Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Altar Calls

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) was a Welsh Protestant minister, preacher, and medical doctor who pastored at Westminster Chapel in London for almost 30 years. Considered by many to be one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century, Lloyd-Jones was devoted to fervent prayer and faithful ministry of the word. His passion for Spirit-empowered preaching, which he defined as “logic on fire,” made a profound and lasting impact on the church on both sides of the Atlantic.

Preaching and Calling for Decisions

In 1969, he delivered a series of lectures on the essence of powerful preaching to the students of Westminster Theological Seminary. These essays were later compiled and published as the book Preaching & Preachers,which has become a definitive text on biblical exposition. One of the many topics he addresses is that of ‘altar calls’: the issue of whether or not a gospel minister should call for decisions at the conclusion of his sermon by inviting people to come forward to be saved.

Personally, Lloyd-Jones did not subscribe to this practice and offered several compelling reasons why preachers should likewise avoid such invitations. But he also makes an important and charitable point regarding his position: “I am in no way querying the motives or the sincerity of those who use this method, or the fact that there have been genuine converts” (Preaching & Preachers, 295). God has surely used altar calls or other forms of invitations as a means of conversion for many. However, that does not mean that the practice is biblically sound.

While much more could be said about the history and the confusion that results from altar calls, below is simply a summary of the arguments against the practice which Lloyd-Jones gives in his lecture. Whether his reasons are compelling to you or not, you decide.

The Argument from History

Far from being a New Testament practice or a pattern throughout the entire history of the church, altar calls only came into the life of the church during the nineteenth century. In particular, the focus on calling for decisions was a result of the ministry of Charles G. Finney (1792-1875). As the father of American revivalism, Finney promoted several “new measures” in an attempt to produce spiritual conversions at his evangelistic meetings. One of these strategies was the so-called ‘anxious bench’ where people were invited to make decisions on the spot, and served as a precursor to the altar calls of today.

However, if one examines the teaching of Charles Finney, it becomes clear that his theology was radically different from the evangelical faith. Lloyd-Jones explains that “it is not an accident that it came in with Finney, because ultimately this is a matter of theology” (285). If the goal is to preach Christ in the power of the Spirit, then the results are left up to God. But if the goal is conversion—a result that only God can bring about— then ends will justify the means. Lloyd-Jones also adds that, at the same time, “we must never forget that an Arminian like John Wesley and others did not use this method” (285).

Pressuring the Will

Calling for decisions at the conclusion of a sermon applies direct pressure to the will of the hearer. However, Lloyd-Jones argues that it is dangerous, even wrong, to address the will in this manner.  Such an approach can produce results, but those results “may have no real relationship to the Truth” (288). His reasoning comes from Paul’s words to the Romans: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom. 6:17). Notice the order: their choice to obey came from the heart, and the heart had been moved by the truth of the gospel which they had first been taught.

Lloyd-Jones explains that the will is to be approached through the mind and then the affections. “As the mind grasps [the Truth], and understands it, the affections are kindled and moved, and so in turn the will is persuaded and obedience is the outcome. In other words, the obedience is not the result of direct pressure on the will, it is the result of an enlightened mind and a softened heart” (286). Yes, we want sinners to obey the gospel and choose to follow Jesus, but the preacher must be first concerned with proclaiming the word of Christ and praying that his hearers may “come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4; see also Rom. 10:17).

In reality, pressuring the will “may produce a condition in which what has determined the response of the man who ‘comes forward’ is not so much the Truth itself as, perhaps, the personality of the evangelist, or some vague general fear, or some other kind of psychological influence” (286-87). A person might choose to come forward to escape the torments of hell or to receive promised blessing from God—but you don’t have to be born again to want blessings or escape from suffering. (A similar argument can be made regarding applying pressure to the emotions, especially through the use of music. Have you ever heard of an altar call without music playing in the background?)

A Sinner’s Inability

Related to this idea of focusing on the will, Lloyd-Jones explains that this method “carries in it the implication that sinners have an inherent power of decision and of self-conversion” (289). An unbeliever can be led to think that if they answer the invitation to raise their hand, walk the aisle, and say a prayer, then they will be saved. The danger with this thinking is that coming forward to an ‘altar’ is not always indicative of true repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus. “This method tends to produce a superficial conviction of sin, if any at all” (289). It can lead a person to believe that conversion is the work of man rather than the work of God.

While salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, available to all who repent and believe the gospel, sinners will never obey the gospel unless the Holy Spirit first does the work of regeneration (more on this below). The Apostle Paul makes this abundantly clear: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Unless God makes us alive together with Christ by grace his grace, we will remain spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins; salvation is the gift of God, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:1-10).

Again, God may very well use a sermon to convict people of their sin and grant them the gift of repentance and faith so that, when a call is given, they respond wholeheartedly. But the bottom line is that God alone gives the growth; God alone gives life to the dead and calls nonexistent faith into existence (Rom. 4:17). To insist that an altar call is necessary for people to “make a decision for Christ”—that a sinner simply needs to be given a chance to choose and respond to an invitation in order to be saved—is an unbiblical notion.

The Work of the Holy Spirit

This leads Lloyd-Jones to emphasize what he considers the most serious issue: a misunderstanding of the doctrine of regeneration. “This work is the work of the Holy Spirit, and His work alone, no one else can do it. The true work of conviction of sin, and regeneration, and the giving of the gift of faith and new life is solely the work of the Holy Spirit. And as it is His work it is always a thorough work; and it is always a work that will show itself” (291). As an illustration of this, Lloyd-Jones refers to Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, and how his hearers cried out under conviction, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). They didn’t wait for an invitation to respond, and no music was needed to set the mood; the Spirit did the work.

Paul again explains this in unmistakable terms: “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16). Those who receive Christ and believe in his name are those who are have been born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). In short, regeneration precedes faith. Even Jesus himself said that a sinner is unable to come to him unless the Father draws him (John 6:44)!

Advocates of altar calls insist that such invitations allow room for the Holy Spirit to work. But Scripture is abundantly clear the Holy Spirit of God works through the word of God! This isn’t to say that a preacher doesn’t need to instruct his hearers on what repentance looks like, or how to begin living life as a disciple of Jesus; even Peter told his hearers to repent and be baptized! (In fact, baptism—not responding to an altar call—is the biblical way we are to publicly identify ourselves with the church of Christ.) This also doesn’t mean that a pastor doesn’t need to be available after a sermon to speak and pray with those under conviction. Lloyd-Jones was insistent that a preacher must make himself available. But the work of conviction and regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit, and far be it from us to use means that imply (whether we think it does or not) that we can manipulate his work.

What Then Shall We Do?

Ministers of the gospel must boldly proclaim the words of our Lord to a lost and dying world: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28)! “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25)! Yet preaching the word and calling for decisions should not be separated in our thinking. A separate altar call is not necessary for the Spirit to do his work. “The appeal is a part of the message; it should be so inevitably. The sermon should lead men to see that this is the only thing to do” (296).

As the truth of the gospel is declared, as we prayerful preach the word in full reliance upon the sovereign power of the Spirit, the hearts of our hearers will either be hardened or softened. The word of God will be either the aroma of death or the aroma of life (2 Cor. 2:14-17). Our concern should not be with decisions or immediate visible results, but the Spirit’s work of regeneration and his fruit of repentance, faith, and love towards God and the brothers. In sum, as Lloyd-Jones reminds us, “We must learn to trust the Spirit and to rely upon His infallible work” (296).


For Further Reading:

Preaching and Preachers, by Martyn Lloyd-Jones

The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, by Ian H. Murray

The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, by Steven J. Lawson

Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858, by Ian H. Murray

The Perils of Preaching

Preaching: Google defines it as “the delivery of a sermon or religious address to an assembled group of people, typically in church.” BDAG defines it as “an official announcement, proclamation, of the content of a herald’s proclamation.” I define it as “perilous.”

Seriously. Outside of being a husband and a father preaching has unquestionably become the most difficult and dangerous task I have ever undertaken. Let me explain.

The Work of Interpretation

If you’re a pastor, or regularly exegete Scripture for a study of some sort, you understand not only the real labor that goes into properly interpreting the Word for the consumption of another but also the reverent fear that accompanies misinterpretation.

