When I Don’t Desire God–Study Guide

One of the most influential books in my spiritual development was When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper. I recently re-read the book and was shaped by it again. To help you get more out of the book, I wrote an “unofficial” study guide.

The purpose of the book is to help Christians to fight for joy in God. In sum, it is a book about the theology which undergirds spiritual growth, and the different practices that a Christian can engage in so that they would grow in Christ.

There is a free PDF version of the book here.

And the study guide is here for download: When I Don’t Desire God- Study Guide.

Forgiveness is Not to be Withheld

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”

“No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!”

Jesus said: “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt. But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full. When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened.  Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me.  Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’  Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.”

That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.

–Matthew 18:21-35

Even Female Christians Get Circumcised (But not in the way you think)

“And in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands in the removal of the body of flesh by the circumcision of Christ”
Colossians 2:11

Paul gives his readers another action of salvation that God has done on their behalf: “In Him, you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands.” Paul is obviously not talking about physical circumcision here because he describes it as “made without hands.”[1] What is in view is God’s work on behalf of the Christian. The verse brings up  an important theme which weaves its way throughout the story of Scripture: circumcision.

God originally gave the physical act of circumcision to Abraham as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17:9-14). What did the physical sign of circumcision mean? It means that someone is part of the covenant community: “An uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut from his people; he has broken My covenant” (17:14). Hebrew scholar Peter Gentry also makes the case that circumcision signifies complete devotion to God as a priesthood.[2] I would tie these two significances together, for Israel as a whole was a royal priesthood (Exod. 19:6). Thus, to receive circumcision meant that a Hebrew male was part of the covenant community which was called by God as a royal priesthood.

Circumcision also signified the need for “heart circumcision”: the removal of stubborn obstinacy to God so that a person can truly love God. This second significance of circumcision, however, is not initially clear in the context of the Abrahamic covenant, but gradually emerges across the canon of Scripture. In a sense, however, I would argue that this meaning is present—at least in latent, or “seed” form—even from the beginning of the Abrahamic covenant. Throughout the Genesis narratives, it should be abundantly clear to the observant reader that circumcision did not automatically make someone “godly,” for Abraham still sinned greatly (Genesis 20:1-18). In addition, although someone could receive the physical mark of circumcision, this did not necessarily mean that they would be included in the covenantal blessings made to Abraham. Both Jacob and Esau received circumcision, and yet Jacob was chosen as the line for covenantal blessing, while Esau was excluded (Genesis 19:23-26; cf. Malachi 1:3). In addition, a whole generation of Israel perished in the wilderness due to their sin. Circumcision was not necessarily a shield from God’s wrath (Numbers 14:34). The early narratives in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) demonstrate the insufficiency of merely physical circumcision.

In Deuteronomy, God exhorts the Israelites to “Circumcise your hearts, and stiffen your necks no longer” (10:16). The context demonstrates that the issue at hand is having genuine love for God and obeying His commands (10:12-15). Based upon who God is and what He has done for Israel (10:17-18), Israel should obey Him: she should strip off her stubbornness and love Yahweh. The problem is manifestly clear: Israel is unable to do that (29:4). And the result will be judgment and exile (30:1). But God promises that He will bring them back from exile (30:2-5). Much more, “God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendents, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (30:6). God Himself will work in His people to bring love for Himself into their hearts!

Later in the Old Testament, Jeremiah prophesies God’s exhortation to Israel before she goes away into exile: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart…Or else My wrath will go forth like fire, because of the evil of your deeds.” This verse is amazing because it brings together both strands of the significance of circumcision: 1) devotion to God as priest as part of the covenant community (“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord” meaning something like, “Devote yourself to the Lord”), and 2) the removal of sinful obstinacy upon which God’s wrath burns (“Remove the foreskins of your heart…Or else My wrath will go forth like fire, because of the evil of your deeds”). Renovation of the heart and consecration to God go together.

