Spiritual Failure: The Unlikely Path to Christian Success

“And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter (Luke 22:60-61).”

When is spiritual failure predictable? The disciples were increasingly aware that Jesus was seriously and deliberately going to get in big trouble and difficulty. The situation was intensely dangerous when Peter felt led of the Lord to say something like: “Master, I know things are getting rough around here, but I want you to know that under no circumstances will I let you down. If every single one of these guys let you down, you can count on me. I won’t.” (I don’t think this made the other disciples happy, and they made sure to record this account in the gospels.) Jesus told Peter that before the crack of dawn Peter would fail him.

Spiritual failure is predictable when we rely on the strength of our own commitment, when we think we stand, when we underestimate Satan’s desire to sift us like wheat, when we lack watchful prayer, and when we presume that we can hide and blend in with nonbelievers without having to admit we love Jesus. All this was true of Peter.

How does spiritual failure happen? Spiritual failure happened to Peter so fast. Surprised by the servant girls’ questions and trying to blend in unnoticed, Peter denied Christ three times. The rooster crowed, and Jesus turned and looked at Peter. Peter remembered and wept with the sting of Jesus’ rebuke, the look of compassion, and the promise Jesus made about Peter’s aftermath of failure to strengthen the others. Spiritual failure is predictable and happens fast, but it need never be final.

Peter posted his sign, “Gone fishing.” After the death and resurrection of Christ, Peter and the others fished all night and caught nothing. “Did you catch anything?” Jesus asked them from the shore. “Nothing,” they replied in admitting their lack of success. Peter knew it was Jesus and struggled towards shore to sit by another fire where Jesus again turned to look at Peter. Three times Jesus asked: “Peter, do you love me with deep intensity?” Jesus asked this three times in order to remedy Peter’s three denials.

On that day Peter became a success because Christ makes spiritual failures into his special instruments and endows them with power from the Holy Spirit for victorious living. Whereas Satan wants us to take the occasions of our failures and make it our identity: “You are a failure,” Jesus defines our identity by his victory. “You are Simon (Pebbles), but you shall be called Peter (a Rock).” Although we all have spiritual failures, Christ refuses to let them define us. All God’s heroes have spiritual failures on their resumes.

Spiritual failure may just be the path to success for the Christian.

What Kind of Person do you Want to become?

You are what you eat? What if we changed it to “you are what you love?” Not, as Descartes put it: “I think therefore I am.” We are not fatheads (1 Cor. 8:1). Discipleship is not a matter of more information; rather it is about transformation. True Christianity is an inside-out way of transformation of the heart because out of the heart flows what we love, either good or ill. This is why to want things or people as ultimate things or people are idols of choice, but to want God as the ultimate good is freedom and blessing.

We all live and are drawn to what we want, so we are what we want most (Augustine and Jonathan Edwards). We might say that we become like what we worship (Psalm 8). To discover what we are becoming is to ask ourselves what habits are we practicing in order to get what we want. James K. A. Smith asks the following similar questions:

  1. What are the things you do that do something to you?
  2. What Story is embedded in your cultural practices?
  3. What kind of person do you want to become?
  4. To what kingdom are your habits or rituals aimed?
  5. What do the cultural institutions in your life want you to love?[1]

[1] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazo Press, 2016), p. 55.

Sons Leave; Daughters are Given – Genesis 2:24

In identity formation, which honors two genders (male and female), a happy mother and father will delight in early expressions without being threatened. One morning our grandson wanted to go to school with his sisters, which was a cause for delight. He was ready to leave, and came out all ready for school before his time.

Although God is His own interpreter, this beautiful act prompted in me both a smile and a thought. Boys sense from early on that they must separate and differentiate from mamma bear, especially when they receive well-being from her. Ruth H. Barton has written on gender formation, and found evidence from Carol Gilligan’s studies.

Gilligan observes that mothers are the ones who, for the most part, are the primary caretakers of young children; therefore issues of identity formation are different for boys than they are for girls. Barton writes: “Female identity formation takes place in the context of an ongoing relationship in which a girl can continue to think of herself as like her mother. Boys, on the other hand, recognize from early on that they must separate or differentiate from their primary caretaker if they are to define themselves as masculine. Their father, the person with whom they could identify strongly while continuing to develop their gender identity, is usually not as accessible to them. Thus, separation and individuation are critically tied to gender identity for boys, while for girls and women, issues of feminine identity do not depend on the achievement of separation from the mother or on the process of individuation.” Barton quotes Gilligan:  “Since masculinity is defined through separation while femininity is defined through attachment, male gender identity is threatened by intimacy while female gender identity is threatened by separation.”


Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 17. 5Ibid., pp. 7-8. 6Ibid., p. 173.

Ruth Haley Barton. Equal to the Task: Men and Women in Partnership (Kindle Locations 1236-1242). Kindle Edition.

Acceptance (Part Two)

The Gospel is our best ammunition against Satan’s lies and condemning accusations, but religion still seems to remain many Christians weapon of choice. This is because our default mode, like a computer printer, will execute religion unless we disobey the impulsive urge of religion and select the Gospel mode of operational living. Frankly, I do not see this happening without memorizing a short definition of justification – justification by grace through faith in Christ alone.

If the pastor asked a large congregation of Christians on any given Sunday what does justification mean, very few (if any) hands would be raised to answer the question. Why was Abraham credited righteous when he was a sinner? Why was Joshua the high priest in filthy rags and accused by Satan as such covered with white garments? Why did Jesus come to seek not the righteous, but the unrighteous? Why did the apostle Paul take so much time arguing for justification by faith in Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians?

What is this vital doctrine? Martin Luther said it is “the article upon which the church stands or falls” (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae).[1] John Calvin asserted that justification is “the principal hinge” upon which Christianity is supported, “For unless you understand first of all what your position is before God, and what the judgment [is] which He passes upon you, you have no foundation on which your salvation can be laid, or on which your godly approach can be reared.”[2]

The teaching of scripture tells us who we are in Christ. When we trust Christ for our justification, we trust that (1) we are pardoned of all our sins; (2) accepted as righteous in God’s sight; (3) but only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

When Jesus Christ lived thirty-three years of perfect righteousness that active righteousness was what was imputed or credited to the Christian. The Christian’s imperfect self-righteousness, which is as filthy rags, and unrighteousness were taken upon Jesus on the cross. So that He suffered the penalty our self-righteousness and unrighteousness deserves, and we receive and become the righteousness of God in Christ. (I always want to write this in all capitals and add exclamation marks.)

Scriptural Support abounds with this Gospel truth. Abraham was credited as righteous when he believed God’s promise (Genesis 15:6). Paul taught that all have fallen short of God’s righteousness, but Christ’s righteousness alone is our basis for acceptance with God as righteous (Romans 3:22-28; 4:5; 5:1; Acts 13:38-39; Galatians 2:14-16; Philippians 3:8-9). “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin,” Paul explains, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).” God declares the ungodly, who believe the Gospel, as righteous in His sight, but only for the righteous life of Jesus and his sacrificial death, He became for us when He was crucified. There is no more need to establish a righteousness of our own. There is no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). There is no more need for justifying ourselves before God and others.

Memorize This Prayer as Your Daily Bread:


I am pardoned of all my sins and accepted as righteous in His sight,

but only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to me and received

by faith alone. Amen.”[3]


[1] Martin Luther, What Luther Says: An Anthology, ed. Ewald M. Plass, 3 vols. (St Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing, 1959), Vol. 2, p. 704 n5.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., trans. Henry Beverage (1845; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), Vol. 2, p. 37 (3.11.1).

[3] This is based on The Westminster Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism Question/Answer #33, (Philadelphia, PA: Great Commission Publications, 1989), p. 74.



Christians never stop needing to hear the Gospel, and central to the Gospel is personally embracing the good news that the announcement we preach to ourselves; namely, “I am justified.”

There is nothing more foolish, yet common, than for a Christian to seek to establish a righteousness of his own (Romans 10:3). Since Jesus established a perfect righteousness for the Christian, there is no need for this. A Christian must ask God to deliver us from our sinful nature’s desire for acceptance with God. Saint Augustine prayed: “Oh Lord, deliver me from the lust of always having to vindicate myself!”

I have sought to establish my righteousness before others. For example, I attempted to gain house, lawn, and car maintenance righteousness before my father in law came to visit us. Anything we work at can become a way we seek to establish our righteousness before God and others –health, environment, etc. It gives a false righteousness, a self-righteousness, to attempt to stand on to make God pleased with us, to divide the world between the good and the bad, and to put ourselves above others.

The Protestant Reformation was a revival of the Gospel after centuries of the darkness and oppression of religion. Religion, posing as true as true Christianity, functions in three ways: (1) to put our good works before God in order to make Him owe us something; (2) to divide the world in half between the good people and the bad people; and (3) to look down on the bad people as a good person (Luke 18:9-14).

Father in Heaven,

I am pardoned of all my sins and accepted as righteous in His sight,

but only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to me and received

by faith alone. Amen.

