Category Archives: Theological Thoughts

A Primer on the Gospel

We cannot exhaust the beauties of the Gospel, but we can provide a bigger picture of the Gospel than what is typically presented in the Church today. The hope is that we would grow ever more grateful for the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What is the Gospel?

First, the Gospel is about Christ. The clearest Bible passage is found in I Corinthians 15 where the Apostle Paul says, “The Gospel, which he preached, is about Christ and his death and resurrection.” In Romans 1, Paul says he declares a Gospel about the Son, who was descended from David. Later in Romans, Paul makes a powerful connection between the Gospel and Christ’s incarnation. The Gospel must be about Christ. Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Christ embodies the Gospel in his life, death, and resurrection. Everything that makes the Gospel beautiful is beautiful because of Christ. So when we think about the Gospel, one fundamental facet of it, perhaps the most central of them all, is that the Gospel is about Christ.

Let’s unpack that a bit more.

The word “Gospel” is not just a word we use in the Christian world. In fact, the word was used in the ancient world for various reasons. For example, the word Gospel was used when Caesar would have a Son, or if he won a great military victory, or a new Caesar ascended the throne – the proclamation of that news was called gospel, and his heralds would announce the gospel in all the empire.

The Christian community adopted this language to proclaim a different message; not a message about Caesar, but a message about Christ. The Gospel is about Christ because Jesus Christ is King. The most basic confession of faith is Jesus is Lord. The Gospel is good news because it announces what God has done in Christ.

Secondly, the Gospel is about History. One pastor put it this way: “The Gospel was planned in eternity, and executed in history.”[1] The passage we read today from I Corinthians 15 says that the Gospel is a historical event. The late Christopher Hitchens was once interviewed by a liberal pastor. The pastor asked him, “Christopher, why do you keep debating these radical Christians? “What do you mean by radical?” the famed atheist inquired. The liberal pastor said, “Well, I mean those Christians who believe the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event. I am a mainline pastor. I don’t believe that Jesus rose literally as the Bible says.” This is where I think Hitchens shined. He told this liberal pastor: “The reason I debate these so-called radicals is because they actually believe in the historical claims of Christianity unlike you.”

If you do not accept that the Gospel is what God has done in history, then you might as well pack your liberal suitcase, close the church doors, and never again refer to yourself as a Gospel minister. Every time you come to Church on Sundays and confess the Nicene Creed you are making historical claims. What does the Creed say? “He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate.” Now, Pilate was not a high-ranking political figure. He was a mid-level bureaucrat. The Creed and the Bible mention him because it’s a way of anchoring the Christian Gospel in history.

Thirdly, the Gospel is about the Church. In our definitions of the Gospel, this is one area where I am convinced many simply overlook or miss altogether, which means they are proclaiming an incomplete Gospel.

You see, the Gospel is never just Jesus and “me,” it’s Jesus and “we.” The Gospel creates a new community.[2] The Gospel gives us a new way of being human. And the way we can be most human is by proclaiming the institutional Church as integral to the Gospel from beginning to end.

Far too many Gospel presentations leave the church out altogether. The Gospel becomes only about “How do I get saved’” So let me phrase this provocatively to make my point. It’s not, “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” but “God has a wonderful plan for his Church.” If you want to be a part of that wonderful plan, then be a part of the Church. The Gospel is most clearly seen within the gates of Zion where we meet together as a people. It is in her that we hear the word and taste of the Gospel in bread and wine.

Therefore, when we talk about the Gospel, we are talking about a lot more than simply how I was saved or where I am going to go when I die, but we are talking about the Person and Work of Christ; we are talking about the historical realities of the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and we are talking about the Church.

What we are trying to communicate as a Church is a powerful Gospel that encompasses so much more. We are teaching a Gospel that transcends the claims of Nero or Pilate. We are proclaiming a Gospel from another world; a Gospel that came down in human flesh, suffered under Pontius Pilate and gave himself for the Church. A Gospel that says less than these things is still the Gospel, but it is a weak Gospel. Most of the problems we have with the Gospel today is that we have found our pet doctrine, and we tell the world, “Unless you believe that the Gospel is only about this, then you are forsaking the Gospel.” But the breadth and depth of the Bible teach us that the Gospel is more than one mere idea. The Gospel is the promise that our Lord and King, Jesus, is calling us to participate in something greater than ourselves. And this is good news! Believe this and rejoice!


[1] Rich Lusk. Sermons at Trinity Presbyterian. I generously took from Rich’s brilliant sermon. You can find his sermons here:
http://trinity-pres.net/

[2] Lusk.



