Christian, Uncategorized

J.I. Packer on Liberty

An Excerpt from J.I. Packer’s Concise Theology:

The New Testament sees salvation in Christ as liberation and the Christian life as one of liberty- Christ has freed us for freedom. Christ’s liberating action is not a matter of socio-politico-economic improvement, as is sometimes suggested today, but relates to the following three points:

First, Christians have been set free from the law as a system of salvation. Being justified by faith in Christ, they are no longer under God’s law, but under his grace. This means that their standing with God rests wholly on the fact that they have been accepted and adopted in Christ. It does not, nor ever will it, depend on what they do; it will never be imperiled by what they fail to do. They live, and as long as they are in this world will live, not by being perfect, but by being forgiven.

All natural religion, then, is negated, for the natural instinct of fallen man, as expressed in every form of religion that the world has ever devised, is to suppose that one gains and keeps a right relationship with ultimate reality (whether conceived as a personal God or in other terms) by disciplines of law observation, right ritual, and asceticism. This is how the world’s faiths prescribe the establishing of one’s own righteousness- the very thing Paul saw unbelieving Jews trying to do. Paul’s experience had taught him that this is a hopeless enterprise. No human performance is ever good enough, for there are always wrong desires in the heart, along with a lack of right ones, regardless of how correct one’s outward motions are, and it is at the heart that God looks first.

All the law can do is arouse, expose, and condemn the sin that permeates our moral makeup, and so make us aware of its reality, depth, and guilt. So the futility of treating the law as a covenant of works, and seeking righteousness by it, becomes plain, as does the misery of not knowing what else to do. This is the bondage to the law from which Christ sets us free.

Second, Christians have been set free from sin’s domination. They have been supernaturally regenerated and made alive to God through union with Christ in his death and risen life, and this means that the deepest desire of their heart now is to serve God by practicing righteousness. Sin’s domination involved not only constant acts of disobedience, but also a constant lack of zeal for law-keeping, rising sometimes to positive resentment and hatred toward the law. Now, however, being changed in heart, motivated by gratitude for acceptance through free grace, and energized by the Holy Spirit, they “serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way the same way. Its third fault is lovelessness in that its self-advancing purpose squeezes humble kindness and creative compassion out of the heart.

In the New Testament, we meet both Pharisaic and Judaizing legalism. The Pharisees thought that their status as children of Abraham made God’s pleasure in them possible, and that their formalized daily law-keeping, down to minutest details, would make it actual. The Judaizers viewed Gentile evangelism as a form of proselytizing for Judaism; they believed that the Gentile believer in Christ must go on to become a Jew by circumcision and observance of the festal calendar and ritual law, and that thus he would gain increased favor with God. Jesus attacked the Pharisees; Paul, the Judaizers.

The Pharisees were formalists, focusing entirely on the externals of action, disregarding motives and purposes, and reducing life to mechanical rule-keeping. They thought themselves faithful law-keepers although (a) they majored in minors, neglecting what matters most; (b) their casuistry negated the law’s spirit and aim; (c) they treated traditions of practice as part of God’s authoritative law, thus binding consciences where God had left them free; (d) they were hypocrites at heart, angling for man’s approval all the time. Jesus was very sharp with them on these points.

In Galatians, Paul condemns the Judaizers’ “Christ-plus” message as obscuring and indeed denying the all-sufficiency of the grace revealed in Jesus. In Colossians, he conducts a similar polemic against a similar “Christ-plus” formula for “fullness”. Any “plus” that requires us to take action in order to add to what Christ has given us is a reversion to legalism and, in truth, an insult to Christ.

So far, then, from enriching our relationship with God, as it seeks to do, legalism in all its forms does the opposite. It puts that relationship in jeopardy and, by stopping us focusing on Christ, it starves our souls while feeding our pride. Legalistic religion in all its forms should be avoided like the plague.

