Monday, December 3, 2012

Unconverted Church Members

Mark Dever recently taught on the danger of a church having unconverted members. If you'd like to listen, click here. It's worth the time.

On the same subject, J.L. Reynolds wrote in 1849:

"It becomes well the disciples of the Saviour to guard well the door of admission into their fraternity. Upon their fidelity, in this respect, depend its efficiency, prosperity, and safety. An accession of nominal Christians may enlarge its numbers, but cannot augment its real strength. A Church that welcomes to the privileges of Christ's house, the unconverted, under the specious pretext of increasing the number of his followers, in reality betrays the citadel to his foes. They may glory in the multitudes that flock to their expanded gates, and exult in their brightening prospects; but the joy and the triumph will be alike transient. They have mistaken a device of the enemy for the work of God. They hailed, as they thought, an angel of light; they have received Satan. I admire and love the many sincere and zealous Christians that are found in such Churches; but I fear that this Trojan horse will finally prove their ruin."

Strong medicine from a 19th century SBC pastor, but it remains quite applicable for our time.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Exposed by the Word- 11/12/12

Ezekiel 33:13

Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die.

God is so gracious. He knows my heart and my situation better than I do. He knows (1) I desire to trust in my own righteousness and (2) that I will fail to be just in many deeds. I wake up every morning with a self-centered heart that is bent toward sin. During the day I want a spotlight on what I deem to be my successes and try to hide any of my failings as if they don't exist. When company comes to visit, the house appears to be sparkling clean, but the rough edges have been stored away inside the closets. God sees inside those places in my heart and doesn't simply leave them out of sight, but exposes them. This is gracious. He does not leave us where we are in our sin, nor will He allow us to claim our own righteousness. If we seek to justify ourselves before Him and claim our own merit, we will be judged for our deeds. I don't want this, and praise God it doesn't have to be this way. There is One who is righteous that stood in my place, taking my sin upon Himself, suffering and dying the death I deserved. Death couldn't conquer Him, but it would have conquered me. I need God to graciously continue to shine a light into my heart, exposing those things I'd like to justify or hide. I need to realize anew each day that my relationship with him isn't ultimately based on my performance, which is so flawed, but on the perfect work of His Son, Jesus Christ. Praise and glory be to Him.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Election, Free Will, Sovereignty, and Responsibility- Some Thoughts

Sometimes, it's the questions that others ask that force you to put your thoughts on paper (or a computer). Here are some of mine on an issue that was raised today...

Presently, one of the biggest points of contention in the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination where I am a member, is that concerning God's sovereignty in salvation, free-will, election, etc. This is not a recent development in Baptist history, nor in protestant debates. At this time 400 years ago, the controversy was in full swing in Holland. In 1610, the followers of Jacob Arminius drafted what is known as the remonstrants- five articles of contention with the Calvinism that was present in their day. Eight years later in response, representatives from the Reformed churches from various countries in Europe wrote their own articles, broadly known today as the five points of Calvinism. When the Southern Baptist Convention was formed for the purpose of missions cooperation in 1845, there was no consensus on these issues, and there remains none today.

Whether Reformed or Arminian (some would say, Non-Calvinist) in their view of salvation, either side will agree in the existence of what Scripture terms the "elect." The former believes these have been chosen by God from eternity past for salvation, based on nothing foreseen in them. The latter, that God foresaw the future faith that certain individuals would exercise, and thus elected them to salvation. In either case, there must be agreement that only the elect will be saved- there is no more added to that number or subtracted from it than was foreknown by God prior to creation. The Great Commission, given by Christ to his followers, is the work the Lord's people do in bringing these men and women to believe by taking the Gospel to the corners of the earth. The certainty of their salvation provides great confidence in those who have been called to minister in the darkest regions of the world.

Both sides have their difficulties. If they did not, then there would be no dispute. Both sides can use Scripture to support their view. If they could not, then neither has any ground for argument. The Reformed view, it is argued, presents God as unfair by choosing some and not others. Because at the point of his choosing the elect no one (in the mass of humanity, or possible humanity) had done anything right or wrong, it appears to those who dissent to be arbitrary and unloving. In opposition, the Arminian view posits free will as the answer. Here, they say, God has sovereignly granted free will to his creatures so that they may choose for themselves whether or not they might come to him for salvation. The thought might be to remove God and his lack of equity from the equation and place the onus completely on man, but instead of solving the problem, it simply moves it. God chose to make this world just as it is, with all foreknowledge of future events. No doubt, he could have chosen to make a world where sin would not have existed, or where all people would come to salvation, or any other world we might think is more fair, or where God seems more loving, etc. (Seeing this as a problem, some in the Arminian stream formed the opinion that in order for God to be seen as completely loving and fair pertaining to salvation, He must not know all future events. They say, the future is open [Open Theism]. None inside mainstream evangelicalism hold this view, nor should they).