The Spirit in Reformed Life

We can talk about the Father, we can speak of the Son, but the Spirit is often left out of the equation as a mystical presence reserved for special occasions when we are feeling extra emotional. At that point, we say, “Yes, the Spirit is in this place.” One famous scholar observed humorously, “The Catholics have the Father, the Presbyterians have the Son, and the Charismatics have the Spirit, and none are letting go of their God.” Well, thankfully the Triune Godhead is not bound to denominational labels.

We need to liberate the Spirit from self-imposed denominational boundaries. The reason Reformed theology is not regarded as a tradition that is Spirit-filled is that we fear that if we talk about the Spirit, we will suddenly start speaking in tongues or forsake the Christo-centric nature of our theology. But the Reformation never operated under such assumptions.

The Reformed writings of John Calvin would probably shock many Calvinists. Arminian writer, Roger Olsen concluded:

Calvin was no charismatic, but he was closer to it than some Reformed people readily admit.

Calvin was known as the theologian of the Spirit. He spoke clearly of the work of the Spirit in the life of the church, in the means of grace and His indwelling power in each believer. Let me urge you not to allow abuses to dictate how the Spirit operates. Let God be God. Let the Spirit be Spirit. Believe in Him, trust in him, pray in his name, commit your labors to him, depend on him, lean on him, be satisfied in him and let him be your guide to heaven this morning for Christ is only known by the power of the Spirit.

Fatherhood Trinitarian Style

Fatherhood functions best when it is served in Trinitarian style.

Our Father in heaven is the great Maestro, guiding the world with compassion; earthly fathers are called to lead their children with a compassionate spirit; to musicalize the home by tuning their children to the tune of heaven.

But earthly fathers also need the sacrificial life of Jesus. Healthy and honorable fathers sacrifice for their own; they give of themselves when there is little left to give; they cherish a life of faith when no one around them is seeking the welfare of the city. Fatherhood is Christocentric. It gives and gives and gives.

Finally, earthly fathers function best when they are abiding; being present in the life of those around them. Fathers who imitate the Spirit are more concerned about intentional being, than just being. Our presence, men, must daily reflect the presence of the Spirit in our lives who is unchanging. When our children say, “We’re never here,” it’s an indictment on our Un-Trinitarian ways.

Be like the Trinity, Fathers! Orchestrate, sacrifice, and abide.

How to Explain the Death of a Loved One to a Child

Dear friend,

You asked me about how to talk to your child about the death of a loved one. I have given this some thought. Here are a few ways to approach the subject of the death of a loved one with your little children:


First, make this a family affair. Gather the children as soon as possible to explain that a loved one has died. Conversations of such magnitude need to take place in a safe environment. If a child hears about the death from someone else it might lead to confusion and even anger.


Second, death is a horrible human reality. One of the consequences of the Adamic sin is death (Rom 5:12). We will all die, and likely we will see and witness many friends and family members die before we do. It is helpful to explain that death is an ugly thing and that as Christians we hate death. Taking our little ones to that familiar story of death in the Garden is a healthy way to contextualize the news to them. Death is first and foremost a theological issue, even if explained in the language of a three or four year old.


Third, do not be afraid to use the word death. If you say that such a person has “passed away” or “gone to sleep forever” this may cause confusion or fear in the child. A child might go to sleep at night fearful that he will never wake up. Clarity is fundamental. Tell the child that death means we will never see grandpa or grandma again in this life.


Fourth, do not be afraid to weep with them. Sometimes children do not understand mom or dad’s feelings after the death of someone. Feel free to explain your feelings to your children. “I am crying because grandma died. I am going to miss her.” If they begin to cry, join them in their tears and comfort them.


Fifth, when children discover that a loved one has died, they may assume that you will die also. They may ask questions like: “Are you going to die too, mommy?” At this point, it is important to let the child know that most people die when they are really old or very sick. And then let them know–if it is the case–that mommy or daddy are not sick and are still full of youth. If someone close died of a very young age, let them know that it is not very common, and then point out the young people around him that are alive.


Finally–and I am aware that much more could be said–inevitably, little children will ask questions about what will happen to grandpa or grandma, or mom and dad after they die. As Christians, we need to stress that Jesus overcame death at the cross and resurrection. He died and was raised so that we might live forever. This is a wonderful time to remind them of the promises of Jesus. “Grandma is now in heaven with Jesus. She is at peace. One day when we die we will join her in heaven. Jesus says that when we go to heaven we will never die again; we will live forever.”


Our children do not need a fairy-tale narrative about death. They need a compassionate, biblical approach that is sensitive to their thinking as little ones and faithful to the narrative of the Bible.
There is a lot to navigate here, but I think this question is an important one.


Sincerely,

Pastor Brito

God in Three Persons

Sometimes it is easy to go back to our early days in the Christian faith. Back then everything was so simple. We believed in Jesus, everyone believed in Jesus, and life was simple. Of course, we then grow up and we learn more about the Scriptures, and we discover that Jesus is one with the Father, that He sends the Spirit, and then we hear the language of the Trinity. It’s in our confessions, our creeds, and in every Systematic theology. And then we learn that if we do not embrace the Trinity, we are not true Christians. But why can’t we just believe in Jesus, after all, He is the answer to every question we can’t answer?

