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Archives for 158 – What is the Gospel

Did your mom, perhaps your dad, sing to you as a child? You know, the songs while being rocked to sleep at night or while you were going down the road in the LTD station wagon? They are songs that never cease playing in our hearts and our minds.

Luke tells us that Mary sang songs much like her biblical namesake the Prophet of God (it is a horrific tragedy of the English Bible that many disciples do not know Mary the mother of Jesus is named after one the three deliverers of Israel, Miriam). I am certain that Mary did not sing this song merely once. Nor is this the only song Mary sang to not only Jesus but all her sons and daughters. Mary’s song is representative of what Jesus and his sisters and brothers heard from the lips of Miriam.

Mary was born, and bred, as a faith filled Jew. She was nourished on the vibrant heartbeat of the Hebrew Bible. She poured her hopes, and dreams, into the names of her children because the song was already in her heart. As any student of the Bible knows, names were not randomly picked out of a baby name book. Names were chosen to express something. I know my own daughters names were prayed over before chosen. Rachael is God’s lamb full of joy and love, while her sister Talya is the Lord’s rain/dew that blesses and nourishes the earth with grace. These names were chosen on purpose. Have you noticed what Miriam (named for a prophet) and Joseph (named for the savior of world and father of two tribes in Genesis) named their kids. Notice this “pattern” in Mark 6.3:

– Jesus = Joshua the salvation of the Lord

– James = another tragedy of the English Bible, is Jacob who is quite literally “Israel” himself (God changed his name and the word “Jacob” frequently is a stand in for “Israel” in the Hebrew Bible) and is the patriarch of the Twelve Tribes

– Joseph = named for dad and shares in the meaning

– Judas = named after Judas the Maccabee, the hammer of God, who delivered Israel from the Seleucid Empire

– Simon = was the brother of Judas the Maccabee who continued to lead the Maccabean Revolt

Notice anything about these names of Jesus’s brothers as the Gospels record them? They say something about Mary and Joseph. Their hope for Israel has not vanished in the slightest.

That hope is expressed in her song. Scholars have noted that “Miriam’s” song is Hebraic, it is so “Old Testament,” it is just so Israelite. And it is. Mary taught her sons and daughters to dream of the salvation of Israel. Or as New Testament scholar Richard Horseley called her songs, “revolutionary songs of salvation.”

This song by Mary set the agenda for Jesus’s life and ministry in the Gospel of Luke and the pattern of the church in the book of Acts. There is a Miriam at the creation of the old Israel, and there is a Miriam at the beginning of the reNEWed Israel … the prophet who gave birth to the Lord’s Salvation.

What did that song sound like. What song flowed through Jesus’s mind as he mingled with the lepers, the prostitutes, the poor, the traitors (tax collectors) … Jesus has the Hebrew Bible in his soul via his Mother.

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior … he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant Israel in remembrance
of his mercy according the promise he made to our ancestors  …

The most obvious Hebraic root here is Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2.1-10, but the thought is ubiquitous in the Hebrew Bible. But Miriam/Mary identifies herself among the lowly, the down and out powerless people of this age.  This taps into the fundamental identity of Israel as being the lowliest of nations. So lowly was Israel that the state sponsored terrorism against their baby boys. Thus Deuteronomy and Ezekiel stress that God “loved” Israel because no one else would (Dt 7.7-8; Ezk 16.1-7, in Ezekiel, Israel is an unwanted and exposed infant girl, not boy, whom the Lord saves). Jesus never forgot the songs of his mother and was always proudly among the unwanted of the world.

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty

It is impossible not to hear the Psalms pulsating through Mary’s song. And perhaps this is why that holy books was so treasured by her son. Texts like Psalms 18.27; 89.10 and a dozen more come to mind. 

For you deliver a humble people,
but the haughty eyes you bring down
.” (Ps 18.27)

you scattered you enemies with
your mighty arm.
” (89.10)

But what is it that God has done? What is it that Mary poured into Jesus, James, and Jude’s heart (the last two have epistles in the NT)? In other words what did salvation look like?

First, salvation meant the powerful are brought low and the low are lifted high (v.52). A great reversal is what salvation brings. This perspective permeates Jesus’s teaching in the Gospel of Luke. There was a Rich Man who saw Lazarus, the lowliest of the lowly. We know what happened. Mary was pouring Jubilee theology into Jesus in her songs.

Second, salvation meant the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty (v.53). This is also Jubilee. This is also Exodus. This is also reversal. This is not pie in the sky escapism as in Gnosticism. Salvation is not from God’s creation rather salvation is experience within God’s creation. Salvation meets the hurting and out of wack world exactly where it needs, in the flesh and blood of reality. So Jesus tells all kinds of stories of a Jubilee banquet (Lk 14.15-24) in which the poor, the lame, the blind are brought to feast at the table they would routinely be excluded from. Salvation impacts and revolutionizes the world in which we live. 

