The Gospel’s Good News–And Why Even Some Christians Don’t Believe It


In trying to usurp the role of God, Man walked away from God and created a rift. To counter, God showed Man what it would take to cross that rift and return home to Him. That answer was called the Law. All Man needed to make the Law succeed was to do all of it perfectly.

Problem with the Law: No one got it right. Ever. In the end, what the Law accomplished more than anything else was to show the impossibility of doing it. The Law was a bridge too far, and no one could cross. God showed Man what was needed to make it across, but Man failed utterly.

Peace and rest in JesusExcept one man, Jesus. He kept all the Law perfectly. He achieved the holiness that comes from doing all the Law correctly. And when He had crossed that metaphorical bridge over the rift and reached the other side, Jesus announced, “It is finished.”

Except a lot of people don’t believe it is finished. Even Christians. Therein lies the problem.

Every Sunday in churches across the world, people sit in chairs, pews, and even on the bare ground and wonder what they need to do to cross the bridge. Because the rift is still there, and if they don’t cross the bridge, they remain separated from God. The rift they know. It’s that the bridge has been crossed for them that they fail to grok.

This sitting in church Sunday after Sunday and sometimes days in-between and wondering how one is going to cross that rift is one of the greatest plagues on the modern Church. It’s a sign that even though the Church has the Good News of Jesus, it’s not sinking into people.

The major difference between Christianity and nearly all other religions is that those other religions demand people cross the bridge using their own power, their own religiosity, their own supposed holiness. What methods people use varies from religion to religion, but one thing stays the same: people utterly fail to cross the bridge on their own.

In the Christian faith we have the Good News, or what we call the Gospel. That Good News first heard by the people of Palestine 2,000-plus years ago proclaims that Jesus has come on our behalf, and He will cross the bridge for us. He will keep perfectly all the Law, and not only this, but He will be the sacrifice of blood demanded as recompense for Man creating the rift in the first place.

Jesus came, lived, ministered, and accomplished.

Jesus did it all. It is finished. No more recompense necessary. No more need to cross the bridge on our own. Jesus did it all for us.

The question is of holiness, that which is required to approach a holy, perfect God who has set a bridge across the rift. The answer is in Jesus. His holiness in keeping all the Law and satisfying the debt becomes your holiness and mine. For those who come to Jesus as their hope for crossing, Jesus imputes His holiness. By being in Jesus, we have crossed the bridge and been counted holy and debt-free because God sees what Jesus did for us, not what we try to do for ourselves.

In the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, the stoner rock band releases its newest album the band members believe will be bigger than The Beatles’ White Album. Spinal Tap’s album is entirely black. No band name. No title. No cover information. Nothing but blackness. Trying to wrap their heads around the concept, they ask, “How much more black could this be?” To which comes the answer, “None. None more black.”

How much more holy can a believer in Jesus be? None. None more holy. Jesus did it all on His own for us. Nothing we can do on our own can make us more holy, more acceptable to God. It is finished. We can’t add to what Jesus did, either. Jesus took care of it all. Our ridiculous contributions add nothing. The Bible calls our feeble attempts “dirty rags.”

The fancy word for trying to cross the bridge on our own religious merits is Pelagianism. It should be better known as AbjectFailure-ism. Weirdly, while some people reject Pelagianism, they’re OK with a modified form of it. Saying that Jesus got us mostly there but adding our own merits boosts us all the way across is the mockery of Jesus’ “It is finished” known as Semi-Pelagianism.

Those who love what Martin Luther started in the Protestant Reformation get a hoot out of mocking–for good reason–the stupidity that is Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.


You see, we have this problem of should-ing in the Protestant Church. Christians who say they believe Jesus when He says He finished it all don’t actually believe. Instead, Church leaders and other well-meaning busybodies tell us we should tithe, should volunteer, should read our Bible ___ number of times a day, and should pray ___ times a day too. We should have a monthly date night with our spouse, should avoid the wrong kinds of movies, should do this thing or that action. Should, should, should. The result? Too few Christians believe that Jesus said He finished the job and paid the price so that we can lay down all these shoulds and live truly free. Instead, we get a message that shoulds all over everyone.

