Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sovereign Grace Ministries Now Has a Blog

Sovereign Grace Ministries has a blog and its president and founder C.J. Mahaney is its principal contributor:

Well, I guess I can’t postpone this any longer. Today brings to an official end the countless conversations and numerous meetings about possibly starting this blog. I’m committed now, at least for this week. Here is what you need to know about this new blog—this was not my idea! It has taken a very long time (we’re talking years) and a growing chorus of demanding friends in order to convince me (aren’t there enough blogs already?) that doing this would in some way serve you. In fact, it was that possibility, that I could somehow serve pastors, members of Sovereign Grace churches and anyone who wanted to listen in, that eventually persuaded me to begin this blog. So, I hope in some small way this does serve you and if not then we will simply close it down and I will hold my well-meaning friends responsible.
Sounds like we can't expect a Facebook profile anytime soon, but I'm glad C.J. now has a bloggy presence on the Web. I enjoy his sermons and suspect he might bring some interesting insights to the Web as well.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Sermon Notes | The Gospel-Centered Family (I Timothy 1:15-17)

What follows are notes from a guest sermon by Kenneth Maresco, an executive pastor at Covenant Life Church, Gaithersburg, Md., at Solid Rock Church, Riverdale, Md. Both churches are members of the Sovereign Grace Ministries family. The title of the January 27 message is "The Gospel-Centered Family" and was the third in a four-part sermon series at SRC on Gospel-Centered living.

Scripture (I Timothy 1:15-17):

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. [4] Amen.

Three Major Points for Application:


  1. Remember the Gospel ["Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners"]
  2. Remember your own sinfulness ["to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost"] --Apply this mindset to our lives. We are the worst sinners we know, we are most intimately aware of our hidden sins, our sinful thoughts, attitudes, lusts, etc. Being aware of our sinfulness makes all all the more aware of God's grace to us and keeps us humble in our relationships with others
  3. Remember your life is to be a display of God's patience ["Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life"] --My walk with Christ is not so much about my performance as it is about God's patience towards me, a sinner saved by His grace and being conformed to the image of Christ in spite of my sinful flesh which is at war with the Spirit

Eight Principles of a Gospel-Centered Family:


If we are motivated by the Gospel, what can be different in our family relationships?
  1. We can related to one another with humility rather than self-righteousness.
  2. We can communicate truth to one another with gentleness.
  3. We can be faithful to direct others to the Word of God and their conscience.
  4. We can maintain hope in the midst of disappointments. [Maresco added that hopelessness is "never an option" for believers in Christ]
  5. We can involve others in our lives.
  6. We can take our sin seriously without being overwhelmed.
  7. We can avoid bitterness and resentment by forgiving others.
  8. We can glorify God by pursuing Him diligently.
    1. Pursue the Savior in our daily walk, humbly acknowledging our continual need for his grace
    2. We do this by studying the Word, praying, and continually offering thanksgiving to God for His grace towards us

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Pride in Work Well Done?

Another day at work is wrapping up. Another Monday, in fact.

It got me to thinking: Is my pride in my work, which I enjoy thoroughly, in danger of, or already becoming in effect an idol in my life?

When I thank God at the end of the day for such a great day, in my heart am I glorying in my efforts and my success, or marveling in the fact that it is His grace towards me that enables me to do all that I do to His glory?


Lord, another work day has closed. It's had its share of accomplishment and disappointments, as will, I suspect, tomorrow. Help me today and every day to truly empty myself of all the glory and pride I take in MY work and MY accomplishments and MY diligence, and instead reflect on the fact that it's your grace in my life that makes any success not only possible, but possible to be used for your glory.

After all, it is your glory and your kingdom I wish to see advanced. Help me all the more to seek first your kingdom and your righteousness in everything, especially my job.

Amen.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

The Foolish Pride of Worry (I Peter 5:5b-7)

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. [I Peter 5:5b-7]
Did you catch that? Peter shifts from talking about clothing ourselves with humility in our relationships one with another and shifts in verse 7 to the issue of "all" of our anxieties, telling us to cast them on God, for "he cares for you."

Why are these seemingly unrelated pieces of advice back-to-back? Seems to me that self-righteousness and pride, the exact opposite of humility, correlate with, indeed complement, our sinful tendency of holding anxiety about any and all things we struggle with in our lives.

When we're anxious about something, whether we know it or not, we exalt ourselves above God. We hold that this issue we're worried about falls in our sovereign domain, not God's. We withhold that issue from God, stubbornly clinging to it as a personal fiefdom. This is a grave insult to a holy, sovereign God who wants our submission to His sovereignty in every area of our lives, for His glory and our good.