A copy of this book can be purchased here:

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Christian, Uncategorized

“Pray About Everything” A Review

The discipline of prayer is often one of the most neglected spiritual disciplines of our time. I often find in my own life I have so much to pray about and yet, I pray so little. As a pastor, this is concerning to me, but what becomes more concerning, is when I realize that the seeds planted in the pulpit are reaped in the pew. Paul Tautges seeks to reverse this trend by setting forth this short work that encourages individuals, specifically pastors, to cultivate a profound sense of God-dependency within their lives and within their congregations.

In “Pray About Everything”, Paul Tautges presents a firm theological foundation for prayer that is both readable and enjoyable. This book is written in two parts with a practical set of appendices that help to wrap everything up. In Part 1, Tautges seeks to define and ground the command to pray within the biblical and historical tradition. Tautges shows that the early church understood prayer to be a lifestyle of God-dependency. He also examines how Paul’s commands to the church at Thessalonica reveals a powerful level of dependence on God in every aspect of life. In Part 2, Tautges presents seven brief meditations for prayer meetings. These meditations are instructional and devotional. They include instructions on what it means to pray in Jesus’ name, praying for unbelievers, praying for government leaders, and various other practical beliefs about prayer.

In these two parts, Tautges presents a wealth of biblical knowledge on prayer that is perfect for beginners and those more advanced in the discipline of prayer. Tautges brings together the profound and the simple in an extremely helpful and attainable manner. In every chapter, Tautges shows his heart for churches to let go of self-dependency and grasp the life-giving God-dependency found in the gospel. As a pastor, I would recommend this book to anyone struggling to cultivate a consistent and meaningful prayer life, and I intend on using it with my own congregation.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Shepherd Press in exchange for an online review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Reflections on John 12

Earlier this month I challenged the folks at Midway to join me in a journey through the gospel of John by reading five chapters of the book a week.  I did this for several different reasons.  First, I believe that the word of God is powerful and able to change the life of the reader.  Second, I believe that our average church member has not yielded themselves to this life-giving word.  Finally, I believe that people are more willing to engage with the text if they are held accountable by their peers who are also reading it.  That being said, whether you have been traveling with us on this journey from the get-go or you’re just beginning your journey, let me share with you some reflections from one of this week’s chapters.

Chapter 12 marks somewhat of a shift in attention in John’s gospel.  Jesus does the impossible:  he strikes his first blow against that enemy death by calling Lazarus out of his grave.  By doing so Lazarus becomes a walking billboard for the Messiah.  It’s hard to argue with a formerly dead man.  I’d like to draw your attention to another change that has occurred from chapter 11 to chapter 12.  In John 11:1, John introduces Lazarus as “Lazarus of Bethany” but when we arrive at John 12:1, Lazarus receives a new title.  He is identified not as “Lazarus of Bethany” but instead as Lazarus “whom Jesus has raised from the dead”.  Again in verse 9, we read that the crowds came to see Lazarus, “whom (Jesus) had raised from the dead.”  This leads me to my first reflection:

  • When Christ raises an individual from death to life our identity changes.

Lazarus was no longer average “Lazarus of Bethany” instead he was well-known as Lazarus, the one who lives again.  What, then, is our identity in?  Do we find our identity in our jobs? “That’s so-and-so the mechanic.”  Maybe we find our identity in our family.  “That’s whats-her-names son.”  Maybe people know us because of our hobbies.  They know us as a golfer, hunter, camper, or cook.  Yet, we’ve been given a new life that brings a new identity.  We are the born again.  We, like Lazarus, were once dead, but Jesus spoke and now we live.  Our identity must be in Christ.

  • Our new identity should point people to Christ.

Next, because of Lazarus’s new found identity, verse 11 says, “because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.”  Once again, it’s hard to argue with someone who has been brought back to life.  The evidence is clear.  His heart is beating, his blood is pumping; his lungs are operating.  There is no doubt that Lazarus is alive.  This natural draws a crowd.  People are not impressed by someone coming to a new-found intellectual conclusion.  Thank God, that is not biblical conversion!  Biblical conversion is reanimation.   It is a “quickening”.  Christ brings us back from the dead.  The heart of stone that was formally ours is replaced by King Jesus with a heart of flesh that will beat!   Verse 18 says, “The reason why the crowd went to meet (Jesus) was that they heard he had done this sign (raised Lazarus).”  Our transformation should be undeniable.  I pray for a work of God in our church where we see many come out of their graves at the mighty shout of Jesus.  I pray for a work in which all we can say is, “Look what God hath wrought!”

