December 28, 2015

Old Habits for a New Year

We, as a culture, are obsessed with the new. And, in some ways, understandably so. Because the last 3-4 generations of Americans have lived through the most rapidly changing technological advances, perhaps since the days of Tubal-cain in Genesis 4:22! My German grandmother used to travel to America, not on a jet, nor even a propeller plane, but on a ship! My father has told me stories, from his boyhood, about buying blocks of ice with which to refrigerate their food. When my mother was growing up in Montana, there were still Native Americans who spent at least part of the year in teepees! And I myself can distinctly remember when our family got its first microwave and VCR (under 25’s may have to ask your parents what a VCR is!).

But here we are today with super-charged computers travelling around with us in our pockets. And just look at the special effects in the movies, say from the first Star Wars flicks until now. This week I sent a Christmas card to China instantaneously. And on and on we could go! And so of course we are a little enamored with that which is latest and greatest. Because we have been the recipient of so many of the benefits of ‘new.’ Today we have an app for just about everything!

But some things never change. Indeed, the most important things never change. And when it comes to the Christian’s walk with the Lord, it is still in “the ancient paths” that we will find “the good way” (Jeremiah 6:16). Our spiritual growth will still be watered from the same basins whose names Sunday School children have been reciting for decades and centuries – Bible reading, prayer, and going to church. Yes, there may be apps to help you do the first two of those things! But the fundamental habits are still the same, are they not?

If you want to grow, you should set your eyes regularly on the word of God. It should be a daily routine to seek the voice of the Lord in His written word. Maybe a chapter a day in 2016. Maybe more. Maybe less. Maybe in a paper Bible. Maybe through an app. But it is still a simple and basic truth that the word of God is “the pure milk” by which we “may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). So drink it in in this coming new year – the same milk that Christians have been drinking for centuries. Keep yourself in (or return to) “the ancient paths.”

And the same can be said of prayer. Every child in Sunday School knows that we ought to do it. But most of us, as adults, struggle to cry to the Lord nearly as often as we should. Maybe it’s all the new inventions that keep us from the old paths of prayer! But it is fundamental to find time to be with God in your closet – confessing your sins, thanking Him Christ, praising His character, presenting your own requests and those of your church family, remembering the missionaries and unreached peoples, petitioning on behalf of the persecuted church, and so on. This is “where the good way is” – the pathway of prayer. “Walk in it” in 2016.

And then there is, perhaps, the most basic fundamental of all … which is simply a commitment to be in church every healthy Sunday, hearing the word of God and fellowshipping with the people of God. Would you commit to that in 2016? Would you “remember the Sabbath” by setting aside any and every other Sunday activity so that you can fix your mind and heart on God each Lord’s Day? Indeed, would you plan even your out-of-town trips so that you need never have a Sunday outside the walls of a church (whether your own, or one you visit when away)? You will not thrive like you ought if you seek to live your Christian life, even partially, on your own. But with God and His people, you will prosper! So commit to the church of Jesus Christ in 2016 … “not forsaking our own assembling together, but encouraging one another.”

Finally, let me encourage you who are heads of households to implement the above disciplines in your family as well! Gather together daily for family worship – for family Bible reading, prayer, and song! And take up what Terry Johnson calls a family pew. In other words, let Sunday church be such an inviolable habit for you, your wife, and your children that it’s almost like you have a reserved seat!

There is nothing new in anything that I am saying, is there? I’ve said these things more than once before. And they have been the staples of Christian growth for two millennia. But this is “where the good way is” – not in the latest innovation, but in “the ancient paths.” Walk in them, more than ever, in 2016!

December 24, 2015

Sea Sickness, Christmas, and the Gospel

Have you ever been sea-sick? I had an up-close-and-personal experience with it last Tuesday. No, alas, we haven’t been up on Lake Erie. But Tobey and I did go and see In the Heart of the Sea at the theatre Tuesday night – the fascinating (and mostly true) story of an 1820’s whaleship, stove and sunk by a giant sperm whale, and what became of the desperate crew. Having enjoyed Moby Dick, and having read briefly of this story which helped inspire Melville’s novel, I was excited to see the film. But, of course, the story takes place mostly at sea. And (rightly so) there is camera work to match – up, down, and around with the crashing of whale and waves. Indeed, in the mind of this amateur, the filming was really quite excellent.

But here’s the deal. Have you seen those home video’s where the dad is filming his kids? And the camera work is a little shaky? And then he whips around the room, following one kid and then another. It literally makes me nauseous – not the doting of the dad (which I get now!), but the here, there, and everywhere of the camera. And such, I suppose, is the nature of the cinematography when making a movie about a whaling vessel bead-butted by an 85 foot long whale! Great work! But not great for the faint of equilibrium! I had to give it up halfway through, and go read the movie’s Wikipedia page out in the hallway!

And what has all this to do with Christmas?

Well, it occurs to me that, on the surface of things, going on a whaling voyage seems quite exciting – romantic even. Leaving my own landlocked world, and venturing out onto the open seas? What an adventure it would be! But, while I’d like to think that my lightheadedness is only related to dizzying camera movements, what if I got out on the wide Pacific and found my head spinning for months on end? It’s not always, in other words, as romantic as it seems to leave one world and enter another – especially when that other world is tumultuous and distressing.

And so it is good to remember that, quaint as Christmas seems to us, entering into this sin-tossed world was not just an adventurous fling for Christ! He knew the troubled waters that lay ahead. He was not a naïve greenhorn, shoving off blithely onto this riotous sea! Indeed, He was full aware of the temptation and hardship He would face (and the blood He would spill) entering into the roiling waters of our planet. And yet He made the voyage just the same. And He withstood the waves, and the difficulty, and the opposition without losing His equilibrium for even a moment. “He was tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin”* and He “endured the cross”* (for our sin) willingly, and without exiting the theatre because He couldn’t handle the drama. He held fast through all the storm, all the sickness, all the blood, and all the sin of this world … for me and my salvation. And for everyone who will call upon His name, each of you friends and family inclusive.

