August 25, 2007

Ethiopian Pastor's Training (Re-post)

Just wanted to bump this back to the top of the page...

Hey all. It's time for another friendly reminder that the kingdom of God is spreading in Ethiopia...and you have a chance to participate in the advance! Anthony Mathenia, as some of you know, is heading up Pastor's Training Institute - working with 75 Ethiopian potential pastors whom we hope to, eventually, send two-by-two to unreached provinces and villages to plant Bible-believing, Christ-centered churches! In October, Anthony will begin teaching round 3 of this eight-part, two-year course.

How can you help? Well, it takes $40.00 (US) to transport, feed, and house each one of these precious men for the two weeks of training. Do you have forty (or five, or eighty, or four hundred) bucks you can spare between now and October 1?

Here's what you can do...

If you are a Pleasant Ridgite, just put the money in our Sunday offering, made out to the church, and clearly earmarked PTI ETHIOPIA.

All others can make a check out to Christ Community Church, earmark it for PTI ETHIOPIA, and mail the check to:

Christ Community Church
P. O. Box 795
New Albany, MS 38652

Thank you! And may His kingdom come and His will be done in Ethiopia, as it is in heaven!

August 24, 2007

Cosmic Child Abuse? (Conclusion)

Below are some final thoughts on how to respond to a person who doesn't believe in penal substitution. See part 1, for a synopsis of this view, and parts 2 and 3 for my initial responses to it. 

5. Prove that penal substitution is the only theory of Jesus’ death which makes sense.  There is nothing new under the sun. In 1888, William Blaikie was combating the same problems we face today. Here is what he had to say about the denial of the atonement:
If the death of Jesus Christ on the cross was not demanded as a sacrifice for
sin, it was a crowning instance of the miscarriage of justice. People talk
of the immorality of the atonement; punishment they say is for the guilty, and
rewards only for the righteous: you never can be justified in punishing the
innocent and acquitting the guilty. Yet according to their view, the best
of all the human race suffered a shameful and cruel death, was the victim of the
most miserable injustice; and this fact, instead of horrifying men, is expected
to impress them above everything else with respect for the government of God,—it is to make such an impression on them as will rectify all the disorders of their
moral nature. Would it not have been infinitely better, if the purpose of
Jesus Christ in visiting our world was merely to afford a pattern for
self-sacrifice, that he should have lived through the whole term of human life,
exemplifying at its every stage the spirit of self-denying love, and showing how
even to hoar [gray] hairs life might be made beautiful by a pure devotion to
duty, and diffuse to its very close the fragrance of myrrh and aloes of
cassia? Why cut short a life before it was well begun that might have been
so useful? The truth is, the Cross of Christ is an utter mystery—is more
than a mystery—without the atonement.

To put that into my words…If God sent Jesus to die merely to teach us how to love; to show His triumph over Satan; and to inspire us to follow hard after God—(I say it reverently) that might be considered cruel. Because He could have done all these things without dying in blood and agony! If Jesus died for any lesser purpose than to bridge the gap between a holy God and sinful mankind; to pay the penalty that our sins deserve; to open heaven’s door to the undeserving—(I say it reverently) that might be considered a cosmic injustice!

Yes, Jesus’ death did accomplish a variety things. But the main thing it accomplished was the sacrificial payment of the full debt incurred by our sins. In fact, that accomplishment provides the foundation for all the other achievements of the cross! For the cross teaches us to love sacrificially precisely because it was an act of sacrificial love itself. The cross inspires us to follow Christ because He accomplished something incomparable in His death. And the cross shows forth Christ’s victory over Satan because, at the cross, Satan’s chief accomplishment (bringing sin into the world) is undermined! For all these reasons, the cross simply has to be primarily about penal substitution.

So, thank God that Jesus died in our place! Thank God that He “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” Thank God that “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” That God that Jesus willingly laid down His life for the sheep. For “without the shedding of blood” (Hebrews 9.22), “there is no forgiveness.”

August 23, 2007

Cosmic Child Abuse? (Cont'd again)

This is part 3 of a four part series on how the believer should respond to a person who believes that the theory is false and even brutal that Jesus died under the wrath of God in the place of sinners. See part 1, for a synopsis of this view, and part 2 for my initial responses to it.

So, how do we respond to the denial of penal substitution?

3. Demonstrate that a sin-payment was necessary. If God’s settled purpose is to punish sin (and it is, Romans 1.18, Romans 6.23); and if God settled purpose is also to save sinners (and it is, 1 Timothy 2.4)…then the only way those two purposes can be brought together is if someone, who is not himself guilty, is willing and able to take the sins of others upon himself and pay the penalty. If we take the Bible seriously, then this is the only option with which we are left. God can either punish us for our sins…or He can punish another. And those who would wish to deny the idea of penal substitution must be shown this.

When that happens, we will likely discover that their real problem is not with the atonement itself. Their real problem is a cavalier attitude toward sin. The reason why people are outraged by the idea of atonement is because they don’t really think God should be all that angry! ‘If God is God’, the argument goes, ‘He can just forgive our sins. He doesn’t need all this blood and gore.’ The only reason we could ever think that God can ‘just forgive our sins’, with no justice required, is because we don’t understand how serious sin is! We don’t understand that, in our consistent rebellion, we have put our middle-finger, as it were, in God’s face. And thus, we don’t think that God has a right or reason to be all that upset about it.

