May 31, 2010

It Depends

“So then” Paul wrote, famously, in Romans 9.16, “it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.”

What does not depend on man’s willing or running? Well, exactly the thing Paul has been writing about all along in this book – namely, our salvation from sin; our right standing with God; our forgiveness; our hope of eternal life. None of that, ultimately, depends upon us! O yes, we must repent and believe. Make no mistake about that! But, Paul says here in Romans 9, our repentance and faith is not the crux of the issue. The crux of the issue; the very bottom line reason why we are saved; indeed, the very reason why we are able to repent and believe in the first place … does not depend upon us! Not on our running, or working, or striving to make ourselves right with God. And not even upon our wills! We repent and believe; we are saved from our sin, ultimately, because God wills it; because God reaches down, in His “mercy”, and opens our hearts to believe!

That is the bottom line! And I realize that it is sometimes a controversial bottom line. Our sinful human natures are not very comfortable with the fact that our destinies could be completely out of our hands. We are, by nature, all little Frank Sinatra’s running around (not in voice, of course, but in worldview). We want to be able to say, at the end of the day, that ‘I did it myyyyy way’! And so the idea that our eternal destiny might ultimately rest upon our own decision making capacity appeals to us. We would like Romans 9.16 to read: ‘So then, it depends upon the man who wills. God has done everything that He could do. And now it’s up to you and your decision.’ Indeed, that is how the gospel is often preached in our country. But it’s not exactly biblical is it?

No, the Bible says (in many more places than just Romans 9!) that our salvation does not, ultimately depend upon our wills! Yes, our wills come into play! We do (and we must) repent of our sins and believe! A decision is required! Don’t misunderstand that! But the reason any of our wills ever make the right decision is, ultimately, because God willed to have mercy on us. God willed to open our hearts to believe (see Acts 16.14). God appointed that we would believe and be saved (Acts 13.48).

And why should that idea really be controversial? For, when someone asks us: ‘Why are you so different? How did you change? How can you be so certain that you are going to heaven?’ … surely we don’t respond: ‘Well, you know, it really all boils down to my free will. I just made a really good choice. It was really all up to me.’ Of course that is not what the Christian says! When someone asks what happened to us to make us so different, and so assured of God’s love, our answer is: ‘O, what mercy God has shown me in Jesus! What a blessing that I once was lost, but now I am found. He found me! He saved me! That is why I am different today. It’s God, not me!’

It’s like we know, by a Holy-Spirit-given instinct, that “it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” So let’s not allow the old, sinful man to rob us of what the new, spiritual man knows to be true. If we are different, if we are forgiven, if we are bound for heaven … the reason is all of God and none of us!

May 24, 2010

God's Earnest Payment

I wonder if you have ever made a purchase in which you had to put down earnest money. Maybe a down payment on a house, or a deposit on an apartment. Earnest money is money plunked down to demonstrate that you are serious about completing the deal. So serious that you are willing to advance the cash … and willing to forfeit it if you renege on the deal. Earnest money. In earlier times, it wasn’t always money. Sometimes a person would hand over a prized milk cow, or maybe pledge a year’s wheat crop as earnest that he would fulfill a promise, or pay off a debt.

Now what would it say to you if you were a poor, unemployed worker – desperate and unable to provide for yourself and your family … and what if a wealthy man came up to you in the unemployment line and said, ‘I’d like to draw up a contract in which I will pledge to give you as much food, as many hours, and as many resources as it will take to keep your family afloat from now until the end of time. I am going to promise – and put it in writing – that I will “freely give you all things.”’ That’s a pretty big pledge, is it not? Not even the federal government can do that (although they are getting closer)! It’s an amazing promise! So much so that you would probably laugh the man out of the building! ‘Come on, buddy. Nobody makes promises like that. Get real.’

