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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