Monday, November 6, 2023

Hard Pressed Between Two Worlds

    As a pastor, I talk to a lot of sick people (and hear about many more). Praying for them is part of the ministry God has given to me. I admit, though, that I have often struggled to know, exactly, how to pray for each one. The details for all of the sick are different- their circumstances, their spiritual condition- these things and more come in to play when I come before the Lord and make requests. But it's when I pray for fellow Christians that I feel the most tension. I understand that the moment these brothers and sisters pass from this present world, they will be with the Lord forever. I have a desire for them to remain here, but I understand that to be with Him is far better (Phil. 1:23). As the apostle Paul said about his own situation, "I am hard pressed between the two" (v.23). This tension complicates my prayers, but my heart is generally drawn to want to pray that they get that thing which is truly better. In some situations this is right and good. A dear saint has lived many good years; has a bad prognosis; the treatment has been miserable and ineffective, and she doesn't think it best to continue. She looks forward to being with Christ, and this is what I pray for. Amen! However, there are other situations where the prognosis is bad, but this child of God could still live many more fruitful years if healing comes. This person knows what it feels like to be pulled in two different directions. Pastorally, how do I best pray for these sufferers? Thankfully, God's Word casts light on this question.
    There are biblical examples of the sick who have recovered, and God's people rejoice that they remain. I'm thinking primarily of Epaphroditus, the faithful servant from Philippi who ministered to the needs of Paul. The Apostle says that this man "was ill, near to death" (Phil. 2:27). No doubt, if Epaphroditus would have died, Paul would have been able to give thanks that this saint was now with the Lord. There would have been the sadness of loss, a sting of death that remained here on earth, but the people of God who knew him could surely rejoice with this man who would have been currently rejoicing in the presence of God. But that's not what happened. Epaphroditus was spared death. In fact, Paul describes his recovery and continuance on earth as a merciful act of God (v.27) toward this faithful servant. Wouldn't it have been better to think of it as merciful if God just brought him on home? I think yes. It would have been an act of mercy for God to do so, but I know it was an act of mercy for the Lord to allow Epaphroditus to remain. God is telling me so (I also think here of Hezekiah, or of Lazarus. When Lazarus was raised from the dead, we do not read anything that would lead us to think that Lazarus was disappointed to receive more time on earth).
    I have had a number of conversations with those around me- those who aren't currently sick- speculating about what they would probably do if they did become ill, like really ill. Generally, those conversations go in the direction of "just let me go be with Christ. I don't want to suffer through that. This world isn't my home anyway." And honestly, I understand it. But this doesn't seem to be the full perspective of the Bible. The Scriptures speak consistently as they do in the situation of Epaphroditus. There is certainly great blessing in our death. Faith will become sight on that day, but it is also great blessing to continue here. It is a mercy of God. But why?
    The answer to that question rests in our purpose. Why are we here on earth? If my purpose here is all about what is best for me, alone, then of course I should always desire to be on the first train out of town. But I'm not here just for me. God has put you and me on earth to bring glory to Him. I admit that I can lose sight of that. Often, the way I will best glorify Him is to be a tool to help others do the same. I'm reminded here of those in the Old Testament who pleaded with God to spare their lives so they could continue to praise Him (Ps. 88:10-11, 115:17; Isaiah 38:19-19). Their earthly praises would cease as soon as they descended to the pit. Even though it is true that their praises would be able to continue on the other side of the grave, there is something of their current praise that is lost. They won't be able to praise God here anymore. They won't be able to praise God in this world, in the community of the faithful. They can't offer their praise in the midst of an unbelieving world, as a testimony to the grace of God by this sinner to other sinners who will remain. That element of praise truly will disappear from the earth at their death.
    In a similar way, there are things that bring glory to God that can only be done here on earth, by certain people, in a certain allotment of time- acts of service that will reverberate into eternity. We see that perspective in Paul's words to the Philippians as he wrestled with this in his own situation. He knew that it was better for him, personally, to be in the presence of the Lord, "but to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account" (Phil. 2:24). He was still able to accomplish much good on behalf of these disciples by staying, so from God's perspective this was the more needful thing, and what would most glorify Him. There would be plenty of time for Paul to stand rejoicing in God's presence, as he is to this day, but for that season, it was better for him to continue to serve the church.
    All of this informs my own heart as I think about my own future, and informs my prayers as I pray for those who are sick and suffering. As for myself, I should be willing, and wanting, to stay as long as I can be useful to others to increase their joy in the Lord. If it be more glorifying to God that I remain on earth, this had better be my desire, because this is what I've been created for. I am not my own anymore. John Newton writes about the goodness of this perspective in the Christian, who, "though he longs for heaven, would be content to live as long as Methuselah upon earth, if, by any thing he could do or suffer, the will and glory of God might be promoted." This should be my prayer, that if possible, may the Lord give me many years, unto old age, allowing me to spend myself for the genuine good of others, to His glory. I am grateful to have eons to be in His presence, but I will rejoice to have forty more years to promote His cause on earth, if I can be useful to others in the Gospel.
    As to my prayers for the sick, (with a few exceptions) I will begin to ask much the same for them. I won't plead for their healing just so they can stick around, but so that they can remain for godly purposes in the service of others. It is a mercy of God that they stay. There are things they can do here, for the good of man, and the glory of God, that they cannot do from the grave. Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Let Marriage Be Held in Honor Among All

