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What Is The Gospel?

Surfers walking at Dusk image

By D. A. Carson – A Synopsis.

Donald A. Carson gave the first plenary address to the Gospel Coalition conference in May 2007. Here are listener notes from his sermon available online: What is the Gospel?

The fragmentation of the church in the west has led to a fragmented understanding of the gospel.

Common Misunderstandings of the Gospel:

  • The gospel is said to be a narrow set of teachings about the death and resurrection of Christ, which rightly believed, “tip people into the kingdom.” After that come the real theological training and transformation, where discipleship and maturity take place. This view is much narrower than the biblical view, in which the gospel is the embracing category which holds much of the bible together, encompassing lostness and condemnation, through reconciliation and conversion, to the consummation and resurrection.

  • The gospel is just the first and second commandments: love God with heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus himself insists that all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments. But while they are central, they are not the Gospel.

  • The gospel is understood to be the ethical teaching of Jesus found in the canonical gospels, separated from his passion and resurrection. However, accounts of Jesus’ teaching cannot be rightly understood without seeing how they point forward to his death and resurrection. This view reduces the glorious good news to mere religion and duty.

  • In the first century there was not the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, etc. It was “The Gospel” according to Matthew, “The Gospel,” according to Mark. One gospel, various perspectives.

  • The gospel is assumed to be, and creative energy and passion is devoted to, other issues like bioethics, politics, evangelism, the poor, etc. Our listeners are drawn to what we are most passionate about. If the gospel is merely assumed, while relatively peripheral issues ignite our passion, we will teach a new generation to downplay the gospel and focus on the periphery, those matters of evangelism, justice, confronting Islam, etc.“It’s easy to sound prophetic from the margins, but harder to be prophetic from the center.”

    The Right Understanding of the Gospel

    The gospel by which you are saved is bound up in the fact that Christ died for our sins, was buried, raised on the third day, and appeared to many people – the apostles and others.

    From 1 Corinthians 15:1-19, Carson gives a general outline of what he will say about the gospel. He will focus on eight summarizing words, five clarifying sentences, and one evocative summary.

    Eight Summarizing Words:

1. The gospel is Christological. It is not bland theism or panthiesm, but Christ-centered. John Stott: “The gospel is not preached if Christ is not preached.” Jesus is the only name by which we can be saved

1. Jesus alone reconciles us to God. The gospel is not focused exclusively on Christ’s person, but also on Christ’s death and resurrection: Christ died for our sins.

2. The gospel is theological.
First, the gospel is God-centered

- God sent the son.
– the Son did the Father’s will
God raised Christ Jesus from the dead.

Second, the cross is a historical event with theological weight.

- From the beginning, sin is an offense to God, and the one most offended by our sin is always God, and He is the One who must be appeased

- God is full of wrath against sin, and sinners stand under God’s judgment. Christ’s death propitiates that wrath so we can have peace with God: Christ died for our sins.

- God’s purpose was for Christ to die and rise, not merely die; he died for our sins, and he rose for our justification

- God’s wrath is against sin – in us. Our sin problem is personal. God pronounces the sentence of death against sin, which means death for us.

And what makes God most angry is idolatry, the “de-godding” of God, the putting of something else in God’s place. God is still jealous. Repentance is necessary, because the coming of the King brings judgment as well as blessing.

  1. The gospel is biblical. Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures; He was buried and rose again on the third day according to the scriptures. What scripture Paul has in mind is not told to us. Carson lists several possibilities for what scripture might be in Paul’s mind. Whatever it is, Paul tells us that this gospel is biblical: it is found in the Old Testament.

  2. The gospel is apostolic. Listen to the sequence of pronouns Paul uses in 1Cor 15:11, “Whether it was I (an apostle) or they (the apostles) this is what we (the apostles) preach, and this is what you believed. I, we, they, you. This Gospel is apostolic (Carson credits J.R.W. Stott for this sequence of pronouns). As Paul lists them, there were more than 500 witnesses to the resurrected Christ, but Paul repeatedly draws attention to the apostles. This resurrection gospel is what the apostles preach and what the Corinthians believed. The witness and teaching of the apostles is the gospel that all Christians throughout the ages believe.

  3. The gospel is historical.

- First, 1 Cor 15 specifies both Jesus’ burial and resurrection. Jesus’ death is attested by his burial, and his resurrection is attested by his appearances. The death and resurrection are tied together in history.

- Second, the way we have access to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is the way we have access to any historical event: through the record of those who witnessed the events. This is why witnesses are so important.

- Third, we must see that unlike other religions, Christian claims are irreducibly historical. The historical uniqueness of Christ is non-negotiable, not just the historicity of the man Jesus, but the historical claims of his death for our sins, his burial, and his resurrection. The Son entered history and there are historical events in Jesus’ life that are essential to Christianity. God does not give a revelation to Jesus which Jesus passes on; rather Jesus is the revelation of God. The revelation cannot be separated from Christ. To attempt to do so is incoherent. Part of the validation of faith is the truthfulness of faith’s object. Paul says, “If Jesus has not risen, your faith is futile (v 17).”

- Fourth, we must face the fact that in contemporary discussion, the word historical may have different meanings. Some use “historical” only for events brought about my ordinary causes; by definition this excludes miraculous events. We insist that “historical” means events that took place in history, whether from natural causes or through God’s supernatural intervention in power, operating in history.

6. The gospel is personal. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are not merely historical events, or merely theological precepts. They set forth a way of personal salvation. This is the gospel, “which you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved….”

7. The gospel is universal. The gospel is a comprehensive vision of a new humanity drawn from every tribe and nation. It is not universal in that it includes everyone without exception; but it is universal in the sense that it is for all groups, ethnic and otherwise. Christ is the new Adam (v. 22, 47-50), and this alludes to a comprehensive vision: people of every nation, tribe, etc.

8. The gospel is eschatological.

- First, some of the blessings believers receive today are blessings from the Last Day brought back to our time. Already, for instance, God declares us justified. This final declarative judgment is applied to us today. We look forward to an eschatological fulfillment of the transformation that has already begun in us.

- Second, the gospel includes our final transformation. It is not enough to focus only on blessings that those who are in Christ enjoy in this age, for there are greater fulfillments yet to come.

Five Clarifying Sentences

1. This gospel is normally disseminated in proclamation. (preaching, heraldic ministry, “I preached to you.”) Wherever there is mention of the gospel’s dissemination, it is through preaching.

2. This gospel is fruitfully received in authentic, persevering faith, faith that continues and brings forth results. (“This is what you believed”, and “if you hold fast…”)

3. This gospel is properly disclosed in a context of personal, self-humiliation. When the gospel is received, there is no pride, but a sense of one’s own worthlessness. People respond to it by becoming aware of their own insufficiency and helplessness. “I am not what I want to be, nor what I ought to be, nor what I will be, but by the grace of God I am what I am,” John Newton. Humility. Gratitude. Dependence on Christ, contrition – these are the attitudes of the truly converted. “Proud Christian” is an unthinkable oxymoron.

4. This gospel is rightly asserted to be the central confession of the whole church. This is what Paul preaches everywhere. Of course what the church, or many churches are doing, is not necessarily right. Otherwise there would be no need for an Athanasius or a Luther. Hidebound tradition is not the gospel. But also be suspicious of churches who proudly flaunt how different they are from what has gone before.

5. The gospel is boldly advancing under the contested reign and inevitable victory of Jesus the King. This side of Jesus death and resurrection, all of God’s sovereignty is mediated exclusively through kindly King Jesus. All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth… the name that is above every name.

One evocative summary: All of this shows how cognitive the gospel is. It is propositional. It is to be understood, taught, and explained.

Yet the gospel is not exclusively cognitive. It is also affective and active. The word of the cross is not only God’s wisdom, which the world considers folly, but it is God’s power, which the world considers weakness. Where the gospel triumphs, lives are transformed. The gospel works itself out in every aspect of a believer’s life. This is done not by attempting to abstract social principles from the gospel, nor by imposing new levels of rules, still less by focusing on the periphery in the vain effort to sound prophetic; but precisely by preaching and teaching and living out the blessed gospel of our glorious Redeemer.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain (verse 58).

Sources: http://www.rebecca-writes.com/rebeccawrites/2007/7/23/what-is-the-gospel-from-d-a-carson.html http://nakedchurch.wordpress.com/2007/06/22/the-gospel-coalition-don-carson-what-is-the-gospel/ 

 

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What Makes a Person Right With God?

THE GOOD NEWS 

THE question: “What makes a person right with God” confronts us all, whether we realize it or not.  It is a question with consequences that we dare not ignore.  The key to understanding what makes a person right with God is dependent upon a proper understanding of true righteousness – that is, “righteousness” from God’s perspective.  Our prayer is that as you read the following you will either come to know Jesus Christ as your savior, or if you already know Him, that your love and devotion will be deepened through a greater knowledge of Him.

Empty Tomb

God’s Standard – Righteousness

To find out what makes a person right before God we must begin with God.  God existed before man. God created man and God is the determiner of all right and wrong.  God is the standard of what is holy, righteous and perfect.  When God created the world, everything in it, including man, was perfect and right before Him (Gen 1:31).  The original creation sets the standard for what God desires and expects – perfection. God intends to dwell only with those who are right by His standard

Ø      Ezra 9:15  O LORD, God of Israel, you are righteous!

Ø      Isaiah 5:16  … The holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness.

Ø      Matthew 5:48  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Ø      Hebrews 12:14  … Without holiness no one will see the Lord.

God Judges According to His Righteous Standard

God judges according to His perfect standard.  His judgment is based on perfect righteousness.  Every group in society has certain standards that people must live up to in order to belong.  God is no different, except that He never bends the rules.  God has set the bar high, and if a person does not meet His standard then God will not accept him.

Ø      Psalm 9:8  He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice.

Ø      Psalm 94:15  Judgment will again be founded on righteousness, and all the upright in heart will follow it.      

Ø      Isaiah 28: 17  I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line.

Ø      Genesis 18:25… Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

No One Meets God’s Righteous Standard

Herein lies the problem: NO ONE meets God’s righteous standard.  Shortly after God created man, man disobeyed God (sinned). On that day, the true nature of man, which up to that point had been righteous, became inherently unrighteous.  And since that day, every human being has stood guilty before God for not meeting His standard of righteousness.

Ø      Psalm 143:2  … No one living is righteous before you.

Ø      Ecclesiastes 7:20  There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.

Ø      Romans 3:10-12  There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. 

Human Unrighteousness

It is futile to think that we can make ourselves right before God by making up our own rules and doing “good” by our own standards.  God tells us that we cannot obtain the righteousness that we so desperately need by good works because our corrupt nature actually corrupts the good we try to do.  Thus, it is our nature that needs to be changed.  No person, no matter how sincere and determined, can change his own sinful thoughts and life.  Only God can work that miracle in the heart.

Ø      Isaiah 57:12  I will expose your righteousness and your works, and they will not benefit you.

Ø      Isaiah 64:6  All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

Ø      Romans 3:20  … No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law …Penalty for Unrighteousness

Penalty for Unrighteousness

Because of our sinful nature, we are alienated from God and under His wrath.  God will accept nothing that we try to do in and of ourselves to rectify the problem.  In fact, because He is holy, God has instituted a penalty for sin.  His holiness demands that He separate Himself from sin and punish sin.  Therefore, God must separate Himself from sinners and punish sinners.  There are only two ways for our sin to be punished: either we take the punishment for our sin, which is eternal death, or Christ takes the punishment for our sin, which is eternal life.

Ø      Isaiah 59:2  … Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.

Ø      Romans 1:18  The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness. (NAS)

Ø      2 Thessalonians 1:8-9  He (Jesus) will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.

The Good News – The Source of Righteousness

Even though God must punish sin, there is good news!  God, in His mercy and grace, provided the righteousness and forgiveness that we need to be accepted by Him. It is God’s own perfect righteousness in Jesus Christ.  What God demands, God supplies!  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was the only righteous person that ever lived, and through His perfect life and sacrificial death, He alone is the only one who is sufficient to give us what we desperately need.  God will change our nature from one of corruption to one which is righteous when we are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  We don’t need a few “good” check marks before our name; we need a complete over haul from the inside out.  Only God can do that.

Ø      Isaiah 61:10  I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness.

Ø      Romans 8:10  … If Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.

Ø      2 Corinthians 5:21  God made him (Jesus) who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Ø      Philippians 3:7-9  … Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ …

Ø      1 Peter 3:18  … Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.

How to be Declared Righteous

But how does one become righteous?  Through believing!  When you believe that you are truly corrupt and unrighteous and you ask Jesus Christ for his righteousness, a beautiful exchange takes place: your unrighteousness is credited to Jesus Christ and punished at the cross, and Christ’s righteousness is credited to you and you are declared right before God! His death on the cross pays the penalty for your sin and satisfies the punishment required by God.  Believe now and be made right!

Ø      John 3:18  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

Ø      John 3:36  Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.

Ø      John 5:24 whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.

Ø      Romans 3:22  … Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

Ø      Romans 10:4  Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

The good news is that in spite of the fact that our unrighteousness is infinitely offensive to a Holy God and deserves punishment, God freely grants His righteousness by grace to those who believe and put their trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ alone.  God is a gracious God indeed to provide the righteousness we need through His Son and to provide a substitute to take our punishment, His own Son.

Righteousness brings lasting Joy

Those who choose Jesus, receive not only righteousness, but joy!  Think about this… Everyone makes choices to bring them some level of happiness and joy. Even when someone chooses pain or discomfort, they do so because they believe it will bring them the most satisfaction over any alternative.  Consider your own choices and see if the pursuit of joy is not the driving force in every case.

God knows our inner drive for joy.  He created us that way.  But His design is to have our fullest joy complete in Him, not in other things that will not last.  The Psalmist writes “You have made known to me the path of life; You will fill me with joy in Your presence, with eternal pleasures at Your right hand.” and “The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” (Psalm 16:11 & 126:3).  This is not the selfish delight promised by radical religions whose followers are willing to martyr themselves and take the lives of others for the sake of promised eternal pleasures.   The Christian’s joy is found in the Person of God and His work on their behalf.  Jesus Christ came to die and rise again that we might be right with God through faith and finally set free from sin to find our fullest joy in Him.

