Is Christ our Peace or is the Gospel our Peace?

A while back, a prominent Reformed pastor cautioned Tim Keller that he was using the word “Gospel” to describe what was actually the work of the Holy Spirit. It sounded really spiritual at the time. Plus it was bold to challenge – even semantically – the functional pope of Biblical Evangelicalism.

But the grace-skeptics reincarnate this challenge daily. Is it the Gospel that is our peace or is it Christ who is our peace? The Sunday School answer, as we have learned, is always “Jesus.” It’s always more spiritual to say “Jesus is the answer” than to say anything else.

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And then the kicker . . .

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Anytime someone preaches radical grace, the impulse of every devout person is to put some cautions on it. We simply can’t let that message ring out. If you are at all religious, there is an impulse in you to nit-pick the delivery of the gospel when it is being flippantly tossed to needy beggars. Jesus was always shocking his followers with the status of those to whom he showed incredible grace. It is important to see that, when it comes to preaching God’s promise, we need to let the message ring out without semantic cautions.

Of course, the theologically-minded readers of the blog are going to feel a rise in their blood pressure. “Is he saying semantic precision doesn’t matter?” No. I’m not saying that. I am saying that the demand for semantic precision is usually indicative of our intolerance for no-strings-attached grace rather than any kind of spiritual impulse.

Paul in Ephesians 2 writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.

So, Christ is our peace. Christ makes peace. And Christ preaches peace.

Did Christ preach peace or did he preach himself? The answer: Yes.

But shouldn’t Paul say “Christ” any chance he gets? I guess he didn’t know we would be keeping track.

If I come back with a glass of water and you say, “Where did that water come from?” and I say, “The faucet,” then what will you respond? Will you snicker to yourself, roll your eyes and say, “You silly guy, it wasn’t the faucet, but rather the well in the backyard.” Then I will say, “Well, yes, of course, and before that it came from the rain. But I am momentarily more concerned about quenching my thirst than providing a dissertation on the source of H2O.”

(Of course, if a thirsty beggar were scooping a muddy puddle to his lips, that would be a situation where some explanation of water sources might be important. But even then it would probably be more effective to offer him some tap water rather than lecture him on the stupidity of his choices.)

Go forth and pass out as many glasses of water as you can. The water that  comes from Christ “will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

People who are thirsty for grace are usually more receptive to this water than those who are thirsty for extra-biblical semantic precision anyway.

How can you claim to be pure?

One of my new favorite writers is Matthew Pierce. Fellow Simulblogger Rich pointed me to his wildly entertaining The Exegeticals, a series of comic book-inspired blog posts starring our favorite celebrity pastors.


This excerpt is from his rolling-on-the-floor laughing ebook Homeschool Sex Machine (only 2.99, you won’t regret getting this one). In this section, his mom confronts teenage Matthew about a CD that he received from his crush at church. The crush, Esmeralda, let him borrow a Christian Pop CD, and Matthew’s parents fear the potential ramifications of that promiscuous gesture.



Later that afternoon my mother found me sitting on my bed. She swept into the room with a stern purpose and sat softly beside me.

“We need to talk,” she said ominously.

In the entire history of everything, those words have never meant something good.

My mother proceeded to question me about my relationship to Esmeralda. She needed to know if I was still emotionally pure, because if I was not pure I might want to be alone with Esmeralda, and if we were alone that was kind of like a date, and if it was a date we might kiss, and if we kissed we might have sex. So, obviously, we were at a critical stage.

I gave the requisite denials, but she pressed on: What was all this business about Esmeralda giving me a CD?

Crap. There were no secrets in a homeschool house.

My mother asked to see the CD. She turned the plastic case over and over in her hands, and finally she drew a deep breath.

“This is a test,” she said with certainty.

Dramatic pause.

“A test…from Satan,” she finished breathlessly.

I… uh… wait, what?

I listened intently as my mother wove together a complex explanation that involved the prince of darkness planting a thought in Esmeralda’s head to give me a CD because DISTRACTION, because Easter was fast approaching and this was the only way the devil could keep me from focusing on the true meaning of Christ’s resurrection. Because hormones.

