The Good Life

Sometimes well-intentioned Bible teachers say pretty stupid things. When I was a teen I heard more than one preacher say something to the effect of, “If you’re not going to follow Christ, you should go out there and live it up—party all the time, get as much pleasure as you can.” This never sat well with me and, unfortunately, at least one guy I went to high school took this advice. Those who said such things were well-intentioned. Their logic was, “If you don’t follow Jesus, you will go to hell. Since your eternity will be ruined, you might as well have as much fun in this life as possible.” There is a certain perverse logic there, but it is completely wrong. Isaiah 48:17b-18:

“I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your well-being like the waves of the sea.”

While part of this statement is true based on God’s covenant with Israel, I believe it is also true because of the law of the farm—what you sow you will reap. The truth is that the best life you can have on this earth is one that conforms as much as possible to God’s commands and God’s ways. This is because God is the creator and his moral laws have consequences for obedience and for disobedience. The law of gravity works whether you believe in God or not; it works whether you believe in gravity or not. So it is with God’s moral law; those who break God’s laws only break themselves trying to defy it.

It isn’t possible for an unbeliever to really obey God’s word, but you and I both know people who don’t believe in Christ but they do not kill (or hate others), do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not lie, do not abuse and mistreat others as a general rule of life. None of us can be perfectly obedient and no unbeliever can earn credit with God for whatever obedience they do have to God’s word. But insofar as they do obey God’s laws, they will not suffer the consequences in this life that disobedience always brings. It is always better to obey God than to follow the sinful ways of our nature, our culture, or the enemy.

The Three Way Tug

Photo Credit: Payton

As a pastor who teaches God’s word more than once a week, I find myself wrestling weekly with three competing tensions: faithfulness, relevance, and shepherding. These three tensions feel, at times, like a three-way tug.

The first tension, faithfulness, comes from my desire to remain true to the text of Scripture. One thing I would never want to do is to distort the message of the Bible. Because I believe that the Bible is the authoritative message from God, my most basic commitment is to be faithful to what the Bible says.

I also feel a tug not only to remain true to the text of Scripture, but also to explain how the passage of Scripture is relevant to the modern audience. While the tension toward faithfulness to the text comes from my convictions about Scripture, this second tension comes from the people in my church. Every congregation wants to “get something out of” the message. I feel like many people come to church asking the unspoken question, “Why is Pastor Brian taking forty minutes to tell me about these verses?” I think it is a good question and I want my message to give them a great answer.

In addition to the tensions caused by the text and the tension caused by the congregation, I also feel a sense of tension that comes from my responsibility as a shepherd of the flock. This tension is similar to, but not the same as, the tension of relevance. I know that people come to church looking for a personal message from God, but I also know that the congregation has deeper needs than the ones they feel. They need to see how God meets them not only in their personal lives but also how his working in our lives connects to the larger work that God is doing. Ultimately, Christ will return and establish his kingdom. Right now, he is preparing for that coming kingdom by calling people into that kingdom by faith in the gospel. If our faith is only about us as individuals or our local church, we are not seeing or participating in the larger work that God is doing. We need to see that evangelism, missions, and even our growth in Christ is all connected to God’s larger work in the world.

So, there it is: the “three-way tug” of faithfulness, relevance, and shepherding. This tug can cause my preaching to be imbalanced in one or two directions if I’m not careful. When pastoral obligation wins, the message challenges the listener to look beyond his or her felt needs to the larger issues in the church’s life. At its best, this kind of preaching confronts people’s worldview, asking them to choose the path of selflessness over selfishness. At its worst, this type of preaching degenerates into condemnation. The church may feel berated for not living up to the my ideals and is urged to “do better.”

When felt needs win the tug of war, the audience pays close attention as the issues they care most about are surfaced and addressed. They may find answers to their problems or comfort for their griefs and struggles. When felt needs preaching is at its worst, however, the message of the Bible can be distorted and made to say something that the biblical author never intended. Furthermore, an over emphasis on felt needs can sometimes fail to challenge selfish attitudes that God wants to change.

Finally, if my preaching leans too far toward interpretation, people in my church may feel like students in a classroom, collecting many facts or truths about the Bible. At best, this emphasis in preaching creates a congregation with extensive Bible knowledge. At worst, the church might know a lot but obey very little. This type of preaching may also leave people in their comfort zones, never challenged to reach out to the world around.

