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Tim Keller: Preaching The Gospel in a Postmodern Culture – Session 5 Notes

GETTING DOWN TO EARTH – STRATEGIES FOR CHRIST CENTERED APPLICATION

Tim Keller preaching image

BY  TIMOTHY KELLER

INTRODUCTION

How do we ‘get down to earth’—bringing a text into direct contact with the hearts and lives practices of the listeners? And how do we do this in such a way that really changes the heart through the gospel rather through general moral exhortation? I will lay down three broad strategies for application that flow out of a redemptive-Historical approach.

Indeed, the second strategy (Aiming at Heart-Motives) flows directly out of the “Law Completion” way of Redemptive-Historical exposition.

A. CRITIQUE RELIGION AS WELL AS IRRELIGION

One of the most important ways to get a hearing from post-modern people and to wake up nominal or sleepy Christians is to preach the gospel as a “third” distinct way from both irreligion and religion.

Religion is ‘outside in’: “if I work hard according to biblical principles, then God will accept/bless me”. The gospel is ‘inside out’: “because God has accepted/blessed me, I work hard to live according to biblical principles”. Religion (explicitly in other faiths and implicitly in legalistic Christianity) makes moral/religious observance a means of salvation. Even people who believe in the Christian God can functionally ‘base their sanctification. Even people who believe in the Christian God can functionally ‘base their sanctification on their justification’ (Lovelace). Thus a prime need is to distinguish between general ‘religion’ and gospel Christianity as well overt irreligion. Why? (1) Many professed Christians aren’t believers—they are pure ‘elder brothers’ (Luke 15:11ff.) and only making this distinction can convert them. (2) Many, many real Christians are elder-brotherish—angry, mechanical, superior, insecure—and only making this distinction can renew them. (3) Modern and post-modern people have rejected religion for good reasons and will only listen to Christianity if they see it is different.

1. The two “thieves” of the gospel

Tertullian said, “Just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, so this doctrine of justification is ever crucified between two opposite errors.” Tertullian meant that there were two basic false ways of thinking, each of which “steals” the power and the distinctiveness of the gospel from us by pulling us “off the gospel line” to one side or the other. These two errors are very powerful, because they represent the natural tendency of the human heart and mind. These “thieves” can be called moralism on the one hand, and relativism on the other hand. (Note: Thinking in terms of the RHM, we can say that ‘legalism’ is an under-realized’ eschatology in which the presence of God’s future acceptance and vindication is not grasped, and anti-nomianism is an ‘over-realized’ eschatology in which the law and striving is not necessary).

Another way to put it is: the gospel opposes both religion and irreligion. On the one hand, “moralism/religion” stresses truth over grace, for it says that we must obey the truth in order to be saved. On the other hand, “relativists/irreligion” stresses grace over the truth, for they say that we are all accepted by God (if there is a God) and we have to decide what is true for us. But “truth” without grace is not really truth, and “grace” without truth is not really grace. Jesus was “full of grace and truth”. Any religion or philosophy of life that de-emphasizes or loses one or the other of these truths, falls into legalism or into license and either way, the joy and power and “release” of the gospel is stolen by one thief or the other. The real gospel gives us a God far more holy than a moralist can bear (since your morality is only a filthy rag before him) and far more loving than a relativist can imagine (since his love cost him dearly).

Since Paul uses a metaphor for being “in line” with the gospel, we can picture gospel renewal failing when we keep from walking “off-line” either to the right or to the left. However, before we start we must realize that gospel is not a half-way compromise between the two poles—it does not produce “something in the middle”, but something different from both. The gospel critiques both religion and irreligion (Matt. 21:31; 22:10).

In Galatians 2:14, Paul lays down a powerful principle. He deals with Peter’s racial pride and cowardice by declaring that he was not living “not in line with the truth of the gospel”. From this we see that the Christian life is a process of renewing every dimension of our life—spiritual, psychological, corporate, social—by thinking, hoping, and living out the “lines” or ramifications of the gospel. The gospel is to be applied to every area of thinking, feeling, relating, working, and behaving. Notice, Paul did not say, “you are breaking the no-racism law!” though that is perfectly true. However, it is not the best way to think. Paul asks neither “what is the moral way to act?” nor does he say “we don’t need to order our steps at all!” but rather asks: “what is the way to live that is in-line with the gospel?” The gospel must continually be “thought out” to keep us from moving into our habitual moralistic or individualistic directions. We must bring everything into line with the gospel.

The main problem, then, in the Christian life is that we have not thought out the deep implications of the gospel, we have not “used” the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel—a failure to grasp and believe it through and through. Luther says, “The truth of the Gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine…Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.” (on Galatians 2:14f).

2. ‘Two Thieves’ application.

So we see that we must move away from the typical ‘conservative evangelical’ preaching which basically says: “irreligion and immorality is bad; moral living is very good; Christianity is best.” Of course it is better to not rob and kill, whether you are a Christian or not! But gospel preaching is careful to show the ‘dark side’ of morality, so that non-Christians (who see the dangers of religiosity and self-righteousness) will realize the gospel is something else, and so that Christians will not be trapped in the lifelessness of moral self-effort. The following are some examples of how to treat subjects contrasted with both irreligion and religion.

a. Approach to discouragement. When a person is depressed, the moralist says, “you are breaking the rules—repent.” On the other hand, the relativist says, “you just need to love and accept yourself”. But (assuming there is no physiological base of the depression!) the gospel leads us to examine ourselves and say: “something in my life has become more important than Christ, a pseudo-savior, a form of works-righteousness”. The gospel leads us to repentance, but not to merely setting our will against superficialities. It is without the gospel that superficialities will be addressed instead of the heart. The moralist will work on behavior and the relativist will work on the emotions themselves.

b. Approach to love and relationships. Moralism often uses the procuring of love as the way to “earn our salvation” and convince ourselves we are worthy persons. That often creates what is called ‘co-dependency’—a form of self-salvation through needing people or needing people to save you (i.e. saving yourself by saving others). On the other hand, much relativism/liberalism reduces love to a negotiated partnership for mutual benefit. You only relate as long as it is not costing you anything. So the choice (without the gospel) is to selfishly use others or to selfishly let yourself be used by others. But in Christ we see a man who unconditionally sacrificed for us out of love for us (not need for us). When we get both the emotional-humility (who do I think I am?) and the emotional-wealth (he loves me like that!) we are moved to also humbly serve others, but not out of inappropriate need. We do sacrifice and commit, but not out of a need to convince ourselves or others we are acceptable. So we can love the person enough to confront, yet stay with the person when it does not benefit us.

c. Approach to suffering. Moralists believe that God owes them. The whole point of moralism is to put God in one’s debt. So when a moralist suffers, he must either fell mad at God (because I have been performing well) or mad at self (because I have not been performing well) on both. On the other hand, relativism/pragmatism feels always angry, claiming that God must be either unjust or impotent. But the cross shows us that we had a suffering God. But the gospel on the one hand takes away our surprise and pique over suffering. On the one hand, we see him suffering—without complaint—for us. So we know that we deserve to be eternally lost but by mercy we will never get what we deserve. This eliminates self-pity. On the other hand, we know God could not be punishing us for our sin—since Jesus paid for our sins, and God cannot receive two payments. That means whatever suffering we are receiving is not retribution, but instruction. If you face suffering with a clear grasp of justification by grace alone, your joy in that grace will deepen, but if you face suffering with a mindset of justification by works, the suffering will break you, not make you. “He suffered not that we might not suffer, but that in our suffering we could become like him.” Since both the moralist and the pragmatist ignore the cross in different ways, they will both be confused and devastated by suffering.

d. Approach to sexuality. The secularist/pragmatist sees sex an merely biological and physical appetite. The moralist tends to see sex as dirty or at least a dangerous impulse that leads constantly to sin. But the gospel shows us that sexuality is to reflect the self-giving of Christ. He gave himself completely without conditions. So we are not to seek intimacy but hold back control of our lives. If we give ourselves sexually we are to give ourselves legally, socially, personally—utterly. Sex only is to happen in a totally committed, permanent relationship of marriage.

e. Approach to one’s family. Moralism can make you a slave to parental expectations, while pragmatism sees no need for family loyalty or the keeping of promises and covenants if they do not “meet my needs”. The gospel frees you from making parental approval an absolute or psychological salvation, pointing how God becomes the ultimate father. Then you will neither be too dependent or too hostile to your parents.

f. Approach to other races and cultures. The liberal approach is to relativize all cultures. (“We can all get along because there is no truth”). The conservatives believe there is truth for evaluation of cultures, and so they choose some culture as superior and then they idolize it, feeling superior to others in the impulse of slef-justifying pride. The gospel leads us to be: a) on the one hand, somewhat critical of all cultures, including our own (since there is truth), but b) on the other hand, we are morally superior to no one. After all, we are saved by grace alone. Christians will exhibit both moral conviction yet compassion and flexibility. For example, gays are used to being “bashed” and hated or completely accepted.

g. Approach to witness to non-Christians. The liberal/pragmatic approach is to deny the legitimacy of evangelism altogether. The conservative/moralist person does believe in proselytizing, because “we are right and they are wrong”. Such proselytizing is almost always offensive. But the gospel produces a constellation of traits is us.

(1) First, we are compelled to share the gospel out of generosity and love, not guilt.

(2) Second, we are freed from fear of being ridiculed or hurt by others, since we already have the favor of God by grace.

(3) Third, there is a humility in our dealings with others, because we know we are saved only by grace alone, not because of our superior insight or character.

(4) Fourth, we are hopeful about anyone, even the “hard cases”, because we were saved only because of grace, not because we were likely people to be Christians.

