CATECHISMS, THEOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT AND HABITS OF SPIRITUAL GROWTH

26281_Highlighting_BiblesAs a church, we will be utilizing a tool to help us cultivate habits of spiritual growth and theological development: The New City Catechism. To help us understand this tool and how we will be using it, I’ve put together this blog post answering three questions:

Why use a catechism?

In every age, it is important for the church to know and love God’s Word as it has been passed down and delivered to the saints throughout every generation. It’s all the more critical when the culture around the church is asking the question, “What is truth?” Catechisms help ground the church in the foundational and formative truths of Scripture in the form of focused study and dialogical discussion in a question and answer format.

Our goal as the church is to know and love God. We do that through knowing and loving His Word. Catechisms help us to first memorize and then meditate on those aspects of God’s Word that are foundational to understanding God and His ways. This then proves formative for shaping us as His people in His world.

Sinclair Ferguson writes in Faithful God an insightful observation about one difference between the modern and historic church:

Christians in an earlier generation rarely thought of writing books on guidance. There is a reason for that (just as there is a reason why so many of us today are drawn to books that will tell us how to find God’s will). Our forefathers in the faith were catechized, and they taught catechisms to their children. Often as much as half of the catechism would be devoted to an exposition of the answers to questions like the following:

Question: Where do we find God’s will?

Answer: In the Scriptures.

Question: Where in particular in the Scriptures?

Answer: In the Commandments that God has given to us.

Why were these questions and answers so important? Because these Christians understood that God’s law provides basic guidelines that cover the whole of life. Indeed, in the vast majority of instances, the answer to the question “What does God want me to do?” will be found by answering the question: “How does the law of God apply to this situation? What does the Lord require of me here in his word?”

In this way, catechisms help us to know, understand, and thoughtfully and confidently apply God’s Word to our particular life and situations. 

Take the first catechism as an example:

Q1: What is our only hope in life and death?

A1: That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.

In a world and age where we are faced with rival claims to our physical and spiritual lives (“You belong to the State.” “No, you belong to your own determinative will; pick your fate and spiritual preference.”), or threats to our person (“Your body is not your own, it belongs to your boy/girl friend, abusive person or threat to your well-being, etc.,” or “Your suffering and experience as a person of particular color is part of life and not my/our problem”), or a form of spirituality that says only the interior life/world matters (“Your mind is all there is”, “This world doesn’t matter”, etc), this question on its own affirms that our bodies, our lives, our skin, our flesh, as well as our minds, our hearts, our inner life not only matter but they are in fact rightfully God’s alone!

It’s an encapsulation of Scripture: 

“For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” – Romans 14:7-8

“The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,” – Psalm 24:1

Everything we do or don’t do; everything that is done to/for us or against us is either an act of rebellion against God and deserving His just judgment, or a response of gratitude and worship to God because of His mercy, forgiveness, and love towards us in our Savior Jesus Christ. In Christ, we belong to God no matter what anyone else says or does.

Catechisms then are tools to help us know and love God and his Word as well as to help us apply it in timely ways in our lives.

Why the New City Catechism (NCC)?

The NCC is a modern catechism formed by the members of the Gospel Coalition. Some of it’s distinctives are that it is a simplified version of longer historic catechism namely the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms. In this way they serve as an introduction as well as a gateway or stepping stone to the other catechisms. It uses modern and simplified language to help communicate clearly the truths of Scripture that can be hard to sift through older and less common language of the historic catechisms.

Some of the features of the NCC also lend itself to easy use in simple family and personal devotional practices.

  • Full version and Children’s version
  • Scripture references for each questions and answer
  • Accompanying commentary in written and video formats
  • Scripted prayers in response to each catechism
  • Some even have accompanying songs or tunes to help assist in memorization

Our hope is that the NCC would be a useful tool to help introduce us to theological training by easily developing the habit of spiritual growth; specifically the habits of focused study of God’s word, prayer, along with memorization, meditation, discussion, and application of God’s word in our everyday lives.

 

How is this going to work for Christ Church Mansfield?

We will be incorporating the NCC into the two aspects of our life together: as a gathered church on Sundays and as scattered households throughout the week.

As a church

For the next year we will incorporate the NCC into our Confession of Faith segment of our weekly worship liturgy. The liturgy leader that day will provide some brief explanation of the specific truth highlighted in that week’s catechism question and response to better serve our understanding of the truth. Likewise, our children will be working through the same catechism questions in the Christ Church Kids Ministry environments (Infants, Pre-school, and Gospel Journey Elementary Ages).