Our desire is that you choose Jesus Christ for your greatest treasure and right standing before God.  The Apostle Peter wrote that for those who believe, Jesus is “precious” (1 Peter 2:7).  That thought is filled with the joy one has when a great treasure is acquired.  Many other people and things will promise you joy and gladness, but only Jesus Christ can make you right with God and give you joy now and forever.

What then should you do?

Admit your unrighteousness to God.

Trust Jesus Christ to forgive your sins -to make you right with God and restore true joy.

Call upon the Lord with thanksgiving for all that He is for you in Jesus Christ.

Turn from sin’s deceitful and empty promises to faith in God’s promises.  (To start, review the Scripture passages given here.)

Begin reading the Bible, God’s Word. (A great place to start is with one of the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke or John – or with the “book of beginnings” – Genesis.)

Find a Bible-believing church to worship God with others who delight in Him; begin to grow together with them in Christ.

Our prayer is that you will turn to God and glorify Him as you trust wholly in Jesus Christ, and God will grant you the eternal, infinite righteousness and joy for which you were created.

SOURCE: http://plymouthbc.org/

 

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The Power of the Gospel Over Idolatry in the 21st Century

Idols of the Heart and “Vanity Fair”

A Classic Article by Dr. David Powlison

One of the great questions facing Christians in the social sciences and helping professions is this one: How do we legitimately and meaningfully connect the conceptual stock of the Bible and Christian tradition with the technical terminologies and observational riches of the behavioral sciences?  Within this perennial question, two particular sub-questions have long intrigued and perplexed me.

One sort of question is a Bible relevancy question.  Why is idolatry so important in the Bible?  Idolatry is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures.1 So what? Is the problem of idolatry even relevant today, except on certain mission fields where worshipers still bow to images?

The second kind of question is a counseling question, a “psychology” question.  How do we make sense of the myriad significant factors that shape and determine human behavior?  In particular, can we ever make satisfying sense of the fact that people are simultaneously inner-directed and socially-shaped?

These questions-and their answers-eventually intertwined.  That intertwining has been fruitful both in my personal life and in my counseling of troubled people.

THE RELATIONSHIP OF INDIVIDUAL MOTIVATION TO SOCIOLOGICAL CONDITIONING

The relevance of massive chunks of Scripture hangs on our understanding of idolatry.  But let me focus the question through a particular verse in the New Testament which long troubled me.  The last line of 1 John woos, then commands us: “Beloved children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).  In a 105-verse treatise on living in vital fellowship with Jesus, the Son of God, how on earth does that unexpected command merit being the final word?  Is it perhaps a scribal emendation?  Is it an awkwardfaux pas by a writer who typically weaves dense and orderly tapestries of meaning with simple, repetitive language?  Is it a culture-bound, practical application tacked onto the end of one of the most timeless and heaven-dwelling epistles?  Each of these alternatives misses the integrity and power of John’s final words.

Instead, John’s last line properly leaves us with that most basic question which God continually poses to each human heart.  Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight?  It is a question bearing on the immediate motivation for one’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings.  In the Bible’s conceptualization, the motivation question is the lordship question.  Who or what “rules” my behavior, the Lord or a substitute?  The undesirable answers to this question—answers which inform our understanding of the “idolatry” we are to avoid—are most graphically presented in 1 John 2:15-17, 3:7-10, 4:1-6, and 5:19. It is striking how these verses portray a confluence of the “sociological,” the “psychological,” and the “demonological” perspectives on idolatrous motivation.2

The inwardness of motivation is captured by the inordinate and proud “desires of the flesh” (1 John 2:16), our inertial self-centeredness, the wants, hopes, fears, expectations, “needs” that crowd our hearts.  The externality of motivation is captured by “the world” (1 John 2:15-17,4:1-6), all that invites, models, reinforces, and conditions us into such inertia, teaching us lies.  The “demonological” dimension of motivation is the Devil’s behavior-determining lordship (1 John 3:7-10,5:19), standing as a ruler over his kingdom of flesh and world.  In contrast, to “keep yourself from idols” is to live with a whole heart of faith in Jesus. It is to be controlled by all that lies behind the address “beloved children” (see especially 1 John 3:1-3,4:7-5:12).  The alternative to Jesus, the swarm of alternatives, whether approached through the lens of flesh, world, or the Evil One, is idolatry.

An Internal Problem

The notion of idolatry most often emerges in discussions of the worship of actual physical images, the creation of false gods.  But the Scriptures develop the idolatry theme in at least two major directions pertinent to my discussion here.  First, the Bible internalizes the problem.  “Idols of the heart” are graphically portrayed in Ezekiel 14:1-8.  The worship of tangible idols is, ominously, an expression of a prior heart defection from YHWH your God.3 “Idols of the heart” is only one of many metaphors which move the locus of God’s concerns into the human heart, establishing an unbreakable bond between specifics of heart and specifics of behavior: hands, tongue, and all the other members.  The First Great Commandment, to “love God heart, soul, mind, and might,” also demonstrates the essential “inwardness” of the law regarding idolatry.  The language of love, trust, fear, hope, seeking, serving—terms describing a relationship to the true God—is continually utilized in the Bible to describe our false loves, false trusts, false fears, false hopes, false pursuits, false masters.

If “idolatry” is the characteristic and summary Old Testament word for our drift from God, then “desires” (epithumiai) is the characteristic and summary New Testament word for the same drift.4 Both are shorthand for the problem of human beings.  The New Testament language of problematic “desires” is a dramatic expansion of the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (epithumia).  The tenth commandment is also a command that internalizes the problem of sin, making sin “psychodynamic.”  It lays bare the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart, as Paul powerfully describes it in Romans 7.  Interestingly (and unsurprisingly) the New Testament merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires.  Idolatry becomes a problem of the heart, a metaphor for human lust, craving, yearning, and greedy demand.5

A Social Problem

Second, the Bible treats idolatry as a central feature of the social context, “the world,” which shapes and molds us.  The world is a “Vanity Fair,” as John Bunyan strikingly phrased it in Pilgrim’s Progress.6Bunyan’s entire book, and the Vanity Fair section in particular, can be seen as portraying the interaction of powerful, enticing, and intimidating social shapers of behavior with the self-determining tendencies of Christian’s own heart.  Will Christian serve the Living God or any of a fluid multitude of idols crafted by his wife, neighbors, acquaintances, enemies, fellow members of idolatrous human society…and, ultimately, his own heart?7

That idolatries are both generated from within and insinuated from without has provocative implications for contemporary counseling questions.  Of course, the Bible does not tackle our contemporary issues in psychological jargon or using our observational data.8 Yet, for example, the Bible lacks the rich particulars of what psychologists today might describe as a “dysfunctional family or marital system” only because it does not put those particular pieces of human behavior and mutual influence under the microscope.  The “lack” is only in specific application.  The biblical categories do comprehend how individuals in a family system—or any other size or kind of social grouping—work and influence one another for good or ill.  For example, the life patterns often labeled “codependency” are more precisely and penetratingly understood as instances of “co-idolatry.”  In the case of a “co-idolatrous relationship,” then, two people’s typical idol patterns reinforce and compete with each other.  They fit together in an uncanny way, creating massively destructive feedback loops.

The classic alcoholic husband and rescuing wife are enslaved within an idol system whose components complement each other all too well.  There are many possible configurations to this common pattern of false gods.  In one typical configuration, the idol constellation in the husband’s use of alcohol might combine a ruling and enslaving love of pleasure, the escapist pursuit of a false savior from the pains and frustrations in his life, playing the angry and self-righteous judge of his wife’s clinging and dependent ways, the self-crucifying of his periodic remorse, a trust in man which seeks personal validation through acceptance by his bar companions, and so forth.

The idol pattern in the wife’s rescuing behavior might combine playing the martyred savior of her husband and family, playing the proud and self-righteous judge of her husband’s iniquity, a trust in man which overvalues the opinions of her friends, a fear of man which generates an inordinate desire for a male’s love and affection as crucial to her survival, and so forth.  Each of their idols (and consequent behavior, thoughts, and emotions) is “logical” within the idol system, the miniature Vanity Fair of allurements and threats within which both live.  Their idols sometimes are modeled, taught, and encouraged by the other person(s) involved: her nagging and his anger mirror and magnify each other; his bar buddies and her girl friends reinforce their respective self-righteousness and self-pity. The idols sometimes are reactive and compensatory to the other person: he reacts to her nagging with drinking, and she reacts to his drinking by trying to rescue and to change him. Vanity Fair is an ever so tempting…hell on earth.

Spiritual Counterfeits

Idols counterfeit aspects of God’s identity and character, as can be seen in the vignette above: Judge, savior, source of blessing, sin-bearer, object of trust, author of a will which must be obeyed, and so forth.  Each idol that clusters in the system makes false promises and gives false warnings: “if only…then….”  For example, the wife’s “enabling” behavior expresses an idolatrous playing of the savior.  This idol promises and warns her, “If only you can give the right thing and can make it all better, then your husband will change.  But if you don’t cover for him, then disaster will occur.”  Because both the promises and warnings are lies, service to each idol results in a hangover of misery and accursedness.  Idols lie, enslave, and murder.  They are continually insinuated by the one who was a liar, slave master and murderer from the beginning.  They are under the immediate wrath of God who frequently does not allow such things to work well in His world.9
The simple picture of idolatry—a worshiper prostrated before a figure of wood, metal or stone—is powerfully extended by the Bible.  Idolatry becomes a concept with which to comprehend the intricacies of both individual motivation and social conditioning.  The idols of the heart lead us to defect from God in many ways.  They manifest and express themselves everywhere, down to the minute details of both inner and outer life.  Such idols of the heart fit hand in glove with the wares offered in the Vanity Fair of social life.  The invitations and the threats of our social existence beguile us towards defection into idolatries.  These themes provide a foundational perspective on the “bad news” that pervades the Bible.

In sum, behavioral sins are always portrayed in the Bible as “motivated” or ruled by a “god” or “gods.”  The problem in human motivation—the question of practical covenantal allegiance, God or any of the substitutes—is frequently and usefully portrayed as the problem of idolatry.  Idolatry is a problem both rooted deeply in the human heart and powerfully impinging on us from our social environment.

This brings us squarely to the second kind of question mentioned at the outset.  This second question is a counseling question.  How on earth do we put together the following three things?  First, people are responsible for their behavioral sins.  Whether called sin, personal problems, or dysfunctional living, people are responsible for the destructive things which they think, feel and do.10 If I am violent or fearful, that is my problem.

Second, people with problems come from families or marriages or sub-cultures where the other people involved also have problems.  People suffer and are victimized and misguided by the destructive things other people think, want, fear, value, feel, and do.  These may be subtle environmental influences: social shaping via modeling of attitudes and the like.  These may be acutely traumatic influences: loss or victimization.  My problems are often embedded in a tight feedback loop with your problems.  If you attack me, I tend to strike back or withdraw in fear. Your problem shapes my problems.

Third, behavior is motivated from the inside by complex, life-driving patterns of thoughts, desires, fears, views of the world, and the like, of which a person may be almost wholly unaware.  We may be quite profoundly self-deceived about what pilots and propels us.  My behavioral violence or avoidance manifests patterns of expectation that own me.  “You might hurt me…so I’d better keep my distance or attack first.”  My behavior is a strategy which expresses my motives: my trusts, my wants, my fears, my “felt needs.”  Such motives range along a spectrum from the consciously calculating to the blindly compulsive.

How are we—and those we counsel—simultaneously socially conditioned, self-deceived, and responsible for our behavior without any factor cancelling out the others?!  That is the question of the social and behavioral sciences (and it is the place they all fail when they excise God).  It is also the question that any Christian counselor must attempt to answer both in theory and practice in a way that reflects Christ’s mind.  The Bible’s view of man—both individual and social life—alone holds these things together.

A Three-Way Tension

Motives are simply what move us, the causes of or inducements to action, both the causal “spring” of life and the telic “goal” of life.11 The notion of motivation captures the inward-drivenness and goal-oriented nature of human life in its most important and troublesome features.  All psychologies grapple with these issues.  But no psychology has conceptual resources adequate to make sense of the interface between responsible behavior, a shaping social milieu, and a heart which is both self-deceived and life-determining.

Here are some examples.  Moralism—the working psychology of the proverbial man on the street—sticks with responsible behavior.  Complex causalities are muted in toto.  Behavioral psychologies see both drives and rewards but cast their lot with the milieu, taking drives as untransformable givens.  Both responsible behavior and a semi-conscious but renewable heart are muted.  Humanistic psychologies see the interplay of inner desire/need with external fulfillment or frustration but cast their final vote for human self-determination.  Both responsible behavior and the power of extrinsic forces are muted.  Ego psychologies see the twisted conflict between heart’s desire and well-internalized social contingencies.  But the present milieu and responsible behavior are muted. It is hard to keep three seemingly simple elements together.

Unity ‘with Respect to God’

The Bible—the voice of the Maker of humankind, in other words!—speaks to the same set of issues with a uniquely unified vision.  There is no question that we are morally responsible: our works or fruit count.  There is no question that fruit comes from an inner root to which we are often blind.  “Idols of the heart,” “desires of the flesh,” “fear of man,” “love of money,” “chasing after…,” “earthly-minded,” “pride,” and a host of other word pictures capture well the biblical view of inner drives experienced as deceptively self-evident needs or goals.  There is also no question that we are powerfully constrained by social forces around us.  The “world,” “Vanity Fair,” “the counsel of the wicked,” “false prophets,” “temptation and trial,” and the like capture something of the influences upon us.  Other people model and purvey false laws or false standards, things which misdefine value and stigma, blessedness and accursedness, the way of life, and the way of death.  They sin against us.  God quite comfortably juxtaposes these three simple things which tend to fly apart in human formulations.  I am responsible for my sins: “Johnny is a bad boy.” My will is in bondage: “Johnny can’t help it.”  I am deceived and led about by others: “Johnny got in with a bad crowd.” How can these be simultaneously true?

The answer, which all the psychologies and sociologies miss, is actually quite simple.  Human motivation is always “with respect to God.”  The social and behavioral sciences miss this “intentionality,” because they themselves are idolatrously motivated.  In a massive irony, they build into their charter and methodology a blindness to the essential nature of their subject matter.