Third, salvation is an act of mercy and faithfulness to the promise to the ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Israel (v.54-55). Why did Mary name her sons Jesus/Joshua, Jacob and Joseph? These sons all represent the HOPE of the Promise “to his servant, Israel.”

To put this in terms we normally use, Mary’s says that salvation comes because of the Old Testament, salvation comes on Old Testament terms and not contrary to it or in spite of it. Jesus did not forget this. Lazarus is “carried away to be with Abraham” (Lk 16.22). And Abraham tells the rich man if he wants to know salvation then he needs to listen to Moses and the prophets (16.29-31).

Miriam’s song reverberates throughout Jesus’s ministry and the life of the church as Luke tells the story. Mary’s song became treasure buried in the heart of Jesus, James and Jude and defined the content of their mission and ministry (James is clearly an advocate of the lowly in his short letter).

It is not a stretch to say that Jesus’s ministry would not be what it was had it not been for his Mother singing the songs of Israel to him. Today, the church needs to hear her song afresh. Mary’s song reminds us that the Gospel is not a message of what happens merely after we die. The Gospel is a message that says death itself will no longer rule the world God created, even for the least of these.

Mary’s song reminds us that the mission of God was the mission of Jesus and ought to be the mission of the church. We bring good news to the lowly, a message that changes the world. And finally Mary’s song reminds us that it is simply impossible to have either Jesus or the “New Testament Church” without being “Israel” and part of the family of Abraham, Isaac and … Israel (Jacob).

Mary’s Christmas song is one we need to remember all year long. 


With more and more churches utilizing the Siburt Institute’s Church Health Assessment (CHA), our researchers have been able to identify emerging trends in a statistically reliable way. Now that 18 congregations have used the CHA to learn more about members’ perceptions and attitudes, what are the top two strengths and the top two areas of struggle common among these churches? We invite you to find out from this excerpt of a Mosaic article by ACU’s Dr. Suzie Macaluso (pictured), one of the experts who developed the CHA.


What the Church Health Assessment Is Teaching Us

There has long been a need for a tool that Churches of Christ could use to assess the health of their congregations. Numerous survey instruments exist, but they lack the ability to address issues that are specific to Churches of Christ. Working with Dr. Carley Dodd (’70), we constructed the Church Health Assessment (CHA) to fill this need.

What has the CHA told us about churches? To date the CHA has been used in 18 congregations ranging in size from 70 members to nearly 1,000. The survey has been used in congregations in Texas, Oklahoma, Canada and California. The congregations using the CHA have been predominantly white, with more older members, and few members who were new to the congregation.

The major areas of struggle for churches surveyed have been family life stages and congregational culture and values. Participants are asked about ministries and programs targeting various stages of life, including children, teens, young adults and intergenerational ministry. They are asked about overall attitudes toward these groups, along with their perceptions of how well the church is meeting their needs. Within this factor, we see that many congregations lack sufficient parenting programs, and that singles and young adults/professionals do not feel as if they belong or are included in the congregation. We also see that the congregation understands the importance of children and youth, but that the youth group is rarely thriving and the children’s ministry also is an area of weakness. Many of the congregations surveyed also showed a lack of sufficient multigenerational activities.

Participants also are asked about the morale of the congregation, whether frustrations are present, how easy it is to recruit and maintain volunteers, membership growth and decline, and tension felt in the congregation. Many CHA respondents report that their congregations are not very open to change and that any changes that are made have led to some people leaving. Churches find it difficult to recruit and keep volunteers, and their morale is low. Most of the churches that have completed the CHA have seen substantial decline in the past five years with few new members added. However, those who are still there are very loyal and committed to one another, and to the church and its mission.

It’s not all bad news for congregations though! Several areas of flourishing are evident in these 18 congregations. In particular, churches seem to be doing well in spiritual formation and discipleship and church relationships.

Click here to read more on Mosaic.

Dr. Suzie Macaluso


Ministry in Times of Illness and Loss workshop comes to Arlington in February

Church leaders are invited to a special one-day workshop in Arlington, Texas, on Feb. 23. The workshop, titled “Ministry in Times of Illness and Loss,” is co-sponsored by the Siburt Institute and Lifeline Chaplaincy. Topics include:

  • Being a Caring Presence in Difficult Situations
  • Making Effective Hospital Visits
  • Helping Those With Chronic Illness
  • Sojourning With Those in Grief
  • Supporting Families Dealing With Dementia and Alzheimer’s
  • Learning to Listen Pastorally to Families in Crisis
  • Care for the Caregivers (Including Church Leaders)

Registration information will be available soon through the Siburt Institute website. Also, read more from Dr. Virgil Fry (’74), executive director of Lifeline Chaplaincy, in a recent Mosaic blog post.