It’s good to grow up; it’s hard to grow, but it is ultimately our goal. And part of growing up means we become more mature in the language of the Bible. We come to know that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. The Jews and the Muslims criticize the doctrine of the Trinity by saying that any doctrine that cannot be reconciled logically is not true. How can there be Three Persons and One God? Thomas Jefferson expressed the frustrations of many when he said that the doctrine of the Trinity should be abandoned altogether:

“When we shall have done away with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one and one is three…when in short, we shall have unlearned everything, which has been taught since His day, and get back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples.”[1]

Thomas Jefferson, of course, is part right and part wrong. “He was correct in the sense that Christians needs to focus on Jesus more,” but he was sadly mistaken that this would bring us back to simple doctrines and away from the Trinity. The reality is that at the precise moment we begin to focus on Jesus we are led directly to the doctrine of the Trinity. It was precisely through Jesus that the disciples knew the Trinity; it was precisely through Jesus that they learned that all authority has been given to Him! By Whom? The Father. Through Jesus they learned that the paraclete, the Spirit, would be sent after His ascension, and through Jesus they learned that the baptism of the nations, young and old, must be done not only in Jesus’ name, but into the Name, notice, not NAMES, but into the NAME=One God, Father, the Son, and the Spirit= Three Persons. God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.


[1] Quoted in Darrel Johnson’s Experiencing the Trinity, pg. 12-13

A Letter to a Friend who is Warned about the Danger of Children

Dear Friend,

People keep warning you about children. You are not even expecting but they, “the mature ones,” already are throwing out their apocalyptic warnings about the “terrible twos” and “terrible teens.” “You have no idea what’s waiting for you!” they warn us, like prophets in the streets of Jerusalem. “Doom!” “Doom!” Here is my humble advice: Smile, and move on!

There will be sleepless nights, difficult conversations, and sometimes C H A O S all around. The volume level will be between a 4 and a 9 in the Richter Scale. But you want to know the reality? The reality is that for every sleepless night, you will get a hundred smiles; for every difficult conversation, you will hear 100 beautiful ones; for every chaos, there are 100 peaceful moments; for every high volume request, there will be 100 sweet snuggles.

I have often said that those who are anxious bring people into their anxieties. People who warn you of such things may be well-intentioned in their warnings, but they are setting a horrible precedent for future parents. They’re “terrible teachers.” They are not instructing accurately, nor giving you a full picture.

Parenting is such a joy and every phase provides new challenges undoubtedly, but overwhelming joy. You should look forward to the birth/adoption of your first child. There is nothing apocalyptic about child-rearing; but rather, there are millions of awe moments. I can’t wait for you to see, experience, and enjoy these little gifts.

Sincerely,
Pastor Brito

Letter to Someone Concerned about Empty Ritualism

Dear friend,

In light of my recent C.S. Lewis quote I posted, you asked how we can “dance” while avoiding “going through the motions.” The question stems from the fact that in a liturgical environment, words, phrases, and paragraphs carry enormous meaning. The fear is that this repetitive feast turns into a requiem for the dead; what some would call “empty ritualism.”

I understand your fear which is why the things we do in the church needs to be done in a highly intentional fashion. What I mean is that we need to shout our worship (Ps. 100:1) rather than whisper it. The liturgy of the Psalter, for example, was always exuberant. God speaks in a still small voice, but we are called to shout unto the Lord. We must sing vigorously, recite faithfully, and hear with great attention. When we mumble our way through the liturgy, we are saying that the “dance” is uninteresting, lacking intrigue, and a necessary check mark on a list of tedious weekly activities. But you don’t just come to church, you have the privilege of coming to church. Therefore, know the liturgy and because of that knowledge, do the act of worship with knowledge and insight and strength.

Yours truly,
Pastor Brito

Paul and Self-Control?

In a piece by Matthew Boulton in The Journal for Preachers, Boulton argues that the translation “self-control” requires a new orientation in Paul’s fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). He notes that egkrateia is poorly translated “self-control.” The idea of self-control entails ” a mode of ongoing human achievement.” Rather, the word is formed from two Greek words: eg which is “in” or “in the realm of” and kratos which is, “strength or dominion.”

Boulton notes that something like “inner strength” or “inner dominion” fits better with Paul’s list. Further, it also serves as a culminating point in Paul’s list of virtues. He argues that the idea is that Christians are called to be “in the realm of strength dominion.” Such gifts can only come from a pneumatological anthropology and thus, concludes rightly Paul’s list. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness only make sense when they are expressed in the realm of the Spirit’s strength.