Human motivation is intrinsic neither to the individual nor to human society.  Human motivation is never strictly psychological or psycho-social or psycho-social-somatic.  It is not strictly either psychodynamic or sociological or biological or any combination of these.  These terms are at best metaphors for components in a unitary phenomenon which is essentially religious or covenantal.  Motivation is always God-relational.  Thus human motivation is not essentially the sort of unitary species-wide phenomenon that the human sciences pursue.  It is encountered and observed in actual life as an intrinsically binary phenomenon: faith or idolatry.  The only unitary point in human motives is the old theological construct: human beings are worshiping creatures, willy-nilly.  Seeing this, the Bible’s view alone can unify the seemingly contradictory elements in the explanation of behavior.

The deep question of motivation is not “What is motivating me?”  The final question is,“Who is the master of this pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior?”  In the biblical view, we are religious, inevitably bound to one god or another.  People do not have needs.  We have masters, lords, gods, be they oneself, other people, valued objects, Satan.  The metaphor of an idolatrous heart and society capture the fact that human motivation bears an automatic relationship to God: Who, other than the true God, is my god?  Let me give two examples, one dear to the heart of behaviorists and the other dear to the heart of humanistic psychologists.

Hunger as Idolatry

When a “hunger drive” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am actually engaging in religious behavior.  I—”the flesh”—have become my own god, and food has become the object of my will, desires, and fears.  The Bible observes the same mass of motives which the behavioral sciences see as a “primary drive.”  Something biological is certainly going on. Something psychological, and even sociological, is going on.  But the Bible’s conceptualization differs radically.  I am not “hunger¬driven.” I am “hunger-driven-rather-than-God-driven.”

We are meant to relate to food by thankfully eating what we know we have received and by sharing generously.  I am an active idolater when normal hunger pangs are the wellspring of problem behavior and attitudes.  Normal desires tend to become inordinate and enslaving.  The various visible sins which can attend such an idolatry—gluttony, anxiety, thanklessness, food obsessions and “eating disorders,” irritability when dinner is delayed, angling to get the bigger piece of pie, miserliness, eating to feel good, and the like—make perfect sense as outworkings of the idol that constrains my heart.12 Problem behavior roots in the heart and has to do with God.

The idolatries inhabiting our relations with food, however, are as social as they are biological or psychological.  Perhaps my father modeled identical attitudes.  Perhaps my mother used food to get love and to quell anxiety.  Perhaps they went through the Great Depression and experienced severe privation, which has left its mark on them and made food a particular object of anxiety.  Perhaps food has always been my family’s drug of choice.  Perhaps food is the medium through which love, happiness, anger and power are expressed.  Perhaps I am bombarded with provocative food advertisements.  The variations and permutations are endless.

Membership in the society of the fallen sons and daughters of Adam ensures that we will each be a food idolater in one way or another.13 Membership in American consumer society shapes that idolatry into typical forms.  A complex system of idolatrous values can be attached to food.  For example, we characteristically lust for a great variety of foodstuffs.  Food plays a role in the images of beauty and strength which we serve, in desires for health and fears of death.  Food—the quantities and types prepared, the modes of preparation and consumption—is a register of social status.  Membership in a famished Ethiopian society would have shaped the generic idolatry into different typical forms.  Membership in the micro-society of my family further particularizes the style of food idolatry: for example, perhaps in our family system hunger legitimized irritability, and eating was salvific, delivering us from destroying our family with anger.  Yet in all these levels of social participation, my individuality is not lost.  I put my own idiosyncratic stamp on food idolatry.  For example, perhaps I am peculiarly enslaved to Fritos when tense and peculiarly nervous about whether red food dyes are carcinogenic!

Security as Idolatry

Behaviorists speak of “drives” and tend to “lower” the focus to the ways we are most similar to animals.  Humanists and existentialists, on the other hand, speak of “needs” and tend to “raise” the focus to uniquely human social and existential goals.  But the same critique applies.  When a “need for security” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am again engaging in religious behavior.  Rather than serving the true God, the god I serve is the approval and respect of people, either myself or others.  I am an idolater.  I am not “motivated by a need for security.”  I am “motivated by a lust for security rather than ruled by God.”  Or, since desire and fear are complementary perspectives on human motivation, “I fear man” instead of “I fear and trust God.”  Need theories, like drive theories, can never comprehend the “rather than God,” which is always built into the issue of human motivation.  They can never comprehend the fundamental idolatry issue, which sees that the things which typically drive us really exist as inordinate desires of the flesh that are direct alternatives to submitting to the desires of the Spirit.

Our lusts for security, of course, are tutored as well as spontaneous.  “Vanity Fair” operates as effectively here as it does with our hunger.  Powerful and persuasive people woo and intimidate us that we might trust or fear them.  In convicting us of our false trusts and acknowledging the potency of the pressures on us, the Scriptures again offer us the liberating alternative of knowing the Lord.14

Idols: A Secondary Development?

When the conceptual structures of humanistic psychology are “baptized” by Christians, the fundamental “rather than God” at the bottom of human motivation continues to be missed.  For example, many Christian counselors absolutize a need or yearning for love.  As observant human beings, they accurately see that fallen and cursed people are driven to seek stability, love, acceptance, and affirmation, and that we look for such blessings in empty idols.  As committed Christians they often want to lead people to trust Jesus Christ rather than their idols.  But they improperly insert an a priori and unitary relational need, an in-built yearning or empty love tank as underpinning the heart’s subsequent divide between faith and idolatry.

They baptize this “need,” describing it as God-created.  Idolatry becomes an improper way to meet a legitimate need, and our failure to love others becomes a product of unmet needs.  The Gospel of Christ is redefined as the proper way to meet this need.  In this theory then, idolatry is only a secondary development: our idols are wrong ways to meet legitimate needs.  Repentance from idolatry is thus also secondary, being instrumental to the satisfaction of needs.  Such satisfaction is construed to be the primary content of God’s good news in Christ.  Biblically, however, idolatry is the primary motivational factor.  We fail to love people because we are idolaters who love neither God nor neighbor.  We become objectively insecure because we abide under God’s curse and because other people are just as self-centered as we are.  We create and experience estrangement from both God and other people.  The love of God teaches us to repent of our “need for love,” seeing it as a lust, receiving merciful real love, and beginning to learn how to love rather than being consumed with getting love.

Humans lust after all sorts of good things and false gods—including love—in attempting to escape the rule of God.  The love-need psychologies do not dethrone the inner sanctum of our heart’s idolatry.  Structurally, the logic of love-need systems is analogous to the “health and wealth” false gospels.  Jesus gives you what you deeply yearn for without challenging those yearnings.

It is no surprise that, for good or ill, love-need psychology only rings the bells of certain kinds of counselees, who are particularly attuned to the wavelength of what we might call the intimacy idols.  Such theories lack appeal and effectiveness “cross-culturally” to people and places where the reigning idols are not intimacy idols but, for example, power, status, sensual pleasure, success, or money.  A love-need system must interpret such idols reductionistically, as displacements or compensatory versions of the “real need” which motivates people.

The Bible is simpler.  Any one of the idols may have an independent hold on the human heart. Idols may reduce to one another in part: for example, a man with an intractable pornography and lust problem may be significantly helped by repentantly realizing that his lust expresses a tantrum over a frustrated desire to be married, a desire which he has never recognized as idolatrous.  Idols can be compounded on top of idols.  But sexual lust has its own valid primary existence as an idol as well.  A biblical understanding of the idolatry motif explains why need models seem plausible and also thoroughly remakes the model.  In biblical reality— in reality, in other words!—there is no such thing as that neutral, normal and a priori love need at the root of human motivation.

The biblical theme of idolatry provides a penetrating tool for understanding both the springs of and the inducements to sinful behavior.  The causes of particular sins, whether “biological drives,” “psychodynamic forces from within,” “socio-cultural conditioning from without,” or “demonic temptation and attack” can be truly comprehended through the lens of idolatry.  Such comprehension plows the field for Christian counseling to become Christian in deed as well as name, to become ministry of the many-faceted good news of Jesus Christ.

CASE STUDY AND ANALYSIS

Using a case study of a hurt-angry-fearful person, this article will now explore in greater detail the relationship between “world” and “heart” in the production of complex and dysfunctional behaviors, emotional responses, cognitive processes, and attitudes.

Wally is a 33-year-old man.15 He has been married to Ellen for eight years.  They have two children.  He is a highly committed Christian.  He works for his church half time as an administrator and building overseer and half time in a diaconal ministry of mercy among inner city poor.  He and his wife sought counseling after an explosion in their often-simmering marriage.  He became enraged and beat her up.  Then he ran away, threatening never to come back.  He reappeared three days later, full of guilt, remorse, and a global sense of failure.

The current marital problems are exacerbated versions of long-standing problems: anger, inability to deeply reconcile, threats of violence alternating with threats of suicide, depression, workaholism alternating with escapism, a pattern of moderate drinking when under stress, generally poor communication, use of pornography, and loneliness.  Wally has no close friends.

Several years ago Wally became involved sexually with a woman he was working with diaconally: “I know it was wrong, but I just felt so bad for her and how rough she’d had it that I found myself trying to comfort her physically.”  He broke it off, and Ellen forgave him; but both acknowledge there has been a residue of guilt and mistrust.

He oscillates between “the flame-thrower and the deep freeze.”  On the one hand he can be abrasive, manipulative, angry, and unforgiving.  On the other hand he withdraws, feels hurt, anxious, guilty, and afraid of people.  He oscillates between anger at Ellen’s “bossiness, nagging, controlling me, not supporting me or listening to me” and depression at his own sins.  Her patterns and his create a feedback system in which each tends to bring out and reinforce the worst in the other.

Wally grew up in a secular, Jewish, working class family.  He was born when his father was 52 years old and his mother, 42.  By dint of hard work, long hours, and scraping by, they bought a house in a relatively affluent WASP suburb shortly after Wally was born.  Wally’s father was a critical man, impossible to please.  “If I got all A’s with one B, it was ‘What’s this?’  If I mowed and raked the lawn, it was ‘You missed a spot behind the garage.’”

After his retirement at age 70, Wally’s father became “much more mellow; and, with my having become a Christian and trying to forgive him, our relationship wasn’t half bad the last five years of his life.”  His mother was “well-meaning, nice, but ineffective, totally intimidated by my Dad.”  Wally had been a bit of a “weirdo” in high school: “I never matched up to the bourgeois values. I was too smart, too uncoordinated, too ugly, too shy, too awkward, and too poor to cut it in school.”

Wally became a Christian during his first year in college and immediately gravitated towards work with the poor and downcast.  “I have little sympathy for rich, suburban Christians; but I love the poor, the single parents, the ex-addicts, the psychiatric patients, the ex-cons, the orphans and widows, the handicapped, the losers.”  His Christian commitment is intense and life-dominating.  He loves Jesus Christ.  He believes the Gospel.  He desires to share Christ with others.  He knows what his behavioral sins are, but he feels trapped.  “I just react instinctively.  Then I feel guilty.  You know the pattern!”

Financially, Wally and Ellen are not well off.  They are not extravagant spenders, but they face continual financial decisions: Dental work for the children?  Should we buy a house?  Should we take a vacation or work side jobs to earn a little extra money?  How many hours a week should Ellen try to work outside the home?  Can we really afford to tithe?  Should we accede to the kids’ desire for a VCR?  They live month to month, and the bill cycle periodically creates quite a bit of stress.

How are Christian counselors to understand Wally in order to help him?

“Vanity Fair”: The Sociology of Idolatry

Idols define good and evil in ways contrary to God’s definitions.  They establish a locus of control that is earth-bound: either in objects (e.g., lust for money), other people (“I need to please my critical father”), or myself (e.g., self-trusting pursuit of my personal agenda).  Such false gods create false laws, false definitions of success and failure, of value and stigma.  Idols promise blessing and warn of curses for those who succeed or fail against the law: “If you get a large enough IRA, you will be secure.  If I can get certain people to like and respect me, then my life is valid.”  There are numerous idolatrous values which influenced Wally and continue to pressure him: beguiling him, frightening him, controlling him, constraining him, enslaving him.

His father’s perfectionistic demands were one of the prominent idols impressed into Wally’s personal history: “You must please me in whatever way I determine.”  Wally believed his father’s sinful, lying demand.  “Fear of man” describes the phenomenon from the psychological side of the equation, a particular “idol of the heart.”  “Oppression” and “injustice” describe his father’s powerful demands on the sociological side.  We see the dominion of a father whose leadership style was that of a tyrant-king, not that of a servant-king promoting the well-being of his son.16 In essence, he lied, bullied, enslaved, and condemned.  “I can remember lying on my bed while my Dad went on and on lecturing me, ranting and raving.”  Wally was conditioned to be very concerned with what significant people thought of him.  At the same time Wally bought the idol.  He is simultaneously a victim and guilty.  He was abused by powerful idols operative within his family system.  He also instinctively both bought into those idols and produced his own competitive idols.

Relationships are rarely static.  There were various sides and various phases to Wally’s relationship with his father’s critical opinion.  At times Wally temporarily succeeded in pleasing his father and felt good about himself.  At other times he failed in his father’s eyes, earning only scorn for being “a spaz, girlishly emotional.”  At other times he obsessively, almost maniacally, strived to please his father.  He once spent a summer, with dismal results, trying to learn to dribble a basketball in a way that did not “look like a six-year-old girl.”  Some of the classic “low self-esteem” symptom patterns were established in this crucible.

At other times Wally rebelled against his father and his father’s implacable demands.  He pitted his will against his father.  Being highly intelligent, he was formidable and creative as a rebel.  In his teens he succeeded in driving his father half crazy by setting up contrary value systems (serving contrary idols): rock music, bizarre dress and hairstyle, left-wing politics, marijuana use.  One idol—”I need to please my father”—led into another—”I’ll do what I want and set myself in opposition to my father.”17

There are even elements in Wally’s conversion to Christianity which might be construed as part of this tendency to define himself in opposition to his father’s secular, ethnic Jewish, upwardly mobile culture.  His Christianity could be used at times to torment his father.  Idols are fluid.  The rebellious stance ultimately became Wally’s predominant long-term commitment and undergirds a certain low-grade resentment he still feels at the memory of his father, now five years dead.  But rebellion is not unmixed.  It can be tinctured with regrets, a sense of failure, or even with merciful and gentle tendencies.  “Sometimes I think I have really come to peace with my father—an honest, merciful peace that Christ has painstakingly wrought in me.  At other times I know I lose it and react like the wounded and proud animal I once was.”