Peter gently reminds us that God "cares for you." He doesn't want His children anxious and prideful, insisting that they can and must worry about things that are fundamentally out of their control, especially OTHER PEOPLE, and most especially OTHER BELIEVERS, which is the context Peter is writing in.

It's our sinful nature that loves worry and anxiety, especially about everybody but ourselves.

It's a sinful self importance that drives us away from trusting in Christ for our loved ones and drives us to a sinful, self-glorifying estimation of our, well, self-righteousness and our ability to will and work good things.

But our will and our working of good things is all of grace, all empowered by the Holy Spirit! Man, oh man, how often have I missed the mark on this?

Lord, thank you for your Word and the correction that comes from it. I repent of the sin of anxiety, of hoarding up and reveling in anxiety about things and relationships and people that I can't and shouldn't control. Lord, you're sovereign over all. I trust in you for my salvation and my life on this earth, help me to trust you in every facet of this life. I believe, help now my unbelief. In Jesus's name, Amen.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Hard-Working Nature of God's Grace (I Cor. 15:1-11)

One of my favorite chapters in the whole Bible would have to be I Corinthians 15. It's about the centrality of the crucifixion of Christ to our Christian walk, which Paul argues chiefly in verses 12-58.

But for this post, I want to look at the first 11 verses, where Paul gives a summary of Christ's sacrificial death, burial, resurrection, and appearances to the Apostles and James and "[l]ast of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me."

Paul makes clear that that divine appointment on the road to Damascus was not for naught (emphasis mine).

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (15:10)
This, remember, comes in the midst of a passage where Paul is refreshing the Corinthian church's memory as to "the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached you." (15:2)

I think that aside from re-establishing his apostolic credentials for the readers, Paul was pointing out that the Gospel is far from a cold theological creed or formula to be recited. It's a life-transforming message of good news -- Christ died for my sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose again on the third day in accord with the Scriptures -- that continues to this day to resurrect spiritually dead people (like Saul on the road to Damascus) to new life in Christ.

Indeed, this is a theme Paul touched on elsewhere in his writings, using himself as an example, even calling himself the "chief of sinners" (I Timothy 1:15).

Paul points to himself as an example of, but ultimately refuses to claim credit for, the good work he does in his new life as a Christian, saying it was "the grace of God that is with me."

What's more, immediately following that disclaimer that it is the grace within him at work that has yielded a dynamic apostolic ministry, he concludes his summation of the Gospel with this (emphasis mine):
"Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed."
The Apostles preached the Gospel and its power to save. The Apostles preached the Gospel and its power to work in the lives of regenerated sinners, including and especially within the Apostles themselves, who never ceased to be amazed of the love of Christ towards them. I can only imagine how powerful it must of been for Peter to preach about Christ's forgiveness when he could point out how greatly he had been forgiven by the risen Christ, the same Lord and Savior he denied three times less than 72 hours earlier.

It was this preaching of the Gospel that the early church heard and believed unto salvation, and the resurrection of Christ is absolutely central to it. To preach otherwise is to empty the cross of its power and tie a blindfold over our eyes as we walk the lost straight into the ditch.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

To Your Name Give Glory, O Lord (Psa. 115:1)

Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory,
for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!
Psalm 115:1
Lord, it's so easy to get caught up in the worries of the world and the pursuit of the various but fading glories of this world. As much as I'd like to think I put your kingdom first and foremost, I don't always. I come up short and need your grace day by day to live worthy of the calling. But you Lord have canceled out my transgressions, you've forgiven my sins, your mercies are new every day. May I always remember that and always glory in that.

And so I pray, Lord, bring glory to your name. For the sake of your steadfast love to your Bride, the church. For the sake of the furtherance of your Kingdom. Help me to seek first your kingdom and your righteousness, knowing that everything else will fall into place in your will when I submit to you in that.

Help me to see the advance of your kingdom in my daily walk. In my thoughts, in my speech, in my interactions with my family, my coworkers, my bosses, my friends, and my adversaries.

Help me smash the idols in my life. I can easily scoff at the idols of the nations (Psa. 115:4-8) and mock them for their false hope, but all too often I can drift from my true hope, which is you, Lord Jesus. So as you help me smash the idols in my life, smash to pieces my pride, and mold in me humility.