As families/individuals

In addition to our Sunday worship gatherings, we envision and want to encourage each household – whether you’re a family or individual – to set aside some time each week to study and discuss that week’s catechism question. We recommend designating one meal each week as a “family and/or friends” meal where you sit down, eat together, and open up God’s Word and the NCC to work on memorizing and meditating on each question.

We will send out links and resources to the catechism each week in our Week In Review email (the WIRe) to help you lead in these family and friends discussions. You can also purchase the two physical resources to have in book format if you so choose; they are The New City Catechism: 52 Questions and Answers for Our Hearts and Minds and The New City Catechism Devotional: God’s Truth for Our Hearts and Minds. All of this material is available for Free in digital format, on their website and as downloadable apps for your phone or tablet.

 

26601_Family_Bible_StudyLinks to Resources

New City Catechism (NCC) web page and web app.

Youtube channel with video commentary on the NCC.

Tim Keller on Why We Should Catechize our Children (Gospel Coalition).

Promotional video of NCC in use as home and personal devotion practice.

Songs for the NCC (not complete yet, but a start).

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Lost and Found in Luke’s Gospel

Lost & Found - Prodigal God, pt 1 (Social Media Post)This is part one of our three-part series at Christ Church Mansfield called Prodigal God: Sitting at the Table of the One who Seeks the Lost, the Least, and the Last.

Would love to know what your thoughts are after watching this sermon. Leave a comment and let’s talk about them!

Prodigal God, part 1 – Lost and Found

 

 

 

Gospel within the Gospel

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In preparation for our upcoming sermon series at Christ Church Mansfield on Luke 15 I came across this magnificent quote, explaining how to read and understand the parables of Jesus, from Kenneth Bailey.

A parable is not a delivery system for an idea.  It is not like a shell casing that can be discarded once the idea (the shell) is fired.  Rather a parable is a house in which the reader or listener is invited to take up residence.  The reader is encouraged to look out on the world from the point of view of the story.  A “house” has a variety of windows and rooms. Thus the parable may have one primary idea with other secondary ideas encased within it.   It may have a cluster of theological themes held together by the story.  Naturally the interpreter should only look for the themes that were available to the first century audience listening to Jesus.  What themes are set forth in this marvelous “Gospel within the Gospel” as it has been called for centuries?” Kenneth Bailey, The Cross and the Prodigal, p. 87

Jesus Outside the Lines – Great deal

jesus-outside-the-lines_saulJesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Side by Scott Sauls, and Forward by Gabe Lyons.

For a limited time, this book by friend and fellow pastor, Scott Sauls, is only $5 (Kindle).

But this book is worth the full price, even for just the first chapter on politics alone!

Go check it out, buy a copy (or 12) for yourself and your friends. And please share with others!

Here’s a sample of some of the goodness that lies within!

“When the grace of Jesus sinks in, we will be among the least offended and most loving people in the world.” – Scott Sauls, Jesus Outside the Lines

 

“What matters more to us  — that we successfully put others in their place, or that we are known to love well? That we win culture wars with carefully constructed arguments and political power plays, or that we win hearts with humility, truth, and love? God have mercy on us if we do not love well because all that matters to us is being right and winning arguments. Truth and love can go together. Truth and love must go together.” – Scott Sauls, Jesus Outside the Lines

 

“Christianity always flourishes most as a life-giving minority, not as a powerful majority. It is through subversive, countercultural acts of love, justice, and service for the common good that Christianity has always gained the most ground.” – Scott Sauls, Jesus Outside the Lines

 

 

It Does Not Matter

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the gospel centered life and Paul letter to the Romans

Martyn Lloyd-Jones on being gospel centered.

I came across this gem while reading through Martyn Lloyd-Jones‘ commentary on Romans and it clarifies perfectly what I personally, and our church, Christ Church Mansfield, hold to.

“It does not matter what Paul is writing about; sometimes he has to write a letter because people have sent him questions, or because there have been difficulties. It does not matter at all what the occasion is; he cannot begin writing without at once introducing us to Jesus Christ. To Paul, He was the beginning and end, the all-in-all.”  – From Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Gospel of God: An Exposition of Romans Chapter 1 (33)

At Christ Church Mansfield, we say that we are a single-issue church, meaning, we are centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ. This moves us into certain directions, activities, values and distinctions; for example, we say we are here to Love God (worship); Connect people (community); Serve the city (mission); Reach the world (discipleship).

But all of these emanate from one center – Jesus Christ, who He is (person) and what He has done (work). There is nothing we can do or say that should not come from this central starting point. This is what we mean when we say we are gospel-centered.