You Really need to make up your Mind

 A debate with Jesus began when an Old Testament scholar brought an old chestnut; a repeated and tedious debate about the 613 commands of God in the scriptures at that time. Which one was the most important? Jesus cited two in Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19. Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the scriptures” (Matthew 22:37-40).

The scholar was overwhelmed because he understood that every command was motivated and practiced by perfect love. He responded, therefore, saying that all the burnt offerings in the world would not be sufficient to make up for the human deficiencies in loving well, let alone perfectly.

Jesus, gladdened by the scholar’s response, said: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). This man made progress because he saw he needed Christ’s righteousness and death to pardon his sins. We are half way to heaven when we admit we are not saved, but we are still not all the way until we receive the free gift of salvation by faith alone.

There once was a dear man in this condition. One Sunday night he went to church, and God spoke to him through the sermon. Christ was striving with him that night. The pastor invited people to meet with him in his office to receive the free gift of eternal life.

The Service finished, and out he went on his way back home. Sliding down the row, walking out the aisle, pushing open the doors, and marching along the sidewalk, he found himself unable to walk out the gates. He suddenly turned! He went marching back along the sidewalk, pushing open the doors, and walking up the aisle. As he was approaching the pastor’s office door, he was struck with the thought: “This is crazy.” So he went back out the church, walking out down the aisle, pushing open the doors, marching along the sidewalk, and finding himself unable to step through the gates. He suddenly turned back!

This went on for two or three times while a church officer was tending the gates, and was watching this guy. He looked, to him, like a man pursued by an unseen being. That is because he was. The officer said to him: “Listen, you really will need to make up your mind. Is it going to be in or out? I am shutting these doors and gates soon.” And the man, who was not far from the kingdom of God, replied: “By God’s grace it will be in!”

The man at the gate is Jesus, and you may be the one not far from His kingdom. Jesus says to you today: “Listen, you really will need to make up your mind. Is it going to be in or out? I am soon shutting these gates.” You better at least come to the point where you are prepared to say like the man, who was not far from the k, in reply: “By God’s grace it will be in!”

Legacy from Christ

Allistair Begg writes: “In January of 1981, he invited me to speak at the Londonderry Young People’s Convention. Just what a man in his late seventies was doing as the chairman of such a gathering, you might well ask. The answer had to do with a particular ministry of his. He was the founder and leader of a boys’ Bible class called Crusaders, a weekly duty he fulfilled for fifty years. His mission statement was clear. He wanted every boy that came to class to have: A Bible in his hand, A Savior in his heart, and A Purpose in his life. Many boys had come to faith in Christ through the years as a result of his ministry, and not on account of T.S.’s athletic ability or dress sense or knowledge of contemporary music. He was devoid of all of that.
When I stayed as his guest for the week during which I spoke, I was introduced to what he referred to as his ‘rogues’ gallery.’ His sitting room had large windows, extremely high ceilings, and a central fireplace he kept stocked with coal. The furniture was plain and comfortable, and a large table over by the window was stacked with books and correspondence. And everywhere, pictures of his ‘rogues.’ Some were by this time successful surgeons. It had been one of “his boys” who had performed open-heart surgery on T.S. some years before. Others were schoolteachers, others in banking and commerce, a significant number in pastoral ministry, and all of them regularly in his prayers. Prior to my visit and certainly afterward, he had written to me and never failed to remind me that he remembered me ‘regularly at the best place.’
T.S. lived alone and had a housekeeper who came in regularly to take care of his domestic affairs. When she arrived on this particular morning, she was not met by the normal cheery smile and bright eyes. She found T.S. sprawled across his bed. He was fully dressed and had obviously begun his day as usual, because when others were called to help and they moved his body, they discovered that he had fallen on top of his prayer list. He had gone to heaven praying for his “rogues.” He could never have died that way had he not lived in such discipline. It is a matter of great concern to me that the varied opportunities of my life can be an excuse for neglecting the kind of routine that is clearly necessary for the maintenance of a meaningful walk with God.”
Begg, Alistair, Made For His Pleasure: Ten Benchmarks of a Vital Faith (Kindle Locations 583-603). (Chicago,IL: Moody Publishers, 2005). Kindle Edition.


How to Resolve an Identity Crisis

We all live in an ongoing identity crisis that began when humanity lost its true sense of who we each are in the first chapters of scripture, after the creation of the world. This identity theft was orchestrated and accomplished by Satan; “the Accuser, the father of lies.” IMG_2853

Today we enter this ongoing tension with terms like “sexual identity” and “identity preference,” but deep down the voices of condemnation and self-hatred often trump the therapeutic and radical individualistic terms of our day.

