As we continue our listing journey here in 2020 I wanted to highlight a few websites and blogs you may not be familiar with, and encourage you to check them out. The Rabbit Room The… More
Is it ever possible to read too many books (or have too many books)? I do not think so! It was a blessing to read some wonderful, stirring, challenging, and invigorating books this past year. Here are the ten books I read in 2019 that would be my top recommendations for you to pick up and dive into in 2020!
10) “Still Protesting” by D.G. Hart
When confusion still exists as to whether the Protestant Reformation is still going on and needed, Hart provides a compelling case as to why the divine between Protestants and Rome still exists. Furthermore, Hart deals with some of the main arguments that individuals make as to why they embrace the theology of Rome. We need to be aware of why we are Protestant and why it still matters in the 21st century.
9) “Favor: Finding Life at the Center of God’s Affection” by Greg Gilbert
Many Christians seem to think that they must do things in order to maintain or keep the favor of God. Why do I have bad things happen to me if I am faithful to read my Bible and pray in the morning? Gilbert offers much needed encouragement for weary saints. In showing the favor we have in Christ is unchanging, this book will seek to reorient how we view our lives.
8) “Made for His Pleasure” by Alistair Begg
We walked through this book on Wednesday evenings as a church. This book deals with ten benchmarks for the Christian to look at in our lives. Begg weaves personal stories and doctrinal truths that make this a compelling read that would work well for a small group or church study.
7) “Here I Stand” by Roland Bainton
If you ever look at biographies of Martin Luther, Bainton’s book usually ranks high on the list. This book does live up to the hype! Bainton does a wonderful job of painting visuals of what took place in Luther’s life. You will feel like you are walking through the streets with the German Reformer!
6) “Being a Pastor: A Conversation with Andrew Fuller” by Haykin and Croft
This short volume is a must read in the area of pastoral theology. Haykin and Croft provide historical context and practical application with the thrust of the book being a collection of ordination sermons Andrew Fuller preached. This is a great introductory book if you have never read Fuller. As a pastor, his sermons challenged me and stirred me to gaze at Christ continually.
5) “True Bounds of Christian Freedom” by Samuel Bolton
In a time where this is so much confusion on the law and the gospel, this Puritan paperback provides so much clarity and guidance in how we understand law and gospel. Bolton shows how the law functions in the life of an unbeliever and a believer. This classic Reformed book should be read by all!
4) “Communion with God” by John Owen
There are times when John Owen is a hard read. However, the Puritan paperback edition of this classic will feed your souls. Owen walks through how the Christian possesses communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The riches of our Trinitarian salvation are often overlooked. Owen will show you how this is the foundation of all our hope and peace.
3) “From Shadow to Substance” by Sam Renihan
This is the first book from Renihan that I would recommend. In this book, he traces out the historical development of Particular Baptist covenant (or federal theology). As Renihan demonstrates, the Baptists were a part of a diverse Reformed community when it came to covenant theology. They did not stand alone but used the theological principles of men like John Cameron and John Owen to develop what is now called 1689 Federalism. This book sheds light on the historical theology of the first Particular Baptists.
2) “The Mystery of Christ” by Sam Renihan
Renihan provides a biblical study and overview for a comprehensive understand of biblical covenants from a 1689 Baptist standpoint. Renihan’s treatment of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants is especially helpful in seeing some of the differences between Presbyterians and Baptists. This is not a polemical work but seeks to present a positive case for the Baptist view. Renihan does a masterful job and it is a must read to understand the Baptist view.
1) “Reformed Preaching” by Joel Beeke
Sinclair Ferguson was correct when he said you would need a lot of highlighters as you read this book because of how much you will mark! If I were teaching a homiletics class, this would be one of the required text books. Beeke provides a balanced approach of strengths in Reformed preaching while giving attention to blind spots that develop in the tradition. Utilizing historical examples, offering nuggets of practical application, and being an easy read, every preacher should pick this book up and read this year! Beeke will sharpen your preaching!
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb (Luke 2:8-21).
Christmas is a wonderful time of the year. We decorate our houses. We give and receive gifts. We spend time with family and friends. And we eat many festive meals. I really enjoy this season as I am sure many of you do as well. However, we often fail to celebrate the true reason for the season. We fail to focus on Christ. We celebrate Santa more than we celebrate Jesus and this shouldn’t be.
Jesus brings much more than a red sack of small toys, He brings salvation to the world (10-11). It’s the best news that brings the greatest joy: the enemies of God become the friends of God, all because of the work of God on their behalf. Jesus steps into His creation. He puts on flesh and dwells among us. He lives a life of perfect obedience in our place, dies a sacrificial death for us, three days later He rises from the dead defeating sin and death. Now all who repent and believe in Him will not perish but have eternal life. This is the reason for the season. This is cause for celebration and great joy.
Notice the reaction of the angels, shepherds, and Mary in our passage above as they ponder the news of Jesus. In verse 14 we are told that a multitude of angels all proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest.” In verse 20 we read, “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” And in v. 19 we see that, “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” The news of Jesus was not dull, unimportant, or casual to the people in our passage and it should be to us either.
The news of Jesus’ incarnation should bring great joy that leads to worship and adoration. As you spend time with family and friends over the next few days do not forget the reason for the season. Make Jesus the center of the celebration.
What is something shocking or remarkable that you have heard recently?
I’m a Clemson football fan, and as a Clemson fan I heard something shocking the other day about our quarterback, Trevor Lawrence. As a sophomore quarterback, he has now never trailed, through 28 games, as a college quarterback in the second half of a football game. Whether you’re a Tiger fan or not, that’s pretty shocking!
Or how about this one — According to Smithsonian, there are more pet tigers in the United States than there are wild tigers in the rest of the world!
Or how about one more — this one a bit more frightening. Apparently, the U.S. Military has permanently lost at least 8 nuclear weapons. Just gone. And no clue where they are.
As we think about God’s Word, there are certainly some shocking truths in Scripture, aren’t there? Just think about the Trinity — that there is one God in three Persons, each fully God but each distinct as a Person. Or how about prayer — that the sovereign God of the universe actually cares enough about each and every one of us that He hears us as we cry out to Him in prayer. Those are pretty shocking.
But I would submit to you that the words of John 1:14 takes the cake and ranks among the highest for shock-value for a first-century Jew — “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.“
The idea that Yahweh would become flesh was considered blasphemy. The incarnation is God’s greatest wonder — one that no creature could have ever imagined. Perhaps the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck has best summed up the difficulty that lies before us as we think about God’s greatest wonder in the incarnation when he says:
“It is completely incomprehensible to know how God can reveal himself and to some extent make himself known in created beings: eternity in time, immensity in space, infinity in the finite, immutability in change, being in becoming, the all, as it were, in that which is nothing. This mystery cannot be comprehended; it can only be gratefully acknowledged.”Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2, 49
The incarnation is that glorious truth that God the Son — the eternal second person of the Trinity — in the fullness of time took on human flesh, being born of the Virgin Mary, in order that He might become fully God and fully man in order to reconcile His people with the Father. What a glorious truth this is that we celebrate!! We are reminded in the incarnation that God is made accessible through His Son. We are reminded that this incarnate Jesus is the only mediator between God and man. We are reminded of God’s humility and glory through the incarnation. And we, as God’s people, are compelled to godly living as we consider this glorious truth of the incarnation.
As we remind ourselves this Christmas season of the glorious truth of the incarnation — that God the Son took on human flesh — and as we contemplate the humility, the love, and the grace involved and shown to us through the miracle of the incarnation, let us not forget that the incarnation itself was not enough. You see, the incarnation was for a purpose. Listen to how Donald MacLeod puts it:
“In reality, the incarnation was but the prelude to the atonement, an absolutely indispensable prelude because only this man, in our place, could expiate sin and propitiate God. But this enfleshment was not itself propitiation. He became flesh only in order to give his life as a ransom, and there could be no tetelestai [it is finished] till that life was given. He could make peace only by the blood of his cross.”Donald Macleod, Christ Crucified, 141-142
You see, Jesus took on human flesh in order that he might give his life as a ransom for many. And why was this necessary? Because you and I, as God’s created beings — men and women created to honor God and glorify Him — have done everything but that. We have rebelled against our Creator. We have turned to false gods. We have sought the pleasure of self over the pleasure of God. We have robbed God the glory due His name. And as such, on our own, each and every one of us stand as condemned sinners before the throne of God with no hope of forgiveness, with no hope of peace, with no hope of reconciliation with our Maker.