So how are these things fulfilled in Christ? First, circumcision anticipates the true seed of Abraham, the true descendent to whom all the promises are given (Galatians 3:16). Jesus is the true covenant partner to God because He fully obeyed God’s will in all respects. His circumcision was the last significant and meaningful physical circumcision, for circumcision was pointing forward to Him all along. Second, circumcision also pointed to the need for “heart circumcision,” something which is fulfilled through Christ.

This is where the story of Scripture intersects with Colossians 2:11.

In Christ, believers are circumcised: that is, they are joined to Christ in His death in which their body of sin–or “old man”—is stripped off. It seems most natural to see the “the removal of the body of flesh” as referring to the death of the “old man,” because of phrase it roughly parallel to “body of sin” in Romans 6:6. But how does this removal of the body of flesh work?

Paul says that it occurs “by the circumcision of Christ.” There are two ways to take this phrase. Grammatically, the phrase could be translated either “the circumcision performed by Christ” or “the circumcision done to Christ.” The first possibility focuses on Christ’s action: He is the one doing this “spiritual circumcision” to believers. The second possibility focuses on what was done to Christ, and thus, “the circumcision done to Christ” is a metaphor for violent death. Christ was “cut off” (circumcised). Grammar alone will not settle the question, but lays out the possibilities.

I believe that taking the “circumcision of Christ” to refer to Christ’s death on the cross is slightly preferable. It seems that taking it the other way is slightly redundant, for believers are described as already “in Him you were circumcised.” Thus, Christ’s role in this spiritual circumcision was already spelled out. Rather, taking the phrase to refer to Christ’s death fits the pattern of Paul’s theology well, where believers are buried “in Christ,” have died “in Christ,” and are raised to new life “in Christ” (Romans 6:1-7). By virtue of their union with Christ in His death, a Christian’s “old self” has died. They are now raised to newness of life, “marked” by God as included in the new covenant community (Romans 2:25-29; Philippians 3:3).

Here is a paraphrase of what I think the verse is saying: By virtue of your union with Christ, you were circumcised “in Him.” Let me explain this a little more. This circumcision was done to you by God, it’s not a physical act. This circumcision involved the removal your “old self”—when you were still “in Adam” and under God’s condemnation. Your “old self” was removed by Christ’s own death on the cross. When Christ died, you died. [And as verse 12 teaches, When Christ was raised, you were raised!]


[1] The phrase “made without hands” translates one Greek word which is used in two other places (Matthew 14:58; 2 Corinthians 5:1). The word contrasts things made “with human hands” and the work of God. In this instance, Paul is saying that this circumcision is God’s work. No human can spiritually circumcise themselves.

[2] Peter Gentry and Stepehen Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 272-75.

(Jesus’) Perfect Love Drives Out Fear

Our problems arise largely because we don’t continually return to the gospel to work it in and live it out…’Wait,’ I have heard people object. ‘You mean that in order to grow in Christ, you keep telling yourself how graciously loved and accepted you are?…Maybe the motivation of religion was negative, but at least it was effective! You knew you had to obey God because if you didn’t, he wouldn’t answer your prayers or take you to heaven’…But if, when you have lost all fear of punishment you also have lost incentive to live an obedient life, then what was your motivation in the first place? It could only have been fear. What other incentive is there? Awed, grateful love.

–Tim Keller, The Prodigal God, pp. 134-135

 

If the Resurrection…Then What? Why All Christians Depart from the Scientific Consensus

Last night Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) and Ken Ham, a leading proponent of young earth creationism, debated. In simplistic terms, it was creation vs. evolution: which one is the most viable explanation for human origins and the age of the universe. The debate has generated many responses, some serious and some full of snark (see: #creationdebate on Twitter). My point is not delve into the debate, defending any particular view.

What I want to do is examine a certain argument used by some Christians against holding a youth earth view, and see if it is a viable way of arguing. Christians who hold to an old earth view argue that the scientific evidence is overwhelming in favor of an old earth. Furthermore, some Christians view young earth creationism as “not science.”

In addition, some Christians who hold to an old earth would see the young earth position as being a barrier for contemporary people coming to faith in Christ.

I think, however, that a reliance on “scientific evidence” needs to be carefully nuanced for Christians, because all Christians—whether holding to a young earth or old earth position—depart from naturalistic scientific methodology. How? Because all Christians believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.

