The purpose of this blog

Last week, Tim Challies offered some sage advice to all those newly-aspiring bloggers like myself in a post called “All about blogging.” In it, he said,

So before you begin your blog, ask why you should want to blog. Ask what you can contribute to the blogosphere. And once you begin the blog, ask why you want other people to read it. Question your motives and do not take for granted that other people will or should read your site.

Since I just recently started this blog, I really owe it to you to share what I’m trying to accomplish here. I think you’re entitled to know my answers to Tim’s questions. As the old saying goes, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” Likewise, if this blog aims at nothing or no one, it will only succeed at failing.

I started this blog because the Lord has given me a burden for leadership development, and I believe blogging is a great tool to advance this in the 21st century. I think many young men and many church leaders out there are hungry for discipleship; they’re desperate for advice, for encouragement, and for accountability. They need help on both biblical and practical issues. But they don’t always know where to turn or how to get help. I know this partly from experience.

I was very blessed at The Master’s Seminary – through both my classes and my discipleship labs – to watch and ask and listen to my professors. But what if that dialogue could continue even after men leave the seminary fold? Or what if those who never had the privilege of attending seminary could listen in on a conversation, and grapple with issues that are affecting other churches as well? I hope this blog will be a “virtual discipleship lab,” if you will, where that kind of conversation takes place.

On a typical week, I hope to contribute three different posts:

  1. Monday: This is normally my day off from church ministry, so I have resolved not to take up matters of ministry on my blog either. On Mondays, I will usually feature a quote, a family update, a prayer request, a fun video, or a devotional thought.
  2. Wednesday: On Wednesday, I will usually deal with some biblical or theological topic. I may share some gleanings from a recent sermon I preached, an excursus from my studies, or musings on a topic I’m personally wrestling through. I realize that when everything is said and done, the best thing I can contribute to the blogosphere is not my own opinion, but a better understanding of Scripture.
  3. Friday: On Friday, I will provide cultural analysis or discuss some matter of practical theology. I will share different ministry ideas, suggestions, resources, interviews, and perhaps try answering a question posed by a reader. I hope to make it practical and provocative.

The ultimate goal of The Desert Chronicle (later renamed Life Under the Sun) is to glorify God by exploring matters of life, doctrine, culture, and leadership from a biblical perspective in a tone that is both personal and pastoral. In other words, I imagine coming alongside each of you in this blog and saying, “Hey, let’s see what God has to say about life and leadership.”

Logos Christmas Special

Logos Bible Software is one of the best computer Bible programs on the planet – perhaps THE best. I use it every day.

Right now, Logos is offering a 25% Christmas discount on all their base products. If you’re considering buying Bible Software, now is the time. If you’re strapped for cash (aren’t we all?), I’d recommend starting with the Bible Study Library. You can upgrade to a larger set down the road, but this is an outstanding base package (170 books) for a killer deal at only $195. I really think every person – not just a pastor or seminary student – can benefit greatly from this package.

The coupon code is Christmas2007, but the discount should be automatically applied when you click ‘add to cart’ on any package. You can see a full product comparison here.

For those who already own some Logos books, you can upgrade from one package to another at a 15% discount. Happy shopping!

Three virtues

Over Thanksgiving break, I finally saw the latest Pixar film, Ratatouille. It traces the life of a cute little rat name Remy who has a knack for cooking. Remy develops his culinary skills in a rural French home, but finally hits it big when he arrives at the famed restaurant Gasteau’s. As the film reaches a climax, the staff at Gasteau’s are challenged to please the highly critical palate of the food critic Anton Ego. And of course, they succeed. What does it take to please him? A savory dish of every child’s favorite meal – Ratatouille.

I’m sure that pleasing a food critic is quite an achievement. But what would it take to please the Apostle Paul? Although he didn’t give out compliments indiscriminately, apparently he was quite pleased with the church at Thessalonica.

In 1 Thessalonians 1:2-4, Paul says,

We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you;

These people weren’t perfect by any means. But they were showing remarkable progress for a church only one year old. Three virtues in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 stand out about this church that should distinguish each of our lives as well.