Help me to seek your righteousness. Your righteousness is imputed to me as a gift. I'm counted righteous in you through faith in your Son, and that faith itself is also a gift. So let me seek more of this gift of faith. Let me seek more growth in grace. May I model and exhibit righteous, godly behavior, Lord. Not because it will make me any more saved than I am today or was yesterday, but because it will bring you all the more glory as people see that my changed and changing character is not of human effort, but is Spirit-empowered and Gospel-driven.

Thank you Lord for your mercies being new every morning. May those who read this be blessed in the reading as I am blessed to be privileged to write it. Draw them, and me, to your Word, to read it, study it, meditate on it, pray it, and live it.

Do this all for the glory of your Name, Lord. In Jesus' name, Amen.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Sermon Notes | How the Gospel Transforms Relationships in the Church (Philemon)

Yesterday our senior pastor John Loftness delivered a sermon based on Paul's epistle to Philemon. It's a short but powerful letter that contains a blueprint the church can follow for reconciling sin-strained relationships within the church.

Loftness noted that Paul's grace-centered approach to the rift between Philemon and his runaway slave* avoided the pitfalls of harsh legalism or overly-liberal license. In my notes I charted these three approaches as "Legalism," "License," and "Love."

Were Paul to come down on Philemon's side completely, he could have sent Onesimus back, in chains under Roman guard, to Philemon. Needless to say, it was what a runaway like Onesimus deserved under Roman law and given Philemon's grievances. Yet Paul chose not to act in such a merciless way.

Conversely, Paul could have told Philemon to suck it up and write off his financial losses and embrace Onesimus as a brother from a distance. Paul could have said, "look man, forgive and forget, besides, I could use him to help me and the church in Rome, which he's doing already now anyway." That would have been license, it would have been an unrealistic and spiritually harmful writing off of all consequences for Onesimus's sins against Philemon.

What Paul did instead, was to model Christ-like love. Loftness quoted a Martin Luther commentary that says something to the effect that Paul modeled Christ-like sacrifice by pledging to repay Onesimus's debt to Philemon. Paul essentially gave an oath in his letter to that effect, fully prepared to be bound to his word by Philemon. In return, Philemon was called to forgive Onesimus, and Onesimus to repent to Philemon and return to serve Philemon and the church that met in his house, not as a servant or slave, but as a brother in Christ and fellow laborer in Christ with Philemon.

In closing, Loftness noted eight principles or "Gospel implications" of Christian behavior that is informed by the Gospe.

They are that that Gospel-driven Christians can:

  1. Admit faults
  2. Forgive one another
  3. Have high expectations of one another
  4. Lead by grace, not by leveraging personal power or manipulation
  5. Sacrifice to serve others
  6. Help one another work out Spirit-led, bliblically-faithful solutions to problems
  7. Relate to and have deep friendships with people from diverse backgrounds and/or with those who have wronged us in the past.
  8. Move from being useless to being useful for spreading the Gospel

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Danger of Preaching Christ as a 1st Century Che Guevara

I've noticed a trend among some preachers to innovate the Gospel to try to make Christ more relevant to younger, usually liberal "seekers." One of the convenient ways to do this is by preaching Christ as a glorified 1st century socio-political rebel. Whether as a clever hook to a larger rendering of the Gospel or as a boiling down of the Gospel message to appeal to the unchurched, this rubric of preaching Christ winds up being historically inaccurate, unbiblical, and of little help in confronting sinners with their need for the Savior and/or encouraging Christians to persevere in the faith.

Let's look at some remarks Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Bible Church made recently, as excerpted in Christianity Today's Liveblog (emphasis mine):

We refer to ourselves [at Mars Hill] as aggressively nonpartisan, so we don’t engage in partisan politics in terms of “Here’s whom you should vote for; here’s whom you should support.” We do acknowledge that the Gospel has deeply political edges to it, but that should not surprise anyone. Jesus was killed because of how He confronted a particular socioeconomic religious system. He’s a first-century Galilean revolutionary who proclaimed a Kingdom other than the kingdom of Herod, so the Gospel does have political edges.

Bell was talking about the challenge of preaching in a heated election year, especially when the media has an interest in readers the tea leaves about the evangelical vote, so maybe it should be taken with a grain of salt. However, at his church's Web site, Bell lays out a "narrative theology" (see PDF) that echoes the language cited above. Only in this narrative, Bell substitutes imperial Rome for Rome's Galilean lackey, Herod:

He and his message were rejected by many as he confronted the oppressive nature of the religious elite and the empire of Rome. Yet his path of suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection has brought hope to all creation.
Of course, there are many problems with this statement. Let's first look at the historical.

