In his classic book Holiness (you can read it here for free), J.C. Ryle, a 19th-century Anglican bishop who once thought Christianity “one of the most disagreeable occupations on earth, or in heaven,” tells the real life story about a perplexed, irreligious English traveler and a Native American convert to illustrate how those who know Christ as the Redeemer who paid for the forgiveness of their sins are compelled to tell others about him and what he’s done for them.
In the story the Englishman asks the Native American Christian why he “talks so much about Christ,” and the Native American man’s answer is a vivid, apt representation of what Christians believe Christ did, for those who would believe in him, by his death and resurrection. I believe his answer may also be a helpful illustration for those who have asked such questions as, Why won’t Christians stop talking about Jesus? Why don’t they keep their faith to themselves and why do they insist on telling others about things like sin, damnation, forgiveness, and…Jesus? Why are they so worked up or even obsessed about this man who died two thousand years ago? Read the Native American man’s answer, and then ask yourself: If you believed that God through Christ has done the same for you, wouldn’t you be wanting to tell the whole world about it?
“Man,” said a thoughtless, ungodly English traveller to a North American Indian convert, “Man, what is the reason that you make so much of Christ, and talk so much about Him? What has this Christ done for you, that you should make so much ado about Him?”
The converted Indian did not answer him in words. He gathered together some dry leaves and moss and made a ring with them on the ground. He picked up a live worm and put it in the middle of the ring. He struck a light and set the moss and leaves on fire. The flame soon rose and the heat scorched the worm. It writhed in agony, and after trying in vain to escape on every side, curled itself up in the middle, as if about to die in despair. At that moment the Indian reached forth his hand, took up the worm gently and placed it on his bosom. “Stranger,” he said to the Englishman, “Do you see that worm? I was that perishing creature. I was dying in my sins, hopeless, helpless, and on the brink of eternal fire. It was Jesus Christ who put forth the arm of His power. It was Jesus Christ who delivered me with the hand of His grace, and plucked me from everlasting burnings. It was Jesus Christ who placed me, a poor sinful worm, near the heart of His love. Stranger, that is the reason why I talk of Jesus Christ and make much of Him. I am not ashamed of it, because I love Him” (301).
In his book The Message of the New Testament (Crossway 2005) Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (full disclosure: I’m a member here and love it), helps us see how in the Gospel of Luke we encounter a Jesus whose manliness is expressed in a special concern for the vulnerable: namely, women and children. This is striking because it runs counter to the popular image of a “man’s man” who is usually surrounded by other “manly” (I use quotes not because I don’t believe men can be manly, but because the way manliness is often portrayed is so superficial) men and concerned with “more important” things than those affecting women and children. Keeping in mind that in Jesus the fullness of God was made manifest (Colossians 1:19), Jesus’s manliness is also a good reminder that women and children are of great importance to God, and that if they are not to us, then that is to our shame.
“Jesus did give much time to discipling men. Yet Luke’s Gospel shows he had great compassion and concern for women as well. To see this, consider first Luke’s attention to Jesus’s infancy and youth. He recounts the celebration shared by the two pregnant mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, as well as Mary’s song of praise following the angel’s amazing announcement. It is also hard to miss the fact that John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth, appears to have had more faith than his father, Zechariah. Mary’s faith is evident as well in her song of jubilation. She trusted and believed.
“…Chapter 10 highlights Mary and Martha’s friendship with Jesus. As Martha busied herself with meal preparations and Mary sat and listened to Jesus’s teaching, Jesus invited Martha to give attention to his teaching as well (10:38-42). Of course, inviting a woman to sit and learn was a radical idea in those days.
“…All told, Luke refers to more women than any other Gospel. This might reflect something about Luke, but it also reveals something of what Jesus considered important” (85-86).
Simply put, “Jesus taught and exemplified love and benevolence toward women when too often they had been ignored or abused in the name of religion” (87).
Jesus also showed a “special awareness of children”: “He healed children (8:41-42, 51-55). He said they should be welcomed (9:47-48). He described them as recipients of God’s grace in understanding (10:21). He even rebuked his disciples for keeping the children from him, and then pointed to them as models of trust (18:17; cf. 17:2).
“What other religious leader has been concerned with children? Perhaps you are a Buddhist or a Muslim, and you know of such stories involving Buddha or Muhammad. But I have not yet seen them, and I have looked for them. Jesus seems to have been unusual in his attitude towards children” (87).