This is an excerpt from the Sunday sermon on May 28, 2023 by Pastor Lonnie Atwood.

One of the most basic foundations of society is marriage. It's a bedrock of the created order that God established when He formed the earth- marriage- as God defines it, between a man and a woman. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. When biblical marriage is attacked, so is the family, and so is the created order. This is a pillar that a good and rightly ordered society stands on. It’s the world where children are raised and taught. It’s the primary relationship where love is shown, where future men and women are grown and nurtured, where the biblical mandate to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth," happens. Marriage underpins any well-ordered and good society, but there is also a spiritual element here. Marriage is meant by God to be a living representation of Christ’s relationship to His church.

To represent marriage in a way that God has not intended it, is not only a sure way to destroy a society, it is also a great dishonor to the person and work of Jesus Christ. So, to be clear, culture does not get to define what marriage is. Only God does that. If a society chooses to depart from God’s design, they have created something that is not marriage. It’s a perversion of it, and a gross misrepresentation of the beauty of Christ’s love for His people- the ultimate Bridegroom and His delight for His bride.

So, when the church is told here, to “Let marriage be held in honor above all,” can you see why that is so important? Yes, it has monumental importance for the world  we live in, but marriage also speaks to our salvation. Godly marriage speaks well of our  godly Savior and His bride. No Christian, and no church, can obey this command by rejoicing in a marriage between anything other than one man and one woman. We must, as a people, honor marriage by affirming God’s design, and rejoicing in the work of our Savior for those He loves.

But we are also to honor marriage, practically, in our own homes, and by the way we conduct ourselves in purity with one another in the church. This starts with husbands loving your wives as Christ loved the church. Men are to lead in their homes, and in their marriages, with sacrificial love. They nurture their wives, and care for her like a garden. The man tends to his wife with the love of Christ and the word of Christ, and she bears fruit- physically with children, and spiritually in godliness. This is the standard that is to be upheld in the church, and all of God’s people are to rejoice in that because, again, that says something about Jesus, and His relationship with us. Adultery, and sexual immorality say something anti-Gospel. A husband who lusts after a woman who is not his wife is living out an anti-Gospel. The same for a wife who gives herself to another man. Jesus Christ deals with us in all purity and devotion. Husbands and wives must do the same.

We live in a very impure world, right? We must be very careful about what we set our eyes, and hearts, on. You must understand that sexual immorality covers a wide range is sexual sin. Adultery deals with those who are married. Christ doesn’t step out on His bride. He is united with us. We do not step out on our spouse either, to break the unity we have with one another. But the term "sexual immorality" includes fornication- two people who shack up, maybe they claim to love one another, but give themselves to each other sexually. This can also include lust, pornography, and any other sexual deviation that occurs outside the confines of the marriage bed. We are called to purity, nothing less, and to celebrate & honor marriage done well. WHY? Because a marriage done well will speak well of the Gospel that we all love...We honor godly marriage because godly marriage honors Christ. 

Young people are apprehensive of marriage, for a variety of reasons. They've probably seen a lot of marriages done poorly. They worry that it will restrict their individuality and might not suit their lifestyle. I was listening to the radio this week, and the thought came into my mind, "there aren’t any songs about marriage love," which shows what the world values. It values the, "I just showed up at the club, saw you for the first time, and want to have sex with you," love. It values dating and freedom, and the “I could have another you in a minute" love. But God, when He chose to put a symbol on earth of His true and eternal love- the kind of love where the God-man went and gave His life, so a people could be happy, forever, love- He chose to represent that in a marriage between one man and one woman. This is what Paul speaks of in Ephesians 5, when he says that marriage mysteriously represents the Gospel. We have to demonstrate this love, in our marriages, to the young people around us, to draw them, not just to have good marriages, but to draw them to the beauty of Christ.

