FaithHacking_Updated

I love to find and share practical methods or techniques for living the Christian life–ways other Christians live out their Christian faith day-by-day. As I speak with people, as I read books, as I listen to sermons, I am always looking for these tips which I call “faith hacks.” I am going to share another one with you today. It comes from Jerry Bridges and deals with the important disciplines of preaching the gospel to yourself.

Bridges has written in several of his books about the importance of the daily practice of preaching the gospel to yourself. In The Discipline of Grace he writes, “When you set yourself to seriously pursue holiness, you will begin to realize what an awful sinner you are. And if you are not firmly rooted in the gospel and have not learned to preach it to yourself every day, you will soon become discouraged and will slack off in your pursuit of holiness.” He also gives an overview of the practice: “To preach the gospel to yourself, then, means that you continually face up to your own sinfulness and then flee to Jesus through faith in His shed blood and righteous life. It means that you appropriate, again by faith, the fact that Jesus fully satisfied the law of God, that He is your propitiation, and that God's holy wrath is no longer directed toward you.”

But it is in Respectable Sins that he gives the practical example from his own life. Here is how he preaches the gospel to himself every day:

Since the gospel is only for sinners, I begin each day with the realization that despite my being a saint, I still sin every day in thought, word, deed, and motive. If I am aware of any subtle, or not so subtle, sins in my life, I acknowledge those to God. Even if my conscience is not indicting me for conscious sins, I still acknowledge to God that I have not even come close to loving Him with all my being or loving my neighbor as myself. I repent of those sins, and then I apply specific Scriptures that assure me of God’s forgiveness to those sins I have just confessed.

I then generalize the Scripture’s promises of God’s forgiveness to all my life and say to God words to the effect that my only hope of a right standing with Him that day is Jesus' blood shed for my sins, and His righteous life lived on my behalf. This reliance on the twofold work of Christ for me is beautifully captured by Edward Mote in his hymn “The Solid Rock” with his words, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus' blood and righteousness.” Almost every day, I find myself going to those words in addition to reflecting on the promises of forgiveness in the Bible.

What Scriptures do I use to preach the gospel to myself? Here are just a few I choose from each day:

As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)

“I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” (Isaiah 43:25)

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)

Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. (Romans 4:7-8)

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)

There are many others, including Psalm 130:3-4; Isaiah 1:18; Isaiah 38:17; Micah 7:19; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 2:13-14; Hebrews 8:12; and 10:17-18.

Whatever Scriptures we use to assure us of God’s forgiveness, we must realize that whether the passage explicitly states it or not, the only basis for God’s forgiveness is the blood of Christ shed on the cross for us. As the writer of Hebrews said, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22), and the context makes it clear that it is Christ’s blood that provides the objective basis on which God forgives our sins.

That has been his daily practice for many years. Why don’t you make it part of your practice, and see the difference it makes to begin each day reminding yourself of who you were, and who you now are in Christ.

Do you make it your practice to preach the gospel to yourself? If so, what have you learned? How do you go about it?

31DaysOfPurity

Through the month of March, I am inviting you to 31 Days of Purity—thirty-one days of thinking about and praying for sexual purity. Each day features a short passage of Scripture, a reflection on that passage, and a brief prayer. Here is day twenty-nine:

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)

Sometimes we get so caught up in the moment that we lose all sense of perspective. We become like the man who stands before the sweeping mountain vista, but will only gaze at the ground beneath his feet. What he sees is real, but it is so small and so limited. We need to lift our eyes to catch the bigger perspective—the eternal perspective. Like Paul, we need to fix our eyes on what is unseen and eternal.

This life matters. But this life is short. When we put our lifespans in the context of eternity, they are but the shortest blip, the shortest dash between the two dates on a gravestone. While another evening of battling sexual sin can seem like the longest and most difficult night of our lives, it is but the shortest tick of the clock in the context of eternity. “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17). Even this temptation, this affliction, is so light when we compare it to the joy that awaits us.

Father, help me to keep my eyes fixed on what is unseen and eternal. Help me to view my life, and my moments of temptation, in the context of eternity. While these temptations can feel so weighty and so difficult, I want to know and believe that they are but light and momentary afflictions compared to the eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison you have prepared for me. I long for the day when I will be with you forever. Prepare me for that day by giving me your grace to battle sexual sin today and every day.

What Now? Consider joining our 31 Days of Purity Facebook group. It is optional, but you will find it a good place to go for discussion and encouragement. (Note: that Facebook group is for men only; here is one for Women Supporting Men).

I enjoy a good war movie every now and again. I’m not talking about the senselessly violent ones that exist only to find new and creative ways of showing splatter and gore, but the realistic, or at least mostly realistic ones. There is something useful about those movies, I think, and something helpful about seeing war for what it really is, provided that the point is not glamorizing violence or brutality, but exposing us to the reality and the horror of human depravity along with the redemption that can be found in the midst of it.

Some of my favorite movies are the ones that show a remarkable feature of certain armies, and perhaps especially the American military: the resolution that no matter the circumstances, every soldier will be accounted for.