Not until we understand the depths of our sin will we understand the need for the atonement.

4. Explain that God’s will is multi-layered
Part of the argument against penal substitution is built on the idea that it is unjust. ‘How can a just God punish the innocent, and let the guilty go free?’ Here is where our debate is most serious. Because our opponents are, at this point, asking a very good question. How can a God of justice seemingly invert justice by punishing sinless Jesus and letting the guilty go free? It seems like a grand miscarriage of justice, doesn’t it? And on a human plane, it would be. But we must remember that the ways and will of God are complex.

God has both a moral will (what ought to be) and a sovereign will (what will be). And sometimes, for good and wise purposes, God allows for—even plans for—His immediate moral will to be transgressed so that His sovereign will may be carried out. For instance, God allowed—even planned for—His moral will to be transgressed by Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 37). But Genesis 50.20 reminds us that God orchestrated this immediate transgression of His moral will for the long-term good of His people (which is why He cannot be called the author of evil)—“God meant it (not turned it…meant it!) for good”!

The same thing happened at the cross. No one will argue the fact that Jesus died undeservingly.  In a very real sense, Jesus’ death in the place of sinners was an inversion of justice. But God’s will is complex. In this case, He planned (Acts 2.23) what was, immediately, against His moral will…in order to accomplish His sovereign will of saving sinners!

So, to say that God was acting unjustly in sending Christ to die in our place is not only ungrateful; it also reveals an inadequate understanding of God. Simply put, God is wiser and more sophisticated than we are. His will and ways are more finely contoured than ours. He can, on the one hand, inflict pain; and, on the other hand, say that He doesn’t like doing so (Lamentations 3.33). And He can, on the one hand, punish the innocent (punish Himself, mind you) and acquit the ungodly; and, on the other hand, be completely just in doing so (Romans 3.25-26). He is God!

Let me summarize, then, what we have seen so far. The denial of penal substitution stems from a low view of the Bible; a low view of the nature of Christ; a low view of the nature of sin; and a low view of the nature of God. Tommorrow, one final piece of advice in discussing this subject with a skeptic…

Cosmic Child Abuse? (Cont'd)

This is part 2 of a four part series on how the believer should respond to a person who believes that the theory is false and even brutal that Jesus died under the wrath of God in the place of sinners. See part 1, for a synopsis of this view.

So, how do we respond to the denial of penal substitution?

1. Show that penal substitution is what the Bible teaches
As unsophisticated as this seems, this is where we must begin and end—by simply showing folks what the Bible says. Let me give you a few examples:
  • Isaiah 53.6 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed.
  • Romans 3.25 Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.
  • 2 Corinthians 5.21 He made Him who knew no sin to become sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
  • 1 Peter 2.24 He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross.

Those who deny penal substitution must be shown that, to do so, they must also throw out their Bibles.

2. Remind them that Christ died willingly
To say that the penal substitution theory makes God appear cruel or abusive simply makes no sense in light of what we know about Jesus. First of all, Jesus was a grown man when He went to the cross—and He went quite willingly (John 10.18). This understanding of the cross isn’t a picture of the Father dragging an unwilling, but helpless, boy up to a hill-top and sacrificing him in cold blood. Rather, it is a picture of a grown Man voluntarily (and lovingly) laying down His life for his bride, the church!

Furthermore, let us not forget that the grown Man who laid down His life for His bride was (and is) none other than the second person of the Trinity! Penal substitution is not a case of an all-powerful God pouring out His wrath toward sinners upon a poor, pitiful (mere) human being. Rather, it is about God becoming a human being so that He could pour out His wrath on Himself!

So, those who criticize the Bible’s teaching on penal substitution must not only be shown that their view of the Bible is faulty…but also that their view of Christ is too low. Calling this theory of the atonement ‘child abuse’ portrays Jesus as nothing more than a weak-minded, pathetic, mere mortal who got caught in a trap. Nothing could further from the truth!

More tommorrow...

Cosmic Child Abuse?

A new catch-phrase has crept into theological lingo: Cosmic Child Abuse.* This is what some ‘evangelicals'  are calling the traditional, evangelical view of the death of our Lord Jesus. Cosmic child abuse! Why? The idea that Jesus died to appease the wrath of an angry God, it is claimed, portrays God as vicious, cruel, bloodthirsty, abusive…and unjust. The line of thinking goes something like this:
‘You want me to believe that God brutally killed His own Son in order to absorb
the penalty of someone else’s sins? Not only is that cruel, it is a
miscarriage of justice! It is not fair to punish anyone for the crime of
another—least of all God’s own Son. If this is what God were like, He
would be guilty of cosmic child abuse.’
Now it is important to note that those who think this way are not denying the reality of the death of Jesus. They are simply misplacing the emphasis—and doing so badly. But they affirm (with evangelicals), for example, that Jesus died as a perfect example of sacrificial love; and that His death demonstrated His triumph over the forces of Satan. They affirm these aspects of the death of Christ, however, without affirming the one accomplishment that the New Testament makes most central—namely that Christ’s died, absorbing the penalty of God’s wrath, as a substitute for sinners. Theologians call that aspect of the atonement penal substitution. And evangelical theologians have always understood penal substitution to be the central accomplishment of the cross.