But God, in His infinite grace, love, and kindness chose in eternity past to send His Son at the appointed time in order that this perfect God-man, this incarnate Christ, would be born of a virgin, live a perfect life, die a substitutionary death, rise from the dead to defeat sin, death, and satan, and ascend to the right hand of God the Father — in his perfect, glorified fleshly state — where he now awaits to return and fully and finally save His people and judge the world.
You see, the incarnation is an indispensable, crucial, and pivotal doctrine and time in human history for us. But it is not enough. It was not an end in itself. Rather, it was but the beginning of the end, whereby this incarnate Christ would give His life as a ransom for His people.
Let us this Christmas season meditate on this truth, proclaim this truth, believe this truth, and cherish this truth. Let us not grow cold to this truth, but let us with fresh reminders behold the appearing of the grace of God in the incarnation.
As I finish writing this, let me share with you a quote from the Church Father Augustine that stirred my heart and warmed my affections for Christ this Christmas season. I pray that it will do the same for you.
“Man’s maker was made man,Augustine, Sermons 184-229, 191.1
that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast;
that the Bread might hunger,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired on its journey;
that the Truth might be accused of false witness,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Foundation be suspended on wood;
that Strength might grow weak;
that the Healer might be wounded;
that Life might die.”
The hardest thing about Christmas for me every year as a child was the waiting. In fact, the waiting seemed so unbearable at times that my siblings and I sometimes found a way to sneak a peek at our presents before the big day. I’m sure someone reading this has a similar confession.
In Galatians 4:1-7, the Apostle Paul compares the Jewish believers in Galatia to children waiting…not for presents under a tree, but for the right to their father’s inheritance. Jewish children were placed under a tutor/school master until the time set by their father. Even though technically in the family already, they had no more privileges than a household servant. But when the fullness of time came, those who seemed to have little rights in the home at all became heirs of the whole estate.
Paul writes, “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”
Paul’s phrase, “enslaved to the elemental principles of the world” has been interpreted in all manner of ways, but we need not worry. When taken in context with the rest of Galatians, it seems most convincing that Paul is referring to the slavery we found ourselves under as a result of the demands laid on us by God’s law. In 3:23-26, Paul even says God’s law is a schoolmaster as well. He writes, “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
So what does this have anything to do with Christmas? Everything! Paul is telling these Jewish Christians and us that with the arrival of Jesus’ birth, a new era in salvation history has come. In Christ, we have obtained what the law could never have provided: God’s acceptance. Why couldn’t the Law win us God’s favor? Was it somehow deficient? No, rather we were deficient and couldn’t keep its demands. In his famous allegory of the Christian life, John Bunyan compared the strict commands of the law to a hill no pilgrim could climb. Bunyan describes the hill of the law as so high that it bends over on oneself. Bunyan was also attributed with this pithy statement that probably came from Ralph Erskine:
“A rigid matter was the law,
Demanding brick, denying straw,
But when the gospel tongue it sings,
It bids me fly and gives me wings.”
Now that Christ has come, the righteous demands of the Law have been met on behalf of all who hope in Jesus for their salvation. Paul gloriously declares in Romans 8:1-4, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
So don’t wait for Christmas to enjoy the benefits of Christmas. If you’re hope is in Christ and His finished work, you have gone from being a slave of sin to an heir of God and a co-heir with Christ. The whole realm of the eternal inheritance from God is yours now believer. So this Christmas, be humbled by the lavish riches that are already yours through Jesus. Paul tells the saints in Ephesus, “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” The wonder of Christ’s incarnation at Christmas is that we who were slaves of sin and condemned under the law have now been adopted into the family and given the rights to this inheritance. If this is true, and it is Christian, we ought to be the most joyful, humble, patient, and gracious people. After all, what more could you possibly need than you’ve already been given?
One of my first thoughts was, “This is an odd time of the year to be handling the covenants.” But on second thought, “The covenants are the purpose of the advent of Christ.” This time of the year exists because YHWH is a covenant-making & covenant-keeping God.
Our little country church is in the midst of amending our church covenant in the pursuit of recovering meaningful church membership. I know that “recovering meaningful church membership” is a popular catchphrase among Reformed circles but it caught on for a reason.
For many churches, like ours, membership has become “Your name on a page” or “Your right to vote” or “Family tradition.”
But membership, especially covenantal membership, is so much more. We are a covenantal people because God is a covenantal God. And most importantly, we are in a covenantal relationship with YHWH because Jesus Christ is our Covenant-keeping Federal Head.
In my pursuit of faithfully “shepherding the flock of God…as one who will have to give an account” (1 Peter 5:2 & Hebrews 13:17), I discovered the importance of covenantal church membership. I would go so far as to say the centrality of covenantal church membership for the Christian life. Allow me to lead you from the God-head to the Body (quickly not comprehensively) in three sweeping movements: (1) The Covenant-making & Covenant-keeping God; (2) Christ, Our Covenant Fulfiller; and (3) The Body, Covenanted for His Glory & Our Good.
The Covenant-making & Covenant-keeping God
One cannot pick up the Bible, open its pages, and read a single word where they will not find God interacting with His creation outside of a covenant. Covenants are the divinely ordered mechanism by which God has entered into relationship with His creation.
From Adam to Noah, Noah to Abraham, Abraham to Moses, Moses to David, and David to Golgotha (the New Covenant, see Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36, and Luke 22:20) God has always and will always relate to humanity through his “precious and very great promises” (2 Peter 1:4).
This would encompass all of humanity; from the elect to the reprobate.
And YHWH has always fulfilled His end of His initiated covenants, without fail, whether that be in covenant blessing or covenant curses. From Numbers 23:19, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” to Titus 1:2, “…God, who never lies, promised…”, believers rejoice in the steadfast, immutable, faithfulness of God!
Christ, Our Covenant Fulfiller
My heart rejoices as my mind overflows from the incomprehensible wisdom of God displayed in Christ Jesus. His advent was for the purpose of fulfilling mankind’s obligation to God in all of the covenants of works, laying his life down as a substitutionary atoning sacrifice to pay the penalty of covenant-breakers chosen by God for redemption, and to conquer death for those who, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, would be given eternal life.
This, my friends, is the Hope to which you were saved.
Because of Christ, the covenant blessing of “I will be their God and they will be my people” has been fulfilled. Indeed, “It is finished,” which is why “all the promises of God find their Yes in Christ” (2 Cor. 1:20).
Jesus is the Second Adam, the Seed of the Woman, the Seed of Abraham, the Great Prophet, the Great High Priest, the Seed of David who reigns forever, and inaugurator of New Covenant, the Covenant of Grace, the Eternal Covenant.
In Christ, you have been given every blessing from every covenant for eternity to the praise of His glorious grace. Rejoice, brothers!
The Body, Covenanted for His Glory & Our Good
“Be imitator of God” (Ephesians 5:1). Having been made partakers of His divine nature, in Christ, be imitators of God. Because God is a covenant-making & covenant-keeping God so His people, from all time, have always been. And we need not find or make some random covenant.
Jesus summarized the covenant-keeping nature of His people when He commissioned His disciples at His ascension, “…teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:20).
Our church covenant is nothing more than a summary of the Lord’s descriptions of life in Him. The covenant we make is in Christ, with Christ & His Body, for God’s glory which is our greatest good.
Why would any Christian shy away from such thing? For me, early in my walk with Christ it was because of indifference brought about by ignorance; nothing more, nothing less. Today, I run to the Covenant knowing that God has given it to me for my good, others have bound themselves to it for my good, and that by doing so I imitate my covenant-making & covenant-keeping God.
