In Praise of Failure

Humans do like failure; they do not like being told that they are not good enough or not qualified. The only problem is, failure is part of life. Every fails, or to put it differently, no one is perfect. This reality of failure creates a major dilemma for humanity. Failure is unavoidable, and everyone hates that this is so.

Humans, though, are quite creative at attempting to avoid failure albeit unsuccessfully. Many appreciate the scapegoat approach where it is someone or something else’s fault I failed. I bear no responsibility for my failure because I’m not really to blame. The Indiana Pacers didn’t lose the basketball because the Miami Heat were better but because the refs cheated the Pacers out of a win. California Chrome didn’t lose the Belmont Stakes because the other horses were faster but because the system is broken. I didn’t struggle in my race because I eat poorly and didn’t train but because the weather conditions weren’t right. I didn’t eat the fruit from the tree because I was sinning but because she gave it to me (even though I stood right here and watched her eat it first.) It’s not my fault!

But there is another approach that is also quite common when it comes to failure: changing the standard. Kids scores on tests are slipping…change the tests. Haven’t had a triple crown winner since 1978, change what horses are allowed to compete. Wide receivers have trouble catching the ball, make it against the rules for the defense to even touch the receiver. Feel guilty about a particular sin? Deem the Law culturally irrelevant. After all, did God really say….?

We simply do not like failure, and since we cannot change the fact that we fail, that we don’t measure up, that we aren’t good enough, we’ll blame what we can change: systems, Laws, regulations, all of those things which point out our failure. And then with that which declares us failures changed, eliminated, and out of the way, we are all winners!

But then why try? Why improve? Why strive for our best when we can be happy with mediocrity because the standard no longer calls for the best? Why push ourselves to be better? And from a spiritual stand point, are we not then simply content to remain wallowing in our spiritual filth? Without a standard and a declaration of failure to point us to the solution, we remain in our failure. With no Law to prick our conscience, what drives us to our need for a Savior? Without failure, there is no quest for growth.

Failure is painful and no one likes pain. But without knowledge of failure, we never change. By changing that around us which declares us failures, we eliminate the need for us to change. Without failure, we are content with where we are right now. Failure reminds us that where we are right now is not good. Without the pain of failure, culture stagnates. We need to feel the pain of failure, because without that pain, we will never keeping strive for true perfection, and spiritually, we will not seek the source of perfection. As Jim Miller once said in the face of failure “Cheer up! You’re worse than you think you are!” Failure is reality, one we don’t like to acknowledge, but that pain of failure drives us. Without it, we’ll just sit here.


Why, God?

It’s the question that gets asked any time there is a tragedy, any time the world experiences something awful and heart-breaking, any time there is a painful experience. The question is not new; it’s been asked since the beginning of time. Page after page has been written attempting to the answer the question satisfactorily, psychologically, theologically, but the fact that books continue to be written on the question shows that few are satisfied with the answers given thus far.

But what if the point is not so much about the answer, but about the question? Philip Yancey, in his new book “The Question that Never Goes Away” points out that while many in scripture ask “Why God,” God never gives a direct answer, and neither does Yancey. And yet, the repetition of the question throughout Psalms and the rest of Scripture demonstrates that God has heard the question, even inspired the question in the Bible, but has chosen not to answer. “Why, God? Why, God, are you not answering my question of “Why, God?” What is the point of a question that we know God hears, even affirms, but does not answer?

1. The question assumes brokenness

We ask the question when something unexpected takes place. Few ask the question “Why, God” when a drug-addict overdoses. We assume we know the answer to that scenario. Rather, we ask the question when tragedy strikes, when an unexpected death occurs, when something other than the norm takes place. We have assumptions as to how our lives will go, idealistic thoughts to be sure, but we have the expectation that we will all die in our beds in old age having led good, full lives. But how do we explain the people killed by drunk drivers? The drunk driver died for their own poor choices, but why the others? The devastation seems so random, so inexplicable. Good families, loving parents, young children, all killed by someone else’s act of stupidity. Cancer and other sicknesses strike young children who are supposed to be young and carefree. These are what cause us to ask “Why God?” And the very fact that we ask the question shows that we have an intrinsic understanding that this is not how it is ‘supposed’ to be. We have an innate sense that this world is broken and messed up. In a word, we know that the world is fallen. This evil was not “supposed” to happen. When we ask “Why God?” we are agreeing that this world is tainted and corrupted, cursed and disordered by the ravages of sin. This is not Eden; this is not paradise. What this is is not what should be.