Let’s face it, anyone can take a verse, paragraph, or passage and mangle it like a playful cat with its recently caught mouse. But, to take into consideration the Testament, Genre, Author, Audience, Purpose of the Book, Cultural, Historical, Grammatical, Christological, Theological, and Applicational (of course, this list is not meant to be exhaustive) context of a passage is work; it’s hard work. To misinterpret could very well led to misapplication and I don’t have to remind you (but I will) of Jesus’ words about the “millstone, river, and causing sin in a little one” (Matthew 18 & Luke 17).

Careful work in the office with the Scriptures is an absolute necessity for the work of interpretation and to neglect that is dangerous.

The Struggle of Application

First, let me say that I don’t mean that the struggle of application is that I struggle with telling YOU how to apply what the passage says. The struggle of application begins with me. It’s a trap that I’ve fallen into as a preacher and I don’t think I’m alone. Here’s how it goes:

My personal devotional reading begins to turn into some version of sermon-prep, the books I am reading begins turning into some version of quotes and illustrations for the sermon I’m preparing, and the notes in the margins of my Bible begin to look like “You cannot…” “We cannot…” “No one should…” and “If you…” instead of “I cannot…I should…If I…”

Somehow, somewhere, sometimes, I stop reading and learning and pursuing Christ and I start prepping all the time, ceasing personally applying the glories of the Gospel to my own needy soul. Needless to say, that descent leads down a perilous road.

The Pain of Mortification

Maybe I’m alone in this one (although I doubt it) but killing sin week after week after week is painful. Sure, I want to be “pruned that I might bear more fruit” just like the next Jesus-lover but I’m just being honest; pruning is painful.

Between Sunday sermons, Sunday School, New Believers & New Members Class, Sunday Night Men’s Group, Monday AM study, and personal discipleship with others through the week I find myself engulfed in the Word of God. That’s a good thing! What an honor and, truthfully, a joy to have been called to serve the Lord and His Church in this capacity. But (and this is a big “But”), do you know what I find in every single page of Scripture? Sin in me. I don’t measure up. I am constantly under the conviction of the Holy Spirit as I study and as I teach/preach.

Now, before you rise and take the stones of “That’s too much Law, Don, and not enough Grace” to bury me with I want to agree with you. The Law is meant to reveal sin but also to drive us to Calvary and sometimes in the laborious and perilous task of killing sin I stop too soon at the revelation of sin, wallow in fear and pity, then walk away feeling discouraged that I’ll never measure up.

But Jesus did.

The Joy of the Gospel

It’s true, I’ll never measure up but I know the One who not only measured up but voluntarily gave up His place of glory, sacrificially took my place of shame, and victoriously defeated death that I might be given His righteousness and not be shackled by my hideously damning unrighteousness; His name is Jesus Christ.

Paul David Trip said, “If you are not resting in the one true gospel, preaching it to yourself over and over again, you will look to another gospel to meet the needs of your unsettled heart” (Dangerous Calling, pg. 36). I couldn’t agree more and have yet to find anything outside of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that can settle my heart. The Gospel is the salve of the soul and the right interpretation & application of the Scriptures, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is just as necessary for you (us, me) as it is for your (our, my) people.

Pastors, preachers, evangelists, and teachers, don’t stop at the Work of Interpretation, the Struggle of Application, or the Pain of Mortification take yourself to the Joy of the Gospel. Revel in the glories of the Christ who loves you and gave himself for you too (not just your hearers). The perils of preaching are overcome in the protections afforded even you (I mean me) at Calvary “to the praise of His glorious grace” (Eph. 1). Amen

Solus Christus: William Carey’s Missional Foundation

If you perform a YouTube search of Joel Osteen on Larry King Live, you can see how uncomfortable a person feels claiming to be a “Christian” and being asked if this means that Jesus is the only way of salvation. While we might not find ourselves on a TV news program, there is still a sense of hesitancy and awkwardness at times in proclaiming the exclusivity of Christ. We might feel like we are not trained in a sophisticated manner to handle the detractors of Christianity. Can ordinary pastors speak with boldness concerning the exclusivity of Christ?

The man labeled “The Father of the Modern Missions Movement” voyaged to India possessing a steadfast belief concerning Christ’s exclusivity. William Carey, the cobbler-pastor- missionary, might not be the model of a polished speaker but his heart burned with a passion to see the gospel of Christ carried to the ends of the world. Instead of seeing a belief in Solus Christus, Christ alone, as a barrier to ministry, we can learn from Mr. Carey on how such a belief is a fuel for ministry in the face of many challenges. Consider three lessons we can learn from William Carey’s commitment to Solus Christus in India:

Anchor Your Preaching in Christ

The Serampore Form of Agreement of 1805 provides us with the theological and missiological beliefs that structured the ministry of the Particular Baptists in India. In this document, Carey lays out what will be the heartbeat of their cause: preaching Christ alone. The agreement states that the missionaries would seek to emulate Paul, “and make the great subject of our preaching Christ the crucified.” The preaching of Christ is described as “the grand means of conversion.” Preaching Christ and Him crucified serves as the instrument by which sinners were converted and the church grows in sanctification. Can we be tempted to see doctrine as dry and dusty? Carey sees “these glorious truths” as “the joy and strength” of his soul. The Baptist missionaries see themselves as part of the heritage of Luther and the Reformation as well as the ministries of men like Edwards and Whitefield in the Great Awakening.[1]

These men saw themselves as ministers and ambassadors of the cross of Christ. They were foreigners coming into a spiritual desert containing an abundance of spiritual mirages promising much in the way of satisfaction but leaving men spiritually famished. Challenges were abundant for Carey, but his confidence rested in the power of the gospel transforming India. Modern historians and scholars label Carey’s missionary work as more humanitarian than gospel-centered. Dr. Michael Haykin counters that such individuals confuse the root of Carey’s ministry with its fruit. He writes:

Sending forth the gospel with its message of the crucified Christ whose death alone delivers from sin and its consequences was the main thing these men and women were about. The social and educational impact of that proclamation was a happy byproduct of their gospel preaching. To view these men primarily as social reformers is to do them a grave injustice.[2]

From his own hand, Carey provides us with how he declares “that all men were sinners against God” followed up with declarations concerning the justice and purity of God. He explains “that except our Sins were pardoned we must go to Hell…” Carey preaches the Law to point out the nature of sin in the lives of the pagans. He then comes to Christ and His sufficient sacrifice. Carey proclaims “that God was under no obligation to save any Man, and that it was of no use to make Offerings to God to obtain pardon of Sin…” in the form of animals or humans. Carey brings the message home by declaring God’s gracious salvation for the sake of Christ.[3]

Do you know individuals with hardened hearts in your community or family? Does it seem like you are spinning your wheels by preaching Christ alone? Brother pastor, your message must be Christ and Him alone! Let us stand with Paul and William Carey confessing the only ground of hope is found in Christ! How did Carey endure and how can we endure in difficult seasons?

Rely Upon the Grace of God

The preaching of Christ alone marks a dependence upon the grace of God. Carey and his associates held strongly to the doctrines of grace. Notice that their understanding of the doctrines of grace and the connection to missions is found in the opening paragraph of The Serampore Agreement:

We are sure, that only those who are ordained to eternal life will believe, and that God alone can add to the church such as shall be saved. Nevertheless we cannot but observe with admiration, that Paul, the great champion for the glorious doctrines of free and sovereign grace, was the most conspicuous for his personal zeal in the work of persuading men to be reconciled to God.[4]

These first missionaries to India confess that God chose a people unto Himself, those were the people who would be saved, and that God added to His church. These doctrines, as they rightly noted, were championed by the Apostle Paul, and instead of being a detriment to evangelism, they rather served as the motivation for it.

Carey’s understanding of human depravity is connected then to an utter acknowledgement that God is the One who alone can save men and women from their sins. While sailing to India in 1793, Carey observes:

Have most awful proof of the Awful effects of human depravity when heightened by bad principles – the Old Deist is one of the most daring presumptuous wretches that ever I heard…never found a man so hardened and determined to turn Scripture into Ridicule as him – Oh how dreadfully depraved is human Nature.[5]

Where is Carey’s hope in the face of such darkness? Would the description of this Deist sound like someone in your context? I know men and women who seem to only harden their hearts more against the gospel. Where is our hope in the midst of such spiritual darkness and obstinacy? Carey’s confidence in the power of God’s grace must be our confidence. He explains:

All my hope is in, and all my comfort arises from God; without his power no European could possibly be converted, and his power can convert any Indian, and when I reflect that he has stirred me up to the Work, and wrought wonders to prepare the Way I can hope in his promises, and am encouraged & strengthened.[6]

William Carey beckons us in the 21st century to not despair as we survey the sinful depravity all around us. Preach Christ! Rely on sovereign grace! This is our foundation and our hope! This is why, as unpopular as it might be, he preached Christ alone and so must we.

