Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Defining Mortification: part two
One of the most helpful and graphic pictures that expresses how God wants us to treat any residual sin in our life, is the account in First Samuel 15 regarding God's command for king Saul to lead Israel in the extermination of the Amalekites. Through God's prophet Samuel, king Saul was ordered by the Lord to carry out a total destruction of the Amalekites, leaving no survivors - not even infants or animals. This people and all that belonged to them was to be wiped off the face of the earth (this was in fulfillment of Deuteronomy 25:17-19).
But king Saul did not obey God fully on this matter. Although by God's design and power, Saul and the army of Israel delivered a crushing blow against the Amalekites (I Sam.15:8); yet, Saul fell short of full obedience. In First Samuel 15:9, we are told that Saul spared the king of the Amalekites, Agag, and "the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good." Saul was not willing to destroy these enemies of God with utter destruction. Instead, motivated by his own greed, pride, and the fear of man, king Saul chose not to follow through in his obedience to the Lord.
As a result of his rebellion, the prophet Samuel declared God's judgment upon Saul and all his descendents: they were to be permanently removed from Israel's throne (I Sam.15:23). But in addition to this judgment, Samuel finished what Saul had merely started. He took a sword and literally hacked king Agag to pieces (I Sam.15:33). Samuel did what Saul was unwilling to do: to carry out God's command to the full.
Now when it comes to the Christian's responsibility to mortify sin (see Rom.8:13), this image of Samuel severing the life of king Agag, serves as a vivid and striking illustration. Rather than being like Saul and letting sin live, we must be like Samuel and hack sin to pieces! In short, there must be no mercy shown to the "Agags" in our life.
But what does it mean to "hack" sin to death? When we read in Romans 8:13 that we are to "mortify sin", what is the substance of this work? In my last post I began answering this question by pointing out that there are five ways to define biblical mortification, based on Romans 8:13. So far, we have considered the first three: (1) to mortify sin is chiefly a work of the Holy Spirit; (2) to mortify sin is a lifetime process for every Christian; and (3) to mortify sin is not to eradicate sin but to subdue it, to deprive it of its power, to break the habit pattern we have developed of continually giving in to the temptation of any particular sin.
Now here are the final two ways that true mortification of sin can be defined: to mortify sin is to mortify all known sin. In Romans 8:13, it reads that we are to "put to death the deeds of the body." The term deeds is obviously in the plural. It refers to all known sinful acts which are the manifestation of indwelling sin that remains in our bodily members (cf. Rom.6:12-13; 7:23). It is not therefore one sin we must concentrate on to kill, but all known sin present in our lives.
Finally, to mortify sin is the responsibility of every Christian in the process of daily sanctification. What I appreciate so much about Romans 8:13, is that it expresses with great clarity the responsibility of the believer in the work of sanctification. We're told: "by the Spirit [you] put to death the deeds of the body." Mortifying sin is never done apart from the Holy Spirit, but it is also not the sole work of the Spirit leaving the Christian with nothing to do in this process. The truth is, based on Romans 8:13, mortification is not what the Holy Spirit does but rather it is what He empowers the Christian to do. It is the believer who puts to death the deeds of the body, as the Spirit of God gives him the strength and wisdom to carry out that work.
So, in putting sin to death, we must not buy in to this false idea that says, "Just let go and let God." God does not treat us as sticks and stones or as an empty glove that only needs a hand to fill it. Rather, we are personally involved in this lifelong work as the Holy Spirit empowers us to kill sin and live in pursuit of holiness (Col.3:5; Heb.12:14).
What then is the biblical meaning of mortification? Tying together the five different ways mortification has been defined from Romans 8:13, this is what we can conclude: mortification is the lifelong process and work of every Christian, by the divine power of the Holy Spirit, to crush, sap, root out, weaken, and subdue all known manifestations of indwelling sin.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Defining Mortification: part one
The greatest struggle, the most intense battle that every Christian faces everyday of their lives in this fallen world, is a war with "indwelling sin" (cf. Rom.7:14-24). This means that my spouse, my kids, my neighbor, my work, the economy, the government, or terroists will never qualify as my ultimate problem. In fact, not even the devil himself can take this position in my life. No, the supreme battle for a believer in Christ comes from the remaining power and influence of sin in his members.
But the most pressing question for a Christian facing this unpleasant reality is: how do deal with remaining sin? Or to be more practical: how do we effectively battle our pride, envy, jealously, bitterness, anger, and lust? In my last post I began answering these questions by bringing to our attention a principle work in our daily sanctification called "mortification." This term is taken from Romans 8:13, where Christians are exhorted: "...but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live." In this verse, the phrase, "you put to death" is where the concept of mortification is derived. Thus, when it comes to battling with our personal sin, we are to mortify sin - and hence, to put it to death.
But it is not enough to simply tell a Christian, "You must mortify sin!" We need direction and guidance as to how. Therefore I began in my previous post to unpack this from the standpoint of considering what mortification is not. It is not therefore covering sin up, internalizing sin, exchanging one sin for another, by-passing the cleansing of our conscience, or merely repressing sin. If any of these examples describe how we have attempted to deal with sin, then we must realize that true mortification has not taken place.
So, what is true mortification? If we go to Romans 8:13, there are five ways to define biblical mortification: first, to mortify sin is chiefly a work of the Holy Spirit. In Romans 8:13, we're told, it is "by the Spirit" that we put sin to death. This is not a work therefore that Christians can ever do in their own strength. The Puritan, John Owen (1616-1683), said in this regard:
"All other ways of mortification are in vain. Men may attempt this work based upon other principles, but they will come short. It is a work of the Spirit, and it is by Him alone that we are to experience victory. Mortification from self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, to the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion."
Secondly, to mortify sin is a lifetime process for every Christian. The verb tense used for the term, "you put to death", is a present tense. This means that our war on the presence and influence of indwelling sin will never let up until we are taken to heavenly glory. There are no vacations, no weekend getaways, no breaks whatsoever from this work in the life of the believer. We will always have to be mortifying sin somewhere in our lives. Again, consider the wise counsel of John Owen:
"When sin lets us alone, we may let sin alone; but sin is always active when it seems to be the most quiet, and its waters are often deep when they are calm. We should therefore fight against it and be vigorous at all times and in all conditions, even when there is the least suspicion...Sin is always acting, always conceiving, and always seducing and tempting. Who can say that he has ever had anything to do with God or for God which indwelling sin has not tried to corrupt? This battle willl last more or less all our days. If sin is always acting, we are in trouble if we are not always mortifying. He that stands still and allows his enemies to exert double blows upon him without resistance will undoubtedly be conquered in the end."
Third, to mortify sin is not to eradicate sin but to subdue it, to deprive it of its power, to break the habit pattern we have developed of continually giving in to the temptation of any particular sin. We cannot eliminate indwelling sin in this life. It will be with us until we die (see Rom.7:14-25). However, in the work of mortification, we can sap sin of its strength, rooting it out, and depriving it of its influence. And this is really at the heart of what it means to mortify sin. It is a lifelong process of draining sin's power and influence which has been wielded over us. We are literally seeking day by day through the Spirit to take away everything that gives sin its strength and power in our lives.
In my next post, we will consider the last two ways that Romans 8:13 defines mortification.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Mortification: The Christian Response to Personal Sin
One of the great acid tests of proving whether or not someone is a Christian, is to ask the question: how do you deal with your own personal sin? For instance, do you repent of it or do you molly coddle it and make excuses for it? Also, is your heart broken over personal sin because it is an offense against God or because it just makes you feel bad? Further, when you do sin, do you keep short accounts with God - confessing it immediately to Him for what it is as "sin?" All of these questions are vital for our own self-examination as professing Christians.
Think about it: there are a lot of people in the visible church who cry down the sins they see in others, but do not ever consider the vileness, guilt, and pollution of their own sin. They are the proverbial "hypocrite" whom Jesus warns us about in Matthew 7:1-5. They are quick to point out the "speck" of sin in their brother's eye, while never seeing the "log jam" of sin in their own. It is a tragically comedic picture of the fool who is always condemning others for the tiny particle of dust in their eye, while not seeing the massive tree trunk gaping out of his own eye. In short, such a person never deals with his own personal sin. But what's worse, by never giving admission to his sin but instead denying it - he is actually proving that he is a total stranger to saving grace (see I Jn.1:8,10).