So do enjoy the quaint of Christmas! I certainly will! But remember, too, that, for Jesus, the incarnation was not just a romantic adventure – but a commitment to 33 years on an open and unfriendly sea. And marvel that He came to begin with – and that, unlike yours truly, He stayed on until the end – battered, broken, but unstained … and finally victorious. Marvel. And believe. For “whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”*

And, on behalf of the Cincinnati Strassners … Merry Christmas!

December 23, 2015

Christmas Poem, 2015: A Thousand Thoughts Ran Through Her Mind

I've just completed this year's Christmas poem ... to be read, Lord willing, at tomorrow evening's Christmas Eve gathering at PRBC (6:30pm).  Keep in mind, as always, that these poems have a good deal of reading between the lines in them ... as I try and place myself into the history and wonder about the sorts of things that may have gone through the minds of the various players in the incarnation accounts.  I'm wondering these things aloud, not to try and re-write the story (much less to assert that my imaginings are factual), but simply as a way of getting at the narratives afresh, and trying to draw some lessons from them.

You can listen to the poem here, or read it below the page break.

Christmas Poetry

Most every year at our church's Christmas Eve service, I read a Christmas poem - an imaginative (but biblical) angle on the incarnation ... seen, each succeeding year, from the perspective of a different player in the drama of the incarnation. Here they all are, collected in one place, now with audio files included:

2002 - A Research Day in Nazareth (Mary) - Read - Listen
2003 - There's Always Wheat Among the Tares (Simeon) - Read - Listen
2004 - Let them Say what they will Say (Joseph) - Read - Listen
2005 - The Not-So Wise Man (Magi) - Read - Listen
2006 - Lost Sheep, that's who the Shepherd's for (shepherds) - Read - Listen
2007 - Pregnant Pause (Zachariah) - Read - Listen
2008 - The Day I Leapt for Someone Else (John the Baptist) - Read - Listen
2009 - House of Bread (a shepherd) - Read - Listen
2010 - Just when you Think all Hope is Gone (Anna) - Read - Listen
2012 - The Return of the Magi (Magi) - Read - Listen
2014 - Good News, Great Joy for People All - Read - Listen
2015 - A Thousand Thoughts Ran Through Her Mind (Mary) - Read - Listen

December 18, 2015

Sermons on the Beatitudes

We just finished a series of sermons working our way through each of the eight Beatitudes.  Listen in.

Matthew 5:3 - "Blessed are the poor in spirit" - mp3
Matthew 5:4 - "Blessed are those who mourn" - mp3
Matthew 5:5 - "Blessed are the gentle" - mp3
Matthew 5:6 - "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" - mp3
Matthew 5:7 - "Blessed are the merciful" - mp3
Matthew 5:8 - "Blessed are the pure in heart" - mp3
Matthew 5:9 - "Blessed are the peacemakers" - mp3
Matthew 5:10-12 - "Blessed are those who have been persecuted
                                    for the sake of righteousness" - mp3

December 17, 2015

"The Word became flesh"

It's one of the most beautiful of passages, isn't it?  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ... And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory." (John 1.1, 14).

But why?  Why did God become flesh?  Ten Reasons:

1. So that sinful men might see God. God, majestic on His throne, cannot even be approached by sinful men (much less seen by them), lest they be incinerated by His holiness. But in Bethlehem, Mary, Joseph, and a group of ragamuffin shepherds laid eyes on Him who is very God of very God. And so may we. “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1.18).

2. To testify to the truth. Jesus was born to teach. The crowds were amazed as He spoke for God with authority and understandability. “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18.37).

3. To bring grace and truth together. Truth without grace is hard. And so many legalistic people (Old Testament and New) experience the hardness of the Law without a Savior. But Jesus came, upholding the highest standards of truth … yet lavishing the greatest mercy on people who were unable to live up to them – see John 8. “The law was given through Moses…grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1.17).

4. So He might “save His people from their sins” (Matt 1.21). Sin must be punished. But God has a purpose to set sinners free. So how will He do it? He will lay their sins on another. But who is there who has no sins of his own for which he must pay? There is no one like that … unless God Himself, the only sinless one, becomes a man and dies for sins Himself!

5. To be a “light of Revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2.32). Up until that holy night in Bethlehem, God’s plan of salvation had been at work almost exclusively among the Jews. But the Babe was born to bring salvation to every tongue and tribe – and that means us!

6. So we might be God’s children. Not only does God forgive our sins and treat us as righteous. He also adopts us as His beloved children. That’s why “in the fullness of time God sent forth His Son, born of a woman … so that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4.4).

7. To rule the world. The lowly child in the manger came to take over this planet – and your life. “His kingdom shall have no end” (Luke 1.33).  "He will be great to the ends of the earth" (Micah 5:4).

8. To bring peace for the future. Isaiah prophesied that “every boot of the booted warrior in the battle of tumult, and cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire. For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us…” (Is 9.5-6). That baby of Bethlehem is going to one day bring about an end to all war, famine, pain, revenge, and evil. What a day!

9. To bring peace on earth now. The angels sang “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men with whom He is pleased.” Resting in Jesus, we have peace even now, though the world crumbles around us.

10. To prove that God does the impossible. If God can become man, and come to dwell in a teenager’s womb, surely He can meet you in your “impossible” circumstances as well! For “nothing will be possible with God” (Luke 1.26-38).

Ten reasons the Word became flesh.  Ten reasons to celebrate this Christmas!

_________
Taken from a previous article: Ten Reasons God Became Flesh.  See also the blog category 10 Reasons for other, similar lists.

December 10, 2015

Sermons from the Book of Joshua

We just completed a fairly brief study of the book of Joshua.  Listen in.

Joshua 1 - "Be strong and courageous" - mp3
Joshua 2 - An Unlikely Candidate - mp3
Joshua 3-4 - Crossing the Jordan - mp3
Joshua 5 - Lessons from Gilgal - mp3
Joshua 6 - The Importance of Words - mp3
Joshua 7-8 - Sin in the Camp - mp3
Joshua 9:1-10:15 - Lesson from Gibeon - mp3
Joshua 10:16-12:24 - "He left nothing undone" - mp3
Joshua 13-19 - Every Tribe in Place - mp3
Joshua 20-22 - Special Cities, and a Special Altar - mp3
Joshua 23-24 - "Choose for yourselves today whom you will serve" - mp3

December 8, 2015

Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

These, of course, were the most famous Christmas gifts of all! And they remind us that our tradition of Christmas gift-giving is not totally unfounded. But what will we give to Jesus this Christmas? He was the object of the magi’s affection and openhandedness. Will He be the object of ours? It may seem simplistic, even cliché, to ask it. But I think it’s a legitimate question: What will I give to Jesus this Christmas?