2. The question assumes an answerer

Those outside of Christ ask the question, but they assume that someone has the answer. They ask because they assume that there even is an answer! And there is; it’s even an answer they already know deep down: whatever prompted the question shouldn’t have happened; it isn’t right. This world isn’t right. And yet, even knowing that the world is not right, even knowing this world is messed up and corrupted by sin, we still ask the question because we assume that the one who has the ability to answer the question has the power to change it. We ask not just so that we will know, but so that the one who is ‘responsible’ for this will do something about it. Even those who lack faith in Christ ask the question because they believe someone or something knows “why” and can do something about it! Their question even reveals the assumption that the one in control would care enough to do something about it. Otherwise, what’s the point of even asking?! And the great news of the Gospel is that there is someone who knows, and He has done, is doing, and will do something about this problem of evil!

3. The question assumes an answer we will agree with

So then why doesn’t God give me the answer? We admit what God has said: this world is corrupt. We even know that He has the answer. So why no answer? And to be honest “all things work out for good” is not that big of a comfort in the midst of the tragedy. Try telling any father that his daughter was tragically killed so that the father could grow spiritually. Thanks a lot, God but I want my daughter back. The reality is that we know that there is an answer and we know who has it but He is not giving it. And the truth is, we know that the answer is not one we would like. I have six children, but if God told me that one of them had to die so that every person in Africa would come to faith in Christ, I guarantee you I would say “no” without a moment’s hesitation. We ask “Why, God” because we really think that God is going to give us an answer we will agree with. How do you Job would have felt if God told him that all that tragedy happened because God had a wager going with a fallen angel? I guarantee Job would not have liked the answer. In the midst of the tragedy, when we cry out “Why, God” why someone assume we would like the answer if God gave it. But that’s not true at all because we are as affected and broken as our world! Knowing “why” will not make us feel better.

What we are really saying when we ask “Why, God” is either “This hurts, God” or “I disagree, God.” The solution to both of those is faith. Faith that admits this world is broken, and only God holds the answer. Faith that admits I disagree with what God is doing because this hurts. Faith that hopes in the future when this pain is gone, when the world is remade in perfect order. Faith in that time when we will be able to look back on it all and not only understand, but also agree. Until then, we ask the question “why” in pain and in faith that there is an answerer, and one day, we will not only agree with the answer, we’ll worship the answerer for it.

Sunday Worship

My father is Senior Pastor of a church located in the Holy Land. No, not Jerusalem…Green Bay, Wisconsin. When I was growing up in Green Bay, I grew accustomed to hearing my former home town described in Biblical terms, taking it all as good, tongue-in cheek fun. My father has often said that the largest church in Green Bay, Wisconsin is Lambeau Field, where the NFL Packers play, and that each Sunday 70,000 faithful followers gather to worship their gods. Sadly, there is quite a bit of truth to that notion that goes beyond sarcastic humor. Many years ago when I attended a pre-season Packer game, the music to “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” played as Brett Favre ran onto the field. I give the benefit of the doubt to the public announcer that he simply thought it was nice music and did not recognize it as a reverent hymn, but the truth is that many in Wisconsin have an exaggerated view of the Packers as the demigods of society who can do no wrong (as long as they beat Da Bears). In many ways, the Packers have the highest pull on Wisconsinite hearts as people skip church for Packers games or to tailgate at Packer games beforehand. Even among dedicated church goers there is often an obvious checking of watches to make sure that the service ends before kickoff.

But Wisconsinites are apparently not the only ones. Just this past Sunday, a pastor in California actually cut his service short so that he could watch the game. You can see the entire service (less than 1 minute) here. This website posted the video because they found it funny. I simply find it sad. Even sadder are the voices of the parishioners in the background who find the situation funny and a great blessing that they too can see kickoff. Is it any wonder why our society thinks of Christians as a joke? We have given the impression that our priorities on a Sunday are the same as everyone else: football comes first.

I’ll be the first to admit that I love football and I love to watch the Packers play. I am not an extreme Sabbattarian; but Sunday is not the Packer’s Day, it’s the LORD’s Day. The commandment clearly states to “honor the Sabbath Day.” So what are we saying to our culture, to our children, when football takes priority over the Worship of God? What does God think of our worship when it must end in time for kickoff? And it’s not simply football. We rush out of church for lunch, to beat other church’s to get a good table at the local restaurant or to get in line at the buffet, to hurry home to get a nap or to get to something else we have planned. Are we truly honoring the Sabbath Day when our priorities shift away from worshipping God? Are we truly communicating the greatness of the God we serve when we shorten the worship of Almighty God to watched overpaid men throw around the pigskin? Our actions speak louder than our words.

For Goodness Sake

America is a Santa Clause culture. God is viewed as Santa Clause, giving gifts to ‘good girls and boys.’ Our government is viewed as Santa Clause, bestowing blessings upon good citizens and rewarding upright, profitable behavior with tax breaks and incentives. Even our children view their parents as Santa Clause, expecting those parents to provide the latest gadget and gizmo or pay for college if the children get good grades in school and stay out of trouble. The problem with this perspective is that our culture has shifted to the point that goodness is expected to always bring reward. Goodness is not done for goodness sake but because it will give me something in the end.