But He did not make those worlds. God made the world that He did for the supreme purpose of demonstrating his glory, to His praise, by His people. Paul, in speaking of the wonders of the Gospel, mentions this purpose three times in the first fourteen verses of Ephesians. God made a world where sin would exist, and as existant, would lead to the crucifixion of his Son- the most heinous of sins. This was not a back-up plan, but the only plan, ordained by God (Acts 2:23), for He was the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world. With his blood He has ransomed a rebellious people from their sins, cleansing them and propitiating an angry God. Having been children of wrath, they are now adopted sons and daughters. What a glorious Savior! And this was God's intention.

Both sides agree that grace is necessary for anyone to believe in the gospel, therefore eliminating the idea that man is capable on his own to come to faith in Christ. Being fallen in his reason, affections and will, Scripture describes the unregenerate man as dead in his trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), as a follower of the prince of this world (v.2), as a son of disobedience (v.3), blinded by Satan (2 Corinthians 4:4), and the like. Dead men can't walk and blind men can't see without some sort of intervention. Here is where God's grace is necessary, made possible through the preaching of the Gospel. The Reformed believe that grace does everything- regenerating the heart, bringing it to a place where it wills to receive Christ, and does so. The Arminian believes that grace takes the person, and their will, to a state where they can either accept or refuse the call of the Gospel. 

Within the pages of Scripture, there are many tensions, but the greatest of these is that of God's sovereignty, and the responsibility of man. If God is said to be sovereign over all things- the events that occur in history, the kings of the earth, each lightning bolt from heaven, and the salvation of men, the question arises, "how can man be responsible for his own actions?" The Apostle Paul asks this same question, and addresses it in Romans 9:19 and following, and it is here we arrive back at the argument of free will. No one comes to Christ unwillingly, but the question is why does he come? Scripture never divorces the parallel truths of sovereignty and responsibility. Preaching on this issue, Charles Spurgeon states: "They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other. These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring."

Regardless of the theology one holds, we can clearly see in Scripture that God calls Christians to preach and teach the Gospel to everyone, without distinction. Whether the elect are ordained or foreseen by God, Southern Baptists, and all evangelicals are to carry out the Great Commission with the confidence that God will bring to Himself a people from every tongue, tribe, and nation. Injury is done to the unity of His people and to the Gospel when we caricature one another, or build straw men that do not exist, so that we can quickly tear them down. There will continue to be dialogue on this issue, as evidenced by the recent panel formed by the SBC executive committee to begin discussions on soteriology. These have been cordial and productive thus far, as they should be, but judging from our history, and that which precedes it, these issues are far from decided.

For those who have continued to read (thanks), I'd like to close with the words of Spurgeon (read the whole sermon here), who was always instructive, eloquent, and insightful: "Now, with regard to myself; you may some of you go away and say, that I was Antinomian in the first part of the sermon and Arminian at the end. I care not. I beg of you to search the Bible for yourselves. To the law and to the testimony; if I speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in me. I am willing to come to that test. Have nothing to do with me where I have nothing to do with Christ. Where I separate from the truth, cast my words away. But if what I say be God's teaching, I charge you, by him that sent me, give these things your thoughts, and turn unto the Lord with all your hearts."

In Christ,

Sunday, August 26, 2012

There's Something About Marty

Two months ago I met a man named Marty, and he made a lasting impression on me. Standing in front of the NYMBA on 72nd Street in Manhattan, an old man with a cane approached me and asked in a heated voice, "are you one of those Jews who thinks Jesus is the Messiah?" Behind me was a poster with information about the Messianic Jews who met in the building. I told him no, but that I was an evangelical Christian who did believe that Jesus was the Christ. What followed was a long conversation (more of a one-sided rant), where Marty expressed his intense angst with people like me. I've never seen nor been a part of such a spectacle, and it continued as we slowly traversed the remainder of the city block with his loud voice blending into the noise of the city. Though old (and cranky), Marty had a sharp mind, even acknowledging that he had been a Pentecostal preacher for two years, while not believing the message that he preached. He knew the Bible, quoting portions of it, but believed they were the words of man- no different than what could be picked up at a corner news stand. In many ways, Marty is representative of the large city he lives in, and though he was more difficult to talk to than anyone I can remember having a conversation with, I appreciated his honesty about the worldview he held. He knew he was not a Christian. Rather, he boldly stated that he was an athiest, and I believe him. When a person knows who they are, it makes it much easier to have a productive conversation about truth. Well over 90% of New Yorkers are non-Christian, and though this is nothing to celebrate, at least we can speak plainly to each other.