Wally’s father was not static either.  In his later years he mellowed considerably.  Wally’s Christian faith and his father’s evolution into a gentler man combined to bring a fair measure of kindness and forgiveness into the relationship.  It became peaceable but never warm.  Idols have a history, a “shelf life.”18 Vanity Fair evolves.  A demanding father became a less demanding father who eventually promulgated a friendlier idol: he wanted to bask in the warmth of “family” and retirement.  Our hearts also evolve.  A youth with a compulsion to please became a young man who half wanted to please and half rebelled.  The young man became a middle-aged man driven and haunted by some of the same patterns of contradictory compulsions, even after his earthly father’s death.  Wally both lusts after the approval and respect of people and yet rebels and isolates himself in his pride.

Multiple Idols

We become infested with idols.  The idolatrous patterns in Wally’s relationship with his father manifest in other relationships.  Wally has had ongoing problems with authority figures in school, the military, work, and the church.  He has had the same sorts of problems with his wife, friends, and even his children.  Naturally, he brings this same pattern into the counseling relationship, with all the challenges that creates for building trust and a working relationship.  He continues to manifest a typical stew of associated problems: a slavish desire to be approved, a deep suspicion that he won’t be approved, a stubborn independency.

We have attended in some detail to the way in which his father’s demandingness constituted an idol system which staked out a claim in Wally’s affections.  We will give less detail to other influences, though each might be explored in equal detail.  His mother’s passivity in the face of conflict set a model for him which still frequently colors his relationship to Ellen.  The “bourgeois values” of his high school peer culture—dating, athletics, scoring sexually, looks, clothes, money, “cool”—also marked him out as a failure and fueled both his rebellion and his sense of shameful inadequacy.  He bought the bourgeois values and failed against them.  He rebelled against those values and bought the alternative values of the drug culture, in which he succeeded.  He rebelled against both straights and druggies and isolated himself as a world of one, which sometimes worked and sometimes failed.  All these things happened, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes successively.

Even the counterculture values of his “radical Christian” subculture can be understood in part as an idolatrous narrowing of the Christian life in reaction to the opposite idolatrous equation of Christianity with the American Dream.  Certain biblical goods are magnified to the exclusion of other biblical goods.  In various ways Wally continues to play out a three-fold theme.  First, he typically rebels against certain dominant “successful people” cultures.  Second, he finds his validity in the affirmation of a “down-and-out” subculture.  Third, all the while he acts in idiosyncratic pride to create his own culture-of-one in which he plays king, and his opinions on anything from the dinner to eschatology are self-evident truth.

“Who can understand the heart of man?!”  And who can understand the world that negotiates with that heart?!  Wally and the myriad forces which impinge on him elude exhaustive, rational analysis.  Yet we can describe enough of what goes on in his complex heart and complex world to minister helpfully to him.  And the Wally we meet today is only today’s Wally, not the Wally of some prior point in his personal history.  Biblical counsel, the mind of Christ about Wally’s life, can be given.  Wisdom, the nourishing and honeyed tongue, can make satisfying and convicting sense of things, and Wally can learn to live, think, and act with such wisdom.

Many other idol systems and sub-systems impinge on Wally.  Some are the same players Bunyan described in his Vanity Fair: cultural attitudes, values, fears, and opportunities which circle around money, sex, food, power, success, or comfort.  Certain gentle-faced idols—the mass media, professional sports, and the alcohol industry—woo him with temporary compensations and false, escapist saviors from the pressures generated by his slavery to the harsh, terrifying idols which enslave and whip him along at other times: “I must perform. I must prove myself.  Everyone I respect must like me.  What if I fail?”

Some of the other idol systems which daily impact on Wally are found within the marital system and the family system.  Ellen’s and the children’s values and desires provoke and persuade Wally in various ways.  If Ellen worries about money, if the children get swept up with complaining when they do not get what they want, if Ellen nags Wally with expectations of moralistic behavioral change, Wally is variously worried, angry, compliant, depressed, defensive, full of denial, or whatever else, depending on how he interfaces with the particular micro-society that is constraining him.19

This way of exploring “What rules me?” is “sociological.”  False gods are highly catching!  With good reason both Old and New Testaments abound with warnings against participating in pagan cultures and associating with idolaters, fools, false teachers, angry people, and the like.  Our enemies not only hurt us, they also tempt us to be like them.  False voices are not figments which the individual soul hallucinates.  “World” complements “flesh” to constitute monolithic evil: the manufacture of idols instead of worship of the true God.

If we would help people have eyes and ears for God, we must know well which alternative gods clamor for their attention.  These forces and shaping influences neither determine nor excuse our sins.  But they do nurture, channel, and exacerbate our sinfulness in particular directions.  They are often atmospheric, invisible, unconscious influences.  Conscious repentance begins to thrive where I see both my own distortions and the distortions impinging upon me from others.  Both tempt me, and I must battle both.

Scripture is sensitive to sociological forces without compromising human responsibility.  But, of course, idols are also “in here” in our hearts, determining the course of our lives.  In the discussion above, Wally’s heart response to his environment—idols of the heart—continually intruded.  The two are impossible to disentangle absolutely.  But in the next section I will look in greater detail at the more psychological dimension of idolatry.

Idols of the Heart: the Psychology of Idolatry

At the simplest level Wally both imbibed the idols to which he was exposed and creatively fabricated his own.  He has variously succeeded, failed, or rebelled against various value systems.  But in each case he nurtures and serves numerous unbiblical values.  His life implicitly validates many lies.  His heart is deeply divided between the true God and idols.  Is he a Christian?  Yes.  But the ongoing work of renewal must engage him genuinely over the particular patterns of idolatry that functionally substitute for faith in Christ.  There has been a measure of genuine fruit in his life.  But there has been a measure of bending the true God to the agenda of the flesh.

Idols are rarely solitary.  Our lives become infested with them.  Wally is psychologically controlled by a lush variety of false gods.  For example, he typically oscillates between “pride” and the “fear of man.”20Pride or “playing god” generates one set of sins: anger, manipulation, compulsions to control people and circumstances, a “Type A personality,” rebellion against parents and the bourgeois.  The fear of man or “making others into god” generates another set: self-consciousness, fears, depression, failure, anxiety, withdrawal, a gnawing sense of inferiority, chameleon behavior.  They work hand in hand to produce his “perfectionism,” both in its anxious and its demanding aspects: “My performance in your eyes.  Your performance in my eyes.”

Many other gods wait in the wings, playing occasional bit parts in the drama of Wally’s life.  At times Wally’s god is a lust for escapist comfort from the pressure cooker he creates.  Alcohol abuse, TV watching, video games and pornography provide fleeting escape.  At times he is owned by a desire to “help” people.  He becomes obsessed with his ministry, angry at any who hinder it, prone to become messianic (and even adulterous), justifying any doubtful actions on his part by reference to the supreme value of “my ministry.”  Of course, this is only a sampler.  Any of scores of particular lesser gods can appear in the temple of his heart depending on traffic conditions, the weather, how his wife treats him, how his children do in school, etc.

The real Wally is irreducibly complex!  Even as I portray Wally in broad strokes, it is clear that his life emerges from an ever-shifting mosaic of false loyalties.  This noted, are there hierarchies of idols or prepotent idols of unusual significance in Wally’s case?  Yes, there are.  Wally’s life may well play out typical, oft-repeated themes.  He is a “type” in a loose sense, though he can never be reduced to a rigid diagnostic type because of the myriads of fluid idols which constrain him.  Certain idols strike me as predominant in Wally.  “Pride” (I play god) and “fear of man” (I install you as god) are crucial.  One finds variations on the themes of “I want my way” and “How do I perform in your eyes?” endlessly repeated in Wally’s life.  Demand and fear take turns in the spotlight.  Other typically dominant idols—sexual pleasure, money, etc.—certainly have their say in Wally’s life but have a more low-grade, nagging quality, which in a different counselee might be greatly intensified.

It is striking how biblical categories—the idol motif, in this case—stay close to the concrete details of life and do not speculate abstract typologies.  The bedrock similarities between people tend to be brought into view.  In our psychologized culture we are used to definitive analyses of Wally and others according to a typology.  He is a type-A person.  He is a Pleaser.  He is a Controller.  He is a combination of melancholic and choleric temperaments.  He is a typical ACOA or member of a dysfunctional family.  His root sin is anger.  His problem is low self-esteem.  In DSM-III categories he is a…, and so forth.  Such statements tend to pass for significant knowledge.  In fact, they are not explanations for anything but are simply ways of describing common clusters of symptoms.

Root Idols?

Given the prevalence of this mode of typing people, it might be expected that we could say something like, “His root idol is….”  But the data on idolatry does not generally support such reductionistic understandings of the human heart.21 At best we can make the softer claim, “His most characteristic idol is…usually…but at other times…!”  For purely heuristic purposes it may be useful to notice that one person is particularly attuned to the intimacy idols, another to avoidance idols, another to power idols, another to comfort idols, another to pleasure idols, another to religiosity idols, and so forth.  A person’s style of sin—”characteristic flesh” in Richard Lovelace’s graphic term22—may tend to cluster habitually around particular predominant idols.

But sin is creative as well as habitual!  We should not forget that the reductionism the Bible consistently offers is not a typology that distinguishes people from each other but is a summary comment that highlights our commonalities: all have turned aside from God, “each to his own way,” “doing what was right in his own eyes.”23 Under this master categorization the temple teems with potential shapes for idols and false gods.  The rampant and proliferating desires (plural) of the flesh contend with the Spirit and clamor for our faith and obedience.  Typologies are pseudo-explanations.  They are descriptive, not analytical, though as conceptual tools for various psychologies and psychotherapies they pretend to explanatory power.  At best, typologies describe “syndromes,” patterns of fruit and life experience that commonly occur together.24 Current typologies are not helpful for exposing the real issues in the lives of real people.  At best they are redundant of good description and intimate knowledge of a particular individual.  At worst, they are bearers of misleading conceptual freight, for they duck the idolatry issues.

How do we explain the fact that all of us are not exactly like Wally though we share the same generic set of idolatrous tendencies?: the numerous forms of pride and the fear of man; obsession with sensual pleasures; preoccupation with money; tendencies towards self-trust regarding our opinions, agendas, abilities; the creation of false views of God based on our life experience and desires; desire to be intrinsically righteous, worthy, and esteemable; and the like.  Jay Adams has perceptively commented on the commonality inhering within individual styles of sin:

Sin, then, in all of its dimensions, clearly is the problem with which the Christian counselor must grapple.  It is the secondary dimensions—the variations on the common themes—that make counseling so difficult.  While all men are born sinners and engage in the same sinful practices and dodges, each develops his own styles of sinning.  The styles (combinations of sins and dodges) are peculiar to each individual; but beneath them are the common themes.  It is the counselor’s work to discover these commonalities beneath the individualities.25

 ‘Neighborhoods’ in Vanity Fair

How do individual styles develop?  Certainly particular “neighborhoods” in Vanity Fair can empower different idols.  It doesn’t surprise us that Wally’s demanding and unpleasable father can be correlated with a particular form of the “fear of man” as a significant idol in Wally’s heart.  Yet because of the continual interplay of idol-making heart with idol-offering milieu, another child might grow up with very accepting parents, and the “fear of man” would be similarly empowered as a lust never to be rejected or fail.  Our idols both covet what we do not have and hold on for dear life to what we do have.

Many of the nuances of our idolatries are socially shaped by the opportunities and values that surround us.  For example, it is unsurprising that more people will become homosexuals (or adulterers, or pornographers, or whatever) in a culture that makes certain forms of sexual sin available, legitimate, or normal.  For example, Wally grew up in a family moderately obsessed with academic and professional achievement.  His next door neighbor might have grown up in a family obsessed with escapist pleasure, and he might have been nurtured to live for “Miller Time” and televised sports.  The generic idols in every heart may bear different fruit in different people.  For example, Baal is no threat to produce “religious” forms of idolatry today, but Mormonism is such a threat.

Much of the variation among us is simply empowered by the “accidents” of life experience: tragedies or smooth sailing, handicaps or health, riches or poverty, New York City or Iowa or Uganda, a high school or a graduate school education, first-born or eighth-born, male or female, born in 1500 B.C. or 1720 or 1920 or 1960, and the like.  Much individual variation is due to hereditary and temperamental differences: kinds of intelligence, physical coordination and capabilities, variation in talents and abilities, metabolic and hormonal differences, and so forth.  In the last analysis, idiosyncratic choice from among the opportunities and options one encounters accounts for the nearly infinite range for individuality within the “commonalities” that biblical categories discern in us.

The diagnostic categories which pierce to the commonalities are categories such as “idolatry versus faith,” which we are using here.  These alone can embrace both the fluidities and relative stabilities of Wally’s world, flesh, and devil—and can embrace the true God who has saved Wally.  They apply toevery person in a way which is simple, but never simplistic, accounting for all the complexities.  For all our differences, the Bible speaks to every one of us.

OTHER DIAGNOSTIC PERSPECTIVES AND THE GOSPEL: MULTIPERSPECTIVAL INTERPRETATION

As we have indicated, Wally’s mass of behaviors, attitudes, cognitions, value judgments, emotions, influences, et al. can be understood right down to the details utilizing the biblical notion of idolatry.  The disorder in Wally’s life is produced by the interplay between particular idols of his heart and particular idols of his social environment.  Sins occur at the confluence of disoriented heart motives and disoriented socio-cultural systems of all sizes.  The intention of this essay has been to explore some of the dense connections between flesh and world.  But there are other ways of approaching these things which are important to recognize.

Notably absent has been attention to the equally dense connecting links between the Devil and both world and flesh in the production of Wally’s dysfunctional and sinful living.  “Who rules me?” invites awareness of spiritual powers.  Idols and demons go hand in hand in literal worship of false gods.  Not surprisingly, the functional lordship of Satan is equally evident in the more subtle idolatries that enslave Wally.  Does this mean that Wally is “demon-possessed” and the treatment of choice is exorcism?  Decidedly not.  But wherever we are problematically afraid or angry—to isolate two particular bad fruits—we are being formed into Satan’s image rather than Christ’s.  The same modalities that fight world and flesh also fight the Devil.  Intelligent faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimately the answer.  But awareness of the spiritual warfare occurring emphasizes the fact that Christian counseling is a ministry of prayer.26 Awareness of spiritual warfare also helps shake us out of the behavioral science mindset which tempts us to think about people psycho-socially, rather than with respect to God.