A few suggestions:

Give Him your sins. Doesn’t sound like a very good gift, does it? But that is why Jesus came, is it not? To take our sins upon Himself, and to carry them away from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). And yet, so often, we like to keep them right in our own ZIP+4 don’t we? But isn’t it time we gave them up? And isn’t it time we gave them over to Jesus in repentance? He’ll gladly take them, and receive your repentance as an act of love toward Himself.

Give Him your obedience. Now this is not all that unlike the previous point, is it? To give up your sin is basically one and the same with giving obedience. But there are sins of commission … the kind we must stop. And then there are sins of omission … the kind whose antidote is that we start doing what we have so far neglected. And some of us need, this Christmas season, to give to Jesus a commitment to begin doing that which we have far too long allowed to slide. What is it for you? Something that you know you need to do, but have been dragging your feet about doing? There is no better time than the present to give Jesus your obedience!

Give Him your time. Sometimes our greatest gifts might not be those things we ought to be doing for Jesus, but the time we ought simply to be spending with Jesus. Remember Mary and Martha. What was best, on that day, was not Martha’s bustle, but Mary’s willingness to sit with Jesus and listen. How long since you did that? Not a rushed devotion or a quick prayer … but real time with the Lord, listening carefully and unburdening your soul unguardedly with Jesus your friend. If it’s been far too long, now you know what to give to Jesus this Christmas … and every other time of year, too! He’ll be more than glad to have lunch or coffee with you!

Give Him your spiritual gifts. Now here we talk about gifts given to us by Christ – teaching, giving, admin, hospitality, mercy, and so on. But why has He given them? Not for us to spend on ourselves, or to bury in the ground … but (as with the talents in Jesus’ parable) to invest, as stewards, on the Master’s behalf. So how has the Lord gifted you? And how can you give that gift back to Him, this Christmas, by using it for the good of His kingdom?

Give Him your resources. One of the great blessings that God has given His people in the West is incredible monetary ease. We have enough in this country … and far more than enough! And so we have an obligation, an opportunity, and (yes!) a privilege to translate that financial blessing into kingdom investment. So give Jesus the gift of missionary investment this Christmas. Give to Lottie Moon®, or to HeartCry, or to church planting in new England, or to some other gospel cause you believe in … so that the missionaries will be sent, and the good news will be proclaimed, and the nations will “be glad and sing for joy”, and Christ’s praise will abound to the ends of the earth!

It’s true – Christianity is, at its root, about receiving. In ourselves, we have nothing to offer to God but our sin. And the message of the gospel, therefore, is that God gives to us – new life, and forgiveness, and right standing in His sight, and adoption into His family, and spiritual gifts with which to serve Him, and good laws by which to live, and a heart to keep them, and an eternity in His gracious presence! But we are stewards of these things … not lords. We mustn’t be like those ungrateful children who tear open their gifts without a word of thanks, and then immediately begin shouting ‘MINE’ to anyone who comes within a 24 inch radius. We have been given so much … why? Not so that we might hoard, or spend on ourselves … but so that we might, voluntarily, return the blessings, and the praise, and the gifts, and the good will back to the One who gave them. Let’s do that this December … and the whole year round.

December 1, 2015

Spreading Joy

‘What are the candles for?’ That’s what the Dollar Tree cashier asked me as I laid a handful of taper candles on his conveyor belt this afternoon. I wish I’d been better prepared to answer; to speak of the hope we have in Christ, and how the advent wreath is simply a quaint way of counting down the days and remembering the Babe of Bethlehem, who broke into our world, bringing light to those who walked in darkness. I did get out a few words about counting down, and Jesus’ birth … and I hope the Lord will stir them into a mixture by which that young man will eventually come to know and love the Son of God.

But, reflecting on that little encounter, it occurs to me that ‘tis the season when I will likely have several other unique opportunities for spreading that “good news of great joy” that was announced in Bethlehem, and accomplished in Galilee, Golgotha, and beyond. And it is likely that you will have a unique handful of such opportunities, too. Yes, it’s true that much of the world’s recognition of the virgin, and the manger, and the inn, and the baby is largely just lip service and custom. And there is surely much to lament when people give mere lip service to Christ. And yet the traditions that flourish around us every December do provide us with opportunity to give more than just passing acknowledgement to the events of Bethlehem; to speak more than mere clichés about ‘the reason for the season;’ to actually give meaningful voice to the good news that is in Christ Jesus. Indeed, allow me to mention just a few possibilities you may employ for spreading the “good news of great joy” this Christmas season:

Christmas Letters (or Cards). Many of us feel obliged to send Christmas cards to a whole slew of people each December. Not a bad thing! Well-conceived Christmas letters can be even more of a blessing, because they allow for more considerable outlay of information. And this year, along with the news of your children and vacations, perhaps some strands of the gospel could be woven in as well – some words of gratitude for who Christ is, and what He has done, from the cradle to the cross. Or, if a letter seems daunting, perhaps a few words in season written above your signature inside your Christmas cards. Here is an opportunity for you to write a little gospel tract, and to have it read by a few dozen people!  And what good might God do with it?

Family Worship. The Christmas season finds many of us with added names on our December guest-lists – family, friends, and so on. Why not invite them, before the curtains come down on the evening, to join you for your family devotions? Many of you will be reading passages related to advent, which may capture their attention all the more. But even if you’re reading through Genesis or Romans, family worship can be a marvelous opportunity for your friends and neighbors to see “the hope that is in you.” This principle holds true year-round, but Christmas provides added hosting opportunities for many of us – and Christmas Eve or morning all the more so. On those days, amid all the other festivities, gather your family together to read the nativity accounts. Sing some of the most theologically sound of the carols. Pray thanks to God for sending His Son. And spread the “good news of great joy” right in the middle of your living room!