In contrast, those who live in the Bible Belt are born into a culture of Christianity. This has great upside in that the Gospel is well-known and there are places of worship on almost every corner. It's not all upside, though. Here, Christianity can become a rite of passage rather than the counter-cultural message (foolishness according to Paul, 1 Cor. 1:18) it has always been. Parents assume that their children will be believers, as though they only need to acknowledge the lordship of Jesus, as if it were the same as believing 4+4=8. Both are true, but believing one of these requires a miracle from God. We preach, teach, persuade, and plead with men, women, and children to come to Christ and trust in the Gospel, but only God can wake the dead. He alone has power over life and death- many times in Scripture demonstrating his authority, ultimately in the raising of our Lord. His power over the physical realm also reaches into the spiritual. Deadness pervades here unless the God of life raises a man from the grave (Ephesians 2:1-6). Being inculcated in a culture cannot do this. The Jews grew tired of manna in the days of Moses and grumbled, and without any distinctive noise, many hearts in our pews have slowly hardened to a a message of joy because they believe they ate the bread long ago, and have no use for it anymore. Sadly, many will realize they never ate at all, because they put on the outside covering without experiencing inward change wrought by God through faith. We can't assure anyone of their conversion by pointing to one day long ago where they felt emotional about Christ or the Gospel. He himself taught that some who experienced initial joy would fall away for lack of root and pressures from the world (Matthew 13:20-21). Therefore, Scripture seeks to give assurance based on the evidence of one's life (1 John is full of this language) and the endurance of faith until the end (1 Corinthians 9:24-10:14; Hebrews 6:4-9). A new nature will bring forth different fruit.

It's been said by researchers that as many as 50% of our church members are non-regenerate (seems high doesn't it?). Though (hopefully) hearing it every week, they need the Gospel as much as Marty does. Each requires a mighty act of God to come to faith, but at least one knows he's not a Christian.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Thankful...At Midnight

I'm six hours from home when my wife is more than eight months pregnant, and I'm sitting in a hotel lobby at midnight typing. It's possible that any minute I'll get a call from her and we'll be rushing to a hospital we do not know in a city that's unfamiliar. We would normally not travel at a time like this, but we usually don't have the opportunity to celebrate a new marriage with family. So, even though I'm not sure when it will be safe to return to the room (I left when 1 grown woman and 4 small girls were trying to go to sleep in an area that is smaller than my living room, yeah...), I want to reflect on a couple of things I'm thankful for.

1. For my marriage- My wife and I don't make a habit of doting on each other through social networks. It's something of a relational taboo in our home, but as we go to witness another couple make this commitment, it's a good time to be thankful for her and the marriage we have. It's hard to overestimate the value of marriage in conforming a person to the image of Christ. Both individuals see both the best and the worst of each other, but have devoted themselves to a life together "...for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, til death do us part."Modern marriage ceremonies can often be mushy, gushing of a form of love that is best suited for a predictable romantic comedy. Central to the wedding is the covenant- the commitment to one another that is to survive any challenge the couple may face. The traditional vows truly do illustrate this well (is there any word that can adequately replace "cherish"?) I'm thankful for a God who has committed Himself to me through the New Covenant, written in Christ's blood. I'm thankful for the woman who has seen me at my worst, but loves, forgives, and stays committed to the covenant she made with me eleven years ago. I'm also thankful for her commitment as a mother. Expecting our fifth child, she knows the hard work that awaits, but also knows the joy- which leads me to the second thing I'm thankful for...

2. For my children- Again, it's hard to overestimate how much God uses our children to sanctify us. They, too, see our highs and lows, and often the gospel witness they receive from me is my asking for their forgiveness when I fail them. They reveal my lack of patience, my pride, and my selfishness (the Gospel is for sinners like me. I need to be reminded of my sinfulness and my continual need for Christ), but also help me to see a glimpse of God's great love for his children who are found in Christ (1 John 3:1). No doubt, this love is something he wants to reveal in parenthood. The love I have for them, they return to me four-fold (and then some). They bless me daily with joy at my return, a longing for my time, and satisfaction with my company. God is so gracious. I'm thankful...