May God be glorified as I, and I pray we, seek to honor Him together! Merry Christmas, friends!
With the season of Advent coming into full bloom and the music of the season in the air I want to revisit one of the most popular songs of the season: O Come, O Come Immanuel.
It is a song rich with history, being originally traced back to the 8th century as a responsive reading, it is one of the oldest songs of advent we still sing in the modern Church. One of the reasons I believe it still holds a place so near and dear to most of us is its reliance on the biblical text to bring comfort, truth and grace through music to God’s children. This 1200 year old hymn points us straight back to Scripture and brings life and comfort to the weary soul.
Specifically I want to look at the opening verse of this amazing hymn.
O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.
This first verse has its origins back in Isaiah 7 in the days of Ahaz king of Judah. In that day God offered the king a chance to ask of Him whatever he wished as proof of God’s love and protection for His people, but rather than accept this gift of God, Ahaz spurned the gift and God in the process. Rather than trust in God for deliverance and protection for the people, Ahaz turned to political allegiance and military strength to find peace. It is in this setting that God brings forth the prophecy that a virgin will bear a son and he will be named Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14). This sign was meant to be a reminder that God was the only hope for His people, because before this even would come to pass His people would suffer at the hands of the very alliance the king had established.
However, The king’s disobedience and sin would make a way in time for God’s ultimate blessing. For God didn’t leave His people in exile and suffering but rather brought forth in time the fulfillment of the words of Isaiah to king Ahaz in the giving of His Son to the world. In the midst of the great fear of the ages and the new captivity of Israel to the people of Rome, God would now dwell with His people. Immanuel was to be born to a virgin in the city of David.
Now before the child would be born the Lord sent an angel to instruct her fiancé in the truth of what was to take place. We see this in Luke 1:18-23 with a picture of the angel’s interaction with Joseph. In this vision he is instructed to name the child Jesus, for He would save the people from their sins, but not only would He be named Jesus, He would be Immanuel. In this short passage of Scripture the name Immanuel became intricately connected to the name Jesus. In Jesus we see that God’s presence with His people is linked with His love for them and the desire to set them free from the lasting pain of sin. He takes on the name that echoed back to the very founding of the nation in the land of Canaan as Joshua lead his people to political freedom. Now the new Joshua (the Hebrew name that Jesus comes from) will set them free from a far greater danger, that of sin and death, and the only means by which he could do this is if he was the Immanuel, God himself residing with His people.
For us we are blessed to know that God did keep His promise to the people of Israel and we are the humble recipients of His grace and mercy. God came to us and set us free form our sin and set us on the path of righteousness, but He did not leave us on that path alone.
In both narratives we see God’s faithfulness to His people in the midst of uncertainty. So too in this advent season we know that God is still faithful to His people, though it took over 700 years for the true fulfillment of Immanuel to take place, He was faithful. In our day and age we have the blessing of seeing and experiencing the gift of the first Advent. As believers we experience the grace of God daily, all the more if you are not born Jewish, for in Christ He brought us gentiles into the family of God.
Today, while we experience the great blessings of Christ, may we also look forward to the eternal blessing of His second advent. One of the great blessings of God being with His people is that it is more than a metaphysical reality of the past, it is a real present experience, and a future hope in His final return.
So let us sing out with gladness not only because He has come and set free the first captive Israel from their sin, but that He shall return again to bring the true Israel to Himself for eternity.
Recently, I had a pastor ask me what my thoughts were concerning church members who never bothered to show up to celebrate and commemorate the Lord’s Supper. It struck me when he asked me that question because it reminded me of what I saw growing up. Only once did we celebrate communion and only a handful of people bothered to show up on a Wednesday night when it was held. The two ordinances given to the church are not options. These are not means of salvific grace whereby we know justification through the waters of baptism or the meal at the Lord’s Table. Yet, there should be concern for someone who can profess to be a Christian yet has no desire to be obedient to the Word and to celebrate the means of grace that God has given to us.
When we come to the Lord’s table, we are enjoying a preview of what is to come! We have come to a banquet to feast upon the riches of the gospel. The bread and cup are tokens of the King of His love for us and what we enjoy in Him. Consider what we celebrate…
How can I be admitted to the table apart from the righteousness of Christ? The Lord’s Supper points me to the fact that the access I have to God is free, full, and open. The reason that I have that access is due to me being justified in Christ. I do not come to the table in hopes of being justified. This is not a part of my duties to perform whereby I hope to earn credit and merit before God.
When I come to the table, I am celebrating the fact that I come as one who is in Christ. I am justified due to Him and Him alone. The bread and the cup are symbols that remind me of what it cost in order for me to be righteous in Christ. The bread proclaims that God took on flesh. As the God-man, the second Adam, the Christ lived a life of full obedience to the law of God and was in submission to the Father. His active obedience is imputed to us. His passive obedience is seen in the cup whereby He pours Himself out as the sacrifice on our behalf.
Our hope is truly built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Our justification is based upon what He has done and what He has given us. By faith, we trust and rely upon His finished work. So, when we come to the table, we understand our admittance is rooted in the fact that we are clothed in the robes that Christ has given to us.
We come to the table still sinners but also justified. The supper does not mean that we are here perfectly righteous in that we have not sinned. It does mean that I am perfectly righteous in the sight of God and accepted in the beloved Son! We celebrate the wondrous truth of justification when we come to communion. Delight in this that you have a seat at the table because you are justified.
Second, we celebrate our salvation at the table when we consider the truth of adoption. Notice, that for us to be given a seat at the table testifies to the fact that our status has changed. We were enemies of God, now we are adopted and made the children of God.
Do you understand that the doctrine of adoption is connected to the doctrine of election, the covenant of redemption, and our being called out of this world? We are a gift from the Father to the Son. Those who were opposed to Him now love Him. Adoption does not happen because we choose for it to happen or because we will it to happen. Nothing exists in us that would demand that God adopt us and bring us into His family.
Third, the Lord’s Table aids us in growing in sanctification. We refer to the table as one of the ordinary means of grace that the Lord gives to us. These are meant to strengthen our faith and assurance. We come to the table in order to be reminded of who we are and why we press forward. This is a time for us to rest and rejoice in the gospel of grace. This is to be wind under our sails in a lifelong pursuit of sanctification.
As we come to the table, we are being reminded of who we were and who we are now in Him. The meal causes us to see our dependence is upon His grace not just in justification and adoption but also in sanctification as well. This celebration of our sanctification is not only in the individual’s life but in our life corporately. As this is a new covenant meal, we are calling one another to pursue Christ, to run for Christ, and that we are doing so together. This is not a pilgrimage that we face alone but that we are unified together in Christ.
Let us delight in the ordinary means of grace the Lord gives to us. Let us not despise them but desire them more and more.
In instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus spoke of a future time when He would drink of the fruit of the vine in the kingdom. All that we enjoy about the table is a preview of what awaits us in the consummation. When Christ returns, we will be glorified and made perfectly like Him. At the table of the king, we will see and focus our attention not upon one another’s greatness but upon His greatness.
So, the supper serves to remind us that while this is an earthly meal, it bears great spiritual significance. It serves for us as a type of picture of what we will enjoy for all eternity with the King of kings and Lord of lords. Does that not excite you? Can you imagine what it is going to be like to be seated with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Cornelius, Apollos, and Timothy, Augustine, Athanasius, and Polycarp, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, Fuller, Carey, Spurgeon, Sproul, and Lloyd-Jones? As wonderful as that will be, our attention will not be on the apostles, the church fathers, the Reformers, or other great heroes we love to read. Our attention will be on the head, the king, the ruler: Christ!
The table does not save us. Rather it is a celebration of the wondrous salvation that has been wrought in our lives by the grace of God. Meditate each time you come to the table on your justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. Celebrate the amazing grace of God in this sacred and special meal!
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.
The Christian life is not easy life. At times we face difficulty, suffering or even persecution as we strive to live for Christ. And as these troubles arise, we may be tempted to walk away from the faith, but when those temptations come, we must remind ourselves of the verses above.