Christmas Eve Services. This one is simple. Your family knows that you are Christian. So tell them (in the most humble way possible) that you’d really love to attend a Christmas Eve (or morning) service of worship; that you really want to remember and praise Christ on this occasion. That request in itself will be a testimony of what Christ means to you! And all the more so if you can convince some of the family to come along. Our service is at 6:30pm on the 24th. And surely there is a gospel church somewhere near you who will be proclaiming and praising His name on the 24th or 25th. Maybe you can’t get your family to church any other time of year. But this, peradventure, may be the time they will come! And even if they enter the building looking only to add a few coals to the warmth of their holiday traditions, God’s word is “living and active” … and can capture hearts even when they least expect it!

Missions Giving. You and I aren’t the only ones trying to proclaim Christ this December (and January, and February, and so on). All over the world are missionaries working hard to make Christ known where there are no Christmas carols humming through the car radios, and no Christmas Eve services at which to light advent candles. And the people there need the “good news of great joy” just as much as do our own unbelieving neighbors and family. So this Christmas, why not make your top gift-giving priority the cause of world missions? Our church collects a special offering for world missions during the month of December. Perhaps yours does as well. Give to it … generously. Or, if this is not missions month in your congregation, make it so in your family. Give the gift of the gospel to the nations by giving to missions.

And finally, look for those random encounters, like mine at the Dollar Tree – encounters, more correctly, which seem random, but which have been orchestrated by God from eternity past so that some complete stranger might have another little strand of gospel woven into the fabric of his consciousness. “Always [be] ready” says Peter, “to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you.” Let the hope that is in you burst forth this Christmas season! Deck the halls! Buy the candles! Sing the carols! And be readier than I was on a Tuesday afternoon to speak a brief, thoughtful, kind, hopeful, joyful, non-cliché word about Jesus!

November 23, 2015

"Faith comes from hearing" (part 2)

Last week we thought about the irreplaceable value of God’s word in the birth and blossoming of our faith. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). And I said, in that column, that this hearing includes both reading and listening. But then I also said that there is a special place for listening – for hearing the word audibly – whether when it is read aloud, or faithfully preached. Some of my best experiences in the word – and perhaps some of yours as well – have been listening to it proclaimed by a man of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.

And so our first duty; the greatest thing we can do for the spiritual health of ourselves and our families, says Terry Johnson, is to commit to the regular Sunday services of our local church; to be with God’s people, on God’s day, listening to God’s man proclaiming God’s word. That is priority number one in terms of our spiritual growth.

But then it is also a blessing if we find ourselves asking if there is more where that came from; if there are other pulpits (to which we have electronic access) from whom we might receive the bread of life all week long. And I promised, last time, that I’d give a small catalog in this week’s column. So here it is – some faithful men from whom you might learn and grow as you drive to work in the workings, or as you settle into your armchair at night, and in a dozen other places in between.

The Obvious:
Alistair Begg, Greater Cleveland
John Piper, Minneapolis
John MacArthur, Greater Los Angeles

The Men of Old:
James M. Boice, Philadelphia

The Scotsmen:
Sinclair Ferguson, Dundee, formerly of Columbia, SC
Kenneth Stewart, Glasgow

These men are all just men … but godly ones, and faithful expositors of the Bible who will do good to your soul. So listen in, and find your faith blossoming more and more and you take in the word by means of “hearing”!

November 17, 2015

"Faith comes from hearing"

So says the apostle Paul in Romans 10:17. “Faith comes” – not from seeing, as in the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism – but “from hearing, and hearing by the word.”  And so faith is born, and blossoms, by means of God’s word, not the church’s artwork. A good reminder for churches today who are over-reliant upon visual aesthetics, artwork, video, and so on. But also a good reminder to those of us who are died-in-the-wool, Bible-believing Protestants as well – the life of our faith really does flow from God’s words, and from our hearing of them.

And I don’t think it stretches the meaning of the text to say that biblical “hearing” also includes the listening that we do, inside our own heads, when we read the word of God silently ourselves. Reading, in other words, is a kind of hearing, too … because faith is still being placed in the word, not in a series of religious sights and rites.

But I also think that there is something special about the actual, audible listening to the scriptures – whether as they are read, or faithfully preached. Some of my best times in the word seem to come when I hear it faithfully, spiritually, and powerfully proclaimed from a pulpit. And so I do myself a favor when I make use of every opportunity for hearing the word in that way. And so do you!

Now, of course, your first priority must always be a commitment to regularly hearing the word preached in your own congregation, from your own shepherd, in your own local setting. Nothing can replace that! And, of course, it is very much true that, if you’ll only avail yourself of every opportunity of hearing the word from your own local pulpit (and if that pulpit is a faithful one), then you will have enough. And so I cannot stress that strongly enough to you. Terry Johnson, in his book Family Worship, rightly points out that our attendance on the normal Sunday services of our local church is the single most important thing we can do to promote our own and our family's spiritual health. And I echo his thinking as loudly as I can on this point! Do not miss the opportunity to be fed by your own local shepherd(s) at every possible occasion!

But then, even after we have done this most vital thing, some of us (happily!) still long for more! The word on Sundays and mid-week is so good that we want to know where we can find more such preaching, more such exposition of Christ and His word. And (again, happily!) we have access to biblical preaching like no generation has ever had. The internet, smartphones, mp3 players, and podcasts have put the world of preaching (both good and bad) at our fingertips. And I heartily rejoice, as I have occasion to do recently, when someone comes and asks me “where the good way is”; where they may glean among “the finest of the wheat”; where, in short, they may find more of the spiritual food that good preaching provides for us.

And so, next week, I hope to provide a brief catalog of some of the fields in which we may glean the good wheat – a few of the preachers and pulpits which, coming into our hearing, might increase our faith. But for now let me just commend to you the goodness of the word preached by faithful men – whether in the flesh in your own pulpit, or across the airwaves by means of the worldwide web. “Faith comes from hearing.” So make sure that you find your seat in places of good, gospel acoustics.