But then imagine that that man went out to his car and came back inside with his little boy – with his only son. And what if he put him forward and said: ‘You aren’t sure that I am serious? I’ll tell you what I am going to do. To prove how serious I am about giving you everything you need … let me start by handing over my own son. Let me start by giving you my little boy. He is here to help you. He will work alongside you. And more than that, He will be proof that I am serious about this. If I am lying, or if I renege, well then I will have handed over my son to total strangers negligently, and for no good purpose.’

Now you know the man is serious. But of course it would never happen in the human realm, would it? I am not sure that it should happen on that level. But it has happened on the spiritual plane, has it not? “He who did not spare His own Son” (Romans 8.32), “but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?”. Do you hear what God is saying there? ‘You want proof that I will really give you everything you need? If, because I love you, I would hand over My only Son; My most prized loved one – to be beaten, spat upon, mocked, tried, and crucified – don’t you think I am more than willing to give you the money for next month’s rent? Don’t you think I am more than willing to heal you if that would be best? Don’t you think I will help you through your fear of sharing Jesus with that neighbor? Why would I give you My very best – My only Son – and then withhold something so small from you?’

Do you see? Jesus is, in a sense, God’s earnest. We say it reverently. And we realize, of course, that He is much more than that. He is the sacrifice for our sins. He is our high priest. He is our teacher. He is our example. He is our friend. He is our King. But, in addition to all these things, Jesus is also God’s earnest; God’s good-faith deposit; God’s proof that He will fulfill His contract with those who believe. Jesus is the yes to all God’s promises. If God would go so far as to give us His Son, then He would surely give us anything that would be for our good! That’s what Paul is saying. And I hope that is what you believe … for yourself. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give [you] all things?”

May 17, 2010

More on Romans 8.28

I just wrote that we could probably fill a couple of month's worth of weekly blog articles with meditations on Romans 8.28. If that sounded even remotely helpful or enticing, here ya go ...

You can read a lot fuller gathering of thoughts on Romans 8.28 here ... or listen here.

We Know ...

I suppose that Romans 8.28 is one of the more well-known verses in all of the Bible. Perhaps you have it memorized. If you attend Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church, you’d better! I think it probably gets quoted at least twice a month, either in the prayer meeting, the classroom, or the pulpit! So go ahead and say it to yourself, from memory. Come on, I know you can do it. Here’s a hint: “God causes all things to …”

Okay, I’ll finish it for you if you’re struggling to get it just right. “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” See, I told you that you probably had it memorized, at least in a summary way. And it’s a wonderful verse, isn’t it? All things for good? Even the worst things? Yes … if you belong to God. It’s one of the greatest promises in the Bible. And we could spend a couple month’s worth of this article space unpacking the beauty of this verse!

But let me just make one point … namely that, if you’re like me, you probably tend to overlook the first four words of the verse. In fact, you may not have even noticed, above, that I left the first four words out. How does the verse actually read? “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Can you say those first four words with confidence? Whatever it is that you are struggling with, worrying about, fretting over, grieving for right now … can you say: ‘I “know that God” will work this for my good’?

How do “we know” that? Well, for some of us, because we have already lived through enough to have seen, first-hand, that it’s true. We’ve seen God take fears, and use them to draw us to Himself. We’ve seen Him take heartaches, and use them to bring our family closer together around His word. We’ve seen Him use times of difficulty to remind us that this world is not our home. We’ve seen Him use great pain and trial to remind us how special it is to have the church family. We’ve seen Him restore us and even mature us through our greatest stumbles into sin. And the list could go on. When you have walked, as a child of God, through the valley of the shadow of death, you know Romans 8.28 is true.

But what if you are still young? Or what if you are a new Christian and you haven’t yet gone through any very steep valleys? Can you still say: I “know that God causes all things to work together for good”? Yes you can! You don’t have to have deeply experienced it yet in order to know that “all things for good” is true. After all, it’s right here in the pages of Scripture! So, whether we feel like we’ve experienced it or not, we know that Romans 8.28 is true!

Now that is important to remember. Because, when you are in the midst of the valley, you won’t always feel that God is working everything for your good. On the back side of the trials, it may become a great deal more plain. But in the dark valley, it is hard to see. So you have to “know that God causes all things to work together for good” not simply by sight, but by faith. When experience seems to give no evidence, you need to “know that God causes all things to work together for good” simply because He has made you a promise … and because God never breaks His promises!