Make your voice heard on the 2019 Ministers’ Salary Survey

The Siburt Institute will launch the 2019 Ministers’ Salary Survey email campaign in late January. Dr. Carley Dodd (’70), Siburt Institute research director and ACU communications professor emeritus, will lead the process again for the upcoming year. The survey gathers information about current levels of compensation for ministers in Churches of Christ throughout the U.S. For this survey, “minister” includes any person paid by a congregation for ministerial work, including but not limited to such roles as preaching, youth, children and executive. We will publish results on our website by May 1. If you would like to participate in the 2019 survey, please complete this brief online form to ensure that you receive the invitation to participate.

“Why Preaching Matters!” with Rick Atchley video now available

Earlier this year, Rick Atchley (’78), senior teaching minister at The Hills Church in North Richland Hills (Texas), delivered a powerful message on “Why Preaching Matters!” At a sold out Siburt Institute Lunch and Learn event, Atchley spoke on why he believes preaching remains at the core of the Christian experience and shared his passion for the verbal witness of the kingship and lordship of Christ. Widely known for his ministry to ministers and for pouring himself into developing preachers for the next generation, Atchley has been in ministry for nearly 40 years. A video of Atchley’s presentation has been posted to the Siburt Institute YouTube Channel. Enjoy!



  • “Kindness is a condition of life, an attitude of the mind, and a disposition of our affections. It costs no money, but that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. Kindness can be expressed in every interaction. Our kindness toward others initiates inexhaustible ripples of grace and healing that only God in heaven can track.” – Don McLaughlin, Love First: Ending Hate Before It’s Too Late
  • “Our failures and our scars in faith are part of maturity. It is absolutely useless to wish for the faith of yesterday. Daring faith is real today, scars and all. … Scars become the stuff of our faith today and tomorrow.” – Randy Harris and Greg Taylor, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John

Penal substitutionary atonement seems to be dying a rather rapid death in theology circles. This is the idea that Jesus died in my place, often to satisfy the wrath of God. One of the most popular Christian songs of the last decade had a line in it that reflected this idea, “While on the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” This idea is in our hymnody but is it in our Bibles?

First we have the idea that Christ died FOR us:

  • Isa 53:5 – “But he was pierced for our transgressions,
        he was crushed for our iniquities;
    the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
        and by his wounds we are healed.
  • Mark 10:45 – “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
  • Romans 5:6 – “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”
  • Romans 5:8 – “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”
  • Romans 14:15 – “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.”
  • 1 Cor 8:11 – “So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.”
  • 1 Cor 15:3 – “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,”
  • 2 Cor 5:14 – “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.”
  • 2 Cor 5:21 – “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
  • Gal 3:13-14 – “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
  • 1 Thess 5:10 – “He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”
  • Heb 2:9 – “But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.”
  • 1 Peter 2:24 – “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”
  • 1 Peter 3:18 – “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;”

Whatever we believe it is clear that Jesus died for us. He became a curse for us. Christ died for our sins. In some sense it also seems clear that the punishment that he endured was one that was in some way intended for or maybe better stated a result of our sin. You will notice in the Galatians 3 verses that Paul connects what happened to Jesus to what was promised to Abraham to bless the nations.

I believe what we are experiencing in theological circles is a needed and biblical expanding of the gospel message because the gospel message included more than we typical attribute to it. But we also need to be careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater, that in discovering a new angle on the matter that we miss the accurate parts of the old view. There is a very real sense in scripture that Jesus died for us and even in our place. The big question is whether or not there was some sort of divine mandate that God killed Jesus to keep from killing us? That is often how we interpret the for part. When we say Jesus died for me we mean in my place, which in a sense means so God wouldn’t have to kill me. This is the penal part of penal substitutionary atonement. I believe the substitutionary part is biblical even if it isn’t the whole of the gospel. I believe the penal part is a bit more sketchy.

So what does the for mean from a penal/judicial standpoint? I believe it is covenantal going back to Genesis 15:8-20,

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi[e] of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

God goes between the pieces and it does have a judicial component – that there is a penalty for violating the covenant and God commits himself to bear the penalty because both parties don’t pass through the pieces, only God does. This is a foreshadowing of Christ on the cross where God passed through the pieces as if saying “let it be to me what has happened to these animals if the covenant is broken.” The cross is the carrying out of that punishment/consequence. The issue is we broke it, not him and yet we never walked through the pieces taking the responsibility for punishment as a result of the sin that is a breaking of the covenant.

There is a heavy substitutionary component in what Jesus did on the cross but dating all the way back to Abraham it wasn’t about God killing his own son because he is angry about sin and would otherwise have to kill us. It is about God maintaining the covenant (judicial/penal) through his own faithfulness to us and the covenant he has made with us. God didn’t grudging go between the pieces of the animals. He gracefully went between them. This is a divine substitution but it never had anything to do with satiating God’s wrath. It had everything to do with maintaining the covenant, that all the nations of the world would be blessed through the seed of Abraham, that is Christ.

So penal substitutionary atonement is not completely wrong, although in its typical format misses much of the point. It just needs to be properly understood in terms of the function of the penal/judicial side of it works and why the substitution takes place. This points us to a healthier view of God rather than the angry old codger who is waiting to smite us but picked his own kid instead to beat in our place.

