Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Our Souls are Not Fountains, Part 1- Psalm 25

Our souls were not made to be fountains. We are not the abundant, overflowing, sustainers of life for others to draw from. We may serve as conduits for others, but our sustenance must always come from a source that is greater than us. Without assistance, we dry up spiritually and physically. The results of our lack are varied forms of soul sickness- fear, guilt, discouragement, loneliness- amongst others. Fortunately for us, God promises to be all we need. He is the overflowing fountain who delights to pour Himself on His creatures, and His resources never run dry. His face may be hard to find at times, but He never disregards those in Christ. Psalm 25 is an encouragement to those who are struggling to find joy in their circumstances- for the one whose soul is like desert sand. In this reflection on His goodness, God promises to be everything His people need for restoration. Whatever your spiritual state, there is something for you in this psalm...

Vv. 1-3, 21: 
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
let me not be put to shame;
let not my enemies exult over me.
Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous...
May integrity and uprightness preserve me,
for I wait for you.

God is trustworthy. We may hastily put our hope in others or material possessions to give us comfort and security, but because these things were never meant to satisfy our hearts, they ultimately will always fail us. We lift up our souls, not to governments, or savings accounts- not even to loved ones who are responsible for our earthly well-being. God alone is our trust, and none who wait for Him to act for their good will be put to shame. Through every difficulty, our confidence in Him will preserve us.

Vv. 4-5:
Make me to know your ways, O LORD;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all the day long.

God is our teacher. The truth of man's salvation and hope is out of his reach if God does not first reveal it to him. He can see evidence of his Creator through what has been made, but the paths of redemption are hidden from him if God, Himself, does not make them known. The kind Teacher graciously wills to do this, though. He does not want us in darkness, but desires that we yearn to know the best of knowledge- His ways- not settling for teaching that is perishing with the rest of the world. In His Word, and through His Spirit, God provides light for the darkened mind. As He reveals the Gospel of Jesus Christ to us, we can know what our souls were made to crave, and receive from His generous hand. After gaining such delight, who wouldn't return for more, and even wait (in our day!) to gain it?

Vv. 6-7:
Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of your goodness, O LORD!

God is merciful and full of love. It is possible, even for the redeemed, to be weighed down by guilt, when the Gospel is set aside and (even briefly) forgotten. Former sins swiftly come to mind and attack the soul like daggers. When this happens, we feel, in our emotions, that our identity has shifted from one reconciled to God, to one judged by Him. Because our sins are so clear in our remembrance, we believe they are to God as well. We forget, that in Christ, our sins have been lifted from us and God no longer identifies us as rebels, but as His beloved children. He thinks of us according to His steadfast love, not according to the sins of our youth, or even according to our current transgressions. The death of Jesus serves as a reminder that God is for us, and because He has gone to such an extent to prove His love for us, when the waves of guilt wash over us, the truth of the Gospel pulls us back to shore.

V. 8:
Good and upright is the LORD;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

God is good. It is a natural human tendency to do good things for those we believe are also good- those we deem deserving. It is also a human tendency to recoil from doing good for those we believe are evil, or undeserving of our kindness. God, we are told, is the epitome of goodness, and He shows that to be so by doing the best for sinners- not leaving them in their condition, but instructing them in the way they should go. There would be nothing unjust about God if He allowed the unrighteous to continue on their path toward destruction, but out of the wealth of His own character, God freely and generously chooses to sound the alarm for their rescue, after already providing the way of their escape.

V. 9:
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.

God gives grace to the humble. This might seem to be in opposition to God's goodness toward the undeserving. Is He here only giving Himself to those with a humble spirit? Who, though, could be humble but the one who has accepted the truth of God's judgment of him as a sinner? All others resist Him in their pride, and deny that they need saving. God reaches out to steer them from their way of death, but by rejecting His offer, they choose what their hearts desire most. On this course, they make God out to be a liar, steel themselves in self-will, reject God's offer of love in Christ, and march steadily over the cliff, following so many before them. The humble, however, accept what God says about their condition as true- that they once were dead in their sins and hopeless without Him. But they also accept what God says in the Gospel as true- that in His death, Christ died for their sins; and by His resurrection, they are raised to be new creatures. Being reminded of this each day, they remain pliable- easily taught, plumbing further into the things of the Gospel, growing in humility. Here, then, God leads and teaches those who submissively desire to be led and taught.