Finally, how do “we know that God causes all things to work together for good”? Come with me to the cross. Here is the farthest extreme to which the words “all things” can be pushed. For nothing could be more dreadful, more awful than the Son of God being spit upon, beaten with rods, mocked, and lashed with bone-tipped cords until His back looked like ground meat. Nothing pushes the idea of “all things” to its limit like the Son of God being thrown on the ground, tied to a giant stake, and then nailed in place for good measure. But you tell me … does God really work “all things” for the good of His people? Isn’t our whole life bound up in those cords with which He was whipped? Doesn’t our eternal destiny hang on those nails? Doesn’t all that is ultimately good depend upon and flow from this most horrifying of historical events?

Dear Christian, no matter what you experience in this world; no matter how far the words “all things” may someday stretch you … you will never suffer like Jesus suffered. You will never be treated so brutally and unjustly. So if you are ever tempted to doubt whether this event or that really has any good purpose, walk again to the hill called Calvary. Search the wounds. See your life – your forgiveness; your heaven; your relationship with the Father – all flowing to you in the blood of Jesus. And as you look on Jesus, you will be able to say with certainty: “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

May 6, 2010

"Not worthy to be compared"

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us.” So says the apostle Paul in Romans 8.18. That is a tall claim, isn’t it? Especially when so many people suffer so badly. But Paul knew what he was talking about. He had suffered tremendously (see 2 Corinthians 11). But he had also been granted an unspeakable vision of “the glory that will be revealed to us” in heaven (see 2 Corinthians 12). So he knew what he was saying when he wrote Romans 8.18 … even if our sufferings sometimes seem very worthy to be compared to “the glory that will be revealed in us”. No, Paul says. As bad as it sometimes is here and now … we cannot even imagine how good heaven will be! Glory outweighs grief the way the Pacific Ocean outweighs the Mississippi River. Both are enormous, to be sure. But one is far, far more so.

Let me (as one who has thought a good deal about, but experienced comparatively little suffering) make a humble stab at explaining why that is so. Why are “the sufferings of this present time … not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us”? Three reasons. First because glory outlasts grief. Our sufferings only occur in “this present time.” But “the glory that is to be revealed to us” knows not the limits of time. And, from that perspective, our griefs in this life are only “light” and “momentary”, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4.17. They are but a blip on the radar of eternity. And thus, difficult as they are to endure here and now, they pale in comparison to there and then. Glory outlasts grief.

Why are “the sufferings of this present time … not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us”? Secondly, because glory outweighs grief. That is to say, if you had a pair of cosmic scales – and you put all your accumulated sorrows on one side, and all the joys of the new heavens and new earth on the other – your griefs would go up like a withered walnut leaf weighed against a pot of gold. That is what Paul is saying here. In comparison to the pot of spiritual gold that God has prepared for us … our momentary afflictions (2 Corinthians 4.17) are “light”. Do they seem light? Not when weighed by themselves! But remember the pot of gold, as it were. Remember heaven … where glory outweighs grief.

Thirdly, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” because glory is the outcome of grief. That’s what Paul says, again, in 2 Corinthians 4.17: “Momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond comparison.” Grief, he says, is “producing” glory. How so? Well, one way is that suffering can serve us as a momentary preview of hell – a glimpse, in miniature, of the kinds of emotions and hurts that will prevail every moment in hell. And thus, suffering has the capacity to give us a tiny glimpse into the pain, the despair, the hopelessness, the fear, the guilt, and the sense of loss that might be our portion forever if we don’t turn to Jesus. And by giving us just a glimpse of the potential devastation and despair of hell, suffering spurs us heavenward.