(5) Fifth, we are courteous and careful with people. We don’t have to push or coerce them, for it is only God’s grace that opens hearts, not our eloquence or persistence or even their openness. All these traits not only create a winsome evangelist but an excellent neighbor in a multi-cultural society.

h. Approach to human authority. Moralists will tend to obey human authorities (family, tribe, government, cultural customs) too much, since they rely so heavily on their self-image of being moral and decent. Pragmatists will either obey human authority too much (since they have no higher authority by which they can judge their culture) or else too little (since they may only obey when they know they won’t get caught). That means either authoritarianism or anarchy. But the gospel gives you both a standard by which to oppose human authority (if it contradicts the gospel), but on the other hand, gives you incentive to obey the civil authorities from the heart, even when you could get away with disobedience.

i. Approach to guilt. When someone says, “I can’t forgive myself”, it means there is some standard or condition or person that is more central to your identity than the grace of God. God is the only God who forgives—no other “god” will. If you cannot forgive yourself, it is because you have failed your real God, your real righteousness, and it is holding you captive. The moralist’s false god is usually a God of their imagination which is holy and demanding but not gracious. The pragmatist’s false god is usually some achievement or relationship.

j. Approach to self-image. Without the gospel, your self-image is based upon living up to some standards—whether yours or someone’s imposed on you. If you live up to those standards, you will be confident but not humble. If you don’t live up to them, you will be humble but not confident. Only in the gospel can you be both enormously bold and utterly sensitive and humble. For you are both perfect and a sinner!

k. Approach to “right living.” Jonathan Edwards points out that “true virtue” is only possible for those who have experienced the grace of the gospel. Any person who is trying to earn their salvation does “the right thing” in order to get into heaven, or in order to better their self-esteem. In other words, the ultimate motive is self-interest. But persons who know they are totally accepted already do “the right thing” out of sheer delight in righteousness for its own sake. Only in the gospel do you obey God for God’s sake, and not for what God will give you. Only in the gospel do you love people for their sake (not yours), do good for its own sake (not yours), and obey God for his sake (not yours). Only the gospel makes “doing the right thing” a joy and delight, not a burden or a means to an end.

l. Approach to the poor. The liberal/pragmatist tend to scorn the religion of the poor and see them as helpless victims needing expertise. This is born out of disbelief in God’s common grace or special grace to all. Ironically, the secular mindset also disbelieves in sin, and thus anyone who is poor must be oppressed, a helpless victim. The conservative/moralists on the other hand tend to scorn the poor as failures and weaklings. They see them as somehow to blame for the situation. But the gospel leads us to be: a) humble, without moral superiority knowing you were “spiritually bankrupt” but saved by Christ’s free generosity, and b) gracious, not worried too much about “deservingness”, since you didn’t deserve Christ’s grace, c) respectful of believing poor Christians as brothers and sisters from whom to learn. Jesus himself came as a poor man. The gospel alone can bring “knowledge workers” into a sense of humble respect for and solidarity with the poor.

B. AIM AT HEART-MOTIVES UNDER (AS WELL AS) BEHAVIOR

We saw Martin Luther believed that self-justification (rather than Lord-justification) is the root of all sin. This means that there is a particular heart-motive ‘barrier’ under every sin, which is some form of unbelief in the gospel of Lord-justification. This means that we must ‘use the gospel’ each time we do application. We must show that some form of gospel-unbelief is at the root of why we do not live as we ought. We must renew the heart-motives with the gospel, not just with exhortation that focuses directly on the will.

1. Principles for Renewing the Heart with the Gospel.

a. The gospel offers not just forgiveness for our bad record, but also complete acceptance through Christ’s perfect record. Christ did not only die in our place but lived a perfect life in our place. Therefore we do not simply get forgiveness for sins from Christ, but also complete acceptance. His perfect past record now (in God’s sight) becomes ours.

b. There is no alternative to the gospel but works-righteousness. Both religion and irreligion are forms of it. Un-religious persons are struggling to achieve a “righteousness” through their own efforts, and religious persons are struggling to achieve a “righteousness” through their own efforts. So fundamentally, they are no different.

c. All sin is therefore ultimately rooted in ‘idolatry”, pseudo-salvation, false trusts or ‘lords’ caused by works-righteousness. The ultimate reason for any sin is that something besides Christ is functioning as an alternative “righteousness” or source of confidence—and is thus an “idol”, a pseudo-savior, which creates inordinate desires.

d. All of life is repentance—not just for sins, but also for our false “righteousness(es)”. Any failure of actual righteousness is always a failure to live in accordance with our imputed righteousness. We make something besides Jesus our real hope and life. So believing the gospel means to repent, not just for our sins, but the particular (self) righteousness(es) underlying our behavior. That is the secret of change.

e. Gospel repentance creates a whole new motivation in our relationship to God, to others, to ourselves, and to our life in the world. Only through the gospel is there a new sense of delight in and service to God for the beauty of who he is in himself, not for what he gives you. That frees us to love others and do good deeds for their own sake, and not for how they profit us.

f. Therefore, the gospel is not only the way to enter the kingdom, but also the way to advance (in) the kingdom.

2. A Basic Outline for Aiming at the Heart as well as Behavior.

The following may actually be four points in a presentation, or they may be treated very quickly as the last point of a sermon. But more generally, this is a foundational outline for the basic moral reasoning and argument that lies at the heart of the application.

a. The Plot winds up: WHAT YOU MUST DO.

“This is what you have to do! Here is what the text/narrative/story tells us that we must do or what we must be.”

b. The Plot thickens: WHY YOU CAN’T DO IT.

“But you can’t do it! Here are all the reasons that you will never become like this just by trying very hard.”

c. The Plot resolves: HOW HE DID IT.

“But there’s one who did. Perfectly. Wholly. Jesus the–. He has done this for us, in our place.”

d. The Plot winds down: HOW, THROUGH HIM, YOU CAN DO IT.

“Our failure to do it is due to our functional rejection of what he did. Remembering him frees our heart so we can change like this…”

Discussion:

a) In every text of the Scripture there is somehow a moral principle. It may grow out of because of what it shows us about the character of God or Christ, or out of either the good or bad examples of characters in the text, or because of explicit commands, promises, and warnings. This moral principle must be distilled clearly.

b) But then a crisis is created in the hearers as the preacher shows that his moral principle creates insurmountable problems. The sermon shows how this practical and moral obligation is impossible to meet. The hearers are led to a seemingly dead end.

c) Then a hidden door opens and light comes in. The sermon moves both into worship and into Christ-application when it shows how only Jesus Christ has fulfilled this. If the text is narrative, you can show how Christ is the ultimate example of a particular character. If the text is didactic, you can show how Christ is the ultimate example of the principle.

d) finally, we show how our inability to live as we ought stems from our rejection of Christ as the Way, Truth, and Life (or whatever the theme is). The sermon points out how to repent and rejoice in Christ in such a way that we can live as we ought.

CASE STUDY #1

If I preached a sermon on “honesty”, I could show the forms of dishonesty and how harmful it is, and how we need to ask God to help us be honest. But it I stopped there (and merely called people to ask forgiveness for lying and try harder to be honest), I would only be playing to the heart’s natural self-righteousness. I would be essentially supporting the growth of ‘common morality’ in the people. Those who would be convicted by the sermon would feel guilty and burdened. Those who had not lied lately would be smug. I should admit that nearly every sermon I ever preached on honesty/lying up to my first 15 years in the ministry was like this! Even though I knew (via Ed Clowney) that I had to preach Christ and not moralism from every text, I really just made Jesus an “add-on”. I didn’t apply him as Savior to the actual sin of lying, but to the aftermath only. My sermon would go like this:

I. Here are all the ways we lie, and why they are forbidden.

II. We should not lie, because Jesus told the truth and kept his promises (Jesus as Example).

III. If we do lie, Jesus will forgive us and help us do better (Jesus as God-of-gaps).

In other words, I used Jesus as an example, and then as someone who forgives us when, though we try very hard, we sometimes fail. This essentially tells people to sanctify themselves. It implicitly appeals to fear and/or pride as motives for honesty.

But in gospel analysis we ask the question: “why do you lie in a particular situation?” The usual reason we lie is because there is something we feel that we simply must have (besides Jesus) to survive and be truly happy, and so we lie. It is usually a good reputation, or saving face, or approval, or some other thing. I first came to understand this when I realized that my wife and I tend to ‘fudge’ the truth in very different circumstances. I realized that the underlying reason that I lied/deceived was a fear of people’s disapproval.

Using “Luther-ist” analysis, I was trusting in the approval of people rather than in Christ as my functional trust, as my main hope. But anything you add to Jesus Christ as a requirement for a happy life is a functional salvation, a pseudo-lord, and it is controlling you, whether it be power, approval, comfort or control. So the only way to change your habit of lying is to (not just try harder) but to apply the gospel—to repent of your failure to believe the gospel, and see that you are not saved by pursuing this thing (which you are lying to get), but through the grace of Jesus Christ.

Alternatives – What are the alternatives? Type #1 – On the one hand, there is a “Christ as Example” or ‘moralistic’ sermon that says—“please try harder or God will be very unhappy!” Type #2 – On the other hand, there is a “Christ as God-of-Gaps” or ‘relativistic’ sermon that says—“we all fall down but God loves us anyway!” (Many people today in the Reformed camp smell that ‘church growth’ theory has led us to more ‘relativistic’ sermons in the evangelical world. But are we just to go back to the moralistic ones?).

Instead we must do “Christ-as-Savior” or “gospel” sermons. Unlike “Type #2” sermons, they begin with deep, below the surface repentance, not a superficial application of “Jesus loves you anyway”. Unlike “Type #1” sermons, they end with rejoicing, since the thing we must repent of is always a failure to enjoy, delight in, and relish the grace and provision of Christ’s work. So this is how I learned to preach sermons on lying—or anything else. No matter what the issue, if we call people to “try harder”, we actually push them deeper into slavery, but when we always solve the problem by applying the gospel, then both a) non-Christians get to hear it every week in multiple perspectives, and b) Christians get to see how it really works in every aspect of life.