Defend the Sufficiency of Christ

It is easy to think our situation unique in the history of the church as to the barriers, obstacles, and hindrances to gospel ministry. In a pluralistic society, Carey faced the scorn of an “enlightened” society. Carey recorded an interaction with an English Deist who hosted him:

Spent the Evening in a long Dispute with my friendly Host, was enabled, through Mercy to be faithful and speak of the necessity of Faith in Christ in order to salvation – This was called illiberal (narrow-minded) and uncharitable; as it excluded Unbelievers, and eventually adjudged the Heaths to Eternal Misery. I argued that I was no more uncharitable than the Bible, and that if that was the Case, God would appear Gloriously Just…I feel a pleasure in being Valiant for the truth, and much wish that God would convert his Soul.[7]

Do you feel a kinship with Mr. Carey? Did you preach that our assurance of salvation is found in Christ alone rather than in a human decision only to receive a comment on how divisive you were? Did you turn red with embarrassment someone mocked your faith on the job? Remember that men and women like the English deist are to be pitied by us. Let us not despise them but love them enough to declare to them the truth.  We preach Christ and Him alone with no exceptions made. The Bible, not emotions or experiences, fashion how we preach the gospel of Christ. The results are in the hands of God. His calling to us is to go forth and proclaim that Christ is the only way, the only truth, and the only life.

Conclusion

In one of his final letters, Carey pens these words to his sisters, “The atoning sacrifice made by our Lord on the cross is the ground of my hope of acceptance, pardon, justification, sanctification, and endless glory.”[8] A commitment to Solus Christus shapes not only our view of gospel ministry and salvation but how we live and die. Whether you are facing the moralism of “Cultural” Christianity that emphasizes citizenship over Christ, the paganism of a primitive people group in the Amazon, the darkness of Islam or Hinduism in Asia, or the secularistic idolatry of America, remember that the work of Christ is your only hope and assurance. We do not apologize for preaching Christ alone. We glory in our Savior and rest in His victory!

[1] Michael A.G. Haykin, The Missionary Fellowship of William Carey. (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2018), 141-142.

[2] Ibid., 106-107.

[3] Terry G. Carter, The Journal and Selected Letters of William Carey. (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2000), 55.

[4] Haykin, 137.

[5] Carter, 4-5.

[6] Ibid., 23.

[7] Ibid., 22-23.

 

[8] Michael A.G. Haykin, Ardent Love for Jesus: Learning from the Eighteenth-Century Baptist Revival. (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2013), 133.

Confess Even If You’re Not Wrong

There is a prayer in Nehemiah chapter 1. This prayer is a response to Nehemiah hearing that tragedy has hit his homeland, Jerusalem. This prayer of Nehemiah is filled with praise, petition, and confession. Part of his prayer goes like this: “I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned.  We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses” (Nehemiah 1:6b-7).

Nehemiah acknowledged that he and the people of Israel had sinned against God. It’s interesting to notice that Nehemiah says “we” as he confesses sin. He doesn’t just look introspectively and confess his own personal sins. He confesses the sins of Israel corporately. He confesses the sins of his people as a unit.

Confession of sin is something we should be doing regularly. Most of the time when we do this, we are looking inwardly as to what we need confess, what we need to work on, what we need to improve. The thought of confessing to God the sins of others may seem like a foreign concept. But we are all a part of a larger body. We are all part of a family, church, city, and nation. The sins of each of those communities are sins we need to confess to God. How often do we think of ourselves in terms of family, church, or nation, and not just an individual when it comes to confession of sin? When Nehemiah confesses some of these sins, these are things that he, individually, may or may not have done, but nevertheless, he is part of Israel, so he confesses them to God. Nehemiah lumps himself in with Israel and confessed their sin corporately. If we live in community with our family or our church family, this community mindset should be seen in our prayer and confession as well.

We may or may not be guilty of certain sins that our family, church, or nation are guilty of, but we are a part of that community and as community members we go to God and confess the community’s shortcomings.

Imagine you are having a family get-together at a public park and one of your family members gets into an altercation with a stranger over who saw an open picnic table first,  and after they have argued for a few minutes, you notice that your family member has now shoved this stranger to the ground. You run in to stop the fight. You send your family member away and you begin to apologize to the stranger for what has happened even though you had nothing to do with it.

Why? Because you are a part of the community that has harmed this person and you feel a sense of guilt and responsibility. The same is to be true in the communities in which we belong. We are to realize when the community that we belong to has failed God and confess those failures to Him.

Confession of sin, both corporate and individual, should be a regular habit in our lives. When we confess our sin to God, we are acknowledging that we are wrong, and we are showing God our great dependence on Him.

For the unbeliever who confesses his sin and turns in faith to Jesus, he is acknowledging his wrongdoing and his great dependence on God for salvation. He is acknowledging that he is a sinner and that he cannot save himself. He is completely and utterly dependent on the work of Christ on his behalf for salvation. For the believer, confession of sin shows his great need of sanctification. He is acknowledging that although he is redeemed and his salvation is secure, he is not where he needs to be.

Confess sin regularly.

John’s Vision of Jesus

Revelation 1:12-16 says, “Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of His head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, from His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in full strength.”

This vision of Christ is one of overwhelming glory. In this vision John is introduced to Jesus as He is and as He will be throughout the entire book of Revelation. John was present at the transfiguration of Jesus and that was overwhelming for John to say the least, but what John now sees will almost be too marvelous for words. Jesus reveals Himself to be the Cosmic Judge, Priest, and Ruler of the Church as a result of His victory over death. 

That John sees 7 golden lampstands is an allusion to Exodus, Numbers, and Zechariah 4 where we see the lampstand representing the people of Israel inside the temple. So in the OT there was a literal lampstand that symbolically represented the whole of Israel. Here in this vision John sees 7 golden lampstands, and since John is using the number 7 to indicate completeness, this vision of the 7 golden lampstands is a vision of the universal Church. This is confirmed for us in 1:20 when Jesus says the lampstands do indeed represent the Church. In the midst of the lampstands John sees ‘one like a Son of Man’ clothed with long robe and golden sash around His chest.  

A Jewish audience would have understood this to mean many things:

First,‘one like a Son of Man’ is a quote from Daniel 7:13-14 and the most common title Jesus used for Himself during His ministry, so this is Jesus, the Messiah standing in the midst of His Church.

Second,that Jesus is standing in the midst of His Church indicates that He is the One True High Priest of the Church. The OT priests were to trim the lamps, remove old wicks, replace them with new wicks, refill them with new oil, and relight any lamps that went out. You see the imagery being displayed here for us to see? Jesus, as our true High Priest, tends to His Church by upholding, building, warning, encouraging, and strengthening His suffering people.  

Third, that Jesus is standing in the midst of His Church evokes imagery of a King or Ruler standing amid His people, leading, ruling, and reigning from His throne of grace. Some of you may be getting the movie picture in your heads of Sean Connery standing amid the Knights of the Round Table as King Arthur. Some others of you may be seeing the Lion King image of Mufasa standing above his people on Pride Rock with his young son Simba. How much greater is Christ the King who stands in the midst of His suffering people ministering to them from age to age? I think this is what is alluded to when John sees Jesus having white hair like snow or wool, because passage after passage in Proverbs says white hair is a gift to the wise. This King Jesus, is the wise Jesus, who knows how to lead His people. He is indeed the King of Kings!