The Gospel accounts show us a Roman governor in Pontius Pilate who sacrificed Christ essentially for fear of a riot. Pilate acceded to the demands of mob justice, but the Gospel accounts lend the impression that he barely had any idea who Jesus was in the first place.

What's more, under agitation from the mob, Pilate released a robber and insurrectionist, Barabbas, in lieu of releasing Christ. Pilate, was more interested in releasing Christ than letting a violent insurrectionist threat back out on the street, but ultimately relented out of fear of an insurrection should he fail to crucify Christ.

And what of Herod? From the brief Gospel account of his interrogation of Christ seems to show Herod thought Jesus was a sideshow, a religious curiosity (Luke 23:8). Indeed, Herod was curious as to who Christ was, thinking at one point he was John the Baptist raised from the dead (9:7-9). Sure, Herod didn't mind seeing Jesus dead, but it seems he really wasn't the driving force for Christ's execution in the first place. Like Pilate, he wasn't that familiar with Christ.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, are a different story. Bell is right in a sense that the "religious elite" opposed Christ, but their "oppressive nature" was but the fruit of their sinful hearts, not the root cause of Christ's opposition to them. Jesus confronted the hypocrisy and faulty teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees and He did so strongly, both word and deed. Christ called them a brood of vipers and whitewashed tombs, murderers of prophets, robbers of widows, you name it. And all these indictments were accurate. Christ always accurately addressed the sinfulness of their hearts, and they hated Him for it.

So ultimately, while there is truth to there being a political and religious context for Christ's crucifixion, it is but a surface facet of the larger cosmic drama of Christ's mission, an aspect Bell's "narrative theology" doesn't address.

There's no emphasis in Bell's narrative theology on Christ taking in Himself on the cross the wrath of God for a sinful world, for example, or how Christ's crucifixion and resurrection are central to our ability to live a life pleasing to God. That is the mystery of salvation that Paul preached at the original Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:16-34).

Paul confronted the Athenians with their sinfulness, particularly idolatry, pointed to Christ crucified and raised from the dead, and spoke of coming personal judgment. But that notion of personally answering to God is soft-pedaled in the official Mars Hill narrative theology.:
We believe the day is coming when Jesus will return to judge the world, bringing an end to injustice and restoring all things to God’s original intent.

That's well and good and true. Jesus will judge the world, but this passage seems to make Jesus chiefly concerned with political or official injustice, and not personal sin, which is not the emphasis of the preaching of the apostles.

Indeed, when Paul confronted the supposedly wisest of the Athenian wise in the Areopagus, he did so addressing the personal sins of that city, chiefly idolatry, and he did so not with clever philosophy or reasoning or political arguments, but with the message of Christ crucified, resurrected, and coming again to judge the living and dead.

That's also how Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, confronted the assembled crowd in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:16-41). And what was the result?:

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
It's this Gospel that has the power to save, and the power to preserve Christians in a life of obedience and worship unto God. It's this Gospel that was, is, and always will be relevant to a sin-enslaved world. May it be preached and proclaimed boldly in every church that calls upon the name of the Lord.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

The Divine Drama of the Cross (Hebrews 1-2)

Over the next few weeks I aim to read through the book of Hebrews. Today I read chapters 1 and 2, and I've a few thoughts I thought I'd flesh out, starting with the exhortation in chapter 2, verses 1-4, emphasis mine:

Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
True enough as it is, it's important to remember this in context. The previous chapter laid out the nature of "such a great salvation," bringing the reader in a few short paragraphs from eternity past to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and His present reign at the right hand of the Father.

Christ's divine, eternal nature and his earthly sojourn are briefly laid out, but the chapter closes with a reference to angels as the hinge between Christ's redemptive work and the command to pay heed to our salvation (1:14):
Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?
Why close the first chapter that focuses on Christ's divinity and redemptive mission with a reference to angels? For one thing, angels were integral to the unveiling of the old covenant under which man was held to "just retribution" for "every transgression or disobedience" (2:2) but for another and perhaps greater reason, this work of salvation in the new covenant in Christ's blood is a divine drama played out before the angels and indeed the whole of creation(see Eph. 3:1-10, esp. vv. 9-10) to display the wisdom of God.

These angels are witnessing the glorious plan of redemption from a far different perspective than we are. It's really mind-blowing to grasp at, but the author gives us a good picture and when you look closely enough at it, it really inspires awe.

