Condemnation and Affection?

How could a loving God condemn…?”

The email inquiry came from a concerned mother. It was not at all a new question but the subject matter stilll caused me to bite my lower lip as the angst of that mother is shared deeply by this father. In a culture that adores, preaches, and rationalizes from “love,” the concept of a God who would judge, indict, and damn seems alarmingly and tragically far from loving.

I do want to answer this question – not only for this mother’s sake but also, again, for my own – but first a simple reality has to be plainly stated. Truth is: love as we know and embrace it has been more so defined by culture, society, and our own emotions than it has by Scripture. Here we sit, in close proximity to Valentine’s Day where men desperately scramble for flowers, chocolate, and reservations. Not that I’m capping on V-Day, but if we are honest the 14th of February has been designated as a consumeristic holiday of getting if you’re loved and being discouraged – cause you didn’t get – if you’re (seemingly) not. In essence, the day of roses and hearts is clearly indicative of how our culture views “love.”

However, Scripture paints a differing definition. When the Bible speaks of love – particularly the love of God – is uses the Greek word agape. This is an intense term carrying with it the idea of volition far more than emotion. Agape is a choice to love and as depicted in Christ is carried out in devotion, steadfastness, and sacrifice. It is not dictated by feeling but by appointed favor. In other words, God’s commitment to His children is not in flux but rather is fixed. He does not love me less when I screw up and He does not (can not) love me more when I read my Bible, spend an hour in prayer, share the Gospel, or choose Fireproof for my family movie night. His love is not conditional or consumeristic. He continues – in the face of our faithfulness and flailing – to give us what we desperately need: Himself. All the good gifts of this life – including breath in our lungs, children to hold, relationships to foster, accidents avoided, and – on a deeper level – reconciliation to God, peace for eternity, rescue from sin (the list keeps rolling) – all flow to us as testaments of Divine presence. In commonality, humanity receives temporal “gifts” as a product of God’s benevolent presence. Specifically, Christians receive not only “common grace” but the very presence of God’s favor upon us.

The love a parent has for a child typically depicts Divine, salvific love more closely than anything else in this life. Which brings us to a statement raised in the email from the young mother… I have children…I would never condemn them for not choosing me… To which I reply, neither would God. Not one child of God has ever been condemned. In fact, Scripture and the Reformed tradition teach us that God loved his family so much that He actually, actively persuades – by His Spirit – His kids to love and follow Him. Having been convinced of the worth of God Himself, by God Himself, all the “brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus” do freely and willingly, by faith, choose the presence of God and the pleasures found in His good, Redeeming grace.

However, obviously (though unpopularity stated) not everyone is a member in God’s family. All humanity enjoys, to some degree, the temporal blessings of God’s common presence. However, death will eventually bring an end to temporal blessing and then the haunting question will be: did you take (by faith) God – not just His gifts but His Person – while you enjoyed His temporal blessings, or did you reject Him. If an individual brushed off Christ in this life now in an effort to worship His gifts to them, in essence declaring, “I don’t want God,” then when this life is over they will actually receive what they wished for: the removal of God’s gracious presence and good gifts. That – while in no way being trite – is the condemnation justly deserved for all those who say “no” to the Divine’s invitation to join His family and experience intimacy with Him.

God does have a general affection for each individual, but His unrelenting, continually pursuing, constantly giving agape is reserved only for His sons and His daughters; and for those whom He has brought into His home there is no condemnation.

Semper Reformanda

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Lead Us Not Into…What? (part 2)

This past Monday I began thinking through the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer coming to the conclusion that, based on James 1:13-15, this cannot mean that God tempts us in any way. What then does this mean? To that we now turn…

The True Meaning

When we pray “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” we are first acknowledging that God rules over all things in His sovereign, wise, and good rule. That there are no “maverick molecules”[1] in the universe, but all things are governed according to His will. Secondly, we are asking that God, if it be in line with His sovereign will, would not lead us into positions where we can be easily tempted and likely to fall.[2] It means we ask Him to preserve us from these things, or if He sees fit to bring us into seasons of trial that He strengthens us to stand firm, lessen the attractiveness of sin, or expel the allure of sin with a superior affection for Himself…in order to remain faithful to Him.[3] Thirdly, we are submitting ourselves to God in such a request knowing that every trial He brings our way is to be accepted and “counted all joy” as God’s necessary means to conforming us into the image of Christ.

As one commentator put it, “…there can be no virtue without temptations to vice…In few things is God’s power of bringing good out of evil seen more clearly than when He turns what the devil intends as ‘occasions of falling’ into opportunities that may be ‘for our wealth’; for every temptation vanquished adds to the strength and richness of the soul.”[4] So in this request we’re not asking God to not tempt us, He doesn’t tempt us. We are not asking that God not allow us to be tempted but saying “Lord, don’t let us succumb to temptation” or “Don’t abandon us to temptation.”[5] We, sad as it is to admit, do find ourselves giving in to temptation but in those moments we do so by rejecting the way of escape God always provides as 1 Cor. 10:13 tells us. So when we give in we have only ourselves to blame.[6] This means, we do not fall into sin. No, we sin because we want to and don’t want God to help us.

In Foxe’s Book of Martyr’s there is a story told of the fate of two men under the reign of bloody Mary. Both of these men were condemned to burn at the stake for being and teaching Reformation principles. One of the men boasted loudly to the other prisoners that he would be a ‘man’ in the fire, that he was grounded in the gospel of Christ and would never imagine denying Christ given the chance. Even as the day dawned, he spoke of his imminent death in the most pious of terms, saying that he was like a bride made ready for the wedding day. Well, the other man could not have been more opposite. He too was eager to not deny Christ but admitted that he was terrified of burning at the stake and suffering so greatly. He was so scared he feared that he would recant when the first flame came near him. So he begged the other man to pray for him and wept over his weakness and fear. The other man responded to his pleas for help by rebuking him for acting like a coward. The day came, they were tied to the stake, and at the first sight of the fire the one who had been so bold recanted, was released, and people say he never returned to Christ. The other man, trembling, stood firm as a rock praying, “Father, lead me not into temptation” as he died a cruel but courageous death.[7]

We do not approach trials saying “Bring it on!” We don’t look for them to show how strong we are.[8] If we’re honest we’d all like to avoid them, and be more faithful in them. That’s what this request is getting at. Here’s the lesson for us. We all must undergo various trials and temptations to grow in Christ. 1 Peter 1:6-7 says, “In this (this being the great salvation and living hope we now have) you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Well, as the first half of v13 is put negatively, the second half is put positively. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The second half of the verse supports all we’ve been discussing so far and connects the temptations we encounter in life and desires to be saved from to their evil consequences and true source. Temptations, when given into, bring about some nasty consequences, and temptations, truly do come from the tempter, from the devil. This is why some say it should say “evil one” there instead of “evil.” I disagree. It is not just the devil in view, but all the evil dwells within our hearts, all the evil that results from giving into temptations, as well as all the evil produced directly by Satan. From these things we want deliverance, and praise God, He often does just that!

