’s why I detest that popular mantra of today’s church: “I’m just a sinner, too.” It’s not only defeatist and cliche’, but it’s factually untrue.  As a follower of Christ, I am familiar with sin, but I am now a saint.  In the words of Jesus, I have been “born again” as an “overcomer.” To quote Paul, I am a “new creation in Christ, ” the old has passed away and the new has come.  Sinner, indeed!

It’s no wonder modern day believers wander dazed and confused through the swamps of discouragement and defeat.  One moment we minimize sin, behaving as though Christ made a small deposit on my righteousness on the cross, but I can easily take care of the monthly payments by simply going to church, owning a Bible, and practicing selective holiness. No sweat! The next moment, my sin is so powerful that it still defines my identity in spite of everything my Savior has done through his death and resurrection, dispatching the Spirit, establishing the church, and sending the Holy Spirit.  “I’m still just a wretched sinner!” God help us.

The Gospel is a far cry from all this spiritual psychobabble.  In fact, my sin is so grave and insidious that I cannot control it, run away from it, hide it, or make amends for it!  It is innate, deceptive, relentless, and fatal.  On the other hand, Christ’s work of liberation has not only paid off the damage inflicted on God’s system of justice, but also affords me the power to live a new life with a different identity.  I may not forget my old abuse and addictions, but I don’t have to be ruled by them.  I have experienced sin, and still know the sudden allure it can summon. But I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live.  It is Christ who lives within, and the life I now live is by faith in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 2:20)

I don’t have to be controlled by the way I was born- whether my birthright includes an inclination to lie, steal, kill, commit sexual immorality, rage against the whole world, or lie about others.  The emotions are often still there, but the shackles have been broken.  I am united with Christ, the Son of God. What’s more, I am not irrevocably chained to the way I was neglected, abused, or violated as a child.  The memories may linger, but the bonds are shattered.  I remind myself that I have crucified my past and am living with Christ in a new realm of experience.  There is truth there and power.

The transformation that always follows faith in Christ begins not with new habits, but with a new way of thinking. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)  It begins when we give up our bitter complaints and the passing of blame, and accept by faith a new identity.  DNA is not destiny: ask any identical twin.  Faith is the victory.

Lift up the Cross!

Inside Out in a World Upside Down


How do you describe Inside Out, the latest project from the animators at Pixar?  It’s the story of a little girl named Riley who learns to live with the five major emotions competing for acceptance in her mind.  Like everybody else, I found the movie to be hilarious and original.  But I also thought it was insightful and laden with questions only theology could answer.

Did you ever wonder why people living the American Dream of freedom and affluence also suffer depression at epidemic rates?  When consumers enjoy just about any privilege or purchase their hearts might desire, why do they still require 150 forms of self-medication for melancholia and despair?

The problem is those nagging emotions fighting for acceptance in our heads.  In the movie they are called Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear.  Like everyone watching from the audience, little Riley has trouble making good decisions because each life situation results in 5 powerful emotions shouting to explain everything from contrasting points of view. According to the movie, maturity is about learning that each emotion has a valuable role on certain occasions, so all five are actually beneficial. Yeah, but they are still constantly at war.

Many Americans turn to Zoloft and Prozac and stress relief and sleeping meds because it’s so exhausting when your universe is a tiny, heart-shaped gymnasium where all your energy is burned off trying to referee and separate competing emotions.  It’s like spending every day with five brats who never sleep or learn self-control: you have to play parent in every decision. There’s no rest or escape: only stress and distraction.  Like wild zebras, raw emotions refuse to be trained.  So what’s the healthy alternative?

The answer: just say No to them all.

For most of history across most of the planet, most nations have taught that it’s unhealthy, impolite, and even destructive to focus on yourself and your own accomplishments.  But today traditional virtues like humility and deferred gratification have been utterly abandoned by a Now Generation in search of self-esteem and instant gratification.  Quite suddenly we find the ancients were right: it is unhealthy and destructive to surrender to your ego and insist on always having it your way.  It can be downright depressing!  When you can constantly have anything you want, warring emotions make it hard to settle on exactly what that is.  You’re a lion tamer in a ring with five or more untamed lions and tigers.