For Christ, co-eternal with the Father and divine in nature became "for a little while lower than the angels" (Heb. 2:7), so that he "might taste death for everyone" and so doing bring "many sons to glory" having lived a life of perfect obedience unto God capped by the suffering of the cross (Heb. 2:9-10). Christ perfectly obeyed the statutes and precepts ordained by God and delivered via angels. As such the sacrifice of His life on the cross was pure and wholly acceptable to God, and so (1:3-4):
After making purification for sins, he [Christ] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Moreover Christ did this all for thoroughly undeserving sinful people, whom He not only saved from the penalty of sin, but brought into the family of God (2:14-18). Not only that, we learn in chapters to come in Hebrews that Jesus even now intercedes for His church. You'd think it'd be enough that Jesus died for us, but then he adopted us as His brothers (2:10-12) and continues to intercede on our behalf with the Father (Heb. 7:25).

The bottom line, what has happened, the author is saying, is nothing more than a divine redemptive drama of mind-blowing implications (on that note see also Isaiah 64:4, I Cor. 2:9).

In short God is taking what, we could imagine, looks to the angels like an irredeemable train wreck of sinful humanity, and is saving from among it His people.

This is a drama we mustn't just idly accept and say, "eh, that's nice," and then in our futile thinking "move on" from. No, we must continue to go back to the divine drama of the cross, "lest we drift away" from the joy of our salvation.

Lord, help me and all who are reading this who trust in you to return again and again to meditate on the glorious salvation we have in Jesus. May we realize more deeply day by day that we are caught up in a glorious divine drama that is to display your infinite wisdom throughout this age and the age to come, not just to humanity but to the angels. Thank you for the treasure of your Gospel, for it is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16). Help us to grow in our love for your Word. In Jesus' name, Amen.

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Sermon Notes | God's Wisdom: Cross-Centered, Spirit-Revealed (I Cor. 2:6-16)

Yesterday at my church -- Solid Rock Church of Riverdale, Md. -- we were honored to have C.J. Mahaney of Sovereign Grace Ministries as our guest. Mahaney's sermon was the first in a four-part series on applying the truth of the Gospel to the life of the church, both corporately and individually, and he shared from I Corinthians 2:6-16, a passage on how the wisdom of God's plan of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is unimaginable to the unbeliever but divinely revealed by the Holy Spirit to the hearts of those God is calling unto salvation.

It was an awesome sermon, but is not available online, otherwise I'd direct you to it. I will, however, share some of the sermon notes. I can't make any guarantee that I will do this without fail, but I hope to make the posting of sermon notes a Monday morning staple. By the grace of God I will endeavor to do so. That said, here are the key points from my notes. I pray the Lord blesses you through the reading of them and more importantly, the Scripture referred to in them.

1.) The epistle of I Corinthians is a "divinely inspired warning for a foolish church." Paul's epistle addressed many shortcomings and pitfalls of the church at Corinth, among them [and perhaps informing all of them] is the habit the church had of striving to win the approval of the philosophers of the wisdom of this world. [My thought: This is a classic problem in churches throughout history, including the church in America today. Mahaney at one point quipped that if the Corinthian church could be so foolish under the Apostle Paul's watch, his Spirit-inspired corrective advice to the church is certainly worth heeding today.]

2.) Mahaney notes that I Cor. 2:6-16 illustrates that God's wisdom is such that is "defined by the cross and must be revealed by the Spirit." [My thought: Essentially, Paul says that human wisdom was not how the Corinthian church received Christ. They believed at the preaching of Christ crucified, and Paul turns back to the cross as central not only to our salvation from God's wrath, but for Gospel-living itself. It's central to reforming our thinking from the folly of the world.]

3.) There are three major points to grasp about the nature of divine wisdom from the passage

a.) Divine wisdom is of divine origin (vv. 6-9). Corollary point: Human wisdom is hostile to the Gospel (I Cor. 1:17).

b.) Divine wisdom is revealed through the Holy Spirit and not arrived at by human reasoning (I Cor. 2:10-13)

c.) Divine wisdom imparts a divine perspective (vv.14-16)

4.) What's the application of this passage to our engagement with the culture and with those inside the church? Three points (n.b. that the portions following the dash are a mish-mash of Mahaney's explanation and my thoughts/meditations on the matter.

a.) Discernment -- applying this divine wisdom to all facets of our life

b.) Humility -- our salvation and our understanding of the Gospel is because God initiated our salvation, not because we're smarter or better people than those who don't trust in Christ

c.) Gratefulness to God -- God saved us not because we deserved it but because he chose to extend mercy to us. We should never get past that fact and so never lose our gratitude for
Christ's finished atoning work.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

God, Our Daily Savior (Psalm 68:19-20)

Blessed be the Lord,
who daily bears us up;
God is our salvation. Selah
Our God is a God of salvation,
and to God, the Lord, belong deliverances from death.
(Psalm 68:19-20)

One sure-fire way to lose the joy of your salvation is to fail to understand how, day by day, God is our salvation.