Many armies devalue human life, and devalue their own soldiers, by caring more for the group than for individuals, more for the army than for the soldiers. They will leave their soldiers in captivity, or allow their bodies to remain on the field. But the American military, and others like it, promise this: No man left behind. Whether you are alive or dead, your army will do all it can to ensure that you, or your remains, are accounted for. When you walk into battle, you do not need to fear that you will be abandoned, neglected, or forgotten. Your brothers-in-arms will fight for you, your superiors will battle on your behalf. They will risk their lives for yours. I can only imagine the comfort and security this brings as soldiers march toward the battlefield. After all, what could be more intimidating than the thought of being forever abandoned and forgotten?

On my flight to Australia they were showing Lone Survivor . I didn’t watch it all, but I have read the book and got the point of the film: one man had been left behind and U.S. military might was deployed to rescue him. (Spoiler warning!) The movie culminates in an American soldier busting into this man’s hiding place and assuring him that he is now safe, that he will not be left behind. The soldier, and the audience, then breathes a sigh of relief, knowing that he, too, is accounted for.

And as the credits rolled I found myself thinking about the church, another place where I hope no man is left behind (or no woman, or no child, for that). We should expect no less from ourselves.

If your church is sharing the gospel and reaching out into tough places and difficult situations, it seems likely that it has become involved in all manner of problems. Your church will attract people who struggle with every kind of sin and they will bring sin and addiction and heartbreak into the church with them. They will be vulnerable, they will sometimes sin in big and blatant ways, they may well wander off for a time. The temptation will be to allow people to fall by the wayside, to allow the wanderers to wander indefinitely, and to go on sharing the gospel despite so much attrition. Sometimes it is far easier to go about your convenient life than to risk your time, your attention, or your comfort for one of them. Months later you find yourself asking, “Whatever happened to…?” They are gone, and you barely noticed.

No man left behind. I think of Jesus and his great prayer as his life and earthly ministry drew to a close. He prayed to the Father to say about the people that had been entrusted to him, “I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost…” He knew his mission and he carried it to the very end. They could have wandered. By all rights they should have wandered and should have been lost. But he cared for them and he protected them to the end.

As Christians, we are charged with caring for one another—the shepherds first and every church member after them. It brings all manner of joy, comfort and security when we affirm, and when we insist, that we will not leave even one person behind. We will guard them, we will guide them, we will pursue them, we will pray for them, we will love them, we will pursue them to the very end. No man will be left behind.

 

Parent-Child BondMonday morning. 5:40. Cup of coffee. My desk in a corner of the basement. Life is good. And this morning I find myself pondering the fact that my kids are getting older. It is inevitable, of course, but what once felt like a crawl to adulthood seems like it has become a sprint. Just this weekend my youngest turned eight years old—no longer a little kid. She’s become too big to pick up and toss around. Or maybe I’ve just become too weak to even try. She rarely comes over to me anymore to plant herself on my lap for no other purpose than that she needs a cuddle and the reassurance it brings. Maybe she doesn’t understand that I need the cuddles too.

It was with a twinge of remorse that I realized I can’t relate to her as a little kid any more. For so long our love language has been the language of absurdities: “Mommy says you don’t want birthday presents this year, so mommy and I are going to use the money to go out on a date.” We used to have such fun with these, teasing one another back and forth with increasingly absurd statements. Now all I get is rolled eyes and the one-word exasperated exclamation, “Daddy!” I guess it’s time to stop, time to find something new, time to learn a new language.

I also have a son who is choosing the high school he will go to next year, and a sixteen-year old girl (well, she’s actually eleven years old, but she may as well be sixteen). And at this phase of life, I am finding parenting so easy and so difficult all at once. I am finding parenting such a joy, but a joy that is mixed with new kinds of sorrow. I know now that there are some kinds of sorrow a parent can only experience as his children grow up and grow older. There’s the sorrow of missing what they used to be, and the sorrow of seeing them make the same mistakes I made once upon a time.

Parenting was grueling in the phase dominated by midnight bottles, night terrors, and endless dirty diapers. It was grueling but predictable. It was exhausting, but primarily on the physical level. We didn’t have to serve as counselors and psychiatrists. If we were up late into the night, it was to walk and bounce a baby to sleep, not to counsel a heartbroken little girl about cruel words blurted by her best friend. What kept us awake and sleepless were the cries of simple gas cramps or hunger pains, not the cries of emotional pain following a bad decision. When a toddler crosses boundaries it may require a brief and simple punishment; when a teenager crosses boundaries the result may be much longer-lasting, much more complicated, much more sorrowful.

Aileen and I pray as we crawl into bed at the end of the day. We try to, at least. This used to be our time to ask the Lord to keep our children healthy, to give us wisdom to know how to train them in obedience, to help keep us from growing exasperated with another late night and another two-in-the-morning diaper change. Simple stuff in retrospect. Raw and real, but simple.

Now when we pray we are asking the Lord to give our kids wisdom to negotiate the problems they have caused in their own lives because of their own immaturity and foolishness. We are asking the Lord to give us and wisdom as we consider issues that will have a life-long bearing: Christian high school or public high school? Computer science (the route with the great career possibilities) or history (the route that inspires both joy and passion)? We are asking the Lord to give our children patience and godly character as they learn to live in the presence of those who are spiteful and mean. We are asking the Lord to give our children godly character to go along with their profession of faith in Christ.