The Real Ending

Now, as we come to the ending you should all look down to your Bibles and look at that little footnote that says, “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” This is not included in the earliest of manuscripts we have of Matthew and because it is not there most translations do not include it within the text, but leave it to the footnotes.

Martin Lloyd-Jones says that it does not matter whether this doxology was there originally or not, and that these words are fitting to for any Christian to say! He also adds that ending prayer with praise is suitable after beginning a prayer with praise, because it forms a kind of bookends to healthy prayer. But, as much as I agree with everything Lloyd-Jones says in those statements I want to encourage to you to believe that the prayer actually does stop with the word “evil.” I say this because seeing the ending of the prayer at ‘evil’ forms a vivid contrast to how the prayer began. “Our Father in heaven…, deliver us from evil.” As the blood bought covenantal adopted children of God, we live in between the times. We live in the overlap of the ages. We have one foot remaining in this present evil age and one foot, by God’s grace, in the age to come. We see something of this eschatological reality even here, that all of our lives are lived between God and the devil. Thus, the natural reaction of the Christian to this could only be a cry for help.

And in v13, the whole of the Lord’s Prayer in general, God has given us such a cry.[9]

 

Citations:

[1] A fond saying of the late R.C. Sproul.

[2] Martin Lloyd-Jones, Studies on the Sermon on the Mount, Vol. 2, page 76.

[3] Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, page 103.

[4] Plummer, page 102-103.

[5] O’Donnell, page 171.

[6] Craig Blomberg, Matthew – The New American Commentary, page 120.

[7] O’Donnell, page 171-172.

[8] O’Donnell, page 172.

[9] O’Donnell, page 173.

Lead Us Not Into…What? (part 1)

Coming now to the sixth and final petition of the Lord’s Prayer, I have four thoughts to give you.

The Context

Thus far in our trek through the Lord’s Prayer we have gleaned much benefit for our soul’s good by paying close attention to the context of the prayer, especially noticing the ordering of Matthew 6 as a whole and the individual requests within the prayer as well. We’ve seen that we do not begin prayer with any kind of petition but an opening address that acknowledges the goodness (Our Father) and greatness of God (in heaven). By beginning like this we’re reminded of the privileges of our adoption by God through the redemptive work of Christ, that He is our Father who has made us His own children and given us access to Him in Christ anytime we so desire. Then after beginning in God with prayer the very first priority we’re to move towards is His glory, that His name, fame, and reputation would be hallowed, magnified, or made much of.

After this we ask that both His Kingdom and His Will would come into our earthly context, serving the purpose of His glory, as they already are in God’s context, heaven. Then we descend from the heights of glory into the mundane and common affairs of human existence when we see v11 and the request for our daily bread. This reminds us that God is cosmic in His majesty but that God also cares about our ordinary physical/spiritual needs in this life as well. Then we come to the two-sided coin of v12-13 about our own sin and struggles. In v12 we’re told to pray for forgiveness, that our past guilt from our previous sins may be forgiven and in v13 we’re told to pray that God would deliver us from incurring new guilt by committing new sin.[1] So right away in v13 we’re brought face to face with the reality we must acknowledge, just as we need God to help with our past sins, we need God’s assistance to face future struggles. v13 is the prayer of a weak person to a strong God.[2]

The Obvious Question/Answer

As with v12, here in v13, right on the surface of this text lies a question that seems hard to answer but isn’t hard at all upon further study. The question is this: does v13 teach that God is one who leads us or brings us to temptation? Recall just a few chapters earlier when Matthew 4:1 told us “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” So right away we know there’s more to this than meets the eye. To answer it definitively we must go to James 1:13, where we read “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He himself tempts no one.”

In James 1:13 we find a blasphemous accusation. Some think this verse is out of place because who in their right mind would accuse God of tempting them with evil? Perhaps you’d say, “God is God, He is holy. He is light and in Him there is no darkness at all as 1 John says. This is elementary Christian doctrine. Certainly I would ever accuse God of such a thing.” Wrong, I think you would. I think we all would. I think this because when we’re in a trial (like the audience of James is) we’re not in our right mind, and when we’re not in our right mind all sorts of fantastically wicked/sinful things become possible. We blame God for His providence, for the times we live in, for the people around us, for our circumstances, for allowing tempting things to remain in our path, some of us even blame God for our own evil condition. Puritan Thomas Manton said the reason we say such things of God is because “there is in man a wicked folly which moves us to measure God by man’s standards, and because we can be tempted to sin we think God can be tempted also, and because we can tempt others we presume God does the same.”

Clearly some of the dispersed believers James is addressing are struggling with this, saying these things, and rather than seeing their trials as sent to them by God for their own growth in grace (thereby allowing them to “count it all joy”), they are blaming God for their trials, and even going so far as to accuse God of tempting them to sin in the midst of their trials. This should not be so, this cannot be so. God cannot do such a thing because that would be altogether inconsistent with His purity and the holiness of His nature. God Himself tempts no one, and it isn’t even possible for God to be tempted with evil. This leaves us with the question of the origin of temptation – where does temptation come from if it doesn’t come from God? James continues and answers our question by descending into our own depravity in v14-15, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully-grown brings forth death.” This is ugly isn’t it? God tempts no one, and is not tempted with evil – yet we are lured away and enticed by what? Our own desires. And once desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin, and once sin is full grown it brings forth death. It really does come from within. The completion of this step-by-step progression into sin may take years to form in the heart, or it may take minutes. We allow sinful desires to grow in our hearts, we give it room to grow, sin then comes forth, and when it roars its ugly head literally all hell breaks lose, and if sin is not dealt with in a Biblically appropriate manner, it will be the end of us.

So we know this isn’t the meaning intended here in Matthew 6:13. But because this isn’t the meaning intended we’re left with a new question, what is the intended meaning?

That question I’ll turn to next week with the final two points…stay tuned.

 

Citations:

[1] A.W. Pink, An Exposition on the Sermon on the Mount, page 164.

[2] Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and on Earth – Preaching the Word Commentary, page 171.

Two White Guys On Race and White Privilege

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. day, which for 2018 also marks what would have been his 89th birthday. In honor of MLK Day this year I want to point you to a two part conversation from two white guys (Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman) on race, the church, and white privilege. Being a pastor and a white guy I really needed this conversation. It helped me. It opened my eyes to much that I had not previously known about and had honestly never thought about. I should have thought about these things, but haven’t? Why? Because I’m privileged and didn’t even realize it. I’m grateful for these two doing this and helping me become aware of much and encouraging pastors to lead conversations like this one.

Give these chats a listen, they’re only about 30 minutes each but they’re filled with rich content that will benefit you greatly.