From Dallas Willard to N.T. Wright to Scot McKnight the voices are piling up that our view of the Gospel has been too narrow. It isn’t some new fad dismissed by claims of cultural accommodations. Their arguments are deeply rooted in scriptures that have been hiding in plain sight. They are voices of those who have a respect for the authority of the scriptures to draw us back to biblical definitions of core biblical ideas and doctrines. Yes, our view of the Gospel became too narrow when we focused almost exclusively on getting our sins forgiven rather than the bigger picture of God making all things new and restoring all things (which certainly includes forgiving sins).

Why did we make this move? How did we go from a holistic view of the Gospel as presented in the New Testament itself to a gospel scaled down to what Dallas Willard called the “Gospel of sin management”?

When the Gospel started out with the poor and oppressed they understood that the Good news was about their needs as whole people. As Christianity has gotten more affluent and influential in society we believed we could take care of those other things ourselves. Does your body need healing? That is what the doctors and insurance are for. Even if you can’t pay your bills, it is no longer the church that stands in the gap, rather it is the government. We don’t even functionally believe in evil spirits any more so no need for exorcisms. We can get out of season fruit at the grocery store by shipping it from the Southern hemisphere…okay, now I am going a bit overboard but I hope you get my point. As we continue to learn ways to meet our own needs we end up like the people who are so hard to shop for at Christmas because they seem to have everything already…except one thing. There is one little thing left over that no matter how much money you have, no matter who you know or how what your dental deductible is you cannot atone for your own sins. It is the leftover item we cannot account for our insure our way to security on.

This is the item we were left with having to go to and through Jesus for so this is what Gospel becomes. This, I believe, is how we have functionally and then doctrinally ratcheted the gospel down to one item covering one aspect of our personhood rather than a big, broad, bold message of the kingdom and restoration.

What happens when we broaden our view of the Gospel out to what the scriptures themselves show us the Gospel is? We begin embracing a more biblical and robust mission. We begin relying on God for more and self for less. We change the way we see ourselves and our resources. We become bearers and givers of good news to those we can help whether it is helping them with a doctor’s bill, some food, or the message of Jesus…these things can and should all coalesce into a bigger picture in our minds of what the Gospel is and how we embrace and embody it today.

Christianity flourishes on the margins and dwindles from the center. It has always been this way. Jesus was born in a back water town in a back water region of a back water country. He was a nobody from a worldly point of view. He was crucified as a criminal. Some have even pointed out that his title Christos sounded a lot like Chrestus meaning “useful” which was a common slave name. In the Greco-Roman perspective it was odd that these Jesus followers followed a man who may have been a slave (again, when they confused Christos with Chrestus) and even worse was crucified. No dignified person could follow someone like that, unless he was who he said he was. This is why the Corinthians were struggling as they were as demonstrated by the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians.

Jesus’ ministry took place on the margins. He drew the poor and the oppressed. He had no place to lay his head (Matt 8:20). He drew the “sinners” and the discarded. When he passed his ministry on to his followers they followed suit. Those in power rejected the man and the message. Those in the center have a hard time gravitating to the margins because it feels like their power and position might be undermined. You know what? They are right. If power and influence is what you want most then Christianity isn’t for you.

There was a time Christianity was in the center. Towns were built around churches. The voice of the clergy was the voice of power in the community. The politicians and the theologians were aligned. This was good for influence and pseudo-power but bad for Gospel and horrible for mission. When the empire is Christian mission and discipleship get lost in a see of pastoral concerns and power maintenance. The church becomes political rather than missional. The church becomes a voting block rather than a stumbling block.

What we are experiencing in the West is the best thing that can happen to the church. We have been marginalized. That is where we are at our best. That is where our roots are at. A fat full tiger is a lazy tiger. A hungry tiger backed into a corner is a dangerous thing. I am afraid we aren’t very dangerous any more. We have lost our zeal. We have lots our focus. We have neglected our missional and disciple-making duties and traded it all in for comfort. What do you do when the comfort is stripped away and your voice is marginalized? Do you lament loss of power and influence? Or do you rejoice because we find revival on the margins, not in the center. If we don’t recognize what is going on we are in real trouble. But if we pay close attention to these things and embrace our new position, great things will come and they won’t look like the “great” things of the past because this time we will be focused on the right things.

Christians in the Global South and in China are flourishing while Christianity in the West is in decline. Why is that? What can we learn from that? What kind of blessing might be awaiting us when we find ourselves in the same position one day…the same position as the church in Acts 1-2? Get ready for trouble. Get ready for growth. Jesus told us it would work like this. When we trade in our suffering for comfort and our boldness for complacency we will decline? These two shifts are natural when you are in the center.

Let us recognize the world is not what it used to be and that as we lose the things we should have never embraced it isn’t lost. It is gain. Explosive kingdom growth is coming to Western society and it will come at a great cost. And it will be the most exciting things you have ever been a part of because we will have to lean into the Spirit in those difficult but fruitful days! Buckle up!