The Lord was so good and so kind to us through the little kid phase. It was difficult at times and there were days or even weeks at a time when we went through life with that dead-eyed look you see in so many new parents—parents whose children have kept them up too late every night for a month. But God was with us and he worked in us. We grew in faith and love not despite this time but through and because of this time. We have no doubt that he will do the same as we parent bigger kids and teenagers.

But I do miss playing with them. Not pushing toys around the living room floor. I’ve never been able to tolerate the kind of playing and am almost always able to intercept it with, “How about daddy reads you a story instead?” It’s the playful playing, the absurd playing, the nonsense playing. The kind of playing only little kids and their parents enjoy.

Life is good. Parenting is a joy (when it’s not agony). God is sovereign. And now it is time to wake them one-by-one, to rouse them for devotions, to get them their breakfast, to send them to school. Suddenly that most mundane of routines seems like it may be the most important thing I do today.

 

31 Days of Purity

Through the month of March, I am inviting you to 31 Days of Purity—thirty-one days of thinking about and praying for sexual purity. Each day features a short passage of Scripture, a reflection on that passage, and a brief prayer. Here is day four, and today we have a guest writer: Dr. Joel Beeke (whose preferred translation is the KJV) who, with his love of Puritan writers, is particularly well-equipped to write on putting sin to death.

For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. -Romans 8:13

Every Christian finds himself living out two realities: what he is in Christ, and what he is at present, wherever he happens to be in his earthly pilgrimage. The one reality is the fact of his justification “by faith alone in Christ alone” from the guilt of all sin and his personal union with Christ crucified, risen again, and received up into glory. The other reality is the Christian’s degree of personal sanctification. Unlike justification, sanctification is never complete in this life. A substantial first step is the regeneration of the heart that marks the beginning of all true Christian life. But the way forward is rife with difficulties. We can go backward as well as forward in this way; and we all pass through seasons of stagnation and declension.

The Christian learns early on that sin still has a hold on him and remains in him, even “besetting” him, dogging his steps and burdening him with guilt and shame. Paul describes this remaining sin as “another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind” (Rom. 7:23). How does the believer respond to this “law of sin”?  We must mortify (put to death) what Paul calls “the old man and his deeds,” and “the lusts of the flesh” (Rom. 8:13, 13:14; Col. 3:15). This mortification is both a gift (of the Holy Spirit) and a duty (ours). In our own strength we cannot accomplish any lasting mortification, without the Spirit’s grace. But by the powerful and enabling grace of the Holy Spirit, we may and must hate sin, strangle it, and put a sword through it. We must meditate often on the horrific consequences of sinning against our beloved, triune God and Savior. We must know our own hearts and weaknesses, and avoid those situations that tend to promote the temptations that we are weakest in battling against. We must cast off all remnants of the life we left behind when we began to follow Christ. We must put ourselves under the death-dealing power of the cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14) so that the Spirit of Christ may put to death what is earthly in us.

The Spirit of Christ focuses us on Christ when teaching us how to mortify sin. Mortification begins when we condemn our sins as transgressions of the law of God. We confess these sins to be forgiven by God and cleansed by the blood of Christ. Then we forsake these sins for Christ’s sake. Paul tells us to fight against sin from a position of strength (Rom. 6; Eph. 6). Know what you are in Christ. In Christ we have died unto sin. In Christ we have been raised again to newness of life. In Christ crucified we have been set free from sin’s dominion and continue to die to sin, so that, as John Owen emphasizes, we experience the death of sin in the death of Christ. Sin may assail but cannot master us, so long as we stand firm in Christ, calling upon His name. In Christ we are assured of God’s help in striving against sin. Though we may fall and lose various skirmishes against sin, because of our union and communion with Christ we have by faith the promise of ultimate victory and final deliverance, which, more than anything else, gives us hope and sustenance in the daily fight against sin. The only sin fatal to our cause is unbelief. Unbelief alone can rob us of God’s grace and shut us out of His kingdom.

Ever blessed Triune God, in the light of Thy holy law, I confess my sorrow of heart that I have provoked Thee by my sins. By Thy Holy Spirit, deepen in me more and more the hatred of these sins, and the desire to flee from them, dying unto sin with Christ, and rising again in newness of life, to live unto Thee in righteousness and true holiness, for His sake. Believing Thy gospel promise, I ask Thee to forgive my sins and help me by Thy Holy Spirit to fight against and overcome sin, the devil, and his whole dominion, as a follower of Christ, and one who bears His name before the world.  Amen.

What Now? Consider joining our 31 Days of Purity Facebook group. It is optional, but you will find it a good place to go for discussion and encouragement. (Note: that Facebook group is for men only; here is one for Women Supporting Men).

The Bestsellers

A short time ago I launched a new series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. Today we look at a surprise bestseller that is one of the very few to have sold more than ten million copies.