I believe this misplaced emphasis leads to a final denial of the biblical gospel. And, I believe that it may represent one of the biggest theological challenges of our time. Why? Because it is so subtle. Most teachers who are uncomfortable with penal substitution aren’t brave enough to call it cosmic child abuse. What do they do instead? Simply de-emphasize the atonement. They talk about Jesus the Master; Jesus the Physician; Jesus the Counselor; Jesus the Leader; and Jesus the Friend…but never Jesus the dying Savior. And all of those things sound good (because they are true!). But the untrained ear may hear these several good things without realizing that the main thing—for Paul, the only thing (1 Corinthians 2.2)—is completely missing! It sounds good when someone portrays the Christian life as a great mountain expedition…with Jesus as the expert guide. But if that is all Jesus is, we are in deep trouble. Because the guide can only show the way. He cannot, however, carry us up the mountain. And that is what we weak, miserable sinners so desperately need—a Savior who can do for us what we could never do! And that is the point of the atonement! In His death, Christ was doing for us what we could never do—bridging the gap between us and God by paying the full price to cover our debt of sin.

Now, having said all that…what shall we do? Well, those of us who are in leadership need to make sure we teach, teach, teach about the cross of Christ and all its implications—especially penal substitution. This is the only message that can save.

But a church member recently asked me what a lay-person can do (and say) when conversing with someone who has bought into the cosmic child abuse theory (or something along the same lines, but maybe less in-your-face). How do we defend, as it were, penal substitution? The next couple or three days (probably over the course of three more posts)...I will try to provide some answers.
Stay tuned.

*The hotbed of the current discussion, and apparent source of the term "cosmic child abuse," is Steve Chalke's book, The Lost Message of Jesus.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.  Full disclosure: I have not read the book, and do not recommend it.  In these articles I am not interacting with Chalke's book, but with the idea that the teaching penal substitution is somehow cruel and unbiblical.

August 21, 2007

Calvin, Hobbes, Bumber Stickers, and Jesus

Among others, Tim Challies linked today to a very thought-provoking essay by Fred Sanders. Sander's initial subject is Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson - and his insistence not to allow his comic strip to be turned into merchandise (boxer shorts, bumper stickers, etc.). Here's why, according to Watterson:
The humor is situational, and often episodic. It relies on conversation, and the development of per­sonalities and relationships. These aren’t concerns you can wrap up neatly in a clever little saying for people to send each other or to hang up on their walls. To explore character, you need lots of time and space. Note pads and coffee mugs just aren’t appropriate vehicles for what I’m trying to do here. I’m not interested in removing all the subtlety from my work to condense it for a product.

Sanders goes on the observe:
If you want to make a statement about people in relationships over time, you had better not try saying it on a t-shirt or bumper sticker. Communicators need to understand their message well enough, organically enough, to pick an appropriate medium for getting it across...[This is] why the Christian message seems so bizarre and irrelevant when it is communicated via slogans, marketing campaigns, fashion, and advertising knick-knacks.

He then works to a conclusion with this rousing quote from the late, great Keith Green:
It pains me to see the beautiful truths of Scripture being plastered about like beer advertisements. Many think it is wise to “get the word out” in this way but, believe that we are really just inoculating the world with bits and pieces of truth - giving them their “gospel shots.” (And we’re making it hard for them to “catch” the real thing!) People become numb to the truth when we splash our gaudy sayings in their eyes at every opportunity. Do you really think this is “opening them up to the Gospel”? Or is it really just another way for us to get smiles, waves, and approval from others in the “born-again club” out in the supermarket parking lot, who blow their horns with glee when they see your “Honk if you love Jesus!” bumper sticker?

The whole essay is worth your time...and thought.

Ethiopian Pastor's Training, Round 3

Hey all. It's time for another friendly reminder that the kingdom of God is spreading in Ethiopia...and you have a chance to participate in the advance! Anthony Mathenia, as some of you know, is heading up Pastor's Training Institute - working with 75 Ethiopian potential pastors whom we hope to, eventually, send two-by-two to unreached provinces and villages to plant Bible-believing, Christ-centered churches! The training consists of eight two-week training modules (the next ones being October of 2007 and January of 2008).

How can you help? Well, it takes $40.00 (US) to transport, feed, and house each one of these precious men for the two weeks of training. Do you have forty (or five, or eighty, or four hundred) bucks you can spare ? Here's what you can do...

If you are a Pleasant Ridgite, just put the money in our Sunday offering, made out to the church, and clearly earmarked PTI ETHIOPIA.

All others can make a check out to Christ Community Church, earmark it for PTI ETHIOPIA, and mail the check to:
Christ Community Church
P. O. Box 795
New Albany, MS 38652

Thank you! And may His kingdom come and His will be done in Ethiopia, as it is in heaven!