So, again, how do you deal with your own personal sin? If you are a true believer in Jesus Christ, what do you do about the sin that remains in you (cf. Rom.7:14-25)? The biblical answer to these questions takes us to a passage of Scripture that I intend to camp out in for my next several posts. The passage is Romans 8:13, which says: "...but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live." In the language of exhortation, this verse describes what is true of every Christian, in relation to the remaining influence and corruption of sin that dwells in our bodies: by the power of the Holy Spirit, a Christian seeks to kill sin wherever he finds sin in his flesh.
This is how a Christian deals with his own personal sin. In fact, this is a Christian's only course of action he takes by virtue of his life in the Spirit - he puts sin to death! This means that even if a Christian may fall in a state of going back to certain sins, it is only for a season; because his new nature and the indwelling presence of the Spirit will renew him to repentance and declare a revived war on personal sin. In other words, a true Christian does not and cannot live in sin (see Rom.6:1-14; I Jn.3:9), though they commit sin - but instead, the Christian life is a life of war on all known sin that remains in our mortal bodies.
Now the theological term for this warfare is what's called "mortification." This word is derived from a Greek verb Paul uses in Romans 8:13, translated in the words: "you put to death." The King James Version of the Bible actually translates these same terms as "mortify." So then, when it comes to dealing with personal sin in our lives as Christians, we are called by God to "mortify sin."
But what does this mean practically? How do we mortify or put sin to death? My first approach to these questions must be to underscore what mortification does not mean. First, to mortify sin does not mean covering sin up. You can obscure sin from the sight of others, but that is not mortification. Until we confess and forsake our sin we have not begun the work of mortification (Prov.28:13). Second, to mortify sin does not mean to only internalize sin. If you forsake the outward practice of some evil yet continue to ruminate on the memory of that sin's pleasure - beware. Although you may have moved that sin into the privacy of your imagination, where it is known only to you and God, yet it has not been truly mortified. Third, to mortify sin does not mean to exchange one sin for another. What good is it to trade stealing for lying or to trade gossip for gluttony? Neither sin has been mortified. Fourth, to mortify sin does not mean to by-pass the cleansing of our conscience. Having a good conscience is to work through the issue of our guilt. We should be ashamed of our sins, and let that sorrow do its full work in our hearts to produce a deep, honest repentance (II Cor.7:10). Finally, to mortify sin does not mean to merely repress sin. To push sin back rather than to deal with it forthrightly in the light of God's Word, will not bring about true mortification. Instead, it will only create more problems as it remains brushed under the proverbial rug, and allowed to fester and gain more influence. This therefore is not mortification.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Some Sage Wisdom for Fellow Pastors
For the past 20 years I have served in the ministry, I have gleaned most (second to the Bible!) from the writings of Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) as a wise counselor, exhorter, and friend to fellow pastors. One of my favorite books by Spurgeon is An All-Round Ministry (published by Banner of Truth Trust). This book is compiled of Spurgeon's Presidential Addresses at the Annual Conference of the Pastor's College that Spurgeon had founded in 1855. These lectures by Spurgeon are convicting, comforting and quite humorous in certain places. So to any fellow pastors who read this blog, I hope you enjoy the following excerpts from An All-Round Ministry:
When to leave a church?
"I am afraid that there are some ministers who get into a pulpit, intending to stick there. There is no moving them, and they never move the people. It is sometimes remarked to me, 'Some of your men move about a good deal.' 'Yes,' I reply, 'many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.' I like the self-sacrifice of a man who feels that he can move, and will move when he can do more good elsewhere. Never move or stay for selfish reasons, but hold yourself at your great Captain's beck and call.
An old Scotch minister, as he was riding along, saw, according to his own description, something coming which greatly alarmed him. It was a gispy riding aloft upon an ass which he had loaded high with faggots. The beast, which the minister was riding, was alarmed as well as its rider, set its feet down very firmly, and put its ears back, after the manner of amiable horses! 'And,' said the minister in describing it, 'I prepared myself for a fall, so that I fell somewhat more easily.' 'But,' said a friend, 'I should have got off.' That idea had never crossed the worthy man's mind.
So it is with some ministers, they prepare themselves to be dismissed by their people, but never propose to remove of their own will. It is within my knowledge that a brother, not of our Conference, said to his people, when they were in a most earnest manner endeavoring to get rid of him, 'It was the Spirit of God that brought me here, and I shall never go till the Spirit of God leads me to go away, and that will be a very long while.' The last sentence cast suspicion on all that preceded it, for, surely, he could not foretell what the mind of the Spirit might be. Stay or move, brethren; go to Africa, or America, or Australia...only do accomplish your mission, and glorify God. Be holy, be gracious, be prayerful, be disinterested, be like the Lord Jesus; thus only will your lives be consistent with the gospel you are called to preach."
Be simple and clear in your gospel preaching
"Sometimes, young men are fascinated by some famous preacher whose style is grandiose, sublime, or involved. They see the thing done very splendidly, and as they look on, they marvel, and by degrees they think they will try that style, too; and so they put on the seven-league boots, large enough for them to live in, and the result is ridiculous, nay, worse than that, it is spiritually useless. When a man tries to do the magnificent, with elaborate sentences and pompous diction, and grandeur of manner, it must and will come to nought...Speak from your heart, and never mind about eloquence. Do not speak after the manner of the orator; speak as a lover of souls, and then you will have real eloquence...What you have to do is to be the means of saving souls, and look you well to that."
Be always found faithful despite the size of your ministry
"Remember, dear brother, if you give your whole soul to the charge committed to you, it does not matter much about its appearing to be a somewhat small and insignificant affair, for as much skill may be displayed in the manufacture of a very tiny watch as in the construction of the town clock; in fact, a minute article may become the object of greater wonder than another of larger dimensions. Quality is a far more precious thing than quantity...We must never think, because the particular work we have in hand seems to be insignificant, that therefore we cannot do it, or should not do it, thoroughly well. We need Divine help to preach aright to a congregation of one. If a thing is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well...Many a minister has acheived fame, and, what is far better, has brought glory to God, in a congregation which could be counted by units, while another has presided over a large church, and though at first there was a great blast of trumpets, it has ended in the silence and sadness of utter failure. Know your work, and bend over it, throwing your heart and soul into it; for, be it great or small, you will have to praise God to all eternity if you are found faithful in it."
Be masters of the Bible
"Our main business is to study the Scriptures. The smith's main business is to shoe horses; let him see that he knows how to do it, for should he be able to belt an angel with a girdle of gold, he will fail as a smith if he cannot make and fix a horseshoe. It is a small matter that you should be able to write the most brilliant poetry, - as possibly you could, - unless you can preach a good and telling sermon, which will have the effect of comforting saints and convincing sinners. Study the Bible, dear brethren, through and through, with all helps that you can possibly obtain.
Be well instructed in theology, and do not regard the sneers of those who rail at it because they are ignorant of it. Many preachers are not theologians, and hence the mistakes which they make. It cannot do any hurt to the most lively evangelist to be also a sound theologian, and it may often be the means of saving him from gross blunders. Nowadays, we hear men tear a single sentence of Scripture from its connection, and cry, 'Eureka! Eureka!' as if they had found a new truth; and yet they have not discovered a diamond, but only a piece of broken glass. Had they been able to compare spiritual things with spiritual, had they understood the analogy of the faith, and had they been aquainted with the holy learning of the great Bible students of past ages, they would not have been quite so fast in vaunting their marvellous knowledge. Let us be thoroughly well acquainted with the great docrines of the Word of God, and let us be mighty in expounding the Scriptures. I am sure that no preaching will last so long, or build up a church so well, as the expository...I cannot too earnestly assure you that, if your ministries are to be lastingly useful, you must be expositors. For this purpose, you must understand the Word yourselves, and be able so to comment upon it that the people may be built up by the Word. Be masters of your Bibles, brethren; whatever other works you have not searched, be at home with the writings of the prophets and apostles. 'Let the Word of God dwell in you richly.' "

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Led By the Spirit: The Normal Christian Life
One great reality of the Christian life is that of being "led by the Spirit of God" (see Rom.8:14; Gal.5:18). To say this another way: if you are a Christian, then you are someone whose life experience is led by the Spirit of God. This of course implies that if there is no such leading of the Holy Spirit in your life, then you cannot be a Christian.