The Dark Lord’s stratagems are all intended to establish his lordship over people.  Satan methodically disintegrates Wally’s relationships, leads him into gross sins, deceives his mind into highly distorted and selective perceptions, accuses him into despair, discourages him, ties his life into knots in every imaginable way, fans normal desires into inordinate and addictive desires and “needs,” and the like.  This article has primarily attended to “world and flesh.”  “Devil” completes the monolithic triad of biblical perspectives on the motivation of problem behavior.

Also notably absent has been detailed attention to the somatic influences on Wally.  His problems are exacerbated by allergies, overtiredness, a diet with too much “junk food,” sexual frustration and a sedentary lifestyle.  Close attention to patterns of irritability, marital tension, sexual lust, and depression would consistently reveal a plausible somatic component.  The fact that monitoring caffeine and sugar intake, and getting more regular rest, sexual intercourse, and exercise moderates Wally’s symptoms also points to somatic influences.  Somatic factors, at minimum, influence the “quantity” of Wally’s problems, though they do not create the “quality” of his problems.  A tense irritability can flare into rage and cursing.  A case of “the blues” can spiral into bleak despair.  A tendency to ogle women can break out into purchasing Penthouse.  Wally’s body variously exacerbates or moderates the intensity of his sins.  It does not create new kinds of sins.

The Role of the Will

Also notably absent has been a discussion of the degree to which Wally’s behavior is willed and, hence, immediately controllable.  As was stressed earlier, paying biblical attention to motives of heart and world is no ploy for cutting the force out of the Bible’s view of human responsibility.  Wally chooses, even when he plunges down well-worn ruts where a fork in the road seems experientially nonexistent.  Wally has made headway in self-discipline at various times in his life. He knows what is wrong and what is right.  He is able to describe many times when he “bull-headedly chose wrong.”  He can also tell of many times when he acted out of conscious faith in Christ to choose right.

Recognizing choice does not negate the power of world, flesh, and Devil.  The more Wally grows to know himself and his environment, the more he consciously knows and experiences that he has always been making choices.  One of the purposes of working with the idol motif (or with its more culturally accessible equivalents: the idolatrous desires, hopes, fears, expectations and goals which own people) is to expand the arena in which Wally is aware of the choices he has been making implicitly.  Sanctification expands the arena of conscious choice and biblical self-control.

Also notably absent has been a discussion of the providence of God in bringing intense, transforming experiences.  Wally’s conversion “dropped out of the sky” and gave him months of freedom from sins, joy in Christ, and growing love for people.  He has had other “high times” as a Christian: times of greater vision, love, and liberty produced by a good sermon, at a retreat, or by some inexplicable opening of his heart to God in a moment of daily life.

But changes in Wally’s life—whether the product of victories in conscious spiritual warfare, of physiological alterations, of volitional commitment or of mountaintop experiences—seemingly “happen” at random.  These four paradigms often provide the stuff with which Wally thinks about problems and change in his life.  Wally has little sense of confidence that his life is moving in the direction of consistent, intelligent, desirable, whole-souled change.  His life in general seems to be an unhappy chaos, with occasional and temporary moments of symptomatic relief.  One of the goals of this essay is to describe several elements which can make change more consistent, internalized, self-conscious and genuinely transformative.  In my experience the Wallys, both inside and outside the church, tend to be very blind to the things that move them.  It is a curious but not uncommon phenomenon that a biblically literate person like Wally has no effective grasp on the idols of his own heart and the temptations of the particular Vanity Fair which surrounds him.27 Wally is all action, impulse, and emotion.  He knows relatively little about what God sees going on in his heart and his world.  The question, “What is God’s agenda in my life?” can often be answered with some confidence when I start to grasp the themes which play out in my life.

My analysis has been predominantly “psycho-social” (covenantally psycho-social!).  A full biblical analysis of Wally’s problems would be a “psycho-social-spiritual-somatic-volitional-experiential” analysis.28 To understand the exact weight of each variable is, obviously, to quest after something which is—from a human point of view, the intentions of social scientists notwithstanding!—ultimately elusive.  But the Bible’s answer is always powerfully applicable: turning from idols to the living God, renewal of mind and heart in the truth, activities captured in shorthand by the phrase “repentance and faith.”

The Lordship Question

There is some utility to teasing out these two strands of human motivation, while never forgetting that we are focusing only on several perspectives within a unified whole.  The two I have concentrated on in this article— the heart and the social milieu—without question receive the bulk of the Bible’s attention.  But the question of human motivation is ultimately the multiperspectival question of lordship, of faith in idols and false gods in tension with vital faith in the true God.  This can be looked at through numerous lenses:

  • Lordship through the lens of our hearts: The grace-filled, “strait and narrow” will of the Spirit versus the rampant, idolatrous desires of my flesh.

  • Lordship through the lens of social influences: Social shaping by the Kingdom of God and the body of Christ versus imbibing the models and values of the kingdoms of our world (various micro-kingdoms of marital and family systems; on up through progressively larger kingdoms of peer relations; of neighborhood, school, and work place cultures; of ethnic group, socio-economic class, nationality, etc.).

  • Lordship through the lens of spiritual masters: The good King Jesus versus the tyrant Satan.

  • Lordship through the lens of somatic influences: living through bodily pains and frustrations in the hope of the resurrection versus immediate service to and preoccupation with my belly’s and body’s pains, pleasures, deprivations, and wants.

  • Lordship through the lens of volitional choices: Conscious faith in God’s promises and obedience to God’s will versus believing and choosing according to my spontaneous will, desires, and opinions, “the way that seems right to a man.”

  • Lordship through the lens of experiential providence: Learning to rejoice in God amid blessings and to repent and trust God amid sufferings versus growing presumptuous, proud, or self-satisfied when things go our way and depressed, angry, or afraid when life is painful, frustrating, or unsure.

Though this article has commented particularly on the interplay between the first two lenses, my intent throughout has been to expand our view of Wally, not to constrict it.  Within the biblical conceptual framework we can bring into view all of Wally and his world.  The notion of behavior as ruled lets us hold together seeming paradoxes.  Wally is fully responsible for what he does.  Wally’s inner life is full of kinks, distortions, and blind compulsions.  Wally is continually being conditioned from without, tempted, tried, and deceived.  Wally is also a Christian.  The Spirit and the Word can work powerfully both to reorient him from the inside and to set him free from the control of what impinges on him.

Idolatry and the Ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

In this article my attention has been heavily weighted towards the issue of diagnosis: How do we biblically understand people?  But biblical diagnosis bridges immediately into biblical treatment.  The understanding of people presented here enables the message of the Gospel to apply relevantly to the problems of troubled people.

One of the major challenges facing Christian counselors is how to apply the Gospel of the love of God incisively.  There are many faulty, distorted, or inadequate ways to go about this.  The Gospel is easily truncated and weakened when idols of the heart and Vanity Fair are unperceived or misperceived.  But if we accurately comprehend the interweaving of responsible behavior, deceptive inner motives, and powerful external forces, then the riches of Christ become immediately relevant to people.  What was once “head knowledge” and “dry doctrine” becomes filled with wisdom, rel-evancy, appeal, hope, delight, and life.  People see that the Gospel is far richer than a ticket to heaven and rote forgiveness for oft-repeated behavioral sins.

How many Wallys—and Ellens—are stuck with a vague guilt over seemingly unshakable, destructive patterns?  But when Wally sees his heart’s true need and his need for deliverance from enslaving powers-that-be, he then sees how exactly he really needs Christ.  Christ powerfully meets people who are aware of their real need for help.29 We Christian counselors, both in our own lives and in our counseling, frequently do not get the Gospel straight, pointed, and applicable.  I will consider two broad tendencies among Christians who seek to help their fellows: psychologizing and moralizing.

Christian counselors with a psychologizing drift typically have a genuine interest in the motivation that underlies problem behavior.  Psychologically-oriented Christians attempt to deal with both the internal and external forces that prompt and structure behavior.  The heart issues are typically misread, however.  “Need” categories tend to replace biblical categories—idolatry, desires of the flesh, fear of man, etc.—which relate the heart immediately to God.  Also, environmental issues such as a history of abuse, poor role models, and dysfunctional family patterns tend to be given more deterministic status than they have in the biblical view.

These views of inner and outer motivation fit hand-in-glove as an explanation for behavioral and emotional problems.  “You feel horrible and act badly because your needs aren’t met because your family didn’t meet them.”  The logic of therapy coheres with the logic of the diagnosis: “I accept you, and God really accepts you.  Your needs can be met, and you can start to change how you feel and act.”  Behavioral responsibility is muted, and the process of change becomes more a matter of need-meeting than conscious repentance/metanoia and renewal of mind unto Christ.

What is the Gospel?

What happens to the Gospel when idolatry themes are not grasped?  “God loves you” typically becomes a tool to meet a need for self-esteem in people who feel like failures.  The particular content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—”grace for sinners and deliverance for the sinned against”—is down-played or even twisted into “unconditional acceptance for the victims of others’ lack of acceptance.”  Where “the Gospel” is shared, it comes across something like this: “God accepts you just as you are.  God has unconditional love for you.”  That is not the biblical Gospel, however.  God’s love is not Rogerian unconditional positive regard writ large.  A need theory of motivation—rather than an idolatry theory—bends the Gospel solution into “another gospel” which is essentially false.

The Gospel is better than unconditional love.  The Gospel says, “God accepts you just as Christ is. God has ‘contraconditional’ love for you.”  Christ bears the curse you deserve.  Christ is fully pleasing to the Father and gives you His own perfect goodness.  Christ reigns in power, making you the Father’s child and coming close to you to begin to change what is unacceptable to God about you. God never accepts me “as I am.”  He accepts me “as I am in Jesus Christ.”  The center of gravity is different.  The true Gospel does not allow God’s love to be sucked into the vortex of the soul’s lust for acceptability and worth in and of itself.  Rather, it radically decenters people—what the Bible calls “fear of the Lord” and “faith”—to look outside themselves.

Christian counselors with a psychologizing drift typically are very concerned with ministering God’s love to people who view God as the latest and greatest critic whom they can never please.  But their failure to conceptualize people’s problems in the terms this article has been exploring inevitably creates a tendency towards teaching a Liberal Gospel.  The cross becomes simply a demonstration that God loves me.  It loses its force as the substitutionary atonement by the perfect Lamb in my place, who invites my repentance for heart-pervading sin.  “The wound of my people is healed lightly.”30

Christian counselors with moralistic tendencies face a different sort of problem.  Where there is a moralizing drift to Christian counseling, Christ’s forgiveness is typically applied simply to behavioral sins.  The content of the Gospel is usually more orthodox than the content of the psychologized Gospel, but the scope of application may be truncated.  Those with psychologizing tendencies at least notice our inner complexities and outer sufferings, though they distort both systematically.  In some ways the moralizing tendency represents an inadequate grip on the kinds of “bad news” this article has been exploring.

Moralistic Christianity does not usually evidence much interest in the pressures and sufferings of our social milieu.  Counselors fear that such interest would necessarily feed those varieties of blame-shifting and accusation which spring up so readily in our hearts.  Human responsibility would be compromised.  But they do not see that understanding the evil that happens to me—the Vanity Fair that is swirling around my life—is a crucial part of my widening and deepening appreciation of Christ.  Attendance to the forces that have pressured and shaped me—and are shaping me—for ill allows me to respond intelligently, responsibly, and mercifully.  As psalm after psalm demonstrates, our sufferings are the context in which we experience the love of God, both to comfort us and to change us.  We are comforted in our afflictions as we learn of God’s promises and power.  We are changed in our afflictions as we learn to take refuge in God rather than in vain idols.

Moralizers are also weak on the inward side of motivation.  Heart motives may be attended to in part via an awareness of “self” or “flesh.”  But the solution is typically construed in all-or-nothing terms. Conversion, “Let go and let God,” and “total yieldedness” attempt to deal with motive problems through a single act of first-blessing or second-blessing housecleaning.  The Gospel is for the beginning of the Christian life or a dramatic act of consecration.  There is little sense of the patient process of inner renewal which someone like Wally—and each of us!—needs.  Jesus says to take up our cross daily, dying to the false gods we fabricate, and learning to walk in fellowship with Him who is full of grace to help us.  Receptivity to God’s love—”The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want”—is the absolutely necessary prerequisite for any sort of active obedience to God.31

I have looked at two common truncations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Both evidence an inadequate grasp of the deviance of our hearts and our corresponding vulnerability to external influences.  People are idol-makers, idol-buyers and idol-sellers.32 We wander through a busy town filled with other idol-makers, idol-buyers, and idol-sellers.  We variously buy and sell, woo, agree, intimidate, manipulate, borrow, impose, attack, or flee.  But there is a bigger Gospel.  At the gates of Vanity Fair, Christian met a man who entreated him and his companion:

Let the Kingdom be always before you; and believe steadfastly concerning things that are invisible.  Let nothing that is on this side of the other world get within you; and, above all, look well to your own hearts, and to the lusts thereof, for they are deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.  Set your faces like a flint; you have all power in heaven and earth on your side.33

Christian passed through Vanity Fair bloodied but purer in heart.  He remembered, amid hard combat with world, flesh, and Devil, the Celestial City which was his destination, and the Lord Jesus who beckoned him to life.

The biblical Gospel delivers from both personal sin and situational tyrannies.  The biblical notion of inner idolatries allows people to see their need for Christ as a merciful savior from large sins of both heart and behavior.  The notion of socio-cultural-familial-ethnic idolatries allows people to see Christ as a powerful deliverer from false masters and false value systems which we tend to absorb automatically. Christ-ian counseling is counseling which exposes our motives—our hearts and our world—in such a way that the authentic Gospel is the only possible answer.

Article published on October 9, 2009 @ http://www.ccef.org/idols-heart-and-vanity-fair

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Powlison

David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D. worked for four years in psychiatric hospitals, during which time he came to faith in Christ. He teaches at CCEF and edits The Journal of Biblical Counseling (soon to be re-launched online). He received a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in the history of science and medicine, focusing on the history of psychiatry. He has a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary, and has been doing biblical counseling for over 30 years. He has written numerous articles on counseling and on the relationship between faith and psychology. His books include Speaking Truth in Love, Seeing with New Eyes, Power Encounters, and The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context. – See more at: http://www.ccef.org/biography/david-powlison#sthash.BgnGUHsy.dpuf


1 The “First Great Commandment,” like the first two or three commandments from the decalogue, contrasts fidelity to the Lord with infidelities. The open battle with idolatry appears vividly with the golden calf and reappears throughout Judges, Samuel, Kings, the prophets, and Psalms.