August 20, 2007

Stopping for a Rest at the Potter's House

I have come to the rest stop known as Jeremiah in my yearly journey from Genesis to Revelation. And I’m reminded of what I always say to myself when I come to this steep point on the trail: ‘I’m glad I’m not Jeremiah!’ What a difficult task he had – preaching judgment to God’s people, and getting criticized for it. And what a difficult book this is to read! Finding a word of hope is sometimes like looking for a star on a cloudy night! A few stars of encouragement do, indeed, twinkle in Jeremiah’s sky – just not as many, it seems, as at some other clearings in God’s forest. But there is one specific bright spot that I pause to notice, year after year, when I walk with Jeremiah – Chapter 18.1-4:

The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD saying, "Arise and go down to the potter's house, and there I will announce My words to you." Then I went down to the potter's house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make.

Isn’t this a hope-filled scene? Let’s sit down with Jeremiah for a rest at the potter’s house for a few moments. What do you see?

I see the skill of the potter. Of course, the clay was spoiled in his hand. Clay is like that. It develops bubbles. It will sometimes cave in on one side. It gets hard and almost unworkable. But the potter is able to take such a lump – a lump that has already proven its stubbornness – and make something good! And when I see the skill of the potter, over against the stubbornness of the clay, I am amazed at how God has made something useful out of me!

I see, too, the patience of the potter. Do you know what I’d do with that spoiled lump of clay? After a few sidewall collapses, I’d probably be out in the front yard, using it as a shot-put! But this potter is patient – just like our Father in heaven is patient toward His own – not giving up, even on the most hardened lump.

I also see the authority of the potter. What did the potter do with the clay? “He remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make.” That sounds like God, doesn’t it? He does not owe us anything. He can make us into a beautiful vase, or a dogfood bowl—whatever He chooses! He is sovereign. He has not, ultimately, left our usefulness – or even our salvation – in our own hands. He is sovereign, doing in our lives what He pleases. And, thank God He is! Otherwise, nothing good would ever come out of this old lump of clay – for nothing good dwells in my flesh (Romans 7.18)! I am just like that spoiled clay—showing forth no intrinsic beauty, and possessing no power of my own, but rather, needing to be molded by the hand of the potter.

So I say to the potter: You are the potter; I am the clay. Mold me and make me – this is what I pray!

August 13, 2007

Delighting in the Day, Part 9: Remember the Sabbath to Keep it Holy

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall do no work…For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20.8-11

Have you ever bought a used car? If so, one of the first things you inspected was the odometer. It’s not that mileage is the only indicator of the condition of a car…or even the most important indicator…but it is a good indicator isn’t it? The odometer tells more than simple mileage statistics. It also gives a general idea as to how hard the car’s been driven, how much wear and tear might be on the engine, etc. So, use the odometer as a gauge for measuring a car’s overall desirability.

May I suggest that the Lord’s Day functions much the same as an odometer does for a car-buyer? Sunday is a gauge of sorts—measuring the sincerity of our Christian conviction. Consider:

1. God gave us the Lord’s Day for our physical and emotional well-being. But how do we show that we believe that God knows best? And how do we demonstrate thankfulness for God’s goodness to us? Largely by delighting in the day.

2. God gave us the Day as a testimony to a lost and dying world. Sunday is meant to show our friends and neighbors that God is important enough for us to set aside a whole day, holy to Him. And how do we give the testimony? By delighting in the Day.

3. The Lord’s Day comes to us as a command. Christian observance of the Lord’s Day stems from the belief that the 4th commandment (like the other nine) has abiding significance and relevance for New Testament believers. And how can we show our respect for God’s commandment? Delight in the Day!

4. The Lord’s Day is given as a day for worship and learning. Sunday is the main day when we are encouraged, challenged, and called to believe in God’s Son. Without Sunday and its worship, all of us would be far less spiritually mature…and many of us may never have heard the gospel! Shouldn’t we praise God for Sunday, then? Of course. And one way we do so is by continuing to observe and delight in the day!

Make no mistake—The Lord’s Day is not the only indicator of our Christian commitment. It is not even the most important indicator. But it does say a lot about our Christianity. It reveals the depths of our faith, gratefulness, obedience, and delight in God! How is your gauge reading?

Want to hear more? Be at PRBC this Lord's Day...or tune into the mp3 version (in the sidebar) next Monday afternoon!

Delighting in the Day, Part 8: The Sabbath was Made for Man

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Mark 2.27

Some Sundays I have this strange desire to watch football all afternoon—which I don’t do because of the Lord’s Day. But Satan sometimes begins to convince me that this whole Sunday thing was just a burden, weighing me down and keeping me from being happy. I’m sure some of you have felt that same way!

How foolish I was to listen to him! Man’s regulations and the devil’s temptations are what weigh us down…but never the Lord’s commands. The commands are not burdensome! They are the delight and the well-being of those who humbly obey.