V. 10:
All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

God is faithful. We see in this verse why we should remain faithful to God's commands, even when they are hard, or when we fear the results of our obedience. God promises reward to us. When we choose Him and His ways over doubt and fear, God, who is always faithful, promises that this path will deepen our understanding of His love for us. It should not be a surprise then, when the alternative is also true- that disobedience will leave us with a lack of assurance, until the truth of the Gospel in the New Covenant is reaffirmed by repentance and faith. But when we delight in His teachings, we receive from God what satisfies us most- greater understanding of Him and His presence on the path of His leading.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Old Cross and the New Cross

There is power in the cross of Jesus Christ to save (1 Cor. 1:18-25). It needs nothing added to it to give it strength. When it is removed from our speech, our words lose what power they had for mankind's eternal bliss and his true knowledge of God. The cross will not be deemed relevant by the culture, since its message is counter-cultural. There are times when all need to be reminded of this, and trust that God, in His wisdom, has made the cross of Jesus Christ the central message of salvation. Though this was written half a century ago, it is probably more applicable now than then, and worth reading and reflecting upon:

"ALL UNANNOUNCED AND MOSTLY UNDETECTED there has come in modern times a new cross into popular evangelical circles. It is like the old cross, but different: the likenesses are superficial; the differences, fundamental. From this new cross has sprung a new philosophy of the Christian life, and from that new philosophy has come a new evangelical technique-a new type of meeting and a new kind of preaching. This new evangelism employs the same language as the old, but its content is not the same and its emphasis not as before.

The old cross would have no truck with the world. For Adam's proud flesh it meant the end of the journey. It carried into effect the sentence imposed by the law of Sinai. The new cross is not opposed to the human race; rather, it is a friendly pal and, if understood aright, it is the source of oceans of good clean fun and innocent enjoyment. It lets Adam live without interference. His life motivation is unchanged; he still lives for his own pleasure, only now he takes delight in singing choruses and watching religious movies instead of singing bawdy songs and drinking hard liquor. The accent is still on enjoyment, though the fun is now on a higher plane morally if not intellectually.

The new cross encourages a new and entirely different evangelistic approach. The evangelist does not demand abnegation of the old life before a new life can be received. He preaches not contrasts but similarities. He seeks to key into public interest by showing that Christianity makes no unpleasant demands; rather, it offers the same thing the world does, only on a higher level. Whatever the sin-mad world happens to be clamoring after at the moment is cleverly shown to be the very thing the gospel offers, only the religious product is better.

The new cross does not slay the sinner, it redirects him. It gears him into a cleaner and jollier way of living and saves his self-respect. To the self-assertive it says, "Come and assert yourself for Christ." To the egotist it says, "Come and do your boasting in the Lord." To the thrill seeker it says, "Come and enjoy the thrill of Christian fellowship." The Christian message is slanted in the direction of the current vogue in order to make it acceptable to the public.

The philosophy back of this kind of thing may be sincere but its sincerity does not save it from being false. It is false because it is blind. It misses completely the whole meaning of the cross.

The old cross is a symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt, violent end of a human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said good-by to his friends. He was not coming back. He was going out to have it ended. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing; it slew all of the man, completely and for good. It did not try to keep on good terms with its victim. It struck cruel and hard, and when it had finished its work, the man was no more.

The race of Adam is under death sentence. There is no commutation and no escape. God cannot approve any of the fruits of sin, however innocent they may appear or beautiful to the eyes of men. God salvages the individual by liquidating him and then raising him again to newness of life.

That evangelism which draws friendly parallels between the ways of God and the ways of men is false to the Bible and cruel to the souls of its hearers. The faith of Christ does not parallel the world, it intersects it. In coming to Christ we do not bring our old life up onto a higher plane; we leave it at the cross. The corn of wheat must fall into the ground and die.

We who preach the gospel must not think of ourselves as public relations agents sent to establish good will between Christ and the world. We must not imagine ourselves commissioned to make Christ acceptable to big business, the press, the world of sports or modern education. We are not diplomats but prophets, and our message is not a compromise but an ultimatum.

God offers life, but not an improved old life. The life He offers is life out of death. It stands always on the far side of the cross. Whoever would possess it must pass under the rod. He must repudiate himself and concur in God's just sentence against him.