2 This confluence of the world, the flesh, and the devil is unsurprising, as it recurs throughout the Scriptures: see Ephesians 2:1-3 and James 4:1-7 for particularly condensed examples.

3 “Heart” is the most comprehensive biblical term for what determines our life direction, behavior, thoughts, etc. See Proverbs 4:23, Mark 7:21-23, Hebrews 4:12f, etc.  The metaphor of “circumcision or uncircumcision of heart” is similar to “idols of the heart,” in that an external religious activity is employed to portray the inward motivational dynamics which the outward act reflects.

4 See such summary statements by Paul, Peter, John, and James as Galatians 5:16ff; Ephesians 2:3 & 4:22; 1 Peter 2:11 & 4:2; 1 John 2:16; James 1:14f, where epithumiai is the catch-all for what is wrong with us.

5 Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5.

6 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), pages 84-93.

7 I’m commenting here only on the impact of “negative” social influences, which both communicate their idols to us and provoke our hearts to produce idols.  If you rage at me, I tend to learn from you something about the supreme importance of getting my own way, as well as a few tricks and techniques for accomplishing that.  I also instinctively tend to generate compensatory idols in order to retaliate, to defend, or to escape. We tend to return evil for evil.

I could equally comment on the impact of “positive” social influences—both in Bunyan and in life—which communicate faith to us and tend to encourage faith in our hearts and repentance from idolatry.  The biblical way to deal with “enemies,” returning good for evil, is both learned from others and a product of the heart.

8 Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians of psychiatry have described how most symptoms and all diagnostic labels are culture-bound.  This is especially true with regard to functional problems (as opposed to the distinctly organic problems) which comprise the vast bulk of human misery and bad behavior.  This relativizing observation means that diagnostic labels are not “scientific” and “objectively true.”  Labels are occasionally useful heuristically if we recognize them for what they are: crude taxonomic orderings of observations.  But labels are elements within schemas of value and interpretation.  Because diagnostic categories are philosophically and theologically “loaded,” a Christian who seeks to be true to the Bible’s system of value and interpretation must generate biblical categories and must approach secular categories with extreme skepticism.

9 It is obvious that if idolatry is the problem of the “co-dependent,” then repentant faith in Christ is the solution.  This stands in marked contrast to the solutions proffered in the co-dependency literature, whether secular or glossed with Christian phrases.  That literature often perceptively describes the patterns of dysfunctional idols—addictions and dependencies— which curse and enslave people.  The idols which enslave the rescuer or the compulsive drinker do not work very well for them.

The literature may even use “idolatry” as a metaphor, without meaning “idolatry against God, therefore repentance.”  The solution, without exception, is to offer different and presumably more workable idols, rather than repentance unto the Bible’s Christ!  Secularistic therapies teach people eufunctional idols, idols which do “work” for people and “bless” them with temporarily happy lives (Psalm 73).

So, for example, self-esteem is nurtured as the replacement for trying to please unpleasable others, rather than esteem for the Lamb who was slain for me, a sinner.  Acceptance and love from new significant others, starting with the therapist, create successful versions of the fear of man and trust in man rather than teaching essential trust in God.  Self-trust and self-confidence are boosted as I am taught to set expectations for myself to which I can attain. The fruit looks good but is fundamentally counterfeit. Believers in false gospels are sometimes allowed to flourish temporarily.

Therapy systems without repentance at their core leave the idol system intact. They simply rehabilitate and rebuild fundamental godlessness to function more successfully.

The Bible’s idolatry motif diagnoses the ultimately self-destructive basis on which happy, healthy, and confident people build their lives (eufunctional idols), just as perceptively as it diagnoses unhappy people, who are more obviously and immediately self-destructive (dysfunctional idols).

10 Terminology is, of course, not indifferent. “Personal problems” and “dysfunctional living” imply a primary responsibility only to oneself, family, and society.  “Sin” implies a primary responsibility to God the Judge, with personal and social responsibilities entailed as secondary consequences.

11 The Bible’s mode of everyday observation is comfortable describing both the push and the pull of human motivation as complementary perspectives.  Psychologies tend to throw their weight either towards drives or towards goals.  Idolatry is a fertile and flexible conceptual category which stays close to the data of life, unlike the speculative abstractions of alternative and unbiblical explanations.

12 Matthew 4:1-4, 6:25-34, John 6, and Deuteronomy 8 are four passages, among many, which work out these themes in greater practical detail.  Notice how the language of relating to God—love, trust, fear, hope, seek, serve, take refuge, etc.—can be applied to relating to food.

13 Matthew 6:32: “The nations run after these things.”

14 Proverbs 29:25; Jeremiah 17:5-8.

15 Resemblances between “Wally” and any actual human being are purely coincidental products of the essential similarities among all of us.  The external details of this case study are fabricated of snippets and patterns from many different lives, altered in all the particulars of behavior, gender, age, background, etc.

Similarly, the analysis of idolatries derives from a biblical analysis of the generic human heart—my own heart included— rather than from any particular individuals. Wally is Everyman, idiosyncratically manifesting idolatrous human nature.

16 Mark 10:42-45.

17 John Calvin, in his remarkable discussion of the nature of man in the opening section of hisInstitutes, comments on the way that idols “boil up from within us.”  It could equally be said that they boil up around us.  There is always some object at hand for us to put our faith in.

18 I am indebted to Dick Keyes of L’Abri Fellowship for this felicitous phrase.

19 Where do we begin in counseling? Are there hierarchies of influence or “key” influential relationships to tackle?  There may well be.  In particular, is Wally’s relationship with his parents the key to effective counseling?  Not necessarily, although psychodynamic psychology is strongly biased towards parent-child relationships.  The Bible is not similarly biased (either for or against looking at relationships with parents).

I do not believe that in this case, as presented, Wally’s relationships with his father and mother are the most important ones to tackle now in counseling.  Theoretically, we could tackle any troubled relationship in Wally’s life, and we would end up grappling with generically similar issues, the same idols and sins.  My instincts in counseling would be to tackle vignettes involving Wally and Ellen or his children.  That is where most of the hot patterns are being played out.  His relationship with his father could come up as could other significant relationships where there are live issues.  But for Wally to grow and be renewed, to repent intelligently, to be transformed both in heart and behavior, he does not necessarily need to look at the parental relationship.

20 And “there is no temptation which is not common to all men” (1 Corinthians 10:13).  This pride/fear of man oscillation is run-of-the-mill human nature.  It plays itself out in an endless variety of forms.

21 Of course, at specific points in time specific idols will need to be named and faced.  Wise biblical counseling grapples with specifics.  Jesus faces the rich, young ruler with his mammon worship.  The parable of the sower faces people with their unbelief, their social conformity, their preoccupying riches, pleasure, and cares (all of which can be rephrased as expressions of the idol motif).  In the Old Testament Elijah directly confronts Baal worship.  For example, Wally will need to deal with his drive to perform in people’s eyes as the issue unfolds in counseling.

22 Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of the Spiritual Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), page 110.

23 Isaiah 53:6 and Judges 21:25.

24 The word “syndrome” ought to be stripped of its clinical pretensions to significant explanatory power.  It is purely descriptive.  It literally means, “things that tend to all run along together.”

25 Jay Adams, Christian Counselor’s Manual (U.S.A.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), Page 124f.

26 Acts 6:4 is a classic text defining ministry in terms of both truth and prayer.  Ephesians 6:10-20 is a classic text on the mode of warfare: faith in all its elements and ways of expression defeats demonic powers.  James 3:13-4:12 adds the note that repentance is crucial to the defeat of Satan.

27 The Bible indicates the reason for this by frequently describing our inordinate desires as “deceptive.”  Satan is the arch-deceiver.  We tend to conform to the atmospheric deceptions of our socio-cultural milieu.  Our idols are so plausible and instinctive that a person can even describe them, without really seeing them as the crucial problem in his or her life.

28 There are doubtless any number of other ways of slicing the pie of human motivation.  See Tim Keller’s “Puritan Resources for Biblical Counseling” (The Journal of Pastoral Practice, 9:3 (1988), pages 11-44) for a stimulating portrayal of the multi-perspectival subtlety of a previous generation of Christian counselors.

29 Hebrews 4:12-16; Matthew 5:3-6; Luke 11:1-13; Matthew 11:28-30; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10; indeed, the entire Bible!  Christ’s forte is our acknowledged need in the face of compulsions from within and pressures from without.

30 Jeremiah 8:11(cf.23:16f).

31 Active love is the fruit of receptive faith.  Psalm 23—like many portions of Scripture—is a pure promise to be drunk in.  Other passages detail the transition from gift to gratitude, from root to fruit, from abiding to fruit-bearing, from faith to works (Galatians 5 and 1 John 4:7-5:12 are two of the most sustained expositions).  Performance-oriented people like Wally, idol-driven people, rarely drink and eat of the life-giving bread of heaven.

32 We have not mentioned how Wally’s distorted system of interpretation and valuation affects—is “sold” to—his children, wife, friends, and parents.  There is obviously a feedback loop of mutual effects, a vicious circle.

Conversely, as Wally is able to change both heart and behavior, he will create a gracious circle of positive effects in his family and church.  We have emphasized the negative side of social shaping, but faith is just as catching as idolatry.

33 Bunyan, ibid., page 83.

- See more at: http://www.ccef.org/idols-heart-and-vanity-fair#sthash.oEMKasPC.dpuf

 

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The Gospel Made Simple: “The Story”

Series: Gospel Presentations #5 

“THE STORY”

The Story

The Story: How it all began and how it will never end…

The following pages are the summary of a true story. It is like many good stories you’ve heard or read, but the more you read, the more you’ll realize this is not just another story–it is the story. It defines us all. It makes us think abut who we are and who we can become. And so…

(1) HOW DID IT ALL BEGIN? CREATION

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” – Genesis 1:1

“Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” Psalm 90:2

God: The story begins with God, who has always been. He has always existed, and He has always existed exactly as He is now. If it seems confusing, it’s because He’s beyond what anyone can fully comprehend.

Creation: In the beginning, God spoke and everything came into existence. By His command, the entire universe was created and filled with a dramatic display of galaxies, stars, and planets–including Earth, on which was a perfect garden of paradise called Eden. Of all the beauty He created, the masterpiece was a man and a woman. God made Adam and Eve in His image to reflect Him. They were created with the grand purpose of worshipping Him by loving Him, serving Him, and enjoying relationship with Him.

Harmony: By God’s design, all of creation was in harmony and was exactly the way it was supposed to be. During this time there was no pain, suffering, sickness or death. There was complete love, acceptance, and intimacy between God and man, between Adam and Eve, and throughout creation. But something tragic happened…

(2) WHAT WENT WRONG? THE FALL

Disobedience: Adam and Eve were far from being equal to God, yet He lovingly placed them in charge of all He had created in Eden. He gave them the freedom to make decisions and govern the earth with one rule: not to eat from a specific tree. One day, God’s enemy, a fallen angel named Satan, wanted to overthrow God so he  took the form of a serpent and lied to Adam and Eve. He deceived them into thinking God was not good and did not have their best interest in mind. As a result, they knowingly disobeyed God. In rebellion, Adam and Eve ate the fruit, deciding that they, not God, would determine right and wrong.

“None is righteous, no, not one.” Romans 3:10

Consequence: The consequences of their actions were devastating! Like a virus, sin entered into all of creation and into the hearts of Adam and Eve. Sin, suffering, and pain were passed down from generation to generation; all of creation was distorted from its original design. We have all read or heard the stories of war, poverty, diseases, grred, and scandals that plague our world today. Those are all a result of sin.

“The entire world is guilty before God.” Romans 3:19

Need: When we think about the perfection and love that existed at the beginning of creation, we realize “we are far more flawed and far more sinful that we can dare imagine” [1]. Just think of the grudges we’ve held, the lies we’ve told, the thoughts we’d never dare say aloud. An honest glance into our own hearts reveals the truth: We are all guilty. Everyone has sinned, and the ultimate consequence, even worse than physical death, is eternal separation from a loving God, in terrible misery and unhappiness. Because of all this, we need to consider the questions: Can anything be done? Is there hope?

(3) CAN ANYTHING BE DONE? THE RESCUE

Promise Made: God removed Adam and Eve from Eden as a result of their sin but left them with a promise of rescue and hope. He promised them one of their descendants would someday rescue mankind from sin. Over the next centuries, God prepared the way for this person who would become the Savior of the world. Exact details of His birth, life, and death were recorded in the Bible many centuries before His coming. In fact, the whole Bible ultimately points to this one person as the focal point of all human history. His purpose in coming was “to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10)

So who was He?

Promise Kept: The promised Savior, simply, was God. God became human in the person of Jesus Christ almost 2,000 years ago, fulfilling all the predictions in the Old Testament. Jesus’ birth was miraculous since His mother was a virgin. His life was unique: He perfectly enjoyed and obeyed God without sin. This ultimately led to His agonizing death on a cross as He willingly, obediently, and sufficiently died to pay for the sins of mankind, according to God’s plan. In the greatest display of mercy and grace the world has ever known, Jesus’ life and death became a substitute for all who would trust in Him. The perfectly innocent died to rescue the hopelessly guilty from sin and Satan.

But the grave couldn’t hold Jesus. Three days later, jesus emerged from His tomb, fulfilling His earthly mission to defeat sin by dying on the cross and to defeat death by rising from the dead–just as God promised. Forty days later he returned to Heaven where He reigns as the rightful King.

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God.” – 1 Peter 3:18

“Jesus gave His life for our sins, just as God the Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live.” – Galatians 1:4

But the story doesn’t end there…

(4) WHAT WILL THE FUTURE HOLD? THE RESTORATION

All Things New: For all those  who trust in Jesus alone, God has also promised He will make all things new. The new heaven and new earth will be completely free of sin and selfishness–a place of perfect friendship with God, others, and all creation. No more shattering earthquakes, devastating tsunamis or violent storms will plague the earth. No more pain, broken hearts, sickness or death to trouble us. Everything will be restored to the way it was meant to be. The new earth will once again be the perfect home God intended for His creation. God’s original purpose will flourish, as those who trust in His rescue will enter into the grand purpose of worshipping Him by loving Him, serving Him, and enjoying relationship with Him forever.

Forever With God: The most wonderful part of this new world is that we will be with God forever, experiencing complete joy. We will be restored to a perfect relationship with the One who created, loved, and died for us. C.S. Lewis, scholar and children’s author compared the first step into this new world as “Chapter One of the great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before” [2].