In these verses from Hebrews, you’ll notice, the author of Hebrews is writing to a group of Christians who had and who were likely continuing to face persecution as a result of their faith in Christ. After just having warned them severely about walking away from the faith the author now seeks to encourage them by reminding them of when they first believed and what it is they believed in.
In v. 32 and 33 he tells them, “after you were enlightened” (that is after your eyes were opened to the truth of the gospel and you believed), “you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. He goes on, in v. 34, to say, “you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”
He is essentially telling them: “Listen you have dealt with difficulty before. You have experienced suffering and persecution before, and you got through it because you knew that the sufferings of this life do not compare to the glory of the life to come with Jesus. So, you can get through difficulties again knowing that your future with Christ is far greater than any comfort, possession, or freedom you might have here. And so, if you lose those things, even if you lose your life, you’ve lost nothing because you still have Jesus and to have Jesus is exceedingly greater than to have any other thing.”
And this is the truth that the author of Hebrews was reminding his readers of in light of the difficulties that they were experiencing or were about to experience. And this is the truth that you and I need to be reminded of as well: Jesus is exceedingly greater than any other thing this world has to offer. And when difficulty, suffering, or even persecution arises we can know that these are temporary afflictions that don’t even remotely compare to the joy that we will have with Jesus for all of eternity.
2 Corinthians 4:17 tells us, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” It is this hope, this promise, this truth that propels us through the Christian life in all of its ups and downs. And just as the author of Hebrews was reminding his readers of this truth so we too need to remind ourselves and others of this truth regularly: We have a far better and abiding possession in Christ (v.34), than any other thing this world has to offer. As difficulties, heartache or even persecution arises in your life remember this truth regularly: Jesus is better.
The phrase “Spirit-filled” is tossed around a lot today in evangelicalism. Most often, this label is used to describe a Christian or a church that emphasizes spiritual gifts, experiences authentic and emotional worship ‘encounters,’ and seeks to avoid “putting God in a box” when it comes to the expression of faith.
However, the phrase “Spirit-filled Christian” or “Spirit-filled church” is actually quite misleading (and often used in a divisive way, suggesting that someone or some church isn’t Spirit-filled). It’s like using the phrase “born-again Christian.” How are these phrases misleading? Because every true Christian is born again; there’s no such thing as a Christian who is not born again. Similarly, every true Christian has received the Holy Spirit, and thus every true Christian church is Spirit-filled. The church of Jesus Christ is the assembly of those called by God the Father into the fellowship of his Son by his Spirit (1 Cor. 1:9; see also 3:16-17; 12:13; Eph. 2:18-22).
Now of course, there are all kinds of ‘churches’ in all kinds of ‘Christian’ denominations today that are not true churches of the Lord Jesus Christ and therefore not Spirit-filled. However, the true church of Christ is the Spirit-filled, indwelt, baptized, empowered, illuminated, sanctified, and sealed assembly of the restored people of God under the saving rule of the risen Lord Jesus.
But, what does a true “Spirit-filled” church look like? There is no better place to answer this question than to look at the results of when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the new covenant church in fullness on the day of Pentecost.
The Restored People of God
In Acts 2:41, we read that those who received Peter’s word—who believed the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus—were baptized and were added to the church. Some 3,000 Jews in Jerusalem received the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s atoning death. They received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit from the ascended Christ. And then immediately, we are given a comprehensive portrait of the life of the early church.
In fact, the description of the church in Acts 2:42-47 is one of the clearest proofs that the Spirit of Jesus had indeed been poured out upon the restored people of God. This passage reveals that a true, “Spirit-filled” church will be one that is joyfully devoted to doctrine, to fellowship, and to prayer. Those who, by grace through faith, receive the gift salvation and the very Spirit of Jesus (i.e., Christians) are those who obey the word of their King, who love the people of their King, and who rely on the power of their King.
But before we look at each of these areas in more detail, it’s important to notice the way Luke describes how they did all of these activities: “they devoted themselves.” They continued steadfastly, passionately; they were persistently committed to the Christian faith. If Luke is painting a portrait of the church, he is painting with the boldest and most vibrant of colors. The life of the church was one of radical devotion to their risen Lord. These Christians began to live as though Jesus really was the king of the world, all because they had received the Holy Spirit.
A Spirit-Filled Church is Joyfully Devoted to Doctrine
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42).
The first thing Luke mentions is the church’s radical commitment to the teaching—the doctrine or message—of the apostles. And what was this teaching? It was what Peter had just preached in Acts 2: the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus. Their message was the good news of the kingdom of God under the saving rule of Christ! They taught that the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, was the fulfillment of all of God’s covenant promises. He is the second Adam, the prophet like Moses, the Passover Lamb, the true Israel, the perfect redeemer, the greater Son of David. This Jesus offered up his own life as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all who would believe in him and was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father for our justification.
Their doctrine included everything revealed in the Old Testament, everything spoken by Jesus during his earthly ministry, and the significance of his death and resurrection—all of which they would go on to explain in letters and sermons in what has become the New Testament. And the church was radically devoted to this gospel, the word of God. They not only heard it and studied it but proclaimed it and bore witness to Jesus in the power of the Spirit.
“With Signs and Wonders Confirming”
How did the people in Jerusalem know that the doctrine of the apostles was the truth? Luke tells us in verse 43: “Awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles” Just as God performed miracles through Jesus to validate his identity as the Son of God (Acts 2:22), the teaching of the apostles was also confirmed by signs and wonders! Jesus empowered his official representatives to lay the foundation of the church as the new leaders of the restored people of God.
But the church wasn’t devoted to these signs and wonders; they were devoted to doctrine! This is not to say that the early church didn’t believe God for miracles (as we’ll see in just a moment), but they weren’t seeking to perform signs; their focus was on the Person to which the signs of the apostles were pointing: King Jesus! Throughout the book of Acts, it is repeatedly stated that miracles, signs and wonders, were performed by the apostles and their associates. Why? Because the apostles were chosen and entrusted by the risen Lord Jesus to lay the foundation of the church; it was their word about Jesus was to be received and believed (2:41). Thus we read that “all who believed were together” (2:44).
Centered on the Word of the Risen Lord Jesus
Today, the doctrine of the apostles is found in what we know as the New Testament, along with the revelation of God that is the Old Testament. Being devoted to joyfully doctrine to doctrine means being joyfully devoted to Scripture—hearing, believing, obeying, and continuing steadfastly in the Bible! Simply put, a Spirit-filled church is centered on the Word of the risen Lord Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth who guides the people of God into all truth (John 16:13). He bears witness about Jesus (15:25). We are sanctified in the truth, and God’s Word is truth (17:17). So, to receive the gift of the Spirit is to receive a passionate desire to be centered on the Word.
God’s Word is the instrument of our salvation: It is how we come to faith in Christ (Rom. 10:17); it is how we are born again (1 Pet. 1:23). But God’s Word is also sufficient for our sanctification: It is how we are trained in righteousness and grow in godliness, becoming complete and equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). We need gospel doctrine! A true church is a community of believers where God’s Word is loved, read, studied, and obeyed in its entirety. Bobby Jamieson writes: “Sound doctrine is the lifeblood of the church. It shapes and guides the church’s teaching. It nourishes holiness. It fosters love. It grounds an repairs unity. It calls forth worship. And it informs and motivates our witness to the gospel.”
So, for those who claim to be “Spirit-filled”: Are you devoted to doctrine? Do you consume God’s Word? Do you meditate upon it day and night, rehearsing the gospel to yourselves daily? Do you teach this doctrine to your children? Do you believe and obey it? Is your entire life centered on and nourished by the Word of Christ?
However, being devoted to doctrine does not stop at centering our lives on God’s Word. No, being devoted to the teaching of the apostles leads to transformation; doctrine leads to devotion.
A Spirit-Filled Church is Joyfully Devoted to Fellowship
And they devoted themselves to . . . the fellowship, to the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42).
There’s not just a body of doctrine that must be believed and obeyed; there is a body of believers that must be loved and encouraged. Sound doctrine teaches us that not only have we been saved from the King’s judgment, but that we have been saved to his kingdom and his people.