Now making such a bold proposition like this obviously raises questions of practical concern. And there are two questions that I want to consider in particular: first, what does it mean to be led by the Spirit of God? To begin with, we must understand what it does not mean. It does not mean anything that has to do with fanaticism, auto-suggestion, or hearing fictitous imaginary inward voices. Furthermore, it does not refer to anything which contradicts the clear testimony of God's written Word. No one can claim to be led by the Spirit whose words or actions are in direct opposition to the teaching, the commands, and the history recorded in God's Word. In fact, if any of our words or actions are not in conformity and obedience to the Word of God, then we cannot claim under any circumstances to be led by the Holy Spirit.
So what does it mean then to be led by the Spirit of God? To be led by the Spirit of God is to be guided, directed, and governed by His divine power, persuasion, and providence. This means of course that there is a general and particular leading which the Holy Spirit is always exercising in the life of a Christian. First of all, the Spirit's leading is "general" in the sense that we are always under the Spirit's sovereign control in sustaining and governing the affairs of our life. So, for instance, the only reason we can be promised in Romans 8:28 that "all things" are working together for our good is because the Holy Spirit as God (in relation to the Father and the Son who are each equally God), is bringing all events and circumstances to fulfill His divine purpose for our lives (see also Eph.1:11).
Second of all, the Spirit's leading is also "particular" - whereby He empowers, illuminates, and persuades us in the life-long process called "sanctification" (I Thess.5:23). In this respect, the Holy Spirit's leading can be grieved (Eph.4:30) and quenched (I Thess.5:19) by Christians who fall into sin and disobedience. Thus when we read in Romans 8:14 that all Christians are "led by the Spirit of God", we must understand that this is not a forced, mechanical kind of leading which never takes into account the personal responsibility of the Christian to trust and obey. As John Owen (1616-1683) once wrote concerning the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer:
"[The Holy Spirit] does not so work in us that it is not still an act of our obedience. The Holy Spirit so works in us and upon us, as we are able to be wrought in and upon, and yet He preserves our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures. He works in us and with us, not against us or without us, so that His assistance is an encouragement as to the accomplishing of the work."
So then, as we are led by the Spirit of God, it is not without our own responsibility to be obedient to what God has called us to do. However, on the flip-side of this truth we must remember: it is only by the Spirit and under His divine influence and power that our obedience to God is effectively carried out (Rom.8:13; Gal.5:16; Eph.5:18). We cannot trust and obey God without the Holy Spirit's leading in our life!
But with this humble admission we must now face our second, and more practical question: how do we know when we are being led by the Spirit of God? Let me offer six ways that we can discern biblically if and when we can honestly say, "I am being led by the Spirit of God." First, we are being led by the Spirit when we are in pursuit of holiness and not in pursuit of sin. Lest we forget, the Spirit of God is most commonly referred to as the Holy Spirit - which tells us much about His charecter. Moreover, as God Himself (co-equal with the Father and the Son), the Holy Spirit cannot sin and is thus completely without sin. He is opposed to sin (Gal.5:17). So the only direction the Holy Spirit will lead us is away from sin and to be at war with sin (Rom.8:13; Gal.5:16) - but never will the Spirit lead a Christian into sin. Indeed, let none of us dare excuse any of our sinful actions as being what the Holy Spirit "led me" to do! When we sin as Christians we have grieved the Spirit not followed Him.
Secondly, to be led by the Spirit is to be led into the truth of God's Word with understanding and delight. The Holy Spirit is also called "the Spirit of truth" (Jn.16:13) whom Jesus promises, "will guide you into all truth." Not only that, but the Holy Spirit in that guidance, will also bring to the believer "illumination" (Eph.1:18), so that he can understand the Word of God (I Jn.2:20,21). Therefore, if we are being led by the Spirit of God then the Word of God will not be a closed book but an opened book; whereby we will have an understanding, hunger and thirst which will saturate our hearts and minds in the Holy Scriptures. Moreover, this dynamic of the Spirit's leading will create a growing desire to obey God's Word. We will say with the psalmist, "Make me walk in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it" (Psa.119:35).
Thirdly, to be led by the Spirit is to be fueled with passion and power to exalt Jesus Christ as His witnesses. Here is a sure test to know if you are being led by the Spirit of God: does your life, by word and deed, make much of Jesus Christ? When we are under the leading of the Holy Spirit, we will be a people who spread the truth and glory of Jesus Christ to others with joy and eagerness (Acts 1:8; cf. Jn.16:14). Furthermore, by the Spirit's leading we will be jealous to guard and defend the truthfulness of who Christ is as God incarnate (I Jn.4:1-6). Fourthly, to be led by the Spirit is to be led into a great love for the Church. To say this another way: to be led by the Spirit is to have a great love and desire to be in the fellowship of God's people. This is a hugely important point regarding how the Holy Spirit leads every believer in Christ. Since He places us into the body of Christ at the moment of conversion (see I Cor.12:12,13), then there is nothing more "normal" and expected for a Christian than to congregate with other Christians in both worship and service to Christ.
Look at Acts 2:42, for instance. One of the clearest and initial signs of the Spirit's work in the early church was that these new believers "devoted themselves to...fellowship." This does not mean they had frequent "potluck" dinners. Rather, it means they took great interest and love in one another for each other's spiritual welfare (e.g., Heb.3:12-14; 10:24-25). But to demonstrate such a loving interest in fellow believers meant that they made the time to be together. They did not forsake their gathered assemblies. In fact, those who choose to have no part of any church and yet claim to be led by the Spirit - are deceiving themselves! Worse yet, they are also calling into question their own claim to be a Christian (see I Jn.3:14).
Fifthly, to be led by the Spirit is to have an increasing awareness of sin within. Since the Holy Spirit leads us to be at war with indwelling sin (Rom.8:13); then He is going to likewise lead us to be more aware of all sin that remains in our members (Rom.7:14-25). Those people however who claim to be Spirit-led but never give admission to the guilt of their own sin nor have godly sorrow over their sin as being against God - these people are neither led by the Spirit nor are they even saved (see I Jn.1:8,10)! A true Christian is someone who agonizes over indwelling sin, makes every effort to kill its remaining influence, and seeks to live in such a way that the holiness of God is faithfully represented in their thoughts, words, and deeds. This is the only path which the Holy Spirit will lead God's people in relation to sin. The presence of sin will be mourned over, confessed and mortified in our lives if we are under the leading of the Spirit of God.
Finally, to be led by the Spirit is to have a greater manifestation of the Spirit's fruit in one's personal life. Galatians 5:16-23 sets forth this great proof of a Spirit-led life: when we are walking by the Spirit (v.16) we will increase in the fruit which the Holy Spirit produces - namely - the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. In other words, by the Spirit's leading in the lives of God's people, there will be an increase in the character and conduct of godliness and righteousness. In short, a Spirit-led life is a life growing to be more like Jesus. And this above all, is the normal Christian life!

Monday, October 26, 2009

God's Decree and Man's Freedom
When Governor Pilate looked at Jesus, he did not have the eyes to see the truth of who was standing before him. What's more, he did not have the eyes to see neither the limit nor the true origin of his own power as governor. This was especially demonstrated when Jesus refused to answer one of Pilate's questions - to which Pilate responded in great arrogance: "You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have the authority to crucify you" (Jn.19:10)? At this incredibly brazen statement, Jesus broke His silence and put Pilate in his place: "You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above" (Jn.19:11, italics mine).