We tend to often think of salvation in past and future, but not present terms. We're think of our justification before God when we first believed and repented. We think of our eternal home with the Lord in the new heavens and new earth in a resurrection body that will not perish or fail in any way.

But yet we fail to think about how, day by day, God is saving us, how God is bearing us up, and that daily walk in Christ is part and parcel of our salvation. It is the sanctification experience of our salvation.

The Apostle Paul wrote on that in Philippians where he links our ongoing sanctification with the ultimate fulfillment of our salvation: the redemption and glorification of our bodies at the return of Christ (1:6-11). Portions in bold are my emphasis:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, [4] both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Paul first assures the church at Philippi that God is faithful to complete the good work of salvation He began. God never aborts his mission of salvation upon those whom He has called. Paul does note the responsibility of the Christian to grow in grace, and he prays for the same, but Paul is most highly confident that God will accomplish the sanctification of His church to His glory.

God's interested in saving us day by day by sanctifying us for loving service to Him, by training us in all knowledge and discernment in the counsel of His Word, by purifying us from lusting after and trusting in the deceitful cares of this world and our sin-inclined flesh, and by growing in us "the fruit of righteousness" that flows from, and only from, our union with Christ (John 15:5).

This passage reminds me of Christ talking of Himself as the Vine and His disciples as the branches of that vine (John 15:1-17). Apart from connection to the life-giving, nourishing vine, the branches are no good. They are destined for the fire as they bear no fruit. The branches cannot of their own nature produce the supply of nourishment to yield useful fruit, they are useless without union to the vine.

So it is with us and Christ.

We can and will grow in godly character day by day as we abide in Christ and are united to the Vine. Day by day we are being saved by life-giving union with Christ, who ensures we will bear fruit, and by the discipline of the Father, who prunes the branches which bear fruit (John 15:2) so that we may grow in a healthy and more fruitful manner.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

On Faith, Works and the Salvation of a Jerichoan Whore

An oft-confusing passage for many Christians is James 2, which at first blush seems to contradict the salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone theme that Paul often uses in his epistles But rather than contradicting each other, James is quite indeed in accord with Paul on the matter of faith and its relationship to good works.

Simply put, the good works we do that God finds acceptable are those that flow from believing the promise of our salvation, and are empowered by the active, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Rather than faith and works being two distinct complementary intangible virtues that are up to the work and will of the individual Christian, our faith is alive, informed by, and animated by the work of Christ in our lives through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our hearts (Phil. 2:12-13).

Let's take a look at the text (James 2:14-26):

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good [2] is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

James clearly is talking about works that complete our faith. Our faith is not a mere pronouncement of belief or mental assent to a factual thing, it is an active lifestyle. Indeed, if you asked your run-of-the-mill demon, James insists, he'd say he believes in the risen Christ, and shudders in terror at Christ's sovereign and unconquerable reign.

But yet while clearly our works flesh out and complete our faith, our faith itself, James insists, is animated by works. In a sense our faith fleshes out and completes our work, because our work is done in obedience to Christ in light of the promise of salvation and with an aim to please Him.

Let's look again closely at the analogy:
For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
"Faith" is the body. "Works" is the spirit. Without the works animating the faith, the faith is dead and inoperative. But what works and whose working? Are not these works the result of the sanctifying and empowering grace of God in our lives, poured out by Christ through the Holy Spirit? (I Cor. 15:10)

Indeed, as Paul wrote in Philippians immediately after urging us to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" that we do so not of our own willpower but "it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (2:12-13)

These works are works of obedience that complete and live out our faith. They are things done by us not cooperating unto salvation but cooperating with God's to live out our salvation, that is, it's part of God's sanctifying work in our lives.

To see that more clearly, let's look at the example James gives of Rahab (see Joshua chapter 2).

Rahab was already saved by the promise of pardon from the Israelite scouts, who pledged they'd spare her life when Jericho was sacked. In faith she trusted their word was good and acted in a manner so as to save their lives and ensure their return to camp. She acted in faith that her promised temporal salvation at the hands of an erstwhile enemy would be honored at the time of judgment, that is when the scouts returned with a vast and mighty Israelite army to conquer Jericho.