Faith is the world-changer intended for you, for me…for we. Anytime some form of the word “believe” is used, it is always from the base that some element is not existing at the moment; yet can become. Super-Natural!

Faith seems to have lost its thrust as we toss it about nonchalantly as a spiritual term…without genuine expectation. Believing is the evidence of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.

I encourage you to step up your game. Stop reading the negatives visible to your eyes. Lift your perspective up and into the world of fortune that sits behind the appearance side of the curtain.

Live in new vision.

Years (decades) ago I wrote a book about the Holy Spirit working in our lives. I sent the manuscript off to one brotherhood publisher after another. Rejection. “It would cost us business”, were their words.

Alton Howard, though, of Howard Publishing read the manuscript and immediately published it. The book still sells…thirty/five years later.

Faith isn’t an agreement inventory among timid friends. God will often call us into zones highly questioned by some closest to us. Faith isn’t proof of what is. Rather it is conviction of something that isn’t yet…but can become.

I encourage you to seek God’s will; His; not yours. Then walk with Him when you don’t seem to find support from any other direction. Don’t let your personal whim be interpreted as God’s call. But do dare to walk blindly into territory where He would have opportunity to bless a nation of people if He could find but one believer.

The Bible is full of such men and women. Do more than read about them. Become like them. To walk by faith is the most threatening, and yet thrilling, charge for each of us.

Frankly, faith scares us. It sounds and looks abnormal. And…it is. It takes great courage to carry this torch that many have restricted to simply one step in the format of many.

Faith…go do what can’t be done. Imagine with the creativity of God…within you. He will supply the results. Our job is to believe that He absolutely can…and will…and does.

Photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash 
(The following was originally published last year as a monthly column in the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, MS–I’ve made a few minor edits…Happy Thanksgiving to all! LFjr)

At one point in my journey to become a published author, I was introduced to and subsequently retained a literary agent. His job was to help refine my work, find a publisher, and otherwise babysit me through the process of getting a book printed and on the shelves.

We reached an agreement on a Friday mid-day. His last words to me were, “go tell your wife you are a writer with a literary agent.” It was a big deal and I was never so excited and exuberant as I was that day. And of course, I told Becki and we celebrated (or least I danced around the room a lot).

That was Friday.

On Monday, my new literary agent called and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to cancel our agreement—I don’t have any publishers that would work with a book like yours.” And since I already knew he worked with religious themed books and authors, that was code for this is awful and I don’t want anything to do with it.

On Friday, I danced. On Monday, I moped. To say I was disappointed is to be greatly understated. Honestly? I was devastated. I felt totally rejected. On that Monday, I particularly saw this specific rejection as a metaphor for my life. It was, to me, just one more example of the universe declaring me unworthy… Yes, I had a pity party, and no, you were not invited.

I don’t need to bore you with the details of my tragic story of heartache and pain. There is more than enough information out there in the public domain—and we both know it was incredibly messy. It has been, in many respects, a long hard row to hoe. I would love to be able to laugh, smile, and say emphatically that it all cleaned up nicely. Kind of like spilt milk—you grab some cleaning supplies and sponge it all up–done, over, nice and tidy.

While that would be good and helpful, the messiness of life rarely ever cleans up so easily. Worse, it often takes far more time and effort than you would hope. In fact, if you’ll allow me to use a different kind of metaphor, most life messes are more like the bowl of instant oatmeal that explodes in the microwave. If you have never experienced it, don’t. Seriously. It becomes a big, nasty, wet, steaming, hot mess. Worse, it gets everywhere (there has to be some arcane scientific principle involved here)—it permeates every nook and cranny and takes considerable time and effort to clean up. Even after expending significant energy and using a copious amount of paper towels, you may still find vestiges of exploded oatmeal in the days and weeks to come.

Some seven years after our family tragedy, we are still cleaning up the mess in one form or another. The pain and heartache has worked its way into every facet of life. I see it in my children and the decisions they make. I see it in the way I approach certain situations. Frankly, there are times when logical, rational thought seems to completely disappear (I still panic when I can’t reach my wife or one of the kids on the phone). I remain a mess to be sure.

But when compared to Jesus, I am not all that different. When you look at his life, ministry, and subsequent rejection and crucifixion, not much has changed. It was and is to human eyes, a mess, even the proverbial hotmess. (Can you imagine being one of Jesus’ first disciples as they watched their whole lives explode in front of them?) And before you object to calling God’s plan a mess, take the time to read 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. Particularly, you might key in on verse 23: “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.”

And then there is the matter of grace. Where we want cause and effect, logic and rationale—where we want to earn what we get by virtue of our own abilities, God meets us instead with the messiness of grace.

God gives grace to messy people who continue to create messes. (How many people do you know who get life right all the time? I rest my case.) All this to say, some messes don’t clean up easily at all. Some messes take a lifetime. Some messes will always be with us on this side of eternity.