Listen to Part 1 here and part 2 here.

Or listen in on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher or download the MP3 file.

Just A Pastor?

Perhaps you are like me and you are the pastor of a smaller church.

The thoughts of feeling insignificant and with little influence compared to the conference speakers and prolific authors leaves you believing that it really does not matter at times. Should I really devote that much attention to the expository sermons I prepare? Do I need to really need to be reading these books on theology when I pastor such a small flock? I remember feeling down and out once about the ministry entrusted to me. When the question came as to what was my ministry calling, I replied, “I am just a pastor.” It then hit me that to be a pastor is not to be undervalued.

Far too often being a pastor is equated with being a CEO, gameshow host, stand up comic, charismatic orator, marketing guru, good ole boy, and the list could go on. I am a native Mississippian who grew up in church and I have seen many different men occupy the office of pastor but did not have the calling. Has God called you to be a pastor? As I survey Baptist life (since this is my denominational heritage) in the South, my heart is grieved for what seems to be a cycle on repeat for decades if not longer.

Too many churches are engulfed by conspiratorial dispensationalism believing every website talking about implanted chips and books on blood moons as the sign of the apocalypse drawing near. Charles Finney-inspired evangelism creates a view of worship being only successful if the altars are filled, decisions made, and doing everything between A and Z to set the mood right for conversion. Charismatic experientialism leads many in churches to say that they believe what God told them with no basis in the Bible but rather what feels right. They claim they have the Spirit and the Bible allowing them to create their own version of Christianity inside or outside the walls of a sanctuary. The Civil War still wages on with many succumbing to the “Noble Cause” historical revision giving cause for many to engage in racism whether subtly or overtly. Finally, superstition-driven family culturalism leads many in the church to say that blood is more important than holy living. This is what leads people to say things such as they feel dead relatives in the room and viewing this as their source of comfort. How did so many churches in the region I love and call home arrive here? What can we do to see a change?

Brothers, to just be a pastor means that you have the calling and opportunity to stand in the gap and be used by Christ to make a difference. You are God’s man appointed to shepherd and feed the people (1 Peter 5:2). Preach the Word to them! Take them verse by verse sequentially through the Bible. Be patient, dependent upon the Spirit, and watch the Word change the people. Your goal should be that the people in your congregation eventually read the great theologians of the church. Yet, remember that you are going to be the primary theologian they read and listen to. Read and fill yourself up with solid truth to dispense to the people answering their questions. As painful as it is to write about the scene in many areas of the Bible Belt, we should also be patient, merciful, and gracious to so many who have never heard anything else but these unbiblical alternatives. You need to remind your people that you are just as reliant upon the gospel as they are. They need to know from you that you are not superman even if you think that you are. Do not be hesitant to open up to them about your battles with sin, continual repentance in life, and your thankfulness for grace (Rom. 7:24-25; 1 Tim. 1:15).

Just a pastor? You are given the task of leading the people to Christ every week! Brother pastors, hear the words of Paul to Timothy: teach, invest, disciple, and train up faithful men (2 Tim. 2:2). By doing so, you are raising up biblical husbands, fathers, and leaders. Read with these men the Bible and solid books. This is a fight, a spiritual battle. You are not sufficient in yourself for the task. Yet, you have not been left alone for He is with you!

Brothers, I pray that we would be mighty in the Scriptures. May we be used of God to be the public theologians who shepherd the people with biblical, systematic, and historical theology. This is our calling. We are in the trenches together. So, if you are just a pastor, you have spoken a mouthful that only begins to scratch the surface of the high, glorious, and gracious calling that Christ has put in your life!

Jesus Chose & Died for His Bride

The atonement of Christ on the cross is central to the message of Christianity.

To atone for something is to make amends or to make satisfaction for a wrong. This is exactly what we see on the cross – it is through the blood of Christ that the holy God and sinful man are brought together peaceably. By nature we’re at odds with God because of sin, and at the center of our message we find blood. The blood of Christ, which is able to bring sinners like us who were once far away from God, near to Him. This is why Christianity is seen as a religion with a central message of redemption and reconciliation. By the blood of Christ we are redeemed from sin and reconciled to God. So we see at a very basic level that any representation of Christianity that diminishes the centrality of the atonement is a false form of Christianity.

What I’ll labor to show you now is that just as the Old Testament atoning sacrifices were only applied to God’s people then, so too the greatest atoning sacrifice of all, the sacrifice of God’s Son, was for and only applied to God’s people in the New Testament.

Six points to show this:

The Atonement is a Secured Redemption

Hebrews 9:11-12, ‘But when Christ appeared as a High Priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.’ This puts on display what we’ve seen already – in the Old Testament the high priest once a year would enter into the Most Holy Place to make atonement for God’s people by the means of the blood of goats and calves, but Jesus, our true High Priest, entered the Most Holy Place to make atonement for God’s people once for all time, not by the blood of animals, but by His own blood. What was the result? The result was not that redemption was now possible, no, the result was that by doing this Jesus secured an eternal redemption. In 9:15-22 the author of Hebrews goes onto say that the only people who benefit from this atoning work are ‘those who are called.’

The Atonement was Accomplished

Romans 8:30, ‘And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.’ In this passage Paul speaks of Christ’s work with such confidence that he uses the past tense for all of his main verbs, speaking that even glorification is already accomplished for God’s people through the work of God’s Son. This is why Jesus cried out on the cross, ‘It is finished!’ in John 19:30.

The Atonement is for the Church/Sheep

Ephesians 5:25-27, ‘Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present the Church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.’ In these verses who is it that Christ loved? Who is it that Christ gave Himself up for? Who is it that Jesus cleansed by the water of the Word? Who is it that He’ll one day present to Himself in splendor by His atoning work? His Church. He loved the Church and gave Himself up for the Church, only the Church. John 10:11 also, ‘I am the good Shepherd. The good Shepherd lays His life down (for who?) the sheep.’ After saying this to the crowds Jesus a bit further on in 10:26 tells many who are listening to Him that they ‘are not among His sheep.’ Acts 20:28, ‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for (who?) the Church of God, which He obtained (how?) with His own blood.’

The Atonement Redeemed a People for Christ’s own Possession

Titus 2:14 speaks of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ ‘who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good works.’ Christ gave Himself to redeem a people, a particular people, for His own possession. John 11:51-52 speaks of this by saying the cross gathered into one people the children of God who were scattered abroad. Matthew 1:21 too, ‘Mary will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.’ Here we see Jesus’ name is connected with His mission. Why did He come? To save His people, from their sins.

The Atonement is Not for All but ‘Many’

Matthew 20:26-28, ‘Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.’ Isaiah 53:11, ‘Out of the anguish of His soul He shall see and be satisfied; by His knowledge shall the Righteous One, My servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities.’