Biblical Preaching, as defined by my teacher Haddon Robinson, attempts to take these three legitimate tensions and allow the message to be shaped appropriately by them all. Biblical Preaching is a process; it is a series of steps that, when followed in their proper order, usually yield a sermon that is faithful to the Bible, relevant to the audience, and challenging to the local body. This is what I’m trying to do as a canyon crosser in my preaching and teaching ministry.

It is Contagious

Micah 1:9: “For Samaria’s plague is incurable; it has spread to Judah. It has reached the very gate of my people, even to Jerusalem itself.”

Micah was a prophet who prophesied in Judah. His ministry spanned the reign of three of the Southern Kingdom kings namely, “Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah” (Micah 1:1). However, he spoke about both the Northern and Southern kingdoms: “he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem” (v. 1b). God’s judgment for the Northern Kingdom was drawing near at the end of Micah’s ministry; His judgment for the Southern Kingdom was still many years away.

But the spiritual problems that brought God’s judgment on both nations was consuming the Northern Kingdom of Israel and rapidly spreading to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Verse 9 of Micah 1 compares it to a plague. Plagues are contagious; that’s why they wipe out so many people so quickly. The unbelief and idolatry of Israel was contagious; even Judah was coming down with it.

Sin usually is contagious.

  • If someone is unkind to you, you may respond with unkindness toward that person and others.
  • Gossip is really contagious because it can’t exist without being shared from one person to another.
  • Drunkenness can be contagious too because it is more fun to party with others than to drink alone.
  • Adultery is by nature contagious because it involves at least one other person. False doctrine is contagious because false teachers want to spread their ideas.

I don’t think we appreciate how contagious our sins can be. We think that we sin alone and bear the consequences alone but any sin that happens outside your mind has some kind of social fallout. If enough people choose to engage in a particular sin, that creates a culture where that sin is acceptable.  What sins have you seen spread like a virus? Are you spreading–maybe unknowingly–sin to others?

One reason why we need God’s grace through his word and the church is to inoculate ourselves against the contagious virus of sin. Prepare yourself, then, to withstand the viruses of sin.

Why this site is called Canyon Crossers

A few years ago I couldn’t sleep.

Not because I wasn’t tired or because I was anxious about something. My family and I were on vacation and I felt very relaxed and at peace.

I couldn’t sleep because I was excited. We were in Arizona. We had just settled into our accommodations in Phoenix after a few days at the Grand Canyon. Spending those days with the people I love most exploring the vast beauty of that magnificent place got me thinking about applying the Bible.

Does it seem strange to you that hiking and exploring the Grand Canyon got me thinking about applying the Bible? I understand. Let me explain:

In the early 2000s I was pastoring a small church in Canton, Michigan and working on a Doctor of Ministry degree. My doctorate was focused on preaching and was led by Haddon Robinson, one of the most effective communicators of his generation. Haddon was an incredible preacher himself, a strong Christian man, and a great mentor and teacher of preaching.

I decided to research and write about the topic of applying the Bible. In the course of my research, I came across the metaphor of a canyon as an illustration of the divide between the biblical world and the modern world. The Bible’s truth is not two separate worlds to be bridged.

It is more like a crack in the earth.

In many passages, you can apply the truth from the biblical situation to our lives very easily. It is like stepping across a tiny crack in the earth. The distance between how the truth of God’s word applied to the Ephesians (or whomever) and us is not significant in many passages, so those texts of the Bible are easy to apply properly.

In other biblical texts, however, the situation the original human author was addressing seems far different from anything we Christians face today. In those passages, applying the Bible seems difficult. The distance between the truth as it related to original readers of those passages and us seems immense–like a canyon.

I wrote about the canyon metaphor for applying the Bible years before we went to the Grand Canyon on our family vacation.

But exploring the Grand Canyon on that vacation reminded me of the metaphor that was buried in the pages of my Doctor of Ministry project. Once that metaphor was in my mind again, I started thinking about creating a website to explore the concepts of applying the Bible, studying and interpreting the Bible, living the Christian life in this age, and doing Christian ministry in this age.

That’s what you’ll find on this site. In these articles I will share what I have learned about:

  • applying the Bible biblically
  • studying and interpreting the Bible properly
  • living the Christian life in our times
  • doing Christian/church ministry in this age

There will be lots of free content available. You will also find courses that you can pay for in order to study with me more formally and directly.

I live near Ann Arbor, Michigan and serve as the pastor of Calvary Bible Church. There are no canyons, to my knowledge, anywhere near where I live.

But the metaphor of Canyon Crossers is helpful. It helps me daily as I work through biblical texts and how to obey them in my life and apply them to my congregation. Join me and I’ll teach you as much as I can to help you in your own walk with God.

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