Sum: Only “Christo-centric” preaching can really lead the hearers to true virtue, gospel holiness. Typical preaching only distills “biblical principles” which do not see the text in its redemptive-historical context. Thus it is only natural that the application part of such a sermon will tend to merely exhort people to conform to the principles. Only Christo-centric preaching can produce gospel holiness.

Case Study #2

A Sermon on the power of sexual/beauty’s attraction in our culture.

I. What you must do: The power of physical beauty over us must be broken. Look at the devastation in our society and in our lives. 1) It distorts women’s view of themselves (add eating disorders); 2) It demoralizes aging people; 3) It distorts men’s lives, by making them reject great spouse-prospects for superficial reasons (add pornography). What must we do? Don’t judge a book by its cover. Be deep. Don’t be controlled.

II. But you can’t: You know quite well we won’t be able to. Why? 1) First, we desire physical beauty to cover our own sense of shame and inadequacy. Genesis 3. “When you look good you feel good about yourself” really = …”you feel yourself to be good.” 2) Second, we are afraid of our mortality and death. Evolutionary biologists and Christians together agree that the drive to have physical beauty is a desire for youth. We’ll never overcome our problem by just “trying”.

III. But there was one who did. There was one who was beautiful beyond bearing yet willingly gave it up (Philippians 2). He became ugly that we might become beautiful (Isaiah 53).

IV. Only now we can change. Only as we see what Jesus did for us will our hearts be melted and freed from the belief that we can judge a book by its cover. Only when we can be in Him will be freed from our sense of shame and fear of mortality (You want the non-Christians to wish it were true even if they don’t believe it yet).

LOOK AT THE TEXT THROUGH THREE APPLICATION PERSPECTIVES

What the “Three Perspectives” are.

Vern Poythress in God-centered Interpretation takes John Frame’s 3 perspectives of normative (prophetic), existential (priestly), and situational (kingly) and works this out for hermeneutics. He says that when interpreting the text, you do not know the meaning of a text unless you understand its author’s original historic sense (normative), its application to the hearers (existential), and its place in the history of redemption (situational). If you use one of these three aspects, you make it an idol and it leads to distortions.

However, once you ‘go into’ the application to the hearers, you again have the three perspectives. Again, if you only use one the aspects, you make it an idol and it leads to distortions. He calls these distortions—the “Doctrinalist’ (mainly normative), ‘Pietist’ (mainly existential), and ‘Cultural-transformationalist’ (mainly kingly).

a. A ‘Doctrinalist’ looks to a text to see how it supports sound doctrine. This person makes the Enlightenment mistake that you can have objective knowledge without it being personal. The Reformed way to put this – is that all knowledge is ‘covenantal’. (See Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority and Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God). Their basic gist is this: no part of revelation is given simply to be known. Everything that is revealed is revealed for covenant service (Deut. 29:29). There is no neutrality—you are either in covenant service to God as you look at the world or in covenant service to some other Lord. Thus Frame in “God in our Studies” in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, pp. 81-84 is able to say that the way the Lord has structured knowledge so that you can understand God’s truth if know yourself, and your world, as well as the biblical text. The three perspectives “co-inhere’. You can’t really know what a biblical text means unless you also know how it is to affect the world and you. In short, if I don’t know how to use a text, I don’t know it’s meaning—so the difference between ‘meaning’ and ‘application’ is meaningless.

Many evangelicals, especially in the Reformed camps are afraid of subjectivism and of being ‘man-centered’. They want to simply “expound what the divine biblical text says, without regard to ‘felt needs’ or human concerns.” But that is impossible. The minute the doctrinalist starts reading a text, he is doing so with particular questions on his heart—the last Presbytery debate he was at, the last books he read, a particular cultural problem—and thus the reader finds in the Scripture the answers to the questions on his heart. If the Bible is a covenantal revelation—if, in fact, if all knowledge is covenantal—done in moral commitment to some ‘lord’ so that no such thing as neutral, value-free ‘fact’—then application to felt needs is happening in every interpretation and preaching. So you better do it consciously, to the people in front of you, or you will only be pleasing your self or even solving your own problems in the pulpit and starving everyone else.

b. A ‘Pietist” tends to look at every text as it relates to people psychologically and devotionally. The text is applied to answer the questions: How does this help us relate to the Lord? How does it help our prayer life? How does it show us how to live in the world? How does this help the non-believer find Christ? How does this help me handle my personal problems? The pietist is the best of the three at looking for ways to preach a text evangelistically and bring it to bear on the individual’s heart and conscience in order to get a ‘decision’. Also, the pietist is constantly aware of how Christians are loosing their internal spiritual grip on the doctrine of free justification and may be ‘returning to the bondage’ (Galatians 5:1) to false savior-gods (Galatians 4:8).

c. A Cultural-transformationist tends to look at the text as it relates to corporate and cultural issues, such as social justice and econmic fairness and Christian community building. The ‘Great Reversal’ of the cross means that the gospel proclaims a complete reversal of the values of the world—power, recognition, status, wealth. For example, the gospel is especially welcomed by the poor and for the poor (Luke 4:18 – He anointed me…to preach the gospel to the poor.” Cf. also Luke 7:22). Preaching the gospel and healing people’s bodies are closely associated (Luke 9:6). Jesus points to the coming kingdom of God that will renew all of creation. The gospel creates a people with a whole alternate way of being human. Racial and class superiority, accrual of money and power at the expense of others, yearning for popularity and recognition—all these things are marks of living in the world, and are the opposite of the mindset of the kingdom (Luke 6:20-26). The cultural-transformationist looks at all things with this perspective.

So the doctrinalist reads Luke 4:31-37 and says: “This passage teaches the deity of Christ and demonstrates his sovereignty over evil spirits and also shows the grace of God toward people in bondage to sin.” The pietist looks at the same passage and says: “this passage teaches that Jesus can solve my problems if I let him and also that once I am delivered I have to tell my friends.” The cultural-transformationist reads the passage and says: “this passage shows Christ as an active power in the world, transforming the world, liberating people from oppressive structures” (See Poythress, pp. 1-4).

We need all three perspectives when thinking about writing application. Orthodox people are sensitive to ‘therapeutic’ and ‘liberationist’ idolatries. But they tend to cling to old Enlightenment idolatries themselves into a ‘doctrinalist’ idolatry. Since by temperament, we all have our ‘bent’, we should force ourselves to look at a text through all three application ‘perspectives’. When we do so, we will often see many rich possible uses of a text that otherwise we would miss.

2. The Three Perspectives and the question of ‘What is the Gospel’?

a. The Discussion. There is a rather significant and growing controversy going on about ‘what is the gospel?’ in evangelical circles today. Many people are saying that the traditional evangelical gospel is too ‘individualistic’ because it left out the ‘kingdom of God’. More and more are saying, “the gospel is the good news of the reign of God, not the good news that you can have personal forgiveness and peace with God.” (Much of this sort of language is inspired by the writings of Lesslie Newbigin, N.T. Wright, and the ‘Gospel and Our Culture Network’).

This kind of talk is both helpful and misleading. It is quite true that traditional evangelicalism has been individualistic, largely because of a lack of orientation to the redemptive-Historical perspective. It is quite true that ‘the kingdom’ is essential to the gospel. For example, the very concept of simul Justus et peccator—simultaneously legally ‘just’ and yet actually ‘sinful’, the very heart of Luther’s gospel—is based largely on the ‘already but not yet’ of the kingdom of God.

Justification by faith is possible because of the presence now of the future verdict upon God’s people on judgment day. When we are ‘born again’, we are born into the kingdom (John 3:1ff). So if you leave the kingdom of God out of the gospel preaching, you are being misleading. However, it may also be quite misleading for a preacher to simply say, “the good news is that the reign of God is here!” That can become a new moralism (a socially activistic moralism) that tells people “God’s program of creation renewal is going on, and you can join it.” But how does a person join it? By ‘getting with the program’ in some general way? By getting baptized and beginning to live according to kingdom values? This may end up being a new kind of self-effort. I doubt that preaching simply “the good news is the reign of God” is going to lead people to respond, “My chains fell off; my heart was free. I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”

b. Three Perspectives on the Gospel. I think it is important to see that the gospel itself (just like the Tri-une God) should be understood through three perspectives as well. Each perspective is true in that it eventually comprises the whole, but each approach begins with a particular ‘door’ or aspect.

The ‘normative’ aspect I’ll call “the gospel of Christ” – stresses the objective, historic work of Christ that Jesus really came in time-space and history to accomplish all for us. It will talk much about the real, historicity of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection (John Stott). This view thinks that the problem addressed by Paul in Galatians was a doctrinal heresy.

The ‘existential’ aspect I’ll call “the gospel of sonship” stresses our new identity in Christ as adopted children, liberated from the law. It will talk much of the power of the spirit to renew broken hearts and psyches (Jack Miller). This view thinks that the problem addressed by Paul in Galatians was a pastoral one of Christians falling back into legalism.

The ‘situational’ aspect I’ll call “the gospel of the kingdom” – stresses the reversal of values in the new creation. It will talk about healed community, cultural transformation, ministry of deed and justice (Harvie Conn). This view thinks that the problems addressed by Paul in Galatians was the lack of ‘table fellowship’ between Jew and Gentile.

We need all three perspectives, though each perspective is not simply a ‘part’ of the gospel. For example, the ‘kingdom’ perspective contains the other two. If God is king, then salvation must be by grace, for if we are saved by works, something else will be our Lord and Savior. Or, if we have a new identity in Christ by sheer grace, then we must not look down at anyone else, and self-justification is the basis of racism and injustice. If you go deep enough into any one perspective, you will find the other two.

What is ‘the Problem’? There is a great danger of getting locked into only one perspective because we get obsessed with some too-sweeping analysis of what the main problem “in our world today”. (1) If you think that subjectivism in society is the problem you will do the gospel of X and fear that sonship-gospel and the kingdom-gospel sound too much like the ‘liberal’ ideas. (2) If think that Pharisaical objectivism is the problem, you will do the sonship-gospel with more emphasis on personal individual emotional freedom. (3) If you think the main problem we face is old Enlightenment individualism, you will do the gospel of the kingdom with more emphasis on working together sacrificially to transform through the power of the gospel. But aren’t we facing all these problems?