That’s not Good News. It’s removing the chains of the Old Testament Law that Jesus said He fulfilled and freed us from and putting on chains we make out of a mistaken reading of the New Testament. We exchange one imprisonment for another. We’ve just added a coating of Jesus to the chains.

That’s the crazy thing about the Gospel. You and I don’t have more lawful requirements to fulfill. This is what makes the Good News a scandal. The idea that we can’t add anything to what Jesus finished galls people. It angers because we want to be proud of our own religiosity.

The group Jesus opposed more than any other were the Pharisees. They insisted they had crossed the bridge on their merit. When Jesus pointed out that they’d failed miserably, they sought to kill Him. That’s how much they worshiped their own religious pride.

Each of us has his or her own Pharisee inside that insists we can keep the Law and not fail. There’s an American version of that Pharisee too, one that tells us we have other laws to keep such as being beautiful, successful, empowered, in control, and masters of our own American Dream.

Whether an American Phariseeism or the old-fashioned original kind, that Pharisee in us is both deceived and a damned liar.

Jesus condemns this self-righteous, “don’t need your help Jesus because we’ve got this bridge crossing thing covered on our own” Phariseeism every time He can.

In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the younger son tells his father that he wishes dear ol’ dad were dead and demands his inheritance, which he then blows on hookers, booze, and partying. Eventually reduced to coveting slop intended for pigs, he crawls back home demoralized.

At first sight of the prodigal, his father runs to him and tearfully welcomes him with open arms because he loves that messed up ingrate kid so much.

Meanwhile, the elder son stands by dad, pissed, because he never whored around, didn’t squander his inheritance, and was here at home all along, dutifully keeping his own nose clean.

Which of the two sons gets the stern lecture from the father? You’d think the younger, but you’d be very, very wrong.

Jesus also tells the story of a farmer who hires some men at the first of the day to come work in the field after those early risers agree to the wage. But the work is too big, so later in the day he hires more. Then even more. Near the close of the day, the farmer is still hiring.

Finally, the day ends. The farmer pays everyone he hired the same money, but the men who worked from the early morning, who agreed to work for that amount, are hacked off. They insist they acted like the best kind of workers and not like those who frittered away most of the day and only came out to work near sundown. How can the farmer give everyone, fritterers included, the same pay?

In both parables, Jesus points out self-righteousness: We’re scandalized by God’s ignoring of what humans do to try to cross the bridge, incredulous that He looks only at what Jesus has done.

Like the father of the prodigal, God stands at the end of the bridge over the rift with His arms open. In fact, when we hear the fancy spiritual word repentance, all it means is that God has His arms open and simply wants us to cross the bridge and come home to Him. And because the bridge was already crossed by Jesus and the bridge itself paid for, being in Jesus means we’re already considered to have crossed and paid. There’s nothing more to do but rest in the arms of Father God.

No more tragic figure exists than the person who believes Jesus is God but who spends all of life trying to be a “good Christian.” To him or her, I say this: Stop trying! It is finished. Jesus did it all. Rest in Jesus’ success. If you try to perform on His behalf, you’re usurping the role of God again, which was the very error that started this mess!

Some folks will object to this post on the grounds that we need to be slaving away to perfect ourselves to look more like Jesus. But the promise from God is that because of Jesus’ finished work, that’s not our job but God’s alone. He is both the author and finisher of our faith. It’s all on Him to make us look more like Jesus and none of it on us. Can the pot mold itself? No, only the Potter can mold it as He sees fit.

It is finished. All we have to do is acknowledge our failure to get across the bridge on our own and our desperate need for Jesus. Then we can head home and fall into the embrace of our Heavenly Father.

And that’s the Gospel’s Good News.

_My Utmost for His Highest_ —A Critical Look at the Classic Devotional


Oswald ChambersMy Utmost for His Highest is one of the best-selling Christian books, if not the outright champ of devotionals. The book was first published in 1935, 18 years after its author’s death, and has never been out of print.

