Letters from Theophilus

" A Blog About Practical Theology. "


The Cliff

Hello there! Excuse me. I don’t want to bother you, but I need to chat with you for second if that’s ok. I recognize something in your eyes… It’s myself I see there. I know that may sound weird, but just hear me out…

I see myself, as I used to be, dangling over a cliff. In my hands I have one hope. That hope is a string… a solitary string. That string is my salvation, suspending me above the certain death below… that string in my mind, represents my morality and good works. Now, maybe it’s the vertigo or confusion, but somehow I have forgotten what that string actually is. That string is NOT, in fact, my good works… That string is God’s grace. I have a thread of God-like-ness (Imago Dei, if you will) I’m still holding onto that yearns for goodness. Since all of me was created by God, even that thread of goodness comes from God and survives within me still, solely by God’s grace.

A while ago, on a day not unlike today, a hand suddenly appeared from the cliff above inviting me to life away from this dangling existence I’ve come to accept as my reality. I responded, “No, it’s ok. I’m just hanging out. I’m enjoying my string of good works! Life is swinging!” The voice called out to me again and offered me life above the cliff… a real life… salvation from the immanent destruction below. It spoke to my heart for some time and I listened intently.

The question I was left with in that moment was: “Will I grab the hand? Will I take the offer? Will I allow him to raise me to this ‘real life’…life above the cliff with the promise of true joy, and endless possibilities, or will I settle for this ‘lesser life’… this illusion that the string will hold forever… the belief that I’m held alive by my own goodness (not realizing the string is attached to the One above the cliff).

This is the reality of our choice. It’s not a real choice in the way we view choices… there is only one way out of this mess and that’s to take the hand of the One above the cliff. I’m speaking on His behalf today and offering you a way to this free life… freedom from brokenness and the path of self-destruction below. That hand has reached to all of us. We are not saved by our choice. We can never save ourselves. However, many choose to refuse the call. Many choose to cling to the string. Many choose to take their chances with the dangling life of the cliff.

See, I used to be one of the greatest cliffhangers! I reveled in that life, thoroughly enjoying all the things I thought were the greatest of pleasures. From the perspective I had at the time, that life was the life… But on the day I heard the call and took the hand and accepted the challenge of life above the cliff, my eyes were opened to a completely new reality! Everyday now, holds endless possibilities! Just as I once threw myself headlong into the swinging life at the end of that string, I have now raced across the endless horizons as fast as I can, exploring life above the cliff, and I’ve come back to tell you that the further I’ve gone, the more I have realized is up here! It’s amazing! Mountains and valleys and oceans and rivers… Untold adventures await! There are far more alluring cliffs up there than the one you now hang from. If you don’t believe me come see for yourself…

But I must warn you of one thing…

In my travels, I have experienced indescribable things, but nothing so unspeakable as the horror I am witnessing now. (I am sure you have seen it too!) I see hundreds of people, who have been pulled to safety from the wreckage below, camping out on the edge of the cliff. Some of them have even climbed back down and resumed their swinging life! Is it because they cannot handle freedom? Maybe they are afraid of letting go of the string? Have they failed to explore the beauty and endless possibilities of their new life? If they had only seen what I have seen they would be loving life… they would never want to return! But, they seem bound or addicted to life on the edge of the cliff. They seem listless and hopeless and miserable. Yet there they camp, still bound to the cliff either miserable that they can’t be hanging from its edge once more, or jumping back down with a false sense of security that that string of grace will hold forever.

Others, tempted to return and struggling deep within themselves, have built temporary walls and boundaries that keep them from even coming near the cliff. Some have built the walls so high that they can’t even see the cliff. They have even turned those walls into insulated houses that drown out the cries of those falling to their demise. Sometimes they insist that their way is the only way and say that this miserable existence (that is defined by what it’s not) is the only way anyone should ever live. I understand their need for temporary barriers, but if they could only take hold of the freedom in exploring this life of grace, the temptation to return to the cliff would lessen daily. Then they would see that the life they have chosen is not the abundant one that the voice promised. The worst part about it is they have no training or resistance built up to be able to return to the cliff and pull others up to safety, because they are so afraid of the cliffs’ power to allure. So thousands are plunging to their death daily, while these people sit safely behind their walls calling out from their place of safety hoping some cliff-hanger will, by some chance, hear their voice and climb up. How I wish they could be captured by a better vision!