  • Only Jesus can bring this change.

Through the gritted teeth of the Pharisees came the amazing testimony, “Look, the world has gone after him.”  May God grant this again!  No politician can bring this change!  No country can bring this change!  Only Jesus brings this change!  Immediately after this statement John shows us that even the Greeks proclaimed, “We wish to see Jesus.”  If we desire that these statements be made again then we must do one thing:  lift up Jesus.  Jesus says in verse 32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  Today we must lift up the person and work of Jesus to a dead world.  It is only through death – Christ’s death – that we can live.  Church, point to Jesus!  Lift high the person of Jesus and God will draw all people to him.  Our message has not changed; we must tell every man the sweet words of Jesus, “While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” – John 12:36

I hope you continue to see and savor Jesus in the book of John.  What a blessing are these words of life!

 

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A Plea for Empathy

Empathy.  Though violence abounds, empathy is scarce.  Though opinions abound, empathy is rarer still.  Yet, in the midst of this firestorm of a world, the church must become a beacon of hope and empathy.  This increasingly amoral cultural will not offer empathy, indeed they cannot.  Empathy has no place in a world dominated by a “survival of the fittest” mentality and those honest with their world view will admit this.  Our churches then must be bulwarks of this precious human characteristic.  Why then is empathy hard to come by even amongst those who claim the cross of Christ?  Allow me ramble.

Empathy is hindered when we are forced to think in an “us versus them” mentality:

Regardless of your recent tragedy (take your pick, we’ve had plenty) men will be tempted to systematize the situations in an “us versus them” frame.  You are either against the men in blue or you are for police brutality.  You are either for homosexuality or for the mass murder of homosexuals.  Our world loves a good false dichotomy.  Yet, this is simply not true.  We can love justice AND seek mercy.  God has created us as intellectual and emotional beings.  We can and we must weep with those who weep without demonizing the supposed “other side”.   We must feel the pain of the families that have lost husbands, fathers, and brothers.  We must seek to understand what it would be like if we were in that situation.  It matters not whether we speak specifically about the tragedy in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, or Orlando our first response must be empathy.  What if it was my brother?  What if suddenly, I would never get to talk and joke with him again?  What if things were left unsaid that should have been said?  What if we were the children that just wanted to curl up with our fathers one more time and feel breathe and life?  What if we realized that regardless of lifestyle, occupation, or skin color we were all made in the image of God?  We cannot empathize if we have previously de-humanized.  We must see the precious Image of God in every living being.  It is not a quality that can be earned or taken away.  Therefore, it is a grievous thing when an Image Bearer loses his or her life.  Brothers, it is not time to “tell it like it is”, it is time to weep and pray.

Empathy is hindered when our thoughts are influenced by inferior sources:

Regardless of how much we assert that we are “independent thinkers” our thoughts are always influenced by something.  We all have hidden presuppositions that are difficult and near impossible to divorce ourselves from.  Therefore, when we frame the recent tragedies in terms of “conservative” and “liberal” we are allowing our minds to be influenced by inferior sources.  The only source that can sustain a consistent and effective worldview is the word of God.  We must be more Christian than we are partisan.   We must feel the weight of human suffering so that we can truly proclaim, “I know a better way!  There is one whose burden is light!”  Yet, many of us will seek instead to line our viewpoints up with which ever national analyst or political pundit that we like the best.  Instead, we must put our faces into the word of God and pour our hearts out in prayer.  May our hearts be sympathetic.

Finally, the source of empathy is the heart of God:

Recently I read Martin Hegel’s fascinating book on the historicity of crucifixion.  He concludes this:

“The earliest Christian message of the crucified messiah demonstrated the ‘solidarity’ of the love of God with the unspeakable suffering of those who were tortured and put to death by human cruelty.”