I think it's safe to return now....Grace and Peace, brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Favorite Books

Over the last few years, I've had the opportunity to read a number of good books, some worthy of a quick scan, and many others that I wouldn't recommend. I've also read some that have been very influential that I will go back to and re-read, study, and use for future ministry and growth. These are few and far between, but here is a sample of that group.

Desiring God, John Piper- "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." This book might just change the way you see your relationship with God. He does all things for his own glory, but this will only increase your joy in Him.

Holiness, J.C. Ryle (I read the first edition in J.I. Packer's Faithfulness and Holiness. I think the 1st ed. is shorter than the others. Packer himself is a fine author (Knowing God)). Amazingly enough, this was written in the late 1800's in England, but it could have been addressed to today's culture and would have been just as poignant. Straight-forward and powerful about the Christian's maturity and growth.

On the Mortification of Sin in Believers, John Owen. Even older than Ryle's from the 17th century, Owen's classic is the best work on sin that I have read. Originally addressed to teenage boys, it might prove difficult to read today because of the slight difference in English, but updated versions can be purchased from Crossway. Here is a free PDF-

Let the Nations Be Glad, John Piper. Over the past few months I've read several books on missions, but this is far and away the best. "Missions exists because worship doesn't." (By the way, I would recommend anything by Piper).

Disciplined by Grace, Jerry Bridges. I stumbled on this without any expectations a couple of years ago and the opening chapter grabbed my attention. God does not accept you because of your performance. What a wonderful truth, and even though you might think you live with this understanding and application, Bridges demonstrates how easy it is to slip into this train of thought. How wonderful grace is!

In Christ,

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Acceptance by Performance?

I can remember when my wife and I had our first baby, and even though there was no prior history with this new child, and she had done nothing right or wrong, I loved her deeply. The delight was just there without reservation. When it was time to have another baby, we wondered if we could have the same affection for the next one as much as the first. It seemed impossible, but our hearts expanded and we loved again. Naturally, as time went on and the first two grew, they had fears of losing some portion of their parents' affection when they were told another would be coming home soon (and another, and another), but we assured them that God's graciously provides in abundance. Now, love exists almost inexplicably, and while I might be disappointed at how they act from time to time, it continues by the grace of God. However, I'm afraid that I often give them the wrong impression- that my acceptance and favor is based on their performance. If they believed that to be the case, it would be natural for them to modify their behavior to gain the desired response.

Children do this, but so do teens who want acceptance from a clique or friend, as do those looking to impress a crush. Any desired relationship can be characterized this way, and unfortunately, Christians can see their acceptance from God in the same manner. If my imperfect love for my children can last through their failures, what does that imply about God's perfect love? He is a Heavenly Father for all those in Christ Jesus, and what we have as earthly fathers and mothers is only a blemished part of what he possesses in full. His love is unfailing and unfading and the Lord has made this clear by giving his Son for us. The believer's acceptance and good standing with God are not based on his own performance, but on the work of another- the perfect man, Christ Jesus. The Gospel of Christ is for sinners, and even though I am a new man in Him, sin remains. So, as a sinner, I still need the Gospel. When I fail, it is always my first inclination to rationalize my sin because I get concerned about my acceptance with God. By trying to make my failures look better, both to me and to him, in some way I believe God responds to my weak reasoning by saying, "Oh! I thought your true motivation was impure! I'm glad you cleared that up for me Lonnie." Then my conscience is assuaged and I can move on, having successfully protected my reputation with the Lord. This is a false Gospel. Our guilt is not quelled by justifying our behavior, but looking to the blood of Christ that justifies us before God. Only when we trust in the blood can our consciences be cleansed (Heb. 9:14, 10:22), bringing us peace and freeing us from bondage. What liberating news the Gospel is for those who trust in Christ! God no longer acts as your judge (He judged Christ in your place), but views you as your Father. Therefore, to grow you as you need, he disciplines you as his child, and as such, his motivation is always love. He works for your good all of the time. He is always for you. Your Father is not an angry ogre in the sky looking to strike you at every turn. You need not worry about his acceptance or doubt his love. Look to Christ- your salvation. A quote from Jerry Bridges' book, Disciplined by Grace will summarize this well:

"If God's blessings were dependent on our performance, they would be meager indeed. Even our best works are shot through with sin- with varying degrees of impure motives and lots of imperfect performance...It is because we do not realize the utter depravity of the principle of sin that remains in us and stains everything we do, that we entertain any notion of earning God's blessing through our obedience. And it is because we do not fully grasp the fact that Jesus paid the penalty for all our sins that we despair of God's blessing when we have failed to live up to even our own desires to live a life that is pleasing to God...When we pray to God for his blessing, He does not examine our performance to see if we are worthy. Rather, He looks to see if we are trusting in the merit of His Son as our only hope for securing His blessing."