Can we see why, then,  that we’re told here- “God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” It is because those things are an affront to the salvation that He has so graciously worked for us.

As Christ’s church today, people who confess Him as Savior- people who confess that we belong to Him alone as His bride- a few questions are in order.

If you are married, is your marriage reflecting the Gospel? Are you committed to one another? Are you faithful sexually? Are you faithful in the roles God has given you that point to the Goodness of your Savior? Husbands, are you loving your wives sacrificially? Are you leading her in godliness? Wives, do you respect your husbands, and are you faithfully helping Him in His calling to lead well? Is there any repentance that needs to happen, so that your marriage can be more honorable? Most certainly if your marriage bed has been defiled.

For the unmarried...Do you aspire to be married? If so, pray for a marriage worthy of honor. Pray for a godly spouse, a spouse as defined by God’s Word, not as defined by the false prophets on the radio. Read about godly marriage in good books. Read about godly marriage from the ones you see around you. And as you prepare for marriage, purify yourself sexually. Prepare yourself for your future spouse, who must also be a Christ- loving person, like yourself...If there is repentance needed, whether in thought, eyes, or in actions, do that now, and begin living out that repentance today.

Marriage is a pillar of good society, but it is also the physical representation, on earth, of Christ and His Church. We must take this with all seriousness. Honor marriage, and work to have a more honorable marriage. Start this today as led by God’s Word.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Direction in Disturbing Days

I meet regularly with a group of Christian men for discussion and encouragement. Over the last few years, many of our conversations have been geared toward the times we live in, and the proper response of a godly man to the various challenges of our day. Politics and government often come to the fore. There are so many voices in the public square who tell us our duty, but those voices are in such disagreement on the Christian's role in cultural matters. Today I came upon a letter from John Newton to his young friend John Ryland Jr. about this subject, and I appreciated the simplicity with which Newton addressed the matter when, in his day, war was coming from the French revolutionaries, and the British government was prompted to act:

Great things are upon the wheel. But though the Lord's path is in the great waters, my path of duty seems plain enough. I am to preach the Gospel, mourn over my own sins, and the sins of professors and of the nation, and to stir up as many as I can to stand in the breach by prayer. I hope many are thus employed. For the rest, I know that the Lord reigns, that the wrath of man, so far as permitted to act, shall praise him, shall be overruled to the accomplishment of his wise purposes, and that the remainder thereof he will restrain. All the designs of men, which do not coincide with his, shall be frustrated. In the mean time, he will be a sanctuary to them that fear him. He bids his people not to be terrified. They are warranted to trust in him, though the earth should tremble, and the mountains be cast into the midst of the sea. Public measures, whether right or wrong, are under his direction, If sword, famine, pestilence, or discord, go through the land, he sends them. If he take wisdom from the wise, or courage from the bold, I cannot wonder that they do not prosper, when the Lord has forsaken them. Sennacherib and Cyrus were God's servants; no less so, than Moses or Joshua. They performed his commission and they could do no more.

 If I were lawfully called to civil office, I would endeavor to acquire proper knowledge, and to use every means in my power to serve my country. At present, I wish to serve it by prayer, and by employing my influence to soothe angry spirits, and to cultivate peace on all sides. Let the dead bury the dead, and the potsherds of the earth strive with each other, I am a stranger and pilgrim among them. My commonwealth is in a different kingdom, a kingdom that cannot be shaken.*

It's not that Newton did not care what happened in his native country of England. He certainly cared a great deal. But he knew that he was not in control of the various happenings in it. The best way for him to deal with the difficulties of his nation was to pray, and find comfort in the sovereign ways of God, whose path was in the deep waters. If trials came upon his countrymen, it was the Lord's doing, and He had a good purpose for it. If repentance came to the people, it was the Lord's doing, and He had a good purpose for it. Newton was fully convinced that a mighty God was very much the ruler of the world. He did not need to thrash about, and be filled with anxiety over every disturbance. God was at work then, and He still is today. We would be better served to take at least this encouragement from John Newton. God's people should be a praying people in the age we live in. We will serve our nation well if we pray hard, trust in the Lord's providential care, and know that He does all things well. We'll certainly be a more peaceful church, and less stressed by the news of the day.