So as messy people in our own right who recognize the grace extended to us, it behooves us to not be so critical, to give room to and recognize the Spirit at work in the lives of messy people. As Paul says it in Philippians 2:13, “For it is God who is working in you both to will and to work according to his good purpose.”

The sin-sick brokenness of a lifetime doesn’t disappear overnight. Not in me. Not in you. I am a work in progress. My life is messy. Giving new meaning to Thanksgiving, I am so thankful for the grace of God working in me.

How about you?

May God bless us in our mess!

Les Ferguson, Jr.

Oxford/ Madison, MS


Money is a funny thing. Whenever I deal with money with people I always say, people come before money. I don’t like to talk about money but sometimes you have to. So part of me says feel free to walk right past this post (I don’t like self promotion) but another part of me says this isn’t self-promotion this is collaboration in kingdom work…don’t walk on by it…pay attention to an opportunity to grow the kingdom!

I believe in what we do here at Wineskins and our affiliated sites. 2019 is going to be a great year and I don’t want money to be a concern in the middle of all the creative things we are working through at Wineskins. I added a Donate button to the right sidebar of the site. This is out of necessity more than anything else. So if you ever feel like helping out you can click that link and make a one time or a regular contribution. This site is a collaborative site and it is going to become that even more in 2019. That means we have a fair amount of overhead for domain names and hosting on the dozen sites that we host. You may not have known that we host a number of personal sites for our writers. We do that because we believe in their giftedness in writing. That all comes at a cost. So let’s partner together in this effort through your comments and even contributions if you are able.

What is coming in 2019? Here is the short list.

  1. At least one podcast
  2. More youtube videos from various Wineskins writers
  3. Better utilization of our Forums to get more conversations going
  4. Higher frequency of articles than in the past. I hope to average more articles per month than we ever have in 2019. In the past I carried much of that weight but that won’t be true moving forward as we get more writers actively writing.

So bring on 2019! It is going to be a truly great year and I am confident that God will meet all our needs as we continue to serve him. For the record we aren’t a non-profit but we also haven’t made a profit since we started as Jay and I paid the bills the first few years then we got some advertisers on board to offset some costs but we still come in behind each year and I want to turn that around in 2019 first through advertising and second through your donations. Thanks for caring and for reading!

If you would like to donate click the button on the right sidebar and help us continue to do what we do!

If you grew up in Churches of Christ, this is the book on the Holy Spirit for you. In “Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God” Leonard Allen does what he does best – church history combined with biblical theology. When you add in his own personal story in Churches of Christ and his developing understanding of the Holy Spirit, I believe our fellowship needs to be aware of this book and familiar with its contents for several reasons in line with the main thrust of the book which is that Christianity began on the margins, moved to the center (Constantine and Christendom), and now is moving back to the margins in the West. This means it is as important as ever that we move to our missional purpose and that purpose necessitates a better understanding of the work of the Spirit to inform and empower us.

This book illuminates the person of the Holy Spirit as a member of the Trinitarian Godhead who is on equal footing with the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit has not solely been contained by the pages of the Bible and is not a “tame” Spirit that we have somehow “nailed down” (p.19).

In the first chapter, “Uncontained,” Allen demonstrates the historical shifts that created Christian culture in the Western world that seemed to tame the Spirit and disconnect us from our Spirit-given missionary impulses. He recognizes that there has been a shift in our world to things of the spiritual realm, although often biblically uninformed, this shift is an opportunity for Christianity to engage in a more proactive and healthy dialog with our non-Christian friends due to their spiritual openness. Some of this shift has happened in Western culture but a lot more of it has happened in the Global South, “where Christianity has been expanding at breakneck speed, mostly in Pentecostal/Charismatic form.” (p.23). In rapid succession, Allen lays out the historical framework of this shift up to our current culture of postmodernism. All of this means that we are on a mission field whether we know it or not. This chapter gives a big-picture historical-cultural view of the Holy Spirit.

The second chapter, “Traditions,” works through various views on the Holy Spirit throughout Christian history. Dr. Allen traces five streams of Christianity including the Anabaptists, Pietists, Methodists, Restorationists (Churches of Christ), and Pentecostals. This is where he is at his best, illuminating various traditions and their theological emphasis that helps us understand how we got to where we are today. Cessationism and Word-onlyism are explained and set against various other traditions in helping us see the strengths and weaknesses of various traditions (including our own). What we find is a series of pendulum swings from hyper-rationalism and “Spirit universalism” where a more open and universalist view is maintained (p.49). This chapter puts the theology of the Holy Spirit into a historical-doctrinal framework.