Without the Gospel

Deforrested forrest

“Without the gospel everything is useless and vain; without the gospel we are not Christians; without the gospel all riches is poverty, all wisdom folly before God; strength is weakness, and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God. But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made children of God, brothers of Jesus Christ, fellow townsmen with the saints, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, heirs of God with Jesus Christ, by whom the poor are made rich, the weak strong, the fools wise, the sinner justified, the desolate comforted, the doubting sure, and slaves free. It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe …” – John Calvin

Practice Sabbath Rest Well My Friend!

Man resting in field (Small 640x360)This past weekend I preached on Sabbath rest from Mark 2:23-3:6 at Christ Presbyterian Church in Mansfield TX. I was unable to finish everything I had on it, and decided to follow it up with a blog post, especially talking about and addressing some practicalities of observing Sabbath rest in light of the gospel. 

The highlight of the sermon could be summed up in saying that far beyond the mere absence of work, Sabbath is more about the presence of true rest. The gospel is that the rest we need and crave is given to us by Jesus and His finished work on our behalf, and once we rest in His unchanging, unending love for us, we can in turn reach out to those with not only withered hands, but also withered hearts, and join Him in His mission to redeem, restore and renew all nouns – peoples, places and things – back to life in Him. 

To listen to the sermon, go here. Would love to hear your thoughts so share a comment here, or there!

Bring Back the Sabbath.

That was the title of a 2003 article in the New York Times by Judith Shulevitz in which she poignantly observed the desperate need we have as a society to once again observe the practice of taking designated time to rest. One of the priceless observations she makes in that article is that the need for Sabbath – a structured and socially practiced period of time for rest – goes far beyond the mere cessation of work or activity. She writes:

“Most people mistakenly believe that all you have to do to stop working is not work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood that it was a much more complicated undertaking. You cannot downshift casually and easily, the way you might slip into bed at the end of of a long day….That is why the Puritan and Jewish Sabbaths were so exactingly intentional, requiring extensive advance preparation…The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will, one that has to be bolstered by habit as by social sanction.” (“Bring Back the Sabbath”, NY Times, March 2003)

She goes on to address why this is so.

“[When] Sunday was still sacred….not only did drudgery give way to festivity, family gatherings and occasionally worship, but the machinery of self-sesnorship shut down…stilling the eternal inner murmur of self-reproach.”

The “eternal inner murmur of self-reproach” – the ceaseless striving we all have – is a part of who we are as human beings. And it is the work beneath the work of our days and weeks that make us truly weary.

This is the main point Jesus teaching on the Sabbath. If one were to go to Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament on what is allowable and what is prohibited to do on the Sabbath, you will be woefully disappointed because he does not say much. And even when He is asked questions to this end, He simply changes the subject; or perhaps more accurately, He reorients the question and questioner to see that such lists and regulations are of lesser importance than the true meaning of Sabbath rest and the implications of Jesus life.

The true rest we need is not the mere cessation or absence of activity; it is to stop our ceaseless striving to earn approval and achieve significance through what we do and instead rest in the completed, finished and satisfactory work of Christ on our behalf! When God Himself rested from His work of Creation in Genesis 1-2, it was not because He was tired, or He needed to recharge His batteries; nor was it because He had to observe a sacred rhythm and ritual of working and resting. He did so because He was completely satisfied with His finished work. It was a time for joy, celebration, and no longer tinkering, building or improving. He looked at all He had done and declared, “It was very good.”

Jesus on the cross declares again, “It is finished” and because of His perfect life and sinless, substitutionary death, the full Godhead (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) are once again satisfied. Our ceaseless striving not only can, but must cease, as we find our true rest in Him alone. It was because he suffered under the weight of our ceaseless striving, experiencing the “no rest for the wicked” what we deserve (cf. Isaiah 57), that we can receive, experience and rest in the rest He deserved!

Jesus heals shriveled humanity on the Sabbath – both those with shriveled hands as well as shriveled hearts! Far from being turned in on ourselves, true Sabbath rest moves us beyond ourselves and our activity to rest in Him and reach out to others.

This is all well and good, but what does this mean practically for you and me on Monday? Or Tuesday? Or when we go home, or to church, or though the rest of our days and weeks?

I want to offer a few hopefully helpful and practical thoughts for what it means for us to practice Sabbath rest (not an oxymoron) in light of the gospel. Because the gospel does not only produce profound, true, deep rest that we crave, but also movement and motivation to reach out to others – to God in worship and celebration, to our fellow family members of the faith in community and remembrance, as well as to a weary and tired world around us.