* Quote from Wise Counsel: John Newton's Letters to John Ryland Jr., edited by Grant Gordon, Banner of Truth, 2009.


Tuesday, January 3, 2023

He Remembers that We are Dust

"As a father shows compassion to His children,
    so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him.
For He knows our frame;
    He remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:13-14)

The Lord, because He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, deals with His children according to His own nature, and theirs. He sees us, in Christ, with all of our sins, youthful immaturity, and ignorance, and out of His abounding wisdom, deals with us as we are. He does not cast us aside for our weakness. We belong to Him by simple faith in His perfect Son, and He has assumed responsibility for our growth in godliness. He is a perfect Father, giving compassion to His little ones, because He sees us for what we currently are, and will shape us into what we will be. This is such an encouragement for His people, to know that this is the way God deals with His own. It does not mean that His discipline will never hurt. It does, but we can rest assured that He always deals with us in love. All He does as a Father is perfectly measured, with the right intent, aimed at our good...I couldn't help but think, as I reflected on His Fatherly compassion, of my lack of it at times with my own children, especially when they were smaller. This has made me realize that I did not always deal with them as they were, but as I thought they should be. They often acted out of ignorance, because that's what small children do. Instead of being slow to anger and compassionate, I was quick to frustration and demanding. I cannot go back and undo those fatherly failings of mine, but I can move forward with two encouragements from these thoughts from God's Word: (1) Even when I was failing as a father in those moments, God was not failing in His. He was still dealing patiently with me during that time in my weakness and sin. And now, as I see that, I give Him praise and bless the name of Jesus Christ, who brought me into a relationship with such a Father. (2) Seeing who God is to me spurs my heart to repent of my own fatherly sins. My children may not be as small as they once were, but I can take these words to heart, and receive God's transforming grace to become more like Him toward my children in the time while they still are in our home. My Father is currently showing me compassion, because He knows my frame. He remembers that I am dust. But, thankfully, I'm dust in His house, under His care. 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Pastoral Counsel From Old Newton

Countless times I've received pastoral counsel from a man I've never met- at least not face to face. I've met him in the words he wrote to others, and I've sat down with him, in a sense, as he has spoken into my life. I again received pastoral counsel from this old, long-deceased, man, John Newton, today in some words that I read some time ago, but they fit me just as well now as they did before. I have to admit that my heart yearns for the country, and warmth, and trees, and creeks, and fields. About this time every year, coming out of winter, when Buffalo weather just can't let go of yesterday and embrace the inevitable, I get restless. And I need a reminder from pastor Newton that the Lord always knows what is best for me, and He always gives it.

Newton knew the beautiful countryside of England. He pastored in village called Olney for a number of years, where he was able to enjoy the scenery. But in time, the Lord moved him to London, and his work broadened. The scenery was not as pleasing, he felt crowded and wanted to stretch his legs, and he often became restless. In one letter, to a woman named Miss Flower, Newton responds to her about the place she was writing from:

I hope, however, that while you continue abroad you will be happy and easy. How could you tantalize me with mentioning cottages and hills peeping between them? Cottages, hills, woods, birds and brooks, are words which always set my imagination on its tip-toes till sober judgment interposes and commands it to sit down again. Even admitting that Potters Pury far exceeds Windsor or Clifton, and were it June instead of November, neither the place not the company should tempt me to wish myself there when the Lord appoints me to be here

My imagination does just as his. In March and April, it stands on its tip-toes trying to see where the grass is already being cut, and the trees have already bloomed. But this is where I need to apply to my own heart what the pastor says. I will not wish myself anywhere but where the Lord has planted me. He knows what is best, for myself, for my family, and for the ministry He has given. I am greatly privileged to serve where I am. My church family has been such a blessing for 8+ years. They are God's good people, who know what grace, and love, and truth are. They have been what I've needed. I'm grateful that the Lord knew that before I did, and planted me where my heart could grow (if not April grass). I'll close with a final word from Mr. Newton, as to the wisdom of God:

I hope, however, as we grow older we shall grow wiser, and be more satisfied, that whether we are placed in town or country, whether we are sick or well, the present circumstances for the present time must be best, because of His appointment.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Whatever Your Heart is Devoted to, You Will Become Like It

I have been picking my way through a book recently called We Become What We Worship, by G.K. Beale (1). The guiding principle throughout is this: "What we revere, we resemble, either for ruin or restoration." Whatever it is that your heart is devoted will become like it. Beale begins his argument in Isaiah 6, where the Lord tells the prophet to say to Israel,

"Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed" (Is. 6:9-10). 