This is one of the most liberating truths we can know. It frees us to live as people who are motivated by grace to live disciplined, godly lives (Titus 2:11-12). Guilt might motivate for a while, but it never lasts. I can furl my brow at my children and they'll respond the way I want for a while, but their desire will fade. Discipline without desire is absolute drudgery, and I want them to be motivated by love rather than by fear of my disappointment. My children need to understand this because of the eternal implications of the Gospel, but as a steward of this treasure, I have an obligation to model for them the love of my Father- a love that is not given based on their performance. It is a love that exists simply because they are my children. They will understand, in part, what God is like when I give them grace when they don't deserve it and when my discipline is motivated by love for their overall well-being rather than by my anger or my dissatisfaction with their failure. I hope they know I love them like that. I need to tell them, but I have to show them.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ready to Negotiate

If you've ever sold a house, you know that negotiations can be tedious and stressful. Am I willing to leave the refrigerator? Would I rather replace the A/C unit or drop what I'm asking by $5,000? What's my rock bottom price if we can close at the end of the month? What you often find is that everything is negotiable. To the Christian who is seeking to live faithfully, this is almost true. In my opinion, everything is negotiable but the gospel.

When a person comes to faith in Christ, what he/she finds is that it is not just a message that saves (and it is that), but is also a life (Christ's) to be lived. The gospel becomes the grid through which everything is seen and evaluated. By the power of the Spirit and the revelation of God in his Word, it searches out sinful thought patterns, changes attitudes, and redeems broken relationships. It illuminates darkness, not just in the surrounding world, but in the deep recesses of one's own heart. Jesus becomes, not simply a mercenary of forgiveness, but Lord of everything. He calls us to commit ourselves to his purposes, and his is servanthood and the way of the cross. I've found myself under more conviction lately to be about Christ's kingdom and not about my own. This means continually examining my own heart and way of life to ensure my priorities align with his. All else- my own preferences- are negotiable. This means the place I live, how comfortable I am, the way I order my life, how and when I interact with others- do all these honor him?

The apostle Paul functioned this way- never sacrificing the gospel message in spoken truth or in the way he lived, but instead said,

"To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings" (1 Cor 9:19-23, ESV).

This text has been used in different contexts- mainly for evangelism- but do you see the powerful effects of the gospel on his own life? All he does is oriented by his commitment to it. He does not sacrifice the message, but those things that are of secondary consequence become negotiable. What I've been asking of my own life, I ask of yours: What would change if the gospel was the priority over all else- if it shaped the way you approached every moment of the day? Would it be your schedule? The time you spend with your family or at work? Or what about the resources/time you give to support ministry or missions? Would you live in a different house, or maybe a different state/country? Would you begin to see those casual relationships you have as God-ordained privileges of eternal consequence? What does your "me time" consist of? Does it glorify God? How important is comfort? Or the opinions of others?

I need my heart exposed by the Gospel, and the power of Christ to enable me to live faithfully for His glory. No regrets. No wasted time. No wasted opportunities. All Christ- everything else is negotiable.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sharing an Inheritance