November 12, 2015

Moses' Disobedience

"Speak to the rock."  That is how God instructed Moses in Numbers chapter 20. The situation was another episode of Israelite grumbling in the wilderness. “There was no water for the congregation, and they assembled themselves” … to beseech the Lord for rainfall? To fast and pray for the Lord’s direction to an oasis? No! “They assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron” (v.2). They assembled themselves to lodge their complaint … as if Moses and Aaron were in charge of the weather or the geographical formations of the Ancient Near East!

And yet God was merciful.

Instead of commanding Moses to speak His judgments against the people, the Lord told him to speak to a nearby rock. And He ensured that, when Moses opened his mouth, the rock would open its mouth, too … and water would gush forth in abundance.

Isn’t God merciful … to the Israelites, as well as to bellyaching Christians today! Among the sins for which Christ shed His precious blood was our murmuring and complaining when things don’t go our way! So that, instead of judgment for our murmuring, God has poured fourth mercy upon us from the rock that is Christ! Let us not receive it unthankfully!

But there is something else to see in Numbers chapter 20. And the editors of the chronological Bible summary, The Story, describe it when they summarize the unfolding of events as follows:

“Moses struck the rock rather than obeying God’s instructions to speak to it” (emphasis added).

And God’s response was to call Moses to account for his unbelief, and failure to honor His God before the people.

Disobedience. That was the fundamental breakdown in Numbers 20. God had said “speak”, and Moses disobeyed. He struck rather than speaking. The Story suggests that Moses did what he did in anger – that he struck the rock “in his rage” over the continued obstinacy of the people. And that is perhaps correct, especially when we read Moses words in v.10 (“Listen now, you rebels”). It’s also possible, I suppose, that Moses struck the rock rather than speaking because that was one way God had worked His wonders in the past. The Nile had turned to blood, and the Egyptian dust to gnats, when Moses struck them with his staff. And so maybe there was something in Moses that had become almost superstitious about that piece of wood in his hand.

But in either case, the fact remains the same. God told Moses to do one thing. But Moses did, patently, something else. And there was discipline for it – not eternal perdition (for Moses' sins were covered by the blood, and he is surely with God today); and not the thwarting of Moses’ ministry, either (for the rock still gave forth water, even though Moses approached it in the wrong way). But, because of His disobedience, Moses did suffer the loss of earthly blessing. He forfeited, that day in Numbers 20, his opportunity to live in the earthly land of promise (see v.12) … and later died, having only seen it from a vista point, and at a distance.

And that should be a warning to us! Just because something we are doing ‘works’ doesn’t mean that we are doing it God’s way. The people still had water even though Moses went about it all wrong. And so ‘success’ is no true sign that we are doing right by God. And very often, by God’s grace, some other form of discipline will remind us that He cared deeply about our obedience.

So listen to God. Do things His way. Familiarize yourself with the teachings of the Bible, and hold to them unswervingly. And don’t think that immediate success means that God necessarily approves of your behavior. His approval is measured by the yardstick of His word, not your success! And you should measure yourself by the biblical yardstick, not because your obedience is what redeems you or purchases your standing before God – that was accomplished by Christ alone! – but because you want to honor the Lord in all the details of your life, and not miss out on earthly promises that could have been yours if you’d only obeyed.

November 6, 2015

The Feasibility of the Resurretion

"Can men make ... [eye]glasses out of ashes ... And cannot the great Creator, who made all things of nothing, raise man's body, after it is reduced into the dust?"

Thomas Boston
Human Nature in Its Fourfold State

October 29, 2015

JC Ryle on Repentance

"One penitent thief was saved in the hour of death, that no man might despair; but only one, that no man might presume.  Let us put off nothing that concerns our souls, and above all ... repentance."

(commenting on Matthew 27:1-10)

October 27, 2015

Judas, Peter, Remorse, and Repentance

This past week, as our adult Sunday School classes studied the person of Judas Iscariot, a common question was raised: Did Judas, at the end, finally repent of his sin? Did he, in spite of all his sins against Jesus, ultimately turn back so as to be finally saved from those sins? That’s an important question, because it gets to the root of a very important gospel issue.

So then … Was Judas saved in the end?

Well, some time ago, my friend Jonathan and I shared in a one-on-one Bible study of Matthew 26-28 (One-2-One: Book 2) by a man called Andrew Cornes. And, when he comes to the portion in Matthew 27, on the sad end of Judas Iscariot, Cornes asks a very perceptive question – one that I am not sure I had ever pondered before:
Peter ‘wept bitterly’ after his betrayal of Jesus (26 v 75); Judas hanged himself after his (27 v 5). Why the difference?
That’s a very good question, isn’t it? Peter “wept bitterly” when he came to his senses in v.75; when he realized what a great sin he’d committed. And rightly so! But Judas responded far more drastically, didn’t he? Far more drastically! And Andrew Cornes urges us to consider: “Why the difference?” Why the two different responses of these two men?

Well, there are a few things at play here – among them the severity of their respective sins and the sovereignty of God. But, when we were studying this passage, using Andrew Cornes’ booklet, Jonathan made an interesting observation which I am going to borrow, and upon which I want to piggy back in the rest of this article. When he was answering, “Why the difference” in the responses of Peter and Judas, Jonathan pointed out that there is a big difference between mere remorse and true repentance!

There is a big difference between mere remorse and true repentance!

"Judas … felt remorse” for what he did!* We are told as much in Matthew 27:3. And the remorse that Judas felt might at first look like repentance! After all, Judas felt bad about what he had done; and he evidently felt bad for the right reason – not because of any disadvantage his sin might bring to him, but because of the ugliness of the sin itself. “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” he said. And he even returned the betrayal price that he’d received, which was at least a small way of trying to right his wrong. And so the way Judas initially responds to his sin may look like repentance. Remorse … for the right reason … and with some effort to make right what he could.

And yet, what happens next seems to demonstrate that his remorse did not lead him to true and ultimate repentance. The fact that Judas hanged himself, in v.5, is evidence, it seems to me, that Judas did not repent.