The word ‘fellowship’ is a beautiful and significant word that, all too often, gets thrown about carelessly. When we hear ‘fellowship,’ we usually think handshakes, hellos, and howdy-dos; we think fellowship halls, church lobbies, and potlucks; we think socializing and mingling. But this is not what Luke is describing. This is the Greek word koinonia, and it means “a close association involving mutual interests and sharing.” It’s translated as fellowship, communion, participation. (Outside the New Testament, it was used to express the marriage relationship.)
This is the word used to describe our union with Christ by faith! Listen to the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:9: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Paul later explains that this fellowship with Christ is from the Holy Spirit we have all received (2 Cor. 13:14; Php. 2:1) John writes that “our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Because we have fellowship with God in Christ by the Spirit—because we have been united to Christ by faith and are now members of his body—we also have fellowship with one another in Christ by the Spirit. By the Spirit of adoption, we have become the new creation family of God!
Bearing Burdens in Love
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need (Acts 2:44-45).
Describing the togetherness of the early church, Matthew Henry writes: “Wherever you saw one disciple, you would see more.” Their communion with Christ and one another completely changed their priorities. They were family. And their newfound devotion to fellowship was seen in two ways. First, being devoted to fellowship meant bearing burdens in love. Every member of the church held his possessions at the disposal of others. Their shared fellowship with Christ, and the forgiveness they had all received led them to share even their possessions with each other.
Verses 44-45 are often misunderstood. This doesn’t mean everyone got rid of everything they owned; rather, the believers were ready and willing to help those in need. If this meant sharing or selling their possessions, they would do so eagerly, joyfully, and generously. This also doesn’t mean the church didn’t care about unbelievers or those outside the church. Luke is showing us just how radically devoted the church was to the fellowship of the saints.
Breaking Bread with Joy
And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people (Acts 2:46-47).
Second, being devoted to fellowship also meant breaking bread with joy. Not only were the believers meeting together daily in the temple courts to hear the apostles teach and have fellowship with one another, they were also gathering often for meals with one another.
In v.42, Luke wrote that they devoted themselves “to the breaking of bread.” This phrase refers both to the ordinary meals the believers shared as well as the Lord’s Supper, which they would commemorate at their regular meals, remembering their Lord and his sacrifice. It was while breaking bread that the believers would begin to get to know one another, learn about their needs, yet also pray and worship their Lord and Savior together. Just as Jesus came eating and drinking, and revealed himself to his followers “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35), the early church celebrated gospel fellowship the same way.
The main force of this sentence is the statement at the end of verse 46: “They received their food with glad and generous hearts.” ‘Glad’ here literally means extremely joyful, full of exaltation; and ‘generous’ means simple—they ate with humble, honest, and sincere hearts. The church was characterized by a spirit of rejoicing and generosity. Even their meals were occasions for praising God with great joy, with hearts full of thanksgiving. This was the joy of salvation—a true sense of gratitude, contentment, and delight given by the Holy Spirit.
Transformed by the Love of the Risen Lord Jesus
Beloved, the reason the early church was devoted to such deep, intimate fellowship was because they had received forgiveness of their sins and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. This community wasn’t simply inspired by the love, forgiveness, patience, and generosity of the risen Lord Jesus; they had received the very Spirit and power of the risen Lord Jesus to actually walk in forgiveness, love, patience, and generosity!
In other words, a Spirit-filled church is transformed by the love of the risen Lord Jesus. Those who have had the love of God poured into their hearts by the promised Holy Spirit; those who have become new creations in Christ by the life-giving, regenerating power of the Spirit; those who have been called by grace into the fellowship of the blessed Trinity will be devoted to fellowship—both bearing burdens and breaking bread.
John pulls no punches when he writes: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. . . . By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:14, 16-18).
This is profound: John is saying “Do you want to know if you are a believer? Do you want to know if you have been born again, saved from death and given new life? Then answer me this: Do you love the church? Are you devoted to fellowship?” Say all you want that you are a Christian, that you love Bible doctrine, that you give, that you shovel your neighbor’s driveway. But if you can go about your whole life, day to day, week to week, completely separated from and uninvolved in the life of the church, your failure to show love and concern for the believers testifies against you.
This is why membership in a local church is of the utmost importance for living the Christian life. Membership gives definition and direction to the commands given to Christians. How can you bear the burdens of every Christian? How can you pray for every Christian? How can you show hospitality to every Christian? You can’t. But by joining a local church, you have a defined community of believers with whom you can be devoted to fellowship in these ways.
But what explains the growth of the church? What explains the awe, the reverence, and the favor of the unbelievers towards the church? This brings us to the final aspect of our portrait…
A Spirit-Filled Church is Joyfully Devoted to Prayer
And they devoted themselves to . . . the prayers (Acts 2:42).
The church in Acts was a praying church. The rest of the New Testament shows that the church is to be a praying church (Eph. 6:18-19; 1 Thess. 5:17; 1 Tim. 2:1). And just like Jesus, who spent much of his ministry praying to his heavenly Father, the church will be devoted to prayer because it has received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry, “Abba, Father!” (Rom. 8:15). These believers knew that in their own strength, they were helpless. They knew that on their own, they would fall into temptation and sin. They knew that if the world hated their King, it would surely hate them. But they also knew that they had been reconciled to God and brought into fellowship with him, and this fellowship was expressed in prayer.
The results? “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). What a powerful and beautiful and assuring truth! The church bore witness to the risen Lord Jesus in the power of the Spirt, prayerfully preaching the word of God, and God brought about the miracle of salvation (talk about doing greater things!). It is the risen Lord Jesus alone who builds his church, but he has graciously given us the opportunity to participate with him through prayer. And a church that that truly depends upon God to change hearts of stone, to raise the dead to life, and to build up his church will pray. Salvation belongs to the Lord, and praise God he is still saving today!
We saw before that the early church wasn’t devoted to signs and wonders. Yet in one sense they were, because they were devoted to prayer. They knew that greatest miracle of all was the raising of a dead sinner to life by the resurrection power of God, and so they prayed. They knew that faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ, and so the prayed for boldness (leaving the demonstration of the miraculous up to God).
For example, in the face of persecution, they would later pray: “‘Grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:29-31).
Dependent Upon the Power of the Risen Lord Jesus
In a true “Spirit-filled” church, devotion to doctrine is central; we must aim to be centered fully on the word of God. In a true “Spirit-filled” church, devotion to fellowship is a nonnegotiable; we must seek to be transformed continually by the love of Jesus. But the church will only grow when the power of God is acknowledged, sought after, and depended upon in passionate prayer; we must be devoted to prayer.
You can substitute doctrine for entertainment and your church might see numerical growth. You can substitute online services for fellowship and your church might see a form of growth. But authentic numerical growth due to the salvation of sinners is the result of prayer.
Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on a cross, raised from the dead, and exalted to the right hand of God not only to provide forgiveness of sins and the gift of his Spirit by faith in his name, but to create a people for himself: the Spirit-filled, new-creation, born-again, restored people of God. And the true Spirit-filled church is a church joyfully devoted to doctrine, to fellowship, and to prayer.
Does such devotion characterize you? Can you say that you are centered on the word of the risen Lord Jesus, seen in a devotion to doctrine? Have you been transformed by the love of the risen Lord Jesus, seen in a devotion to fellowship? Are you dependent upon the power of the risen Lord Jesus, seen in a devotion to prayer? To profess to believe in the risen Lord Jesus and yet fail to be devoted to the teaching of the apostles and the fellowship of the saints and to prayer shows that you may never have received the forgiveness of sins and the promised Holy Spirit. Only the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus will fuel such devotion.
So whatever else the phrase “Spirit-filled” may mean today, let this portrait of a true, Spirit-filled church be true of our local churches today. May we all live as though Jesus really is the King of the world.