Think about that: Rahab, a natural enemy of the Israelites, and a whore besides, trusted in the word of two Israelite soldiers, staking her life in double jeopardy. She trusted that the Israelite army would not kill her, and she trusted that her treason against Jericho was worth dying for at the hands of Jerichoan authorities should the Israelite siege fail and she be implicated in a pursuant investigation.

Rahab further acted out in faith by not reneging on her promise. She didn't change her mind and sell out the scouts by reporting them to the authorities when they had left the city.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Rahab agreed to and obeyed the instructions of the scouts about displaying the scarlet cord which would signify her apartment and hence prevent her, her family, and all occupants of her house from being destroyed in the siege (Joshua 2:18-21):

Behold, when we come into the land, you shall tie this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and you shall gather into your house your father and mother, your brothers, and all your father's household. 19 Then if anyone goes out of the doors of your house into the street, his blood shall be on his own head, and we shall be guiltless. But if a hand is laid on anyone who is with you in the house, his blood shall be on our head. 20 But if you tell this business of ours, then we shall be guiltless with respect to your oath that you have made us swear.” 21 And she said, “According to your words, so be it.” Then she sent them away, and they departed. And she tied the scarlet cord in the window.
Rahab's temporal salvation from destruction along with the rest of Jericho is but just a part and parcel of a greater salvation, her deliverance from sin and death. She is counted among the great "cloud of witnesses," the Old Testament heroes of faith listed in Hebrews chapter 11, after all. [Not to mention her place in Christ's lineage, see Matt 1:5]

No wonder James cited Rahab, as did the author of Hebrews, for hers is indeed a beautiful picture of our salvation.

Just as Rahab did not deserve salvation, neither do we. Just as Rahab lived among a culture hostile to God and His people, so do we. Just as Rahab went on to convert and marry into Israel, so are we who trust in Christ ingrafted into the true spiritual Israel. Just as Rahab's faith was completed by works of obedience, so is ours. And just as with Rahab, these works of obedience are lived out with trust in a promise that is clung to preciously, faithfully, and sometimes at risk of life and limb itself: the Gospel promise of our salvation.

It's a salvation that is true now in our justification before God, true now in our continuing sanctification and growth in Christ, and true in the future and final consummation of our salvation with the redemption of our bodies from death and corruption in the Resurrection. (Rom. 8:23)

Praise be to God, who saves us by His grace alone, through faith alone that He gives us to live out unto works of righteousness in emulation of His Son Jesus, to the glory of God alone.

Soli Deo gloria!

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Monday, January 7, 2008

Colossians 1:15-20

Every now and then I'm gonna just post Scripture without much comment. And I'll try not to beat myself up over it, because, it is, after all, God's Word, and it is powerful, active, alive, sharper than a double-edged sword. My words are rubbish by comparison, although I pray that my thoughts and prayerful meditations on Scripture also bless you and glorify my Lord and Savior.

I may come back to this passage a bit later with some commentary, but suffice it to say, Colossians is one of my favorite Pauline epistles and hence a real treasure to read and share with you. I particularly love passages such as this one about Christ's absolute and undisputable Lordship over all things (1:15-20; emphasis is obviously mine). I pray it blesses you as you meditate upon its truth and soak in the poetic beauty of this portion of God's Word:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by [6] him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

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2007: A Grace Odyssey

N.B.: The following was a Facebook note -- with minor edits -- I sent some friends of mine a few days before the new year, and hence before I began this blog. I'm placing it below in the hopes of blessing you, my readers, with it.

I usually don't do these sort of end-of-year retrospectives, but I just wanted to take this time at this amazingly blessed year to reflect on the grace of God in my life in 2007 and share it with you, my friends, colleagues, fellow bloggers and Facebook addicts.

In 2007 the Lord brought to me a renewed joy in my salvation, a new church home, an awesome new job, and a sweet, godly, beautiful girlfriend who is an encouragement to my faith and a delight to my heart. She's also not on Facebook but no one's perfect. ;)

[That's all on top of the blessings of time with coworkers (how many people can honestly say that like I can?), family, and friends, including the September road trip Bristol, Tenn., for a weekend of amazing bluegrass music, and of course the legendary epic goodness that was the Georgia-Auburn game in November.]

God is faithful even when I've been faithless, and I'm finding more and more that His grace truly is sufficient for me. I rejoice in how the Lord is working in me greater patience and kindness towards others.

I've still a long way to grow in godliness, but I thank God that "He who began a good work" of salvation in me "will be faithful to complete it." More and more I've learned and am learning the sweetness of the blessed assurance that Jesus is mine and that nothing can separate me from His love.