In Can I Really Trust the Bible? (The Good Book Company, 2014), Barry Cooper offers a compelling series of arguments for the historical reliability and truth of the Bible. Cooper puts forth several types arguments – historical, logical, philosophical – but my favorite type of “evidence” he gives is the living testimony of those he calls “Bible-shaped” people. The best part of this for me is that I know many people like this. They’re many of the people at my church, and they were among those in the church where I used to attend before moving to the District. Some aren’t from my church but were part of the campus ministry my wife and I were part of in college. What they all share, as Cooper writes, is a love of God and others that is informed by what the Bible says about who God is and what he’s done for us in Christ. But enough of what I think. Below, see what these “Bible-shaped people” – who do exist! – are like:
“As people look for certainty that the Bible really is from God, they sometimes miss what seems – to me at least – to be very persuasive evidence.
“The most Bible-shaped people I know are a wonder to me. You don’t hear much about them in the media because their lives are self-sacrificial and other-centered. They love tirelessly and genuinely, in the background, under the radar. They want to find ways to encourage you or mourn with you or give you practical help. They are patient. They are kind. They take their Bibles seriously, but not themselves. They know how to laugh. Engage them in conversation, and they want to talk about you. They don’t pelt their Facebook feeds with mock-humble pronouncements of their own greatness. And when others say that Christians are bigoted or stupid, they don’t lose heart or respond with anger. They carry on, quietly loving and serving others.
“The most Bible-shaped people I know have been men and women who opened their homes and their lives to me. They spent time with me. Loved me when I was at my least lovable. Some of them, having no education to speak of, spoke with a wisdom that left me slack-jawed. During periods of depression, when I was seemingly unreachable, they sat patiently with me, they put their arms around me. They never lost patience, they never lost hope. They called me to throw off the sin that so easily entangles, but they weren’t shocked or self-righteous about any darkness they saw in me, because they acknowledged it in themselves. Love like that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. It isn’t self-seeking, or easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs.
“I’ve only ever seen love like that in two places. I’ve seen it in Jesus. And I’ve seen it in the most Bible-shaped people I know” (75-76).
BONUS: Here’s a funny promotional video of Barry Cooper talking about the book, the “most yellow” that’s ever been written.
Many religious and non-religious observers have said that one remarkable trait that separates us moderns from ancient peoples is our belief that we are basically good. We’ll readily agree that “no one’s perfect,” but other than that, most of us have a fundamentally good orientation and are of a wholly different moral and psychological make-up from a Hitler, or a serial killer, or a rapist. From a religious and specifically Christian perspective, then, we have no need to be forgiven, much less “saved” from anything, since we haven’t done anything terribly bad. I would argue that this view is dangerously mistaken, however, and the excerpt below from Mike McKinley’s Passion shows this error in stark contrast to what is true. There is a place in this (so far) excellent and short book where McKinley argues that because God is perfect and holy, his anger at human oppression and injustice is completely justified and righteous; indeed, God’s wrath is “actually part of His perfection – not a suspension of it.” He then argues that if people are made in God’s image, then we would expect this righteous anger to be expressed at times by people. To illustrate this, he tells:
“A friend of mine recently told me about a time in an east Asian nation where his hosts drove him into the capital city. As they entered the city, they were confronted by a long line of young girls, lined up by the side of the road. These girls had been sold into slavery as prostitutes (often by their parents), and they would spend their lives being used and abused until they were finally cast aside when they were no longer desirable. My friend described his feelings as he saw these girls: an anger, a rage in his heart that made him feel as if his chest was going to rip in two. “…If that goes for humans, it goes for the God who made humans, too… [And here is the key part for us] But where we really run into a problem, where we really object to God’s wrath and justice, is when it comes to us. We may be happy with a God who punishes the rapists and the murderers, but we aren’t happy with a God who punishes us. But where would you draw the line? How much should He tolerate from you? How much of your pride, anger, deceit, manipulation and selfishness do you think God should overlook?… The Bible tells us where God draws the line: He demands perfection” (18-19).
Athanasius (296-373) was an early Church Father known for his effective defense of orthodox doctrine against Arianism, a heresy that claimed Jesus was literally created by God the Father and therefore not divine. On this day before Christmas Eve, I thought it appropriate to share two brief excerpts from Athanasius’s classic On the Incarnation, a brilliant (and at only 60 pages, short!) treatise of the greatest miracle of all: The Almighty God’s taking on a human body, even a helpless infant, to obtain salvation for those who put their trust in him. On Christmas Day many of us will get gifts that, enjoyable and even useful as they may be, are nonetheless perishable and of little value to our souls. Before this time comes, let’s reflect on and give thanks to God for the one gift that surpasses them all: That of his Son, in whom there is not just life, but life everlasting and abundant.