“You need to give that CD back to her, and don’t listen to it at all,” she ordered.

But… but… but…

“You like her, don’t you?”

Well, yes.

“You’re attracted to her, aren’t you?”

Well, yes.

“How can you claim to be pure?” she demanded.

I opened my mouth to speak, but was cut off.

“Son, 1 Timothy says to treat younger women with absolute purity. Absolute. If you’re attracted to her, how can you be pure?”

Now my Dad was standing in the doorway, arms crossed. I knew that to argue further would be useless. That would lead us to Ephesians 6, about children obey parents NO MATTER WHAT.

As both of my parents glared at me and my renegade hormones, I quietly took the CD from my mother and set it on the nightstand. I nodded my head in resignation and let out a long sigh.


The rest of Homeschool Sex Machine is a breath of fresh air and an essential contribution to evangelical literature. You don’t want to miss this.

The Death of Feel-Good Sermons

I didn’t know this theology was going to be so sad. When I had my first sip of unconditional love, I was totally convinced my life was going to be perpetually euphoric.

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It hasn’t been. This is the part where most people say, “The point is: Christianity requires a ton of toughness and exertion, so buck up if you want to be a champion.” That isn’t what I’m going to say, because that is a a champion

The Gospel levels everything in your life. When God finally tracks you down and sets you free, you will spend the rest of your life picking up the pieces. This is true.

The biggest explosion in my life was the divorce of my emotions from God’s Promise over me. It sounds pleasant and like someone would welcome it, but I was offended. I trusted my emotions. When I did a crappy job, I felt like I was a logical enough being to understand how this must have made God feel. Glory be that God doesn’t follow human logic.

How you feel right now and how God feels about you are not even close to the same thing. I didn’t know this. When someone tried to convince me of this, I denied it vehemently. If I felt bad, then I assumed God was as frustrated with me as I was with my self. It stood to reason. If I was feeling good, then God felt good about me. There were lots of ups and downs. In control, but an emotional train-wreck.

glass case

I wonder if this explains a lot of sermons that are “feel-good.” A feel-good sermon usually works for the mission it set out on: to make you feel good. They feel good because life reform is equated to lasting hope. It gives us false hope that, if we can put our hand to the plow, then we can earn freedom by our own sweat. But when we have driven a divide between our feelings and God’s posture towards us in Christ, then we are less addicted to managing our emotions. We are less addicted to feel-good sermons.


This is where we stumble into the desolate valley of vexation. The Gospel frees you (sometimes against your will) from the pressure of being in absolute control of your emotions. When we call a thing what it is against the advice of a feel-good sermon – when we are honest about the depth of our suffering – then emotions arise that we didn’t even know about. Sometimes incredibly good emotions. Sometimes: soul-crushing. The Gospel is comfortable with this spectrum of emotions. It must be, otherwise it wouldn’t be good news (or news at all) for those who are enduring soul-crushing existential defeat. By calling suffering what it is, we can finally let the fleeting things die away so that we can find a remedy that will actually begin the healing process. The Gospel looks at a gaping wound and says, “A band-aid isn’t going to work on this one.”

For in much wisdom is much vexation,

and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Ecclesiastes 1:18

Are you expecting to find hope “under the sun” where chasing shiny metals (gold) and shiny medals (accomplishments) is our sole preoccupation? Your life won’t resurrect itself with your hard work, your positive attitude, your good-standing. You are a corpse in a morgue drawer. And even a renewed perspective won’t set you free. Your only hope is resurrection.

Morgue Sherlock

The problem is not that you want to change your behavior. That’s usually a good thing. It means your self-respect is in tact. The problem is that we always begin to think hope accompanies self-improvement. On the contrary, actually.

Celebrities prove this all the time. They are getting divorced. They are committing suicide. Lots of them are self-respecting. Lots of them have the time and resources to have a quiet reflection time each day. Lots of them are extremely self-disciplined. You don’t rise to the top of that industry if you are not pretty good at self-improvement. In other words, lots of them are “religiously observant” if we use a broad enough definition of religion. Therefore, religion is not your hope. Life reform is not your hope. You are not your hope. Welcome to vexation.