Suffering spurs us heavenward, too, in that it reminds us that this world is not our home. We weren’t meant to live like this – frustrated, depressed, lonely, or in pain. That is not God’s plan for us forever. His plan, actually, is to restore the conditions that were present in the Garden of Eden … and even improve upon them! And therefore, when we experience life’s various trials, a door of opportunity opens for us. We are given the chance – in the midst of cancer, or abandonment, or the death of a loved one – to remember that this sin-sick world is not our home; to contemplate our true home; to look forward to all that God intends and has planned for us.

So in causing us grief, “the sufferings of this present time” encourage us to flee hell and to fly heavenward – to reach out and lay hold of “the glory that is to be revealed to us”, by reaching out and laying hold of Jesus. I am sure you have often seen this to be true. It is in the moments of greatest suffering that, very often, people are most open to the good news. And it is in the moments of greatest grief that we who believe are most thankful for and restless to arrive in the place that Jesus is preparing for us. And thus grief, if we respond to it rightly, can be productive of glory!

May God give us all, in the moment of trial, strength to believe it.

May 5, 2010

What if Satan Took Over?

From Michael Horton:

What would things look like if Satan really took control of a city? Over a half century ago, Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse offered his own scenario in his weekly sermon that was also broadcast nationwide on CBS radio. Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia, all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday . . . where Christ is not preached. From Christless Christianity. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), p. 15.

Food for thought.

HT: Justin Taylor

May 3, 2010

No Obligation

She had lived nearly her whole life in the underworld of sex trafficking. A mere slave of the system is all she was – sold nightly to the highest bidder. But one night something strange happened. A man appeared out of the darkness and offered to pay her overlord for the rest of her nights, as long as she lived. He was a kind man; a gentle man. And he took her home and made her, not his concubine, but his beloved wife. He spoke tenderly to her. They had children together. She began to live a normal and happy life. No longer a slave, but a bride. No longer obligated to walk the streets for money, but provided for in every way. No reason to return to her old master and her old ways.

But we learn in Hosea chapter 3 that she did return. She hunted up her old whoring clothes and went back out to the street corners again – this time, not because she had to, but because she wanted to. A free woman living like a slave. A woman loved by her husband, and yet looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places.

This, of course, is the story of Gomer, the wife of the prophet Hosea. But as a type, it is also the story of every believer in Jesus. We were slaves to the flesh; owned by a master called sin. But a tender, gentle Man appeared out of nowhere and bought our freedom. He has made us His bride. He provides for us. We are free and loved. We are no longer obligated to return to the street corners where we have prostituted our lives – to unhealthy relationships, to laziness, to internet pornography, to selfish ambition, to food, to the desire for money and comfort, to a sharp tongue, to bitterness and pride. Think, for a moment, about the particular sin(s) with which you struggle most, and let it (them) be the application point as you read on. What are the barnacles of the old life that seem to cling the tightest to your soul? Whatever they are, says Paul in Romans 8, you do not have to return to your old ways! Why? Because we have been set free (v.2) “in Christ Jesus.” And because we are now indwelt by the Spirit (vv.9-10). And therefore “we are” (v.12) “under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.”

Now Satan may try to deceive us. He may tell us that we’ll never be anything more than his prostitute; that we’ll never be anything more than a slave to this lust or that. But what Paul is reminding us in Romans 8.12 is that we ought not listen to our old master. For Jesus has bought us out of that slavery. We are now His bride. He loves us. He has ransomed us. And we do not have to go back. “We are under obligation, not to the flesh.” The only reason any of us falls into sin now is because we want to. We can go back to sin, but we do not have to go back to sin.

And yet we find, as we read on through the chapters of our lives, that we have often done just that. We have, all too often, retraced our steps and ended up back on the same old streets. But in Romans 8.12, Paul offers us great motivation to stay at home. He reminds us that we have no reason to hunt up the old perfume and lipstick. The motivation? It’s simply this: no obligation. We are no longer sin’s prostitutes. We are no longer beholden to that greatest of all panderers, the devil. We are the well-loved, well-cared-for, bride of Christ. And we have no reason to return to sin. “We are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.” Do you believe that? Then stop listening to the old master … and stay home with and bask in the love of Jesus!