Remember also that different groups and classes of people are in different conditions. With traditional cultures, the traditional evangelical gospel good, as it builds on a desire for historical evidence and a sense of ‘truth’. Traditional cultures (with their share of ‘failed Pharisees’) often respond well to the sonship-gospel, as may ‘post-modern’ people who have a desire for freedom. Many groups with a high ‘people-consciousness’ such as minorities will respond better to the kingdom-gospel, as will many post-modern people who think more so in terms of ‘sociology’ than psychology (identity politics).

So we should be careful. Most of us are ‘in reaction’ to some approach to the gospel we think is unbalanced. We must not over-react by getting ‘stuck’ in one perspective.

3. Case Study: Application for the Story of Esther

a. God calls us to serve Him in intensely secular settings (Cultural Transformationist). This message is similar (but stronger!) as that of the accounts of Joseph and Daniel. We learn here how a believer can be effectively used by God in the heart of secular and pluralistic culture, even in the centers of its power. In all three accounts, we learn of Jewish figures who rise to power in an unbelieving society through their skills and talents—and then use their places to save their people.

This is a threatening message to many Christians today. There has always been a strong tendency among orthodox believers toward separation from the polluted, unclean, and morally/spiritually ‘messy’ arenas of politics, business, government, and so on. But Esther is a concubine, a member of a harem!

“Let Esther’s harem represent every unclean political or commercial institution or structure where evil reigns and must be confronted. Believers are needed there…Our cities are full of dens of iniquity. Our culture is described as essentially post-Christian, secular, and often antithetical to biblical values and hostile to biblical virtues…[But] Esther gives us permission to reflect on our call to serve God within the matrix of a modern secular…system…How could God call Esther to be the interracial replacement spouse of a polygamous, pagan Persian king? …This book is off the screen for many evangelicals…We urban people need Esther now more than ever. Never allow it to be trivialized or spiritualized away, as it has been so often…” (Ray Bakke, A Theology as Big as the City, IVP, 1997).

b. God calls us not only to change individuals, but change society and culture (Cultural-transformationist). In each case we’ve looked at in this course—Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—God called someone to work for just laws and policies in a secular society. It is common for modern Christians to insist that the only way to change society is to convert and disciple individuals. If that is all there is to be done, then the ‘higher’ calling would be to go into Christian ministry. But the Bible shows us people who God also calls to work for social and “systemic” justice and peace in society. Esther used her position to have an unjust law repealed.

Ray Bakke reminds us that we must read Esther ‘synoptically’ with Ezra and Nehemiah (A Theology as Big as the City, p. 106). These three Jewish ‘heroes’ had three very different callings. Ezra was a clergyman, who taught the Bible to the restored community in Jerusalem. Nehemiah was a lay person who used his skill to literally rebuild the wall and infra-structure of Jerusalem to insure safe streets and a decent economy. Esther, meanwhile, used her position to work for just laws in the secular realm. Only all three people, working together, were able to rebuild Jerusalem into a viable city. One did evangelism/discipleship (working on spiritual welfare), one did community development (working on the social and economic welfare), one did social justice (creating laws that were just and allowed the community to grow). This was not only a lay-clergy leadership team, but a male-female leadership team.

This means that we will never see God’s kingdom move forward with only evangelism and discipleship. We must also do ‘wholistic’ ministry that works on behalf of the poor and at-risk neighborhoods, and we must also have Christians in ‘secular’ jobs working with excellence, integrity, and distinctiveness. We need Ezra ministry, Nehemiah ministry, and Esther ministry—all together—if we are going to ‘win’ our society for Christ.

c. God is the only real King (Doctrinalist).

We have noted that God’s name is never directly mentioned, why? The teaching is: God is sovereignly in control, even when he appears to be completely absent. The dramatic tension in the book revolves around a threat to the very existence of the Jews. If we put the book in its total biblical context, we know that this is really a threat to the whole plan of God to redeem the world by grace. Genesis 12:1-3 tells us that God planned to bring salvation into the world through a family and a people, descended from Abraham. Abraham’s people were to be guardians of both the true faith and the “Messianic seed” which would one day produce a savior who would redeem the world. A threat to the Jewish nation was, therefore, an attack by the world on God’s redemptive plan. However, largely through a set of “coincidences”, the Jews are saved. God’s plan to save the world through grace is intact.

“What the writer of Esther has done is to give us a story in which the main actor is not so much as mentioned—the presence of God is implied and understood throughout the story, so that these mounting coincidences are but the by-product of his rule over history and his providential care for his people. It is an extraordinary piece of literary genius that this author wrote a book about the actions and rule of God from beginning to end, and yet that God is not named on a single page of the story” (Dillard, p. 196).

What a vivid way to teach us that God is always present, even when he seems most absent and his purposes most ‘opaque’! The message of the book is that God’s plan of grace/salvation cannot fail, and though he may appear to be completely absent, he is really behind everything, working out His plan.

Because of this theme, the writer contrasts two conflicting world-views—that of Haman and that of Mordecai. Haman believes in chance-fate. He casts lots to determine the best time to annihilate the Jews (3:7-11). He thinks he can control history by the exercise of his power. The other world-view is that of Mordecai. He believes that there is a divine presence over-ruling history (4:14) who can use us if we make ourselves available to him, but whose plan is not dependent on nor thwarted by human power. “The book sets the two world-views in contrast and shows by the outcome which is to be preferred” (Baldwin, p. 38).

Nevertheless, we are taught that God’s sovereignty is not determinism. When the story is over, it will be possible to look back and see that so much of what happened was due to a divine power behind even the most mundane ‘accidents’. Yet the narrator does not depict a kind of fatalistic determinism. Our choices are not determined apart from the responsible exercise of our will. Esther will have to risk her life and act courageously if the salvation of her people will be realized. We are not just passive pawns in God’s plan.

d. Human strength is weakness and weakness can be strength (Pietist).

Recent commentators have noticed the weakness of men and the power of women in the book. In contrast to the huge show of power in his great feast, the drunken Xerxes tries to humiliate his wife who in turn humiliates him. In response, he decrees that all men should control their wives when he can’t control his own. The decree, evidently made when he was still drunk, only makes him look foolish. Later he appears to regret it on several fronts.

Not only is he ‘bested’ by his first queen, the rest of the book shows him being ‘bested’ by his next queen. While the king is revealed to be ill-informed, forgetful, impulsive, unjust, and unwise, his queen Esther is seen to be a brave, take-charge, focused, wise, and just person. Not only Vashti and Esther, but Haman’s wife Zaresh appear as ‘strong and shrewd’ while all the men (except Mordecai) appear vain and foolish.

Esther, of course, is the person who most of all stands the world’s expectations on their head. First, she was an orphan, without father or mother (2:7). Orphans are one of the most oppressed, powerless groups (cf. James 1:27). Second, she was a woman, and not a powerful or wealthy woman, but a concubine, the member of a harem. In the process of the narrative, however, she ascends from being an orphan and Mordecai’s protégé to being a queen of a great power, who makes plans and takes decisive leadership and who in the end is her uncle’s guardian. Originally, her physical beauty won the king’s heart, but 2:15 indicates that her character and behavior had won the attraction of the rest of the court as well. Esther comes from the outside margins of society and is used by God to do redemption. So again we see a very prominent theme in the Bible. God does not work through the channels that the world considers strong and powerful. Instead, He works through groups (women, racial minorities) who seem powerless. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

In a related theme, we learn that ‘the one who would lose himself will find himself’. We learn that evil sets up strains in the fabric of life and backfires on the perpetrator, while faithfulness to God is also wise. Haman, who intends to destroy Mordecai and his kin, ultimately destroys only himself and his kin. This theme is especially achieved through the literary device of irony. The gallows that Haman builds for Mordecai becomes his own place of execution. Haman seeks to plunder the wealth of the Jews, but it is his wealth that falls into their hands. The reversal of role and fortune that occurs so often in the Bible eventually finds its fullest expression in Jesus, who was exalted because He stooped so low. At the same time Satan is brought low because he sought exaltation.

Sum—Do what you can to penetrate the culture. Don’t live in a ghetto!—and when there, serve the Lord. Serve your people. Serve the interest of justice! Don’t be afraid to lose your power, even your life, for God is the real king! Don’t be seduced by human power, beauty, and acclaim!

‘WHY YOU CAN’T DO IT”

Now how can you do it all? You can’t! if we end the sermon right here, we’ll all be in despair. You don’t have the courage to do this. You may get excited today about doing this, but your courage will evaporate quickly. And you may decide you are going to make all the risks that Esther made, but when it comes down to it, you aren’t going to risk your influence and money and status to help people in needs. You just won’t have the ability to do so.

“BUT THERE IS ONE WHO DID DO THIS”

You have to often go into the palace—but not be tempted by the palace! You’ve got to be willing to leave the palace in order to serve your Lord! Ah, but why can’t we? We are enthralled by the acclaim and glory of the palace! How to free ourselves? Esther’s great temptation, once she comes into a place of luxury, comfort, and privilege, is to hold on to that position to the detriment of her people. When by God’s grace we come into such a standing, we may be seduced by it. Mordecai had to challenge Esther and force her to see her choices. Salvation comes through Esther only when she is willing to give up her place in the palace and take her life into her own hands and risk it all in order to intercede before the throne of power. Again we see that redemption comes not by gaining but by losing, not by filling oneself, but by emptying oneself.