The Atonement Purchased a Global People

Rev. 5:9-10, ‘And they sang a new song, saying ‘Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed (purchased – NIV) people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a Kingdom of priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’ See here again, the cross didn’t make salvation possible for people, a specific, a definite people were purchased on the cross.

So…

Jesus did not die to make salvation possible for everyone. He did not die to merely open the door of salvation and sit back hoping that people will accept His gospel. If that were true His death on the cross didn’t accomplish anything, it only made salvation possible. This is a false view of the atoning work of Christ. Rather, the Biblical view is this: Jesus died and shed His blood to purchase His sheep, to secure the salvation of His Church, and to redeem the elect of God from every corner of the globe.

In this manner we can say the atoning work of Christ on the cross is sufficient for all, but only efficient for the elect. Charles Spurgeon said it well, ‘Some men cannot endure to hear the doctrine of election. I suppose they like to choose their own wives, but they are not willing that Christ should choose His own Bride, the Church.’ J.I. Packer said it too, ‘Christ did not win a hypothetical salvation for hypothetical believers, a mere possibility of salvation for any who might possibly believe, but a real salvation for His own chosen people.’

Here we see it: Jesus chooses His Bride, and Jesus dies for His bride, securing everything needed for the salvation of His own.

When Gunmen Enter Churches

Chills. Shock. Terror. Anger.

These feelings partnered with a hosts of others coursed through my body this past week. I sat before my laptop aghast at the barbarism and treachery so evidently displayed in the mass shooting at a church in Texas. I could barely stomach the reports. Twenty-six dead, among them an 18-month old child. I could only clutch my family ever more tightly and plead with the God of all comfort.

Within an hour texts and emails began to stream across my phone. Friends were rightfully outraged. Parents were understandably shaken. Questions flooded my mind and were echoed by our churchgoers. Why does this continue to occur in our country? Where is God during these attacks? Is it safe to come to church anymore? What steps should we take now…?

The famed Prince of Preachers once declared, “Half our fears arise from neglect of the Word.” He was not stating that every terror is produced from failing to live in Scripture, but rather that proper doctrinal instruction and the testimony of the Holy Spirit calms our souls during seasons of grief and moments of tragedy. Paul declares to Timothy that God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind (2 Tim. 1:7). In the face of extreme loss and horrific violence the apostle is ensuring us that the Spirit of God does not lead us to play into trepidation, but rather to face fear in the strength Christ has provided, with loving action and godly wisdom. Of course, the prospect of something like what happened in Sutherland Springs happening in our own church is beyond frightening, but godly concern should never give way to non-sensical, God-doubting terror. As feeble servants of a steadfast Sovereign, we should remind ourselves of the Spirit-inspired words of Paul and seek to walk in what the Spirit provides.

Power

As Christ followers clinging to the truth of Scripture, the sovereignty of God, and the reality of His sweet providential working through suffering, we have a very unique position and perspective in this world. We understand these truths, can rest in them, and can encourage others to do the same because of the power of the Holy Spirit residing within. During moments of devastating loss and crippling fear, we should, armed with the Word and filled with the Spirit, speak the truth to troubled hearts (including our own).

Love

This is not the time to press forward our political position concerning firearms on social media. Twenty-six individuals were murdered. Twenty others lie in hospital beds. Families are mourning. A town is reeling. What these victims, these families, and this community needs is love. We exercise Gospel-affection for them through prayer. Don’t simply nod your head and agree with this sentiment. Instead, stop right now and pray. We don’t need more Christians who “believe” in the power of prayer; rather we need Christians who pray.

Self-discipline

This is not the time to freak out. However, neither should we just ignore the alarming events and senseless violence that continues to plague our world. We live in a fractured, sin-riddled, self-serving society and until Jesus returns we will continue to see rampant wickedness – at times in the form of violent outbursts. Therefore, we as believers can ill-afford to bury our heads in the warm suburban sand while the world around burns. Instead, we should, with the Spirit gifted self-discipline we possess, prepare. Prepare in the Word for the legitimate questions that will undoubtedly come from believers, unbelievers, and even our own fledging hearts when pain assaults. Prepare to protect our families and our churches from senseless acts of violence. Prepare to serve those who will suffer under the injustice of a sin-filled world. Self-discipline means that we will not be reactive to atrocities and loss, but proactive in speaking out against injustice and intentionally pursuing Gospel peace.

As the blood-bought bride of the resurrected and sovereign King, eternally loved by His Father, and infused by His Spirit with power, love, and self-discipline, let’s resolve, in the face of darkness, to live as people of hope.

Semper Reformanda.

Prayer: Starting and Ending With Grace

The Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 98 asks ‘What is Prayer?’ The answer is simple and profound, ‘Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.’

When we pray do we often think about what prayer requires? Is there a right way to pray? I would like to persuade you that yes there is a right way to pray and that prayer requires three things: grace, fear, and helplessness.

Today I want to write on the first of these, prayer requires grace.

Prayer is “in Jesus’ name,” based on the gospel. When we pray in Jesus’ name it is to know the reason we are being heard is because of the costly grace in which we stand. Because of Christ’s blood bought atoning work who reconciled us to God. There is “Free Forgiveness” at an “Infinite Cost.” Grace is not based on you being perfect. Grace is the unmerited favor of God abounding in each of our lives because Jesus was perfect.

All Christians pray in Jesus’s name, and only in Jesus’ name, in that we approach God under the authority of Jesus and ultimately by his permission and because of his effort on our behalf. We come before God’s throne of grace, not in our own merit, but in the merit of Jesus. Praying in Jesus name is trusting in Christ’s work that he is our salvation. Jesus is the mediator who makes it possible for us to approach God in prayer. A mediator is a “go between” who facilitates peace and reconciliation between two parties. Jesus is our mediator, but He goes the extra step and also advocates for us; that is, He comes in on “our side”, so to speak, and pleads our cause.

We pray “through Him” because His authority enables us to be heard. Because of our sins, we could never approach God. We need a “go-between” to reconcile us to God so we can communicate with Him. Because Jesus died as our sacrifice, He is the only one who can authorize us to approach God in prayer. As Tim Keller says “Our prayers must be in full, grateful awareness that our access to God as Father is a free gift won by the costly sacrifice of Jesus the True Son, and then enacted in us by the Holy Spirit, who helps us know inwardly that we are his children.”

Jesus is the mediator between us and God “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” (1 Tim 2:5) Or as Hebrews puts it, But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises...and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb. 8:26 and 12:24) Because of Jesus we have access to the Father as Paul says because of Christ he reconciled “us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”  “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

If we remember the freeness of forgiveness it should shape our confessions and repentance. Grace leads to repentance. Remembering the saving work of Christ and rehearsing the gospel to ourselves can help us from having prayers that are legalistic and self-merited as well as trying to earn Gods mercy. We must have a right attitude towards God and sin itself. We must admit our Sin Like David did in Psalm 51, but also he says “Against you, you only, have I sinned”.