Fourth,that we see Jesus here standing amid His Church suggests that this same Jesus who is tender Priest and resilient King leading His people, will come soon back as Supreme Judge of all the earth. “His eyes were like a flame of fire, His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters.” His fiery gaze, His firm stance, and His thunderous voice would have brought terror to those who’ve rejected Him, and a fearful sweetness to those who’ve embraced Him in the gospel. Holding 7 stars in His right hand indicates Jesus, as Judge, is Judge over all heaven (stars) and earth (lampstands). 1:20 reveals to us that these stars are meant to be the angels of these 7 churches, which most commentators believe to be the elders (leaders) of these churches. That a sharp sword coming out of His mouth indicates Jesus’ voice is not just filled with but is the very Word of God, which is described in Hebrews 4:12 as ‘living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.’ Lastly, a face like the full brightness of the sun shows that Jesus is light, and in Him there is no shadow of turning or darkness at all. Remember John 1:4-5? “In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

This is who Jesus is.

This is the same Jesus John walked with years earlier, the same Jesus he leaned against at the last supper, and the same Jesus he saw die, rise, and ascend. Now though, John sees Christ in all His glory.

May we see Him too, and be so stunned.

The God Who Runs Us Down

“Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the Gingerbread Man!”

When my children were younger and encountered this famous nursery rhyme, they requested I read it to them every night. They didn’t realize at the time, but their story choice was an indicator of much more than they knew. There is something in each of us, even from an early age, that longs to run; and we often can’t explain why that desire is there. It is more than what psychologists refer to as our “fight or flight response,” because of what we often run from. We run not only from danger, but also from grace. We run from a God who intends not our harm, but our ultimate good. As Augustine has put it, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” This is one reason the story of Jonah is so appealing to us. Yet in the book of Jonah we meet a God who outruns sinners and graciously overpowers their stubbornness and sin. There are two important lessons we learn from Jonah.

We Run because We’re Deeply Depraved

The minor prophets, or “The book of the twelve” as their referred to, are among the least familiar portions of Scripture. Even the best Bible students among us would be hard-pressed if asked on the fly to summarize Obadiah or Zephaniah. Yet this portion of Scripture gives us a vivid panorama of God’s glory. In the minor prophets, we aren’t merely told that God is gracious or loving or holy or just. We see God in high definition. We encounter the God who roars like a lion, loves like a Husband, consumes like a fire, and sings over His people. But when we come to Jonah, God flips the script a bit. Instead of meeting another prophet ready and willing to relay God’s message, we find one running in the complete opposite direction. Also, instead of God sending His message to Israel/Judah, He sends it to their enemies. And that’s why Jonah started strapping up His sandals and getting ready to run. “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD” (1:1-3).

With a population of over 130,000, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. And Nineveh was a perverse and cruel city. A city that combined rampant sexual immorality with some of the most gruesome war crimes. Not only that, but Nineveh had earned a reputation for being the bitter enemies of God’s people. When called upon to preach coming judgment on this city, you would think Jonah would have leaped at the chance. Yet the reason Jonah didn’t is revealed later in the book. In the prophet’s own words, he says: “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:1) Even though God’s message was one of judgment, Jonah knew God’s character better than that. He didn’t want the slightest chance that God might show grace to such an evil city.

Like Jonah, we run from God because we are rebels in our hearts. Ever since our first ancestors ate that fruit in the garden and listened to the snake, we’ve been pursuing our own authority. We have chosen to be our own gods. And when God calls us to share His message with those undeserving, we run because we are unloving. The reason Jonah ran is the same reason we run from sharing God’s message: we are selfish to the core. We may give several reasons for why we don’t share the gospel with others, but the ultimate reason is that we’re selfish. In Jonah, we see just how selfish we are. By the end of the book, Jonah is angry at God and even begs God to kill him rather than redeem the Ninevites. It’s a good thing God didn’t leave Jonah to himself, and it’s a good thing He doesn’t leave us to ourselves. That never turns out too well anyway (read Romans 1:18-32).

God Runs us Down because He is Truly Gracious

It says a lot about us that we run from God. But it also says a lot about God that He runs us down. If Jonah were the only biblical book preserved for us, it would be sufficient to give us a robust theology of man’s depravity, God’s sovereignty, and mission. God sovereignly appoints one thing after another to stop Jonah and get him set on the mission God intended. He hurls a great wind in the direction of Jonah’s ship, then appoints a great fish to swallow him up once he is thrown overboard, then calls the fish to spit Jonah up. While in the fish, Jonah asserts, “salvation belongs to the LORD” (2:9) and it is this truth that leads to God speaking to the fish to spit him up. Since salvation is solely the prerogative of God, then none but God can determine who can and cannot enjoy this salvation. So God has officially run down Jonah, but that wasn’t all God was after. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’” (3:1-2). God got to Jonah so he could get to the Ninevites.

In his book Rediscovering Discipleship, Robby Gallaty famously stated, “The Gospel came to you because it was on its way to someone else.” It is truly gracious of God to use weak and often stubborn sinners like us in the grand plan of saving others. When Moses made several excuses why God should use someone else, God ran Him down and used Him. When Gideon doubted and questioned God’s choice of Him, God was determined to use Him. Why is God so determined to use such sinners in His plans of global missions? To better display the glory of His saving grace to those who don’t deserve it. The reluctant prophet finally caves to the omnipresent God of the universe. He goes to Nineveh and preaches his eight word sermon of God’s coming judgment and the people miraculously repent. I was given an audio Bible for Christmas one year and the story of Jonah ended at chapter 3. Listening to the narrator go from reading the end of Jonah 3 to the beginning of Micah seemed like a perfect ending to a great story. But Jonah contains another chapter for a reason. God has more for us to learn about ourselves and God’s mission in this world. Jonah sits a safe distance from the city to watch God perform Sodom and Gomorrah 2.0. It’s as if he’s got his popcorn ready for a fireworks display. He’s perhaps the only prophet who didn’t want his recipients to repent of their sins. Then God appoints a nice and shady plant to grow to protect Jonah from the baking sun. Then a worm to eat the plant and an east wind to leave Jonah hot and miserable.

What is God’s point? Jonah’s love for the plant and the shade and lack of love for the Ninevites reveals just how inwardly bent he is. “And the Lord said, ‘You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’” (4:10-11). And with that the book of Jonah ends. No story of Jonah repenting of his poor attitude and rebellion. Just a question from God to Jonah and all the perpetual readers of his book: should not I pity Nineveh? God wants everyone to know that He has a heart for the heartless. He shows mercy to the merciless. For all who repent and believe in Him, God promises full and final salvation. Later Paul would come from the place to which Jonah was running: Tarsus (same area as Tarshish). And Paul would go on God’s mission around the known world to spread the Gospel of His Son. He would write, “No one seeks for God” and yet He would also write, “God demonstrates his love for us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 3:11; 5:8). So God’s redeeming grace is more stubborn than our rebellion. The opposite of running from God is to abide in Him. This is why Jesus would later say, “Abide in me and I in you” (John 15:4a).

In his book Running from Mercy, pastor Anthony Carter writes, “You cannot hide from God. A better course of action is to hide in God.”

May we all humbly confess our selfish tendency to run from God and seek to live abiding in the light of His relentless grace.

Lewis On the Christian Life: A Review

As we do from time to time, we take a moment and reflect on the importance of Books and in such moments give a recommendation or review of one such book that we have read.  Specifically, this month I want to focus on Joe Rigney’s “Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God.” Now the Lewis Rigney has set out here to unpack before us is non-other than C.S. Lewis, the English giant, scholar, and apologist. The skeptic turned Christian has left behind a plethora of writings and is still one of the most-beloved Christian children’s authors, I would say to this day. Lewis is a man who loved to think of things in two worlds the world of the real and the world of the pretend. Rigney in this work helps us to see that at the core of how Lewis saw and understood the Christian life stood an understanding of the world that was far more complex than most would imagine, and from this view of humanity he applied the teachings of scripture and at times got it right and at other times, created a lot of confusion.

But alas, let’s begin with the good stuff. Rigney is an advent Lewis reader and supporter. He previously wrote a book called Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles in which he unpacked much of Lewis’ beliefs on how to live out the Christian life from the tales told in the Chronicles of Narnia. As such the Chronicles, for the most part, are left out of this book, so if you are a huge Chronicles fan I would suggest reading his first book, however If you enjoy the whole of Lewis works or are familiar with only a few then this book may open some more interesting explorations for you, as Rigney dives deep into some of his letters and writings to help pull out the depth of Lewis ideas. This process is exciting to see as you read how his views intermingle through his work.