  • “your work of faith” – We must place all of our faith, or trust, for eternal salvation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this faith should drive us to engage in the everyday ministries of a Christian. “Work” is a common word for business, activity, ministry, and task. So, whether it’s visiting a widow, or hosting a lunch, or leading a Bible study, our faith should drive us to regularly work and exercise our gifts.
  • “and labor of love” – The word “labor” looks more at the effort and even pain sometimes required to fulfill an activity. It notices the sweat on the brow, strain on the muscles, groans from exhaustion, and wrinkles of concern. Sometimes ministry is hard work. But what motivates us to press on when times are tough is love – a love for God, and a love for others that actually puts their interests above our own.
  • “and steadfastness of hope” – “Steadfastness” or “endurance” means to remain under pressure and keep bearing the weight, like a jack under the frame of a car. Only hope gives us endurance during life’s most difficult trials. Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we don’t need to fear evil, for God is with us. We have absolute confidence in the second coming of Jesus Christ, our glorious resurrection, and the final judgment of all evil. That should cause us to endure!

Oh, that more of us would exemplify these precious virtues in our lives.

A lifelong battle

In 1 Peter 1:14-16, the apostle Peter says,

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’

As many of us know, the word “holy” means to be “set apart.” Sometimes we use the word “sanctified.” There should be something radically different about a Christian’s speech, attitude, and behavior that distinguishes him from the world and his life before Christ. But how does this happen? Although new believers are declared holy in Christ at the moment of salvation (positional sanctification), the process of becoming holy (progressive sanctification) is an ongoing process.

The pursuit of holiness is a daily battle. We can’t forsake sin and become righteous simply by “letting go and letting God.” We must put on all our spiritual armor and engage the enemy in the strength of the Lord. Jim Berg illustrates this wonderfully in his book Changed into His Image:

Sanctification is not a divine ‘zap’ that automatically makes the believer irreversibly holy. It is a lifelong battle that requires the saint to lay hold by faith of the victory that Christ has accomplished on the cross and actively enjoy that victory by living as though it is really true. The Christian’s daily battle with sin is much like ancient Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land. Over and again God told the people to possess the land because He had driven out the Canaanites from before them. Although God had won the victory, the Israelites had to cross the Jordan and fight the Canaanites in deadly battle. The Canaanites did not roll over and play dead or pack their bags and leave voluntarily just because Israel entered the land; they fought for their land. The Canaanites were naturally stronger than the Israelites, and the Israelites stood little chance against them in their own strength. But, believing God had given them victory, they entered and fought in the light of that certain victory. Similarly, Christ has already achieved our victory over sin. But sin does not disappear from us just because we are saved. It does not give up its territory without a fight. If we attempt to fight by ourselves, defeat is certain because sin is much stronger than we. But if we enter the conflict claiming Christ’s victory and our part in it, sin and Satan must flee from us.

Our struggle against sin is indeed a vicious battle. May God give us the strength and determination to achieve the victory He made possible through His Son.

Update on Dylan

Some of you have been asking how Dylan is doing since his open-heart surgery five weeks ago. We’re so pleased and thankful to report he has made an excellent recovery. He’s playing and wrestling and exploring, and seems to have all the energy and enthusiasm you would expect in a toddler. In fact, if it wasn’t for the scar on his chest, you wouldn’t even know he’d been in the hospital. Things are finally returning to normal, and this past weekend, Dylan was able to be back in the the nursery at church. Praise the Lord!

Theology from a 2-year old

Last night during family devotions, we read the story of God commanding Abraham to climb Mt. Moriah and sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of faith. When we got to that dramatic moment when Abraham stretched out Isaac on the altar for sacrifice, Dylan informed us that Isaac was getting a “diaper change.” We got a good laugh out of that one, and figured it was just as well for Dylan to understand this picture as a “diaper change” for now!

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass opens this Friday in theaters everywhere. It’s the first installment of a trilogy written by Philip Pullman called His Dark Materials. What can we expect from this new fantasy series? Its epic story and special effects look a lot like the Lord of the Rings and Narnia series, but the underlying message of The Golden Compass is quite the opposite.

Al Mohler give an excellent analysis of the series. Here are some of his main observations:

*It attacks Christianity. Mohler writes, “Philip Pullman has an agenda — an agenda about as subtle as an army tank. His agenda is nothing less than to expose what he believes is the tyranny of the Christian faith and the Christian church. His hatred of the biblical storyline is clear. He is an atheist whose most important literary project is intended to offer a moral narrative that will reverse the biblical account of the fall and provide a liberating mythology for a new secular age.” This attack against Christianity is toned down somewhat in the first movie, but is still quite prevalent

*It misrepresents the church. I will quickly admit that the church has often shown its blemishes over the past two thousand years. But the church is not a tyrannical Magisterium that is out to destroy human freedom as Pullmen would have us believe. The church is the Bride of Christ, the pillar and support of the truth, and a fellowship of sinners saved by grace.