The third chapter, “Trinity” is where Allen begins a heavy emphasis on connecting the relevant scriptures. I have read more of Leonard Allen’s church history than I have his theology and was very impressed with his ability to interpret the relevant scriptures and tie together various threads of the best theologians we have at our disposal both from ancient church history all the way up until today. This chapter not only gives a scriptural backing for the Trinity but also gives us some of its historical roots out of the first 400 years of church history (p.63). A considerable amount of space is devoted to the work of the Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus, tracing the Spirit’s work from Jesus’ conception to his baptism, through his ministry and ultimately to the work and power of the Spirit in the resurrection of Jesus (pp. 66-68). Because the idea of Trinity is relationality within God himself, Allen uses this idea to push back against legalism and moralism, “The Spirit counters all moralism and legalism by inviting us into the intimacy and joy – the ecstasy – of God’s life, indeed, by being the bearer of that life” (p.73). This is a needed corrective in our fellowship and one I hope people will consider.

Chapter four, “Kingdom” fleshes out a point Allen makes in the last chapter, that we are to live into the story of scripture. Chapter four fleshes out that story, Israel’s story through the Spirit’s role in establishing and advancing the kingdom. I have heard N.T. Wright on many occasions refer to our need to connect Isaiah 40-55 to the Gospel and second temple Judaism’s understanding of the Messiah, resurrection, and so much more. This chapter is the response and filling out of Wright’s point. He works through the kingdom as Israel’s story through three main parts of Israel’s national identity:

First, he draws on the “New Exodus.” Jesus’ journeys back from Egypt through the water into the wilderness temptations and then into a Spirit-empowered ministry per Luke 4. This liberation/deliverance theme is now about God delivering us to salvation from sin and death.

Second, he draws on the “New Temple.” Once again, he works off of some of our greatest theological minds like Wright and Beale. The temple shifts from tabernacle to temple to Jesus to us. I do wish he had worked off more of Beale here going back not just to the tabernacle but to Eden itself. He also goes right to John 2 where Jesus parallels himself with the temple. It is interesting to note that the temple discussion actually starts in John 1, with temple references with Bethel and angels ascending and descending on the son of man. This is at the same time Jesus calls Nathanael a “true Israelite” a Jacob-guy who was the same guy in the same story where the angels were ascending and descending after which Jacob called the place “Beth-el” (house of God = temple). I am sure Dr. Allen is familiar with this information. There is only so much you can include to make the point!

Third, he draws off Paul’s language of “New Creation.” The Spirit is working to make us new people with a new way of being/existing and living/behaving. It is in this section of chapter four that Allen engages the idea of already and not yet (p.90).

Chapters 5 and 9 are both on mission. Chapter 5 lays the foundation for chapter 9. I appreciate the double emphasis on mission and on concluding the book with a chapter on mission. If we take the Holy Spirit seriously we will end up on mission and we will regain our relevance, not as a nationalized/politicized entity but as God’s people and presence in this world to pour the Spirit out and shine a light on the nations. Allen does an admirable job of tracing the empowerment of the Spirit in both the mission of Jesus and the mission of the early church. The Spirit does this through gifting the church. That gifting is graceful and powerful and the end goal is to make us more like Jesus (p.113). He ends this chapter as he does in several of the other chapters by talking about how this emphasis has been lost over the years and now more than ever needs to be restored and reclaimed.

Chapter 6, “Formation,” may be the most important chapter in the book. This chapter fleshes out what he said in the previous chapter, that the Holy Spirit’s goal is to shape us to be, in a sense, Jesus. One of the greatest contributions of this book is its apologetic against Christian gnosticism. That phrase should be an oxymoron but sadly it isn’t. Allen joins the chorus of recent voices who are encouraging us to revisit what the scriptures have to say about the material world (the creation itself and our own bodies as part of that creation). Body and Spirit are intricately and intimately connected. They are inextricably linked. This has not been the popular view but it is the biblical view and Allen makes as fine a case for this as anyone in chapter 6. The second great contribution of this chapter is Allen’s theology of cooperation. How does God graciously do so much for us that we haven’t merited and yet in a sense require our participation in His ongoing work? I am not going to give you his answer to this but I will tell you he draws very effectively from Dallas Willard and N.T. Wright on this on pages 129-132.

Chapter 7, “Soaring,” marks a turn in the book. Now it gets personal. The Holy Spirit wants intimate connection with us. The Spirit is personal and so his work is personal. The Spirit, then, as a person also draws us into relationship with God and with each other. As we are adopted into the family of God by the work of the Spirit we take on a new identity (not just in an intellectual way but in a familial and relational way). When you become part of a new family it isn’t just something inside your head, it is also something inside your heart and is constantly being informed by a change in your experience as you transition to your new family. With God as Abba/Father we experience a new identity and a new reality. The Spirit is at work making those things reality and then working in our hearts to confirm that reality to us so we can have confidence in our new selves. All of this is done so we can invite more people into the family (mission).

Chapter 8, “Groaning,” is about suffering and the Spirit’s role in our suffering. This chapter is a mini-theology of suffering. Why do we suffer and how do we participate in the life of Christ when we suffer? The Spirit plays a role strengthening and empowering us in our weakest moments and in our most difficult situations. This is part of our formation. The Spirit did the same thing with Jesus, being present in his suffering, and so some of our deepest spiritual union with God happens in times of trial. This chapter also ends with a note on martyrs and mission. The early church often went on mission as a result of suffering and persecution. The scattered people of God took the message with them and the Spirit who empowers the message with them everywhere they went.

