Jesus Loves Me This I Know

When you envision the type of Christian you hope to be like one day, what do you see? Perhaps you see a former pastor, missionary, or Sunday School teacher. Perhaps you envision your grandparent, mother, or father. Another question worth considering is how do you hope to become that Christian? What is keeping you from becoming the type of Christian God wants you to be?

I have been fortunate enough to be blessed with many godly mentors growing up. I had no shortage of examples of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Knowing what a godly, mature Christian looks like has never been a problem for me. Knowing how to become one is an entirely different matter.

In my mind, the biggest enemy that prevented me from fulfilling my spiritual potential had always been my lack of spiritual discipline. I believed my lack of discipline was the source of all my spiritual woes. “If only I could spend more time in the Word, if only I could spend more time in prayer, then I can become that person God wants me to be.”

However, I have recently come to realize that the ultimate source of my spiritual struggles is not found in my doing (or lack thereof) as much as it is in my believing. My lack of discipline is merely a symptom of a greater problem—the problem of unbelief. Whenever my will is immobilized it is because my heart is not sufficiently believing, trusting, or resting in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To the degree that I am believing in the Gospel, my heart, hands, and feet will be moved to joyfully serve, obey, and follow after my Lord. In other words, what separates mature Christians from immature ones is the ability to sincerely sing, “Jesus loves me this I know.”

We talked about this Gospel growth principle on Sunday (click here for “Promiscuous Love” sermon) as we looked into Jesus’ encounter with the prostitute who washed his feet with her tears and hair. In Luke 7:47, Jesus lays out the foundation for Christian obedience. To summarize, he says, “Little forgiveness translates into little love. Big forgiveness translates into big love.” The prostitute loved much because she was forgiven much. That is, she was able to love Jesus scandalously and extravagantly because she could say with all of her heart, mind, and soul, “Jesus loves me this I know.” This Gospel saturated every inch of her being, leaving her no doubt that her holy God cherished her deeply, immensely, and perfectly. Such a rapturous thought compelled her to love Jesus without measure and shame. The forgiven prostitute is a perfect example of how greater Gospel comprehension produces God-exalting, cross-carrying disciples.

As an aside, I am in no way down-playing the importance of spiritual disciplines for the Christian life. After all, how can we grow in our Gospel comprehension unless we are regularly and frequently studying, imbibing, and meditating on the Word where this Gospel is found? However, let us be wary of using the means of grace as a way to merit grace. When you use the means of grace to merit grace, than you’ve completely missed the point! Instead, may our gracious God reveal unto us the enormity of our sin and the even greater wonder of his grace each time we encounter him in his Word. May that revelation then enflame our hearts to love Jesus like this forgiven prostitute, to love him in a way that defies expectation and goes beyond the bare minimum.


Linsanity and the Gospel

For the past week and a half, I along with the rest of the nation, have been mesmerized by the unexpected rise of Jeremy Lin. I knew I had drunk the Kool-Aid of Linsanity when I found myself rooting for the Knicks and against my beloved Lakers. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier with a Laker loss in my life.

In any case, I came across a quote in an article posted by the San Jose Mercury News that got me thinking. Reflecting on his toils and struggles during his stint with the Golden State Warriors, Jeremy shares:

“That affected my game last year and my joy last year. With all the media attention, all the love from the fans (in the Bay Area), I felt I needed to prove myself. Prove that I’m not a marketing tool, I’m not a ploy to improve attendance. Prove I can play in this league. But I’ve surrendered that to God. I’m not in a battle with what everybody else thinks anymore.”

He goes on to say, “I was on pins and needles. I was putting all this unnecessary pressure on myself. Now, I feel like I’m free out there.”

His reflection reminds me of one of the great struggles of the Christian life, the struggle between resting in Christ’s righteousness and working for our own righteousness. One of the great blessings of the Gospel is that we no longer have to work towards our own righteousness because Christ’s perfect and complete righteousness becomes ours by faith. His righteousness now speaks for us. His righteousness becomes our résumé. When God looks at us, He sees us in Christ. That is certainly good news!

Our sinful flesh, however, resists such an invitation. We don’t want to boast in Christ alone. We want to boast in Christ plus our own works. We want to make a name for ourselves. We want the spotlight to shine on us. Our flesh wants to prove to the world that we are worthy of praise and adulation apart from Christ.

This was Jeremy’s struggle. Instead of resting in Christ’s righteousness, he pursued basketball righteousness. He wanted to create his own righteousness through his performance on the court. He wanted to prove to himself and to the world that he belonged as a professional player. Basketball became the prism through which he evaluated, identified, and esteemed himself. As a result if he failed on the court, then he saw himself a failure. If he disappointed on the court, then he saw himself a disappointment. No wonder he was on “pins and needles” whenever he played. The pressure of basketball righteousness suffocated him.