The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson

prayer-of-jabezBruce Wilkinson earned advanced theological degrees at several Christian seminaries and for a time served as a professor at Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Oregon. In 1976, he began Walk Thru the Bible, a worldwide ministry that provides seminars and conferences to teach biblical doctrine. He remained at the helm from 1976 until 2003 when he was succeeded by Chip Ingram.

In 2000, Wilkinson teamed up with Multnomah Publishers to release The Prayer of Jabez : Breaking Through to the Blessed Life and almost from the moment of release, it left an indelible mark on Christian publishing. The book is based on two verses from 1 Chronicles 4: “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, ‘Because I bore him in pain.’ Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!’ And God granted what he asked.”

In the introduction Wilkinson says, “I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers. It is brief—only one sentence with four parts—and tucked away in the Bible, but I believe it contains they key to a life of extraordinary favor with God. This petition has radically changed what I expect from God and what I experience every day by His power.” The first chapter begins with these words: “The little book you’re holding is about what happens when ordinary Christians decide to reach for an extraordinary life—which, as it turns out, is exactly the kind God promises.” Moving to biography, he tells how thirty years earlier he had discovered that small prayer spoken to Jabez and had prayed it on a daily basis ever since. “In the pages of this little book, I want to introduce you to the amazing truths in Jabez’s prayer for blessing and prepare you to expect God’s astounding answers as a regular part of your life experience.”

Through the book he teaches Christians that if they repeat Jabez’s prayer and make it an integral part of their devotional life, they will experience God’s favor in new and remarkable ways. “I challenge you to make the Jabez prayer for blessing part of the daily fabric of your life. To do that, I encourage you to follow unwaveringly the plan outlined here for the next thirty days. By the end of that time, you’ll be noticing significant changes in your life, and the prayer will be on its way to becoming a treasured, lifelong habit.”

The rest of the book simply teaches Wilkinson’s interpretation of the prayer and his guidance on praying it most effectively.

Sales & Lasting Impact

The Prayer of Jabez was an immediate bestseller and, according to some sources, became the fastest-selling book to that point in history. By 2001 the book had sold nearly two million copies and was awarded the Platinum Book Award. A whole industry of peripheral products grew up around it and many of them also earned awards: The Prayer of Jabez Devotional and The Prayer of Jabez for Teens both received the Gold Book Award that year. In 2003 The Prayer of Jabez for Kids and The Prayer of Jabez for Teens were both awarded the Platinum Book Award while The Prayer of Jabez for Women and The Prayer of Jabez Bible Study attained Gold status. In 2008 The Prayer of Jabez crossed the 10 million threshold and received the Diamond Book Award, putting it in the rarest of company. Only four other Christian books before or since have surpassed ten million sold.

While the book met with enthusiastic reception among many Christians, it also met significant criticism. Many believers expressed concern that Wilkinson presumes upon God by saying that God promises to always answer this prayer. It was also criticized for being an example of the “vain repetitions” Jesus forbids in his most explicit teaching on prayer. In short, the book contradicts what the Bible teaches and models in prayer. A review at Grace to You highlights another area of concern. The book “paints an inconsistent picture of the Christian life. Wilkinson asserts that praying Jabez’s prayer leads to a life of incredible blessing and ever-increasing ministry opportunities—a life that sounds almost like a fairy-tale. However, little reference is ever made to the reality of genuine difficulties in life, and the necessity of sincere prayer to face those difficulties in a God-honoring way.” Continue reading to see why this becomes especially important.

In the wake of the success of The Prayer of Jabez, several authors penned book-length responses and many of these sold in large numbers. Derek Webb said that his song “Wedding Dress” was based on the book.

Since the Award

Wilkinson has since written a number of other books. While none have approximated the success of The Prayer of Jabez, several have sold in significant numbers, with Secrets of the Vine selling over two million copies, A Life God Rewards selling over one million, and The Dream Giver selling over a half million.

One interesting episode in Wilkinson’s life merits mention for the way it so clearly contradicts his own teaching. In 2005 and 2006 both the Wall Street Journal and Christianity Today reported on Wilkinson’s broken dream for Africa. In 2002, at the heart of the success of The Prayer of Jabez, Wilkinson traveled through Africa and later told Christianity Today, “God ripped open our chest, took out our heart, dug a hole in Africa, put it in, covered it with soil and said, ‘Now, follow your heart and move down to Africa’.” Wilkinson soon launched Dream for Africa and announced that he was moving to Africa to save one million AIDS orphans. He would begin his work in the small nation of Swaziland.

The first problem he determined to solve was the problem of hunger. “Because I don’t come out of this arena of humanitarian aid, I have a fresh pair of eyes,” he said. Soon teams from America were traveling to Africa to plant vegetable gardens in yards across the nation. The next issue he would solve was the AIDS crisis, and for this reason he dispatched teams of American Bible college students and African volunteers to every high school in Swaziland where they held abstinence seminars.