These words of Christ were a sobering revelation to this pagan Roman ruler. For they revealed the truth that no matter what Pilate chose to do, his actions were only carrying out a greater purpose and power that he could not see. Pilate's every decision and the fulfillment thereof was "to do whatever [God's] hand and...plan had predestined to take place" (see Acts 4:27-28). In short, Pilate's choices were simply but profoundly (even mysteriously!) establishing God's decree.
Now it might be asked in the light of this truth: "Well, if Pilate was fulfilling God's decree, then does that make him nothing but a mere puppet with no free will?" This is a typical response raised as a matter of objecting to the truth that God has decreed everything that comes to pass (including the choices of a man who would order the crucifixion of the Son of God). But what must be recognized, is that God's sovereign decree does not violate the will of man, but actually sustains and provides his freedom to choose; while at the same time, God fulfills His sovereign plan by the means of those choices. Consider how God's Word states this truth in the Book of Proverbs:
"The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord." (16:1)
"The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps." (16:9)
"Many are the plans in the mind of man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand." (19:21)
"The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will." (21:1)
"No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord." (21:30)
"The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord." (21:31)
In each of these passages it should be clear that man makes real choices. He plans and devises to do many things. But none of his choices work against God's decretive will nor do they overturn God's decretive will - but instead, they establish what God has already planned to happen in time.
In the 1689 Baptist Confession, consider the careful and insightful words written to declare this relationship between God's decretive will and man's freedom of choice: "Neither, by reason of [God's] decree, is the will of any creature whom He has made violated; nor is the free working of second causes put aside; rather is it established." We are not puppets with no volition, freedom, or power. Man has genuine freedom which can be defined as "the absence of external coercion." Or, as Sam Waldron put it: "If a man is not forced by any power outside himself to do that which is contrary to 'what he wants to do', then we may properly say that he is 'free'." Bringing greater clarity to this truth, with an important qualification, G.I. Williamson observed:
"The wonder of God's predestination is that God does leave men free in this sense, even though he predestines everything that every man will ever do. Some people use the word "freedom" in another sense, however, which is false in the extreme. They mean, by the 'freedom' of man, that man is able to do good or evil at any moment of time. To say that man is able to do good or evil, is very different from saying that a man is at liberty to do what he desires. We believe that man has liberty but not ability to do what is right. For the truth is that man, while free from coercion from the 'outside' is not free from the control of his own nature. He who is evil by nature must of necessity do evil. Just as we may say that God is good and therefore cannot do evil, so we may say that man (by nature) is evil and cannot (of himself) do good."
So when we talk about man's freedom of choice, we need to be clear about what this means biblically. Man is free to do what he wants but this does not mean that he is able to do whatever he wants. He is free to follow the desires of his nature; and God does not violate that freedom. Thus the Scripture says: "The heart of man plans his way..." (Prov.16:9). Man's "heart" (or nature) is free to choose. There is no coercion here on the part of God, or anyone else for that matter. However, what man chooses to do is not independent of God's sovereign decree. Man's freedom exists under the sovereign rule and reign of God, ordering and establishing the steps of man to fulfill God's eternal purpose. Man therefore is only as free to follow the desires of his heart as God has permitted in His sovereign will.
A good example of this is in Genesis 20, when king Abimelech took Abraham's wife, Sarah, to be his wife (under the false idea that Sarah was Abraham's sister). But before Abimelech could consummate the marriage, the Scripture says that, "God came to Abimelech in a dream by night" (20:3) - in this dream, God declared that this pagan king was a "dead man" for taking another man's wife. In response to this charge, Abimelech protested to God that he was completely innocent in this affair because both Abraham and Sarah told the king that they were siblings. Moreover, at this point, Abimelech had not yet had sexual relations with Sarah.
Now in view of the king's innocence in this matter, God said to him: "Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart..." (20:6a). In this statement, God is not only acknowledging Abimelech's innocence, but even the freedom of what he desired to do by taking Sarah to be his wife. However, the only reason why Abimelech had not yet consummated the marriage, was because God did not permit him. God said to this king: " was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her." Abimelech followed the desires of his heart to take Sarah to be his wife; but his freedom to do this was entirely under God's sovereign will - thus he was not able to consummate the marriage because God did not let him. "The heart of a man plans his way, BUT the Lord establishes his steps" (Prov.16:9). Man therefore is only as free to follow the desires of his heart as God has permitted in His sovereign will.
Thus, Pilate was free and responsible for the choices he made against Christ (God did not force Pilate to hand Jesus over to be crucified). Yet, all of Pilate's free choices were only the "second causes" for Jesus going to the cross. The "first cause" for Christ to be crucified was God's eternal decree (Isa.53:10; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). God therefore preordained both the ends and the means that put His Son on the cross.
So then, when we affirm the biblical truth that God has ordained everything that comes to pass - we are not denying that man makes real, responsible choices that have real consequences which he will be held accountable to answer. However, what we do affirm, is that nothing man chooses to do can override or thwart God's sovereign decree. For if in some sense God does not ordain everything that comes to pass, then He is not really sovereign; and if He is not sovereign, then He is not God. Perish the thought!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Is God the Author of Sin?
There is probably very few of us who are comfortable with unanswered questions. If we inquire about something, we simply expect an answer. In most circumstances this would not be an unfair or even arrogant assumption. However, when it comes to the nature and works of God, it is not only unreasonable but insolent to demand an answer for everything that concerns who God is and what He does (e.g., Rom.9:19-21).
First of all, it is unreasonable to demand that God explain everything about Himself for the simple fact that we are finite and He is infinite (Job 11:7). Our understanding is so limited by our creatureliness and marred by our sinfulness, that it is impossible to fully understand God. Even with being divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit to write God's Word, Paul the apostle had to confess: "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways" (Rom.11:33)!
But worse than unreasonable, it is insolent for any of us to put "God in the dock", as it were, and demand answers of His nature and works. One reason for such bold impudence is due to our sinful pride, that expresses itself in the postured attitude that it is "my right" to know all that God is doing (e.g., Job 30:16-31:40). Another reason for such arrogance toward God, is because we think (though foolishly and unintentionally, if we are true believers) that God is just like us (cf. Psa.50:21a), and treat Him as if what He does must be given our approval if it can be signed off as a good thing. And by this kind of arrogance, many people in the visible church react in hostile anger toward those parts of God's revealed Word which they cannot understand and seem to them as either unfair or unreasonable. "My God," they retort, as if they own the Almighty, "would never do a thing like that!"
But the truth of the matter is - God can and does whatever He pleases (Psa.115:3); and He owes no one an explanation for what He chooses to do (Deut.29:29; Rom.9:20,21). Moreover, whatever God does is always right, holy, and just (Gen.18:25; Ex.15:11; Num.23:19), no matter how unthinkable and beyond our understanding it may be (see Hab.1-3).
Now with this said, I want to consider another crucial aspect of God's decretive will, which (with humble admission) we cannot wrap our minds completely around: God's decree does not make God either the author of sin nor responsible for it. Though God has "from all eternity...decreed all that should happen in time" (ref. 1689 Baptist Confession: chapter three, paragraph one) - yet, He has not brought to pass everything in exactly the same way. So then, the sinful actions of men are all according to the counsel of God's will (Eph.1:11); however, God neither tempts anyone to sin nor can He be tempted Himself (see Jam.1:13). What does this mean? It means that God decrees the sinful actions of men in such a way that preserves to the full their freedom of choice, and thus does not at all destroy their responsibility; while at the same time, their wicked deeds serve God's sovereign purpose without making God the author of their sin.