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But with great vexation comes scandalous liberation.

At some point, if you stand in the firing line of unconditional love from God long enough, feel-good sermons won’t feel good anymore. Like Paul, you will nod at the elementary principles of the world, and point to a much bigger savior. Some days are vexing. But calling a thing what it is is the beginning of grasping the depth of God’s love for you.

God loves sinners, of which you are one. Be vexed. Be loved. Be free.

How to Get Better

Religion’s power is stripped away these days not by calling it an “opiate for the masses”* but by reducing it to another self-improvement program.


But do some of us religious people actually live like this? Are we giving the critics some fodder? Do most of us live as if “getting better” is the only goal of Christianity?

If getting better means becoming something glorious by the sweat of our brow, I don’t believe in that version of Christianity. But, if by “get better” we mean the less-commonly-used-except-at-hospitals: no longer be sick; then I want to be part of that. If we believe (against the most elementary principles of the world) that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, that even in our sin we are loved by God, that even in our failings God glorifies himself, then we can only mean “get better” as a slow healing process.

feeling any better

Christ said he came to seek those who are sick not those who are healthy. He didn’t mean that some people don’t need his saving grace. He means that you are either delusional or you know that you’re sick. From Christ’s words, we can only assume that “get better” — if it is at all Christian — must be a slow healing process for those in Him.

But, once in the door, can’t we then help people buck up and get it together?

“‘Speaking the truth in love’ . . . is an empty set. It never happens. Although this form of law is loftily protested as being ‘within the bonds of love and affection,’ there is always that basso continuo of judgment in every appeal of criticism, which disqualifies such speaking from having transformative effects.”
(Paul Zahl, Grace in Practice)


The problem is that “speaking the truth in love” is a way of speaking to someone who is already righteous and no longer sick. When you are speaking “challenges” and “hard truths”, you aren’t speaking to sick people. It’s not how you talk to sick people.


To those who know that they are sick, you don’t speak “hard-truths.” You speak grace upon grace upon grace. To the hard-hearted, however, you can speak all the hard truth that you want. But don’t just make it hard truth and challenges, make it impossible truth and challenges, like Jesus’ sermon on the mount. If anyone can look at that sermon as if it is attainable, then they haven’t a clue how sick they are.

cocky corey

I have been railing against pastors on this blog for a while. I should apologize for some of that. Proclaiming justification by grace alone, as Gerhard Forde says, is polemical by its very nature. It’s a doctrine that hogs the whole space of our mind. It creeps into all the dark corners and roots out the lies, captivating them by God’s promise in Christ. But it’s polemical nature doesn’t entirely excuse bludgeoning people over the head with it. Especially those who I know will continue to disagree with me.

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It’s for the sick Christians that I write. For those who need Jesus as healer, not Jesus as imputed super-power.

I met with a pastor yesterday and he said to me, “It’s hard for me to preach self-improvement even if I wanted to. I just talked to a lady who probably isn’t going to be alive in six months. How am I supposed to tell her that the goal of Christianity is that she become more glorious in some ambiguous earthly sense?”

To him I replied: Boom.

To you, I say, go forth and ‘Boom’ on behalf of the sick whom Jesus loves desperately, so much that he gave his life for them. For you.

*A rigorous understanding of law and grace isn’t an opiate for the masses by any stretch, evidenced by how resistant and haunted people are by only a few seconds of God’s law doing it’s diagnostic work on them. If “opiate for the masses” is meant only to make us distrustful of good news, then I think it is a bit redundant: we are already profoundly distrustful of good news. And yet, I say to you, God’s grace in Christ is completely yours. He is for you. And God doesn’t break his promises.

Open Letter to the Preacher who Hates Video-Games

Dear Preacher who Hates Video-Games,

Why did you have to do it in front of me? Why did you have to muddle law and gospel in front of me? I’m the wild-card young guy with not that much to lose who is moderately engaged with the B-team of Christian bloggers. I’m probably gonna write about you.

I liked your church, man. I’m looking for a church in St. Louis. Yours was small. It’s young. I met someone I go to law school with. Then you had to go do your thing.