Another thing that I appreciated, much like other books in the series, is that Rigney doesn’t shy away from Lewis’ more controversial issues such as the atonement and purgatory. He unpacks Lewis through His writings and walks the reader through how Lewis’ arrived at the places he did. Now I will say Rigney does spend a bit of time apologizing for Lewis but didn’t do it in such a way that he hides any of Lewis’ beliefs. As such, I found this to be a very positive aspect of the book as you are able to see through all of his writings how Lewis struggles with the notion of penal substitutionary atonement, and how through his struggle he clings to the aspects of the atonement that are more easy for him to grasp. If you want to see the outworking of Lewis’ thoughts on these subjects laid out in his own words that is what Rigney gives you and he does it in such a way that you walk away understanding Lewis, not necessarily agreeing with him, but understanding him.

I will say though this book is a journey, it is the longest so far written in the “On the Christian Life” series that crossway has put out and it covers a lot of different topics from practical Christian living to the four loves and thoughts on heaven and hell and all sorts of paths along the way. Now I don’t want it to sound like it is disorganized, it is not, however it covers a lot that at times can slow down the pace and feel out of sorts, so if you have read some of the other books in the series this one is a little more in depth and hefty at times into some of Lewis thoughts, which as I said can be both a great benefit and at times a hindrance.

Therefore, overall it was a thoughtful read, as it gives deeper clarity into the thinking of the apologetical legend C.S. Lewis himself. If you are a fan of Lewis’s body of work, you will enjoy seeing how Rigney dives deep into some of his works to get to the meat of Lewis thinking. If you have only read Narnia or Mere Christianity this will help open your eyes to a fuller spectrum of how Lewis viewed the world and how some of the things you read there are more fully fleshed out in other texts. So as with most Rigney works it is worth the time and effort.

When Waters Rise

I live in the Illinois River Bottoms. Three hundred feet to the East stands a sweeping bluff of timber and steep draws that run for miles and miles North and South. Three miles straight West lies the Illinois River with another bluff face just West of it that reaches the Mississippi River. It really is a beautiful site.

However, if you’ve watched or read the news over the last several weeks you know that the River is not its customary three miles from my home. As a matter of fact, just out my window I can see her wind-tossed waves in my neighbors’ cornfield; only 500 feet away. This flood is second only to the Great Flood of 1993 which reached its crest on August 3. Lord willing, we reached ours on Friday, June 8.

I have worked with locals, people coming in from around the state, prisoners, and the National Guard to build makeshift walls and sandbag walls in an attempt to keep the waters of the Illinois, and her local tributaries, from spilling over into millions (and I mean millions upon millions) of acres of corn and unplanted fields. It really has been incredible; so many moving parts in the flood relief effort and so many people giving their time and money to help their neighbors.

To this very moment, the Lord has prevented mass flooding in our immediate area. Praise the Lord.

It’s not the levies holding, the makeshift walls, the tens of thousands of sandbags, the countless hours spent preparing & delivering hundreds and hundreds of meals out of our Fellowship Hall, or even the innumerable amount of manhours that has gone into the total effort that has been the most memorable. The most memorable moment took place yesterday morning in worship.

One of our farmers, unprompted and unplanned, stood to testify of God’s glory and God’s omnipotence in the flood. He reminded us of Job 38:8-11 where God declares to Job that it was Him who said to the sea “this far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed…” We didn’t stop the water, the Lord did.

This is a man whose immediate and extended family farms a considerable amount of ground in the Bottoms; a family who, if the waters rise any more, a levy fails, or our feeble attempt to hold back what is already higher than the levies bombs, stands to lose more than I can imagine. But he is also a man who knows his Creator and Sustainer, his Protector and his Provider. Unshaken by the potential loss, he was moved by his God’s glory and power in the flood and the opportunities the rising waters have provided for us to share the love of Christ and the Gospel of Christ with those involved in the relief effort.

Indeed, the floods come. Jesus said in Matthew 7:24-27 that the rain falls, the floods come, the winds blow and beat against the houses (lives) that we have built. But those who build their lives on the Rock, the Solid Foundation of Jesus Christ, will not fall when waters rise. Why? Because He sustains them. Even amidst the rising waters, those whose Foundation will not sweep away in rushing waters rest…and even praise Him while waters rise.

When “waters rise” in your life, do you cower in fear of what you can lose or stand confidently upon your Foundation and praise Him that nothing comes without His Sovereign declaration or allowance; trusting Him knowing that it can only work out for your good?

I don’t know what the future holds for the waters around us, but I do know who holds that waters back and who releases them when & where He wills. And you know what? He is faithful and immutable; maybe the two attributes of God that give me the greatest comfort. When waters rise, may we “be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Mt. 7:24).

Psalm 61:2b-3a—“Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge…”

Why Is the Old Testament so Horrifically Violent?

This question isn’t new. Since I entered the realm of apologetics and theological studies in my late teens I have been confronted with it many times. Often the inquiry has been little more than an embittered accusation of cosmic barbarism. But recently, particularly as our church has gone through the book of Judges, the query – in multifarious forms – has been sincerely raised again and again: Why is the Old Testament so violent? It’s a legitimate question. Brutality emerges as early as Genesis 4 with the slaughter of Abel, and the theme continues through to the second chapter of Malachi. Covenants are sealed in blood, sacrifices involve butchery, and on repeat we see gory battles and the massacre of entire civilizations. The “Old Testament God” has been accused of brutish catachresis, and on the sidelines Christians all too conveniently (and often embarrassingly) try to excuse the behavior of God or misdirect minds from the content of Scripture. Are the myriad of accusations against the Sovereign valid? Well, certainly not all of them; but even if some of our confusion around the graphic gore of the OT is legitimized (be we Christian, skeptic, or scorner), we must acknowledge that we are questioning or accusing the Creator from the absolute framework and moral concept of goodness that only He could have established.

But even therein lies an issue for some. Are we left with a “do as I say, not as I do” God? Well, you may chuckle, but the answer to that is yea…kind of. He is infinite, after all, and we finite. He is self-centered, and rightfully so, while we are self-centered but sinfully so. He is not primarily an example to follow but a Judge and (to His children) a Father to be obeyed. So that answers two pressing issues: we must be extremely careful when leveling interrogation against God because He is (1) God (with all the convoluted glory that entails) and He is (2) the beginning and end of all absolute goodness and purity which we may attempt to use as an indictment against Him. So, with those realities established, and while bearing them in mind, we can endeavor to answer this enormous inquiry: Why the violence in the Old Testament? 

I think there are 5 answers to this question which I will briefly explain:

God employs warfare to show His people how to fight well. 

This reality is stated bluntly in Judges 3. God allowed Canaanites to remain in the land of promise “in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before.” What we see clearly in the Pentateuch, the Historical books, and the Prophets is that the art of combat was passed from one generation to another. There were always battles to be fought, and the people of God were commissioned to fight well to defend their people and represent their King. Even today, we learn how to fight, both literally and spiritually from what we find in the Scriptures.

God unleashes brutality as a consequence to sin.

When God looked upon the landscape of His creation, the word that flowed from His Divine mouth was “Good.” In beauty the Lord crafted the world; and sin catastrophically marred that beauty. Violence, aggression, and brutality are used and unleashed by God but the culprit behind these is sin itself. So much of the barbarism of the Old Testament is the outworking, the consequence, or the eradication of persistent wickedness.

God wields violence to protect and purify His people. 

This is a common motif in Scripture: violence and bloodshed are wielded by the Lord to protect His people from the compromise that would undoubtedly come from the invasion of foreign nations. Just as any loving father would act in aggression toward those who threatened the innocence of his children, so God – as the preeminent Father – responds in holy vengeance against those who would seek the ultimate destruction of His children.

God through bloodshed preserves the line of Christ. 

Again and again we see empires rise in the Old Testament seekingly to overthrow and annihilate the people of God. The twelve tribes of Israel are embarrassed, demoralized, enslaved, and tortured. Through patriarchs, prophets, judges, and kings God brings deliverance to ultimately safeguard the line of Messiah. Had the people of Jehovah embraced pacifism they would have been obliterated long before the Savior entered the frame and brought justification to the world.

God uses barbarism to foreshadow the passion of Jesus. 

Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 speak with uncomfortable precision of the suffering Messiah. In the cross and resurrection of Christ we see the convergence of the holy war pattern established in the Old Testament. On the cross Jesus absorbed the furious condemnation of God, and in the resurrection He secured the final victory for the people of God.