*It distorts sex. Mohler explains, “Pullman believes that the Christian church is horribly repressive about sex and that this is rooted in the idea of the Fall.” The Bible, on the other hand, paints the portrait of sex as a beautiful thing created by God and perfectly holy within the context of marriage (Hebrews 13:4). Some scenes, particularly in the books, are quite explicit.

*It eliminates Jesus. Mohler says, “The entire premise of the trilogy is that Lyra is the child foretold by prophecy who will reverse the curse of the Fall and free humanity from the lie of original sin. Whereas in Christian theology it is Jesus Christ who reverses the curse through His work of atonement on the Cross, Pullman presents his own theology of sorts in which the Fall is reversed through the defiance of these children.” Sadly, the gospel apart from Jesus is not good news at all.

So, should we watch The Golden Compass? I won’t attempt to answer that question for each individual. I would certainly urge caution, especially with children. But all of us can use this film as a springboard to discuss spiritual matters with friends, contrasting personal opinion with a biblical view of sin, the church, and Jesus Christ. I am confident that truth will prevail over error in this exchange of ideas.

Walking on Thin Ice

IceI recently read a chapter by Michael Lawrence in the book Why I am a Baptist, edited by Tom Nettles and Russell Moore. In it, Lawrence gives an account of how he came to Jesus. He says “I walked down the aisle one Sunday night during the invitation, shook the preacher’s hand, and asked to join the church on profession of faith. A few weeks later I was baptized. And that was that. I had made a decision for Jesus that took are of my eternal future.” But Lawrence says that Christianity was little more than fire insurance to him, and as he gained more independence, he got into the wrong crowd. It was not until college that he met some friends at InterVarsity that really seemed to live out what they believed. This led him to fully dedicate his life to Christ.

A friend of mine who also read the article asked a very interesting question: “At what point was Michael Lawrence saved? Was he saved as a child responding to the invitation to come to Christ for salvation from sin, and the hope of eternal life, or was he saved when he finally understood his need to surrender to the sovereignty and Lordship of Jesus Christ, and live for Christ in that context.” This is an important question, because many church members today have made a “profession of faith” but do not seem to live any different than the world.

Some people would probably say that Lawrence was saved as a child. For example, Charles Ryrie in his book A Survey of Bible Doctrine says “Faith is the only condition [to salvation]. Anything added becomes a work attached to the grace of God. Faith is the condition, and it is faith in Him who alone can save. This is the grace of God.” In Ryrie’s opinion, salvation comes with “no strings attached,” and a person can have faith in Jesus as Savior, without surrendering to Christ as Lord until months or years later – if ever. This may sound good at first, until you think about the nature of saving faith. James says that faith without works is “dead” (James 2:14-26). It is empty, artificial, useless, and not really faith at all.

I believe that faith in Jesus and repentance (turning away) from sin are inextricably linked. In other words, saving faith is repenting faith. And only those who submit to Jesus as Lord have truly embraced Him as Savior. You can’t be a disciple of Jesus and live just like the world. Jesus has a high demand for becoming a child of God: “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:26-27). This call to “die to self” and live for Christ is not subsequent to faith, but is part of faith itself.

So, what about Michael Lawrence? Was he saved as a child? In his testimony, Michael draws a distinction between himself and his InterVarstity friends “whose Christianity wasn’t simply defined by a decision they had made a as child to walk the aisle and shake the preacher’s hand. Instead, I saw in them a faith that was genuine and incredibly attractive.” If Michael’s Christianity was merely defined by a “decision,” a handshake, and an artificial faith, then he probably was not saved. However, it is possible that Lawrence was saved as a child but simply did not have proper teaching and discipleship in his church. Perhaps he would’ve responded much earlier to the call to obedience and Christ’s Lordship if he had been taught these things as a child, rather than a list of do’s and don’ts. Only God knows for sure when Michael Lawrence was saved.

If I don’t show evidence of faith, then I really have no assurance of salvation. I am walking on thin ice. Responding to an invitation, signing a decision card, or being baptized do not ensure my salvation. It is only by obedience that my faith proves genuine. “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples” (Jn. 15:8). There should be an obvious difference in the way I live from the world. I should be diligent to “test myself to see if I am in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5), and graciously “stimulate others to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24).

Photo credit: robotbrainz

The Blog of Stephen Jones