What does this mean to the individual, the condemned man who would find life in Christ Jesus? How can this theology be translated into life? Simply, he must repent and believe. He must forsake his sins and then go on to forsake himself. Let him cover nothing, defend nothing, excuse nothing. Let him not seek to make terms with God, but let him bow his head before the stroke of God's stern displeasure and acknowledge himself worthy to die.

Having done this let him gaze with simple trust upon the risen Saviour, and from Him will come life and rebirth and cleansing and power. The cross that ended the earthly life of Jesus now puts an end to the sinner; and the power that raised Christ from the dead now raises him to a new life along with Christ.

To any who may object to this or count it merely a narrow and private view of truth, let me say God has set His hallmark of approval upon this message from Paul's day to the present. Whether stated in these exact words or not, this has been the content of all preaching that has brought life and power to the world through the centuries. The mystics, the reformers, the revivalists have put their emphasis here, and signs and wonders and mighty operations of the Holy Ghost gave witness to God's approval.

Dare we, the heirs of such a legacy of power, tamper with the truth? Dare we with our stubby pencils erase the lines of the blueprint or alter the pattern shown us in the Mount? May God forbid. Let us preach the old cross and we will know the old power." (A. W. Tozer, Man, the Dwelling Place of God, 1966)

Christ bids us, "Come and die," and when we do, there we'll find life.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Emerging Truths

(This is modified from a message preached on April 19, 2015 and can be accessed here)

When I was young, I remember a number of books that were being produced that had these strange, patterned pictures inside, with instructions that were something like, "If you stare at it long enough, or in just the right way, a 3D picture will begin to emerge." These are known as stereograms.

Some of you have seen these and are probably great at drawing out the image. I'm not. In fact, I have never seen the hidden picture (and probably never will if it is yet to happen). Maybe I just don’t have the knack, or the patience to stare at them long enough…

The stories we read in the Bible are kind of like stereograms. The longer you look at them, the more you’re able to see. New pictures and truths begin to emerge as we soak ourselves in the plot and try to understand the characters, their situation, and God's desires for them. This certainly happens as we look at the story in Jonah. The picture that we easily see at first glance is that there was a man who was swallowed by a giant fish, but there is far more in play than that.

So, I want to look beyond the big fish, and take note of a couple of truths that emerge from chapter one, that may not be so evident when we first read it.

I.                   Just because a door opens, it doesn’t mean you should walk through it.

It might be that your opportunity to act is not a gracious gift from God. It’s not a door that he has opened to give you what you want, but instead a door he has opened to test your obedience and faith.

What do you think was going through Jonah’s mind when he got to Joppa and started asking about ships leaving port? He didn’t get there and find all of his ways to leave barricaded by God. He didn’t find himself unable to go. Instead, he found it pretty easy- almost too easy. He had been wanting to get as far away from God as possible, and what luck! There’s a ship going to Tarshish, and it’s about to leave.
            Now, I’m not sure what he was thinking, but some would have seen that as a sign from God that they should get on board… “I mean, that’s what I was hoping for, and there it is. Sure, he was telling me to go to Nineveh, or was He? Maybe I was confused…or didn’t hear him right. Yeah, that’s it! I think God really wants me to go to Tarshish now. Otherwise, this boat never would have been here ready to go. It’s like it was just waiting for me.” 

If you aren’t willing to obey what God clearly tells you in His Word (which clearly came to Jonah at the beginning of the story), don’t believe all of the doors are open for you to walk in. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

God uses our experiences. He uses our circumstances, and even oversees them. But our experiences and circumstances never take priority over what He says. It’s easy for us to misinterpret what’s happening to us. We can misunderstand why things are what they are, but God's Word is to be a steadying force when things are unclear.

There’s a reason lighthouses are built up and down the coasts of our country. They stand on solid, unshifting ground to guide ships to safety that could easily lose their way or crash on the rocks. They aren’t suggestions. They are sure guides. That’s what the Scriptures are supposed to be for us. They aren’t good suggestions about who God is or what he desires for us. They’re a light to follow when the way gets foggy.
            God was not proposing to Jonah that Nineveh might be a good place to get away for the weekend. God clearly told him what he was to do. When Jonah refused to listen, he could no longer trust that his steps were secure. That boat he boarded wasn’t God’s revealed will no matter how much Jonah wished it was, and the fact it was sitting there ready to go wasn’t God’s stamp of approval.