Another thing the Lord worked out in my life in the past year, and a large part of the renewal of joy in my salvation, is renewing my mind, particularly on the biblical Doctrines of Grace.

Truly understanding God's sovereign choice in choosing, saving, sanctifying, and ultimately glorifying His church has helped me to more fully appreciate my inherent sinful weakness, Christ's all-sufficiency, and God's complete and immutable control over the whole of time, space, and eternity. I rejoice in God's grace, knowing that left to my own devices and my own sin-warped mind, I'd never have chosen Him. It's this knowledge that has and continues to take me down a few pegs whenever I get tempted to glory in anything but the cross of Christ.

With this knowledge that God is ever sovereign and working out all things to His glory, I can face the uncertainties and vexations of temporal politics, particularly in this maddening 2008 presidential season, with joy in Christ and His finished work, and with a genuine longing for His glory and His eternal and peaceful reign over a renewed universe.

So giving all glory to God and thanking Him for His mercies being new every morning, much less every new year, I wish all of you a very Happy New Year.

I'll see you all around online, and those of you that I'm privileged to work with on January 2.

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Compost Thou Art, and to Compost Thou Shalt Return?

I don't expect them to know any better of course, but this statement profoundly saddens me:

PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) -- Cynthia Beal wants to be an Oregon cherry tree after she dies. She has everything to make it happen -- a body, a burial site and a biodegradable coffin.

"It is composting at its best," said Beal, owner of The Natural Burial Company, which will sell a variety of eco-friendly burial products when it opens in January, including the Ecopod, a kayak-shaped coffin made out of recycled newspapers.

The human body as nothing but organic matter, part of a never-ending natural cycle? We're nothing more than walking sacks of fertilizer? Far be it for us to so profane the wonder of God's creation, to so crassly misunderstand the clear teaching of His Word. For we are dust and to it we shall return. But for the one who trusts in Christ, his ultimate destiny is far from dust, it is glory.

The Bible does use stark language to refer to the earthly end of man. Indeed, when God pronounces judgment for Adam and Eve's sin, He proclaims to the former, "you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Gen. 3:19)

Yet of course that's not the whole story. Man's body is dust, it is corrupted by the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden as a result of original sin. But that's only the half of it. Genesis records that God Himself " formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." (Gen. 2:7)

We learn previously in Genesis that God has created all other living creatures but Scripture does not record God breathing into them "the breath of life" in the same manner as he did with Adam. Indeed, the breath of life may be seen as being necessary to imbue unto man (and of course woman) the characteristic of being made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-29).

What do we have then? The curse of returning as dust unto dust is pronounced after sin entered the world, but man retains his soul, which was created in the image of God but has been marred horrendously by the guilt and corresponding penalties of sin. Sure, man pays a dear price for his sin, but he retains his soul, he retains his moral responsibility before God, he is far from a walking sack of compost, but he is, physically, dust. He is bound to the base and elemental lusts of his flesh and will end a life of toil and trouble to return to the dust.

That is utterly wretched and sad, but it's only the half of the story.

Scripture tells us that the blessed hope of the Christian is, to borrow from R.C. Sproul, to go from dust to glory.

The Apostle Paul writes of this at length in his first letter to the church at Corinth (15:44b-49):

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; [5] the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall [6] also bear the image of the man of heaven.

That is the hope of him who puts his trust in Christ. Death, the final enemy, is vanquished in Christ, both for the believer, and for the entirety of the universe, which will be renewed at the close of the age when Christ returns (Romans 8:19-24a),

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved.
Christians don't merely hope for eternity in Heaven, we long for a new heaven and new earth, a universe renewed and resurrected by the power of our victorious Savior, Christ Jesus. We groan inwardly knowing we are dust and to dust we return, but we long to be "further clothed" with God's glory, with our a supernatural resurrection body that will never perish nor corrupt, that will never physically fail us.

For now "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" but one day we shall be free in body and spirit from all encumbrances to giving God the glory due Him, for we shall be clothed over with glory, as Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians (5:1-5):

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on [1] we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
Hallelujah. God is preparing His people for a new heaven and a new earth and has given us His Holy Spirit as the guarantee thereof.

So what's the bottom line? If you're a Christian and you want to have minimal impact on the environment when you go on to be with the Lord, great, do so, and do so to the glory of God! But, please, with all that is within you, do take the opportunity to remind people that you don't think of your body as mere compost, as mere tree food.

You act of burial is akin to planting a seed, a seed that God will bring to full and glorious flower in the Resurrection.

That's the hope that you've been called to. Don't let your desire to be environmentally friendly squelch out THAT witness.

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