I too can relate. No, I’m not pursuing basketball righteousness by any means. I am only 5’ 6” and have the vertical of a tortoise. I struggle with church-planting righteousness. Instead of resting in the Gospel, I find myself wanting to make a name for myself through my church plant. I want to prove to others that I can make it as a church planter. Instead of letting Christ alone speak for me, I want others to know me and esteem me for my ministry.

However, such a pursuit inevitably undermines my ability to shepherd God’s people. Fear, not faith, will characterize my decisions. If ministry becomes my righteousness, then I will be deathly afraid to fail. I will be afraid of criticism. I will be afraid to take risks. It chokes out my ability to lead.

On the other hand, if Jesus alone is my righteousness, then I will be free to fail. I will be bold in my decisions. I will be courageous in my shepherding. I will humbly learn from criticism. Instead of shepherding from behind with eyes measuring people’s approval, I will lead from the front with eyes fixed on God’s glory. This freedom is what Jeremy experienced on the court. This is what I hope to experience in my ministry.

How about you? Apart from Christ, what type of righteousness are you currently pursuing? Other than your identity as a child of God, what do you want to be known for? What do you want to prove to yourself and others that you can do well? Career righteousness? Parenting righteousness? May we see the foolishness of every form of works righteousness and experience the true joy and freedom of resting in Christ alone.

Building Bridges

This coming Sunday, January 29th, marks our church’s Public Opening Service. After several months of   worshipping on our own, we are finally going “live” and opening our doors to our non-believing friends. In many ways this Sunday marks the culmination of all our labors and prayers up until this point. Our ultimate goal from day one was to be a church for the unchurched (estimated anywhere between 175,000-200,000 people in Irvine).

How are we going to accomplish this? We liken evangelism to that of building a bridge. Bridges aren’t erected over-night. Rather, they require sustained effort, energy, and time. As a result, we see evangelism as a long term relationship more than an event. To quote John Maxwell, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Before someone will listen to the Gospel, you must first earn a right to speak. They say that a typical conversion today takes about two years of bridge-building before a profession of faith is made. That’s a lot of meals and conversations.

Such an approach, however, has not been easy for me. No, not because of what I discovered about my non-believing friends, but because of what I discovered about me. I have met people who are far kinder, nicer, and more loving than me. I think of my former neighbor (who has since moved) who was genuinely one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. He was the neighbor everyone wished they had. He trimmed my palm trees, fixed my sprinklers, grilled me steak, and played with our kids. I sure do miss him! I think of my Peruvian friend who throughout high-school flew up to the United States to work odd jobs every summer vacation so that he can financially support his family back home. While I spent my high school summers hanging out with friends, spending my parent’s money, he was working hard in a foreign country, providing his parents with money. I think of my agnostic friend who spends hours every week volunteering at animal shelters and homeless shelters all in the name of good will. What do I do with my free time? I tend to spend it on me. I quickly realized that my non-believing friends love their neighbors, their families, and their city far more than me. Such realizations have caused me to question myself and what I hope to accomplish. Who am I and what do I have to offer?

In the midst of my doubts, the Lord gently reminds me of the goal of evangelism. The goal of bridge-building is to lead others to Jesus, not me. If the bridge leads to me, then there’s no hope and there’s no point. They’re better off without me. Praise God, however, that the goal of evangelism is to lead people to Christ. What will save my friends is not my life, my obedience, and my faithfulness, but His life, His obedience, and His faithfulness. Praise God that the Gospel I have been sent to proclaim is not the Gospel of Jeff Suhr, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ alone has the beauty and the power to captivate sinners and raise them from the dead.

Having this Gospel-centered perspective liberates and frees me to be bold and steadfast in my evangelism and preaching. It frees me from paralyzing self-absorption because I know that the power of salvation is not found in the messenger but the message. Despite all my failings and weaknesses, I will continue to stand behind the pulpit every Sunday. I will continue to build bridges with my non-believing friends because I am convinced that the power of God to save is found in Jesus. That is what I hope our guests will see this Sunday. That is my prayer every Sunday, that all those who come will witness nothing but Christ and Him crucified.

Our Greatest Passion

Prior to launching New Life Irvine, my family and I visited many, many churches between March and September of 2011. This was a rare treat for us especially since we did not have the opportunity to visit other churches after nine years of serving at our own church! My poor wife had to basically endure my preaching all these years. Talk about perseverance of the saints!