The primary way Christians grow is by understanding and applying the Word of God in submission to the Holy Spirit. It is not by chasing emotional experiences with God. It is not found primarily in the proverbial opening and closing of doors.  It is found by working through everyday challenges as He guides us in wisdom and power from what He has spoken. Only then can we be certain that we are following His will.

II.                The line you say you won’t cross could become a moving target. 

Jonah was used by God. There were surely days when he sat back amazed that he was God’s servant. He probably had friends that looked up to him for being a prophet of God, and these people never would have expected that the prophet would have wandered this far from the right path- literally, onto a boat away from God. And Jonah never would have expected it either.
Sin is not just something you do. The Bible describes it as a force opposing God that lives inside the heart of every person. It’s the largest disease in the world and everyone has it. Its purpose is to lead you to think wrongly, to have the wrong desires, and to act upon those in a way that displeases the Lord and draws you away from Him. So, because of its power in Jonah, it was possible for him to end up rejecting the Word of God and embarking on a defiant journey that he probably never thought was possible.
            Could that happen to you? These things rarely happen overnight. I doubt Jonah was faithfully following God one day, and waking the next, was called to Nineveh and said no. More likely, the sin that remained in him slowly opened his heart to listen to what it had to say. It was slowly persuasive. 

If you’ve been to Niagara Falls, you’ve probably seen a chart that shows the erosion rate that has happened there over time. The power of the water slowly has slowly eaten away at the bank, causing the giant cliff to recede and form what we now call the horseshoe falls. Surveys of the erosion started in 1842, and for the next 85 years, about a meter/year was lost- about 250 feet. The reason they had to measure it over time, was because no one could see it happening. They couldn’t watch the erosion take place minute to minute. It was the thief that stole and no one could see it.

            This is how sin works. It wants you slowly losing ground in your walk with God daily- nothing dramatic- just a small victory every day. No one will be able to tell from one day to the next, but measured over time- it will have eroded far more than we would think.

Now, you might have everything under control, but let’s just imagine you don’t…If sin would slowly destroy you over time, how would it do it? To the edge of what cliff would it slowly push you over time, until you were ready to fall off? Could it be doing that right now??

The line that you used to say you’d never cross- you’ve now crossed it (and it doesn’t even seem so bad anymore), and you’ve just moved the line further down. This is what sin does.

 Surely, a year earlier, Jonah would have laughed at the thought of himself getting on a boat to Tarshish when God didn’t send him there. He was God’s man doing God’s ministry. But sin was slowly eroding his walk with God, until he walked onto that boat and went down into it and fell asleep. Don’t think it couldn’t happen to you.
Let me close with two things that I hope will help you make progress as you think how these truths relate to your life.

     1.  Because sin wants to move the line you say you won’t ever cross, stay as far away from it as possible. We have a tendency to dismiss danger, the closer we get to sin. It’s like the person who’s afraid of heights wanting to get as close to that ledge as possible to look over.

      It may be that you need to say, right now, I can’t be around that person anymore because of what happens- or I know it’s not wise for me to go to that place anymore because of how strong the temptation is. You wall yourself off from the danger, just like a fence that would keep intruders out or animals in.

      2.  Fences Help, but they don’t defeat the impulse of sin. They just hold it back. We want sin continually overcome. For that to happen we need to receive God’s grace daily in the Gospel. We need to be reminded every day that God’s grace and mercy have been given to us in Christ. He gave his life so sinners like us could have strength to battle and overcome temptation, and when we fail- to find comfort and forgiveness through the sacrifice He made. The only way we get tranformational help- for healing, forgiveness, and peace- is through Jesus Christ and His Gospel. 

For His Glory,

Lonnie Atwood

Monday, February 16, 2015

Gospel Application for Today

There may a better passage of Scripture for daily application than Romans 12:9-21, but I've not come across it recently. For some reason, this one has come to my attention multiple times in the last few months. It describes how one should seek to live, in light of the Gospel, every day, in various circumstances. Hopefully, you can see something applicable for your walk today:

  • (v.9) Let your love be genuine, not a performance. Truly seek to love those around you, doing what will encourage and help, even at a cost to you.
  • (v.9) Set your mind, eyes, and ears on what is good. Turn away from what is evil. Take time to ask the Lord if you have begun to allow evil to influence you, and it has been unnoticed.
  • (v.10) Show honor to others, instead of looking to gain it for yourself.
  • (v.11) Do not be lazy about spiritual things, but strive, in the Spirit, for zealous discipline.
  • (v.12) Make rejoicing a part of your life. After all, Christ is victorious, and you are His.
  • (v.12) Are you experiencing difficulty? Be patient and wait for the Lord. He will produce good in you, through your trial. Nothing is wasted with Him.
  • (v.12) Be prayerful. Develop a continual pattern of communication with God, where you are leaning on Him in everything and for everything.
  • (v.13) Be generous with your money and possessions. Their primary function is advancing God's Kingdom and purpose. Look for ways to bless others with what you've been given.
  • (v.15) Be empathetic with the joys and trials of others. Love focuses outward in celebration and compassion. Where are these opportunities for you?
  • (vv.16,18) Look to grow unity and peace- not division.
  • (v.16) Be humble- not enough can be said of the importance of this trait for the Christian. It was a prominent teaching of Christ, and certainly marked His nature (Phil.2).
  • (v.17) Have integrity in all your dealings with men. Always walk in the light, since you are of the light.
  • (vv.19-20) Be gracious when wronged. Remember that the Lord is for you and He will be just when settling accounts. Leave it to Him, as you model the Gospel.
  • (v.21) Make your life about doing good. Give no one an opportunity to speak a bad word of you.
Are any of these noteworthy for you? There is transformative power in the Word of God as the Spirit gives understanding and application. Reflect on these words as much as possible. Almost certainly, something will be useful for you there on any day:

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21 ESV)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Hypocrite in Me

No one wants to be known as a hypocrite. You know, those people, the ones who pretend to be something that they're not. Generally, the main targets for this charge are authority figures who hide behind the facade of morality, justice, and goodness, while inwardly (and eventually outwardly) they embrace the things they rail against. You might envision caricatures of politicians, lawyers, or preachers- people who use lots of words, but do not consistently practice what they preach. The words prove to be hollow, because there is no substance behind them.

Jesus knew people like this in his day, and had no problem pointing them out. The Pharisees were teachers of the law who had never really understood the purpose of what they preached. God's main concern in giving His words to a people was not to create social structures and hierarchies. It wasn't a list of rules so that the good could clearly be separated from the bad. The Law and all it entailed was given so that people could come to have knowledge of, and communion with, God- to know how sinful people could enjoy His presence while living in community with other sinful people. Jesus consistently teaches that the essence of law-keeping was first, loving God, and then loving others. What was obvious to him was that the Pharisees, who knew the teachings, weren't loving either God or people. So, he declares them hypocrites. We know, from how the events turn out, that they took that really well.

I also know, though, that Jesus' words weren't just intended for them. They were recorded and preserved, long after the Pharisees were gone, for me...

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice...They do all their deeds to be seen by others.  (Matthew 23:2-3,5 ESV)

Jesus wants the people to pay attention and do what the Pharisees said, because they gave out the words of God, but instructs them to then pay no mind to the actions that followed. These men were skilled at interpreting and explaining, but not at applying and living. What they taught had become a means of power and pride, not of love and humility. These men were conscious of all they did, not because they had been changed from the inside, but because they were aware of the eyes that were on them from the outside. After all, they had to keep up appearances.

I wish it wasn't true, but I know I've got some hypocrite in me. I want to do my best to keep my inconsistencies hidden. I desire to have it all together. I'd like to think I apply everything I teach- that I show consistent gospel application to my wife and children; that everything I preach on Sundays is already a regular pattern in my life, and my words are the overflow of all I've experienced with God. I wish I could tell you that no trace of Pharisee was in me- that greed and pride have been completely destroyed- but if I said that I would be pretending. inconsistent, and hiding behind a facade.

Maybe the most un-hypocritical thing I can say is that I am a sinner, a work in progress, a soul who is in need of a physician. I desperately need a Savior and his name is Jesus. It seems this is what the Pharisees needed to believe and affirm, but so staunchly opposed admitting. I'm thankful for the love of Christ. He knows my failures better than I do, and he gave his life for me anyway.

So, instead of seeing this passage as condemnation, I see it as grace from God- a light to open my eyes; an opportunity to repent of my ways; a beckoning to come to Jesus and have his righteousness. Without his, mine would never exceed the Pharisees. The Gospel exposes me for who I am, but won't leave me where I am. It changes me from the inside out, helping me to see all the inconsistencies in my belief and practice. I'm glad I've been exposed by Jesus and His Word. If I wasn't, I would always be a hypocrite.