The sermon wasn’t that bad. It was a bit boring. That’s all, though! Other than that, I can conceive that someone may have heard the gospel. Minus, of course, the one part that made me write this blog.

I don’t even remember why you said this. In case you forgot what you said, here is a summary of what came from your slightly overweight but hiply-bearded self:

Something something not playing freaking video games. Don’t get me started on video games. Every time I say something about video games I get six emails from guys whose feelings are hurt. Listen to me: [you raise your voice at this part] There is kingdom work to get done! If you are playing video games, what you are saying to the world is: I don’t care about God’s kingdom, I’d rather sit here and play this video game. [you lowered your voice at this point] Okay, stepping off my soapbox. [People chuckled. Me not so much.]

“Gosh, Jake, it’s very uncool to call me overweight. You seem to be a bit damaged. I’ll pray for you, but also be careful with your tongue in the future.”

Listen to me: There is kingdom work to get done – if you are not in shape, then your ability to get kingdom work done is greatly hindered. Seriously. Get in shape. When you eat that extra chicken leg, what you are saying to the whole world is: I don’t care if my bad cholesterol takes me off the planet a few years early. You are saying to the world: “Who cares about kingdom work? I wanna put this delicious battered hunk of grease into my gullet, chew it up real slow, then wash it down with this carb-heavy craft beer.”

See how that works?

Yeah, that’s how that works. Your waist testifies to some weak law in your life, but you stand up proudly proclaiming thunder from Sinai.

“But, Jake, how do you know what is going on in my congregation? I mean, what if there is an epidemic of lazy young dudes in my church who spend all day playing video games?”

There isn’t. Some dudes like to play video-games. Some dudes like chicken wings. Jesus loves you both. Personally, I lean towards the chicken wings. The last video game I played was RBI Baseball 1993 on my Sega Genesis.


But ever since you opened your mouth the video-gamer doesn’t know that Jesus loves him. Or, if he does, he thinks Jesus is awfully pissed off up in heaven that the gamer spent the last week playing Call of Duty Zombies with his non-Christian friends, all the while sharing with them snippets of your sermon from the week before.

What did I just do? I created a vision where gamers are accomplishing some glorious Christian works, one that furthers the kingdom.

In reality, I think they should love God and play all the video-games they want. Nervous, justification-seeking exertion probably isn’t helping the kingdom anyway.

If you were trying to discuss the doctrine of vocation, please spend some time with my buddy R.J. who knows how to encourage people to love others without threatening to withhold God’s love.

And you. I think you should buy a Play Station and chill out. Otherwise, I’m going to delete anything moderately entertaining off your iPhone. And ransack your house for coloring books, because what does Christ have to do with Crayola?

Your friend,


P.S. You can chock me up as the seventh guy who got his feelings hurt. But only if you chock Jesus up as the eighth.

P.P.S. We are all gluttons in our hearts. There is plenty – PLENTY – of grace for our inward and outward gluttony. You seen pictures of Luther? They say the camera add ten pounds, but how many cameras were on him when they took this?

Martin-Luther  by Cranach the Younger

Are People Good at the Core?

We all want to believe that there is something good in us, if only we figure out how to activate it. Those in the church have grown up thinking that the preacher’s job is to activate the core in us that is good, and thus motivate Christians to do more for God, in new radical ways. But is this core even there or are these guys just yelling at dead people to stand up and dance?


Preachers are masters at telling people to do things for God. Most people would call this an accurate job description of the pastor. The problem is that once the preachers tell someone to do something it becomes unclear if they are now just obeying to appease the pastor or to actually glorify God. This could expose all of our piety as actually self-justifying unbelief. In the age of application-driven sermons, when all we get at church are new ways to improve ourselves, our conduct begins to rule our entire relationship with God. If our conduct is the basis for our relationship, we are building our faith on the assumption that the core of humanity is good.

But what is going on with our core? Do we even know?  We could look at the bible, our experiences, and culture to discover what is going on in there, and if it is good.