John Owen makes it clear when he says “If we aim to move beyond seeing only the danger of sin its consequences and find ways to convince our hearts of the grievousness of sin how it dishonors and grieves the one to whom we owe everything.”

Prayer must always start and end with grace.

Why Sola Fide? Because of Works

In our continuing discussion of the Five Solas, we now turn to Sola Fide – Faith Alone. To describe this hear the story of Luther’s conversion.

Luther knew well the Catholic doctrine that the way one is saved is by a combination of God’s grace and man’s work. But as a young monk Luther was acutely aware of his many sins. Try and try as he may, he never felt he was good enough, for God’s Law demanded perfection and he couldn’t match its demands. So he would spend hours in confession, one time he even spent six hours confessing sins but ended that occasion in despair when he realized there may be sins he’s committed but isn’t aware of them. He panicked and thought: “Sins to be forgiven must be confessed. To be confessed they must be recognized and remembered. If they are not recognized and remembered they cannot be confessed. If they are not confessed, they are not forgiven.”[1]

His mentor Johann Staupitz told Luther to see God as love by looking to Christ. Luther responded by saying, “God out of mere delight hardens men and damns them for eternity…is this who is said to be full of such mercy and goodness? This is cruel, intolerable even. Love God? I hate Him!”[2] His mentor than did the unthinkable, against Luther’s wishes he made him a professor of theology in the University. Luther was tasked with teaching through the Psalms and Paul’s letter to the Romans. And the moment came, in studying Romans 1:16-17 that Luther was finally converted. Here’s his own words.

“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but this one expression ‘the righteousness of God.’ I took it to mean that righteousness is God punishing the wicked. And my situation was just that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner, troubled, with no confidence in my own works. Therefore I did not love this just and angry God, I hated Him and murmured against Him…yet I clung to Paul, longing to know what he meant. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the phrase ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’ Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and mercy God justifies us through faith. I felt myself reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”[3]

For Luther, to hear that we are saved and given the righteousness of God, not through our own works, but by faith was like entering the gates of paradise. Then all of sudden something surprised him. He knew the role and place of works in the Christian life. Works don’t save, but they show we have been saved. Works aren’t the foundation of our salvation, they’re the necessary consequence of it. We’re not saved by good works, we’re saved unto good works. So for Luther and the rest of the reformers faith alone saved, but faith was never alone.

Fast forward to today.

We think salvation works like this. We are a frog that has fallen into a jar of milk, and after realizing we cannot jump out of this jar, we do the only thing we can…we start paddling. So we paddle and paddle and paddle and slowly but surely we paddle that milk into butter and launch ourselves out and up to freedom.[4] We may say Amazing Grace is one of our favorite hymns, but deep down we think if we just do our best we’ll get to heaven one day.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

We need once again to return to Scripture to see that our works, on their best day, are still filthy rags before our Holy God. Our works aren’t enough to make us right with God. Therefore we could never do enough, and ought to despair of our efforts. But though despairing of ourselves we need not lose hope, because of Christ. His works, His gospel works for us and given to us through faith are always enough.

So reader, may your confidence ever be, not in your own works, but in Christ’s works for us. May we always boast in Sola Fide, Faith alone! Because through faith we grab hold of the great gospel power of God. Indeed, we grab hold of God Himself.

 

 

Citations:

[i] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, page 42.

[ii] Ibid., page 44.

[iii] Ibid., page 49-50.

[iv] Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness From Heaven, Preaching the Word Commentary, page 83.

Why Sola Gratia? Because We Are Beggars

Twenty-nine years had passed since he nailed his 95 theses to church door in Wittenberg. Being 62 years old and weary from his life’s work, Luther was asked to come be the mediator in a family dispute in his hometown of Eisleben, Germany. Through Luther’s efforts the dispute was resolved, but he fell ill in the process. Sensing his end was near he wrote his last will and testament and his friend Justus Jonas came to his side and asked him “Do you want to die standing firm on Christ and the doctrine you have taught?” Luther shouted “YES!” The sickness increased, and as death approached Luther uttered his last words.

“We are beggars. This is true.”

“We are beggars. This is true.” Do these words surprise you? On the surface of things they certainly don’t seem very hopeful do they? That he would mention his own fallen and sinful condition on his deathbed seems a bit melancholy. I mean, this is Martin Luther we’re talking about. He’d written volumes upon volumes about the nuances of gospel grace, the Christian life, the Church, and then on his deathbed he gives us that? I hope you don’t think these words are too strange. In fact I hope you are strangely encouraged by these words. Why? Because Luther knew what we need to know.

After laboring and sweating and agonizing and grinding his soul to the uttermost ends of his limits trying to perform enough good works to become right with God in the monkhood as a good Roman Catholic he realized something that changed his life.

He was not enough.

He was a fallen man. He truly was helpless and truly was hopeless before God in his own works. But this truth about him didn’t leave him helpless and hopeless, it left him hopeful, for when he came to the end of himself he found the beginning of life in Christ. When He came to the end of Himself He learned the works that really do save us and make us right with God aren’t our own works, but Christ’s and Christ’s alone! So when it came time for the great reformer to die, he did not deny, he did not twist, he did not run away from his own fallen nature. He owned it and said “We are beggars. This is true.”

What a great way to proclaim the content we find in Ephesians 2:8, “…by grace you have been saved…this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”

The question that he answered on his deathbed is one that each of you must answer as well. ‘How do I, a sinner, become right with a holy God?’ If your answer is anything about things you have done or things you have not done than I’m afraid you’re bankrupt spiritually. Sadly, taking the state of the Protestant Evangelical world in America this means much of who we are is bankrupt. Why? The Cambridge Declaration explains it well, “Unlimited confidence in human ability is a product of the fall. It is this false confidence that now fills the Protestant world: from the self-esteem gospel to the health and wealth gospel, from those who have transformed the gospel into a product to be sold and sinners into consumers who want to buy, to others who treat the Christian faith as being true simply because it works and brings a crowd.” All of these modern inventions are nothing more than repeats of historical heresies.

So reader, may you see God’s grace as not some kind of general kindness or benevolence of God, but the sole cause of our salvation. When asked how we become right with God may your answer ever be…Sola Gratia – Grace Alone!

How Dare You Celebrate Halloween?

It’s that time of year. Leaves falling, temperatures dropping (ok, perhaps in some places – still feels like June here in the sunshine state), football in full swing, and everything scented or flavored pumpkin. Tagging along with the fall is that dreadful and diabolical holiday known as “Halloween.” It’s the day that causes costume-clad children to rejoice and Bible-belt zealots to bristle. Sugar laced candy and self-righteous censure seamlessly flow together. After a few folks asked for my opinion on the day, and one surly religious zealot derided me for celebrating the day, I decided that it might be helpful to meander down the Halloween lane, and amidst the ghosts, goblins, spooky flicks, cotton candy, scream masks, superman suits, and hayrides, ask the all important question.

