Profession or Possession?

Those who have hung around evangelical circles know the following statement posted on the “Together for the Gospel” twitter feed to be fundamental to the evangelical faith:

“Mental assent and simple profession are not efficacious.”


This was posted with a picture of evangelical theologian R. C. Sproul in his most vigorous pose over which was written a further quote, all attributed to him:

“It is the POSSESSION of faith, not the PROFESSION of faith that transfers us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.”

And again, those nursed and bred on evangelical Christianity will raise a hearty “Amen” to these sentiments (Unless we are Presbyterian, in which case we will tighten our lips and nod our heads up and down, lest we seem too demonstrative.)

I do not have the full document from which these statements were lifted to properly understand the nuance lying behind them. If I have misapprehended the intent of such statements, then I trust someone will correct my misunderstanding. They are, however, by themselves suggestive and apparently sufficiently clear for @T4GOnline to post without context. As they are, and as they reflect a well worn sentiment, they invite comment.

Though we would not quibble with the basic assertion that mere profession is not what unites us with the saving work of Christ, we must ask, “How is such possession measured?” It would seem to be a fundamentally important question. If one’s only hope for eternal salvation, if one’s only confidence for the forgiveness of sin, if one’s only assurance that the death of Jesus was in fact efficacious for me, is my possession of faith, then how do I know that I possess it? What if I’m only fooling myself into thinking I have it? How can I know that I possess this thing apart from which I am eternally lost?

As a pastor, this is a question asked often of me. It is asked by those who profess love for God but wonder if they are fooling themselves and fear they lack possession of what they profess. In fact, they read such tweets and walk away with their confidence shaken (such that those who make such statements might consider the weight of millstones before tweeting).

If possession is 100% of gospel hope how then can one be sure of possessing what is needed for salvation? With such questions we leave the comfortable world of theological assertion and enter the messy world of real people making the real journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City.

The question being asked is, “How can I know that I am saved?” The answer to that on which I have been nurtured has been that our assurance rests on a three-legged stool: the certainty of the Word of God, the evidence of a changed life, and the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. But as I shepherd real people (indeed as I navigate my own life) I find that though they believe the Bible (leg #1), they see so little change in their lives (leg #2). This uncertain holiness tends to muffle inner assurances (leg #3), leaving them to wonder if the voice they hear assuring them of their sonship is not the Holy Spirit at all, but some other intent on leading them to damnation.

These are sensitive and lovely people who are not helped by the clever turns of phrase that make for good tweets telling them that their profession is meaningless in the larger scheme of things.

I want to cry out in protest, but there are few who hear my voice in this little corner of the evangelical world, no matter how loudly I speak. Were I to be heard I would point out that some well respected theologians, St. Paul among them, have placed greater weight on profession than our evangelical forebears have done. Paul reminds us of the importance of inward faith, certainly, but it is interesting to me that when he does he gives a priority to outward profession that seems missing from our tweets:

“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)

Essential inward trust cannot be known without public profession. Merely external words do not save anyone, but neither does a purely inward faith. In fact, contrary to the tweet, it is not our faith at all that transfers us from the kingdom of darkness to that of the light, but our Savior. This he does by living, dying, and rising again, all in which we take part through our union with him. We take hold of Christ by believing in our heart and by confessing our trust in him with our mouths before the church and by being marked with the covenantal sign of baptism.

Christianity is not a mere inner conviction. It is not a private faith. It is covenantal to the core, as Mr. Sproul would, I know, agree. The hope of our eternal salvation is dependent solely on Christ and not upon my ability to hold on to a pure inward faith. Jesus holds on to me even when my heart is broken and shaken and weak.

When people question their salvation and look about for some word to assure them that they are secure, as sheep often do, it does no good to ask them to look into their hearts to see if they possess faith. That is the very question they are asking. And it does no good to ask them to scan the works they have done, because being sensitive they will see their lives littered with the remains of promises broken, holiness marred, love denied. Ask them to listen to the inward voice of the Holy Spirit and all they might be able to hear is someone screaming “hypocrite” deep within them. They can find no solace by an inward examination.