“You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men” (4).
“The Word perceived that corruption [resulting from our transgression of God’s law] could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, he assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all…for naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required…for the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all” (12-13).
From J.D. Greear’s Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (B&H, 2011), this is a four-part prayer aimed at saturating oneself in the truths of the gospel. As he says, “There’s nothing magical about this prayer. It’s not an incantation to get God to do good things for you,” but “simply a tool to help you train your mind in the patterns of the gospel. The point is not the prayer; the point is thinking in line with the gospel” (40).
Pray this consistently, and watch how God transforms you:
“In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I have done that makes You love me less.”
“Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy.”
“As you have been to me, so I will be to others.”
“As I pray, I’ll measure Your compassion by the cross and Your power by the resurrection.”
One of the qualities of Christ that made him the most celebrated and universally admired, if not worshipped, persons in history was his example of personal humility and love, even toward those who hated and rejected him. Apart from questions about his divinity, through his life and death Christ changed the course of history, and others who’ve sought to imitate him – Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and Pope Francis today, for example – are also impacting their worlds and the course of history. Much of what they imitate are Christ’s “passive graces.”
When’s the last time you thought about the “passive graces”? If you’re anything like me, never, because you’ve never heard of the passive graces, and probably wouldn’t have, if you didn’t read someone like J.C. Ryle, the famous nineteenth-century bishop of Liverpool in the Church of England. In his classic 1877 book, Holiness (Charles Nolan, 2001), in the chapter on sanctification – the life-long process of becoming more like Christ – he writes about the need to give our attention to growing in the passive graces.
The passive graces are “those graces which are especially shown in submission to the will of God, and in bearing and forbearing towards one another.” For example, as opposed to actively doing something unto another, being patient and loving toward them even as they hurt you, or speak ill of you and inflict injustice upon you. The model, of course, is Christ – who submitted himself to the power of those who beat him and killed him, and even forgave them, for they “knew not what they did.”
Ryle further comments: “The passive graces are no doubt harder to attain than the active ones, but they are precisely the graces which have the greatest influence on the world. Of one thing I feel very sure – it is nonsense to pretend to sanctification unless we follow after the meekness, gentleness, long-suffering, and forgivingness of which the Bible makes so much” (35).
And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
I’ve read many good books this year, but none as powerful and challenging as Gary Haugen’s Just Courage (InterVarsity, 2008). Haugen is the president and CEO of International Justice Mission (IJM), a Christian human rights organization doing excellent work in the fight against human trafficking, sex slavery, and other forms of injustice. Through this inspirational and highly personal book, Haugen sounds an impassioned call for Christians to enter the fray in the struggle for justice. His argument is thoroughly grounded in Scripture, as well as on years of experience watching God work through rescue missions that pull the weak and vulnerable from the darkness. Below are some choice passages worth pondering:
“Deep within all of us there is a yearning to be brave. And like all of our deepest, truest and best yearnings, it comes from how we were made. Courage – the power to do the right thing even when it is scary and hard – resonates deeply with the original shape of the soul… When it comes to being brave, we should picture the courage of Jesus – the power to fearlessly speak the truth, the freedom to selflessly love, the strength to unflinchingly stretch oneself on a cross. And the truth is, in our deepest core we were actually made to be like that… Who we truly are and were meant to be is evidenced more by our yearnings than by our history” (104).
Haugen asks, how do we receive the grace of courage?
“For many of us the first step is…to acknowledge and receive our rescue by God… Will you really be significant if you own that? If you live there? If you get that position? If you are included in that group? Or is your significance established because the Creator of the universe made and redeemed you?” (105-106)
“Search the promises of Scripture and take a risk… Cling to the promises of Scripture. Take a risk and live as if they were true, for they are. Courage comes in doing a brave thing” (106-108).
“In presenting before us the struggle for justice, our Maker asks: Do you want to be brave, or do you want to be safe? Jesus wants us to realize that it’s a choice, and he wants to help us make the joyful choice. Most importantly, Jesus wants us to know that he takes care of us so well that it is actually safe to be brave” (109).
Will we settle for a comfortable and safe existence that demands little of us, or are we going to heed the call to be brave and play our part in the struggle for justice?