Chapter 9, as I mentioned above is “On Mission” and concludes the book. It serves as much as a summary of the ideas presented in the book as anything else. This chapter is the most pastoral of all of the chapters in the book. Here, Allen challenges us to be open to the Spirit and in doing so to shift our attention and our presence “out of the house” to be out among the people God wants us to be in contact with.

This book is something I wish everyone in Churches of Christs would read but even if you aren’t in our fellowship I encourage you to read it because the history, culture, theology, and pastoral nature of this book will bless you. Thank you to Dr. Allen for taking his amazing intellect, ability to write, and passion for the Spirit to share these thoughts with the rest of the body. In doing so he has made incarnate many of principles embedded in the ink on the pages of his book.

God sent Jesus into the world to save us from our sins (Matt 1:21). Often this is what people consider to be the core of the gospel, salvation from sins so we can go to heaven after we die. That isn’t the only reason God sent Jesus into the world. It is A reason God sent Jesus into the world but not the ONLY reason. If you drew a circle that circumscribed everything that is in the Gospel, forgiveness of sins would be inside the circle. However, too often, we have made it the entire circle. There is a big difference.

Think of Jesus for a moment as savior, going back to Matthew 1. Jesus is one who delivers people from that which (or those who) oppresses them. This is Jesus being the prophet like Moses from Deuteronomy 18:18 who is in conflict with a new Pharaoh to set his people free from the yoke of slavery and oppression. This is both physical and spiritual. It involves our whole person. Go back to Genesis 3 and the curse. The curse affected the whole person because sin affects the whole person. Jesus came to deliver us and the cosmos (world) from the bondage to decay (Romans 8). So Jesus is savior but in a broader sense than saving from sin.

So what does this have to do with forgiveness? Forgiveness is directly related to the idea of Jesus as divine deliverer (savior).

How many times do you think the word “forgiveness” is in the NT? It is used shockingly few times! It is used in the NIV only 15 times, once in the psalms and 14 in the NT. The word “forgive” is used a bit more often, 62 times in the New Testament. Many of these are Jesus’ instructions on forgiving others. This is a bit shocking if we think that the forgiveness of sins is the core message (or only message) of the Gospel. You would think it would have come up more often than it does.

I am convinced that part of our issue today is our affluence. When we hear “savior” we think “from sin” or “deliverance” we think “from sin” or “forgiveness” and we think “from sin.” Maybe we think so exclusively in those terms because few of us feel like we need delivered from much else. We aren’t going around starving. We have such good medical care that we are by and large healthy. But people in less advantaged places hear the gospel in a more holistic way because they know their needs are much broader. It turns out, that view is more biblical than what ours often has been.

Just as the Gospel is bigger than forgiveness, forgiveness has to do with more than just sin. In English we typically use forgiveness for a wrong. In Greek is has a wider range of meaning than that and the base line meaning of the main word for forgiveness (aphesis) is “the act of freeing and liberating from something that confines” or “the act of freeing from an obligation, guilt, or punishment” (BDAG).

Jesus came to save and deliver us. Forgiveness is about setting people free or delivering from that which oppresses us. This works with sin because forgiveness is releasing people from the guilt and penalty of their sins (Luke 24:47, Acts 10:43). But there is another verse that I want to highlight that isn’t so obvious but illustrates the range of meaning of this word and that verse is Luke 4:18. Here is the verse. See if you can spot the word you think was translated from aphesis,

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Did you spot it? It is “to set the oppressed free.” That’s the forgiveness word! In context that has very little to nothing to do with forgiveness of sins and everything to do with other types of bondage people face (economically oppressed, prisoners, the blind, etc). If we want a biblical view of forgiveness we need to broaden our view and humbly accept that our need for Jesus includes more items that sin.

In reality Jesus’ healing ministry was a forgiveness ministry. That is hard to catch in English. It was an aphesis ministry – a setting free ministry. Sometimes he set people free from sins (Mark 2:5). Other times he forgave their illness through healing. I don’t mean that in the sense that illness was wrong but that Jesus aphesis’ed their sickness – set them free in a momentary sense of a result of our bondage to decay (human bodily illness). When Jesus healed the woman who had bled 18 years he set her free – free from uncleanliness that had separated her from worship, freed her from social and cultural separation from her peers, and set free her body of the illness that bound her up.

Forgiveness means more than we often associate with it. I believe having a fuller view of this word can help us have a fuller view of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It also encourages us to be in the liberating business because now we have something we can participate in beyond just the sin angle. We don’t see ourselves as being in the forgiveness business (except when we are wronged) because we think that is God’s work. Once we see that any work we do that helps “Set the oppressed free” is Gospel when we bring people wholeness whether it is: socially, spiritually, economically, and relationally.

So go forgive some people!

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