That author, Oswald Chambers, was coverted in part through the ministry of Charles Spurgeon and later went on to be a chaplain in the military. Chambers passed away in his early 40s from a ruptured appendix, and his wife was the one who compiled some of his writings into the devotional book we know today. The book was first published in 1935, 18 years after Chambers’s death, and has never been out of print.

I wanted to write about My Utmost for His Highest because I decided this summer to look through an old copy that has been sitting in our library for years. Aware of the reputation of the devotional, I thought it might be a good adjunct for me over the course of the next year. I have used A.W. Tozer’s Renewed Day by Day as devotional reading in the past and thought it helpful.

I am no expert on the history of Christian devotional works, so I don’t know if My Utmost for His Highest pioneered the layout of contemporary devotionals, but it adheres to the now typical form of a short Scripture passage followed by thoughts by the author, all arranged into 366 entries that fit on a page each.

To begin, I want to say that whatever Christian Oswald Chambers was, he was certainly a more noteworthy one than I am. For that reason, readers are invited to disagree with what follows, if for no other reason than as a testament to Chambers and the sheer number of this tome that have been sold, and in 39 languages.

But in reading My Utmost for His Highest (hereafter MUfHH), I wonder if the legacy of this devotional hasn’t set the stage for some of the problems we see in contemporary Christianity in the West.

1. While Bible text opens the daily entry, there’s often just a few words of it—followed by a lengthy exposition.

The one thing a casual glance at MUfHH reveals are a lot of ellipses. Scriptures are often cut down to their barest essentials. The June 30 entry is nothing more than “Agree with your adversary quickly… (Matthew 5:25).” Believe it or not, some Bible text for a day is even shorter than that.

My concern: Unpacking such a short passage out of context can lead to reading one’s agendas and presuppositions into the text (AKA eisegesis). Chambers does not equivocate on anything in MUfHH, so he has a forceful voice. This acts against people questioning his interpretation of the limited text and what should be done with it. This also sets up a tendency in readers to accept “little text with big explanation” as a norm for Bible exposition. But should it be?

One could argue that many devotionals follow this format, but I wonder if it doesn’t contribute to a wider problem of saying more about a text than the text supports. Of course, this can lead us into error, especially when the context has no similar exposition.

2. Keswick.

An unfamiliar term for many, Keswick is/was the location in England of a notable Christian Holiness conference and movement dedicated to the “higher life.” This movement is marked by the following beliefs:

  • The baptism of the Holy Spirit (or “second work of grace”)
  • Mystical union with God
  • Holiness through Christian perfection

Some will recognize Wesleyan theology in these distinctives, but Keswick has been ecumenical in its reach. Nor was it an isolated theology, as many notable late 19th century Christians (including Andrew Murray, D.L. Moody, Hannah Whitall Smith, Hudson Taylor, and R.A. Torrey) were proponents.

Readers know I have written in support of the baptism of the Spirit and the positives (to a point) of Christian mysticism. However, it’s that third element of Keswickian theology…

My concern: MUfHH definitely shows the influence of Keswick on Oswald Chambers in that it is rife with Christian perfectionism. In fact, most of the entries contain some reference to the Christian working to perfect himself or herself to better experience God.

Some examples of how this manifests:

July 13: “My vision of God is dependent upon my character. My character determines whether or not truth can even be revealed to me.”

July 31: “Not only must our relationship to God be right, but our outward expression of that relationship must also be right. Ultimately, God will allow nothing to escape; every detail of our lives is under His scrutiny.”

August 2: “God does not give us an overcoming life—He gives us life as we overcome.”

August 9: “Are we living at such a level of human dependence upon Jesus Christ that His life is being exhibited moment by moment in us?”

August 24: “Don’t faint and give up, but find out the reason you have not received; increase the intensity of your search and examine the evidence. Is your relationship right with your spouse, your children, and your fellow students?…I am a child of God only by being born again, and as His child I am good only as I ‘walk in the light.'”

August 27: “The moment you forsake the matter of sanctification or neglect anything else on which God has given you His light, your spiritual life begins to disintegrate within you. Continually bring the truth out into your real life, working it out into every area, or else even the light that you possess will itself prove to be a curse.”

Does anyone else recognize how exhausting that perpetual self-examination is?