‘Really?’ you might ask. Because we might almost be tempted to think that suicide, in this case, might have been the ultimate sign of repentance; the ultimate show that Judas was really sorry for what he’d done. And perhaps he was. But true repentance, while it begins with sorrow, does not end there. True repentance always ends up at the feet of Jesus, trusting Him in faith. Repentance and faith! The two are not the same thing, but they always go together in the gospel. And so any supposed claim of faith in the Lord Jesus, if it is not accompanied by repentance, is not genuine faith! And, more to the point of this article, any hopeful signs of repentance (such as those which Judas at first showed), if they are not accompanied by a turning to Christ in faith, are not genuine, biblical repentance!

You can feel remorse without ever turning to Christ in faith, can you not? And Judas is a most obvious case-in-point! But you cannot truly repent without also placing your faith in the Lord Jesus! Repentance is a hatred of, and a turning away from, our sin! But when we truly turn away from our sin, we also assuredly turn to the Lord Jesus who alone can truly deal with it (both in terms of its guilt, and in its ongoing power)! So that the way to tell if someone has truly repented is not only to observe their level of sorrow over, and attempts to turn from, sin … but also to keep your eye fixed upon them, to see if they also turn to Christ who alone can deal with it! And there is no evidence that Judas ever did the latter (either before or after his betrayal). At the end of his life, he sorrowed over sin, to be sure … and rightly so! But his sorrow drove him to suicide, rather than to the Savior. “Judas … felt remorse” (v.4, emphasis added), but he did not possess repentance!

Now, do not misunderstand me as saying that suicide is an unpardonable sin. That is not what I am saying. Nor is it what the Bible teaches, it seems to me. There surely are people who have genuinely believed upon Christ and repented of their sins who, in a moment of terrible weakness, do the unthinkable. And even this is covered by the blood of Jesus. And so my point is not that Judas’s suicide sent him to hell, but simply that it serves as the final evidence, in this particular case, that Judas was not a true believer. Judas’s suicide was not an aberration in the life of a true believer … but the culmination of a life lived without ever truly turning to Christ. Judas’s actions before the betrayal do not evidence any saving faith in his soul (since the disciples let us in on what he was like behind the scenes). And then his actions at the end of his life do not bespeak a last minute conversion to the hope that is in Jesus, but rather a life snuffed out in the despair of un-dealt-with guilt. The suicide, in this particular case, seems to simply be the final piece of evidence that, while Judas was remorseful, he never seems to have come to Christ in real repentance.

It’s actually hard for me say that, because I genuinely feel sorry for Judas … and for people like him. But given all that we know about Judas, it seems to be the right conclusion. This particular suicide was just further sad evidence that Judas could not bring himself to really turn to Christ. He lived according to his own schemes, and he died in the same way – taking the (supposed) remedy for his anguish into his own hands, rather than placing it into those of Christ.

Peter, on the other hand, seems to have possessed more than mere remorse! Peter surely felt remorse. “He went out and wept bitterly” (Matthew 26:75) when he realized what he’d done! But Peter evidently possessed more than just remorse! Because, while it’s going to take a few days to see it, Peter did turn back to Christ! Peter didn’t simply weep for sin. He went back to Jesus! And this is what true repentance looks like – turning from sin to Christ!

And so Jonathan was correct! Why the difference between the responses of Judas and Peter? It is the difference between mere remorse and true repentance. Perhaps his faith in Jesus took a few days to find its feet again, but Peter did eventually see a way back to the Lord! He did eventually believe in the pardoning love of God! But Judas could evidently not believe such a thing.

And the upshot of all of this is that we must not be content with (or think we have truly repented because of) a mere feeling of remorse over our sins. We should feel remorse! But that alone is no true sign of grace or salvation. No! The man whose heart has been truly changed by the Holy Spirit will not only sorrow for sin, but do so in such a way that he brings his sin, and his guilt, and his sorrow, and his need for change all to the feet of Jesus. Remorse can lead only to feelings of guilt and despair. But true repentance is always accompanied with faith, and thus with hope, in Christ.



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*Some translations use the word “repented” to refer to Judas’s feelings in Matthew 27:3, but commentator R.T. France points out that the Greek word used in Matthew 27:3 is not the same word that the New Testament normally employs for repentance that leads to salvation, but rather a word that refers to something more akin to regret.

October 19, 2015

Reading the Leaves

Recently our family had occasion for an autumn walk at Amberley Park.. The leaves were just beginning to change, and some to fall, brittle, down upon the earth. And the children had just a delightful time in piling them together, and sprinting like Olympic long jumpers, down an invisible track, and into the pile. Oh, to be a child again! And to be able to enjoy God’s creation, whether in old age or young. That is the primary lesson I want to draw, autumn by autumn, from the changing of the leaves. God is a marvelous Creator; and the changing of the seasons also reminds us of His promise to be a marvelous Preserver, too. “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest … shall not cease" (Genesis 8:22). And the reds and yellows that signify the onset of fall remind us of that every October.

But the leaves have something else to teach us – especially in those days when, after their brilliant chameleon act, they fall to the earth dry, and brown, and dead … crackling under our feet, and soon to be blown away like chaff and forever forgotten. Because here in the deadness of autumn’s leaves is a portrait of lost mankind in his own deathly falling down into the earth. “The wicked” says Psalm 1, “are like chaff which the wind drives away.” Or, if you read the famous poet George Gordon (Lord Byron), the wicked are like the autumn leaves, fallen from the trees and never to return to their heights again.

That’s what Lord Byron wrote in his famous poem, “The Destruction of Sennacherib”, which is based on the biblical events described in 2 Kings 18-19. Sennacherib, king of the Assyrians, was threatening to sack Jerusalem and raze it to the ground. And godly King Hezekiah trembled within his palace. And he prayed! And. in the night, the angel of the Lord passed over the Assyrian encampments and slew 185,000 of Sennacherib's men in their sleep. Or, as Lord Byron put it majestically:

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

The whole poem is worth your time, and I’d urge you to read it … both as a sample of excellent writing, and as a testimony to the power and glory of God. But for now I just draw your attention to Byron’s autumn leaf imagery. The wicked “lay withered and strown”, he says, like the leaves of autumn, fallen dead from the trees. And I say to you, so it will be with all the wicked when such a scene as we find in 2 Kings 19 is repeated on a worldwide scale at the coming of Christ. The wicked will crackle under His feet … and in the eternal flames … like fallen leaves at a campground. And perhaps, in addition to beholding the beauty of the fall, we should also think of this when we hear the leaves crumbling beneath our steps in the weeks that are ahead. God forbid that any of us should continue in our sins, and suffer this fate! And God forbid that we should have no concern over those who are hurtling headlong toward this fate with no sense of what their death will really mean, apart from Christ.