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…God Himself will be with them as their God. he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:1, 3-4

What’s Your Part in the Story?

God is writing an amazing story from creation to restoration. He created you to be a part of that story to worship Him, serve Him, and enjoy relationship with Him. By joining God in His story, you will find forgiveness, purpose, and satisfaction as you come to know the Author of life.

Rescue by Faith Alone: Faith is simple trust in Jesus Christ alone to save you. It means instead of believing you can rescue yourself from the consequences of sin, you can transfer your trust to the rescue He purchased for you by His death. Your allegiance is now to Jesus, the King. Those who place their trust in anything other than Jesus will find themselves forever separated from the loving God who gave His one and only Son to set us free from the bondage of sin. This painful separation is called Hell.

“For by grace you been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing: it is the goft of God, not as a result of works, so that no one can boast.” – Ephesians 2:8-9

RECAP

The Creation: In the beginning, God created everything to be perfect.

The Fall: Man rebelled against a loving God & believed Satan’s lie. Sin entered into the world & into every human heart. Everything is now distorted & broken. Everyone is guilty before God.

The Rescue: Jesus, who is God, came to rescue people by His death & resurrection. By faith alone in Him, all who are separated from God can have their sins forgiven & enjoy eternal life with Him.

The Restoration: God will restore everything to the way that it was supposed to be, and those who trust in Jesus will get to enjoy eternity with God in the new heaven and new earth.

Response:

  • God is inviting you to be a part of the story He is writing throughout the ages to come. He is offering salvation to you today, which is your invitation to the rescue God offers. You can embrace the rescue of God by simply:

  • Admitting you need God

  • Asking Him to forgive you and help you turn from sin

  • Trusting in Jesus Christ alone to rescue you Following Jesus Christ, the King of your life, in faith from this day forward

“Truly, truly, I say to you whoever believes has eternal life.” – John 6:47

The moment you trust Jesus Christ: you become a child of God and His Spirit begins to live inside of you. You have become part of His story. The more you grow in your relationship with God, the more of His story you will begin to see & understand in your life. All of your sin, past and future, is forgiven, and you now find total acceptance before Him. When you begin this relationship, Jesus promises to be with you through all the ups and downs and in the joys and difficulties of this life. He loves you with an everlasting, unchanging love. And not only has He promised eternal life, but He came so that you could experience purpose, fulfillment, and freedom in this life.

Where Do I Go from Here?

Read the Bible: The Bible is the story of God’s love and faithfulness to His people. It provides encouragement, instruction, warning, and correction that will help you make sense of your life. As you read it, ask God to show you something you can apply to your life. If you’re not sure where to begin, start with the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament.

Talk with God: Talking with God is another way you will get to know Him. He is always ready to listen and spend time with you, so you can always speak with Him. He invites you to share all your burdens and joys with Him; this is prayer.

Find Community: Getting connected with others who have trusted in the rescue of God is essential. A “church” is a community of Christians gathering regularly to worship God as His family. Each member of the family plays a vital role: Similar to the human body, each part helps the whole body function properly. The church is the Body of Christ.

Tell your Story: Share this news with everyone! let them hear the amazing story of God’s love and rscue and how it’s changed your life.

*You can view the Video or read “The Story” at ViewTheStory.com. or at spreadtruth.com

[1] dr. Tim Keller, “The Centrality of the Gospel.” Redeemer Presbyterian, NYC

[2] C.S. Lewis. The Last Battle (New York: MacMillan, 1977, pp. 183-84.

 

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The Gospel Made Simple: How Would You Like to Have a New Life?

Series: Presentations of the Gospel #1

How Would You Like to Have “A New Life?” By C. John Miller

AFWS C John Miller

(Presented by C. John Miller in A Faith Worth Sharing. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1999.)

Have you ever felt there was something missing in your life? Something important but you didn’t know what? That may de the new life God wants you to have. A life of joy, peace, and fulfillment. A life…which you can receive today. Carefully consider these Five Important Facts…and find out how you can get that new life and become a brand-new person.

 FACT 1 – A loving God sent His Son Jesus into the world to bring you a new and abundant life.

Jesus said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water(John 7:37b-38).

Jesus also said concerning those He loves, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b).

This new life brings you the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22). It also gives POWER!

God’s Holy Spirit gives you the power to overcome…feelings of loneliness, stress, fear of people and the future (1 John 4:18).

And the power to break habits like…selfishness, depression, uncontrolled anger, prejudice, sexual lust, overeating, overdrinking, and drug abuse (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

But Why Are So Many People Without This New Life?

 FACT 2 – Because…people are self-centered, not God-centered.

This means that by nature you are spiritually dead and deceived (Ephesians 2:1a: “You were dead through your trespasses and sins.”

TO BE SPIRITUALLY DEAD AND DECEIVED is to be centered on yourself and not on your Creator, and to believe…

A BIG LIE

People show this, according to Romans 1:21-31 by being…unthankful to God, perverted, greedy, jealous, bitter, proud, mean, devious, and foolish.

Since man’s first sin. He has tried to be INDEPENDENT of God. Actually each human being is entirely DEPENDENT on God for breath, food, health, shelter, physical and mental abilities. THE BIG LIE: SELFISH INDEPENDENCE: self-trust, self-boasting, self-reliance, self-analysis, self-hating, self-seeking.

 FACT 3 – Self-centered man is separated from a holy God by three barriers.

A Bad Record – Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.”

A Bad Heart – Mark 7:21, “From the heart of man come evil thoughts.”

A Bad Master – John 8:34, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”

The consequences of sin result in eternal separation from God. “The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23a)…whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him (John 3:36b).”

 NOW:

 A dry, thirsty, unsatisfied life.

A guilty, accusing conscience (depression, fears, anxiety).

An aging body that must shortly die.

 FUTURE:

 Loss of friendship and earthly joys forever (Matthew 8:12).

Frightful pains of body and conscience forever (Mark 9:48).

Dreadful thirst of soul and body forever (Luke 16:19-31).

 FACT 4 – God’s Solution! No barriers!

A Perfect Record – 1 Corinthians 1:30, “Christ…is made our righteousness.”

A New Heart – Ezekiel 36:25-26, “A new heart I will give you.”

A Good Master – Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

“The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7b).

The Benefit of Jesus’ Death…Love’s Biggest Gift

“The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:23b). Jesus, the God-man, is the biggest gift of the Father’s love. On the cross Jesus suffered all the torments of hell as a substitute for His people (John 3:16; 10:15). He was legally condemned by God as their representative, removing the barriers of a bad record, a bad heat, and a bad master. The Father’s love can do no more. Risen from the dead, Jesus now lives to give you a new record, a new heart, Himself as a new master—and the free gift of eternal life now!

You Need to Make Sure

God says you either have a NEW LIFE or you are a lawbreaker DEAD in your self-centeredness. Are you personally alive or dead? If you are still dead, you need to know…

 FACT 5 – How to receive the Lord Jesus into your life…

  1. Turn…In sorrow from your sins: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteousness man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God for he will abundantly pardon” (Is. 55:6-7).

  2. Trust…in Jesus alone to save you: Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31a)…I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).

Repentance is…not our suffering or our good works to earn our salvation, but a turning from our sins to the living God through Jesus Christ.

Trust in the Lord Jesus is…accepting, receiving, and resting on Him alone as the Savior from our sins.

 Begin a NEW LIFE

Will you surrender your life to Christ by turning from your self-centered way and trust in Him alone? Here is a guideline to help you confess your sins and come to know God through taking the Lord Jesus Christ as your own personal Savior.

 Make this Verbal Profession & Confession of Faith:

“Heavenly Father, I am really a selfish person. I have wanted my own way—not Yours. I have often been jealous, proud, and rebellious. You are my Creator, but I have acted as though I was lord of all. I have not been thankful to You. I have not listened to Your Word the Bible and have not loved Your Son. But now I see that all my sin is against You. I now repent of this evil attitude. I turn from all of my sins and trust that Jesus has shed His precious blood to cleanse me from all my guilt. I now receive Him as mu Savior and the Lord of my life.”

I, ______________, turn from my sins and take Christ as my Lord and Savior. By His help I promise to obey Him in every part of my life.

How Does This New Life Continue? The same way it began—in faith and prayer.

  1. Pray constantly. Prayer is talking to God. Keep doing it all the time. Include in it praise, thanksgiving, confession of sins, petitions for others’ salvation, and requests for help.

  2. Read your Bible. Study your Bible every day. It is the food for your new life and your sure guide. In it you meet Jesus and learn to claim His promises for your life.

  3. Worship with others. Meet with a church where the Bible is taught and obeyed and where Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

  4. Witness to others. Tell your friends what Christ has done for you—and wants to do for them. Be tactful and back up your words by improvement in manners and doing deeds of kindness.

* Gospel tracts: World Harvest Mission – 100 West Ave. W960 – Jenkintown, PA 19046-2697

ABOUT JACK MILLER

C. John “Jack” Miller, PhD., founded World Harvest Mission (WHM) and the New Life Presbyterian network of churches. A pastor, seminary professor, and author, he wrote Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, Come Back Barbara, Powerful Evangelism for the Powerless, A Faith Worth Sharing, Repentance, and The Heart of the Servant Leader. He and his wife Rose Marie have five children and twenty-four grandchildren. Jack went to be with the Lord in 1996. WHM is a movement of people empowered by God’s grace to plant churches around the world. For more information, visit whm.org.

 

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R.C. Sproul on What is The Most Serious of all Questions?

(The Gospel in a Nutshell) What Is the Gospel?

There is no greater message to be heard than that which we call the Gospel. But as important as that is, it is often given to massive distortions or over simplifications. People think they’re preaching the Gospel to you when they tell you, ‘you can have a purpose to your life’, or that ‘you can have meaning to your life’, or that ‘you can have a personal relationship with Jesus.’ All of those things are true, and they’re all important, but they don’t get to the heart of the Gospel.

The Gospel is called the ‘good news’ because it addresses the most serious problem that you and I have as human beings, and that problem is simply this: God is holy and He is just, and I’m not. And at the end of my life, I’m going to stand before a just and holy God, and I’ll be judged. And I’ll be judged either on the basis of my own righteousness – or lack of it – or the righteousness of another. The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus lived a life of perfect righteousness, of perfect obedience to God, not for His own well-being but for His people. He has done for me what I couldn’t possibly do for myself. But not only has He lived that life of perfect obedience, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to satisfy the justice and the righteousness of God.

The great misconception in our day is this: that God isn’t concerned to protect His own integrity. He’s a kind of wishy-washy deity, who just waves a wand of forgiveness over everybody. No. For God to forgive you is a very costly matter. It cost the sacrifice of His own Son. So valuable was that sacrifice that God pronounced it valuable by raising Him from the dead – so that Christ died for us, He was raised for our justification. So the Gospel is something objective. It is the message of who Jesus is and what He did. And it also has a subjective dimension. How are the benefits of Jesus subjectively appropriated to us? How do I get it? The Bible makes it clear that we are justified not by our works, not by our efforts, not by our deeds, but by faith – and by faith alone. The only way you can receive the benefit of Christ’s life and death is by putting your trust in Him – and in Him alone. You do that, you’re declared just by God, you’re adopted into His family, you’re forgiven of all of your sins, and you have begun your pilgrimage for eternity.

*Article adapted from Tabletalk Magazine April 10, 2010 http://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-gospel/

 About Dr. Sproul

Dr. Robert Charles Sproul (born 1939 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) is an American, Calvinist theologian, and pastor. He is the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries (named after the Ligonier Valley just outside of Pittsburgh, where the ministry started as a study center for college and seminary students) and can be heard daily on the Renewing Your Mind radio broadcast in the United States and throughout 60 countries. Ligonier hosts several theological conferences each year, including the main conference held each year in Orlando, Florida, at which Sproul is one of the primary speakers. Sproul holds degrees from Westminster College, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the Free University of Amsterdam, and Whitefield Theological Seminary, and he has taught at numerous colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando and Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale. Currently, he is Senior Minister of Preaching and Teaching at Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida, where he began preaching in 1997. Sproul has been an ardent advocate of Calvinism in his many books and audio and video publications, and he is also known for his advocacy of the Thomistic approach to Christian apologetics and his rejection of both evidentialism and presuppositionalism.

R. C. Sproul was ordained to the gospel ministry by the Pittsburgh Presbytery (UPUSA) on July 18, 1965. From 1965 to 1966 he served as Instructor in Philosophy and Theology at Westminster College. From 1966 to 1968 he served as Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Gordon College. From 1968 to 1969 he served as Assistant Professor of Philosophical Theology at Conwell School of Theology. From 1969 to 1971 he served as Minister of Theology at College Hill United Presbyterian Church. From 1971 to 1981 he served at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary as Visiting Professor of Apologetics. Also, starting in 1971, he served as Director for The Coalition for Christian Outreach, Inc. until 1976. 1971 was also the year that Ligonier Ministries was founded, and he has served as Chairman of that ministry from that time through the present. Starting in 1977, he was an executive committee member of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, until 1983. He also served as Director of Prison Fellowship, Inc. from 1979 through 1984 and Director of Evangelism Explosion III, International from 1980 through 1981. From 1980 to 1995 he served as Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. During this time at Reformed Theological Seminary, he held the John Dyer Trimble, Sr. Chair of Systematic Theology from 1987 to 1995. He also served as Director of the Foundation for Reformation from 1990 through 1999 and from 1982 through the present has served as Director of Serve International, Inc. From 1995 to 2004 he served as Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Knox Theological Seminary.

R. C. Sproul is married to Vesta Ann of Pittsburgh, PA. They have two grown children – a daughter, Sherrie Sproul Dick, and a son, R. C. Sproul, Jr. Dr. R. C. Sproul, Jr., is a theologian and a strong supporter of homeschooling, traditional family roles, and limited government. He founded the Highlands Study Center in Meadowview, Virginia. R. C. Sproul, Sr. and his wife currently reside in Orlando, Florida. In addition to being an excellent Theologian and Author, Sproul also enjoys reading, golf, sketching and painting, music (piano and violin), and hunting. He has a keen interest in a modern Christian Reformation. May God grant that we would have such a Reformation.

Sources – Ligonier Ministries and Wikipedia. Much thanks to John Cobb and Toni Roth of Ligonier Ministries for their provision of Dr. Sproul’s biographical and bibliographical information.