But I cannot allow these things to preoccupy me…

I’m standing here now, hoping you’ll listen. I hope you’ll take my hand and climb up the cliff. I hope you’ll enjoy the horizons of grace that await you up here. The life that is truly life is only inches away. Don’t say ‘no’… take a chance! And when you get here, don’t content yourself with camping on the edge of the cliff, gazing lustfully back down at the beautiful destruction below. When you get here, don’t build legalistic barriers of protection that serve to bind you to a life defined by what you are not. Life is so much grander than the 30 feet of existence near the cliff. When you get here, allow that same voice to lead you into a life of adventure into the landscape beyond. Allow that adventure to take hold of you and give you a new identity and a new strength to walk the edge of the cliff from time to time following the call to rescue others. Embrace life in its fullness and I promise that you will always be grateful for this moment.

Are you ready? 


A Prayer for Church Leaders and Bible Teachers

Lord, I rejoice to suffering for your people
and I accept more of Christ’s afflictions
for the sake of his body, the church.

You have commissioned me
to be a servant of the church,
to present to your people your word in its fulness –
the mystery once hidden
that is now revealed to the saints.

To them you have chosen to make known
among the nations
the glorious riches of this mystery:
Christ in us, the hope of glory.

Enable me to proclaim Christ,
warning everyone,
teaching everyone
with all wisdom,
so that I may present everyone prefect in Christ.

Energize me, work in me powerfully
so I can toil and struggle in this task.

May they be encouraged in heart
and united in love.

May they have all the riches of full assurance
and full understanding of Christ,
discovering in him
all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

by Tim Chester (Based on Colossians 1:24-2:3)


The Gospel of Grace

Grace. We know it’s amazing. Sadly, we may know it too well. Many of us have been inoculated to its potency because of its all-too-familiar touch in our lives. One of the greatest things that can ever happen to people, churches and movements is the revival of grace’s ability to amaze.

All the while, grace remains amazingly difficult to define. Discuss a different denomination and you’ll soon find that the root of their differences often lies in their understanding of what exactly grace is. We may all agree on some words, such as ‘unmerited favor,’ or ‘the free gift of God’ but, what those words mean to us, why and how they are applied to our lives, and how we live out of that truth as a result... THAT is not something we will all agree upon as easily.

For some, grace is simply the key that frees us from the consequences of sin. For others, grace doesn’t stop there, but becomes a teacher that frees us, not only from sins penalty, but also from sin’s reigning power in our lives. Still for others, grace is the very extension of God himself into our lives, both allowing us to go through trials and temptations, and allowing us the strength to bear them. To some it’s a license to sin, while to others it is the reason we must pull so far away from sin, that we hide on the other side of our monumental rulebooks. For many today, grace is an amazingly complex enigma.

I have two pastor friends in my hometown. Both seem to love God as best I can tell. Both teach about grace constantly in their churches. Both would disagree strongly with each other regarding what grace is, why it’s given, and what it means to live grace-filled lives.

The first of my pastor friends strongly asserts that it is by God’s grace that he has obtained special revelations regarding salvation... that only a few will experience this particular process of salvation because of their misreadings of the Scripture… that very few of the so-called Christians in the world are even saved. He asserts that it is by God’s grace alone that he and his people are able to follow the “standards of holiness” he sees in the Bible. He feels grace is both teaching them these technical measures and enabling them to walk righteously without falling away or backsliding.

The other pastor is an openly gay man. He lives this lifestyle unashamedly because he feels that God’s grace has freed him from the bondage of such legalistic requirements on sexuality as found in the Scriptures. Those ‘rules’ were for different times, he asserts, and they don’t apply to our culture. To him, grace is God’s favor upon all and no man can judge what is wrong or right for another… grace is given freely to all, and most people in the world today are living lives that reveal this.

Who is right? Both? Neither?

The two perspectives of grace that my friends represent have tugged many Christians back and forth for years. We vacillate between legalism and lawlessness. Sometimes we do this over years. Sometimes over days. Some people eventually just set up camp in one or the other…sometimes entire groups of people.

We go to retreats and determine to “go for it in God,” getting rid of any thing in our lives that resembles a lifestyle of worldliness. Within weeks though (sometimes only a few hours) we find ourselves riding the pendulum back the other way, unable to will ourselves into our newfound strict adherence to our idea of rigorous morality. "Forget it! I’m sick of trying! Where is that old familiar thing I gave up for God?" We think we can manage our morality only to realize it’s too great a task for our double-minded hearts. So the pendulum swings back and forth as time ticks on, and we end up missing out on the very thing Christ came to bring us… Life. Abundant life.