Can Christians celebrate Halloween?

The darker origins of this holiday are primarily rooted in a Celtic festival, called Samhain, celebrated at the conclusion of each harvest season. Samhain – literally meaning “Summer’s End” – was a time to reflect on the prosperities of summer and prepare for the dark, colder months ahead. During this time livestock would be slaughtered for the winter, and the carcasses of the dead animals would be set a blaze in large bonfires across the Irish countryside. Though not originally the intent, Samhain became known as the time at which the door to the “otherworld” was opened, and communication with the dead could occur. Souls of loved ones were beckoned to enter this world, which obviously gave rise to occultic activity. With this insurgence of demonic movement, many people in Ireland chose to disguise themselves during Samhain to “trick” the evil spirits. This custom was passed down through the centuries and became the festive tradition that it is today rather than the seemingly necessary ritual of the dark ages. Unfortunately when most Christians today hear the word “Halloween” they are inclined to equate it to Samhain. However, while some would use this holiday to solicit the dead and perform works of darkness (as they would with any holiday), the majority of Americans, and more specifically Christians, would not.

 

While congregations across our land (specifically meaning the southeast) host fall festivals and trunk or treats, imploring children to masquerade as cowboys, princesses, ninjas, and superheroes, they tip-toe around the “H” word simply calling a spade a heart. What many fail to realize is that the “H” word is far from a dirty word in origin. The name “Halloween” is actually a Christian term coming from the 16th century and meaning “All Hallows Eve” – the day before “All Saints Day.” All Saints Day was a time set aside each year on November 1 to honor and remember those who have served, lived for, and even been martyred for Christ. Though some of varying religions have corrupted this day, turning it to adoration of the saints, the original design for this day was to remember Christians gone before and learn from their example (as we are called to do in Hebrews 12:1).

All Hallows Eve also holds a special place in the hearts of those who celebrate the light that broke through in the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, a monk we would now remember fondly on All Saints Day, nailed the 95 Thesis on the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. This was a major spark to ignite the revival that swept across Europe, bringing about theological and clerical purity throughout the church.

It is strangely ironic to me that both Christmas and Easter actually have far more pagan roots than does Halloween. Yet most Christians celebrate both of the former while boycotting the latter. Can we just be legit and admit that all three holidays in their most tragic and oft celebrated form pull folks in droves away from Jesus. And that if we can use Christmas and Easter to point our kidos and a watching world to Christ, then we can certainly do this through All Hallows Eve as well.

All of this being said, we can, as Christians, undoubtedly and with a clear conscience celebrate a day like Halloween – though the world has corrupted it as the world has corrupted Easter and Christmas – because on it we remember the Reformation and the saints that have gone on before us, and we enjoy the holiday for what it should be, not for what Sanheim and parts of the world have twisted it to be. This certainly does not mean that you have to celebrate this holiday, and I am by no means asking for you to betray your conscience or commanding you to dress up and pound candy; but should you choose to celebrate let’s have some fun and use this holiday for kingdom advancement with our eternal objective in mind – to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Semper Reformanda

Why Sola Scriptura? Because of Misplaced Authority

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. Jonathan Leeman is right when he says there is truly a danger in idolizing the past, there is a greater danger in forgetting the past altogether. So in looking to the past to gain wisdom for today, 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 Sola Scriptura 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 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.

When Tragedy Strikes

On Sunday night, the most deadly shooting in American history by a single gunman occurred in Las Vegas, Nevada. As of now, the death toll is nearing 60, with over 500 others injured. Before I begin addressing this tragedy from God’s Word, I must share that our prayers are with those affected by this horrific event. God’s grace be with you all.

The question on many people’s minds after Sunday night’s shooting is, “Why?”

Scripture warns us against putting our own interpretation on tragic events like this and attempting to fill in the blanks that only God knows. But Scripture does not leave us totally in the dark during times like this. While we may never have Christ’s perfect knowledge and know the infinite number of reasons any one event occurs, we can have a biblical worldview with which to make sense of these things.

Why would someone commit such acts of evil?

One of the first things investigators delve into after a shooting tragedy is the issue of the gunman’s motive. Ironically, we cannot even discern at times the motives for why we do the things we do, let alone someone else. The world is full of people who often do the right things for the wrong reasons.

Yet Scripture does tell us that our sinful actions stem from a sinful nature. James says it this way: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1). Scripture doesn’t even stop at that, but gives us a deeper reason into the insanity of our own sinful actions. This sin nature, which we have from birth, is an inherited one. Adam and Eve freely chose to doubt God’s goodness in the garden and believe the lie of the devil over the truth of God’s Word. God’s just curse on His good creation would touch every facet of life, from the microscopic viruses that attack us, to the life destroying storms of nature, to the ferocity of wild animals, even down to the twisted cravings that cause a toddler to yell, “Mine!”

I’ve heard it put this way: “We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.” Yet we can in no way blame God for our sinful desires anymore than a child can blame his parents for leaving the cookies out on the table and making him eat them. James says elsewhere, “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he Himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). Were there no God to stop us, there would be no limit to the evil our hearts could create. This is why it was good for God to interrupt the plans of the people building the Tower of Babel, and this is why it is good God has given us the common grace of conscience, law enforcement, and fellow citizens who know some things are truly evil and aim to stop them.

Why would God allow such evil to occur?

When asked His thoughts on a terrible evil of His day, Jesus gave a surprising response in Luke 13 that we would do well to consider. “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk. 13:1-5). 

Jesus basically says what we should take away from tragic events such as this is the awareness that our lives are a vapor, we will soon face God’s judgment, and therefore we must repent before our lives are cut short. It is not our place to draw false assumptions. It is our place to pray and check our spiritual pulse to make sure we’re ready to stand before God’s judgment throne.

Someone once said, “If God is God, He can’t be good and if God is good, He can’t be God.” But this leaves the definition of “good” in the creature’s hands instead of in God’s. The presence of evil does not negate the presence of God or prove God’s guilt. Rather, the presence of evil exposes our belief in ultimate “right” and “wrong”, in something called justice and righteousness, and clues us into the fact that God’s “ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts than our thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). Or listen to the way the psalmist lays it out: “Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). We cannot know why God allows evil, but we can know that God does all things for the glory and honor of His name. In the midst of the plagues God sent on Egypt, He told the evil Pharoah, “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). Even Satan himself is just another creature which God will bring into judgment. Martin Luther once said, “The devil is God’s devil” and another quote attributed to him has him say, “Satan is on a leash, whose length is determined by God.” This should reassure us all that no evil will finally stand a chance to God’s righteous wrath.

Why didn’t we see this coming?