Undoubtedly the questions swarming around the violent aggression of the Old Testament will persist, but as Christians we see glimpses of God’s purposes and glory emerging from the darkness to pierce the light.

Semper Reformanda

Reflections on The Banner of Truth Conference

Sometimes, it can seem like there is an overload of pastoral and theological conferences being held. It is true that a person can become to engrossed with conferences using them as a means of replacing being a part of a healthy local church. Conferences though can be immensely helpful and refreshing. Last week, I had the privilege of attending The Banner of Truth’s East Coast Conference in Elizabethtown, PA. I believe that this is the conference you need to attend every year. Here are a few reflections on the conference:

1) An emphasis on the dependence of the pastor upon the Spirit. The theme of the Banner of Truth conference was “I Believe in the Holy Spirit.” The person and work of the Holy Spirit is often overlooked or misunderstood. There can be an overreaction to the excesses of the Charismatic movement which can cause Reformed believers to shy away from understanding the glorious work of the Spirit. Each session of the conference did a marvelous job of exploring different themes related to the Holy Spirit. Even as Reformed pastors, we must guard against and fight the tendency to believe and trust in our flesh. Ordinary means of grace ministry calls our focus to the gradual work of the Holy Spirit. These means are not flashy, but they force us to see how central the work of the Spirit is. The pastor is not a performer but a clay jar bearing the beautiful treasure of the gospel. The preaching, praying, and singing at this conference exhibit all these marks for they were driven by the work of the Holy Spirit.

2) A band of brothers, not a celebrity circuit marks this conference. This was not a conference promoting selfies with the speakers or book signings. It was refreshing to attend a conference and feel like I was at home. The brothers at Banner intentionally design and organize this conference as a place where you can connect with like-minded brothers. There were Presbyterians, Baptists, a few Anglicans, and even a United Methodist brother who attended the conference. Most of the men who spoke were unfamiliar names to myself, but they were all a blessing to my heart. This was not a place about a theological fad, a hip center for the young, restless, and reformed. A place of deep theology, spiritual maturity as well as informality and a familial spirit permeated the conference. How much the heartbeat of the Banner of Truth needs to go forth in many places! The speakers and trustees sit among those who are in attendance. There is no hierarchy, no roped off sections in the auditorium but a testimony to our unity in Jesus Christ and our need for one another.

3) Books, books, and more books! While this should not be the main reason you attend a Banner of Truth conference, it certainly should rank high on the list! The discounts for everyone and the bigger discounts for first-time attendees are amazing! The Banner of Truth Trust truly seeks to provide believers with rich books that are both tested by time and that are being written by faithful brothers. I am glad I drove to the conference so that I could fill my truck up with the books that I purchased! It blessed my heart to see these men so joyful in recommending books to attendees and doing all they could to get good resources into the hands of those there.

4) New Testament Baptist Church loves me tremendously. This reflection is obviously very personal, but I must make it. My church family encouraged me to attend this conference and granted me a two-week sabbatical to enjoy the time at the conference. I am so blessed to pastor a church that is not hesitant to give me a time to recharge my batteries. While the Banner conference filled my heart with great joy, it still does not compare to the sweet joy I know each Lord’s Day when I gather with my family of faith at NTBC. Thank you, my brothers and sisters, for granting me the privilege to journey northward to PA!

If I had to pick one conference I would attend next year (outside of our own Carey-Fuller Conference at NTBC or the annual Publicans Conference), it would be the Banner of Truth Conference. Financially, your registration fee covers lodging and meals. It is economical. However, the spiritual benefits cannot be placed with a price tag. Do yourself a favor and mark May 26-28 on your calendar for PA! Next year’s theme will be on “Communion with God.” Lord willing, I hope to see y’all there!

 

Fearlessly Forward

If you’ve been on this earth long you understand that life includes a struggle against serious opposition. A battle, in fact, that can sometimes seem like a losing one; even for Christians. It is not uncommon for us to feel apprehensive as we walk through life, because it can often seem like every time things begin to go well, the floor unsettles beneath us.

It’s that, “Here we go again!”, feeling. The impression that, no matter what we do, no matter how intentional we go about our lives, no matter how earnestly we exert ourselves, no matter how faithful we are to our family, our employments, or our church, and no matter how much struggle we’ve already come through, things seem to keep ending up in frustration. It’s as if the world around us was actually in opposition to us. And then, of course, we remember from the Bible that it actually is.

I think the Apostle Paul felt something akin to this in Acts 18 when he entered the city of Corinth on his second missionary journey. I think he felt like every time he jumped out of one frying pan he landed in another fire, so to speak. Because from one city to another he felt the painful, steady drip of opposition.

Consider what Paul experienced:

  • His journey began with a terribly sad disagreement between himself and a beloved Christian brother, Barnabas (Acts 15:36-40).
  • He soon faced uncertainty over his direction as he was made to wait upon God’s call (Acts 16:6-10).
  • Though people were saved in Philippi, persecution reared its ugly head towards him (Acts 16:19-24).
  • While some believed in Jesus upon his arrival in Thessalonica, persecution sprang up once again (Acts 17:5).
  • Though the word of the gospel was eagerly received by the Jews of Berea, hard opposition still followed him (Acts 17:13-14).
  • Finally, while in Athens, the response to the resurrected Christ was feeble and he was even mocked (Acts 17:32-34).

So, as you might imagine, when Paul finally arrived in Corinth, he was pretty gun shy. In fact, he later wrote of this fear to the Corinthian believers: “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3).

But while he was in Corinth, God spoke. He interrupted Paul’s “Here we go again!” attitude, with the truth of his word:

“And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”” (Acts 18:9-10)

The Lord gave Paul two commands: don’t be afraid and keep on preaching. And then he gave him three reasons why he should obey these commands when opposition came. And these are the same reasons why followers of Christ today can fearlessly go forward in this life.

First, God is with us.

In v. 10 the Lord says, “for I am with you.” Why should Paul not be afraid? Why should he go on speaking truth? Because God was with him.

The same is true for every believer in the Lord Jesus, for in every place we go we are accompanied by God’s affectionate presence. There is no place Christians can go where the Spirit of Jesus is not by our side. The Lord has always been with his people (Deuteronomy 31:6; Joshua 1:9; Isaiah 41:10; Matthew 1:23). In fact, his presence is the lifeblood of the church and all our missionary endeavors:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Can you imagine what this would have meant to Paul to hear these words from his Lord? Can you fathom how much they would have lifted his spirits after many hard days? And do you recognize that these words have the same intention for us today?

Fear not. Go on speaking. Don’t be silent. For your God is with you.

Secondly, God is sovereign.

In v. 10, the Lord also told Paul, “no one will attack you to harm you.” What impresses me about this statement is its absoluteness. God does not merely say, “I will protect you.” Though that would have been comforting. Instead, the Lord tells Paul what will absolutely, positively, not happen to him.

While he was in Corinth, Paul would essentially be bulletproof. Nothing would hurt him. God would sovereignly prevent all attacks from getting to him, keeping all harm from coming his way. God is here expressing full mastery over Paul’s situation. He insinuates that he is in complete control over each of Paul’s troubles, fully sovereign over the Apostle’s very life.

The Lord always directs the events of his people, the church, that his gospel might go forward (Acts 18:12-17; 23:10-11; 27:23-24). While it is true that everything happens for a reason, that statement is woefully incomplete. For everything happens for God’s reason. Everything that happens within the church of God, is determined by the Son of God, to bring about the glory of God. Even the hard opposition faced by his people.

Do you see the hand of God over your life? Fear not. Go on speaking. For your God is sovereign.

Third, God is working his plan.

Finally, the Lord says in v. 10, “for I have many in this city who are my people.” When the Lord says, “my people,” he is referring to his chosen people: all those he has “appointed to eternal life” (Acts 13:45-49), who have believed, or will (with certainty) believe, upon the Son of God.

So, think what this would have meant to Paul to hear such words. He had gone from one city to another and, though he’d witnessed a few conversions, he was forced from each location before the gospel could make a larger impact. But now, the Lord comforted Paul by telling him that in Corinth many of “my people” are here.