In 2002 Wilkinson was granted an audience with King Mswati III and soon thereafter announced the African Dream Village. This village would be what the Wall Street Journal termed “a massive tourist-orphan-industrial complex.” The village would have homes for 10,000 orphans with each one housing twenty children and an elderly Swazi couple to serve as parents and chaperones. The houses would have a $500 per week bed and breakfast suite for tourists, allowing wealthy Western tourists to combine vacation with charity. “Fifty such homes would form a mini-village of 1,000 orphans, built around a theme — such as Wild West rodeos or Swazi village life — to entertain guests. There would also be a new luxury hotel and an 18-hole golf course. Orphans would be trained as rodeo stars and safari guides at nearby game reserves.”

Wilkinson recruited a native Swazi to help him head the project. Together they located 32,000 acres of prime land and asked the government to grant the organization a ninety-nine-year lease. Over several months they pitched the idea to various government officials and received verbal commitments. Finally Wilkinson provided a 34-page proposal and gave the Swazi government five days to approve it, threatening he would take his plan elsewhere if they did not grant immediate approval. For several months he negotiated until he realized his position was hopeless. Swazi media was mocking his plan, Swazi citizens were outraged that he planned to take children away from their clans and villages, and the king showed that he had no genuine interest.

In October Wilkinson suddenly announced his resignation, saying “With the successful launch of Dream for Africa, my family and I feel our work in Africa is complete.” An internal memo to his staff explained that, to his regret, God had told him to leave Africa and return to North America. The dream dwindled and died.

The Wall Street Journal provides a sad epilogue:

Word of Mr. Wilkinson’s decision slowly reached Swaziland, where it dismayed his followers. “I don’t know how to handle this,” said Rev. Zakes Nxumalo. “People won’t understand; to them Bruce is everything,” he added. “How can he leave everything in the middle of the road?” asked 22-year-old Gcina Mdluli, who has taken a vow of sexual abstinence and now volunteers full-time in Mr. Wilkinson’s school anti-AIDS programs.

Mr. Wilkinson says that he blames neither God nor man. He says he weeps when he thinks of his disappointed acolytes, and is trying to come to grips with a miracle that didn’t materialize despite his unceasing recitation of the Jabez prayer.

A Personal Perspective

The Prayer of Jabez came before my time as a writer and book reviewer. I knew it only as an absurd product with an entire industry surrounding it and multitudes lauding it. While I believe we can fairly understand and critique The Prayer of Jabez on its own terms, we understand it far better in the wake of the abject failure of Dream for Africa. The simple fact is: the prayer is not effective because it is not drawn faithfully from Scripture.

 

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  The following excerpt is from The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, volume 28, sermon number 1,653, “The resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

“The resurrection of our Lord, according to Scripture, was the acceptance of his sacrifice.” 

By the Lord Jesus Christ rising from the dead evidence was given that he had fully endured the penalty which was due to human guilt. “The soul that sinneth it shall die”—that is the determination of the God of heaven. Jesus stands in the sinner’s stead and dies: and when he has done that nothing more can be demanded of him, for he that is dead is free from the law.

You take a man who has been guilty of a capital offence: he is condemned to be hanged, he is hanged by the neck till he is dead—what more has the law to do with him? It has done with him, for it has executed its sentence upon him; if he can be brought hack to life again he is clear from the law; no writ that runs in Her Majesty’s dominions can touch him—he has suffered the penalty.

So when our Lord Jesus rose from the dead, after having died, he had fully paid the penalty that was due to justice for the sin of his people, and his new life was a life clear of penalty, free from liability. You and I are clear from the claims of the law because Jesus stood in our stead, and God will not exact payment both from us and from our Substitute: it were contrary to justice to sue both the Surety and those for whom he stood.

And now, joy upon joy! the burden of liability which once did lie upon the Substitute is removed from him also; seeing he has by the suffering of death vindicated justice and made satisfaction to the injured law. Now both the sinner and the Surety are free.

This is a great joy, a joy for which to make the golden harps ring out a loftier style of music. He who took our debt has now delivered himself from it by dying on the cross. His new life, now that he has risen from the dead, is a life free from legal claim, and it is the token to us that we whom he represented are free also.

Listen! “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again.” It is a knockdown blow to fear when the apostle says that we cannot be condemned because Christ has died in our stead, but he puts a double force into it when he cries, “Yea rather, that is risen again.”

If Satan, therefore, shall come to any believer and say, “What about your sin?” tell him Jesus died for it, and your sin is put away. If he come a second time, and say to you, “What about your sin?” answer him, “Jesus lives, and his life is the assurance of our justification; for if our Surety had not paid the debt he would still be under the power of death.”

Inasmuch as Jesus has discharged all our liabilities, and left not one farthing due to God’s justice from one of his people, he lives and is clear, and we live in him, and are clear also by virtue of our union with him.

Is not this a glorious doctrine, this doctrine of the resurrection, in its bearing upon the justification of the saints? The Lord Jesus gave himself for our sins, but he rose again for our justification.


The Bestsellers

A short time ago I launched a new Sunday series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I will look at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. Today we look at a book that introduced many of us to one of this generation’s most popular preachers. The book is titled Your Best Life Now.

Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen

0978044653275_500X500Joel Osteen was born on March 5, 1963, the son of John and Dolores (known as “Dodie”) Osteen. John founded Lakewood Church in Houston Texas on May 10, 1959, and pastored the church until his death in 1999. While he began his career in ministry as a Baptist, he later experienced something he believed was the baptism of the Holy Spirit and founded Lakewood as a haven for charismatic Baptists. By the 1980s John and Dodie had become well-known among their fellow charismatics. The church had over 5,000 in attendance and their services were broadcast across the world. From a young age Joel was involved in this work, laboring behind the scenes in support of the family ministry.

When John Osteen died suddenly of a heart attack on January 23, 1999, Joel, who had preached his first sermon the week before, succeeded him as pastor with his wife, Victoria, serving as co-pastor. Very quickly, the church exploded in growth and Joel’s broadcasts become more popular than his father’s had ever been; his sermons, full of homespun wisdom and messages of self-empowerment, were heard all over the world and it was only a matter of time before he penned his first book.

In October 2004 FaithWords released Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. The book is framed around seven steps meant to instruct the reader in living out God’s big dream for his life.

  1. Enlarge Your Vision. Osteen begins the book by teaching that God wants to make our lives easier and provide his people with special advantages and preferential treatment. We need to learn to expect good things from God so, for example, if we are in a crowded parking lot, we can pray, “Father, I thank you for leading and guiding me. Your favor will cause me to get a good spot.” Throughout the day we ought to declare “The favor of God is causing this company to want to hire me. The favor of God is causing me to stand out in the crowd.”
  2. Develop a Healthy Self-Image. In this section Osteen teaches that we are what we believe, that we need to think positive thoughts. “God sees you as strong and courageous, as a man or woman of great honor and value.” He bases much of this on the story of Abraham and Sarah, saying “I’m convinced that the key to the promise coming to pass was that Sarah had to conceive it in her heart before she was able to conceive it in her physical body.”
  3. Discover the Power of Your Thoughts and Words. Osteen wants us to believe that our thoughts and words have creative power. “Our words become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you allow your thoughts to defeat you and then give birth to negative ideas through your words, your actions will follow suit. That’s why we need to be extremely careful about what we think and especially careful about what we say. … Your words have enormous creative power. The moment you speak something out, you give birth to it.”
  4. Let Go of the Past. We need to let go of past hurts and past failures, knowing that these will only keep us from the blessing and favor God wants to pour out upon us.
  5. Find Strength Through Adversity. Osteen wants his readers to know that we cannot allow adversity to stop or slow us. “God has promised that He will turn your challenges into stepping-stones for promotion.”
  6. Live to Give. In this section he calls for compassion and kindness, using the principle that in order to receive, we have to first give. “If you’re struggling financially, go out and help somebody who has less than you have. If you want to reap financial blessings, you must sow financial seeds in the lives of others. If you want to see healing and restoration come to your life, go out and help somebody else get well.”
  7. Choose to Be Happy. In this final section he calls the reader to a life of happiness and excellence. “If you will start taking care of what God has given you, He’ll be more likely to give you something better.”

The great promise at the end of it all, is that by following these seven simple principles, each of us can have our best life now.

Sales & Lasting Impact

Your Best Life Now quickly debuted on the New York Times list of best-sellers and remained there for more than two years. By December, just three months after its release, Your Best Life Now had tallied over 500,000 sales and was awarded the Gold Book Award. In May 2005 it achieved 1 million sales and received the Platinum Book Award. To date it has sold over 4 million copies.

Osteen’s book was widely criticized by Christian leaders for ignoring the gospel of salvation through Christ’s atoning sacrifice in favor of a gospel of financial and life-wide prosperity. While Osteen claimed to be teaching biblical principles, he was instead picking and choosing isolated verses of the Bible to teach self-empowerment much as Norman Vincent Peale and so many others had done before him. In a helpful review of the book, Greg Gilbert summarizes it well: “Yes, Osteen talks about God throughout, but it is not the God of the Bible he has in mind. Osteen’s God is little more than the mechanism that gives the power to positive thinking. There is no cross. There is no sin. There is no redemption or salvation or eternity.” He continues: “If Joel Osteen wants to be the Norman Vincent Peale of the twenty-first century, he has every right to give it a shot. But he should stop marketing his message as Christianity, because it is not. You cannot simply make reference to God, quote some Scripture, call what you’re saying ‘spiritual principles’ and pass it off as Christianity. That’s the kind of thing that will have people ‘enlarging their vision’ and ‘choosing to be happy’ all the way to hell.”

Despite such critiques, the book proved extremely popular among Christians and non-Christians alike and was followed by a series of similar works.

Since the Award

Your Best Life Now catapulted Osteen to new heights of exposure and influence. Barbara Walters declared him one of her “10 Most Fascinating People of 2006” and in that same year readers of Church Report Magazine named him “Most Influential Christian in 2006.” He was invited to make many appearances on television programs including 60 Minutes, and he made much-publicized visits to Oprah Winfrey and Larry King. He also began to travel extensively and internationally for sold-out events called “A Night of Hope.”

Today Lakewood Church meets in what used to be the Compaq Center, the 16,000-seat former home of the Houston Rockets. Nearly 40,000 people attend each week, making Lakewood Church America’s largest congregation. Since Your Best Life Now, Osteen has authored several other books, most of which have appeared on the lists of bestsellers. They include Become a Better You, It’s Your Time, Every Day a Friday, I Declare, and Break Out.