Paging through your Bible, it can seem annoying when Jesus Christ says things like this: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  We tend to stumble over this idea as well as similar comments like the one about hating father and mother and brother and sister in order to love him.  It’s confusing for us not only because we have been brainwashed with self-esteem psychology, but because we don’t understand the ancient Hebrew way of speaking.

Old Testament men and women tended to draw stark comparisons.  If you favored one person over another in a particular situation, in that moment you were practicing love for one person and rejection (“hatred”) for the other.  We have no evidence that Jacob actually harbored animosity towards Leah, the woman he was tricked into marrying.  But because he favored his first love Rachel, scripture describes his disfavor towards Leah as “hatred.” Despite the fact that God loves the whole world, we are told on at least two occasions that He loved Jacob and hated Esau. There is no doubt the Almighty cared for Esau and family too, but when He favored the descendants of Jacob, he showed disfavor for Esau and his tribe.

Loving Jesus more than yourself doesn’t literally demand hostility towards Self.  It simply means you are able to choose on pivotal occasions to favor the call of Christ over the demands of your flesh; to favor charity and compassion over self-fulfillment and self-indulgence.  Holiness is the discipline of shutting out all the voices of Self to hear the Spirit of God.

What secular cartoons cannot depict and secular Americans cannot fathom is the liberating power of learning to say No to yourself.  Rather than enduring the constant assault of raging impulses, we allow faith to usher us out of the emotional war room and lock the door.  Self-indulgence doesn’t satisfy for long because it merely conditions the voices to scream louder. Self-forgetfulness is the road to peace because it allows us to overlook the demands of self-fulfillment. It’s a by-product of the cross. It is the path to peace.

Take a break from your bratty emotions: say No to them all.

And lift up the Cross!

4 Reasons Moses is Still Amazing


Gods and Kings may yet turn out to be another holiday turkey.  Critics are already slamming it for being too long, too predictable, and badly acted.  If Noah taught us anything last spring, it was that Hollywood has the capacity to suck all the joy and most of the truth out of any biblical story!  But if you plan to catch the movie when it releases in a couple of weeks, here are four indisputable truths you should watch for.

1. The most amazing miracle in Exodus is the life of Moses, not the parting of the sea!  It took God just about 12 hours to create a path through the sea for the Israelites, but he had already devoted 80 years to developing Moses and bringing him to that unforgettable moment.  The Great Liberator was born to slaves who had no civil rights;  should never have survived his basket boat ride past the hungry crocodiles and clumsy hippos in the Nile River; and ultimately managed to defy the most powerful political leader in the ancient world and wreck the national economy as well.  He alone was able to meet with the invisible God face to face.  Compared to the life of Moses, the spectacle in the Red Sea was just theater.

2. Moses was not  a showman and did not want to lead this parade. When God came calling with a starring role in the drama of redemption, Moses politely asked to be excused- twice.  The man had always demonstrated a heart for underdogs and oppressed people, but he also had an explosive temper and enjoyed solitude. Plus he didn’t enjoy public speaking! It’s because he was so ill-suited to lead an uncooperative nation on foot through a blistering desert, that his success could only reflect the amazing power of the One True God.

3. The plague that turned the Nile to blood was not caused by natural forces. Skeptics and movie directors have suggested dozens of scenarios which might have logically turned the Nile red.  Gods and Kings envisions the historic waterway was flowing with blood after a battle.  Other researchers have imagined the river filled unexpectedly with crimson colored algae or the spillover of mud from a flood to the north.  But Exodus explains that even water already stored up in pots and basins also turned red.

4. God wanted to write a story that would reveal his unrivaled power and could be told and retold for centuries. He literally hardened the Pharaoh’s heart on several occasions so that the king would not surrender before the final act was done.  In our world where man-made wonders and historical high points are routinely eclipsed and forgotten by the next generation, the story of Exodus continues to be retold, celebrated, and dramatized over and over again just about 4,000 years later. That was the plan!

Enjoy the movie, but don’t forget to go back and read the book.  And lift up the cross!

Tag Cloud