We can think of Paul as a miner in God’s mine and he’s digging for gold that belongs to God. He hasn’t had much success recently. In fact, it’s been frustrating. He’s dug down deep and he’s bored through much rock. And though he’s found some of the precious metal, the labor has been extremely intensive. But now he’s being told, “Dig over here, for this is where my gold will be found.” After all that Paul had been through, he now learns that he had been brought to this precise day and location for a purpose: to mine for God’s people.

The same is true for us. If God has appointed his people to eternal life than we can be confident in our efforts to reach them. We can be confident that Christ is building his church. We can be certain that his kingdom will advance as he has ordained. And when we don’t see gold immediately, we can patiently wait upon him to break down the right walls.

We do face some hard opposition. But God is not done working. So, let us not fear but keep advancing the good news.

Pray the Bible

“To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” – Martin Luther

“Prayer is as natural an expression of faith as breathing is of life”. – Jonathan Edwards

“Prayer can never be in excess.” – C. H. Spurgeon

Certainly, prayer is a critical part of the Christian life. However, if you’re like me, you tend to struggle in couple areas of prayer:

First, we often pray only for temporal things rather than eternal ones. We pray for safe travel, food to nourish our bodies, exams to be passed, and for illness to go away. There is nothing wrong with praying for these things. But in addition to these, we should also pray for spiritual matters. We should pray for unbelievers to come to faith, discipleship opportunities, spiritual growth in our lives and in the lives of those around us, These things, and more, should be our primary focus in prayer, but so often we spend more time on temporal prayer requests then we do eternal ones. This should not be.

Second, we get distracted in prayer. We start to pray, we don’t necessarily have a direction that we’re headed, then we lose concentration and begin to think about other things derailing us from quality time with God.

How do we combat these two areas of struggle regarding prayer? One great way to combat these things is to pray the Bible. The Bible is filled with wonderful prayers. We have the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6, we have numerous prayers from the apostle Paul in his epistles, we have Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9, we have Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2, the Psalms are filled with prayers. All throughout the Bible we find prayer. We would do well to use these prayers as a guide for our own prayers.

Praying the Bible is critical. In fact, John Piper put this way. He says:

“Praying the Scriptures is so important in the Christian life. If we don’t form the habit of praying the Scriptures, our prayers will almost certainly degenerate into vain repetitions that eventually revolve entirely around our immediate private concerns, rather than God’s larger purposes.” – John Piper

It is important that we make a regular habit of praying the Bible. It will help us both with the content of our prayers and our focus while praying.

One Tremendous Draught of Love

“Then Simon Peter,having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given Me?” (John 18:10-11)

This incident is reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke but only John names Peter and Malchus. Peter’s courage in the face of their enemies was surely great, but his ability to aim and his lack of understanding seem to be greater. Because John doesn’t tell us why Peter did this it is hard to know his motive. On the surface it does appear to very foolish to attack a band of Roman soldiers when there’s only one of you and a few hundred of them. But maybe Peter thought the others would join in as well in some kind of heroic last stand? Or maybe he thought Jesus would at that very moment call down the heavenly host to wipe out all of God’s enemies and restore the kingdom to Israel? Whatever he thought, Peter was sure convinced of it and took abrupt action. Thankfully, Jesus put an immediate stop to it, and as far as we know the rest of the soldiers would’ve been drawing their own swords and beginning their charge. But again, the words of Jesus have power. Power to stop the rageful reaction of Peter, power to stop any response the soldiers were thinking of doing, power that in reality probably saved Peter’s life in this moment.[1]

This is yet another of those instances where Peter behaves rashly, another instance where it is too easy to look down on or even laugh at Peter. But, don’t be too quick to do so, we’re much more like Peter than we think. Don’t we also, at times without much thought, find ourselves acting quickly and rashly? I’d say it is very common for us to zealously defend our beliefs or our behavior without much thought if God approves of it or not.[2]Peter’s example reminds us of the benefits of zeal but it also reminds us to keep our zeal caged by the clear commands of God in His Word so we don’t run over one another in our fervor for personal passions and preferences.

“Put the sword into its sheath…” Jesus says, “…shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given Me?”

The cup of the Father is why Peter must sheath his sword. In the Old Testament the imagery of ‘the cup’ is often used to portray suffering or the wrath of God. Isaiah 51 calls it the ‘cup of staggering’ and the ‘bowl of wrath.’ Ezekiel 23 describes it as the ‘cup of horror and desolation.’ Revelation 14 and 16 say it is the ‘cup of God’s anger’ and the ‘cup of the fury of God’s wrath.’ Psalm 75:8 sums it up well when it says, “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and He pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.”

Earlier in a moment of disputing greatness Jesus had asked His disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matthew 20:22). A bit earlier in the same garden Jesus cried out “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” (Matthew 26:39) He asked Peter, “…shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given Me?”

The answer is yes, He must drink it.

If you’ve ever wondered what Jesus did on the cross, if you’ve ever been confused as to what actually occurred as Jesus hung there dying for sinners, and if you require clarity as to why Jesus died…see before us in v11 the wrathful reality of the cursed cup. The full force of hell and the full weight of our sin, Jesus lifted the cup of the Father’s fury, and as Charles Spurgeon said, “…in one tremendous draught of love, Jesus drank damnation dry.” Or as one old hymn puts it, “Death and the curse were in that cup, Oh Christ, twas full for Thee; but Thou hast drained the last dark dregs, tis empty now for me.”[3]

As we see our Savior enter a garden perhaps you remember another garden where it all began. Adam began life in a garden, Christ came at the end of his life to a garden. Adam faithlessly sinned in a garden, Christ faithfully began drinking His Father’s cup in a garden. Adam hid himself in garden, Christ did not shrink back but presented Himself in a garden. In Eden the sword was drawn barring the way back, in Gethsemane the sword was sheathed paving the way the long awaited redemption. The symbolism between the first Adam and the Second Adam is not accidental or incidental here. In Adam all were lost, Christ could say, “Of those whom you gave Me, none are lost.”[4]

We’ve seen the contrast of Judas’ depravity and Jesus’ divinity, and seen the contrast of Peter’s rage and Jesus’ righteousness. 

What should our response to this be? 

Every person who ever lives will one day drink from one of two cups. If you’re an unbeliever I’m truly glad you’re reading this so that you can hear this message. If you continue to reject this Christ and remain in unbelief, see in these soldiers what you’ll one day do before this very same Christ. Fall down to the ground in humility before the King of kings and Lord of lords. The result of rejecting Christ is to drink the cup of the Father’s fury for all eternity. Flee your sin, turn to Christ, and be saved! For those who have empty handed come to Christ in faith and found so great a salvation you also will drink a cup for all eternity. A cup of blessing described in Psalm 23:5, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

That Jesus would give Himself for us in this way, encourages us to give ourselves to Him in return.[5]May you do so, again and again.


[1]Grant R. Osborne, John. – Verse by Verse (Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2018) page 413.

[2]John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries – John (accessed via Accordance Bible Software) 2.8.19.

[3]R. Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe – Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1999) page 422.

[4]Richard D. Phillips, John 11-21 – Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2014) page 491.

[5]Ibid., page 498.

Hosea & The Scandal of the Gospel

Unfaithfulness.

It’s a tragic word in any context, but especially so in the covenant of marriage. As a pastor I’ve had the privilege of performing wedding ceremonies with couples I’ve counseled and seeing their smiling faces as they exchange vows. I’ve also watched marriages fall apart in my office or around our dining room table, because a spouse did not hold up their end of the covenant.

In the book of Hosea, God displays the sheer depth of His covenant faithfulness to unfaithful Israel. Israel broke her covenant with God, but He refused to break His covenant with them. It was the covenant He made and reiterated throughout the Scriptures that He would be there God and they would be His people (Gen. 17:7, Ex. 6:7, Eze. 36:28, Jer. 7:23, etc.). No one forced God to make such a promise, but He made it nonetheless.

The love story God tells in Hosea is unlike any Hollywood romance. Here’s the plotline: man marries woman; they have a child together; woman leaves man and becomes as promiscuous as a dog in heat; man renews his love for the woman despite the increasing children she has with other men and her total lack of faithfulness. As awkward and alarming as this story is, this is the story God considers a fitting illustration of His relationship with Israel. He is the faithful husband and she the unfaithful wife. In his commentary on Hosea, Duane Garrett writes, “Hosea…is a book that jolts the reader; it refuses to be domesticated and made conventional. It does comfort the afflicted, but it most surely afflicts the comfortable. It is as startling in its presentation of sin as it is surprising in its stubborn certainty of grace. It is as blunt as it is enigmatic. It is a book to be experienced, and the experience is with God.”