Children learn from a very early age to guard what they believe to be their own. My one-year old has a particular grunt that she makes, along with an authoritative stiff arm, when our two-year old comes near her baby doll. One might say it is motherly instinct, but in all reality she's just marking her territory. We all get a little nervous when something we value could fall into the hands of another, and we might not say it out loud, but our hearts often scream "MINE!" It's virtuous to teach a toddler to share to share her toys, but how many parents exhibit the same generosity they plead with their kids to give? The same nature demonstrated in those small toddlers is also found in the full-grown versions. Our fists are clenched tightly to what we possess because we're afraid that the things we release may not in some way return to us- as if all that we have came to us simply by our own hard work or our own power (Deut. 8:17-18). The clinched fist reveals more to us than our shrewdness, nor can it be chalked up to good business savvy. It tells us that we don't trust a Father who provides for His children. He brought all into our hands, and if it is used to bring glory to His name, by sharing with those who have need, will He not also care for us? We, who in actuality, have very little should take note from Him who possesses all things. The One who claims the cattle on a thousand hills does not have a sharing problem. In fact, He takes great joy in showering others with all that He possesses, and has seen to this in a remarkable way. Outside of Christ, all people are what the Scriptures describe as alienated from God, hostile toward Him, doing evil deeds (Col. 1:21), dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1), without hope (v.12), blindly following the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4). All are slaves to sin with no power to overcome it, rejecting the Creator to worship the created thing (Rom.1:21-23). But God, in His great mercy, "sent forth his that we might receive adoption as sons" (Gal 4:4-5). Jesus is the perfect firstborn Son who rightfully inherits all that the Father has, but He willingly came to die a sinner's death, so that we might share in His inheritance as adopted sons and daughters. Isn't this profound? Disney has made a fortune off of fairy tale stories like Cinderella, where a girl who is basically a slave to her step-mother climbs out of her circumstances to marry the prince, thus having a claim to all the kingdom. In our story, Cinderella is a slave prostitute who won't even acknowledge the King- in fact opposes Him, but the King gives her a new heart that will love Him, refuses to punish her for her past (having taken the punishment for her Himself), and treats her as his virgin bride. Jesus, who has a rightful claim to all things, refuses to say to us, "MINE!" but rather shares all that He has with His new brothers and sisters (Heb. 2:11-13) and will do so into eternity. He does not expect repayment. We cannot pay Him. We have nothing to offer. If we even tried, His gift to us would cease to be by His glorious grace, but instead by a worker's wage. So, when I see my girls clutching their things tightly, and I tell them to share, I must not do this because it makes me look like a good parent, nor should I teach them this because it's the nice thing to do. Rather, I should teach them to do it, and practice it myself, because this is what the Father teaches His children, and does for them, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who "though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor 8:9). Their hearts will not be transformed by mere commands of their father's law, but instead by understanding and believing what God has done for them in Christ, thus becoming part of His everlasting family.

Monday, February 13, 2012

An Aversion to Blood

I have an aversion to blood- especially my own. I've actually been known to get a little faint when I've lost a moderate amount of it. There was a time when I had to have a considerable amount of blood work done, and two large vials needed to be filled. I believe that I have pretty good veins, but apparently the one chosen for the task wasn't hit well enough to give what was desired. My body, however, believed it had given enough (and probably too much). If you've ever experienced anything like this, you know that cold sweats and hearing sounds like you're under water are common, though unwelcome. So, after coming out of this personal drama, you can imagine that I wasn't too pleased to be told I would shortly re-enter it. Needless to say, I'm not the first person in the line at the blood-mobile each month. Unless one works at a hospital, the sight of blood is not a very common thing in our culture (movie culture notwithstanding). It was, however, very common in ancient Israel. There was a continual trail of blood in the sanctuary of their tabernacle and temple. Many of the animals used in the sacrifices would have contained gallons of blood, so there would have been bloodstains everywhere, enough for the fainthearted to get a little queasy. The Scriptures tell us that the life of the creature is in its blood (Lev. 17:14), so it is little wonder that creatures would prefer to keep what they have. God requires that blood (and life) be shed for sins to be forgiven (Heb. 9:22), and under the Law almost everything was purified with blood- the tabernacle and all that was used for worship (v.21), including the people. Death is truly the wages of sin, for a holy and perfect God, to whom everyone is accountable, cannot accept wickedness from those He made in His own image. In order for God to be the Holy One, there is no possibility of Him turning a blind eye to sin. He must judge righteously. It is His nature, and He will not profane His glorious name. So, from the time of Moses to the time of Christ- a span of approximately 1500 years, there would, no doubt, have been millions of gallons of blood spilled- a daily (and yearly) reminder of the sin that remained. In Romans 3, Paul addresses the fact that the inadequacy of the sacrifices that were made under the Old Covenant could lead one to wonder if God was truly just, because sin was punished by killing animals whose blood could not bear the weight of guilt. However, God had passed over (stayed His hand) the sins in former times in expectation of what He would do by sending His Son as the perfect sacrifice, who willingly shed His blood so that sins of the redeemed, those ransomed from "every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev. 5:9), would be washed clean. God showed that He was just in His punishment, for Christ bore sin in Himself, incurring the wrath of God as our substitute. Jesus' sacrifice was acceptable to God, paid in full, thus evidenced by His being raised from the dead. There was a time when only the Jewish High Priest could step into the Most Holy Place to draw near to God with blood, but now through the blood of the Lamb, all who know Christ as Savior and trust in His sacrifice have access to the Father and draw near to Him in the true, heavenly Holy Place (Heb. 7:19). God's people are not to live under the expectation of condemnation as though they are still guilty, but to joyfully live as those who will enjoy God forever because they have a Redeemer. You might find yourself like me, a bit squeemish at the thought or sight of blood, especially your own. This is the one instance, though, where you, if you know Christ as Savior and Lord, should find yourself contemplating blood on a regular basis. You didn't have to spill your own. God graciously let you keep it. The Righteous One gave His to you willingly- once for all on a wooden cross. Look on it and find forgiveness of sins (1 John 1:9) and peace for a troubled conscience (Heb. 9:14). Look on it joyfully, knowing that it purchased you eternal life- everlasting bliss, away from sin and with your glorious God. There should be no aversion to this blood. You're covered in it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Training Ground