We also see, over and over, that we need a deliverer who identifies with us and that stands as our representative—as in the career of Joseph in Egypt, David before Goliath. So in this story we are led to see Jesus, who did not need a challenge to leave his place of power, who saved us not at the risk of his glory but at the cost of his glory, who did not say, “if I perish, I perish” but “when I perish, I perish”, who had to die in order to stand before the throne as our intercessor (Heb. 7:24-25). But the “rest” that Jesus brings is not one that gives us rest from enemies by killing them, but by winning them. After the cross, we pray for our enemies. Jesus has brought the barrier down between Jew and Gentile, Saul and Amalek. We learn—Salvation “rest” comes by the sacrifice and intercession of another. We have one who was in the greatest palace of all, but who did not just serve his God at the risk of losing the palace, but at the cost His own life.

Source: Tim Keller – Personal Notes taken from Lecture at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando in the early 2000’s

 

 

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Full of Grace and Truth

grace and truth

By Kevin DeYoung

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

We need to be grace people and truth people. Not half grace and half truth. Not all grace on Mondays and all truth on Tuesdays. All grace and all truth all the time.

When I was being interviewed to be the pastor at University Reformed Church, I had to indicate where I was on a spectrum of issues. One of the lines measured grace versus truth. I wrote something like: “This is a bad question. Seeing as how Jesus came from the Father full of grace and truth, I believe we should be 100% in both directions.” I think they knew it was a loaded question and wanted to see my response.

“Or” Is Not an Option

By personality and upbringing and a whole bunch of other factors most of us lean in one direction or the other.

Grace people are pleasant to be around. They don’t ruffle any feathers. They cut us a lot of slack. They’re easy going. They accept us for who we are. They don’t make demands. They are always welcoming. But without truth, grace isn’t really grace, it’s just being accepting and nice. But affirmation and being grace-filled are not the same thing.

Grace people without truth are pleasant to be around, but we wonder if they really like us or if they are just trying to be liked. They are tolerant, but they often do not know the difference between right and wrong. Or they don’t care to line up one way or the other. Grace people can be cowardly. They often refuse to make tough decisions in life. They demand nothing from others and get nothing in return. They accept us for who we are, but they never help us become who we should be.

And then there are truth people. Truth people are easy to admire. They have convictions and principles. They believe in right and wrong. They set standards. They speak out against injustice, oppression, and evil. They are articulate and well-spoken. But without grace, telling the truth can become an excuse for belligerence.

Truth people without grace are loyal to their cause, but we wonder if they are really loyal to us. They want to change us and make us better, but they don’t allow for mistakes. They are quick to cast judgment on others. They make difficult decisions, but they also make life difficult for others and for themselves. They can be slow to forgive. They inspire us with their courage, but turn us off with their intimidation.

If you are a grace person you are most concerned about being loved. If you are a truth person you are most concerned about being right even it means being unloved. Both have their dangers. Something is wrong if everyone hates you, and something is probably just as wrong if if everyone loves you.

Grace and Truth Walked Among Us

Jesus was all grace. He welcomed sinners and tax collectors and ate with them. He had compassion on the crowds when they were hungry and far from home. He welcomed the little children to come and sit on his lap-gentler and kinder than any department store Santa. He healed the lepers, the lame, and the blind. He saved the criminal on the cross, who, in his dying breath, confessed that the dying man next to him was truly the Son of God.

And Jesus was all truth. He condemned many of the religious leaders of his day for being liars and hypocrites. He talked about hell more than he talked about heaven. He called all his those who would be his disciples to take up their cross daily and follow him. He prophesied judgment on Jerusalem for their unrepentant hearts. He obeyed the law, set standards, and demanded everything from his followers, even their very lives.

Jesus came from the Father full of grace and truth. All grace, all truth, all the time.

But he didn’t come simply to give us an example of grace and truth. He came to save us in grace and truth. It’s only after we’ve been saved and made right with God, the God says, “Alright, now that I have saved through Jesus, you need to know that I have saved you to look like Jesus.” The motivation to be full of grace and truth is not because we need to earn God’s favor, but because being a follower of Jesus Christ, means we look like the one we follow.

We desperately need grace in our lives. We need to hear from Jesus “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28) We need to know that God doesn’t expect us to clean up our act before we come to him. He implores us to come, now, today, just as we are–in brokenness, in pain, in humility, in repentance, and in faith. We need to hear that wayward children, who have squandered their inheritance and lived an immoral, rebellious life, can come home into the arms of their heavenly Father (Luke 15:20).

And we desperately need truth in our lives. We need to hear from Jesus “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). And we need to hear from Jesus what this saying really means: “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin…But if the Son sets you free you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). We need someone as gracious as Jesus to tell us the truth: you are not okay. You do not need to push away those feelings of guilt that weigh you down. You are guilty. And anyone who tells you otherwise, is not telling you the truth. And because they won’t tell you the truth, you won’t experience the grace you need.

We need truth. We need grace. We need Jesus.

Only Jesus Christ lived in perfect grace and perfect truth.

Only Jesus Christ can save hard-hearted, hard-headed sinners full of lies and deserving judgment.

And only by union with Jesus Christ, can we grow in the same truth and grace that walked among us in the miracle of the incarnation.

Source: thegospelcoalition.org (June 3, 2014)

 
3 Comments

Posted by on June 4, 2014 in Sanctification

 

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Book Review – Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad At You by Steve Brown

Why It’s Bad Trying So Hard To Be Good

I’m pretty sure I’ve read every book that Steve Brown has written and I love them all. So I was anxiously anticipating this new book with the “scandalous” title. Steve Brown is NOT a proponent of “cheap grace,” he understands justification by faith alone as well, or perhaps better than most theologians do. Steve Brown writes with his characteristic blend of humor and authentic seriousness about living the abundant life that Jesus came to bring us by helping the reader understand and apply two important truths related to the gospel stated by the late Jack Miller as follows:

“(1) Cheer up…you’re a lot worse than you think you are, and

(2) cheer up…God’s grace is a lot bigger than you think it is.”

These two truths are developed eloquently and cogently throughout the book. In typical Brown-like fashion this book is full of biblical principles, powerful illustrations, and practical examples that will help you become less of a self-righteous Pharisee, and more like Jesus – full of joy, freedom, laughter, and basking in grace and truth.

Some of the specific issues Brown addresses in this book are as follows: perfectionism, self-righteousness, legalism, anger, repentance, unity in the body of Christ, pride and humility, religiosity, honesty, freedom, grace, and truth.

In the very last chapter he specifically answers some of the questions he gets due to his many books, sermons, and speaking on freedom and grace through justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ:

(1) Are you crazy?

(2) Why do you persist in irritating everybody? Free sins? That’s outrageous! Why don’t you write and teach in a normal way?

(3) There are a lot of examples in the Bible that show God’s wrath, and yet you say that God isn’t angry at his people. Are you sure you haven’t gotten it wrong?

(4) What’s hermeneutics? (Brown relates this to question 3 above)

(5) Okay, but what about obedience?

(6) Is holiness and sanctification irrelevant?

(7) What about discipline? You very conveniently avoid Hebrews 12:7. It says in case you don’t know, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?

(8) You don’t seem to care much for excellence nor do you have a very high view of human nature. Don’t you think you’ve gone a bit too far?

(9) Okay, but where do you draw the line?

(10) What about right and wrong? You don’t seem to care about that.

(11) What about being missional? If Christians buy into what you’ve taught, won’t people stop going on the mission field, feeding the poor, and caring for those in need?

(12) Aren’t you a bit pessimistic about human beings?

(13) Doesn’t that lead to “wormology” and a bad self-image?

(14) What if you’re wrong?

As usual (when reading a Brown offering), I read this book and felt the full gamut of emotions – I laughed, and cried, got mad (not at Steve Brown) – but at myself and other Christians – for our self-righteous stupidity, and most of all praised God for His amazing grace and patience with the world, and especially with me! There is solid theological and practical food for the head, heart, and hands all over the place in this book. Once again, I was struck by God’s amazing grace to save a wretch like me. And once again I’m glad for all of humanity that I’m NOT God – and that Jesus is – and that He is my Savior – His righteousness in exchange for all of my many sins – covered by the Blood of the Lamb for all eternity by the sheer grace of God.

 

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Book Review: After You’ve Blown It by Erwin W. Lutzer

Helping You Reconcile With God and Others

In the opening chapter of this concise book (less than 100 pages) *Lutzer writes, “Strictly speaking, of course, not one of us deserves redemption. God owes us nothing, but He nevertheless offers His undeserved grace. Though we deserve damnation, He invites each of us to be redeemed. Worthy or not, we come to Him to receive forgiveness and the assurance that God still has a plan for our lives.”

Using Biblical stories and modern applications to those stories this is a book about how there is hope for anyone, no matter how bad they have blown it, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. I highly recommend this book especially for the following types of people:

1)    Those who think they are too “bad” to be saved.

2)    Those who think they are “good” and don’t need to be saved.

3)    Those who are enmity with God and know it – and aren’t sure how to remedy it.

4)    Those who are at enmity with others – and aren’t sure how to remedy it.

5)    Those who need to be reminded that God has a plan for them, and that no matter how bad you’ve blown it – there is hope for you because of the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

6)    Those of you who help others in counseling ministries.

It’s a fantastic little book – concise, full of Biblical wisdom, a clear gospel presentation, and leads and will encourage and give you hope. I also recommend it highly as a gift to give to those who are confused, discouraged, and broken over their sin.

*Since 1980, Erwin W. Lutzer has served as senior pastor of the world-famous Moody Church in Chicago, where he provide leadership to Chicago pastors. Dr. Lutzer earned his B.Th. from Winnipeg Bible College, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, an M.A. in philosophy from Loyola University, an LL.D. from Simon Greenleaf School of Law, and a D.D. from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary.