Here are Three Inner Disciplines and Four Outer Disciplines to help us practice Sabbath rest in light of the gospel.

Inner Disciplines

1. Practice Liberty

Sabbath is a time for freedom and joy, not slavery and drudgery. One of the principle reasons for Israel’s freedom from bondage and captivity in Egypt was to experience freedom to worship God alone. This included the Sabbath, a single day of rest from their heavy burdens and labors under Pharaoh’s rule. Let’s not make our Sabbath day then about more rules, restrictions and regulations. Use it as one day among many that we learn to live out our freedom as sons and daughters of God. This is not just freedom from paid work and income producing activities. Perhaps, you need to practice liberty and freedom from your tendency toward busyness, or laziness? Maybe you need to practice liberty in terms of saying Yes because you always say No; or vice versa. Maybe you need to practice liberty from your smart phone, computer, or even your good books or favorite eateries and restaurants (or maybe you need to go out to eat!).

What would freedom look like for you? Given your situation and station in life? Given your temperament and personality?

2. Active Trust

To take one day out of seven to not do any work, any income producing activity, can be daunting, especially given our current cultural climate. There will always be pressure to keep pushing, striving, and improving your self, let alone get ahead in your job. To take a period of time and declare that you will not actively trust in your self and what you can produce, you are at the exact same time actively trusting in God to meet and perhaps even exceed your needs and expectations.

This is no small thing. By failing to take time off, you are declaring that you got this; but by doing so, you entrust yourself to One who has your best interests at stake and is far more interested in your life and situation that you probably are. Trust Him.

3. Respond in Grace

We all have certain levels or threshold for giving grace to others, or even ourselves for that matter. Our default inclination is to relate to other people based on merit – how well did they (or I) perform? Did I measure up? Etc. But Sabbath rest is about receiving and resting in grace – what someone else has produced, procured and secured on my behalf. We should then have a tendency to make grace our knee-jerk, first movement and reaction. And if we can’t or we’re not quite there yet, make it the second movement, if not the first.

One example. When you go out to eat (whether it’s lunch on Sunday or some other time and place), try leaving the tip out of grace, and not merit. Don’t start at 10% and make the serve earn extra; decide in your mind that you will give at least 20%, and perhaps a little more if the service is extra good! Be counter-intuitive to not only the way the world works, but the way your temperament or track record might lead you to be. You have received grace; extend it to others.

Outer Disciplines

4. Take more time for Sabbath

This is simple, but not easy. If we are going to practice Sabbath rest, we actually have to make time for it. Put it in your calendar. When will you block out time to practice Sabbath rest? When will you purposefully make time to practice liberty from producing, actively trust in God to provide, and respond in grace?

If you are in a profession that mandates you work on certain days of the week – whether Saturday or Sunday – when can you carve out time to engage in the discipline of resting in Christ?  Maybe it can’t be a full day for you given your station and circumstances in life, but there’s some time in your week I’m sure. Block it off and make it happen. It will do your body and your soul good.

5. Inject Sabbath time into regular time

I am thankful for the increasing body of research that gets at this one. Where and when can you inject some of this Sabbath time into your normal time, or a regular day? I’m talking about the new trend of looking favorably upon the afternoon “power nap” (not the 2 hour kind, but the 15-20 minute kind).  Or, if you are stuck at a desk for most of your day, but you get a few minutes of break here and there, maybe you can take a walk around your building. Maybe you can schedule a lunch with someone else to help you refuel and energize you (one key component of Sabbath rest is that it is not merely private, but communal as well – more on that below).

Our days have a rhythm just like our weeks. Where can we inject time to rest, reflect and re-engage with what God has done for us in the gospel both personally and with others throughout our day?

6. Balance Sabbath time

Tim Keller in his sermon on Sabbath from Luke 6 helpfully lists out three areas, or buckets, of Sabbath time that are helpful and necessary. He divides it up as avocational, leisure and contemplative spheres.

Avocational – what you enjoy doing, that’s not work related (Example: Professional fishermen might not actually find fishing restful). What can you make time for that your regular job and hours during the week don’t make time for? You might enjoy writing, but if that’s what you spend 90% of your time doing during your job, are there other areas of interest that you might miss out on, and now, you finally have the time to explore or experience? What are some of those avocational areas of life that could be restful and energizing, but the tyranny of the urgent or the important during the week, make no time for?

Leisure – Sabbath is a time for joy. What are those things you love doing, that refuel you, and that are just fun? Incorporate this aspect into your times of Sabbath rest.