The root of this problem does not lie in Santa Clause, although the song about Santa Clause shows that the problem exists there too. “He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good, for goodness sake.” Trouble is, the song does not truly call for listeners to be good for goodness sake but to be good so Santa Clause will give you gifts. Therein is the issue–we expect a return on our investment of goodness!

One might be excused for thinking that this perspective can be found in the Old Testament as well, such as “Honor your Father and Mother…so that you may live long in the land I am giving you.” But we forget that in the Old Testament the curse was “if you don’t, I’ll send you out of Israel as slaves and curse your land.” Imagine if that song about Santa Clause was “be good for goodness sake or I’ll strike you with boils, keep you from having children, kill off your livestock, and make you a foreigners slave.” That doesn’t seem to rhyme either. Scripture actually teaches that the motivation for striving after goodness comes from the Fear of God, the God who curses the wicked and blesses the righteous. Be good, or be judged!

In the New Testament we see an even more amazing paradigm at work. Humans can’t be good enough to please God, so God sent His son to be good for them (2 Cor. 5:21). Those who believe in that Son, Jesus Christ, are declared ‘good’ in God’s sight. They then strive to ‘be good,’ not to earn something, since Christ already earned everything for them, but in an effort to give glory to God for His amazing gift of salvation. The return on investment of ‘being good’ is not that we as the creatures get something but that the creator gets glory and honor for His goodness and love in saving human beings.

So don’t be good for goodness sake, don’t be good to get something in return, be good to honor the one who declared you perfectly good in Christ Jesus.

Sanctification by Faith?

Justification by faith is a doctrine which all evangelicals agree forms the foundation of the Bible’s teaching concerning salvation. The idea that sanctification is by faith is far more controversial. Over the last several years many have debated the issue, including Kevin DeYoung, Sean Lucas, Tullian Tchividjian, and many others. Some have suggested that sanctification is not by faith because it involves effort. Others have argued that sanctification flows from faith in our union with Christ or from faith in our justification. The question then is what is to be done with Biblical imperatives to “work out our salvation.” But is it possible that the debate over the connection between sanctification and faith and imperatives actually flows from a misunderstanding of the connection between justification, faith, and calls to repentance?

Justification by faith most often emphasizes the activity of God, implying the passivity of the believer. While justification is certainly the work of God alone, justification still involves the activity of the person being justified, namely repentance. Throughout all of scripture there is the repeated call to repent and to turn to God in faith for forgiveness and salvation. Were the person being converted completely passive, one would expect these imperatives to be directed towards God and not the individual. Justifying faith does not require a person to be passive but rather assumes the activity of repentance as inextricably linked with faith, even as the two remain distinct but both clearly necessary for salvation. Thus the Westminster Confession states: Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ.” In the doctrine of justification by faith alone, then, there is still the assumed activity of repentance unto salvation, a repentance which involves actively turning from sin, in sorrow for it and rejection of it, to God in faith. Faith which lacks the activity of repentance is not true justifying faith. Thus, the claim that “this sort of language—willing, doing, perform, diligence—has no place in talking about justification” is not entirely Biblical and fails to accurately portray true faith. There may be no ‘diligence’ in justification because justification is a one time declarative irrevocable act, but there is absolutely a ‘willing, doing, performing” of repenting, believing, and turning to God out of faith.

Yet the doctrine of justification truly and appropriately states that the believer does not earn their justification through their faith or repentance as these are actually gifts of God accomplished solely through the work of God’s Holy Spirit regenerating the heart and setting free the person’s will from the bondage of sin according to His own divine purpose. While it is quite accurate to say that it is the believer, not God, who performs the activities of repentance and believing and whose will is actively involved in conversion, the activities of faith and repentance in conversion are directly caused by the actions of God from beginning to end. Without the work of God, there would be no faith or repentance in the person. It is appropriate then to say that God alone is responsible for the presence of faith and repentance in the life of the believer even while it is the person who is effectually called and actively responds by repenting and believing.

Thus, In the Biblical understanding of justification by faith alone there is indeed the activity of repentance which is assumed to be a part of true faith while at the same time flowing from it. Thomas Watson, in his book Doctrine of Repentance, even argues that it is ‘a great duty to repent and turn unto God.’ John Calvin in the Institutes says that in order to be saved we must “make [repentance] our study” or in other translations “our effort.” Faith as the foundation of justification does not negate activity but rather assumes the activity of repentance and turning as part of true conversion. These activities in no way merit or earn the favor of God but are entirely in, from, and by faith, so that justification is truly ‘by faith alone.’