This kind of “I must strive to be perfect in order to receive anything from God” thinking extends from the idea that such perfection is possible this side of heaven. Sadly, it also counters the more biblical reality that Christ alone is the perfection of the born-again believer, and that Christ’s perfection is finished.

Even the title of the devotional itself offers a hidden conditional, that to get God’s highest requires one be perfect enough to deliver one’s utmost. MUfHH contains a LOT of this kind of idea, which leads to the next issue.

3. Talk of Grace, but followed by Law.

MUfHH talks much about God’s grace and how the believer can grow in it. In this, it reads like an instruction book on how to be a better Christian.

My concern: To talk of grace and immediately suggest something the believer must do to better his or her spiritual state isn’t the Gospel. Our sanctification is driven by God, not by relentless examination and working harder to be better Christians. Jesus alone is both the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). It is He alone we trust to finish the work He began in us (Philippians 1:6). If anything, our striving only gets in the way of genuine sanctification through God working His work in us.

MUfHH is loaded with striving. Almost every entry tells us what we’re not doing right and what we should do to fix it.

I offer the following little check of my own accord. You can take it for what it is worth. I believe it is in keeping with the Bible’s understanding of both Law and Gospel.

When I feel discouragement or despair in reading spiritual works, it is likely I am encountering the Law. The Bible makes it known repeatedly (and I will leave you to examine the many verses in support) that the Law illuminates every way in which I am deficient before God. How can one not feel despair in such a case?

But grace provides the opposite feelings: hope and joy. Christ overcame the curse of the Law. This is the heart of the Gospel.

Rather than being encouraged by much of MUfHH, my personal reaction has been discouragement in the form of “well, there’s just another spiritual discipline I’m not doing or not doing correctly.” Considering that nearly every entry in MUfHH consists of some way in which you and I are not being the best Christian we should be, it feels very Law-based, no matter how much grace is supposedly espoused. To begin an entry with talk of the grace of Christ but then to talk about how poorly I’m doing in apprehending it and what I should do to fix things, is not the best way to encourage Christian growth or the kind of freedom the Gospel delivers.

This is my greatest apprehension regarding this Christian classic. It’s not that it doesn’t encourage readers to go deeper in their faith in Christ, but it has a tendency to make a millstone out of this path to a deeper life in God.

To be entirely transparent, I’m unclear how most people can read My Utmost for His Highest and not despair at their inability to pull off the many solutions Chambers requires to counter the average Christian’s myriad failings. One day tells of what you are doing wrong, only to be followed by the next day telling something else you are doing wrong, and on and on. How this proves helpful to Christian growth is lost on me. What I come away with instead is a large burden that is my terribly practiced Christian life, which I appear to be performing atrociously despite God’s grace.

If anything, I see the striving that results at the heart of American Christianity. Do better. Work harder. Fix, fix, fix.

But where is the freedom of the Gospel in this? Where is the rest, in that a Christian can lay down all the striving, all the self-made righteousness and perpetual examination, and know that Jesus said on our behalfs, “It is finished”?


I’m always willing to consider that perhaps I’m not reading My Utmost for His Highest correctly. Still, I cannot escape that it feels like just another set of Christian rules and suggestions that I will inevitably fail to do perfectly. Beginning each day that way—well, I’m not sure how encouraging that is.

If you have differing thoughts, please comment below.

The Great Evangelical Disconnect from Real Life


Several years ago, at a church I no longer attend, I heard a sermon about how much God loves us and what that means for societal conformity. The young pastor, who couldn’t have been more than 30, talked about how Christians can’t get hung up on appearances or on what other people think. He talked about how it does not matter if you have gray hair or you’re overweight. He said that the world’s standards aren’t our standards, so we can ignore those standards, because only God’s standards matter.

I remember walking out of that church afterwards furious because I just heard a pastor lie to a couple thousand people.

It’s not that he was wrong about what God thinks of us. God isn’t put off by your wrinkles. He doesn’t judge you by whether or not your clothes are out of fashion or you drive a rustbucket car. Really, those conditions are not preventing Him from loving and saving you.


The world cares. It cares massively about those issues the pastor said don’t matter. And the last time I checked, Christians still must live in that world.