Dr. Lutzer is a featured radio speaker on the Moody Broadcasting Network and the author of numerous books, including The Vanishing Power of DeathCries from the Cross, the best-selling One Minute Before You Die and Hitler’s Cross, which received the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (EPCA) Gold Medallion Book Award. He speaks both nationally and internationally at Bible conferences and tours and has led tours of the cities of the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

Dr. Lutzer and his wife, Rebecca, live in the Chicago area and are the parents of three grown children. (Courtesy of Multnomah Publishers)

 
 

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Book Review: Lost in the Middle by Paul David Tripp

Great Help For Applying God’s Grace To Your Life

 I want to write out the outset that this book (along with “The Holiness of God” by R. C. Sproul; “Heaven” by Peter Kreeft; “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” by Pete Scazzero and “Prodigal God” by Tim Keller) has been one of the top paradigm shifting books I have read to help me change my thinking – radically. I also, have to write that I do not have the skill or ability to describe or recommend this book with the superlatives it deserves. I can only write that if you are struggling with “mid-life crisis” this book is absolute MUST reading and I’m confident that you will be much better off by reading it.

All that written – on with the review. I have personally battled depression my whole life. I am a perfectionist and have had to learn to “chill out” over the years, because I have found that things break, plans don’t work out the way you thought they would, and God is sovereign and I’m overwhelmingly NOT!

In this book Paul Tripp brilliantly exegetes reality and brokenness in this fallen world in which we live. He gives dozens of illustrations from the Bible, and men and women in the 21st century to point out the various manifestations of why so many people struggle with the mid-life years. I have read the book twice (and I’m certain – I will read it again) because so many of the stories are about my own struggles. He brings out in the open so many thoughts, and questions that many of us wrestle with and answers them with penetrating insight, theological depth, and practical life giving grace.

This book is not an easy read. I think the more you struggle with life (especially in your middle years) – the harder it will be to read. I found myself crying, and physically aching as I read some of the stories and analysis from Tripp’s pen. However, in the final analysis the book leads you to a fresh new start and brilliantly applies the gospel to your life. Brimming with hope – Tripp shows very practically how God’s purposes and plans for your life will be fulfilled, no matter what you have done, or how you feel at this stage of life.

I have been immensely helped in so many ways from reading this book. Let me list just five:

1)    It was just flat out helpful to have so many of the things I’ve thought and felt be identified and addressed so insightfully by the author – in other words – “I’m not crazy” – there are actually millions of people that have gone and are going through what I am during this stage of life – and they are still trucking!

2)    I learned to appreciate the realities of God’s design for humanity and how His plans will culminate – my story is a part of the fulfillment of the Great Story of the Bible. Tripp helps you to see that nothing in your life is wasted, and that Christ’s victory on the cross is also your ultimate victory as well. Your failure has been nullified by Christ’s Person and Work on your behalf. We have fallen, but He has picked us up. We have failed, but He has succeeded, and ultimately everything will be made new and perfect again – forever!

3)    I was so encouraged over and over again. Sometimes I feel like a major failure in every area of life: as a Christian, pastor, provider, husband, father, taking care of myself physically, and the list can go on and on. However, Tripp is able to bring out the positive realities that result from recognizing our weaknesses and how that makes God’s grace such a wonderful reality for us.

4)    I felt like I got to sit down with Jesus as I read this book. Perhaps one of the most helpful things he did in the book is show how much we are like the people in the Bible (even though we think we are not). The author has such a good grasp of theology, the Bible, and what God and people are like – that almost everything he writes is penetrating the deepest recesses of your soul. I think Paul Tripp is very wise, because he has a very intimate relationship with Jesus and brings that relationship to the reader in the book. It made me want to know God more intimately, the Bible more than I do, and to walk more closely with Jesus.

5)    It made me even more excited about Heaven and to live for that which will last forever. It made me want to live more simply, for others, and for those things that will please my Master – Jesus. Like many of the Psalms – I started reading the book in a discouraged and depressed state, and by the end of the book I was able to praise my Lord with a smile on my face, and with joy in my soul.

I feel like this review is rubbish compared to how GOOD this book actually is. I can only say that this book will help you to understand your sin, need of a Savior, and need for His grace more than you ever have before. Also, that His grace is MUCH greater than all your sin. One more thing – anyone at any life stage can benefit tremendously from this book – you don’t have to be struggling through mid-life to benefit from this book. Get this book, get copies to give away, and grow in His amazing grace. Thanks, Paul Tripp – and I hope that many more people will read and benefit from this book – I sure have!

 

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Book Review: Jesus + Nothing = Everything by Tullian Tchividjian

 Clearly Articulates the “Now-ness” of The Gospel

I was gripped by this book from the outset because it was in going through the hardest difficulty in my life a few years ago (similar to what Tullian describes in chapter one) that I realized the idolatry for what it was in my own life and learned to once again treasure the “now-ness” (not newness) of the gospel. It’s easy to take the gospel for granted when you have been a follower of Christ for many years, but I think having to personally live out or flesh out the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ makes one better appreciate the significance of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ – not only in the past and future – but especially in the now.

I am very grateful for this book because Tullian articulates the gospel with passion, clarity, and hones in on how the gospel makes a difference in the now. If you have already read a lot of Tim Keller or Paul Tripp this book will have a lot of new insights for you. However, if you have never read Keller or Tripp than you are really in for a treat. I think Tullian writes in a way that’s simpler, and more concise than Keller or Tripp. No matter how you slice it, this book has great information on the distinctions between justification and sanctification and how everything we long for can only be satisfied in Christ.

I highly recommend this book especially for people who are prone to legalism, or have come from a background where “works righteousness” has been emphasized. I think this book is MUST reading if you haven’t read any of Tim Keller or Paul Tripp’s stuff. If you like this book than you will really love Keller and Tripp. These three guys have really got a good grasp of the gospel and how it applies to all of life – past, present, and future – with a special emphasis on the present.

As Tullian writes and you read his illustrations, a plethora of Scripture, and a lot of great quotes – my hope is that you too will come to treasure and apply the gospel in your own life more than ever before. It is so exciting to see so many new writers, and pastors going into the depths of the gospel with passion and clarity. He must have a generational gift inherited from his grandfather for this ability (Billy Graham). Tullian has a great story and we all do, if we have repented of our sins and put our faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and seek to pursue Jesus + nothing – we will indeed get everything we have ever longed for here and beyond!

Note: I was provided a free copy of this book by the publisher and was not required to write a positive review. Thanks – Crossway – for continuing to put out the best books in Christian publishing (in my humble opinion).

 

*William Graham “Tullian Tchividjian” is a Florida native (born July 13, 1972 in Jacksonville) and is the grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. He is named after third century theologian Tertullian.

A graduate of Columbia International University (philosophy) and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando (M.Div.), Tchividjian is the author of The Kingdom of God: A Primer on the Christian Life (Banner of Truth), Do I Know God? Finding Certainty in Life’s Most Important Relationship (Multnomah), Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different  (Multnomah), Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels (Crossway) and, most recently – from which the review above is based, Jesus + Nothing = Everything  (Crossway).

Before becoming senior pastor of Coral Ridge, Tchividjian was the founding pastor of New City Presbyterian Church, an Evangelical Presbyterian Church congregation which merged with Coral Ridge in April 2009.

After taking over as pastor, Tchividjian instituted sweeping changes. He made the services somewhat more contemporary than they had previously been. He canceled the church’s long-running television program, The Coral Ridge Hour. He also significantly deemphasized politics; Coral Ridge had long been reckoned as one of the most politically active churches in the country. Tchividjian’s opponents garnered enough support to force a congregational vote of confidence, but a solid majority voted to retain him as pastor. In response, more than 400 members–including a large part of the music ministry–broke off to form “The New Presbyterian Church.”

He speaks at conferences throughout the United States and his sermons are broadcast daily on the radio program Godward Living. He is the new chaplain for the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Cowboys.

He married his wife Kim in 1994 and they have three children – Gabe, Nate, and Genna.

 

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The Music of Freedom (The Boy Who Loved Music)

[Chapter 2 of the excellent book on God’s Grace and Freedom by Steve Brown]

When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough, Thomas Nelson, 1990.

“The elders have ceased gathering at the gate,

and the young men from their music. The

joy of our heart has ceased; our dance

has turned into mourning.” – Lamentations 5:14-15

            Before we go any further in our discussion of freedom and grace I want to tell you a story. It is not fiction. Fiction is the telling of a story that is not true in a way that makes it seem true. The story I am going to tell is true, but its truth is deeper than the story. It is myth in the deeper sense of the word.

Some say that parables are closer to truth than polemics and that stories tell more than sermons. Or to put it another way, myth sometimes touches a deeper truth in us than philosophy. I suspect that is particularly true when presenting fairly radical ideas.

As you continue to read this book, you may grow confused and perhaps a little angry. You may think that I have gone off the “deep end” or that I have become a heretic. You may even find yourself wishing that the things I have said were true, but you are afraid to believe them because nothing could be that good!

On those occasions I want you to read this story again. In it you will find the essence of this book and, without sounding presumptuous, the essence of the Christian faith. Now relax and let me tell the story.

There once was a little boy named Ebed. Ebed had music in his heart, but he wanted it in his hands. He wanted to play the piano. In fact, he wanted to play the piano more than anything else in the world. No one knew it, of course. Boys aren’t supposed to play the piano; they’re supposed to fish and camp and play sports. Ebed liked all those things, but more than anything he wanted to play the piano.

But Ebed’s family couldn’t afford the piano lessons for him. So when his friends talked about learning to play the piano, Ebbie would laugh and make fun of them.

“Playing the piano,” he would say, “is for girls. It’s more fun to play ball. Pretty soon you guys will be wearing dresses and carrying purses!” And then Ebbie would walk off with a smirk on his face. But inside he knew the truth. More than anything in the world, he wanted to play the piano.

Sometimes when no one was around he would sit down at the piano at school and try to play. He really wasn’t that bad for someone who had never had a lesson. In fact, his untutored playing made Ebbie think that he might have talent.

One day at the local ice cream parlor Ebbie noticed his friends and their piano teacher eating ice cream and laughing together. It was obvious to Ebbie that the piano teacher not only taught his students to play the piano but was also their friend. They, of course, didn’t see Ebbie standing by the door. They were too absorbed in one another. Ebbie stood there for the longest time, afraid they would notice him, but also, in a strange way, afraid they wouldn’t.