The Las Vegas gunman’s brother was reported as saying, he never saw this coming. He said his brother had no history of mental illness whatsoever and said it was like an asteroid that came out of nowhere.

We cannot see the depths of evil that lie deep in our hearts sometimes until they are exposed by our sinful actions. Everyone of us have been surprised by our own evil choices at times. We think or say or do something that shocks even us, and all we can do is honestly repent before God and those we’ve offended. For those who resist the guide of their conscience continually, it becomes incapable of pricking and is so hardened that more intensified acts of evil carry less and less guilt (1 Tim. 4:2). Serial killer Ted Bundy confessed this of himself when interviewed about his actions. Bundy said his sinful trajectory began with lust, was fed by more and more aggressive pornography, and eventually led him to feel little guilt over the horrible murders of his victims. There are many more evil perpetrators out there who have yet to act out their intentions. We may never see them before it is too late, for they look just like us. As we look ourselves in the mirror, we must not think to highly of our own goodness to think we’re beyond evil ourselves.

What hope is there for our broken world?

Thankfully God has inserted Himself into the picture. Astoundingly God didn’t come here and remain untouched by our evil. He didn’t create a bubble around Himself and come to teach a bunch of pithy platitudes. He personally allowed the evil and brokenness of this world to kiss Him in the face as it were. To punch Him in the face. To spit on Him. To mock Him. To beat Him to a bloody pulp. And to pin His naked body to a cross. Jesus asked, “Why?” from the cross, though He knew the answer. God was punishing our sins on His own beloved Son so that all who turn in faith to Him can have life. At the resurrection, the work of Christ was proven successful and His victory over the grave was obvious. But the gospel isn’t just about our personal beliefs. It is also about cosmic redemption (Romans 8:19-25). By taking the curse on Himself, Jesus was reversing the curse and promised that this ultimate reversal would come at His return (Gal. 3:13). All the marred results of life in this world will be burned away when Jesus returns and the creation will once again sing and dance before Him (Isaiah 55:12). After the consummation, there will be no more hurricanes or hospitals, no more shootings or shots, no more wars or wild animals. All will once again be at peace. Christ’s church must continually say, “Come, Lord Jesus!” But for those who aren’t ready for His return, this is a call for repentance and faith in Christ. 

One day, we will all know the answer to the question, “Why?”, but until then, we must only remember who is truly in control of this chaos.

Prayer as the Route to True Theological Experience

In Romans 8:15-16 Paul says, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

There are many things to draw from the wealth of this passage, but do not miss what is sitting right on the surface of it. When we’re reminded that we’ve been adopted by God and feel the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we’re children of God, what happens? We cry out in prayer saying “Abba! Father!” Or in other words, we experience a deep and profound communion with God that leads to a peaceful assurance and rest in God. Some of you may shrink back at the thought of experiencing God as something too emotional, too subjective, perhaps too mystical. There is some truth in this. In every age there have been those who have allowed emotion and experience to determine their faith and view of Scripture, rather than placing their emotion and experience under the examination of Scripture. But, I’m convinced that we will miss a great deal of heavenly blessedness in our souls if we overreact in the opposite direction and reject all emotion and experience with God. If we reject all emotive experiences with God how are we to commune with God? How are to we feel deeply for Him? Indeed we cannot.

John Owen, the English Puritan, in a sermon on the gospel once encouraged his hearers to “get an experience of the power of the gospel…in and upon your own hearts, or all your profession is an expiring thing.”[1] Similar to this quote the Scottish theologian John Murray said, “It is necessary for us to recognize that there is an intelligent mysticism in the life of faith…of living union and communion with the exalted and ever-present Redeemer…He communes with His people and His people commune with Him in a conscious reciprocal love…The life of true faith cannot be that of a cold metallic assent. It must have the passion and warmth of love and communion because communion with God is the crown and apex of true religion.”[2] Hear Peter in 1 Peter 1:8, “Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory…” We cannot commune with God in any proper or substantial way, we cannot ‘rejoice with joy inexpressible filled with glory’ if we remain cold and against all emotion. No, we are called an intimacy with God where a deep love for God is felt and cherished.

We must be reminded first and foremost that prayer is not a conversation between two equal parties. We do not pray to get things from God, we pray to get more of God.[3] We pray to commune with God and to grow in our affections for God. Tim Keller commenting on these things says, “An encounter with God involves not only the affections of the heart but also the convictions of the mind. We are not called to choose between a Christian life based on truth and doctrine or a Christian life filled with spiritual power and experience. They go together…”[4] God doesn’t intend us to leave our theology behind and go out on a quest looking for deeper religious experience, no. Rather, in prayer the Holy Spirit helps us experience our theology.[5]

With this in mind let’s examine four prayers Paul makes in his letters to the churches.

Ephesians 1:15-20

“For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His great might that He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places…”

When Paul heard of the faith the Ephesian believers had in Christ and their love toward one another, it moved him to pray for them. Specifically praying that God (calling Him the “Father of glory”) would give them the Holy Spirit who would reveal more of God to them so they would increase in their wisdom and knowledge of God. Paul even asks for their hearts to be enlightened so that they would four things: first, how deep and vast our hope is in Christ. Second, how glorious our inheritance in Christ is. Third, how immeasurably great God’s power is toward us who believe. And fourth, for them to recognize that all of these wonderful things he’s been praying for are given to us in the Spirit who raised Christ up to God’s right hand. It seems clear to me, and I hope it seems clear to you, that Paul’s main agenda in prayer here is to ask God to so move among these Ephesians that these Ephesians would experience subjectively what they know to be true objectively. They have rich doctrine in their minds, and Paul desires that doctrine would fill the rest of the lives and the means he goes about encouraging them toward this is prayer.

Ephesians 3:14-19

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

We see a progression in Paul’s prayer here. First, Paul desires that these believers would be strengthened by the Spirit in their inner being according to the riches of God’s glory, so that, Christ would abound in their hearts through faith. Secondly, Paul asks that because of that they would be rooted and grounded in love with one another. Thirdly, because of that He asks that they, together, would comprehend the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge. Fourth, because Paul’s ultimate request from all of this is that they would be filled with the fullness of God. Again, Paul’s driving motivation in praying for the Ephesians here in chapter 3 is similar to his motivation back in chapter 1. He desires they comprehend what is incomprehensible, and that they be filled with the fullness of God. This is to say, he prays they would experience subjectively what they know to be true objectively.

Philippians 1:9-11

“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”

After reminding the Philippian believers in v3-8 that he prays for them regularly, remembering them for their deep and heartfelt partnership with him in the gospel, Paul prays for that their love would abound, be filled with more knowledge and more discernment, and that God would fill them with the fruit of righteousness for the praise and glory of Christ. Again, we see Paul praying for the Philippians in a very similar manner he prayed for the Ephesians. He is taking immense doctrinal truth and praying that this Philippian congregation would experience the fullness of it. That this truth they know would not only inform their minds but inflame and enliven their lives with a new depth of spiritual communion with God.