Why would God want Isaiah to prophesy to these people who would not listen? Dr. Beale claims that the people's heavy ears and blind eyes are a judgment against them for worshipping idols who can't see nor hear. They have been made to become like what they worship. Psalm 115 says it plainly:

Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them. (Ps. 115:4-8 ESV)

I was struck by how profound this truth is. As the peoples reject Him, the Lord gives them over to become like whatever they devote their heart, soul, mind, and strength to. Is it any wonder that a person spends all his time listening to angry Fox News diatribes (or CNN if it makes you feel better), that his speech begins to sound like theirs? His heart is being discipled and shaped by the news network he loves. He becomes like what he worships. Do we not also see this principle work its way out in practical ways in our homes? Do our children not begin to resemble whatever culture they start to revere? Do they not begin to behave like those people that they esteem? And make no mistake, that behavior does not come about simply by imitation. Their hearts are being drawn in and shaped, therefore, they genuinely become like those people and ideas they are devoted to.

It caused me to wonder about the current state of the church in America. Couldn't this be the reason why the church looks so much like the world? Could it be that much of what calls itself the church in our nation has a heart that is really devoted to the world, though its lips say otherwise on Sundays? I don't know if faith, hope, and love are the obvious characteristics of the western church, and the simple answer could be that Christ does not have its heart.

As discouraging as this principle is in regard to idolatry, it encourages us to know that the Lord has chosen to remake us into His image, as we revere and worship Him. We are not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2). By God's grace, the Lord has chosen to conform us to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29) as we behold Him and love Him, from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). So, just as it is possible to be changed into the image of the idols that a man worships, so it is possible to be transformed into the beautiful image of the Son of God- if we will worship Him alone. If I behold Him, I will become like Him. If our church is beholding Christ, and abiding in Him, we all will take on more and more of the fruit of His nature in community together. This should have a practical impact on the way I (and our church!) choose to spend my time, what I listen to, what I put my eyes on. I need to be aware of devilish draw of the idols around me. These contemporary idols may not be made of wood, blind and deaf, but they have the power to capture my heart, and cause me to become like them. This requires vigilance about my devotion to the One who bought me with His blood. It requires me to "watch," as Jesus so often taught His disciples- to stay awake. It should cause me to press in to His Word, to pray always, and not grow dull. My chief aim then, should be to revere Him, love Him, and worship Him, so I will continue to experience the restoration God has begun (and thankfully complete- Phil. 1:6), to make me into the image of His Son, until I become like Him in glory (1 John 3:2). May the Lord bless your efforts, and faith, as you seek this as well, to the praise of His glorious grace...Do you have an example to share in how you have seen this principle work its way out? How a modern idol has shaped a people to become like it?

(1) G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008)

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Satan's Delusions

John Newton wrote many pastoral letters in his lifetime. He was uniquely gifted by God to encourage his recipients so long ago, and still encourage those who read from his hand today. This is an excerpt from one such letter to Captain Alexander Clunie in 1766 about the delusions that Satan seeks to use on those in this world: 

The good Lord keeps us from his delusions; he is always dangerous, but never more so when he pleads for Gospel doctrines in order to abuse them, and when he tries to pass his counterfeit humility, zeal, and sanctity upon us for pure gold. No coiner can equal him for imitation. Where Christ has a church, he will have a synagogue; where the Spirit produces any graces, he, like the magicians of Egypt, will do something like it, and yet as unlike it, as possible. He has something that comes so near the Gospel, that it is called by St. Paul another gospel, and yet in reality it is no gospel at all. He deals much in half convictions, and almost Christians, but does not like thorough work. He will let people talk about grace as much as they please, and commend them for it, provided talking will satisfy them...But, let him look and talk as he desires--he is Satan still; and those who are experienced and watchful may discern his cloven foot hanging below his fine garment of light! He is never more a devil--than when he looks most like an angel. Let us beware of him; for many wise have been deceived, and many strong have been cast down by him. Let us continually apply to him who is able to keep us from falling, and to present us spotless in the end.