In the bible, we find that God doesn’t have much faith in human achievement. Even when we find the “righteous man” of the Old Testament, it is quite clear that part of the story is God making that person righteous, which keeps us wondering whether there was any good there to begin with. Does the bible say we are good at our core or not? You have heard me quote all of the scripture (if you’ve been reading the blog for any length of time) where the bible makes it explicitly clear that we are not good at our core. In fact the bible says that, left to our own devices, we are downright faithless, rebellious, self-justifying, deceived and deceiving. You are just depressing us, Jake! How is this good news? Well, listen, right now I’m simply trying to highlight why what you have heard for most of your Christian experience is not good news. Pointing people to the “good inside” is not going to help them because it isn’t there, according to the bible.

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(The good news, to jump ahead a bit, is the God creates ex nihilo - out of nothing – which means he calls us lovely and that is the thing that makes us lovely. The liberation of that truth is that when we feel overwhelmed by our unloveliness, we can simply go back to the Word which promises we have been made lovely. And that stirs up profound gratitude. If we don’t go back there in our unloveliness, we will be forced to resort to resolutions of personal self-improvement. “I’m unlovely now, but wait’ll you see me in 6 months!” That doesn’t sound like freedom to me.)


Next, we can look at our experiences to find evidence for this good internal core. Generally, I would say most of us have no clue if our experiences reveal a good person underneath. I would readily say that you are likely a normal person, but good person, I’m just not sure. There is one experience that calls every other experience into question, that I think is a case for why we simply cannot be sure how good we are. This is the experience of exerting profound effort and telling ourselves in the process that our motives are other-focused/selfless/altruistic, only to find out after a time of reflection that we had selfish motives for doing that work from the beginning — we just didn’t see them at the time. This experience reveals the gullibility of our hearts to believe the goodness of our works despite potentially obvious signs that our works are completely selfish. I’m not saying all of them are, I’m just saying, I don’t think we can be sure of our goodness once we discover how regularly we deceive ourselves. When you tell yourself that you are doing something good: how do you know that you can be trusted?

We are i

^ We are so deceived. ^

(If you think I am again just stripping away any motivation to be nice to people, I’m sorry! Truly, I prefer it when people are nice to other people. More importantly, though, I very much want people to feel free around me. If someone is having a bad day, it is unloving for me to demand they should put on a nice face and pretend they have it together. I want you to be ruthlessly honest with yourself, because it gives birth to deeper intimacy with those with which you share that vulnerability. And it opens up ways for us to be truly loved when we know it’s not a mask that people are falling in love with, but rather our core self with all of our selfish streaks and insecurities.)


We can also look to art for a verdict about our loveliness. Really, though, this is just another way of looking at our experiences, because the art that we are drawn to is usually somehow a reflection of what is going on inside of us, which is usually tied up in what we have experienced. But perhaps a good rule of thumb is that the insecurities of our favorite artists are likely insecurities that we share, which makes me think, If we are insecure, almost by definition that means we aren’t sure how good we are at our core. And often art is insecurity that has been dragged into the light so that people can feel the liberation of calling a thing what it is. So studying art makes me conclude that we can’t actually know how good or bad we are, but we can know that we are a little bit scared.

So in conclusion: most of us probably aren’t sure how good or bad we are. Everything in us wants a self-evaluation that says we are good or bad, but I don’t think we would believe anything like that even if we had it.

all good

Coming to this place of vulnerability where you are free to admit that you aren’t sure about your motives, actually feels like your identity is coming apart. Everywhere Jesus went people had identity crises. You don’t even have to subscribe to the gospel for it to really freak you out, but simply positing the question of whether you are as good as you think you are is enough to make you tremble. Trust me, it’s a daily struggle.

lego core

Here is the good news. Admitting the uncertainty of our good works is an echo of Paul saying in Galatians 2: “I died to the Law so that I might live to God.” Admitting that you can never look to your own works to locate your goodness forces you to look outside of yourself to Christ given for you.

And he is yours, indeed. Cling tightly.

Where God Meets Heroin Addicts

I usually post satirical posts on Friday, but this one couldn’t wait.