Most churches are small. That statement is not meant to be an indictment on bad pastoral leadership or a comment on the health of its members. It is also not meant to be fatalistic, saying we’re beyond hope and might as well accept defeat. It is merely a fact of life and yet it produces a fair amount of angst and anxiety in both members and pastors. There is a subtle lie in our culture that has crept into our churches. It comes packaged in different ways, but at its root the lie is that size equals success. Bigger is better. A leader without lots of followers isn’t cut out for leadership. This lie has led many depressed and exhausted pastors to go the route of the church growth experts and many members to push their pastors in this direction as well. They’ve “tried” God’s way lined out in the pages of Scripture and it hasn’t produced the visible results they wanted or expected (revealing a worldly mindset), so they then do things the world’s way. They frantically start branding their church or creating a fancier website or dressing trendier in the pulpit or hiring a talented “worship leader” in hopes that these things will grow the church. Some even try softening the hard edge of the Gospel in an attempt to make their preaching more “relevant” or seeker-sensitive. But even those who don’t go the route of tickling ears in the pulpit can still be duped by the lie of success. They start believing that a healthy church is measured solely or primarily by what one pastor calls, “nickles and noses” or “budgets and backsides.” Sadly, these pastors have chosen to exchange God’s measure of success for that which the world, the flesh, and the devil call success. They are falling prey to pragmatism and don’t even realize it. But Scripture says success isn’t measured by what “works”, neither is failure by what doesn’t “work”.
Before I go any further, let me say: I have a heart for these pastors and members because I am one of them. I’ve fallen prey to pragmatic thinking time and time again. Part of the reason I’m writing this is to remind myself to trust God’s Word over man’s approval. I admit that many times my passion in preaching has been far too affected by the size of the crowd that morning. When I find my heart either sinking or soaring based upon the presence or absence of bodies in pews, I know this reveals heart idols that I must put to death. The best way to do this is to go back to God’s Word.
What is God’s idea of success in ministry? What is God’s recipe for a healthy church? What is God’s consideration of a good pastor? What is God’s idea of growth and how can we experience it? Paul actually wrote the pastoral epistles to address these issues. 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus make up only 13 chapters in our Bibles, but they have profound significance for how we view church life. In the pastoral epistles we are given a glimpse into healthy church life and leadership. What we discover there is that church growth, health, and success in God’s estimation isn’t about numbers at all; it’s about biblical faithfulness. 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2 is perhaps the clearest passage in the pastoral epistles displaying God’s design for a church’s growth, health, and success.
Paul writes, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
Notice how there is no mention of the “size” of Timothy’s church or how big the church budget is. Rather, what we have is a clear and weighty charge that Timothy be faithful to preach the Word of God. Why?
THE WORD ALONE SAVES
Paul says the “sacred writings” that Timothy had learned from childhood are the very means of salvation. In Romans 1:16, he calls it, “…the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” James 1:18 states that God, “…brought us forth by the word of truth…” 1 Peter 1:23-25 says, “…you have been born again…through the living and abiding word of God…and this word is the good news that was preached to you.” When God sent Ezekiel to prophesy to dry bones, it was the very preached Word that turned the bones of the people of Israel into a living army. It was the Word of Christ spoken that brought the dead Lazarus to life and it was the Word of God that created all things in existence.
These days people have latched onto the phrase “church revitalization,” but only the Word preached in the power of the Spirit revitalizes or gives life. David writes in Psalm 19:7, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul…” Don’t get me wrong; there are many helpful steps churches can and should take to improve their membership process and impact the city in which they live, but none of these have the power to save one soul…God’s Word alone does.
THE WORD ALONE IS GOD-BREATHED
Paul combines two words here to create a new word (something he loves doing). He combines the word God and breath to define the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Breath is used often in the Bible to refer to the Holy Spirit. So Paul is saying that the Bible is God exhaling and revealing Himself in speech. As I’ve heard it said before, “Where the Bible speaks, God speaks.” This is why Hebrews 4:12 states, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Scripture is scalpel of the Spirit, or as Paul calls it in Ephesians 6:17, “…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” As preachers, we have no authority on which to stand other than the Bible. Therefore the pulpit is no place for theological hobby horses or politics or one’s thoughts on a subject. Our ministry will only be as effective as we are faithful to expose our people to the search light of God’s Word. This is why people often tell the preacher after the service that they felt like the sermon was directed at them. We cannot have this internal and eternal impact on the souls of the people in our charge unless we preach the word. We must do as Paul did and as he charged the Ephesian elders to do in Acts 20 and, “not shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God.” David was right when he wrote in Psalm 12:6-7, “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. You, O Lord will keep them…” When we helplessly search for authority with the people while failing to rely on the preaching of God’s Word in the power of the Spirit, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
THE WORD ALONE GROWS THE CHURCH
Paul told young Timothy that God’s Word is profitable for everything necessary to grow the man and the church. The Word is successful to teach them. The Word is successful to reprove and correct them. The Word is successful to train them in righteousness so they’ll be, “equipped for every good work.” Paul also said to the Ephesian elders, “I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” Jesus said in John 17:17, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
You may be preaching or your pastor may be preaching God’s Word in the power of the Spirit (meaning your life and ministry are aligned with the Holy Spirit) and yet seeing little visible results of your labors. Don’t run too quickly to the world’s methods of growing the church. Trust that God’s Word alone is what will do the trick. Look around your church and consider the faithful members: is the Word teaching them, reproving and correcting them, training them in righteousness, equipping them? Then your church IS growing. As for the growth in numbers, God can take care of that part as He wills, but certainly don’t try to force His hand by soft-peddling God’s Word. As one who grew up in a mega-church, I can tell you that we had a mega amount of very surface-level, nominal Christians who didn’t understand the Gospel. Thankfully now the pastor at my home church is faithfully preaching the Word and the church is growing like never before, though there numbers are only a tenth of what they were. Jesus took 12 men and changed the world and a faithful pastor can take 12 believers growing under God’s Word and see God do great things as well. When Martin Luther saw the impact of the protestant reformation, he stated, “I did nothing. The word did it all.” Never underestimate the power of the Word!
I conclude my thoughts by referencing it. Isaiah 55:10-11 has been my rockbed in ministry. It states, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Why pray if God is sovereign? Does prayer change anything? Doesn’t God already know what I’m going to say (Ps. 139:4)? And isn’t it true that God declared the end from the beginning, saying “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isa. 46:9-11)? If so, then why pray?
Many of us have wrestled with these difficult questions at some point in our lives. If we’re not asking them ourselves, someone is usually asking us! Any time the issue of divine sovereignty and human responsibility comes up—anytime the finite approaches the infinite—we find ourselves only able to look up at the pavement under God’s feet; like Isaiah, we can only look at the hem of his robe.
Nevertheless, here are five simple reasons for why we should pray fervently, “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph. 6:18), knowing that God is absolutely sovereign:
1. Prayer is commanded in God’s Word
Jesus taught his disciples that “that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:10). In the garden of Gethsemane, he told them to “watch and pray” (Matt. 26:41). Paul makes it simple: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17); “be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12). The issue isn’t whether we think prayer does anything or not; the issue is one of our obedience. God commands us to pray; case closed.
2. Prayer is a mark of a true child of God
Those who are counted righteous by faith in God’s promises and belong to the family of God, “have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:15). This means that true Christians will be characterized by prayer. I love how J. C. Ryle explains this: “Just as the first sign of life in an infant when born into the world is the act of breathing, so the first act of men and women when they are born again is praying.” How can we not talk to our heavenly Father?
3. Prayer changes us more than it “changes” God
God does not change; he is immutable! Yet prayer is how we admit and confess our need for grace. Prayer is how we can praise God and glorify him for his attributes. It’s how we learn to daily align and recalibrate ourselves with God’s will and ask for what he has promised us. It’s how we experience and nourish the fellowship we have with God in Christ. He speaks to us in his Word; we reply in prayer. John Calvin puts it this way: Those who argue that prayer is useless because God is sovereign “do not observe to what end the Lord instructed his people to pray, for he ordained it not so much for his own sake as for ours.”