The postmodern philosophers are keen to the crisis more than Christians ought to be. Although Foucault’s work is often hailed as one of the inspirations for various identity movements, Foucault himself favors the dissolution of identity rather than its creation or maintenance. Postmodern thinkers tend to see identity as a form of subjugation and a way of exercising power over people, preventing them from moving outside fixed boundaries.

One Christian writer named Henri Nouwen, who struggled with sexual identity, wrote: “Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection . . . As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, ‘Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.’ … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

It seems that we are each inclined to empower some one else with the authority to define our identity, even to let others put a price tag on our very worth. The atheist or humanist must make themselves or other people their final authority to define themselves. They do not believe in God or the demonic, therefore they choose to deny their voices. However, to continue to live as if we are what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us, is to remain in the identity crisis filled with judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations. Yet, how God thinks of us is the final resolution to the identity crisis.

In Jesus Christ the identity crisis, as it were, is settled once for all. In Adam’s first sin all people are guilty and are under the sentence of condemnation. We remain subject to addictions, confusion, shame, guilt, and alienation (Romans 5). Until we acknowledge our hostility against God (Romans 8:7) and receive God’s love by faith in Christ’s reconciliation on the cross, we will not enjoy being declared pardoned, righteous, children of God, saints, and free. What defined us before we are in Christ will be exchanged for a new identity in his life, death, and resurrection. Are you in Adam living a in the past (B.C.), or are you in Christ living by faith (A.D.)?

Even now God sees Christians with a constant approval, as if we are now what we will one day become. As C. S. Lewis once said in a sermon, “That Face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us either with one expression or with the other either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised.”

“Thine the Amen” by Carl F. Schalk

Thine the amen Thine the praise

alleluias angels raise


Thine the everlasting head

Thine the breaking of the bread

Thine the glory Thine the story

Thine the harvest then the cup

Thine the vineyard then the cup is

lifted uplifted up.

Thine the life eternally

Thine the promise let there be

Thine the vision Thine the tree

all the earth on bended knee

Gone the nailing gone the railing

gone the pleading gone the cry

Gone the sighing gone the dying

what was loss lifted high.

Thine the truly Thine the yes

Thine the table we the guest

Thine the mercy all from Thee

Thine the glory yet to be

Then the ringing and the singing

then the end of all the war

Thine the living Thine the loving

evermore evermore.

Thine the kingdom Thine the prize

Thine the wonder full surprise

Thine the banquet then the praise

then the justice of Thy ways

Thine the glory Thine the story

Then the welcome to the least

Then the wonder all increasing

at Thy feast at Thy feast.

Thine the glory in the night

no more dying only light

Thine the river Thine the tree

Then the Lamb eternally

Then the holy holy holy

celebration jubilee

Thine the splendor Thine the brightness

only Thee only Thee.

Four Seasons of Spiritual Formation

Our identity, besides being one of the most precious things to prevent from theft, crisis, or loss, is extremely important to God. The Father has given his children an identity in Christ that will shape us on our journey to heaven. If in the process of identity formation we ignore what God says concerning our identity, then we may expect confusion in other seasons of spiritual formation. four-seasons-chart_print

Just after birth, a child is given an identity. Identity formation, however, is a longer process. When Jesus Christ was approximately thirty years of age the Father spoke of his identity at his baptism just before entering fully into his calling. In the same way, identity in Christ ought to precede our calling to Christ. It is at this important season of identity that Satan challenges each of us, as he did our Lord. The devil’s first attacks on our Lord were aimed at his identity: “If you are the Son of God.”

The evil trinity—the world, the flesh, and the devil—is seeking to kill and destroy us in each season of spiritual formation. In the spring they confuse our identity, in the summer our calling, in the autumn our intentionality, and in the winter our legacy. The world escorts us to the pit; the flesh entices us to fall in; and the devil pushes us over the edge. “The pit,” as it were, represents a dark and slimy collection of lies, condemning thoughts, and foolish strategies designed to confuse and distort our identity formation.

An Identity Group is the first of four spiritual formation groups designed to shape us into the likeness of Jesus Christ. It assumes that you have to begin here before asking the next three major questions of the Christian life: Where’s my place (calling)? How do I steward all my gifts, resources, and efforts with intentionality in the light of eternity (intentionality)? What inheritance, testament, and benediction do I leave behind as I prepare to cross the river of death in order to gain eternity (legacy)?