Colossians 1:9-14

“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

As with the Ephesians and the Philippians, Paul uses almost the exact same language to pray for Colossian believers. He wants them to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will and from that desires they walk in a manner worthy of God. He wants them to be increasing and strengthened with God’s glorious might and from that desires they endure patiently with joy. And lastly he wants them to be thankful to God who has delivered them from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of Christ.

I think you get the picture I’m seeking to set before you.

In Paul’s prayer for these churches we something very experiential and something very doctrinal. As Tim Keller told us before, be reminded that God does not ask us to choose between a Christian life that’s doctrinal and a Christian life that’s powerful. No, God calls each of us to a Christian life that is deeply and objectively theological as well as richly experiential and subjective. How exactly does God intend these two worlds of objective truth and subjective experience to mesh together? In prayer.

The greatness of prayer is that in it we subjectively experience what we know to be true objectively. The greatness of prayer is that it is the way in which our theology moves into our soul.

So the application is simple, give yourself to this deeply and daily and what God fill you with His fullness.

 

 

Citations:

[1] John Owen, quoted in Tim Keller’s Prayer, page 15.

[2] John Murray, quoted in Ibid., page 16. Emphasis mine.

[3] Tim Keller, Ibid., page 21.

[4] Ibid., page 16-17.

[5] Ibid., page 17.

Prayer As the Pursuit of God’s Glory

What is prayer?

I believe that the glory of God is the most ultimate and supreme and majestic reason behind everything, so I want to begin a series of posts on prayer but feel I must start in seeing prayer in relation to God’s glory. So, my first answer to the question ‘What is Prayer?’ is this: prayer is the pursuit of God’s glory.

In Psalm 50:15 we read, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.” Similarly in John 14:13 Jesus says, “Whatever you ask in My name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” So, the ultimate reason we’re to call on God in days of trouble, and to come before God in Christ’s name with our requests is so that God would be glorified. When God brings us out of the day of trouble His goal is His glory. When God hears and grants our requests in Christ’s name His goal is His glory. God desires to be glorified in our prayer. One question we may ask at this point is how? God says He wants to be glorified when in prayer, that is clear, but how does He want to be glorified in our prayer? Think of like this.

Suppose you are completely paralyzed and all you can do is talk.[i] Then suppose your brother promised to live with you for the rest of your life to care for you and do for you what you are no longer able to do. Then suppose one day afterwards someone decides to visit you. So they get ready, come to the door and ring the doorbell. Your brother then opens the door, lets them in, and brings them to your room. In that moment how would you make much of your brother’s humble willingness to live with you and care for you? Would you try and get up out of bed, and clean yourself and your room up to make room for your guest? Of course not. No, you would call out to your brother for help. Help to be propped up, help with your glasses to see your visitor, help to clean up your room a bit so your visitor can sit down with you. After seeing your brother help you, your visitor would learn two things from watching this. First, they would learn how needy you are. And second, they would learn how kind and able and strong your brother is.

Prayer is very similar. By coming to God in the day of trouble, and by coming to God with your needs in Christ’s name, you are shown to be needy and weak, unable to do for yourself what you most need to do. But your neediness isn’t the only thing on display here. What else is on display? God’s power and strength to provide the help we need. So how God glorified in prayer? God is glorified in prayer because prayer humbles us as needy and exalts God as strong. To not pray is like having the rooms of your house wallpapered in Target gift cards while you keep shopping at Goodwill because you can’t read.[ii] To not pray is like being a bus driver and trying to push your bus out of a ditch on the side of the road unaware that Clark Kent is on board.[iii] Remember what Jesus said to the Woman at the well? In John 4:10, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you ‘Give me a drink’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” If you knew…you would ask! Therefore those who labor in prayer are those who know two things. They know how needy and helpless they are, and they know how willing and able and strong God is in Christ toward those who believe.

Charles Spurgeon once used the famous tale Robinson Crusoe as an illustration in a sermon. He said this, “Robinson Crusoe had been wrecked. He is left on the desert island all alone. His case is a very pitiable one. He goes to his bed, and he is smitten with fever. This fever lasts upon him long, and he has no one to wait upon him – none to even bring him a drink of cold water. He is ready to perish. He had been accustomed to sin, and had all the vices of a sailor; but his hard case made him think. He opens a Bible which he finds in his chest, and he comes upon a passage, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.” That night he prayed for the first time in his life, and ever after there was in him a hope in God which marked the birth of the heavenly life.”[iv]

Spurgeon explained his use of Robinson Crusoe’s tale like this, “God and the praying man take shares…First here is your share “Call upon Me in the day of trouble…” Secondly here is God’s share “I will deliver you.” Again, we take a share “You shall be delivered.” And then God takes the final share “You shall glorify Me.” Here is a covenant that God enters into with you who pray to Him, and whom He helps. He says, “You shall have deliverance, but I must have the glory.” Here is a delightful partnership: we obtain that which we so greatly need, and…God gets the glory which is due to His name.”[v]

Church, see this great discovery about the nature of prayer. We do not glorify God in prayer by asking God if we can provide for His needs, but by asking that Him to provide ours and trusting Him to answer in His own wise and gracious time. Prayer is in a very real sense, giving up the effort of doing things in your own strength and hanging a help wanted sign around your neck.[vi] It is sitting back in the doctor’s chair and trusting the Great Physician to do what only the Great Physician can do.[vii] So yes, in all of life, and for our purposes here – in our prayer, if God is to get the glory we are to act as receivers and not givers. This is how God is glorified in the prayer of His people. And more so, this is how we receive great joy. John 16:24, “Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” So when we come with empty hands, acknowledging our neediness and depending on God to provide in His abundance, God is glorified and our joy is made full.

You’ve probably felt his influence throughout all of this, so I’ll just go ahead and quote him now to end. John Piper concludes his chapter on prayer in Desiring God like this, “Prayer pursues God’s glory by treating Him as the inexhaustible reservoir of hope and help. In prayer we admit our poverty and God’s prosperity, our bankruptcy and His bounty, our misery and His mercy. Therefore prayer highly exalts and glorifies God precisely by pursuing everything we long for in Him, and not in ourselves.”[viii]

Lord willing, we will continue next week discussing more of the nature of prayer.

 

Citations:

[i] John Piper, Desiring God, page 160-161.

[ii] Ibid., page 162.

[iii] Ibid., page 162.

[iv] Charles Spurgeon, Twelve Sermons on Prayer, page 105. Quoted in Piper, Desiring God, page 161.

[v] Charles Spurgeon, Twelve Sermons on Prayer, page 115. Quoted in Piper, Desiring God, page 162.

[vi] John Piper, Desiring God, page 171.

[vii] Ibid., page 172.

[viii] Ibid., page 182.