When one turns then to sanctification, there is again the question of the relationship between faith and activity. Some assume that because the effort and activity of the individual is involved sanctification cannot be by faith alone. One author even states “Justification is wholly dependent on faith apart from works of the law. But sanctification–born of faith, dependent on faith, powered by faith–requires moral exertion.” But is this not a false dichotomy in sanctification that is inconsistently applied to justification? Why does effort and personal activity in sanctification mean that it cannot be by faith alone when the effort or duty of repentance and conversion in justification allows the distinction of faith alone to remain? Justification is wholly dependent on faith, in that repentance as an activity does not merit justification but flows from faith.  But there is still the activity, the duty, the effort of repentance and actively turning to God in faith as God works within the individual. Likewise, “moral exertion” while an active part of sanctification, does not merit or even cause sanctification but is an activity, which like repentance, flows from faith in God as God works within the individual. In fact, one might make the argument that just as faith in God assumes repentance, true faith in God’s work of sanctification assumes ‘moral effort.’ Is this not what Paul meant when he said “work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works within you to will and to do His good pleasure.”

The words of the Scottish Confession explain this completely:

So that the cause of Good works we confess to be, not our free will, but the Spirit of the Lord Jesus who, dwelling in our hearts by true faith, brings forth such good works as God hath prepared for us to walk into….And these things they do not by their own power, but the power of the Lord Jesus (without whom they are able to do nothing) worketh in them all that is good (statement 13).

Likewise the Westminster Confession states:

Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. And that they may be enabled thereunto, beside the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will and to do, of His good pleasure: yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them. (16.3)

It is purely the work of God’s Spirit (“the power of the Lord Jesus”/ “wholly from the Spirit of Christ”) that sanctifies believers. Our effort is not that which actually sanctifies us so that we contribute nothing to our sanctification as we contribute nothing to our sanctification. And yet, attributing the work of sanctification to Christ in no way eliminates the call to ‘moral exertion,’ “working out one’s salvation” or “to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them” any more than the monergistic work of God in justification eliminates the call to repentance and conversion. Rather, just as the activities of repentance and conversion are evidence of true faith and the saving work of God, so too the work and effort of mortifying sin is evidence of true faith and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

The same is true of the doctrine of perseverance of the elect. Throughout scripture there is the call to the elect to endure to the end, to persevere (1 Corinthians 10:12, Hebrews 4:1, Revelation 2-3). And yet, we affirm that this preservation is the work of the Spirit. The call, the imperative to persevere in no way negates the reality that preservation is entirely the work of God. In fact, the way to persevere is to continue in faith in God! So too in justification, sanctification, and other parts of the Order of Salvation it is God who performs and accomplishes the work, but this is no way eliminates the imperatives of scripture to repent, to endure, or to be holy. Rather, the truth that these are the work of God actually strengthen the imperatives because the power of the Holy Spirit is assumed to be working in the individual to accomplish these callings.

Therefore, true faith in the sanctifying work of God’s Spirit in the life of a believer is not ‘easy believism” or “let go and let God” anymore than true faith in the justifying work of God leads to antinomianism or true faith in the preserving work of God leads to laxity. Neither is true faith in God’s work of sanctification an ongoing reflection or meditation upon one’s justification. Rather, just as true faith in the work of Jesus Christ involves repentance and active turning from sin to God so too true faith in the sanctifying work of the Spirit of Jesus Christ involves ‘moral effort.’ As A. A. Hodge writes “And any man who thinks that he is a Christian, and that he has accepted Christ for justification when he did not at the same time accept Christ for sanctification, is miserably deluded in that very experience.” (A.A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology (Edinburgh: Banner, 1976), p. 297). And Martyn Lloyd-Jones agrees “We cannot divorce justification and forgiveness from other parts of truth…God does not justify a man and leave him there. Not at all! If God justifies a man, God has brought that man into the process…And unless we are giving evidence of being in the process and of being perfected by it, there is but one conclusion to draw—we have never been in the kingdom at all, we must go back to the very beginning, we must repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. (Darkness and Light: An Exposition of Ephesians 4:17-5:17 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), pp. 350-351, 353).” Sanctification by faith does not negate effort but rather assumes and requires such action!

Those who are lazy in sanctification must be questioned in their lack faith and understanding of the ongoing work of Christ. It is not moral effort which sanctifies but the work of God, while at the same time the absence of moral exertion leads one to question if the Spirit of God is even present in an individual. For as one does not assume true converting faith when repentance is lacking, so too one cannot assume faith in the ongoing progress of sanctification when there is no effort. True faith in the progress of the Spirit in us assumes moral effort. Christians everywhere should be called to exert ‘moral effort’ out of a faith in the work of Christ in their life even as they are called to repent out of faith in the work of Christ on their behalf. Such activity, such imperatives, such calls to holiness and effort do not negate a sanctification by grace through faith anymore that justification by faith. On the contrary, Christians can and should uphold justification and sanctification both by faith alone, eliminating the inconsistency and false dichotomy of faith and action because true faith acts.