That’s why Jesus said “the Sabbath was made for man.” He was explaining that the Lord’s Day, though it does come with certain rules and regulations, is not to be viewed as a burden or a weight…but as a gift from God given for our good. So, let me give you four examples of why God gave us the Lord’s Day:

1. A day for physical rest. Our Creator knows exactly what our bodies need. We cannot keep going and going without rest. The body simply must have a day when strenuous labor is ruled out…when the stresses of our daily routines are left behind…and when we even set aside certain leisure activities so we can rest!

2. A day for meditation. If our lives are often too busy for adequate rest, we probably do not have as much time as we’d like for Bible-study and prayer, either. That’s why we need Sunday! If we take one whole day away from work, play, household chores, etc…we will have one whole day for as much reading, studying, and praying as we like!

3. A testimony to the outside world. Did you know that many lost people expect Christians to observe the Lord’s Day? And that they are confused when we do not? But what a witness it might be if our neighbors knew that God was worthy of a whole day’s worth of joyful attention!

4. A glimpse of heaven. One thing Jesus purchased with His blood was rest. One day, every believer in Jesus will rest forever from his labors…and worship God for eternity in heaven! You see, heaven is just one long Sunday! And if we use Sundays as we should now, we will take our minds off temporary things and whet our appetites for eternity!

So, you see, the Sabbath really was made for man. I encourage you now to test it out and experience the benefits yourself!

Delighting in the Day, Part 7: Be reconciled to Your Brother

If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Matthew 5.23-24

Sunday is a day (I would say the main day) for Christian worship. What a privilege that God has given us one whole day to think about, learn from, and honor Him. But as we do that, let’s remember that worship, Sunday’s chief activity, is done with the heart! So, if we are going to observe the Lord’s Day as God wants us to, we cannot boil obedience down to going to church and not going to work. We must be engaged in worshiping God with our hearts—not simply by following a few rules and regulations.

Rules and regulations were what the Pharisees were so good at. They were so bound up by their own rules about the Sabbath that they wee content to let sick people suffer and hungry people remain hungry…so that they might be sure not to work (see Luke 6)! And they completely missed the point! They were more worried about how their worship looked on the outside than what was in their hearts.

How sad that their sin is so often repeated in our own day! How easy it is for us to attend church, yet still have grudge matches with our brothers and sisters. How easy it might be to spend a whole day in rest…and never lift a finger to make things right with a brother or sister. How easy, with the same tongue, to sing God’s praises and curse God’s people.

Brothers and sisters, if your heart is not right with your fellow Christians, then your prayers, praises, and songs will bounce off the ceiling…and serve as a witness against you—that your Sunday worship, though done well on the outside, was not from a pure heart.

That’s why Jesus says, ‘Before you go to church…before you sing…before you pray…before you teach or preach…before you give—“first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.”’

Let’s not make the mistake of the Pharisees. Let’s not observe the Lord’s Day perfectly on the outside, then stain it with quarrels that rage on the inside. If we love one another, the Lord will be glorified in our midst, and Sunday will indeed be special!

Delighting in the Day, Part 6: The Discipline and Instruction of the Lord

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6.4

When I was a boy, my parents expected me to attend church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday, too. This practice continued into my teenage years, too—sometimes in spite of my protest! I can remember dreading Sunday evening church because it meant I would miss the 4th quarter of the NFL football games. Somehow, the meaning of the Lord’s Day had passed me by…making life difficult for my parents, I’m sure.

Some of you can relate to this routine. Many a Sunday is less than it should be because of the protesting, poor attitudes, or general disinterest of our kids. Some of us argue with our kids. Others force church upon them with an iron will. Others have simply given up altogether. But none of these are the biblical picture. The idea is to “bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord”—without making them angry. And part of that means cultivating a delight for the Lord’s Day in our children. If we succeed, our children will be eager to come to make Sunday special—and will keep us on track, too!

The question is, ‘How do we accomplish this?’ I’m not sure I have all (or any) of the answers. But I have a few suggestions:

1. Make Sunday Special Yourself. We all know children learn most everything by imitation. So logic says that children whose parents observe the Lord’s Day will be much more likely to love Sundays themselves. Your consistent attendance at church, your commitment to be prepared and on time, your hearty participation in singing and prayer, your eager attention to the preached word, and your proper use of the remainder of the day will go a long way toward making Sunday special for your kids.

2. Make family worship a daily routine. One reason why Sunday worship is boring for so many kids is that it’s so different from what they are used to the other 163 hours of the week. And if we parents are not leading our families in daily Scripture reading, thoughtful prayer, and singing praises, we can expect our kids to think Sundays are weird. But if we have ‘little churches’ in our homes, our kids will look forward to learning and worshiping with mom, dad, and friends on Sundays, too.

3. Don’t give up. If observing the Lord’s Day rightly is new to you, it certainly will be to your kids. They may gag at first. But do not let their protests keep you from being the parent they need! Help them keep the Sabbath holy. They’ll thank you later!

Delighting in the Day, Part 5: Let Your Words be Few

Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few. Ecclesiastes 5.2

I learned recently (from Alistair Begg) that the great Civil War legend, Stonewall Jackson was a great lover of the Lord’s Day. Due to his high office, he was one of the busiest men in the world. Yet he always prevented himself from doing any of his secular work on Sunday. Nor would he allow his mail to travel on a Sunday. He calculated the distance and time of arrival of all his correspondence to avoid making others work on Sunday.