Boot camp seems like another lifetime to me. I was there fifteen years ago at Marine Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC for thirteen weeks of rigorous physical and mental training. It was a time of preparation for what was to come- for the moment when I could call myself a U.S. Marine, and I still remember that moment well. All the push-ups, running, marching, memorization- all for that moment. Everything was timed, whether it was getting dressed, brushing teeth, eating, packing gear- and there was a method to everything we did. For example, when eating, the food and utensils could only be touched with one hand, and I remember one specific occasion when I used my other hand to butter bread, and having been seen by a drill instructor, I was sent out without finishing. There were many procedures that I didn't really understand, but my lack of understanding didn't relieve me of my duty  to obey. Looking back, it all comes through now with more clarity. I was being taught to obey a voice, to listen to authority, and to set aside my own opinion and rights, even when it didn't make sense. I had to learn to trust that those in command knew what they were doing, and that they were guiding those under them toward their good, and the good of others. Similarly, God trains His people in the present for what He prepared for them to take hold of in the future. In Deuteronomy 8, Moses recounts to the people the meaning of their years of wilderness wandering, which to many, must have seemed to be a time of no purpose, or a waste, before they got to the good life in the good land. However, he says to them:

2 And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. 3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord...5 Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. 6 So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. 7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land
Deut 8:2-3, 5-7 (ESV)

Everything that these people experienced prepared them for the time when they would take hold of what God had promised them. The lack of food and water was not punishment for wrongdoing, but training to know where true nourishment comes from. Their experiences were designed to teach them to listen to the voice of their Father, rather than the call of their stomachs. A people driven by their own appetites are a people who will wander headlong into sin and idolatry, which is exactly what Moses warned them against (vv. 17-19). It is through difficulty, trial, and testing that God, the master blacksmith, hammers and heats His metal to strengthen and prove it reliable. The circumstances we find ourselves in are not arbitrary. They are the plan of a perfect and loving Father who knows exactly what we, His children, need and He gives it to us, even though these circumstances can be painful, because He is preparing a people for a place, just as He is preparing a place for His people (John 14:2,3). God has led us, in Christ, out of the bondage of Egypt and toward the Promised Land that waits on the other side of the Jordan, but first we must learn to endure the wilderness, its fiery serpents, its difficult sustenance, and its temptation to lead our hearts astray (Deut. 8:15-17). On the other side of those trials, God will have strengthened faith, taught His loved ones to trust His voice and obey its leading, and to give Him preeminence over every other thing that competes for the heart's ultimate affection. You may find yourself in the middle of one of these experiences at this very moment, surrounded by uncertainty and feeling real pain. You may be praying for these things to be lifted and wondering why it is that you have not found the relief you seek. It could be that there is greater gain to be had by your enduring the hard road than what would be gained in the alternative. Knowing this teaches us to trust and hope through those times, rather than despair. God does not forget or abandon His children. He prepares them for a permanent home with Him. This is the training ground.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Internal Battles