After a while Ebbie left the ice cream parlor. He felt very sad. He kept up a good front in the parlor, but if anyone had noticed him, they would have noticed the tears welling up in his eyes. Ebbie ran down to the lake, where he went sometimes when he wanted to be alone. Once he was sure nobody was around, he sat down on a rock and began to cry.

Ebbie cried and thought for a long time. He thought about how much he wanted to play the piano, and he thought about the piano teacher. He knew his family was poor and there were some things he just couldn’t have. But still, it would be nice to have a friend like the piano teacher.

All of a sudden Ebbie heard the sound behind him. Turning quickly, he found to his horror that the piano teacher was standing there, smiling at him.

“Where did you come from?” Ebbie asked more harshly than he intended.

“I noticed you at the ice cream parlor,” the piano teacher replied. “You looked lonely and I thought I would follow you. Do you mind if I sit down for a while?”

“Suit yourself,” Ebbie said, “but I did come here to be alone, and I didn’t invite you.”

The piano teacher sat down on the same rock with Ebbie and for a long time didn’t say a word. When the teacher did speak, his voice was soft and understanding.

“Ebed, would you like to play the piano?”

“What makes you think that? The piano is for girls and…” Ebbies voice trailed off as he looked into the piano teacher’s eyes. He couldn’t lie. “Yes,” Ebbie admitted slowly, “I would like to play the piano. In fact, sir, I have always wanted to play the piano, but I don’t have the money to pay for lessons.”

“Well, maybe I can do something to help.”

“Yeah,” Ebbie responded, “like what?”

“Well, I could be your friend. Friends don’t charge for helping. If I was your friend, I could teach you to play the piano.”

“That would be great!” Ebbie shouted, jumping up. In his excitement, he almost fell off the rock into the lake. But the piano teacher caught Ebbie just in time, and they both started to laugh. Ebbie couldn’t remember a time he had laughed so hard.

“You know my name,” Ebbie remarked. “I can’t believe you know my name.”

“Yes,” the piano teacher agreed. “I have known your name for a long time.”

“Well, if we’re going to be friends, I guess I ought to know your name too.”

“It’s Immanuel,” the teacher said, “But my best friends call me ‘Manny.’ I hope you will call me Manny too.”

Ebbie decided that day he was going to be the best piano player who ever lived. “Others,” he thought to himself, “don’t think playing the piano is that important, but it’s what I’ve wanted all my life. I will work and work until I’m the best piano student the teacher has, and he will be very proud of me.”

But over the next few weeks, Ebbie found that playing the piano was not as easy as he had supposed. He had thought he would be well on his way after only a few lessons. Nobody, however, had told him about scales, the hours of practice, and the simple little tunes beginners have to play.

One day, after an extremely frustrating lesson, Ebbie turned to his teacher dejectedly, “I’ll never get this right, Manny. I keep making the same mistakes over and over again. And I can see it in your eyes. You’re about ready to give up on me, and I would understand. It’s all my fault.”

“Ebed.” Immanuel’s smile made his words almost unnecessary. “I will never give up on you. Friends don’t give up on friends.”

“What if I leave and don’t come back?”

“Ebed, if you never came back, you are still my friend. I will always be here to give you lessons.” And then with a grin Immanuel asked, “Do you still want to play the piano?”

“Of course, I want to play. I’ve always wanted to play, but nobody ever told me it was going to be this hard.”

“Did I tell you it would be easy?”

“No sir.”

“But I did say you would learn to play the piano, and that I would be your friend. We’re working on the first, and the second will always be.”

Immanuel sat down on the piano bench beside Ebbie.

“Let’s look at the piece you’re working on.”

Ebbie sheepishly got out his beginner’s book and turned to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Ebbie blushed to show his teacher that he had gotten no further in the book.

“Play it for me,” Immanuel said.

“But I can only play the treble line well.”

“Doesn’t matter. Play it for me anyway.”

So Ebbie began to peck out the melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” To be perfectly honest, the little star didn’t twinkle very brightly. Ebbie kept missing notes and stopping often to make sure his fingers were in the right position. His rhythm was halting.

And then, to his surprise, Ebbie heard the most beautiful music he had ever heard. He looked to his right, Immanuel was adding to Ebbie’s notes with his right hand. And then, without missing a beat, the piano teacher eased himself behind Ebbie, encircled Ebbie from behind with his arms, and added bass notes with his left hand as well! Ebbie continued to play his one-note melody, but now it sounded totally different.

Immanuel’s melody wove into Ebbie’s single line, transforming the simple melody into a complex symphony of sound. Ebbie was so fascinated that he almost forgot to keep playing. The harmonies, one on top of the other, soared in an increasingly complicated arrangement, sounding almost like an orchestra. Soon Ebbie was totally lost in the wonder and beauty of the music coming from the piano.

When Immanuel and Ebbie finished playing the piece, Ebbie felt tears stinging in his eyes, and through the tears he could see Immanuel smiling.

“We make pretty good music together,” Immanuel said.

“You don’t mean ‘we,’ do you?”

“Yes, Ebed. We made the music together. You did what you could, and I did the rest.”

And then Immanuel invited Ebbie into his study. Over the weeks, Ebbie had enjoyed sitting and talking with Immanuel as much as he enjoyed learning to play the piano. In fact, if the truth were known, Ebbie enjoyed his time with Immanuel more than anything else in the world.

Immanuel lived in a large house close to the lake where he and Ebbie had first met. The house was almost overpowering in its size, and Ebbie always felt as if he were visiting the house of a great nobleman. At least, that is how he felt until Immanuel would answer the door. Then the cold, foreboding nature of the house was transformed by the presence of the teacher, and Ebbie felt he was visiting a good friend. But then, Ebbie thought often, any place where Manny lived could not help but be wonderful.

Immanuel was obviously quite wealthy and had wonderful taste. Ebbie was too young to understand the intricacies of interior design, but he was old enough to know that the house was “right.” From the paintings which hung in the large entrance hall and the thick carpet on the floors to the grand piano on which Immanuel gave lessons, everything fit together and made Ebbie feel comfortable.

One thing always puzzled Ebbie, but whenever he was with Manny, he forgot to ask him about it. Ebbie knew Manny had a lot of students, but Ebbie never saw any of them. In fact, when Ebbie was with Manny, there was never anyone else around and, even more surprising, Manny never seemed to be in a hurry to get to another lesson. Often Ebbie would expect his time to be limited, but it never was. Today wasn’t any different—Many seemed to have all the time in the world.

Immanuel’s book-lined study, where they were now sitting, felt right to Ebbie too. The study was just off the studio where Immanuel taught his students. They were sitting in easy chairs, Immanuel’s big frame filling his chair and Ebbie’s small frame almost swallowed up by his. Ebbie’s feet barely touched the floor.

“Ebed,” Immanuel began when they were settled, “you said I had made the music, or, at least, you insinuated it.”

“Well,” Ebbie replied, “you did make the music. You didn’t need my single line to produce the kind of music you played today.”

“That’s true. I could make music by myself, but I have chosen not to do that. I have chosen instead to work with my friends and to help them make the music.”

“Like today?”

“Yes, like today. You played as best as you could, and I made up for the rest. Ebed, from now on it will be that way. Whenever you do what you can, I will make up for the lack. If you do nothing, I will still make up for the rest, and when you are older and play with greater competence than you do now, you will still make some mistakes. Just remember that even then when others think you don’t need me, I will still make up for the lack.

“And there is one other thing I want you to remember always. It won’t mean a lot to you right now, but later you will think of it and be glad.”

“What’s that, Manny?” Ebbie asked, feeling a little uncomfortable.

“Don’t look so pained,” Immanuel laughed reassuringly. “It’s good. I want you to always remember that you are my piano student. No matter where you go, no matter what you do, no matter how well or poorly you play the piano, you will always be my student. And Ebed, you can hang your hat on this: Someday, perhaps in another place and time, you will be able to play the piano exactly the way I play the piano. Even then, you will be my student and my friend.”

Then, to emphasize his words, Immanuel leaned forward. “Do you understand what I am saying?”

“I think I do,” Ebbie responded.

“Ebed, I love you far more than you can possibly understand now. That will never, ever stop, no matter what else happens. I give my life for my students, and because of that they are always my students.”

Ebbie thought a lot about what Manny had said to him that day. In fact, he never forgot it for the rest of his life.

But once he almost did.

As Ebbie continued piano lessons he found others teased him the way he had teased Manny’s students before he started taking piano lessons.

“Don’t see you much on the ballfield much any more,” one boy snickered at him after school one day.

“I’ve been busy,” Ebbie responded somewhat hesitantly.

“Playing the piano, huh?”

“Yeah, mostly.”

“What have you become, some kind of fairy? You and the girls ought to get along just fine.”

That was just the beginning. Soon, the other boys joined in the teasing, making fun, not only of Ebbie’s piano playing but of Ebbie’s piano teacher as well. At first, Ebbie was angry at them, but after a while he started listening to and believing some of the things they said. Little boys need friends, and Ebbie was losing his rapidly.

Ebbie visited Manny’s house less frequently, and he almost stopped practicing the piano altogether, even though he had been making genuine progress. The more he had practiced the better he had played. But now he was almost back to the level of a beginner. He was so ashamed that he finally stopped going to see Immanuel.

Weeks passed and, even though his friends had stopped making fun of him, Ebbie felt miserable. Sometimes he would look at the piano at school and think about playing, but it was just too costly. At night Ebbie would think about Manny and sometimes he would cry. He didn’t know why he cried, but he did know that he missed Manny. Then, before finally falling asleep, Ebbie would make all kinds of promises to himself about getting back to the piano and going to see Manny. But when mourning came he always forgot about the promises.