But one thing I found most interesting of all—Jackson refrained, when humanly possible, from even talking about secular matters on the Lord’s Day. If someone in his household brought up a secular topic, such as politics, fashion, or employment, he would smile kindly and say, “We will talk about that tomorrow.” And no one thought him a killjoy or a legalist!

So what was going on? Why did this man refuse to talk about work or play on Sunday? I think he understood the need to focus his mind completely upon the things of God on the Lord’s Day. And I think he also understood Ecclesiastes 5.2. One of the quickest ways to get yourself sidetracked from the things of God is to be constantly talking about this and that. So, when Jackson had a day on which he did not have to talk about his work, or other secular topics, he “let his words be few.” A good practice for every day of the week, but especially the Lord’s Day.

Now, let me say that, if we all practiced this discipline, our worship experiences would be much fuller. What if our sole topic of Sunday conversation was God? Some of us would have a lot less to say, but that would be OK. At least we wouldn’t be distracted by talk about current events, yesterday’s leisure activities, and the general and harmless hob-knobbing that can be done just as happily on any other day. And the fewer the distractions, the better the worship!

This is why I have encouraged silence and contemplation instead of chatter before our worship services. Not because I am a killjoy, but because “when there are many words, transgression is unavoidable” (Proverbs 10.19). But silence lends itself towards self-examination and meditation on God.

So, let’s not be “hasty in word”—especially on Sunday. Instead, let’s delight in the Day of the Lord by “letting our words be few.”

Delighting in the Day, Part 4: Guard Your Steps

Guard your steps as you go near to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do know they are doing evil. Ecclesiastes 5.1

Do you remember what it was like to study for exams in high school? I remember one of the first exams I ever took—Social Studies with Mrs. Hix. I wanted to do well so badly that, the morning of the exam, my Social Studies notes and I were in a world of our own. Nothing was allowed to enter my mind unless it had to do with this exam—not small talk with my buddies…not music on the radio…not math or science or language arts. No, this was a day set aside for Social Studies! I was “guarding my steps” on the way to my exam—making sure nothing I had learned got pushed out of my brain by some other needless piece of information. Some of you could recount similar stories.

Most of us now realize that those frightening final exams weren’t nearly as important as we once thought. But somehow, most of us are less intense about things that are much more important. And the Lord’s Day is a perfect example.

Has not God told us that, if we would cease from doing our own thing on His holy day, we would ride on the heights of the land (Isaiah 58.13-14)? Clearly He has. But aside from an hour or two in the morning and maybe another in the evening, many of us treat Sunday just like any other day. How many of us are careful to block out everything that would derail our thoughts from the living God on His holy day? How many of us “guard our steps” all day long to ensure that we take advantage of a whole day set apart to think about and worship God? Precious few.

Loved ones, I need to tell you something that will be hard to swallow. Sunday papers, ball games, yard work, house cleaning, shopping, television, and other secular activities might not the best way to prepare for or to digest a Sunday meal of worship and learning. They tend to push God back out of our minds. So why not exclude these and other secular activities from the realm of possibility altogether on Sundays? And why not replace them with Bible-reading, Christian books, fellowship, prayer, and rest? This is the whole point of a day of rest! Finally we have time for focused attention on God!

Six days of our lives are frenzied with activity. God knows this better than we do. So He has set aside one day when this doesn’t have to be so. We don’t have to be distracted on Sunday if we don’t want to. What a gift! I hope you’ll take full advantage and delight in this special day!

Delighting in the Day, Part 3: Guard Your Steps

Guard your steps as you go near to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do know they are doing evil. Ecclesiastes 5.1

How often have you been distracted from worshipping God because you were in a rush to get here…or because there was an argument in the car on the way to church? Some of the biggest hindrances to Sunday worship happen before we ever set foot in the church building! That is why it is so important that we “guard our steps as we go near to the house of God.” I’m convinced that, if we are to delight in the Lord’s Day, we must begin by preparing ourselves ahead of time for the Day.

I feel this reality so deeply that I’m going to take two articles' worth of space to try and help us be better. I want to give you several hints at how you might “guard your steps as you go near to the house of God.” This article I’ll focus on Saturday night hints. Next article, Sunday morning and afternoon hints…

1. Make Family Worship a Saturday evening habit. Family worship is a simple time when all the members of the household gather together to sing a hymn or two, meditate on a portion of Scripture, and spend time together in prayer. We really ought to be doing this every night. But Saturday night is extra-valuable—especially if it is done soon before bed. It can be a wonderful way to whet our spiritual appetites for the feast of worship we’ll experience in the morning!

2. Prepare Sunday’s meals on Saturday evening. What a shame that many women spend much of the Lord’s Day slaving over a stove—leaving little time for rest and spiritual meditation. But if the whole family loaded the crock pot or made the sandwiches on Saturday night, what freedom there would be on Sunday!

3. Make miscellaneous preparations on Saturday night. Find the kinds of things that create a rush on Sunday morning—and do them Saturday night! Take a shower…set the breakfast table…gas up the car…locate your Bibles and SS materials on Saturday. You get the idea. As much as necessary, do Sunday morning’s tasks on Saturday. It will make a big difference!