4. Prayer is a means
Prayer is one of the foreordained means by which God brings his sovereign will to pass. From all eternity, God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass by the infinitely wise and holy counsel of his will. However, God not only ordains the ends but the means to those ends. Simply put, God has determined to act in response to the prayers of his saints just like he has determined to act in response to the preaching of the gospel. In this sense, while prayer doesn’t change God, our prayers most assuredly work to change things!
5. Prayer is an amazing privilege
God, in his mercy, has invited us to participate in his plans and share in the blessings of his saving purposes. While God alone receives the glory, we receive the benefits! Listen to R. C. Sproul on this: “Prayer, like everything else in the Christian life, is for God’s glory and for our benefit, in that order. Everything that God does, everything that God allows and ordains, is in the supreme sense for His glory. It is also true that while God seeks His own glory supremely, man benefits when God is glorified. We pray to glorify God, but we also pray in order to receive the benefits of prayer from His hand.”
Reframing the Question
In his remarkable chapter on prayer in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explains the necessity of prayer for the Christian life:
Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is, and in how many ways the exercise of prayer is profitable… By so doing we invoke the presence both of his providence, through which he watches over and guards our affairs, and of his power, through which he sustains us, weak as we are and well-nigh overcome, and of his goodness, through which he receives us, miserably burdened with sins, unto grace; and, in short, it is by prayer that we call him to reveal himself as wholly present to us. Hence comes an extraordinary peace and repose to our consciences. For having disclosed to the Lord the necessity that was pressing upon us, we even rest fully in the thought that none of our ills is hid from him who, we are convinced, has both the will and the power to take the best care of us (3.20.2)
Since our Heavenly Father is sovereign, powerful, good, and faithful, the question needs to be reframed accordingly. The question is not, “Why pray if God is sovereign?” Instead, we should be asking:
Why not pray if God is sovereign?!
Is your day packed with getting yourself & the kids ready and out the door, getting to work, getting to practice, getting home, getting to supper, getting to laundry, getting to homework, getting to bed so that you can get to sleep and “get getting” again tomorrow? Is your schedule packed so tight that you can’t see who or what is going on around you? Is your schedule made of concrete or Jell-O?
Are you interruptible?
This is the question I ran into as I was “getting at it” in sermon prep not too long ago. I was preparing to preach through “The Feeding of the 5,000” in Luke 9 and read this:
“And [Jesus took the Twelve] and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he…” (Luke 9:10-11)
The backstory goes like this: The disciples (apostles) were sent out to teach, preach, and heal all throughout Galilee and on their return, Jesus pulled them aside for a retreat to refresh and rejoice in all that God had done as they shared with Him and the others their experience. But as usual, the crowds caught wind of their direction and headed them off at the pass.
Jesus plans and executes a time of much needed sabbath for His apostles after their first “local mission trip” and the crowds sabotage it.
Luke’s Gospel, that I cut off earlier says “…the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing.” He welcomed the crowds from whom He, literally, was trying to escape. Then, He served them; preaching of the Kingdom and healing their infirmities and eventually feeding, perhaps, 10,000 people.
Why? Why didn’t He shew them off? Why didn’t He see them coming and head the other way? Why, as He is the Omniscient Creator God, did He plan a retreat He knew would never happen?
Mark’s account gives us a little glimpse into Jesus’ why:
“…he saw [them], and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34).
Jesus had compassion on the crowds, on the lost, on the saved, on His creatures. These bore the Imago Dei and it was smeared, broken, fallen, and they were in desperate need and His schedule didn’t trump their need. Jesus was more sensitive to the needs of the people around him than His schedule or plans.
He was interruptible.
I had to ask myself, and I pray you will stop and ask yourself, “Am I interruptible? Am I aware of the needs of others? Am I aware that others are even around me? Or am I so consumed with my schedule that I miss what God has put in front of me?”
Let’s pretend for a moment that Jesus forced His planned retreat and sent the crowds packing:
First, the disciples learn that the needs of others come after our own current plans.
Second, thousands of people go home as desperate as they left home when Jesus turns them away; turned off by Jesus by being turned away when they were in need.
Third, the impossible situation of 5,000 (not including women & children) men not having food never takes place.
Lastly, the only miracle, not including the resurrection of Jesus, recorded in all four Gospels never happens. Jesus never feeds the 5,000; perhaps the most recognizable miracle of all.
Quick recap: thousands aren’t evangelized, thousands aren’t miraculously healed, thousands never experience, first hand, the compassion of Jesus, the disciples are left to think that they should place their own needs and schedule ahead of others, and the second greatest flannel-graph story in history never happens.
So, let’s ask ourselves one last series questions: What am I missing because my schedule is so tightly packed? Who is not witnessing the love of Christ or not hearing the Gospel of Christ because I am too busy to tell them as I show them? Am I aware that all those “good things” that have consumed me has become one great big “bad thing” called “my schedule?” Am I ready to drop my plans because God brings me a new schedule for the day? Am I willing?
Am I interruptible? If we are students becoming like our Master then we must answer “Yes, Lord, I am interruptible. Help me see and serve as you did.”
Lord, may we be found to be imitators of Jesus as we hold our plans in an open hand, ready and willing for you take our plans, give us yours, and use us to reflect your glory.
We are excited to announce that we have officially launched the Publican’s YouTube Channel. Currently on our channel you will find all seven sermons from The Publican’s Conference hosted last month on Doxology. Over the coming weeks and months we are planning on expanding the channel with additional content.
We are excited for this new opportunity to use technology to better serve the body of Christ, especially those in our local churches.
Below are links to each of the conference sermons, and again feel free to subscribe to our channel as we begin to roll out new content.
Thanks again for all your continued support.
No one would confuse Andrew Fuller for being anything but a firm Calvinistic Baptist who wrote extensively to defend the doctrines of grace from a Particular Baptist point of view. If you read Fuller’s writings in the realm of ecclesiology and polity, you will find a man who was a thorough Baptist. However, even in his own day, Andrew Fuller saw the danger that exists in giving one’s self over to extreme sectarianism. Are we interested in seeing people come to Christ or that they become a part of our denominational or theological heritage? By all means, if we consider ourselves a Baptist, a Presbyterian, or a Congregationalist, then we should be able to defend our convictions and views. I am a Particular Baptist because I am thoroughly convinced that is the theological tradition most faithful to the Bible. Even so, I should be filled with nothing but joy and gladness when I see a faithful Presbyterian church receive new members due to souls being converted by the grace of God. The counsel that Andrew Fuller provides us in this piece is much needed in our day when tribalism, fueled by cultural changes and social media, continues to grow more and more within the church.
I first became aware of this short piece by Andrew Fuller on David Prince’s website which hosts “Andrew Fuller Fridays.” Here is the link: http://www.davidprince.com/2018/06/08/pursuing-lesser-things-to-the-neglect-of-the-greater-andrew-fuller-being-dead-still-speaks-to-sbc18/.
Below is an excerpted portion of Andrew Fuller’s article “The Necessity of Seeking those Things First which are of the First Importance” (The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Miscellaneous—Fugitive Pieces, Andrew F. Fuller, Ed., Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007:984-985).
A great part of the evil which prevails in the world consists in an entire neglect of what God commands, or in doing what he has expressly forbidden; but not the whole of it. There may be an attachment to many things which in themselves are right, and yet the whole may be rendered worse than void by the want of order, or a regard to things according to their importance.
Our Lord did not censure the Pharisees for attending to the lesser matters of the law, but for attending to them “to the neglect of the greater.” If we pursue things as primary which ought to occupy only a secondary or subordinate place in the system, we subvert the whole, and employ ourselves in doing what is worse than nothing.
I think I see the operation of this principle among us, and that to a wide extent. I see it among the unconverted, among the converted, and among different parties or denominations of Christians.
First, It is by this that great numbers who lay their accounts with obtaining the kingdom of heaven will be found to have deceived themselves.
It may be too much to say of them that they do not seek the kingdom of God; but they seek it not as a first or primary object. The world is their chief good, and the kingdom of God only occupies a secondary place in their affections. They wish to attend to their everlasting concerns, but they cannot spare time. Now we can commonly spare time for that which we love best.