My life mirrored this dance for years, and I must admit I’m still not immune to its charms. The movement of the pendulum is hypnotizing. Frequently, I find myself momentarily forsaking the abundant life for a taste of the abundant lie: that I can be in control of my own happiness by either self-justifying or self-atoning. I forget that I’m not God. I forget how amazing grace truly is. It is in these times that I must remind myself of the most practical and potent of truths…

I am a sinner. I am broken within. I want to do good but I fall short. I’m a victim of a downward movement within my soul, spiraling more and more out of control as long as I sit in the driver’s seat. I have no hope within this heart.

God is Holy. He will judge my sin. His righteous wrath will be poured out against all rebellion. There is none that will escape this cup of wrath stored up against all the sin of the entire created order from Adam to us. We are right to stand in awe of Him.

God is Love. He will have mercy upon whom He wills. His wise providence set all things in motion including His plan of redemption. His Son drank the cup of His wrath upon the cross and didn’t leave so much as a drop for us. We are right to stand in awe of Him.

The cross is that place where these two, seemingly irreconcilable traits of God collide: His Holiness and His Love. At the cross, His righteous wrath is poured out upon the only righteous one who’s ever lived, crushing him, along with our sin under the weight of furious holiness. At the cross, His passionate love is mercifully given to all who willing receive this gift though none deserve it. Grace is the result of the cross. Grace is unfair. It is scandalous. It is awe-inspiring. It is amazing.

Until we grasp the depth of our brokenness & the height of God's holiness we will never fully understand the amazing expanse of God's grace. The more I walk in the faith, the more my eyes are opened to this fact. If you want grace to become amazing to you again, look at two simple things. First, begin to imagine God’s radiant transparency and holiness. His glory and splendor. His awe-inspiring majesty and power. He does not allow sin to remain within the purity of His presence. Nothing and no one can approach Him. He is God alone. Next, just take an honest look in the mirror of your mind. Think over your past. Your brokenness. Your hurt. Your concealed wounds never properly healed. Look into the darkness of your heart…the desires you’ve never dared to share with others. Things you’ve done and are ashamed of. Don’t do this to delight in evil, or to heap condemnation upon yourself. But, think on these things as a momentary and honest self-assessment. When you do… When you see yourself in the light of a Holy God... and the more frequently and intensely you see this image, the more you will fail to restrain yourself from praising God for His work of grace within your life.

Grace is grace because it is from a holy God given to unworthy sinners like you and I, changing us into His image. If we forget that we are unworthy, grace will lose its luster. If we fail to recall that it comes from God, we will once again fall prey to the time-wasting dance between legalism and lawlessness (for we will make ourselves the bankers of grace, allotting it out to ourselves as we see fit). Another way of seeing it is this: If we forget that grace changes us into His image, we will either settle into some lesser image (lawlessness) or we will forge ahead with our stubbornly-fickle wills, trying to change ourselves into His image through formulas, rules and regulations (legalism). But when we understand this image of reality, grace will begin to empower our lives.

Thank God that in His grace he has given us the gospel. The good news is that I am broken and can’t do this by myself. The good news is that I don’t have to…His love is great enough to overcome my destructive path. The good news is that His finished work on the cross has made me a new creation, with a new, God-given identity. He sees me through the cross…Through Christ. He sees me as “His beloved son, whom He loves, in whom He is well-pleased.” Begause of grace, THIS is who I am.

My problem then is not my brokenness and my inability to overcome it. My only problem now is my unbelief in this truth of WHO God is, and WHOM He has made me to be. When I fully receive this truth into my heart by God’s grace, I will live out of this truth and my actions will be the actions of a new creation. But, if this is true there is a problem! I'm not perfect yet! Where is the disconnect? Why am I not living like a new creation if I am one? I’ll tell you! I know what God says is true in my head…but I often don’t really accept it in my heart. I can acknowledge all kinds of abstract truths about who God is and who He says I am… I can sign and date a card that affirms those truths… I can even preach them, and never truly believe them at a heart level… never truly be changed by them. Grace enables the gospel to change my life. Grace gives me a new heart. Grace enables belief.