But we can ask them to look elsewhere. They can look to that time when they professed faith, publicly embracing Jesus Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel. And they can look to the mark they bear, the sign of God’s covenant faithfulness applied to them, the sign of baptism. By these things they can see, and are MEANT to see, that they have been marked by God as belonging to him not by what they have done, but by what he has done for them. By looking at these objective signs, they can see that, so united with Christ, they are secure in the heavenly places with him.

They can, in fact, look to their profession and their baptism and their relationship to the body of Christ, the church, as objective signs of an inner reality that, though oft assailed, is nevertheless real. And they can rest in that when all other subjective measures slip through their fingers like dry sand.

It is the possession of faith that unites us with Christ, of that there is no doubt. But a possession so often assailed is fortified by a sign and seal of God’s promise that he who professes faith will be saved. On that I can rest. On that those who post such things rest.

I just wish they would let others rest in this as well.

For similar thoughts, more carefully expressed, from someone with actual credentials, see this.

O, Death

Those who lived for any time in Tampa Bay hold former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy in high esteem. I’m sure the same can be said for those who live in Indianapolis where Dungy ended his NFL coaching career.

He is esteemed not only for his success on the football field – he was fired in Tampa, we should note – but for his character, character formed and molded by his Christian convictions. Dungy’s Christianity was not a PR image, but something real and deep impacting the life he lived. And people noticed.

But people also noticed with sadness that this righteous man had a son, a student at the University of South Florida, who in the depths of depression took his own life.

I don’t know much about Pastor Rick Warren, but controversy aside I sense that he, too, is a man who loves God and has sought to live faithfully before him. His son, like Dungy’s, has taken his life.

Pain and tragedy, and yes, the deep darkness of depression, does not spare the faithful in this broken world. My wife and I this morning recounted the names of those we have known who have taken their lives, attempted doing so, or have expressed the desire. It breaks our hearts.

I have often been asked by those trembling with the pain of suicidal loss to weigh in on their loved one’s eternal state. There is a tradition in Christianity suggesting that those who commit suicide go to hell.

When asked, I respond, I must respond, with a question: “What saves us – Jesus’ sinlessness or our own?” Clearly the Christian gospel trumpets “…nothing in my hands I bring / simply to thy cross I cling…”. Self murder is unquestionably a sin, a desperate, horrible, selfish abandonment of faith and hope. But it can no more undo the sufficiency of the work of Christ than any other sin. Jesus saves us, not our sinlessness. Those trusting Jesus are saved by him, even if their final act was a sin.

Some argue that suicide is different, that one cannot repent of the sin of suicide. But without diminishing the value and importance of regular repentance, of particular sins, particularly, nevertheless, our hope of salvation rests in Jesus not in repentance. Jesus, not repentance, saves us.

Do we not, though, by speaking thus encourage the suicidal to hasten a path to peace that seems to otherwise always elude them? I have been asked bluntly, “If I killed myself, would I go to hell?” Warren reports his son saying, “Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?”

A superficial understanding of grace will always make sin seem easier. And yet, in reality, an understanding of the love of God behind grace makes sin ultimately harder. Love, not fear, best keeps us from sin.

And yet, we still sin. We forget his love and we act contrary to it. And some, in such a moment clouded by a deep darkness which others cannot comprehend, flee the pain in the only way they know how. Can we not see, though, that the Man whose cries of despair echoed from the cross probably understands that despair and darkness better than most? Jesus loves even, perhaps especially, the despairing.

Our hearts break. And that is a good thing, for only from broken hearts will flow words of grace, not law. My preaching, and your speaking, is to broken people, whose brokenness we cannot fathom, and often cannot see. We need to speak, and to hear, but one wonderful and comforting truth: the steadfast love of a gracious God.

O, Father, enable us to hear it and hold on to it.


In 2002 friend and fellow pastor Petros Roukas took his own life. Bryan Chapell’s funeral sermon on that occasion stares the demons head on and fills the occasion with grace.

Oh, Starbucks

Starbucks, you’ve done it again.

As much as I try to fault you when thinkgs are not quite up to my hopes, you have a way of reclaiming my affection.

Today I was working in my Willasprings Starbucks corner office waiting for the line to shrink to a stage which would allow a quick trip to the bar.

I ended up in the line behind the store manager, Helen. That she was in line like the rest of us said something in itself. We spoke a bit about her plans for the day and about the busy-ness of the store. When her turn came to order, I joked to the clerk behind the register, “I’m with her.”