Two of the greatest examples to this truth in Scripture are seen in the suffering of Joseph and the crucifixion of Christ. With Joseph, remember what he told his brothers in Genesis 50:20 - "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it [the evil] for good." The term translated "meant" is a Hebrew word that carries the idea of planning, devising, and inventing. Joseph's brothers planned and devised evil against him; but God was behind their evil plan to overrule it for good. Commenting on this amazing revelation from Genesis 50:20, consider R.C. Sproul's observation and application:
"[God] used the brothers' treacherous activity in order to save lives, sanctify Joseph, and bring his plan to pass. One of the most comforting passages in the New Testament is Paul's statement that 'all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose' (Rom.8:28). We must be careful here. Paul does not say that everything that happens, considered in and of itself is good. Nor is our theme song Que Sera, Sera, 'whatever will be, will be.' We do have the astounding promise, however, that everything will work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. This means that even from the bad things happening to us, God is bringing about good. This glorious concept means that we should trust God - even in the midst of tragedy, pain, disease, and suffering of all kinds. God assures us that he is working all things together for our good."
Now it should be very plain to us that Joseph understood what Paul would write centuries later to the church at Rome. The principle truth that would be later expressed by Romans 8:28 was no mere theory to Joseph, it was a living reality. God gave him the eyes to see that what his brothers did to him was God's plan all along, which was fulfilling a redeeming purpose in the end. Think about this and take it in: God ordained the evil carried out by Joseph's brothers. But Joseph's brothers were still accountable and responsible for their sin. God did not force them to do harm to Joseph, but He gave them freedom to do harm by their own will - yet, their actions all along were bringing to pass what God had already decreed. Hence, Joseph could confess that his brothers' evil intentions was the good intention of God.
The other biblical example which proves how God decrees evil and yet is not the author of it, is the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, this example is the greatest of all, since there has never been a greater sin committed by man, yet God ordained this for our redemption. Consider how this truth is expressed in a prayer recorded in Acts 4:27,28 -
"...for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontious Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place."
In this passage we see both the responsibility of man and the sovereignty of God in the same sentence, contradicting neither. First, we see the enemies of Christ mentioned by name and held accountable for their opposition to the Lord. "they gathered against your holy servant Jesus." They "gathered against" Christ of their own free will, uncoerced, not forced, but by the liberty of their own desires. In Acts 2:23, the apostle Peter indicted the Jews for this opposition against Christ, when he said: " crucified [Jesus] and killed by the hands of lawless men." "You did this," Peter said. "This is what you are guilty of." So then, man is responsible for his sinful actions.
But in the crucifixion of Christ, the Son of God was not nailed to the cross only because sinful man willed this to happen. There was a far greater and infinitely more powerful will at work which brought Jesus Christ to die on the cross: it was God's will to crucify His Son. Therefore, in Acts 4:28, the early church confessed that what the enemies of Christ "gathered together" to do against Jesus was in fact the fulfillmemt of a greater plan and purpose: it was "to do whatever [God's] hand and [His] plan had predestined to take place." Now think about this. Remind yourself of all the wickedness done against Jesus. He was betrayed, slandered, blasphemed against, beaten within an inch of His earthly life, given over to a kangaroo court and a blood thirsty mob, and finally nailed to a Roman cross to hang there in all His nakedness and humiliation, till He died. Nevertheless, all this wickedness was carried out against Christ by one ultimate cause: "to do whatever [God's] hand and [His] plan had predestined to take place."
No Jew or Gentile living in the first century could lift a finger, utter a word, or make plans against Jesus apart from "whatever [God's] hand and [His] plan had predestined to take place." As John MacArthur rightly affirmed based on the testimony of Acts 4:28 - "It reminds us that God is the supreme historian who wrote all history before it ever began. Having done their worst [i.e., the enemies of Christ], they merely succeeded in fulfilling God's eternal plan (cf. Acts 2:23). As the psalmist expressed it, 'The wrath of man shall praise Thee' (Psa.76:10)."
But the preeminent principle that we are attempting to see from the examples of Joseph's sufferings and Jesus' crucifixion, is that while God ordained both events and the evil in those events; yet, God remained neither the author of that evil nor responsible for it. God was the First Cause of this historical events, as He is the First Cause of all history, but He cannot be accused of being the creator and author of the sin which takes place in history. God willed sin to be here but He is not sin's author. How can this be? No one knows and no one should foolishly attempt to find out, because God has left that in His secret counsels (cf. Deut.29:29a). But what we do know is this: God is holy and there is no sin in God whatsoever. Secondly, God is sovereign and there is nothing in time that takes place apart from His sovereign decree. Thirdly, man is a sinner and responsible for his sin. Fourthly, the free sinful actions of man fulfill and carry out the divine sovereign decree of God. And finally, because man's sin carries out God's purpose, God will overrule man's sin to bring about good. Therefore, even man's sin will ultimately display the glory of God.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Baptist Confession and God's Decree
The most well known and widely published Confession of Faith in Baptist history is The Second London Confession of 1689. It was the adopted confession for the very first Baptist Association in America in 1742 (i.e., the Philadelphia Association, est. 1707). The Charleston Association (1767) also adopted it as their confession for Baptists in the South; and in 1839, Jesse Mercer (1769-1841), republished the 1689 Confession to run as a series in The Christian Index (the Baptist state paper for Georgia) - calling it, "our Old Confession." Moreover, the 293 delegates who met in Augusta, Georgia to form The Southern Baptist Convention (May 8, 1845), all came from Baptist churches and associations who held to the 1689 Confession in its adopted form as the Philadelphia/Charleston Confession of Faith.
Now among the 32 chapters which frame this confession, the third chapter, handles with the greatest care and most well chosen words, the biblical truth of God's decree. In the first paragraph of this chapter, the overall truth of this doctrine is affirmed:
"From all eternity, God decreed all that should happen in time, and this He did freely and unalterably, consulting only His own wise and holy will. Yet in so doing He does not become in any sense the author of sin, nor does He share responsibility for sin with sinners. Neither, by reason of His decree, is the free working of second causes put aside; rather is it established. In all these matters the divine wisdom appears, as also does God's power and faithfulness in effecting that which He has purposed."
Now to just begin wrapping one's mind around this mammoth truth of Scripture, it would be helpful to simply paint with a broad brush a few central truths which are expressed in this paragraph. First, God's decree is His eternal sovereign purpose over all things in the universe. This means that we are not speaking here of what has been called "God's revealed will." The revealed will of God is clearly pronounced commands in Scripture (e.g., the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:1-17). God's will, in this respect, can be obeyed or disobeyed by man. However, God's decretive will is not "revealed" in every respect (Deut.29:29) nor is it a moral command God has given us to obey. Rather, God's decree is His eternal sovereign purpose that encompasses everything that happens in the universe. Hence nothing happens in the universe apart from God's decretive will (see Isa.46:10; Dan.4:34,35; Eph.1:11).
Second, God's decree cannot be frustrated or thwarted by man. Proverbs 19:21 says, "Many are the plans in the mind of man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand." In Isaiah 14:24-27, God's decree concerning His judgment on Assyria is couched in terms which bespeak of His sovereign will as irresistible: "The Lord of hosts has sworn: 'As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand...For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who shall annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back' (vv.24,27)?
Finally, God's decree is not conditioned by anything outside of Himself. The Confession states that what God decreed, "He did freely and unalterably, consulting only His own wise and holy will." God does not wait for man to act and then decide what He should do. Never! When God decreed all things to come to pass, He did so as an act of sheer sovereign will. The universe and all its events, great and small, bow the knee to the decretive will of a holy, all-wise God who says: "it will be done."

Friday, October 09, 2009

Deism: The Denial of God's Decree
If I were to ask the typical pew-sitter in any given evangelical church in America, "Are you a deist?", I'm certain that the answer I would receive would be - "no" - and then in the same breath they would inquire, "What is a deist?" My purpose behind raising such a question is due to the fact that most Americans, combined with many professing Christians are fundamentally deistic in their thinking. I would not say they are consciously of this conviction, but it is by and large the native air many people breath in when talking about God.
Historically, deism was a movement of rationalistic thought from the mid-17th century to the mid-18th century. It basically taught that though God was the Creator of the universe, yet His purpose was to create it to run on its own. Thus, God had no personal intervention at all in the universe He made. Like a great clockmaker, deism taught that God built the clock, wound it up, and then left it to run by itself. Hence, the universe is nothing more than a great big machine run by natural laws which work independently of their Creator. Moreover, man is completely autonomous in the deistic world: he creates, determines, and fulfills his own destiny while God sits by as merely a distant spectator of man's self-determination.