4. Get to bed at a decent hour. We all know how much sleep we really need. And it is a sin not to give it to ourselves and our children in preparation for the most important day of the week.

Finally, remember that these aren’t hard and fast rules—just hopeful suggestions from someone who wants Sunday to be Special for us all.

Delighting in the Day, Part 2: Let the Word Dwell Richly

Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Colossians 3.16

One of the secrets of Christian happiness is delighting in the Lord’s Day, or making Sunday special. If we would set this one day aside from our own daily grind and leisure activity…and set this one day aside for public worship and private devotion, we would “ride on the heights of the land” (Isaiah 58.13-14). What gladness if we’d give one day in seven wholly to the Lord!

Now, if you intend to have a special day, you don’t begin planning the day when you wake up that morning! No husband who wants a special Valentine’s with his wife waits until 9AM on February 14th to start preparing! No, he prepares for several days so that one day might be special!

The same is true of delighting in the Lord’s Day. If we want Sunday to be special, we will not begin our preparation in the car on the way to church! No, if we truly want the Lord’s Day to be a spiritual delight, we will prepare our hearts for several days in order that this one day might be special!

That’s what Colossians 3.16 is all about. The great thing about Sunday is that we have time to come together for “teaching,” for spiritual “singing,” and for general encouragement. But we can only delight in these central events of the Lord’s Day if we “let the word of Christ richly dwell” in us. But how will the word “richly dwell” in us, and how will we enjoy Sunday worship, if we never crack the Bible until 10 or 11 o’clock Sunday morning?!

Frankly, the reason many people find Sunday School lessons and sermons ‘too much to swallow’ is because they haven’t eaten anything else all week. But those who enjoy the Bible in small portions throughout the week are most able to benefit from a whole day of feasting on Sunday! The concentrated exercises of this one day become a delight when we prepare ourselves for several days beforehand!

So, let me urge you to delight in this day by spending a few minutes delighting in the Word on the other six days. If you do so, the quality of your Lord’s Day worship will increase exponentially. And so will the quality of your life in general. Delight in the Lord’s Day and you will “ride on the heights of the land!”

Delighting in the Day, Part 1: Riding on the Heights of the Land

This Sunday we will come to the fourth commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. Three years ago, I wrote a series of nine practical articles on how we might 'make Sunday special' or, to use a more biblical phrase, how we might "delight in the day." For my congregation's benefit, and inspired partly by Jordan Thomas's recent post on congregational sermon preparation (which wins the Jonathan Edwards prize for longest blog-post title in world history!), I am going to post them here this week - one or two a day. I hope the rest of you enjoy, too! Here is the first one, entitled Riding on the Heights of the Land:

If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure and speaking your own word, then you will take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the land; and I will feed you with the heritage of your father Jacob, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. Isaiah 58.13-14

We all want to be happy. Every person on the face of the earth wants life to be good instead of bad. There is no debating this fact. And you and I are no different than everyone else. We may all have different ideas of what true happiness would look like…but in the heart of every man, woman, and child is the desire to ‘live the good life’—however we may define it. We all want to “ride on the heights of the land.” But if we’re realistic, we must admit that, while we strain after ‘the good life,’ it always seems just a little farther out of reach. There’s always that ‘one more thing’ that might make life just a bit better.

Could it be, though, that the “one more thing” has been right under our noses all along? Scan back to the top and read Isaiah 58.13-14 again. God says we will “ride on the heights of the land” if we “delight” in His “holy day.” There is a world of contentment awaiting us if we will make Sunday special!

Through the ages, men have made the Sabbath principle a burden on one another—filled with ‘don’ts’ and ‘can’ts.’ But that is not what God intended at all! God intended, from the very outset of creation, that we have one day in seven, on which we might seek His face, free from all worldly distractions. And He says in Isaiah that, if we would but take advantage of a day set aside for worship, prayer, and holy contemplation, we would be genuinely happy—finally! But frankly, most of us spend more Sunday time with the Bengals, the yard work, and the newspaper than with Jesus. No wonder we lack contentment! No wonder we don’t “ride on the heights of the land!”

So, Delighting in the Day will be the theme of this blog for the week. In it, I intend to give some practical hints at making Sunday special. They will not, I hope, be a Pharisee’s rules and regulations. Just honest suggestions for those who want to be happy! If you would but heed them, you have the Lord’s guarantee you will be happy—and our worship times together will be exponentially richer and more beneficial to us all!

"The rock from which you were hewn"

Do you ever feel like you’re all alone? Maybe you look around at your workplace and find yourself the only Christian. Perhaps you’re the only believer in your family. Maybe you just look at the world landscape—or even the religious one—and feel like your living on a very small Christian island. I feel like that sometimes. I do. It still dumbfounds me (having moved to Cincinnati from the Deep South) that PRBC is the only gospel community in this neighborhood of nearly ten thousand people! And sometimes it feels impossible that the men and women around us would ever turn to Jesus—and I mean radically, life-changingly, turn and love Christ above all other things. Does it ever feel that way in your office, or factory, or neighborhood, or school building? Then Isaiah 51 has a word of hope for you!