I was joking, Helen. We were supposed to laugh and go about our business.

She wouldn’t leave it there. She turned to the clerk and said, “He’s with me” and then to me said, “What do you want?” I protested, but the clerk already knew that I order the same thing every time, and so she rang it up, and that was that.

Small acts of kindness, to be sure. But it’s the small things that keep us coming back. To Starbucks, yes. But also to the church.

UPDATE: Of course, just because you’ve been kind does not mean that we can’t still have some fun at your expense. Here is SNL’s take on your new Verismo machine. Classic.

Judas and Peter

The sermon on Sunday at Covenant Presbyterian in Oviedo will swirl around the issue articulated so well in the quote below. What distinguished Judas and Peter from each other, and from us?

Both had associated with Jesus across the previous years. Both had seen his signs and heard his truth. To both he gave his love and extended his appeal.

In the final hours of Jesus’ mission both abysmally failed him, and abandoned him in the hour of his greatest need. Both grieved Jesus’ heart and added to his pain. The failure of both was spectacularly public. Both are known today around he world for the failures they perpetrated.

One, however, was lost and the other saved. One repented, sought Christ’s mercy, and went to heaven. One, overwhelmed with remorse, turned upon himself, took his own life, and went unforgiven to hell.

The seeds of the failure of both Peter and Judas lie embedded in each of our hearts. We know what it is both to deny Jesus and to betray him. We can only cast ourselves daily on his limitless mercy, knowing that he will not cast away even one of all who come to him, and that not one will be lost of all that the Father has given him (6:37-39).

Bruce Milne, The Message of John, (pages 207, 208)

What distinguishes them is grace alone.

Sounds Like Me

A friend directed me to a message preached recently by a pastor in Huntsville, Alabama, Jean Larroux because she thought it sounded like me.

The truth is, it doesn’t sound like me at all. Pastor Larroux preaches the gospel in an engaging and articulate manner, with a calm passion that is captivating. Rather, where the similarity lies is this: He tells MY story. The dates and faces are changed, but it is my story: a story of the rule-keeping Pharisaical control-freak coming face to face with the grace of the gospel. In that way, this sounds so much like me.

If you want to understand me, I encourage you to listen. But far better, if you want to understand yourself and find Jesus, I encourage you to listen.

The sermon can be downloaded through the following link:

Galatians: the Cast

Sin: Read All About It

Why would anyone read, much less recommend, a book on sin? Perhaps the following, from the introduction to Cornelius Plantinga’s accessible and enthralling book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be : A Breviary of Sin,
will sufficiently intrigue you that you will put this one on your reading list for 2011.

“Slippage in our consciousness of sin, like most fashionable follies, may be pleasant, but it is also devastating. Self-deception about our sin is a narcotic, a tranquilizing and disorienting suppression of our spiritual central nervous system. What’s devastating about it is that when we lack an ear for wrong notes in our lives, we cannot play right ones or even recognize them in the performances of others. Eventually we make ourselves religiously so unmusical that we miss both the exposition and the recapitulation of the main themes God plays in human life. The music of creation and the still greater music of grace whistle right through our skulls, causing no catch of breath and leaving no residue. Moral beauty begins to bore us. The idea that the human race needs a Savior sounds quaint.

“So the broader goal of this study is to renew our memory of the integrity of creation and to sharpen our eye for the beauty of grace.” (xiii)


There is a slight problem with anonymity.

It cannot be thanked.

We received in the mail today a Starbucks gift card simply labeled, ‘Thanks.’

It was in an envelope with no return address, and an Orlando postmark. Barb and I puzzled briefly over the handwriting on the envelope, but that led us nowhere. And so we were stuck.

We were stuck with a gift greatly appreciated and with no way to reciprocate with a bare ‘Thank you.’

There is an outside chance that the sender actually reads this blog. That’s not likely, since I know both of you who actually read this, but still….

I guess I’ll never really understand and fully appreciate this grace thing, this underserved and unreciprocated favor that comes always from God and sometimes from his people.


Guess I’ll have to go ponder this over a caramel latte at Starbucks. This time, I’ll make it GRANDE!