I’m on a road trip with my parents and my sweet girlfriend yesterday. We were returning from a week in Destin, Florida. The ocean was wonderful, the sun was wonderful, the food was plentiful. It was a blast. My sister and her family were driving separately, but they were there when the crazy stuff below went down.

I am always the one who has to go to the bathroom. This time, though, I waited like 12 miles before I said a word. I would rather suffer than inconvenience a whole car of people who just want to get home and into their own beds. Finally I say something, and finally we stop at a gas station.

Everyone piled out, and everyone went inside to the bathroom. On my way out, I passed a guy who was singing to himself. He was a Latino guy in his mid-twenties. He was with a long, curly-haired white girl of about the same age who was having a discussion with the cashier about the soda selection. She had on a slightly risque outfit, and I remember noting that she looked oddly confident, or content, or some elated feeling I couldn’t put my finger on.

We all came back outside and decide that, to save us stopping for a big dinner, we should just eat a sandwich at the car. So we opened the trunks, and were standing around in this gas station parking lot making sandwiches. I sat on the curb next to my nephew and we ate our Doritos. My dad snapped a picture.


Suddenly, I look up and see a guy laying on the ground about 20 yards away. It is the same guy who was singing to himself no more than 4 or 5 minutes earlier. His back is on the ground, and his arms are spread out. He is obviously unconscious, but his left hand clung tightly to a 32 oz soda that rested oddly on the ground. His girlfriend was knelt down on top of him, silent but obviously sobbing. I stood up from the curb and my family turned to see what was happening. The woman was dead silent, and her head was on the man’s chest. Her shoulders were shaking up and down. Her long, curly hair covered both of their faces. A few people shuffled cautiously around her, attempting to help. None of us approached.

A black guy walking slowly away from the scene, looked at my family and said with genuine sadness, “He pissed himself, too, man. Another OD.” I looked at the woman. I couldn’t see her face. She wasn’t crying to anyone for help. She just knelt on top of this man that she loved, sobbing as he grew colder. She was strung out, I’m certain, but I’m also certain that the gravity of death was pulling her rapidly back to earth.

The elated look that I noticed earlier had disappeared. She was completely broken.

People tried to pull her off from on top of the man. I am not sure why they did this. I think from where they were standing, they could see the hopelessness of the situation much clearer. She was fighting away from them. I had an impulse to stop people from grabbing her so that she could lay beside the man. I stood twenty yards away, along with my family, frozen.

Finally, maybe seven or eight minutes later, the firetruck arrived. We watched the firemen forcefully remove her from kneeling and sobbing on top of the man. She wouldn’t show her face, and she still didn’t make a noise as she fought them off. Finally, she slipped from their grasp and fell down, reaching out to her unconscious lover.

The EMTs did not seem hopeful from where we were standing. I saw them feel for a pulse, then slowly move towards their bags. They seemed to be glancing at each other and going through the motions, while two of them tried to hold the woman back so they could work.

We left. We are pretty sure the singing man at the gas station in Alabama didn’t make it.

I’ve had two high school friends overdose. I wasn’t close to either of them when they overdosed, but I had been close to them. I don’t know what made them do it.

I know that life is incredibly difficult, and that drugs and addiction make a false promise that they will take us out of our suffering. They don’t. They bring us deeper into it. Drugs won’t help anyone escape life.

But I think the sobbing woman knows that now. At least I’m certain she will hear it in the next few days, as news trickles back to her family about what happened to the boy they met last Christmas. The one they thought was clean and would help their daughter kick her awful habit. The one hope they had after their daughter’s multiple failed rehab attempts. I’m, of course, speculating.

I don’t want to sermonize this. I don’t understand it well enough to begin to make a fine theological point. But I must say that part of me was dying for Jesus to come right to her in that moment and say what he said to the woman caught in her adultery: Your sins are forgiven you, go and sin no more.

I wish someone would have held her and cried with her. I hope someone does. I hope a pastor out there convinces her that she is not too far gone, will never be too far gone, to be welcomed into God’s restful arms.

Next time that you see that woman, please cry with her. I hope that I will. Jesus loves her very much.

I don’t know what else to say. I’m so saddened by life under the sun. I’m so thankful that God loves sinners like that strung out woman and like me.