By God’s grace, I will be transformed more into the image of Jesus Christ as I walk in faith. I will find times I’m falling short, and not living out of the identity that is mine in Christ, and I will realize that in those moments I’m not believing. So, I will repent of my unbelief. As God’s grace makes me aware of the unbelief and allows me to change, I will close the gap between what I know to be true in my head and what I believe to be true my heart. By God’s grace I will trade my illusions for His truth. Instead of aiming for my behavior, I will believe. I will allow my doing to flow from my being. This is the gospel. This is a picture of a life being restored to the Father. Salvation. Sanctification. Reconciliation. This is grace.

So what of my two friends? Who is right? I’ll tell you… The one who continually allows grace to reshape his heart and realizes his need for God… and in so doing… in his ever-growing reliance upon God’s grace, begins to see that he can do nothing on his own… that he needs God’s grace to move him beyond his self-dependence, that has landed him in the terrifying lands of legalism (self-atonement) or lawlessness (self-justification). THEN Grace will move him into the land of Gospel-centered, abundant life. The one who captures grace is the one who truly allows grace to capture his heart and rapture him away from the tyranny of self, and into the presence of a gracious father. A new identity awaits… a grace-empowered, blood-bought, gospel-soaked identity. All you need to do is believe.


Quotes... III

"Faith is to believe what we do not see, and the reward of this faith is to see what we believe." –Augustine

"Of two evils choose neither." -Charles Spurgeon

"In reality the only call in the Bible is the call to the way of the cross, the way of service, sacrificial love and suffering." -Tim Chester

"O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life." -Francis of Assisi

"Is it not wonderful news to believe that salvation lies outside ourselves?" -Martin Luther

"Either sin is with you, lying on your shoulders, or it is lying on Christ, the Lamb of God." –Martin Luther

"He that loveth little prayeth little, he that loveth much prayeth much." –Augustine

"Our only business is to love and delight ourselves in God." –Brother Lawrence

"He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter" -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"Preach the gospel at all times -- If necessary, use words." -Francis of Assisi

"The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would have ever been spared?" -Martin Luther

"The test of our spiritual life is the power to descend from our mountaintops" -Unknown

"Our static, inflexible, self-centered structures are 'heretical structures' because they embody a heretical doctrine of the church. If our structure has become an end in itself, not a means of saving the world it is a heretical structure." -John Stott

"You will not get rich... (living the gospel)... the only place I know where they complain about making too much money is the US Mint" -TF Tenny

"As you announce peace with your mouth, make sure that greater peace is in your hearts" - Francis of Assisi

"Our physical needs are signposts pointing to very real spiritual needs...Social action without gospel proclamation is like a signpost pointing nowhere" -Tim Chester

"Jesus has a 'Train and Release' strategy, while overall we have a 'Convert and Retain' strategy." -Mark Greene


Good News

Created by a love I rejected,
I choose my own way.
I imagined myself my own creator,
And made my will the center of the universe.

Within and without I am divided.
There is a glimpse of that love within me,
Hopelessly outweighed by my will…
My desire to be my own god.

I destroy because I am destructive.
A black hole exists within my heart
The more my desires are fulfilled,
The larger this gaping chasm grows.

Who will save me from this downward spiral?
How can I escape my own kingdom?
How can I ever reconcile when this love
Within is so overcome with self-desire?

I am humanity. I am you.

There is good news if you will hear it.
The good news is that I destroy.
I am broken, ruined, restless & hopeless
This is part of the good news…

The other part is that it’s not up to me.
There is a force outside me with a love
Great enough to overcome my destructive path.
There is a force that reconciles all things.

God. Perfect love. Exemplified through life and death.
He frees me from my unruly reign.
He removes the burden of my self-justification.
He alone will fill the black hole within my heart.

His love allows me to love.
His mercy allows me to forgive.
He has reconciled me,
Now I may reconcile a broken, hurting world.


Baptism in a Shower

Reflective, I sit
Warm showers playing round my head
Remind me of days I never lived,
Yet echo in the corridors my conscience

I am Adam,
Broken and removed from the Garden
I feel the warm retribution falling all around me,
Yet the warmth of the water is somehow comforting.

I am cursed,
I sit outside the ark of salvation.
The smell of fire mixes with the water vapor
Ever rising, ever pounding, the warm waters judge my sin

I am forgiven,
Rising from these waters of remission,
The warmth reminds me of the freedom from my fate,
Not earned, not taken, but given nonetheless

Water is neutral.
It brings both judgment and mercy.
It is an agent of a God who, like water, gives both.
All we need do is cry out to Him.

Reflective, I sit
Warm showers playing round my head
Both comfort and sober me, ever reminding my heart
I am broken. I am fragile. I am in need of a savior.