Now if I raise the question again, "Are you a deist?", what would your answer be? When hurricane Katrina basically wiped out New Orleans - was God involved? When the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 were struck by blood-thirsty Muslim terroists - did God have a hand in that tragedy? What about wars, famine, disease, and death - do these things all come to pass by a sovereign God who has decreed for His own holy purposes such events? I am quite certain that questions like these posed to most professing Christians would receive a swift deistic confession. "No!," they would cry. "It is never God's will for any of these things to take place. He has nothing to do with such things." I actually heard a local preacher make such a confession by saying: "God's will is never done on earth, but He has given the earth over to the power of men." This preacher was unwittingly but foolishly teaching his congregation the ideas of deism.
The real problem with deism is that it is on a collision course with biblical Christianity. For it outright denies the plain truth of Holy Scripture that God has not only created the universe, but He also sustains it, governs it, and is in fact working all things in the universe according to the counsel of His own will (Job 12:13-25; Psa.33:8-11; Acts 17:24-28; Rom.11:36; Eph.1:11; Col.1:16,17; Rev.4:11). God is not therefore a mere spectator of events. His sovereignty means more than His knowledge of what is going to happen, but He has actually ordained what is happening.
Thus wars (Hab.1:5-11), famine (Psa.105:16), disease (Lev.14:34), weather of every kind (Job 37:1-13), food (Acts 14:17), habitations (Acts 17:26), seasons (Dan.2:21), existing authorities (Rom.13:1), physical handicaps (Ex.4:11), calamities (Isa.45:7), national sufferings (Lam.3:37,38), death (Heb.9:27), and even the little sparrow that falls from its nest (Matt.10:29) - all of these things, with the rest of what we see in the world, come to pass by God's holy decree (Isa.46:10). And though God does not bring these things to pass in exactly the same way, yet nothing happens in this world apart from His sovereign eternal will. The "god" of deism then is simply a false god. The true and living God is always ruling, reigning, sustaining, and governing His universe. Moreover, if God were otherwise, He would not even be God.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

God's Decree and a Flight of Stairs
There is a story often told by many preachers, of a man who after falling down a staircase, shakes his head in relief, saying, "I'm sure glad that's over." The point of this story is to make a mockery of Christians who believe that God has preordained everything that comes to pass - including a tumble down a flight of stairs. It paints a picture of such Christians as being both foolish and fatalists. In other words, this fictional story is aimed at denying (unwittingly) the biblical doctrine of God's eternal decree as worked out in God's providence. Thus the preacher who tells the story typically says in a snide way: "God may be sovereign but He's not the cause of or in control of everything in the universe." And many Christians who hear this usually affirm it with a hearty, "Amen!"
But, I wonder if we should be so quick to agree that such a confession like this is true? I grant that the story of the man's staircase fall presents some problems if left without a biblical context. However, if we place this story in the light of Scripture, some things begin to emerge about God and man which the story alone does not tell. In the first place, the man's relief that the fall was over should be fanned out to say much more - if biblical. On the one hand, there is nothing wrong in his initial satisfaction that the tumble has ceased. For he recognizes that this fall was no mere accident of purely human carelessness; but rather, it was ordered by the sovereign purpose of God. What would inform him of this? Psalm 139:16 which affirms that in God's "book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me." Then there is Proverbs 20:24, "A man's steps are from the Lord; how then can man understand his way?" These two verses (along with a host of others) simply teach us that nothing happens to us by chance or even blind fate - but our "steps" and "days" have been determined by God's sovereign will.
On the other hand, this man's confession must say more: not only is he glad the fall is over, but what is God teaching him by the fall? This is the difference between God's providence and blind fatalism. Fatalism says everything is determined with no rhyme or reason, it's just impersonal force making things happen. God's providence however is God Himself ordering and governing all things with a holy purpose. Thus the man thanks God for the fall and asks God to teach him what he is to learn from the fall.
We see this in Joseph when he says to his wicked brothers: "As for you, you meant evil against me (i.e., selling him as a slave to Egypt), but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Gen.50:20). Joseph did not deny his brothers' evil actions, but he understood that God was working even this together for the good of Joseph and others (cf. Rom.8:28). In other words, the evil actions of Joseph's brothers were not the only cause for his going to Egypt. They simply established the first cause which was God's sovereign will and purpose (see Eph.1:11). This doesn't mean that God was the author of the brothers' sin nor that they were not culpable before God for what they did. But rather, God ordained through their real free choices that He would bring Joseph to Egypt for the outworking of His great and glorious plan.
So then, the man who has fallen down the steps should not only see his fall as physical clumsiness - but a loving, sovereign, wise, and holy God who ordained even this for His people's good and the display of His own glory.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Assurance in Suffering: part three
The Knowledge of God's Design for our Sufferings
Looking again at Romans 5:3 along with verse 4: "More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings...knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." Why should we rejoice in our sufferings as Christians? Our joy, our boasting in pain has to have a foundational, legitimate reason - what is it? According to Romans 5:3-4, it is a "knowledge" God has revealed to us concerning His providential design for the tribulations, trials, and hardships we are going to face. The basis therefore of our rejoicing when we suffer, is knowing what this suffering is actually working out for us by God's sovereign plan. Moreover, based on the larger context of Romans 5, this knowledge of God's design for our sufferings works to bring about a greater assurance of our salvation - and thus, a greater cause for rejoicing.
So, what then should we "know" about our sufferings which God has purposed as the basis for joy and a reason for salvation-assurance? There are three things that are plainly stated here in Romans 5:3-4.
Suffering produces endurance. We rejoice in our suffering because we know that our suffering is producing endurance. But what does this mean? What is endurance? The Greek word used in this text is upomone - which means "patient endurance" or "perseverance." Taken in the present context of suffering, it means to live under difficult circumstances without trying to wiggle our way out from under them. It therefore carries the idea of "constancy." It is the ability to go on in our suffering - patiently, steadfastly enduring.
But of course, the question for us is how does suffering produce endurance? All our sufferings, under God's providence, work to make our faith in Christ stronger because they drive us more to Christ where we realize (again and again) that He is our life, our sufficiency, our all. And the outworking of this is endurance. We therefore do not become bitter, resentful, and complaining when we suffer but rather we increase in strength, steadfastness, and perseverance.
In other words, our hardships are God's means of grace to grow our faith in Him, to remain more patient and enduring as we are suffering. And by this fruit, we are assured that we are saved, that God is keeping us - because we are not denying Him but running to Him for the grace to remain faithful and carry on. Hence, knowing this we can rejoice in our sufferings...[because] suffering produces endurance.
Endurance produces character. The word translated character comes from a Greek term that simply means "proof." This word was used originally to describe the testing of metals such as silver and gold to demonstrate their purity. The idea is that when you put metal through a fiery testing and it comes out on the other side persevering and enduring, what you call that metal is "proven" or "authentic" or "genuine." And this is the sense of what we're being told here in Romans 5:4, "endurance produces character."
How can we be sure we're saved? Here is one test: do our sufferings make our faith in Christ stronger? Do they produce endurance? Perseverance? Steadfastness? If the outworking of our hardships is greater faith, love, and obedience to Christ - then we're only proving the greater truth that we are genuine believers in Jesus Christ. Endurance produces character for the authentic Christian.
Our patient perseverance under trial is only working to prove what we are claiming to be as Christians. And because this is God's design for our pain, then we can rejoice in our pain - since this is giving us greater assurance that we are really saved. Commenting once on this matter, Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) said:
"Tribulations also work in this way, that they not only bring out God's love to me, but at the same time test my love to God, and prove it. If I only love God when everything is going well. I am not truly Christian. It is the man who can say with Job, 'Even though he slay me, yet I will trust him', who is truly Christian."
Are we truly Christian? When our world is falling apart all around us is our faith, love, and obedience to Christ proving true or is it all just a sham? This is where we need to really pause and think about our character in the face of suffering. I have known many people who have once professed loudly their faith in Christ, only now to deny it all because of some experience of suffering and pain. Their adversities only proved what they really were all along: they were not Christians but hypocrites.