Bullies at the Table

In a nearby community, recently, a father was walking his daughter, who has cerebral palsy, to the bus stop for school when in tears she confessed to him how others on the bus treated her. Admittedly not handling the situation in a proper way, he stormed on to the bus issuing profanity laden threats to the other students and the driver of the bus. He was arrested and later apologized for behavior that most of us fully understand.

Today, a woman from a nearby church issued a grace filled statement reflecting not only a deep understanding of the situation, but also a knowledge of the Gospel that brings both bullies and the tormented together.

“I am comforted by the thought that one day, those of us who’ve come to realize our need for Him will sit together at the Master’s table—those who have been bullied and those who were the bullies.”

The whole is printed below:

All month, I have been following the story of James Jones, the Florida dad who was compelled to stand-up for his teenage daughter who lives with cerebral palsy. Running on emotion and leaving his logic behind, he stormed onto a Seminole County school bus to confront the kids who were bullying his daughter.

It’s so sad and frustrating to see kids who are different being bullied today. I understand this better than most. I have Cerebral Palsy. I was teased and bullied all through school. As a small child, kids compared me to the Weebles from a toy commercial during the early 70s. “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.” Thirty-five years later, and I still feel as if people are going to sing that song to me when I enter a room.

As a student high school, it was so much worse—with kids breaking the equipment I needed to be successful. My sophomore year, three different tape recorders were destroyed. The last straw for my mom was when I came home in tears because the boys were throwing one-inch nuts and bolts at my head. When my mom went to speak to the teacher, he said he would not have the problem if I were not in the class! The following year, I went to private high school, where I was on the homecoming court and was prom queen! Ok, so my graduating class was small.

I say this all to say this has gone on for decades. Sadly, it’s what kids do. What I’ve come to realize is that God is bigger than people and holds each of us in the palm of His hand. I wish it were different and that we would all see the value of people for who they are.

We’re all sinners in need of a Savior. I am comforted by the thought that one day, those of us who’ve come to realize our need for Him will sit together at the Master’s table—those who have been bullied and those who were the bullies. The Master loves us equally, and that is more than I can fathom.

As Olive Sees It

“Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most, it was a sense of safety, in the sea of terror that life increasingly became. People thought love would do it, and maybe it did. But even if, thinking of the smoking Ann, it took three different kids with three different fathers, it was never enough, was it?”

(from Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge, page 211)

But there is another way.

“In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame! In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me, and save me! Be to me a rock of refuge, to which I may continually come; you have given the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.”

(Psalm 71:1-3)

To understand these two worlds and to bring them together is why I preach.

Leonardo, Martin, Christopher, and Me


There are few occasions where I can say that Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and I share something in common. In this, we do: each of us needs story to address a sense of our guilt.

Nothing demonstrates this more powerfully than two recent movies: Scorsese’s Shutter Island and Nolan’s Inception. Both movies star DiCaprio as a man wrestling with a deep sense of his guilt. (Is it coincidence that in both, that guilt has some relationship to the death of his wife? I’d like readers to weigh in on that.)

In wildly different ways, DiCaprio in each movie retreats inwardly and
spins an elaborate fictional reality which enables him somehow to deal with the guilt of his actions. Both movies show guilt as an actual reality with powerful motivating force in the human psyche. It is something that must be dealt with, and it is dealt with, it seems, by story, by creating a reality in which the guilt is atoned for or passed off upon another. Guilt cannot reside within us without being addressed.

Remarkable to me is that these master story tellers – and these films are technically masterful – both intuitively see and accept what every preacher of the Gospel preaches each Sunday: that guilt is real and must be assuaged. It will have an effect on us. We will face it one way or another.

And, like Scorsese and Nolan, the Christian preacher tells a story by which the guilt of his listeners can be addressed. His story points to a Man come from God who took guilt upon Himself. It is a story the preacher calls upon his listeners to embrace.

The movies should challenge us to face the importance of dealing with the guilt but should also cause us to ask this question: Does the Christian story have any greater validity than the fictions created by Mr. Scorsese or Mr. Nolan, or by any number of others? Is the Christian story simply another elaborate fiction generated deep within the human mind by which sin is addressed? Is that all it is?

This, I think, is the question forced on us and left unanswered by these intriguing movies.

I have come to my own answer on that question. What is yours?