A Personal Perspective

The very first time I saw Joel Osteen on television, he was speaking about the importance of a healthy diet, including the rejection of pork, shellfish, and other unhealthy foods. My son, who was probably five or six at the time, listened for a minute and said, “That’s not the gospel!” I learned that day that even a child can unmask his teaching as nothing more than a feel-good brand of self-empowerment. Shortly thereafter someone gave me a tongue-in-cheek gift: a copy of Your Best Life Now, the board game. It may well be one of the worst games ever created and includes looking in a mirror to say empowering and encouraging phrases to yourself.

I have written about Osteen and his books a few times over the years. He was the inspiration for an article I titled “Smilingly Leading You to Hell” in which I said, “Both the history of the church and contemporary Evangelical church are replete with nice people who are in complete rebellion against God. Is there anyone nicer than Joel Osteen? Yet is there anyone whose message has less of the gospel and more anti-biblical nonsense? You can watch him in this video, sitting with Oprah, receiving accolades, nicely, smilingly leading an eager crowd farther and farther from the cross. He is nice, but he, too, will nice you straight to the gates of hell, flashing that brilliant smile all the while.” I stand by those words.

The Bestsellers

Last week I began a new Sunday series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I will look at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. Today we look at one of the bestselling Christian books of all-time: Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life.

The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren

purpose_driven_lifeRick Warren was born in 1954 in San Jose, California, the son of Jimmy and Dot Warren. Jimmy was a Baptist minister and from a young age Rick determined to follow in his father’s footsteps. He received an undergraduate degree from California Baptist University before going to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to receive his pastoral training.

In 1980, Warren founded Saddleback Church in Laguna Hills, California. The church’s inaugural service was held on Easter Sunday in Laguna Hills High School with nearly 200 people in attendance. Under Warren’s leadership and winsome personality, the church grew rapidly, outgrowing facility after facility until they finally purchased land in Lake Forest and began construction there in the early 1990’s. By the time the church settled in the Lake Forest campus, they already had 10,000 people attending their services each week.

In 1995, Zondervan published the semi-autobiographical The Purpose Driven Church, a book that soon proved popular and influential in teaching the principles of church growth. While the book was targeted squarely at pastors and church leaders, it introduced Warren to the leaders who would be key to the success of his next work.

In 2002 Zondervan released The Purpose Driven Life, a forty-day devotional meant to lead the reader on a spiritual journey. Warren considered it an anti-self-help book, a manifesto for Christian living in the twenty-first century. It famously begins with the words, “It’s not about you.” Instead, Warren shows that we exist for the glory of God and that our innate desire for fulfillment can be found only in Him. The forty devotional readings are divided into five themes:

  • You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure (Worship)
  • You Were Formed for God’s Family (Fellowship)
  • You Were Created to Become Like Christ (Discipleship)
  • You Were Shaped for Serving God (Ministry)
  • You Were Made for a Mission (Mission)

Each chapter contains a short devotional several pages in length followed by a section titled “Thinking About My Purpose” which offers a Point to Ponder, a Verse to Remember, and a Question to Consider.

The book was released hand-in-hand with a substantial viral marketing campaign meant to take advantage of the Internet and to encourage word-of-mouth and bulk sales. The 40 Days of Purpose campaign invited pastors to lead their entire churches through the book, reading it day-by-day and even preaching sermons provided by Warren. This campaign was launched with 1,5000 participating churches and that led to the book’s first print run of 500,000 copies selling out very quickly. Some 20,000 churches eventually took advantage of the program.

The book received a substantial and unexpected boost in March 2005 when Brian Nichols, a man wanted for a series of shootings in Atlanta, took Ashley Smith hostage in her apartment. During the seven hours he held her captive, she read chapter 32 aloud and later suggested that this helped in his decision to release her.

Sales & Lasting Impact

By January, 2003 The Purpose Driven Life had sold 500,000 copies and was awarded the Gold Book Award. Just two months later it had crossed the 1 million threshold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award. In 2005 it was awarded the Double Diamond Award for sales exceeding 20 million. It became and remains the bestselling hardcover non-fiction book in history and has now tallied over 32 million sales. It is the second most translated book after the Bible.

The Purpose Driven Life catapulted Rick Warren into the public eye and it was not long before he was known as America’s pastor, the natural successor to Billy Graham. Warren was now one of the most influential Evangelicals in the world. A 2005 survey of American pastors and church leaders by George Barna found The Purpose Driven Life the most influential book among them, followed by The Purpose Driven Church. By 2005 nearly one quarter of American adults had read The Purpose Driven Life, and nearly two thirds of American Evangelicals. Despite the success, Warren seemed unchanged and unimpressed, giving away the vast majority of the proceeds and returning all the salary Saddleback had paid him over the years.

The 40 Days of Purpose program was integral to the soaring sales of the book and this showed marketers that Christians and their churches could be used to distribute resources. If marketers could get to the leaders, they could get to the people. This lesson was put to good use a short time later when Mel Gibson was ready to release his film The Passion of the Christ. He recruited Warren, used many of the same marketing techniques, and quickly had one of the biggest box-office surprises of all-time.