The events leading up to Hosea are important. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom was divided between Israel/Ephraim in the North and Judah in the South. About 100 years after Elijah and Elisha, Hosea arrives. It was a period of relative peace and prosperity for God’s people under Jeroboam II. Many of us know from personal experience that peace and prosperity are not friends of spiritual growth.

In Hosea’s day, God’s people had forgotten the Lord and began worshiping Baal, the fertility god. The nation of Assyria grew steadily stronger and instead of turning to God for help, Israel turned to other nations, like Egypt. They even paid Assyria to leave them alone. Nothing was helping. For thirty years, they’re kings were assassinated one after another in a saga worse than the Kennedy’s. God was waking up His people. He sent the prophets to warn of coming judgment. Hosea called God’s people to repent of their spiritual adultery and return to Yahweh, their faithful Husband.

The book is full of powerful imagery to convey God’s faithfulness despite Israel’s unfaithfulness. In their book, How to Read the Bible Book by Book, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart write, “Striking metaphors are Hosea’s specialty. Yahweh is lion, leopard, bear, eagle, trapper, as well as husband, lover, parent, and green pine tree. And Israel in her sins is even more vividly described: adulterous wife, stubborn heifer, snare and net, heated oven, half-baked bread, senseless dove, faulty bow, headless stalk, a baby refusing birth; she will disappear like mist, dew, chaff, and smoke; she will float away like a twig on water; she has sown the wind and will reap the whirlwind. It is hard not to get the picture.”

So what does Hosea teach us?

When we sin we’re committing spiritual adultery

One would think that after all God did for Israel and the miracles He performed to rescue them time and again, they would have learned the lesson to avoid idolatry. But like us, Israel was constantly forgetting the Lord. Throughout Hosea, we are given descriptions of Israel’s sin: “the land commits great whoredom, forsaking the LORD” (1:2); “[she] went after her lovers and forgot me, declares the LORD” (2:13); “they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins” (3:1), “you have forgotten the law of your God” (4:6); “they have forsaken the law to cherish whoredom” (4:10); “they have left their God to play the whore” (4:12).

Sin is more serious than we realize. When we sin against God, there is something much deeper going on than mere thoughts, words, or actions. We are bowing before the idols of our hearts. Idols of comfort, control, pleasure, the praise of men, or something else. Also, because we are acting this way against the backdrop of God’s covenant faithfulness, we’re rebelling against a faithful Husband. To put it bluntly, when we sin we’re jumping in bed with Satan. It made no sense for Gomer to turn her back on godly and faithful Hosea and it makes no sense for us to turn our backs on God. Our response to sin must be in line with what God commands: “acknowledge [our] guilt and seek [his] face…come let us return to the LORD…by the help of your God, return” (5:15; 6:1; 12:6).

God must chastise us when we continue in rebellion

When our children are being watched by a babysitter, they behave because they know that though the babysitter cannot discipline, mom and dad will take care of it when they come home. We love our children too much to let them wander off into reckless rebellion. God is the same with us. The author of Hebrews points out, “If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Heb. 12:8). For the people of Israel, this came by means of Assyrian overthrow and eventually exile. He tells them in Hosea 11:5-7, “They shall not return to the land of Egypt, but Assyria shall be their king, because they refused to return to me…My people are bent on turning away from me, and though they call out to the Most High, he shall not raise them up at all” (11:5-7).

We must not take lightly the discipline of the Lord. He is graciously seeking to tear the idols from our grasp.

God’s commitment to His people is unwavering

The most shocking thing about Hosea is the way we see God’s constant promise of restoration after judgment. Even as He rebukes them for idolatry and promises judgment, His heart breaks for them. Just after the promise of judgment in 11:1-7, God says, “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?…My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (11:8). Then there is the great promise in chapter 1: ““Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God”” (1:10).

All this ultimately points us to the Gospel.

How can God both punish our sin and pardon us sinners? Only by means of the cross. At the cross, God’s bleeding heart for His people was put on full display and His roaring wrath against their sin was poured out…on the head of Jesus. The Gospel is truly scandalous because it tells us of a God who pardons the guilty on the basis of faith in the Innocent being punished.

How could we turn our backs on such a faithful Husband and gracious Redeemer?

Beyond Redemption?

The Lord spoke to Manasseh and to his people, but they paid no attention. Therefore the Lord brought upon them the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria, who captured Manasseh with hooks and bound him with chains of bronze and brought him to Babylon. And when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.[…] And he took away the foreign gods and the idol from the house of the Lord, and all the altars that he had built on the mountain of the house of the Lord and in Jerusalem, and he threw them outside of the city. He also restored the altar of the Lord and offered on it sacrifices of peace offerings and of thanksgiving, and he commanded Judah to serve the Lord, the God of Israel.” (2 Chronicles 33:10-16)

The story of Manasseh is one of the most interesting one to be found in the book of Chronicles, for in this text we see a more complete picture of the work of God in bringing salvation to sinners. Manasseh is one of the worst and most wicked of kings in the history of Israel. He is known for having murdered his own children, offered sacrifices to pagan deities and removed the true worship of God from Israel. He was a man filled with his own self-worth and truly existed in his own self-importance. He may not have been the worst of sinners in the world or the most tyrannical of rulers, but he is pretty darn close. In the line of David, it is hard to find one as evil ruling in Judah. He is the furthest thing from a man after God’s own heart

Now why do I bring us to this text today. Why focus on this specific man to bring us to see the fullness of the wonder of salvation?

First, because he is a man who we would say is the furthest from God. Unlike Paul who wrapped himself in religiosity and found himself outside of the truth, this King rejected the faith of his fathers and openly pursued wickedness. Manasseh is the proof that with God nothing is impossible, and no man is too far beyond the salvific work of our Lord. Just let it sink in for a moment. This king is far worse than the worst dictators in our current world, and yet the Lord transformed his heart. The Lord transformed a man who wanted nothing to do with Him into a man of repentance and faithfulness. Manasseh doesn’t simply give lip service in repentance, his life is transformed. He undoes the worst of his blasphemies against the Lord and makes every effort to return the people to the worship of God. In this we see the beauty that no one is too beyond the salvation of God.

Second, it shows us that God can uses many different means to bring the lost to Him. In the case of this king in Judah he uses a military defeat and capture. Manasseh finds himself in a distant land defeated and ruined, he is the prisoner of a foreign king with no hope of salvation. However, in the midst of defeat he finds the truly and lasting hope in God. He turns in this pit of destruction and there is the Lord God. God rescues him, transforms him, and brings him back to the land. The text is clear that all these events happened by the hand of God; from ruin to restoration God was at work bringing Manasseh to Himself. Breaking him of his wickedness and self-importance that he might see the true strength of his reign in the hand of God.

For many God has used the darkest days to shine brightly. He has used our sinfulness to show us His grace unending, His mercy that sustains us, and his strong hands which hold us firm. The wonder of this text is that Manasseh was actively running from God, but that never stopped God from working to bring Manasseh to himself. If you are in Christ, you know this reality to be true. God pursued us and won us. He broke down the dividing wall that stood between us and wooed us by his mercy, grace and love. He broke down our sins and gave us life. Through the storm of our sins, He brought life and hope. His divine power overcame us.

When we think of the life of Manasseh, King in Judah, we should be immediately struck by the reality of God’s work in saving sinners, and how that work shapes everything about our lives. While we may not be as bad as Manasseh, we were apart from Christ and as bad off as Manasseh. We didn’t have God, rather we openly accepted the world in whatever form brought us the most pleasure. We found satisfaction and worth in our jobs, religion, social circles, hobbies, lusts, physical pleasure, and material wealth, all of which left us empty and searching for more. We were all as bad off as Manasseh apart from God’s intervening work, and what a marvelous work it was. We must never forget the saving work of Christ, from His work on the cross to His intervention in our lives through the Holy Spirit we have been blessed beyond measure.

Therefore, let us life out the faith in earnestness as Manasseh did, let us reflect the great salvation we have received and call others to receive the same wonderful grace of our God.