Yet, according to naturalistic science, 100% of the time, people do NOT come back from the dead bodily. I am not talking about someone who was “dead” for 45 minutes and then revived. The claim Christians make is that Jesus was dead for three days! And then, He came back to life. So uncritically adopting the “scientific evidence/consensus” regarding the miracles in the Bible is not a viable option for Christians.

So, in my view of the Christian faith, if Jesus actually rose bodily from the dead after three days, then it is as least plausible for any number of miraculous things to occur.

If Jesus rose from the dead bodily, then it’s not too much of a stretch for me to believe…

That Jesus was born of a virgin (Matthew 1:18)
That a donkey actually talked (Numbers 22:21-39)
That God parted the Red Sea so that the Israelites could have walked on dry land (Exodus 14:31-31)

I don’t regularly talk about specific positions on creation or evolution, because that won’t bring you to a relationship with God. But just about everything in Christianity hinges on Jesus’ bodily resurrection, which is something that shatters the mold of the dominant view of science in the culture (1 Corinthians 15). And all Christians—no matter what their view is concerning the age of the earth—believe that mold-shattering truth.

Simple Small Groups–A Short Review

While most small group literature is of the, “Hey, this worked for me! So you should do it my way!” variety, Simple Small Groups by Bill Search is refreshingly…well…simple. Instead of providing a new model or method, Search wants to help make whatever model a church is using better (p. 13). In other words, Search’s advice can help just about any church with an already existing small group structure.

 Search’s paradigm is…

Connecting: The Relational Pattern (chaps. 2-3)
Changing: The Growth Pattern (chaps. 4-5)
Cultivating: The Missional Pattern (chaps. 6-7).

Search is not reinventing the wheel here. He wants people to grow deeper in their relationships with one another in the group (Connecting). He wants people to grow deeper in their relationship with Christ through the group (Changing). And he wants people to grow deeper in their love for others by ministering to them as a group (Cultivating).

The benefit of his chapters on connecting, changing, and cultivating is twofold. First, Search provides a lot of practical advice on growing in each of those areas. Second, he also provides a list of questions to evaluate where your group currently lands. For example, he believes that there are three phases of connecting: meeting, committing, and belonging (p. 57). Each phase increases the level of intimacy and trust in the group. The questions he provides help diagnose the phase your group is currently in.

Harmony, Not Balance

 Search argues that harmony, not balance, is the best way for groups to move forward (chaps. 8-9). Harmony has all three patterns working together, even if the group focuses on one pattern more than the others.

Have you ever done the “wheel” evaluation for your Christian life? If you haven’t, the gist of the “wheel” is this: you plot your scores on the spokes of a wheel concerning various spiritual disciplines. Then you connect your scores with a circle. If one “spoke” of the wheel is shorter than the other, then your Christian life is out of balance. The goal, then, is to balance out your Christian life.

Although certainly based on good intentions, I think the “wheel” overlooks a basic principle of Christian living: all Christians are gifted in different ways and every Christians has certain strengths and weakness. Of course, each Christian should attempt to take a step towards growth in a particular area, but it is unrealistic to believe that every Christian will become perfectly “balanced.” For example, in my own life, I am strong in Bible study and teaching. Yet, I am often weak in prayer. Does this mean that I never make an attempt to grow in prayer? May it never be! But it also means that instead of beating myself up over my lack of prayer, one solution might be to include a prayer partner into my ministry.

Similar logic can also apply to small groups. Leaders may want balance. A “balanced” small group would be equally good at connecting, changing, and cultivating.  But if groups were judged by the balance they achieved, most would be deemed failures. Groups, by nature, will tend toward one pattern more than the others. The goal is not to artificially impose balance on groups, but rather have a group integrate all three patterns into its life, even if one is more of a priority than others.

Buy, Borrow, By-Pass: As a pastor overseeing the community life of the church, I bought this book and found it extremely helpful, so I recommend buying it, if that’s your area of oversight. Small group leaders would also serve themselves well to buy a copy.