The Purpose Driven Life received a good deal of criticism from Christians and non-Christians alike. Many Evangelicals, and especially conservative Evangelicals, criticized Warren on a number of points, but most commonly for his use of Scripture. Through the book he relied on a host of Bible translations, often appearing to prefer a translation that said what was helpful for his point rather than a translation that was accurate. He also quoted partial verses in places where the full verse might have undermined his point. Many Christians were concerned by a weak call to the gospel which in turn led to a shallow prayer of commitment before being followed by a bold assurance of salvation. The book was also criticized by non-Christians who subjected it to disparagement and mockery. Overall, though, the criticism was almost unnoticeable against the roar of approval.

Since the Award

In 2005, before 30,000 people at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Warren announced his Global P.E.A.C.E. Plan, a response to what he identified as the five great problems in the world: spiritual emptiness, self-serving leadership, poverty, disease, and illiteracy. Using the acronym P.E.A.C.E., he determined to mobilize Christians to work together to Plant churches that promote reconciliation, Equip servant leaders, Assist the poor, Care for the sick, and Educate the next generation.

Warren has been in news headlines on a regular basis. A 2005 issue of U.S. News and World Report named him one of “America’s Top 25 Leaders;” TIME magazine has named him one of the “15 World Leaders Who Mattered Most in 2004” and one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.” In 2006 Newsweek named him as one of “15 People Who Make America Great.” During the 2008 Presidential election he hosted the Civil Forum on The Presidency with candidates John McCain and Barack Obama. In 2009 he gave the invocation and President Obama’s inauguration.

In April 2013 Warren was once more in the headlines following the tragic suicide of his son Matthew. Along with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange he recently co-sponsored “The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church” in which he called churches to action in helping those who suffer from mental illnesses.

Warren’s major follow-up to The Purpose Driven Life has been the subject of many rumors but has never materialized. Instead he published The Purpose of Christmas in 2008 and The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life in 2013.

A Personal Perspective

When The Purpose Driven Life was released to such fanfare, I was a member of a church that immediately adopted it and embarked on 40 Days of Purpose. As a small-group leader, I had to read the book and be prepared to lead discussions. I determined I would read it carefully and pay close attention to Warren’s use of Scripture. Knowing the book was gaining so much attention in the Christian world, I decided to do this through my blog in the hope that it would be helpful to others. That series proved to be very popular, and established me (whether fairly or not) as one of Warren’s critics. I stand by most of my concerns from those days and continue to be troubled by the way Warren uses the Bible.

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  The following excerpt is from The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, volume 34, sermon number 2,013, “The infallibility of Scripture.”

“God does not play with thee, man: wilt thou trifle with him?”

It is of no avail to sit down, and draw inferences from the nature of God, and to argue, “God is love, and therefore he will not execute the sentence upon the impenitent.” He knows what he will do better than you can infer; he has not left us to inferences, for he has spoken pointedly and plainly.

He says, “He that believeth not shall be damned,” and it will be so, “For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” Infer what you like from his nature; but if you draw an inference contrary to what he has spoken, you have inferred a lie, and you will find it so.

“Alas,” says one, “I shudder at the severity of the divine sentence.” Do you? It is well! I can heartily sympathize with you. What must he be that does not tremble when he sees the great Jehovah taking vengeance upon iniquity! The terrors of the Lord might well turn steel to wax.

Let us remember that the gauge of truth is not our pleasure nor our terror. It is not my shuddering which can disprove what the mouth of the Lord hath spoken. It may even be a proof of its truth. Did not all the prophets tremble at manifestations of God? Remember how one of them cried. “When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice; rottenness entered into my bones.”

One of the last of the anointed seers fell at the Lord’s feet as dead. Yet all the shrinking of their nature was not used by them as an argument for doubt. O my unconverted and unbelieving hearers, do remember that if you refuse Christ, and rush upon the keen edge of Jehovah’s sword, your unbelief of eternal judgment will not alter it, nor save you from it.

I know why you do not believe in the terrible threatenings. It is because you want to be easy in your sins. A certain sceptical writer, when in prison, was visited by a Christian man, who wished him well, but he refused to hear a word about religion. Seeing a Bible in the hand of his visitor, he made this remark, “You do not expect me to believe in that book, do you? Why, if that book is true, I am lost for ever.” Just so.

Therein lies the reason for half the infidelity in the world, and all the infidelity in our congregations. How can you believe that which condemns you? Ah! my friends, if you would believe it to be true and act accordingly, you would also find in that which the mouth of the Lord hath spoken a way of escape from the wrath to come; for the Book is far more full of hope than of dread.

This inspired volume flows with the milk of mercy, and the honey of grace. It is not a Doomsday Book of wrath, but a Testament of grace. Yet, if you do not believe its loving warnings, nor regard its just sentences, they are true all the same.

If you dare its thunders, if you trample on its promises, and even if you burn it in your rage, the holy Book still stands unaltered and unalterable; for “The mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”

Therefore, I pray you, treat the sacred Scriptures with respect, and remember that “These are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”