Reader Brian sent a link that intersects with something I planned to write today in this vein, so perhaps the following will provide a nice setup for that post, which will now come later.

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Cameron Cole wrote “Busy All the Time: Over-Scheduled Children and the Freedom of the Gospel.” Cole’s words sound familiar, like something I heard from a young pastor many years ago.

The setup, as is evident from the title, deals with Christian parents who are melting down because they cannot manage jumping through all the hoops needed to make their children exceptional:

The vocabulary of fear and obligation dominates expressions I hear from parents when they lament over their child’s busyness. “Well, we have to do an ACT prep class, or else . . . we have to take a full load of AP classes or else . . . we have to play a sport to round out that college resume . . . Johnny has to be an Eagle Scout . . . we have to attend every event at the church.” This attitude suggests they face certain condemnation if they deviate from the cultural norms. Fear looms over the possibility a child may not maximize every minute of every day in the name of resume optimization and ultimate human development.

Furthermore, parents reveal a fear of inadequacy as they guide their children. On one hand they feel as if they are failing to maintain an intimate family unit, because their family runs ragged. Conversely, they feel damned if they do not provide their child with every advantage to achieve success in high school and beyond. It is as if they live cursed: either deny your child the opportunity of future success or board a non-stop treadmill.

Later on, Cole provides “the answer”:

Christ has set his followers free from social mandates. Parents can begin their escape from this high-pressured frenzy of over-scheduling by first embracing the counter-cultural nature of following Jesus and living in response to the gospel. A follower of Christ has been freed from any obligation except that blessed call to follow and obey Christ and his Word. Given the freedom from the law, which Christ has won for his people, Christian parents can say, “No! No! No!” to travel baseball, math tutors, ACT prep, personal trainers, and so on. Parents can call into question every activity because there is no obligation to conform to cultural expectations.

The godly solution from Cole’s perspective? Raise a spiritual middle finger to what the world wants because what the world wants does not matter. At all. Now go live free and stop helping your child work toward success in the world.

The only problem with that thinking, which was written by a youth pastor pursuing professional, paid ministry, is that it completely ignores the reality that the world has a set of rules, and you either play by them or fail.

If Cole hasn’t noticed, the world systems and structures are getting more punishing each year. I overheard a job recruiter say, “Don’t bother to walk into a company today looking for work if you have gray hair. You will not only not be hired, no one will even talk to you.” (I noted this recently in this post.)

It’s not just issues seasoned adults face, either. Employers DO consider which college young people attended when interviewing them for jobs. Getting into those better colleges means jumping through some outrageous hoops just to get noticed amid a sea of clamoring kids loaded with exceptional accomplishments. For some elite colleges, the ones that open almost any HR department door, you practically need to have won a Nobel Peace Prize at 16 by founding a worldwide humanitarian organization to be considered for admission.

Crazy at the college level only? Last year, my son was denied entry into National Honor Society at his middle school because he did not participate in enough community service projects. He was 12 at the time. When I was 12, I’m not sure I knew what a community service project was.

What does any of that have to do with salvation? Not a thing. In this, every pastor saying don’t worry about it is absolutely correct.

But every pastor who blows this off for other realms of life is not thinking about what people must do to live day to day.

I’ve talked to Christian people who made tough decisions about work and life. When they were younger, they came home from work right after the clock struck 5, because Christian leaders told them they should not try to climb the corporate ladder and instead focus on the family. Those people listened to the leaders. So they blew off the after-work martini with the movers and shakers in the company. They didn’t work 60-hour weeks. They put away the company notebook computer and didn’t open it when they got home.

And what they found when they got to 45 is that they never advanced in their company. They never got entrenched in the system. Never got an entry in the boss’s Rolodex. And when the hammer eventually came down, they were the one let go, not the guy who put in the long hours, blew off his family, sucked up to the big wigs, and got entrenched in a corner office, pretty much immune from pink slips and pain.

I hear Walmart is hiring greeters.

When most paid, professional pastors talk about the work world, they’re talking about something they don’t know. At all. They give advice based upon their own experiences growing up Christian, going to some small Christian college, some even smaller Christian seminary, and then they tell everyone else, This is how life works.