Where are we going to be when we face tribulation? Or, when we finally come through on the other side of a great trial - will our professed faith and love to Christ stand under the pressure of that fiery test? Listen again to our text: "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character." For the Christian who knows this, he can rejoice, because this is God's way of sealing to His child's heart that he really belongs to the Lord. But there is one final product in God's design for our suffering which Romans 5:4 rounds off at the end:
Character produces hope. Now this should be no surprise to us. If all our suffering makes our faith, love, and obedience to Christ only greater, which in turn, brings greater proof to the authenticity of our Christian testimony - then the end result will be hope. Hope in what? Go to Romans 5:2: "we rejoice in hope of the glory of God." What is this? Our "hope in the glory of God" is our certain and sure confidence that we will reach our final destination as believers in Jesus Christ. And that destination is being perfected in the image of Christ (see Rom.8:29-30). So then, we can rejoice in our sufferings because we know what God has designed them ultimately to bring in our lives: it is the hope that we really do belong to God and His promise to us of final glorification, on account of Christ, will indeed come to pass.
Therefore all our sufferings as Christians only work to assure us that we really belong to God through Jesus Christ. God's grace for us in Christ is real because it is actually working to establish us in greater faith, love, and obedience to Christ - and the fruit of that work is seen in how we go through tribulation, hardships, and trials. Rather than hatred, bitterness, or anger, there is a genuine rejoicing in our sufferings. We do not deny Christ but we love Him even more. Why? It is due to this: "[our] sufferings produce endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." And this is one of God's ways in giving His people the sweetness of salvation-assurance. So, in light of this, I leave you with one great searching question: what are your sufferings producing in your life - are they proving you to be a Christian or are they proving you to be an unbeliever?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Assurance in Suffering: part two
God's Design in Suffering
Why do we suffer as Christians? Why is pain, hardship, and adversity so woven into the fabric of the Christian life, that it would be abnormal not to suffer? In short, what is God's design in our suffering?
Among the answers that God's Word gives in response to such questions (an answer that is one of the clearest and most comforting), is found in Romans 5:3-4. The general context behind this chapter as a whole is concerning the certainty and security of final salvation. In other words, Romans 5 is establishing the truth that if God has saved us, He will keep us saved. And one of the saving realities which is mentioned as a means of God's grace to this glorious end is - our "sufferings". Think about this: our sufferings as justified believers in Jesus Christ (cf. Rom.5:1-2) is one of the great reasons we can be sure that God will keep us saved!
This means that anything which makes life harder and threatens our faith in the goodness and power and wisdom of God - God has sovereignly designed to work in our lives as a means of assuring us that we are saved. This is the teaching of Romans 5:3-4.
But how can Christians really appreciate and savor this design of God in their sufferings without caving in to the carnal anger and bitterness of remaining sin which seeks advantage of God's people during times of trouble? Romans 5:3-4 answers this question by affirming on the one hand, the attitude that glorifies God most when we suffer; and on the other hand, the knowledge we need of God's design for our sufferings, which fosters the aforementioned godly attitude.
The Attitude that Glorifies God most when we Suffer
In the opening words of Romans 5:3, it says: "More that that, we rejoice in our sufferings..." This is one of the most amazing statements in all the Bible. Consider this: we're being told that, as Christians, we rejoice in our sufferings. We do not complain, murmur, or become bitter - but we rejoice in our sufferings. Our sufferings then are an occasion for joy. More literally though, the verb translated rejoice means "to boast" or "to glory in." Thus, it carries the idea of having a "triumphant confidence" in our sufferings.
In addition to this, we must understand that it is in our sufferings that we have this sense of jubilation. In other words, it is not in spite of our sufferings that we rejoice or even in the midst of our sufferings - but in...our sufferings that we rejoice. We therefore rejoice because of or on account of our sufferings. Hence, the God-glorifying approach to suffering is to rejoice because we are in fact suffering.
And this same attitude of joy in our sufferings is seen elsewhere in God's Word. For example, in Matthew 5:10-12 and Luke 6:22-23, Christ commands us to "rejoice and be glad" and "leap for joy" on those occasions when we are hated, reviled, excluded, and slandered for the sake of Christ. In James 1:2, we are commanded again to "count it all joy...when you meet trials of various kinds." When we are facing trials of any kind, the response that glorifies God most, according to James 1:2, is to look on this matter as an incident for joy! So then, in concert with the affirmation of Romans 5:3, God's Word teaches in other places (see also I Pet. 4:12-13) that when we suffer as believers our attitude is expected to be one of rejoicing.
But as we contemplate this attitude of joy that the Word of God calls for in every Christian when they suffer - what is it about this attitude that is so remarkable? Or what is it about this imperative in Romans 5:3 that makes it one of the most amazing statements in all the Bible? One of the fundamental answers to this question is, that to rejoice in our sufferings flies in the face of the most common non-Christian approaches to human suffering. That is to say, a Christian rejoicing when he suffers stands apart from how a non-Christian reacts to their trials. In fact, for a non-Christian, their most typical response to human suffering can be described from one of two ancient philosophical perspectives - either Epicureanism or Stocism.
Epicureanism approaches suffering by teaching that since there are some bad experiences, which cannot be avoided, the way to handle them is by loading life with more pleasure than pain so that the bottom line is always positive. I've seen this played out in people who, for instance, have lost their job, and in response to this painful experience they take a vacation. Now understand this: they don't have the money to go on vacation, but in spite of this "harsh" reality, they go anyway. They want to avoid the pain of having lost a job and having no money - so they go take a trip they can't afford! That is a small but real example of epicureanism. "Let's fill our life with as much pleasure as we can so we can avoid the pain." There are many people in the world who approach human suffering from that perspective.
But certainly the most popular non-Christian approach to suffering is Stocism. This is the attitude we have heard in such expressions like, "keeping a stiff upper lip," or "just grin and bear it." It is nothing more than a mere resignation to unavoidable pain. And for many people in the world, they greatly admire the Stoic, who simply puts up with pain and gets through it no matter the cost. Some people call this "having courage" - but however you describe it, stocism is not the Christian approach to suffering.
Instead, the Christian "rejoices" in his sufferings. He does not avoid the pain nor does he merely grin through gritted teeth and bear it - but he "counts it all joy when he meets trials of various kinds." This is the attitude that glorifies God most when we suffer. And this is the plain meaning of Romans 5:3, "More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings..."
But at this point, an important question must be raised: why should we rejoice in our sufferings as Christians? It is one thing for us to affirm the imperative of Romans 5:3, but what is behind this command that would give us the motive for joy when we suffer? Answering these questions will draw us into the heart of Romans 5:3-4, as we look at the knowledge of God's design for our sufferings. I will take up this exposition in my next post.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Assurance in Suffering: part one
Suffering: A Basic Reality
God's Word communicates a basic reality in the Christian life called suffering. In fact, the Word of God actually teaches us that suffering is a divine calling for all Christians. This means that God has purposed for His people to experience hardships, tribulations, and trials as a vital distinguishing characteristic of their lives in this world. For example, our Lord Jesus Christ spoke of suffering as an inevitable part of the Christian life, and even pronounced judgment upon us if there was no such suffering - particularly in the form of persecution. Consider Matthew 5:10-12 and Luke 6:26 in this regard:
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you...[But] woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets."
On another occasion Jesus promised suffering (again) in the form of persecution when He first commissioned His original disciples to be sent out into the world. In Matthew 10:16-25, Christ gave these solemn words about impending suffering:
"Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles...A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household."
On the night before Jesus was to be crucified, as He shared His last supper with His disciples, He gave them many instructions to prepare them for their life following His resurrection and ascension. He was priming them for their ultimate mission in the world as His witnesses. Among these instructions, Christ reminded His disciples of what will be the ear-mark of their lives as His followers in the world: it would be suffering. In John 15:18-20, Jesus said:
"If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you."