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were hewn and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain; when he was but one I called him, then I blessed him and multiplied him. Isaiah 51.1-2

Isaiah preached for a long time—and, for much of his ministry, it seemed like very few people were listening. There was certainly a form of godliness in his culture. But the people had denied its power. They didn’t love the LORD; and they didn’t love their neighbors, either. So, much of the book of Isaiah consists of scalding hot warnings of judgment against these careless men and women.

But there were a few people in Israel who hadn’t soiled their garments! There were a few folks who still pursued righteousness and sought the LORD. And there are today, too (don’t forget that when you’re discouraged!). Thus, sprinkled in with warnings and judgment are some of the Bible’s most beautiful and encouraging passages!

And here is the encouragement I got from the Lord in Isaiah 51:

‘Remember, Abraham? He was pretty well outnumbered wasn’t he? Only one man? It did not seem like one faithful man could blossom up into a family tree of godliness—but I did it! It didn’t seem like there was enough rock there to make even a few arrowheads—but out of this one man, I built an entire household of faithful believers…and through, them, sent My Son! So do not be discouraged. You may look around and feel like there is not much to work with. But remember, I don’t need much to work with. I can take this little church (or your little life) and make you a blessing to the neighborhood…and the nations! I am the LORD, Almighty!’

So be encouraged, “you who pursue righteousness.” God is bigger than we even realize. He is faithful, and He will do it. Keep witnessing. Keep praying. Keep hoping. And, most of all, continue to “pursue righteousness” and “seek the LORD”!

August 8, 2007

Second Commandment, Reprise

Sometimes, when you are making blueberry muffins, there is just too much batter to fit into twelve little tin cups. That’s always exciting to me…because there is an extra treat for me when I get to lick the bowl clean! Sermons can be like that, too. Sometimes there is just too much good stuff to fit into one 45 minute sermon. Sunday, with the second commandment, that was the case. And this article is my attempt to let you lick the bowl clean.

Last week, we made much of the fact that God does not permit us to represent Him through our own visual creativity—through painting, sculpture, drama, etc. Rather, we are to look for Him in His word; and we are to represent Him, physically, only through the one visible symbol that He (and not we) has created for our use—the Lord’s Supper. I think these are the most important things that I could have said from Exodus 20.4-6.

However, there was still a little batter left in my bowl. And it comes from 1 John 4.12—No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.

John reminds us that “no one has seen God at any time.” Neither the Father nor the Spirit ever walked on the earth in a body. Furthermore, though Jesus did become flesh, none of us know what He looked like. That is why, as we said last week, we are not to try and paint Him to the human eye. Yet we know that God desires that we should, with the eyes of our hearts, see Him and know Him and praise Him. So the casual onlooker might ask, ‘How are we supposed to see and know and praise this God who cannot be seen?’ And again, the main answer would be: ‘Well, we see and know God through His word.’ And a secondary answer is: ‘We see the Lord Jesus portrayed for us visibly in the Lord’s Supper.’ Both of these are correct and important answers.

But there is another important answer to the question, ‘How can we see an invisible God?’ And it’s an answer that we might not have thought as much about. John explains it in verse 12: “No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.” Isn’t that great? If someone were to ask John, ‘How are we supposed to see and know a God who is unseen?’ one of his answers would be: ‘Watch us Christians. See how we love one another. That is God living “in us”!’ You see, you and I are little mirrors that reflect God’s likeness to the world. They cannot see Him straight on. And they must not ‘see’ Him through the creations of human artistry and imagination. But they can see Him as He shines on and through us. And there is perhaps nothing we do that better reflects God’s face than when we love one another.

So the question is, ‘Do we really want the world to see and know our God?’ Do we really want His face to be stamped in the memories of our families, our work-places, our schools, and our city? If we do, then we will not pull out our paintbrushes or our chisels. Rather, we will pull out our towels and begin washing one another’s feet! “No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us”—for all the world to see!

August 6, 2007

Speaking of Books...and the 2nd Commandment

The last two posts have had to do with books and with the second commandment, respectively. How about a post that ties the two together?

William MacKenzie is the founder of Christian Focus Publications, a very helpful company that publishes Christian books out of the north of Scotland. How does he connect with the last two blogposts? First, because he spoke at last year's Bethlehem Conference for Pastors on the topic of Christian literature and its great effect on the human heart and the history of the church. It's this week's featured message in the sidebar. Second, because his company's website is the publisher of a great many books that could have been added to last week's list of impactful books in my life. And third, because Christian Focus has a wonderful children's book division which, out of deference to the second commandment, publishes children's story Bibles (here's the one we use) and books which do not contain pictures of Christ.

Fourth, he's Scottish, which is pretty cool any way you slice it!

August 3, 2007

On the Second Commandment

A few links that will tie in a bit with this weekend's message (on Exodus 20.4-6):

John Murray on Pictures of Christ
Some Quotes from J.I. Packer on the Second Commandment
Thomas Watson on the Second Commandment

Last, and certainly least...

A brief article by Kurt on the Second Commandment