“Manny asked about you yesterday,” Martus, (Greek for “witness”) one of Immanuel’s other piano students, told Ebbie one day at recess. “He said to tell you not to forget what he told you.”

Ebbie didn’t know what Martus meant until later that afternoon when he remembered that special talk in Manny’s study. Ebbie felt the tears well up in his eyes. Instead of going home, he went to Immanuel’s house.

“I’ve been expecting you,” Immanuel said as he opened the door. “Are you ready for your next lesson?”

“But I haven’t played in so many months.” Ebbie looked down and pretended to find something quite interesting in the rock floor on the porch.

“Doesn’t matter. You are always my piano student, and that hasn’t changed. You may have been a poor one for the past few months,” Immanuel smiled, “But you are my student. Come on in, and we can begin where we left off.”

It was the best piano lesson Ebbie had ever had. In fact, Ebbie thought at home later, I’m almost glad I turned away from Manny and his piano lessons. If I had never turned away, I would never have known how much Immanuel loves me and how much he wants me to continue piano lessons.

It was a growth experience for Ebbie. Whenever his friends teased him he would remember how he had caved in to their criticism and how Immanuel still loved him, and his sadness would be transformed into joy and thankfulness.

But the trouble Ebbie had with those who didn’t understand the importance of playing the piano was minor compared to the trouble he had with his fellow piano students.

Ebbie thought that once he had become a piano student he would become part of a family of musicians where everyone understood and helped each other play the piano better. It was not to be.

“You’re doing it all wrong!” shouted a little girl who had overheard him practicing on the piano at school. “You’re playing soft when you ought to playing loud, and you’re playing loud when you ought to be playing soft.”

“You’re rhythm is all off,” criticized another student who had heard Ebbie play. “How do you ever expect to play the piano if you can’t tell the difference be between 4/4 and ¾ time?

“You hit three wrong notes,” another exclaimed, “If you don’t start playing the right notes, you are going to disappoint the teacher. And after all he has done for you! The rest of us have been talking and we’ve decided that if you don’t get better, you’re going to shame all of us.”

“If you are ever going to play the piano properly, you must practice at home, not at school,” one of the students informed Ebbie one day after class.

“But I don’t have a piano at home,” protested Ebbie.

“Well, why don’t you get your parents to buy you one?”

“We don’t have the money. That’s why.”

There was a long silence, but Ebbie noticed a look of disdain on his fellow student’s face as he walked away. He knew the boy felt that Ebbie should quit taking piano lessons if he couldn’t afford a piano.

One afternoon when Ebbie had finished his lesson, Immanuel said to him, “Ebed, you seem sad. What’s the matter?”

“Oh, nothing,” Ebbie replied, betraying his words with the grimace on his face.

“The others bothering you?”

“Sometimes.”

“They bother me too sometimes.”

“But you don’t hear all the things they say.”

And then Immanuel smiled. “Ebbie, I know my students. The girl who told you that you needed to play soft when you are playing loud, and loud when you ought to be playing soft, is only criticizing you because she is doing so badly with her own lessons. The boy who criticized you’re your rhythm hasn’t been to a lesson in almost three months. He thinks if he points out your mistakes, people will not notice his own.

“The boy who told you about the wrong notes is so busy telling others about their wrong notes, he doesn’t have much time to play himself. If he played the piano very much, which he doesn’t, he would probably hit more wrong notes than you do. The boy who told you to buy a piano with money you don’t have has three pianos, but he hardly ever plays any of them. People always admire his pianos, and he thinks it’s the same thing as admiring his piano playing.

“And the others who suggested that you were hurting the reputation of all the students are very insecure about their own piano playing. Your playing is different, and the other students don’t like piano players who are different.

“And Ebbie, the comment about disappointing me isn’t true. Never let another piano student tell you that you disappoint me. If I’m disappointed, I’ll tell you. When I’m pleased, I’ll tell you that too. But I am the only one who knows whether I’m disappointed or pleased.”

Ebbie felt a whole lot better after Immanuel told him about the other students. In fact, he felt a little superior to the others. That is, until Immanuel said to him, “Ebbie, I’m telling you all this so you will remember that I have made you my student, even with your mistakes, because I love you. But I don’t love you more than the others. The only reason I told you about them—and if I chose, I could tell them a lot about you—is so you will remember that there isn’t a single piano student in the world who doesn’t make some serious errors. Their problem is that they tried to pretend that they were better than you.

“Now you know the truth. Remember it, and don’t make their mistake. Remember how you forgot about me for so long? How you quit practicing and how I accepted you when you wanted to resume your lessons? Remember how I never stopped loving you? I will do the same for them. All my piano students are equal because they have the same teacher. You must never think you are better than the others just because you know the truth.

“And Ebbie, never forget that I make up the difference for them, just as I do for you.”

After that, Ebbie loved Immanuel more than he ever had. When he walked away from the teacher’s house, he felt free. He didn’t have to pretend to be a wonderful piano student. Nor did he have to pretend not to care. He didn’t have to point out the mistakes of the other students in order to feel better about himself; after all, the piano teacher loved all the piano students. All Ebed had to do was stay close to the piano teacher.

Every spring, Immanuel had a recital at his home for his students’ parents. Ebbie had worked for weeks on his piece, and his mother had bought him a new suit with some money she had saved. Ebbie felt wonderful—until he got up to play.

When he started to walk toward the piano and saw all the people waiting for him to perform, he panicked. He wanted to run. But when he looked over at Immanuel, his teacher gave him a “thumbs up” sign. No way am I going to disappoint Manny, Ebbie thought.

But as Ebbie began to play, he forgot the music. He played the wrong notes. Once he even lost his place and had to start over. When Ebbie got up from the piano bench, he didn’t dare look at the audience or his parents or, especially, Immanuel. He had wanted to do so much better. But instead, he had disappointed everyone.

Ebbie was so miserable he didn’t notice that the audience was applauding. In fact, they applauded for almost five whole minutes, shouting, “Encore! Encore!” Ebbie didn’t hear it. He had already walked out the back door and headed down to the lake where he sat on his rock and cursed himself.

Hours passed and the night grew cold. Suddenly, Ebbie heard a rustle behind him, and he turned to find Immanuel standing there.

“I really botched it.”

“Yes, you really botched it. But they didn’t know.”

“What do you mean, they didn’t know? Of course they knew. I’m so ashamed. How can I ever face them again? And Manny, I’m even more ashamed to face you. You loved me. You trusted me. You taught me to play the piano, and I let you down. Please don’t look at me that way, Manny. I don’t believe I can stand it.”

“Ebed,” Manny said, taking an uninvited seat on the rock by the boy, “you misinterpret my look. I’m not disappointed in you. You must remember that I’ve been teaching piano for a long time—longer than you could possibly know. Do you think your performance surprised me?”

“Well, I guess not. But…”

“No buts, child. Your vanity has been hurt, but you haven’t failed me. Ebed, I love you. I told you that, but you forgot.”

“I guess I did,” Ebbie whispered.

“And you forgot something else.”

“What’s that?”

“Remember, I told you I would always make up for your lack. I did that tonight.”

“You mean…”

“That’s right. You didn’t play as well as you will play some day, and perhaps you didn’t play as well as you could have played. But you played, and I made up for the difference. The audience heard the music, not the mistakes!”

Ebbie jumped up and started to dance on the rock. Immanuel laughed heartily, but managed to caution Ebed, “You are going to fall off this rock if you aren’t careful, and I don’t relish going swimming on this kind of night.”

That night was one of the most important nights of Ebed’s life, second only to the evening he had met Immanuel. Ebed began to practice playing the piano far more than he had previously.

In the years to come, Ebed botched some other concerts. Sometimes he got angry at Immanuel. Sometimes he thought about giving up on the whole thing, and he even walked away a few more times. But Immanuel was always there, loving him and helping him make music.

You might wonder what happened to the little boy. That’s the best part.

Ebed grew up and became a world-class pianist. He came to be known, as one critic put it, as “the essence of perfection.” In concert after concert, all over the world, Ebed played to standing-room-only audiences. When he finished a concert, after the applause had died away, Ebed would smile and remember that no one had heard his mistakes. Later he would always thank Immanuel for making up for the lack.

One evening after a concert in New York, when he was almost seventy years old, Ebed was dining with some friends when he felt a mild pain in his chest. He marked it up to indigestion, but as the evening wore on the pain became more and more acute. Halfway through the dinner he collapsed, and his friends called an ambulance.

Ebed was only half conscious when they put him on the stretcher and placed him in the ambulance, but then he woke up. It was a strange kind of awake because he seemed to be looking at the whole scene in the ambulance from a different perspective. One of the attendants looked at the other and sighed, “We’ve lost him.”

“You haven’t lost me!” Ebed wanted to shout. “I’m right here!”

But before Ebed could speak the sound of a piano caught his ears—the most beautiful music he had ever heard! Turning around, he found himself at Immanuel’s house. Well, maybe it wasn’t Immanuel’s house, but it looked the same, only even more beautiful than he remembered.

Drawn through the front door by the music, Ebed found Immanuel playing a magnificent concerto at the grand piano. Ebed listened, entranced.

When Immanuel finished, neither he nor Ebed spoke for a moment. Then, turning to Ebed, Immanuel broke the silence. “Now, it is your turn.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you!” Immanuel laughed, “And I believe you are in for a surprise!”

Ebed sat down at the piano, and as he placed his hands on the keys, he felt a freedom and power he had never before felt. Every nuance, every note, every rhythm was perfect. The music soared and filled the room. Out of the corner of his eyes, Ebed could see Immanuel smiling, as a father smiles when his son performs perfectly. Ebed’s heart beat excitedly.

“Ebed,” Immanuel said softly, “now you play just the way I play.”

“Yes,” Ebed replied smiling, “I know.”

“And I have a new name for you, Ebed. Before, you have been called Ebed (Hebrew for “servant” or “slave”). Now your name is Deror (Hebrew for “liberty” or “freedom”). Now the music is yours forever. You are home.”

 

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