This autumn, then, let us read and apply the lessons of the leaves, both as they bask in the afternoon sun; and as they grind, lifeless, beneath our footfalls. And let us turn ourselves, and point others, to Jesus – our Maker and Preserver, and the giver of autumn's beauty; and also the One who, alone, can save us from being gathered like autumn leaves and thrown into the fire.

October 17, 2015

The Memorial Service

We at Pleasant Ridge have had a chance, in recent weeks, to help one of our own finish her course in this world. And on Saturday we had a chance, in the shadow of her death, to gather together and meet with the Lord. I trust that many were encouraged, both by looking backward on the life of a sweet saint, and by looking upward to Christ who is our hope.

And, in the light of those events, it occurs to me that it would be good to put in writing those reasons for gathering that so many of my congregation have heard me mention, time and again, at memorial services and funerals through the years. Why do we gather at such times? Or, more properly, why should we gather? Why is it good to come together in the Lord’s presence in the shadow of death? Four reasons:

First, to thank God for human life. We human beings are fallen, to be sure; desperately broken and in need of a Savior. And yet the image of Himself that God wrote on mankind from the beginning still remains. In distorted fashion, yes. Like looking at a face in a shattered mirror. But still there is much of the image of God – much that made us the crown of His creation – left in mankind. And thus, there are characteristics in every human being that are worth giving God thanks for – and all the more so when that person was among those who are being daily transformed back into the image of Christ. Some of them are spiritual qualities; some natural abilities; some quirky personality traits; some memorable acts of kindness. But there are reasons to be thankful for every human life. And the thanks is not to be generic, as in the nonspecific verbal waltz around the thanksgiving table when we all say what we are thankful for, but never talk about to whom. No, no! Funerals, memorials are times to remember, and even to laugh, and to praise certain virtuous human qualities … and to directly give thanks to God.

But then they are also times to turn to God, not only in thanksgiving, but to seek God’s comfort in the face of death. Humanity was indeed made in God’s image. And we were, therefore, created good. Indeed, had we remained what we were created to be, death would never have entered the equation. But Adam fell. And we fell with him. And now we face this ultimate reality of death because of it. It was not supposed to be. But it patently is. And no matter how long we may prolong it … if we live long enough, we will all stand over a casket eventually. And what then? Where do we turn then? Eventually it will be that the person to whom we wish to turn is the very one over whom we are mourning. And even when we do have human shoulders to cry on, they cannot suck out the poison that has been injected into us by death's sting. Only God in Christ can give us ultimate hope. Only the one who has the power over death (and who, by His resurrection, and has gained the victory over death), can take away the sting. And so, when walking in the valley of the shadow of death, we must seek comfort … and, again, not generically so, but specifically from God in Christ! That’s why we read scripture and sing songs at memorial services, and beside gravesides. Not out of tradition or sentimentality, but because they point us to Him who alone can remove the toxin from the thorn of death. He is our comfort!

But then we gather for a third reason, and that is to think soberly about eternity. Most of us will live long enough to stand over the casket of a loved one. And, unless Jesus returns in our lifetimes, we will all live long enough to be, ourselves, the departed loved one. And so it is good, when someone we love departs this world, to reckon with the reality that we will someday follow them beyond the veil of this life. And in that day we will go, not to oblivion, but to a place – either to heaven, or to hell. We’re not very good, as a culture, at pondering these things. But if we think of our mortality at no other time, the funeral of a loved one ought to bring it to the front burner of our minds … and we ought to consider just where we will spend the eternity that is to begin for us sooner than we’d like to think.

And finally, it is good to think about where we will spend eternity because such thoughts provide a platform for us to reflect on the great salvation provided for us in Christ. We are the crown of God’s creation. And we were created, in the beginning, good. But a brief look in the mirror shows that we are not what we should be anymore – neither as a human race, nor as individuals. “All have sinned” and “the wages of sin is death.” That’s why we find ourselves at funerals – because sin, in general, has brought physical death into the world; and because our own sinful natures and actions demand an eternity of conscious torment thereafter. And if that is the reality, why all the glowing talk about heaven at these services that we attend? No one deserves to go there! 

Well, no one except for Christ, who was born without a sin nature, and who was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” And, because He had no sins of His own for which He must die, this Jesus was able to pay, on the cross, the death penalty for ours … for every person whom God would bring to believe on His name! And so the death curse is reversed! And even Jesus did not remain in the grave! And, if we belong to Him by faith, we will not remain there either. For Christ is coming again, and “the dead in Christ will rise” to “always be with the Lord.” And this is a great comfort when we find ourselves, as we did yesterday, at the memorial of a believer. But these truths about salvation and eternal life in Jesus are also the great offer that needs to be made whenever we gather in the shadow of death. Not everyone who files into the chapel or the church building knows this Christ. But everyone needs to! And what better time to tell them than when the reality of eternity, and the need for eternal comfort, are staring them in the face? Death is not the end! And judgment need not be the destination! For Christ has come to redeem for Himself a people so “that whoever believes in Him shall not” ultimately “perish, but have eternal life.”

October 7, 2015

How Well Do You Know the Trinity?

Tim Challies has put together a helpful and informative little true/false quiz to help you discern how well you understand the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.  And, unlike the golf-tee game at Cracker Barrel, it doesn't simply call you an "ig-no-ra-moose" if you don't get it all correct ... but provides, with each question, some explanation as to why the answer is what it is.

Take the Quiz, and grow in your understanding of Father, Son, and Spirit.

October 5, 2015

The Blessing of Song

I am certainly no expert in music, or in music theory. In fact, I am not even a novice in these things. But I do enjoy music, and I have noticed what an aid to memory music can be. And I was reminded of that lesson again this past Lord’s Day evening. A couple of church members had taught our children a little melodic version of Psalm 139:23-24, and one of those children was singing it over and over (and over again!) such that, without any real effort on my part, I now have the tune and the all-important words imprinted on my memory. And, if we decide to keep singing this little scripture song, those words will probably stay in my heart as long as I live … perhaps even into dementia.