Secondly, It is owing to this, among other causes, that many Christians go from year to year in doubt, with respect to their interest in Christ and spiritual blessings.
It is very desirable to have clear and satisfactory views on this subject. To live in suspense on a matter of such importance must, if we be not sunk in insensibility, be miserable. How is it that so much of this prevails among us; when, if we look into the New Testament, we shall scarcely see an instance of it among the primitive Christians? Shall we cast off all such characters as unbelievers?
Some have done so, alleging that it is impossible for a person to be a believer without being conscious of it. Surely this is too much; for if the grace of God within us, whatever be its degree, must needs be self-evident to us, why are we directed to keep his commandments as the means of “knowing that we know him?” The primitive Christians, however, had but little of this fear; and the reason of it was, they had more of that perfect love to Christ, to the gospel, and to the success of it, than we have, which tended to “cast out fear.”
If we make our personal comfort the first object of our pursuit, (and many attend the means of grace as if they did,) God will make it the last of his; for it is a general principle in the Divine administration, “Him that honoureth me I will honour; but he that despiseth me shall be lightly esteemed.” If we seek the honour of God, we shall find our own peace and comfort in it; but if we make light of him he will make light of us, and leave us to pass our days in darkness and suspense.
Thirdly, It is owing, if I mistake not, to the same cause that various denominations of Christians, who at some period have been greatly blessed of God, have declined as to their spiritual prosperity.
Several of our religious denominations have arisen from a conscientious desire to restore Christianity to its primitive purity. From this motive acted, I believe, the greater part of the Reformers, the Puritans, the nonconformists, and the Baptists. I do not know that any one of these denominations were censurable for the separations which they made from other professing Christians. It may be alleged that they have torn the church of Christ into parties, and so occasioned much evil; yet some of them did not separate from the church of Christ, but from a worldly community calling itself by that name; and those who did, pretended not to be the only people of God in the world, but considered themselves merely as “withdrawing from brethren who walked disorderly.”
It is a melancholy fact, however, that no sooner have a people formed themselves into a new denomination than they are in the utmost danger of concentrating almost all their strength, influence, zeal, prayers, and endeavours for its support; not as a part of Christ’s visible kingdom, wishing all good to other parts in so far as they follow Christ, but as though it were the whole of it, and as though all true religion were circumscribed within its hallowed pale. This is the essence of a sectarian spirit, and the bane of Christianity.
I am a Dissenter, and a Baptist. If I confine my remarks to the faults of these denominations, it is not because I consider them as greater sinners in this way than all others, but because I wish more especially to correct the evils of my own connexions. If we wish to promote the dissenting interest, it must not be by expending our principal zeal in endeavouring to make men Dissenters, but in making Dissenters and others Christians. The principles of dissent, however just and important, are not to be compared with the glorious gospel of the blessed God; and if inculcated at the expense of it, it is no better than tithing mint and cumin, to the omitting of the weightier matters of the law. Such endeavours will be blasted, and made to defeat, their own end.
If we wish to see the Baptist denomination prosper, we must not expend our zeal so much in endeavouring to make men Baptists, as in labouring to make Baptists and other Christians. If we lay out ourselves in the common cause of Christianity, the Lord will bless and increase us. By rejoicing in the prosperity of every other denomination, in so far as they accord with the mind of Christ, we shall promote the best interests of our own. But if we be more concerned to make proselytes to a party than converts to Christ, we shall defeat our own end; and however just our sentiments may be with respect to the subjects and mode of baptism, we shall be found symbolizing with the Pharisees, who were employed in tithing mint and cumin, to the neglect of judgment, mercy, and the love of God.
The date was October 31, 1517. The man was the Augustinian monk Martin Luther. In one hand he held a copy of his 95 theses, a treatise he had written to address the various abuses present in the Catholic Church. In the other hand he held a mallet. He desired a conversation to occur about these abuses, he desired repentance, and ultimately longed for a return to the gospel. In an effort to get this conversation started he nailed his theses to the church door in the small town of Wittenberg, Germany.
What happened changed the world.
500 years later, here we are today. Does the reformation still matter? Do the writings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other reformers still apply today? Is there still a need to reform the Church? Are we as Protestants, still protesting?
The answer to these questions is a resounding yes.
Though there is a true danger in idolizing the past, there is also a great danger in forgetting or ignoring the past as well. So we look back to gain wisdom for today, and ask a question: why did the foundational principle of Sola Scriptura matter so greatly during then and why does it still matter today?
The issue at stake during the reformation was authority.
The Roman Catholic church believed final authority was not in the Scripture but elsewhere. The tradition of the church was believed to be a second source of revelation, and the Pope was viewed as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. Standing against this belief the Reformers believed the Bible to be the sole source of divine revelation, the only inspired, infallible, final, and authoritative rule for faith and practice. The reformers boldly proclaimed that when Scripture speaks, God speaks. And though Scripture is certainly to be interpreted by the Church, and though tradition is certainly helpful, the Church and its traditions only have authority insofar as they are in line with and underneath the authority the Word of God.
Why again did this matter? The Catholic church, the popes, the cardinals, and councils prohibited the Bible from being translated into the common language. Because the Scripture was kept it in Latin, and because they reserved interpretation only for themselves they were in effect saying this, “We’ll interpret the Bible for you, trust us.” And people did. For years and years people never read the Bible for themselves and simply trusted the Catholic church’s interpretation of Scripture and attended mass even though they couldn’t understand the Latin being used by the priests. Then a few scholars rose up from their own study of Scripture after seeing how wide the gulf really was between the church’s interpretation of Scripture and Scripture itself. John Wycliffe saw this, translated the Bible into English and the Catholic church banned and burned his books. Some years later Jan Hus, a Czech theologian saw similar things, translated the Bible into Czech and was burned at the stake by the Catholic church. Then, in 1483 a little boy was born who would grow up and see the same things. This little boy was Martin Luther. What began as a call to reform the Catholic church in his 95 theses soon developed into a full scale fight against the Catholic church’s wild interpretations of Scripture, the pope’s immoral and luxurious living, and the pressing need to put the Scripture into the hands of the common man. Thus, with pen in hand Luther fought back. Writing hundred’s of books, letters, and treatises on the clear and plain meaning of Scripture…all while translating the Bible into German. For this they excommunicated Luther, labeled him a heretic, and put a price on his head.
Why did Luther do this? Why was he and so many others willing to die for the truth they saw in Scripture? Because the gospel of a long awaited Messiah revealed in the Word of God was hidden from sight, and they labored to reveal it. Pope after Pope had said it’s our own works that gets you into heaven or cast you to hell, yet the reformers saw standing forth in brilliant clarity the Christ, who was born of a virgin, who lived in perfect righteousness, who bore our curse on the cross, who rose and defeated death with His life, who ascended to reign over all things interceded for us. Gospel grace given by God to guilty sinners who then go free! They saw Christ in all of Scripture, and gave their all to preach Christ in all the world.
Now, why does the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) still matter today?
Though we’re no longer held captive by the Vatican, and though we say we believe in the inspiration of Scripture, we often do not go to Scripture to see how the Church should run, to see what kind of music we should sing, or to see what kind of preaching we need today, or to see what kind of lives we ought to live. Where do we look to find direction in all these things and more? We look to the world around us and employ modern cultural methods within the Church in an effort to grow the Church and remain relevant in the eyes of our culture. Bottom line?
We have placed authority in the wrong place, just like the medieval church. The brilliant clarity of Christ in the gospel saturated Scripture doesn’t seem to be enough for the Church today. Instead, we resort to culturally hip strategies seeking to tickle the eyes and ears of churchgoers because deep down we don’t think the God of Scripture cannot compete with the world, so we make our churches look like the world to win the world and what happens? We…lose…the gospel.
And so, as the Cambridge Declaration says, “the faithfulness of the reformers in the past contrasts sharply with the unfaithfulness of the Church in the present.”
Clearly, we need reformation still.
Where does reformation begin?
It begins with a return to Sacred Scripture.