Crucifixion was reserved for the most hardened criminals.  For insurrectionist, murderers, and slaves.  Though it was common in the early centuries, it was not polite to even mention it in casual conversation.  Yet, Christ came to be crucified.  It was his predetermined form of execution.  He came to be marked among the criminals.  God in his incarnation sought to empathize with the very heart of human suffering.  For the stain of sin has reached its filthy hands to our throats and snatched the very life from us.  But the Master, the ever wise and perfect Master, came in the form of a slave, even taking the death of the cross, in order to restore life to us.  He came not for the self-righteous.  He came for the low.  Therefore, we must be made low in order to enter his kingdom.  Woe to us, if we proclaim the name of Christ, but we do not stoop to help those who are hurting.  Woe to us if we do not practice empathy.

“Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us.

for we have had more than enough contempt.” – Psalm 123:3

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Review of olivar’s “it’s ok to be honest”

Nashville based rock group, olivar, made up of Cole Maness and Parker Deal, released their debut EP “it’s ok to be honest” this past week.  As a lifelong friend of Cole’s, I quickly downloaded the album and gave it a listen.  Rather than just casual listening, though, “it’s ok to be honest” stirred me to honest contemplation.  From start to finish, this brief EP shows the strength of olivar, both musically and lyrically.  Each individual track combines well into a cohesive picture of reality, undergirded by strong message of hope.

The EP begins with “daybreak”, a bright song carried along by a pulsing drum beat.  This track sets the tone that is carried on throughout the EP.  The chorus rings out, “oh, to see the rising tide, a mountain upon us and smile” which touches something of resilience in the face of adversity.  The song ends musically with a really nice break down and build up, creating a nice launching pad for the next track “embers”.

In contrast to fast breaking drums of “daybreak”, the next track “embers” begins with slow, methodical guitar that matches well with Cole’s reverberated vocals.  The synchronization of guitar and vocals creates a haunting sense of retrospections.  The lyrics, “looking for some direction/ looking for neon signs/ in the woods, in the pines/ anything but a reflection” capture well the common human bond of longing.  The song seeks to impart the subtle truth that this relentless longing comes from the exilic nature of mankind as seen in the lyrics, “all the earth seems to be/ is a lesson in belief/ not a place to call home.”  In spite of this, there remains a thread of hope seasoned throughout.

This brings us to the title track, “to be honest”.  Carrying the tone of a confession, olivar takes a shot at transparency.  Though full of fears and faults, the lyrics suggest a sort of cleansing: “With a pen an inch from the page/I retract the anchor from all my mistakes”.  This track is quickly becoming one of my favorites.  The obscurity of the lyrics helps the listener relate them to his or herself with ease, making the song have a more personal feel.  The tone reminds me of Relient K’s “Forget and Not Slow Down” album and would fit in well with it.  Musically the drums and the guitar play off each other to create a track that is both somber and hopefully, and overall enjoyable.

The EP continues with the simplistic (and I mean that positively) track “86”.  The bass guitar really is featured nicely, especially paired with the drums.  The song consists of two lines, “knock it all over/watch it fall into place”, showing once again the ambivalence that presents itself throughout this EP.   This is where chaos and peace meet.  In spite of adversity, there is an ultimate hope.

The EP concludes with the track “blood moon”.  This track includes two symmetrical verses that highlight this same longing that has followed us throughout the EP.  This track is lyrically interesting, but it’s really the musicality of olivar that shines on “blood moon”.  The bridge begins what seems to be a symphony of chaos.  Although the guitar is relatively consistent, the drums continue to become more and more erratic as the song builds.  This is all undergirded with subtle shouts of “blood moon” behind it all that ties the climb together nicely.  Yet, we aren’t left here.  When we reach the climax and the chords begin to fade away, we are presented a much welcomed reprise of “embers”.  The added banjo with the acoustic guitar really solidifies this transition, as the song and the EP come to a masterful end.