Except it’s not like that. Outside the bubble those folks live in, it’s far harder.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell does an excellent job noting what the stakes are and what must be done to achieve them. I think everyone should read that book and pay special attention to the chapter on professional hockey players. What Gladwell writes between the lines, and what it means for us, is startling.

In what can only be one of the oddest statistical anomalies—on the surface—the large majority of NHL hockey players have birthdays within the first three months of the year. How is this?

Junior hockey leagues tend to follow a yearly promotion schedule for kids based on a January–December calendar. As a result, those born earlier in a year have a slight, but real, maturity advantage. The kid born in January is a bit more mature for his group than the peer born in December of the same year. That small maturity advantage means the older kid may be slightly larger or faster. Which gets him noticed more regularly for inclusion in special programs that bolster his skills. Which means he later is more likely to be accepted onto an elite team. Which means he plays tougher opponents. Which means he develops deeper skills. Which means he gets a scholarship to a college dominant in hockey. Which gets him noticed by the pros.

All because of his birth date. This is why most pro hockey players are born in the first three months of the year.

At every step, all that was essential was a slight advantage, which led to greater opportunities that compounded over time. It’s the difference between becoming a pro and being that guy who now skates in the adult league at his local rink, dreaming of what might have been.

Is it unfair? Well, actually it is. But it’s real. It’s life.

Christians can choose not to play by the world’s rules. We then get a church with real people dealing with real outcomes of real decisions they made about real life, often informed by their Christian faith.

The major disconnect here is that the American Church is absolutely unprepared to deal with the consequences of those who raise a middle finger to the world’s way of working. Because those people who do opt out don’t get all the benefits of those who play by the world’s rules. And those benefits this side of heaven are real.

Now we can be all spiritual and say that the guy who jumped through all the hoops and did things the world’s way neglected his family and his spiritual life and may spend eternity in hell. I’m not sure how it is we can find comfort in that, but some people do use such rationalization as a justification for their choices to opt out of the world system.

But a lot of Christians who decided to opt out now find themselves marginalized. Where is the Church when you’re an unemployed 48-year-old, with a bachelor’s degree from an average college (or, heaven forbid, a Christian one), no evidence of career climbing intent, and you can’t find meaningful work to feed your family?

Will the Church take care of you? Will the Church provide you that elusive job?

And what about your kid? You elected to say no to all that hoop-jumping for him because you are not under the law and Christ put an end to all that striving. Is your kid’s community college degree going to equip him with what he needs to compete? Because it IS a competition out there. Will he get noticed in the résumé slush pile filled with 2,000 other applicants, perused by a hiring manager tasked with differentiating one faceless candidate from another?

You know what Cameron Cole thinks. What do you think?

I’m not writing this to be a contrarian or a scold. I’m writing this because I’m sick of professional Christian leaders who give people bad advice because they don’t know what is happening outside the Christian cocoon.

Jobless men, keep going...Worse, I’m sick of seeing well-intentioned Christians who abide by all the things they are told by those leaders only to find that there is a price to pay at the end that is staggeringly tough to accept—and with no one to help them in the aftermath.

Worst of all, I’m sick of seeing the individual forced to suck up the outcome and not the institution that compels the decision. Telling individuals to raise the middle finger is easy. Working to change the broken world systems, which is what Christian leaders and Christian institutions used to do, is far harder.

What is Cameron Cole doing as a youth pastor to work with local colleges to find a more sane approach to admissions that doesn’t force parents and kids to drown in busyness? I can forecast the answer: Nothing. Because Cole thinks none of that really matters in the spiritual schema anyway.

Folks, this is where we are. It’s both unreal and real. It’s a major disconnect in which the stakes are people’s livelihoods and lives. And for those people who listened and rejected the hoops just like they were told to, it can be a daily question of How did I end up in this terrible place, and with no one who will help me or my family?

Can Jesus change systems? Can Jesus alter social structures? True believers know He can.

But He won’t if the Church plays silly games and pretends those systems and structures don’t exist or aren’t worth addressing.