Publications Sproul is a prolific author who has written more than 60 books and many articles for evangelical publications. He signed the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which affirmed the traditional view of Biblical inerrancy, and he wrote a commentary on that document titled Explaining Inerrancy. He also served as the editor of the Reformation Study Bible which has appeared in several editions and was also known as the New Geneva Study Bible.Sproul’s work The Holiness of God is considered a modern classic on the subject of God’s character, and his book Not a Chance: The Myth of Chance in Modern Science and Cosmology was highly praised by those who reject the materialism advocated by some in the scientific community. Other works include:

 

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“Every Day With Jesus is Like A Thanksgiving Holiday” By Dr. David P. Craig

“Thank God It’s Thanksgiving Everyday – Especially on Thursday’s!”

I have always loved the Thanksgiving Holiday. It’s one of the few times of the year where our very large family can come together from all over the United States and enjoy giving thanks for our many blessings. This year more than likely I’ll be having liquid formula through a feeding tube in my stomach. I already had the G-Tube surgically implanted in my stomach this past week. During chemotherapy and radiation around Thanksgiving time will be a time of great testing for me, when according to my Doctors I will be unable to swallow and chew due to the severity of my treatment for throat and neck cancer. Watching every one I love dearest passing around the turkey with all the trimmings will be something my eyes will enjoy, but not my taste buds. However, I’m good with that. I’m good with whatever comes my way because I can choose whether I’m a “reactor” or a “responder.” Let me explain.

Over the past decade I’ve had eye problems off and on – a cataract surgery and lattice degeneration in both eyes, which required laser surgery to repair numerous tiny little “tears” in the back of my eyes. A few days ago the Eye Doctor discovered I have a Vitreous Detachment and a Vitreous Hemorrhage in my right eye. After seeing a cataract specialist I was referred to another specialist who confirmed these diagnoses. All I know is that it is difficult for me to read, and that I see flashes of light at night, and what looks like a “blob” during the day out of my right eye. The Ophthalmologist thinks it should go away – but for now, I’m hoping and praying the “blob” will clear up.

I have also had an off-and-on battle with “Gout” (Charles Haddon Spurgeon had Gout as well – which makes me feel a little bit better about it – at least I’m in good company). They say Gout is a “rich man’s disease” (well one out of two ain’t bad – and “rich” isn’t the one). The first time I experienced Gout was after coaching one of my daughter’s soccer practices. I remember lying on the bed at night after soccer practice and feeling like someone took my right big toe and pounded it with a hammer as if they were really mad at the nail – and it just so happened my big “toe” represented the nail. It was excruciating. I’ve finally (after years of hopping, limping, and crawling through various “Gout” attacks) resorted to taking medication a few months ago – so far so good. The reality is I get “Gout” not because I’m rich, but because my body is missing an enzyme and therefore I manufacture too much uric acid which builds up “crystals” (more like little torturous demons) in weak areas of the body – joints in the extremities – and inflames them, so that even a bed sheet touching the inflamed joint hurts like you just got stepped on by a really upset “Chuck Norris.”

Today I am on my way to the hospital to get my face fitted for a mask that I will wear for radiation treatment. I will also have a CT-Scan to see if I’m ready to start chemotherapy and radiation for the Stage 3, throat and neck cancer I’ve recently been diagnosed with. God-willing I will begin treatment early next week (the sooner the treatment begins – the better). So what’s with all the grim news? Well, honestly, I truly believe that some tough days are ahead – but they will go a lot better if I have a thankful heart.

I also have learned something about life – We are either coming out of tough times, going through tough times, or about to go through tough times! The good news – is that as Christians we know that God “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide a way of escape that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13b). Warren W. Wiersbe calls the Christian life a “land of hills and valleys.” We journey from low points to high points and everything in between.

 Why Lord? What’s with All the Tough Stuff?

James puts it this way, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4). In other words, if you want to lack nothing, be spiritually mature, and satisfied – the only way to do it, is by meeting all kinds of trials with “joy.” Why? Because God designed it that way! If you’ve got a problem with it…He’s got a bigger problem! He took our sin problem head-on and voluntarily. He sent His perfect Son to die in your and my place and exchanged His perfect record of righteousness for your (and my) heinous record of unrighteousness.

I didn’t choose to have a cataract or lattice degeneration in my eyes; Gout, or Squamous Cell Carcinoma Cancer. But, I do know for a fact that God has allowed me to have these ailments, and I can either react to, (negative thinking) or respond to (positive thinking) God’s sovereign will and plans. I know that God works everything out for my good, and more importantly, for His glory. I know that God can heal me if He chooses to do so. I know that He can use medicine and the skill of excellent Physicians, medications, diet, and the prayers of His people to rid me of my cancer if He so desires. I also know, that we live in a fallen world, and one out of one people die. As a pastor I’ve easily performed over 100 funerals, and I’ve also witnessed miraculous healings. However, I do not presume to know what God’s sovereign hidden will happens to be in my cancer. I only know that I must decide whether God is good or evil – and the track record is that I’m very evil, and He is very good – as a matter of fact Perfect and immutably so. Only God is infinitely Wise in His plans. I simply want to trust and obey Him in the midst of this trial.

 God is Good and Sovereign:

Lamentations 3:21-26 - But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.”

Psalm 90:12 – Moses prays, “so teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

Proverbs 16:9 – Solomon says, “Man plans His ways, but the LORD determines His steps.”

Psalm 139:16 “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them”– in paraphrase: “All of our days are numbered before one of them came to be.”

Romans 8:18, 28-29, 32 – “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us…And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers…He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

In summary: God has given me a certain number of days to suffer and grow in wisdom. He has always been faithful to provide for all my needs. If He didn’t spare His own Son – how could He possibly abandon me now? In the days He entrusts to me I can either react or respond to everything that He allows in my life. He promises that everything that comes my way is ultimately for my good and His glory. Ultimately all of my suffering is not worth comparing with the glories to come. God has predestined and purposed for me in His infinite wisdom and love that through suffering my character would conform to the image of Jesus – so that I would look like His brother – an heir with Christ, adopted into the family of God! God will give me an allotted time known only to Him to make much of Jesus and to bring Him glory – nothing else really matters.

Are You a “Reactor” or a “Responder”?

Here is an example of the difference and importance of “reacting” to circumstances, and “responding” to them: If I begin radiation and chemotherapy on Monday and within a few weeks my tumor shrinks from 7 to 5 cm, and the cancer cells are disappearing – then that’s a positive “response” to the treatment – it’s working! My body is responding to the treatment. If the tumor and cancer cells metastasize to another part of my body and the tumor grows to 8-9 cm then that’s called a “reaction” to the treatment – it’s not working. My body would be “reacting” to the treatment. The treatment will either cause my body to “react,” (negatively) or “respond” (positively) to the treatment. Responding is good. Reacting is bad.

The good news of the gospel is that even when you or I “react” negatively in our thinking, Christ has us covered! Even when you or I “respond” it’s only by His grace that we’re able to respond the way we should. I thank God that my salvation is NOT based on the way I react or respond to everything in life. I thank God that it is solely by repentance and faith – God’s gift to me – sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria – that I’m accepted, adopted, and saved by my beloved Triune God.

I truly believe that we can respond to circumstances by responding by having a greater understanding of the incredible mercy and grace of God in saving us. Read carefully just a sampling of God’s amazing Triune grace and mercy in saving us:

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44).

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:1-5).

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:1-4).

For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” (Romans 9:15-16).

“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).

I like the way Pastor David Platt puts it, “Salvation has absolutely nothing to do with human merit and absolutely everything to do with divine mercy.” John MacArthur says it like this, ““There are basically only two kinds of religion in the world: those based on human achievement and those based on divine accomplishment. One says you can earn your way to heaven; the other says you must trust in Jesus Christ alone.” Tullian Tchividijian makes the same point this way, ““The Bible doesn’t tell the story of good people who do great things; it tells the story of great sin that is met with a greater Savior.”

Paul David Tripp writes, ““Because we sin specifically, the gospel intends us to grow in grace specifically…We must emphasize again and again the nowism of the gospel…Jesus didn’t just die for your past and future, He died for you’re here and now! To die for you, Jesus had to first live for you. He lived a perfect life in your place so he would be an acceptable sacrifice for your sin.”

When trials come into our lives in the form of a long traffic light that makes us late for work, an unexpected tax increase, or in the form of a pink slip from our boss, small or large trial – we all have them – where we differ and show what we are made of is in the arena of our character. Character is made in the shade of trials – the inner being. Our character is manifest in the light of the fight. It is in the heat of the hottest fire where the gold is most refined. Gold is never made without heat. Our purity came at a huge cost – the life of the perfect One – crucified (the greatest suffering), buried (the greatest abandonment), risen (the greatest triumph), and coming again (our greatest hope)!

Therefore, I am going to do something I’ve never done before starting this Thursday – Today. I’m going to make it a “Day of Thanks” – no matter what comes my way. I am going to choose to “respond” and not “react” – be positive and not negative – praise God and not whine to Him. I’m going to spend my entire day choosing joy over sorrow, and to focus on the Grandeur of the God of the Gospel.

Thursday’s for me – from this Thursday on – by God’s grace will be a day of responding to God in gratitude and thanks all day long. October 18, 2012 is going to be a day dedicated to Thanksgiving. I will not ask for anything of God. I will spend my day delighting in what He has already done and will continue to do for me. I will choose to delight in His nature and attributes. I will respond to Him by rejoicing in His plans that are ultimately always for His glory and for my good. As a Christian I know that even my suffering has a purpose – I know that behind every pain there is a plan by a loving God who suffered and was in more pain than I’ll ever know, in order to spare me from His wrath that I so rightly deserved. Now all I know is that because of the Triune work and plan of God I will never be punished for my wretched sin – Jesus took care of it, and stated “It is finished” two thousand years ago.

The new normal for me may consist of a lot of pain – but that’s ok because Jesus has been through the greatest pain on my behalf – out of love for the Father and love for me as His adopted heir in the family of God. His goal for me whether He gives me many more years or just a few more days is spelled out clearly by the Apostle Paul in Romans 5:1-8,

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

 Today is a Day of Thanksgiving because I’ve been:

(1)  Justified by faith (not my works – but the perfect works of Jesus on my behalf);

(2)  I have peace with Jesus – He’s not mad at me even though He died for “my” sins;

(3)  I stand in grace – undeserved, free, and infinite – accessed solely by faith in Jesus Person and Work on my behalf in his life, death, burial, and resurrection;

(4)  I can rejoice in the hope of the glory of God – I will see Him in His perfect glory forever – no blinders and no barriers because I am his child forever;

(5)  I can rejoice in my sufferings – because they have purpose – they aren’t by “chance” or “luck” – they are carefully designed by an infinitely wise and loving God to conform me to the image of Jesus;

(6)  My character will be produced by endurance, strength, and hope by choosing to respond and not react in the midst of the hardships – because the more I become like Jesus – the more prepared I will be to bring gratitude and glory to Him;

(7)  I have God’s love in my heart because He poured it there via the Holy Spirit – no more guilt or shame, because I’m covered by the blood of Christ, and the Spirit has taken up residence in my life forever – never to leave me nor forsake me;

(8)  No matter how weak I am – Jesus the risen one who conquered death – who died for my sin – who rose from the dead and will return and reign as King – the righteous for the unrighteous – how can I doubt His love or plans for me;

(9)  He can never love me more than he already has demonstrated – for while I was a sinner He died for me. I can never do anything to make Him love me more. So whether I “react” or “respond” because of my repenting of my sins past, present, and future – He’s got me covered by His blood shed for me.

Thursdays from this day forth will be “Days of Thanksgiving.” Not the all-you-can eat Turkey and gravy fests The focus on my prayers will be to be express my gratitude and “respond” to God’s amazing graces in my life. And if He never did another thing for me – only He would be worthy of all of my praise for Who He is, what He has done, and what He has promised to do for His glory and His Eternal Kingdom.

Today I Start with this Simple Prayer of Thanks – “Response”:

“Father thank you for orchestrating my election in eternity past. If you never did anything else than to pick me on your team – adopt me into your family and not make me pay forever for my sin – that would be enough for me to thank you each millisecond for the next billion years. Jesus, thank you for coming after me courageously and unflinchingly receiving the Father’s wrath for my sin – if it were only my sin it would have been brutal enough. But you also took on the sins of the world. You are the Man – there is no one who can be named in the same breath with the name of Jesus. At your name every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that You are Lord. I do so now willingly, with gratitude, humbly, and filled with joy – that you would exchange your righteousness for my righteousness which to you are only as “filthy rags.” Holy Spirit, I am grateful that you regenerated me. You took a dead man with no ability whatsoever to trust in Jesus, and made me alive spiritually. You gave me the gift of faith in the One you pointed me to – the Holy Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world – and who took away all my sins – past, present, and future. Thank you Triune God for your plan to save me; your perfect execution to save me in totally fulfilling the righteous requirements of the law; and the reconciliatory requirements in order to forgive me on the basis of the name that above all other names, and You will reign as King forever and ever! – Amen!

I hope that you will join me in committing to making one day a week – it doesn’t have to be a Thursday; the date isn’t as important as your becoming focused on the Gospel – seeking to conform to being more like Jesus. I encourage you to join me in becoming a “responder” to the Gospel and not a “reactor” that doubts the goodness of our loving God. Please join me in giving God the Father, Son, and Spirit the gratitude and glory due Him for the great things He has done – let’s strive to be “responders” to His grace, and not “reactors” because of our foolish idolatries. Soli Deo Gloria!

 About Dr. David P. Craig

I am first and foremost a great sinner, saved by an even Greater Savior – Jesus Christ. I have been a pastor for over 23 years and working as a Pastoral Life Coach for the past year. There is nothing I enjoy more than teaching from God’s Word and pointing others to the focal point of the Scriptures and the Universe – it’s all about Jesus. I have no greater passion than to make disciples who make disciples of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Whether I make disciples by teaching large groups, coaching one-on-one, or in discipleship – the formate doesn’t matter to me. I love seeing and experiencing the Spirit of God come upon and transform lives through the power of the Gospel. I love to help people get more balance in their lives by identifying and delivering them from their idolatries and discovering that Jesus is always better than anything else. I have been blessed with a wonderful wife, five outstanding children, two amazing grand sons, and my only claim to fame is that I know where to find lasting satisfaction and joy – and it’s to be found only in knowing Jesus personally and intimately.

 

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