Finally, on this same occasion, Jesus gave His disciples a solemn promise (John 16:33) which is meant for all believers in every age: "In the world you will have tribulation...but take heart; I have overcome the world."
So then, according to the words of our Lord, we can expect tribulation, persecution, being hated by the world, and slandered for the sake of Christ - all of which is a part of the most basic reality in the Christian life. No promises here then for health and wealth, but rather suffering for Christ's sake by the very design of God.
Now as we read further in the New Testament, this promise for tribulation, trial, suffering, and hardship continue by both example and teaching. For instance, in Acts 3-5, we see the early church suffering at the hands of the Jewish leaders for the sake of Christ. In Acts 6-7, we see Stephen being persecuted and then killed for his faithful witness to the glory of Christ. In Acts 9:16, Jesus speaks of His calling Paul to serve Him as an apostle; and as a part of that calling, Christ says: "For I will show him [Paul] how much he must suffer for the sake of my name."
And we might ask the question: how much did Paul suffer for the name of Christ? In II Corinthians 11:24-28, Paul himself gives a catalog of his sufferings for the sake of Christ, an index that simply leaves one speechless:
"Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from the Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night; in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my care for all the churches."
Needless to say, both Paul and the rest of the early church experienced great suffering in various forms by God's purpose to glorify Christ. But not only do we see New Testament examples of this kind of suffering, but there is also teaching on how we must suffer as Christians. In Acts 14:22, we're told that "through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." In II Timothy 3:12, we're promised: "Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted." In James 1:2, we're exhorted to "count it all joy...when you meet trials of various kinds." In I Peter 2:20-21, we read: "But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is precious in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps." And again in I Peter - this time in 4:12-19, we're encouraged:
"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed...Therefore, let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good."
Now the great overarching point of all these passages is that the Christian life is a life of suffering. Suffering "according to God's will" (I Pet.4:19) "for the name of Christ" (I Pet.4:14). Moreover, it is suffering (as already mentioned) which comes to us in different forms. In fact, Paul gives a digest of Christian suffering in II Corinthians 12:10, out of his own personal experience - which every Christian will be afflicted with to a greater or lesser degree. Paul refers to "weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities." Such terms describe what can be rightly called "the normal Christian life."

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Kind of People God Uses
Recently I have been reading for a second time Walter Chantry's wonderful book, entitled, Signs of the Apostles. This morning I read a section that was both comforting and convicting. It is a much needed word of rebuke to all of us as Christians (especially preachers) who think that God can only use those people who are exceptionally gifted or talented for the purpose of advancing His kingdom. Muse carefully on these timely words:
"In our biblical desire for revival, we must refuse to seek any experience which proposes to eliminate our natural weakness. God did not spread the gospel of Christ through the world by means of extrovert personalities. Christ did not choose the apostles for their native strength of character. The church was not begun by twelve emperors but by twelve political slaves of Rome. Our Lord had no special use for scholars. Most of the apostles were far from learned. His choice of evangelists included no warriors, nor 'Madison Avenue' publicity men. As a group, the apostles had no outstanding personal strength which can explain their impact on the world.
In various ways Christians reveal their suspicion that only extraordinary men can be used for great works of God. Some place a great emphasis on academic skills. They think, 'If we send men with respected academic honors through the world, the nations will recognize genius and come to Christ.' Others advertise football players, theatre stars, and politicians, expecting that the world will run to their meetings. Unfortunately, though the crowds come they are not changed. Why should they not remain worldly after this appeal to human greatness?
At times we may say too much of Whitefield's eloquence and Edwards' scholarship. We sometimes romanticize the lives of leaders in revivals. John Knox, so remarkably used in the Reformation of the 16th century, declared before his death, 'In youth, mid-age, and now after many battles, I find nothing in me but vanity and corruption.' Such was Whitefield's sense of personal unfitness that he said he could not enter a pulpit but for the imputed righteousness of Christ. The last words of that burning light, William Grimshaw of Yorkshire, were, 'Here goes an unprofitable servant.' It was grace which made these Christians what they were, and had it not been for the Spirit of God attending their ministries they would have remained as obscure as many another who was equal to them in natural ability.
Some of the most profound acts of witnessing and successful evangelism have been performed by the most unlikely, and unprepossessing individuals. Great numbers believed on Christ through the immoral Samaritan woman on the day she first met the Savior. God did not wait until she had established a super-holy reputation among them. The blind man of John 9 was called upon to witness before the greatest Bible scholars in the world during the week of his conversion. God did not need someone who had mastered sound doctrine. The young believer bore a fine testimony.
God does not need your talents, wisdom, holiness, and strength. But rather you, in weakness, desperately need the power of his Spirit in your labors. You need not be wonderfully transformed by a second work of grace to be a suitable instrument of God's Spirit. The Lord delights in exalting his gracious power by using weak instruments."

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Biblical Alternative to the Unbiblical Altar-Call
What I have sought to establish in these past three posts is a very careful and critical evaluation of the altar-call. It has been my intention to hold up this "sacred cow" of modern evangelism, in the light of both Scripture and church history, to prove that it is purely a practice of man's invention driven initially by pragmatic motives without the warrant of God's Word. Moreover, its theological construct actually robs God of His glory in redemption, by positioning man's will as the determinate factor for why anyone is saved. Hence, the altar-call does not "call" sinners to look only to Christ for their salvation; but rather, their focus is fixed on what they must do (e.g, walk an aisle, pray a prayer, sign a card) in order to secure themselves in God's favor. The fruit however of such misguidance are largely false conversions instead of sinners truly casting themselves solely upon Christ and His saving work. Suffice it to say, the altar-call should be abandoned as an unbiblical method which undermines both the gospel and the redeeming work of Christ.
Now with such a strong condemnation for the altar-call, what kind of evangelism should then be practiced? If we take the altar-call away, what are we left with? In the first place, to remove the altar-call we will reestablish the sufficiency of the gospel. This means that the gospel will again be seen as "the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes" (Rom.1:16), and thus what God has ordained for bringing sinners unto a saving faith in Jesus Christ (Rom.10:14-17). Furthermore, the gospel-commands to "believe" and "repent" will take their rightful place as the only biblical responses necessary to salvation (Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21); as opposed to the unbiblical commands to "raise a hand", "repeat the sinner's prayer", "walk an aisle", or "sign a card." In short, the gospel has its own built-in invitation to all sinners that is sufficient for their salvation, without the confusion and benighted notion of "coming to the altar to be saved."
In the second place, to remove the altar-call we will reestablish the necessity of the Spirit's work of regeneration. To call sinners to an altar for salvation takes away from the fundamental urgency to be "born again" (Jn.3:3-8). If a mere decision and a "coming forward" is all we need to be saved, then why must there be a new birth? But the truth is, we have "stoney hearts" which God in His sovereign mercy must replace with "new hearts", so that we will be savingly converted to Christ (Ezk.36:26; Tit.3:5,6). With no altar-call the doctrine of the new birth can be proclaimed without obstruction, and the sinner will be impressed with the fact that a "change of heart" is the very core and essence of his salvation. As Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) once declared: "I speak advisedly when I say that the doctrine of 'believe and live' would be a very dangerous one if it were not accompanied by the doctrine of regeneration." Remember what Christ said to Nicodemus: "You must be born again" (Jn.3:7, emphasis mine). Without regeneration there is no faith or repentance (Jn.1:12-13).
In the third and final place, to remove the altar-call we will reestablish a context of integrity for both conversions and church membership. This is probably the greatest need of the hour for the local church. The altar-call has bloated so many churches with members who have no fruit to prove the credibility of their conversion. But if the altar-call is taken away, then greater time, patience, and care can be given to sinners who "seem" to be under conviction for their sin and are asking questions about Christ. This means that conversions will not be rushed or forced for the sake of "numbers" or "results" - but instead, the gospel is faithfully preached, sinners are called to believe and repent, and God is trusted for the work which He alone can do, namely, save sinners! In time, we must be assured that if God has brought salvation, then the fruit of that conversion will eventually manifest itself (Matt.13:18-23); and the result will be a church membership with integrity. This, above all, must be recovered in our day.

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