In any case, we intentionally visited churches that represented the full gamut of the evangelical landscape. We visited mega-churches, mid-sized churches, and mini-churches. We visited traditional, not-so-traditional, conservative, and liberal churches. We visited one church that met in a conference room and another church whose children’s ministry had an aquarium the size of that conference room. For the most part, we were blessed by our visits and sometimes even puzzled. I’ll never forget the life-sized Optimus Prime and Bumble Bee that walked on stage in order to promote their children’s ministry. Suffice it to say, we got a chance to taste a little bit of everything here in Orange County.

Helen and I would often assess what we saw, mainly focusing on the positives. Certain churches had an amazing children’s ministry. Others had an awesome music ministry. Some impressed us with their warm and friendly reception, while others inspired us with their commitment to social justice. Each church had its unique strengths and emphases.

This caused me to ask, “What kind of church do I want New Life Irvine to be known for? What kind of reputation do I want us to have?” Then I remembered what one of my heroes, D. A. Carson, once shared at a conference:

If I have learned anything in 35 or 40 years of teaching, it is that students don’t learn everything I teach them. What they learn is what I am excited about, the kinds of things I emphasize again and again and again and again.

He reminds us that what people tend to walk away with is what you are most excited, enthusiastic, and passionate about. That is, how you teach makes more of an impression than what you teach. Over the course of many years, I will be addressing a wide range of different topics and subjects. But what people will remember, what will stay with them, is what I am most passionate about.

As a church, God has tasked us with many responsibilities. We hope to have soul-stirring, God-exalting times of praise. We hope to have a thriving children’s ministry (New Life Sprouts). We hope to experience genuine, authentic community as a family of God. We hope to constantly look for ways to build bridges with the non-believing community. We hope to serve and show compassion to the needy and the under-privileged. These are all biblical mandates we hope to pursue with excellence.

But it is my prayer that we will not be known for any of these things. It is my prayer that we will not be known for our great praise, preaching, children’s program, or missions program. Rather, it is my prayer that our church will be known for one thing and one thing only: our passion and love for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I want New Life to be known for its grasp and consequent joy of the Gospel. That would be the highest compliment.

If the Gospel is our greatest joy and passion, then everything else will follow. The more we grasp the Gospel, the louder our singing will be. The more we grasp the Gospel, the more authentic and genuine our fellowship will be. The more we grasp the Gospel, the greater our compassion for the lost will be. If we keep first things first, if we root ourselves in the rich soil of the Gospel, then the fruits of our church will naturally grow.

The Gospel vs. Religion

I can’t think of a better way to start off this blog than by answering the all-important question: “What is the Gospel?” After all, if you look at our vision statement, the Gospel is foundational to our church’s existence. It is what defines us, transforms us, and empowers us. Or to put it negatively, without the Gospel, we have no identity, no power, and no purpose. No Gospel, no New Life Irvine. The Gospel is everything.

Given the Gospel’s importance and place, we should first understand it. The Gospel simply translated means, “Good news.” 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 tells us that the Gospel is the news that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”

Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones once noted that good news is not the same as good advice. Advice is a call to action. It tells you something to do. News, however, tells you what’s already been done. You receive news. You hear news. You believe news. You don’t do news.

Understanding this distinction is pivotal to understanding the Gospel. This distinction is what separates Christianity from all other religions. When you boil every religion down to its core, what you find is the application of moral instruction and advice. What you find are rules, laws, steps, and guidelines on how you can find God, experience enlightenment, reach Nirvana, find self-fulfillment, or go to heaven. In the end, it’s about your living, your efforts, and your ability to adhere to their advice. The Gospel, however, is not religion.

Religion says you must prove your love for God. The Gospel describes how God has proven His love for you.

Religion measures how much you are willing to suffer for God. The Gospel proclaims how much Christ willingly suffered for you.

Religion tells you how to save yourself. The Gospel tells you what Christ has done to save you.

Religion says, “If you obey, God will love you.” The Gospel says, “Since God loves you, go obey.”

Religion focuses on what you can do for God. The Gospel focuses on what God has already done for you.

Religion sees two kinds of people in the world: the religious and the irreligious, the moral and the immoral. The Gospel also sees two kinds of people: those who rely on themselves for their salvation and those who rely on Christ.

Religion approaches God out of greed or fear. You follow to get something from God or to avoid something from Him. The Gospel approaches God out of great joy and gratitude. We follow because He Himself is our reward already given to us through Christ.

The more you understand the Gospel, the more you will appreciate our church. The more you love the Gospel, the more you will enjoy our church. The Gospel is everything to us.

–Jeff Suhr