I like it when things go smoothly or when problems go away easily...I don't think anyone will find that statement abnormal. But, as I often find out (as I'm sure you have as well), life does not always provide us with smooth or easy. This should not come as any surprise, though. In fact, a life with little or no struggle would (should) be a strange one to the Christian. The path laid before us is one fraught with battles- both internal and external. In the internal, what we fight against are those evils that have either found a place to make a home in our hearts, or those things that look to do so. We need the Lord's help to be able to see clearly into our own thoughts, words, and actions. Often, God uses a spouse or a trusted friend to bring this clarity, but sometimes it comes simply through prayerful reflection. It's said that George Whitefield, the great 18th century evangelist, laid in bed each night thinking over all of the days events, not just replaying them in his mind, but desiring to find the motivation of his heart as to why he said, or acted, or thought as he did. These actions are not necessarily evil in and of themselves- they might look innocent enough, but the intention of the heart may not be pure or innocent. It's possible for one to look like a servant while manipulating for his own gain. Whitfield knew this, and wanted to snuff out sin before it had a chance to take root. There is nothing passive about sin. It is an active power that gains strength in a willing or lackadaisical heart. Even while it might appear to lay dormant, it still wants more of the heart, more of the mind, more of the affections. In essence, it wants all of the person, ultimately his/her destruction. Hebrews 3:14 describes sin as working to deceive, and when it has done so, it then sets itself to harden. After taking root, not only is it more difficult to kill, but sin aggressively seeks to harden you against the notion that it is either evil or present. It simply wants to become the norm in your life, much like the arrangement of the pictures on your walls; there was a time when these things were placed in their current position, but after a while, neither their configuration nor their existence is even noticed. Also, sin never stops once it has started. In fact, according to John Owen, it "aims always at the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go out to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression, every thought of unbelief would be atheism, might it grow to its head." There can be no level of comfort within the Christian after the discovery of a present sin. It will not cease to gain territory- much like an army that progresses in battle or a fire that consumes a dry forest, it will not stop until its design is complete. It cannot be ignored. Even if it has not shown its face for a time, do not become complacent, as it is a sly enemy which will present itself stronger in the future, often at the most inopportune time The flesh is weak and powerless against it. Self-discipline and "trying harder next time" might show some temporary gains, but eventually the sinful desire overcomes the will, and having fallen prey again, the hardening process continues. Fortunately for the believer in Christ, the battle can be won. It is a war that only the Spirit of God can achieve (Romans 8:5-13). The Spirit, by faith, awakens in the believer a desire for holiness and righteousness, and as this desire is kindled, sin will be more noticeable, more hated, and more aggressively fought. In the process the cross of Christ will be seen more clearly, the grace of our Lord praised more loudly, and the blood of Jesus found more precious, as it cleanses the repentant from that which injures fellowship with our God. The Lord is indeed a refiner's fire and a fuller's soap (Mal. 3:2). He will purify His people, and He calls us to set ourselves against the sin that still dwells within and fight to the death. I do like it when things go smoothly and when problems go away easily. Unfortunately, when dealing with sin, it does not fit neatly into this category. This difficult internal engagement will take a lifetime of Spirit-enabled, Gospel-focused fighting, resisting, and thwarting, but it is a battle worth waging- for His glory and our joy.

Monday, January 16, 2012

When God Feels Distant

Without question, the Christian desires to have a closeness with God that he feels in his soul. It may be hard to express in simple terms, but intrinsic to its nature is a warmth that comes from the Divine when He communes with the creatures on whom He has placed His love. After experiencing this, the believer craves to continually draw from this well, but in the providence of God, it can become empty just as soon as it seemed full. This isn't a popular topic, but it very real, and it has a place in God's plan for His children. Each week as the people stream into our churches, many can say with the psalmist, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?" (Ps.42:5). It would be easy for these men and women of the faith to begin to believe that they are somehow strange, lacking in something that everyone else around them seems to have(even though there is no prevalent sin that has overtaken them, nor is there a lack in the use of those means God normally gives grace and growth through). However, God does great work in these periods where heat is lacking. There is no wasted day with the Mighty One; no time where He is not at work. When it seems that our Lord has forgotten us, just as a good friend can become distracted and forget to check in for a time, the heart needs to be reminded that God does not slumber nor can he forget. It is absurd to think that a human father could forget his children. How much more so that our heavenly Father could forget His own, those He has given His perfect Son for? Could it be possible that God has a great purpose for these times that the Puritans called "desertions?" We feel loved by God as long as we have this continual emotional experience where He seems close, but does this mean that we are less loved when this feeling is not there? Not at all! As a perfect Father, we as His children receive from Him what we need, not what we want. We want the warm feeling, but without it, God creates in us a longing for Him by seemingly separating Himself for a time. The heart learns to desire His fellowship more than anything else, and also learns to trust Him in all circumstances. Faith demands that we follow when following doesn't come easy, even when our own hearts have become dull (I might add, especially when our hearts become dull). It is true, as the song says, that our hearts are prone to wander, and the Lord knows he must train a people who are awaiting a promised land by leading them through the wilderness- a place where they learn to obey His voice rather than their own desires. We need these times even though we don't want them, and if you are experiencing this very thing right now, pursue God more than ever. Your heart would have you back away, but it needs to be tested (Deut. 8:2) so that it might long more perfectly for the God it desires.