Contemplative – There is a time and a place for reading, thinking and even journaling. Take some time to read your Bible, or some good book of doctrine and christian living. Journal your thoughts out too, and engage in prayer. With the constant onslaught of distractions and drivenness during our week, carve out some time to do the hard, heart work that pays so much more than it costs. But it’s important to take the time to do so.

7. Be Engaged in Community and Accountability for Sabbath time

This is by far, I think, the most significant lever we can pull personally to get the most out of true Sabbath rest.  We are created by community, for community, and we will not experience true rest outside of it. Here’s what I mean. God created you to image Him, and He is One God in Three Persons (or Trinity). He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each unique and differentiated persons, but still one God. To image Him then, we must not only be unique and differentiated persons, but we must find and situate ourselves within a community.

This is where being involved in a local church is so important. It is our opportunity to find ourselves by being committed to others. And it is as we are part of a community that we can in turn remind each other not only who we are, but Whose we are, and so continually rest in His love for us.

Who are you engaged with in terms of community? Who is holding you accountable for not only believing, but living, out of the rest the gospel provides? Who can you reach out to with that same rest?

The Outlandish Desire for Home

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Corcovado jesus

Corcovado jesus (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

“For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.”― Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

 

During this Christmas season, I love to be reminded that we are “outlandish creatures” who are all longing for home.  The reality though can only be found in the One in whom we’ve been made, and in whom we also “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Home, in other words, is found in Jesus Christ alone. That is the meaning of Christmas – God making His home with us, so we can find our way back home again with Him.

The Incarnation as Recovery Mission

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“And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Desiring to Know the Real Reason

English: Saint paul arrested

English: Saint paul arrested (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love this simple statement Luke includes when he recounts the trial of Paul in Acts 22.  Paul had been preaching the gospel, sharing his story of encountering Jesus, and it caused a stir.  People were upset.  They couldn’t handle what he was talking about.  And their reaction was to hand Paul over to the authorities.

 

The Romans did what they were trained to do – get the truth out of Paul any way that they could.  Their interrogation methods included flogging.  Nothing like a few lashings to get to the truth.  But before they made it that far down the particular path, Paul explains that what they are about to do us unlawful, for although Paul is a Jew, he was also a Roman citizen by birth, and thus he had some legal protection from being bound and interrogated without cause.
What strikes me about this story though is not Paul’s social and political savvy, or even his practice of what some have labeled “riot evangelism.” (Not arguing against this either.  The demonstration and proclamation of the Gospel should cause a stir!).
No, what I find fascinating is that the Roman tribune came to back to Paul, “desiring to know the real reason why he was being accused by the Jews.” (v. 30).
Do our lives and our words have that kind of effect?
 
Not just the effect of causing a stir or a controversy.
Not just the kind that instigates a riot.
Not just the kind that shakes the comfortable and complacent out of their apathy.

But the kind that draws others closer, “desiring to know the real reason.”  

 
The real reason for the hope that we profess.
The real reason for our experience of God.
The real reason why some would struggle to the point of wanting to condemn, ostracize and even punish  us for what we believe, what we proclaim and what we demonstrate with out lives.
That’s the kind of impact I want to have.  To see men and women and children be so moved with desire to want to know the real reason why I believe the gospel.  This is why I’m excited to see more interest being taken up in the realm of “gospel neighboring” and if you haven’t yet stumbled upon Andy Stager’s  blog and podcast on this subject, you really should go check it out here.
It’s when we live with such radical hospitality, in close proximity to others in our communities, that the distinctiveness of our lives shaped by the Gospel will begin to have the effect of disrupting the perceptions and preconceived notions of Christianity and Christians themselves, and that space for desiring to know the real reason is created – in relationship.
Can you imagine what would happen if our words and lives had this as their aim and intention?
Can you see your family members, neighbors, and coworkers being so drawn to ask you that kind of question – “Tell me the real reason why……
….so-and-so seems out to get you?
….you’re not holding that grudge against that guy who threw you under the bus?
….you’re not falling apart when your husband lost his job?
….you’re neither a fundamentalist, prude, nor are you a anything-goes kind of person?
….you love your kids and yet your world doesn’t simply orbit around them and their schedules?
….you’re life has changed so dramatically?
….you go to that church?
….you are a Christian?
Can you imagine the folks in your particular sphere of influence asking you these kinds of questions? That’s the kind of person I want to be, and the kind of people God wants us to be as we seek to live a distinctively Christian life in the world He has placed us.