Just as the title of the EP suggests, olivar seeks above all to make honest music.  Sometimes it’s raw, sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but it’s always undergirded with an unshakeable hopefulness.  Beginning with “daybreak” and ending with “blood moon”, the listener is brought full circle.  The strength of this EP is its cohesiveness.  Each track fits perfectly and adds to the overall theme.  Overall I would give this EP a solid 4 out of 5 stars.  No track really sets itself above any of the others as the highlight of the EP, but taken together as a complete picture, olivar has created a strong first attempt that leaves the listener seeking more.

Download “it’s ok to be honest” here:
https://olivar.bandcamp.com/

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Maybe Scrooge Was Right?

Few characters in Christmas literature personify the antithesis of the season like Ebenezer Scrooge.  Penned in 1843, Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol” has been told and retold.  It has become a fixture of the season.   So ingrained in our culture, is this story, that everyone knows the name “Scrooge” and the negative connotation that accompanies it.  But what if, instead of just a cranky old miser, Ol’ Ebenezer Scrooge was more of a rather observant social commentator?  In order to defend my rather peculiar thesis, let me set forth the particular meaning of Scrooge’s famous catch-phrase as exhibit number one.  At the beginning of the tale, the infamous old miser, when told, “Merry Christmas” vehemently replies, “Bah! Humbug!”  Now, I am quite sure that even though this phrase has found its way, perhaps permanently, into our cultural vocabulary, many of us are not actually aware of its meaning.  The word humbug is “deceptive, false, or insincere behavior.”  Scrooge’s main problem with Christmas then is the lack of sincerity.  This then provides a key insight to Scrooge’s hatred of Christmas.  He earnestly believes that the so called, “Christmas Spirit” is just a hoax.  It is no more than an attempt to deceive and receive, if you will.  Scrooge places his life and faith, therefore, in the fortune that he has amassed because he knows that money has no ulterior motive.  Scrooge believes that he is the only one honest enough to admit that good will toward one another during this time is simply a charade done once a year.

Where Ebenezer Got it Right:

Now before three intrusive Spirits visit me in my sleep tonight, let me explain.  I believe this is an astute social observation of secular Christmas.  Call me negative or call me pessimistic, but I believe that Christmas stripped of its Christian significance can be nothing more than a hollow charade.  Christmas without its roots in Christ can only be a humbug.  The problem in our world today is that many Christians are buying into this secularized Christmas.  The same mouths that cry, “Keep Christ in Christmas” only want him to be a small portion of their holiday.   In his book, “God With Us” John MacArthur reveals to us the problem the world has with Christmas.  He writes, “The world is happy to let Jesus Christ be a baby in a manger, but not willing to let Him be the sovereign King and Lord that he is.”  As believers, we have made the disastrous mistake of allowing our culture to borrow Christ for a season.  Much like Scrooge feared, the culture’s reason for adopting Christmas carried with it, it’s own impure motive.  This is seen in the marketing and the materialistic emphasis that now seems to go hand and hand with our holiday.  The opening of the Christmas season is now marked by folks trampling and fighting one another for slightly discounted vacuums at Walmart.  Brothers, this should not be.  We cannot pimp the story of Christmas out to our materialistic culture and expect them to treat her like a lady.  But yet, I still believe there is a better way.

Where Ebenezer Got it Wrong:

What am I suggesting then?  Should Christians stop celebrating this holiday because of the many perversions of it?  Certainly, I would not recommend the Ebenezer Scrooge approach.  We know Christmas to be a celebration of the birth of the Christ; “the fullness of God in helpless babe”  We know that Christmas celebrates the freedom that Immanuel has brought his people.  We are filled with joy and hope because God has not left us fatherless.  In spite of our great rebellion, God continues to pursue us in the most unbelievable way!  This perfect, sinless babe would one day become a man.  This man would be no ordinary man, but instead would be God incarnate.  He would “for the joy that was set before him” endure the cross as our substitute, accomplishing our salvation.  This must be celebrated!  Worship springs forth from the fountain of this great knowledge.  MacArthur helps us again here, “What is the right response to Christmas?  What should characterize the way we observe the holiday?  An emphasis on peace toward men?  The spirit of giving?  Joy and gladness?  Kindness to our fellow man?  All those things are good, but they are inadequate responses to the birth of Christ – unless they are the products of a worshipful heart.”  Christians must show the world that we are the exception to Scrooge’s aforementioned thesis.  Though the world may only offer a hollow picture of the truth, we Christians must set forth the sincere picture of joy that Christ has wrought in our hearts.  We have been changed! We must show, therefore, that Christ is all in all, not just at Christmas time.  There are many disillusioned Scrooges in our world today that need to see an authentic presentation of the gospel at work in our lives.

What a haunting idea.

This might be the underlying idea in Charles Dickens’ work.  He writes in the preface, “I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea…May it haunt their house pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”

May a clear presentation of the gospel in the words and deeds of believers in our world today be the Ghost in the life of our culture.  A Ghost that leads to a change in heart.  May our miser of a society see and embrace the riches of the gospel of grace that we proclaim.

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Matchless Beauty in the Redeeming Grace of God.

Passion.  Pleasure.  Desire.  These themes seem to drive our society today.  The banner of our culture’s moral therapeutic deism avidly screams, “Do what thou wilt!”  This has become our great commandment.  If it pleases you, do it!  Unfortunately, because of our society’s crazy, almost overpowering lust for pleasure the church has too often been pushed into an unhealthy dichotomy.  Simply put, the church has been characterized as those who are against pleasure.  For some of us this condemnation is just.  We have put up our “no fun” signs at the front of the church doors and have determined to live a boring, tasteless, passionless life until Christ calls us home.

But what if we were meant for more?

What if the biblical writers understood something about passion that at best we’ve forgotten, or at worst that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel?

When it comes to the problem of seeking pleasure, I’m inclined to agree with the venerable C.S. Lewis.

Lewis wrote, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

If this is true, and I believe it to be, then the question that would naturally be set before us would be, “How do we redirect our passions in order to experience what Lewis called, infinite joy?”

David, another man of righteous passion, gives us a clue in Psalm 16.

If we are to live a life of true joy we must first understand the beauty of the Lord’s redeeming love for us.  David writes, “The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. (Psalm 16:5-6)”

One thing I desire for myself, my wife, and my church is to see more clearly the infinite beauty of God on a daily basis.  Christianity is not stale; Christianity is not boring.  It can never be without pleasure.  In fact, our inheritance with God is aesthetically superior than anything our feeble human minds can imagine.  It is beautiful.  The love of God for helpless, hostile sinners and his work of grace to make these rebels into sons is not only a display of God’s infinite greatness, but it is also art!  Imagine, the Creator has chosen to recreate!  God has woven a beautiful tapestry of grace that even the angels long to look into!  God, being the very fountain of beauty, has given us a pearl of great price.  To fail to recognize the beauty of it would be an insult to our Creator.

It is in this beauty that we find our true source of joy.  David again writes, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)”

Did you catch that?  In the presence of God, there is fullness of joy.  Nothing in this world can bring us fullness of joy.  This is not found in wealth; it is not found in influence.  It cannot be found in our perverted pursuit of desire.  It can only be found in the shadow of the Almighty.  Our world has fallen to the great deception of Satan that suggest we can find this fullness in our finite, trivial pursuits.  This is not possible. Nothing gold can stay.  Only the gifts of the Infinite One can last forevermore.

We must seek this true and holy pleasure.  We must not cede authentic pleasure to the world.  It is ours, the Lord has given it to us.  We must not be content until we truly know what it means to bask in the glory of God.  This relationship that God has given to us should make the depths of our being rejoice!  O, how I long to see this great beauty with untainted eyes!  I long to sing of it with an untainted tongue.  I long to feel it in perfection, completely separated from the corruption of sinful flesh.

This, my friends, is full redemption.

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