Indeed, on one of my privileged trips to preach in the nursing home, I sat next to a sweet and smiling, but slumped over, old lady whom I had seen many times before. She always smiled, but never spoke that I can recall. And I have my doubts that she gets much of anything at all out of my sermons. Her aging mind seems to be under a perpetual mist. But, as I sat down next to her before the service that day, I dutifully handed her a hymnal, and turned it to the appropriate page with each song. And then something amazing happened. This woman – who often didn’t open her eyes, and whom I don’t think I had ever heard speak – parted her lips and began to sing! And what a lesson that was to the way a tune can help the truth stick with us! It’s not the only reason we sing, of course. But it’s a mighty powerful one!

Everyone who reads these lines, for instance, can recite the alphabet by heart. Because of a tune! And it is also because of a tune that I can pass the test when I quiz our congregation on the order of the Ten Commandments. My growing up children’s choir directors taught them to me with a song! And so, when I heard Sally singing the final two verses of Psalm 139, God gave me another reminder of how useful song can be … especially in memorizing the scriptures (thank you Allison and Michelle!). And this is not just an exercise in teaching the Bible to children, but in learning it for ourselves, too (even if we do so by means of tunes written for children!).

So let me encourage you to get ahold of some Scripture memory CD’s, and to pop them in when you’re driving down the road, or when you’re washing dishes, or when you’re getting the children dressed for the day, and so on (Deuteronomy 6:7). Steve Green’s Hide ‘Em in Your Heart CD’s have been especially helpful to our children. Or, for music that is a little less geared toward small children, try the Seeds Family Worship … or Sovereign Grace’s Hide the Word series. Much of the above can be bought (and previewed) at Amazon. Or write your own tunes. But whatever the case, if you want to hide God’s word away in your heart, music can be one of your greatest allies. And, in this digitally accessible world, now more than ever.

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Update: A friend just pointed me toward another good musical scripture memory resource!  Check out Jim Spencer's stuff here and here!  Any other ideas?  Post them in the comments below.  Thanks!

October 1, 2015

"He who keeps you will not slumber"

So says the psalmist in Psalm 121:3. And then in verse 4: “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” And perhaps there is a sense in which that is obvious. “God is not a man, that He should lie” (Numbers 23:19). Nor is He a man, that He should sleep! But, of course, the psalmist intends something even more personal than that. The idea is that, because God does not sleep, there is never a moment of the day when He is not alert; and therefore there is never a moment of the day when He is not alert to His people’s circumstances, and needs, and well-being! Nothing ever slips by His notice. No memos sit on His desk overnight, awaiting an answer until He arrives in the office the next morning. He does not have an ‘Out of Office Auto-Reply’ feature on His email account. No! There is never any moment of any day when He is not wide awake to every need, prayer request, problem, or issue in your life.

“He who keeps you will not slumber.” Isn’t that good to know? Even when your doctor must get a few hours of shut-eye, God is still alert to what is going on inside your body. Even when your pastor is napping on a Sunday afternoon, and misses your call, God is still available. Even when mommy and daddy are not awake to comfort you after a bad dream, God is awake to your cries.

And perhaps just as importantly, even when you yourself are asleep … God is not! Some of us have a great propensity to try and keep everything under control, to keep tabs on all the potential exigencies in our lives, to always be on top of the game. We’re not, of course! But we like to think that we are! And yet even we have to sleep! And we cannot watch our kids like a hawk, or continually check the security monitor, or prepare for every weather pattern, or monitor our breathing patterns then, can we? But the Lord is watching. “He who keeps you will not slumber.”

And then there are all those occasions when you and I are sleep-walking – when we are just not alert to the temptations, or the dangers, or the opportunities that are hovering all around us. Sometimes we live our spiritual lives like a driver who is texting at 70mph on the freeway – kind of paying attention, but kinda not. And, of course, there can be and often are repercussions when we are spiritually sleep-walking. But even then, if we have been bought for God by the blood of Christ; even when we are walking through this world like a teenager down the sidewalk with her face glued to her phone, and paying scarcely any attention at all to where she is going … even then, God is watching over us for good. He may let us stumble onto the concrete, so to speak, in order to teach us a lesson in alertness. But He will not allow us, spiritually, to walk in front of a truck! He is not sleep-walking! And He never will. “He who keeps you will not slumber.”

September 21, 2015

"Summer is ended"

Here is Jeremiah’s lament over the spiritual lostness, deadness, and fruitlessness of his countrymen. Destruction is coming upon them because of their sin. The situation is dire. Repentance and redemption are paramount. And yet here they sit, at the end of summer, unchanged and unsaved. “Harvest is past, summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

Now Jeremiah may have written these words, literally, at the turning of summer into autumn, after all the fruits had been harvested, preserved, and so on. But Charles Simeon was probably correct when he saw in Jeremiah’s harvest and summer imagery a metaphor for the spiritual privileges that the people of God enjoy.*

Living under the consistent sound of the word of God is like dwelling in a land of perpetual summer! And I’m not thinking of the scorching, dry summers that many of us have come to dread … but summer in the sort of place where the mix of sun and rain are just right for growing things like tomatoes, and beans, and peppers, and blueberries, and so on! And (especially in those days before the supermarket) what a pity to live in such a place, and yet to find, even at the end of summer and harvest, that you do not have enough food to last you into the winter season! What a perfect symbol of wasted opportunity and squandered privileges!

Well, that seems to have been the situation of the Israelites! The spiritual privileges that had been theirs; the opportunity to hear God’s word from God’s men; the opportunity to have forgiveness and redemption preached to them through the temple sacrifices had all been immense – like the sun and showers of a perfect growing season! But there was precious little spiritual fruit. They had lived their whole lives in a harvest season, as it were … and yet most of them remained spiritually barren! And so it is a poignant lament when Jeremiah cries over his people that “harvest is past, summer is ended, and we are not saved.” The people had squandered nearly all the opportunity that came as a result of their Israelite births!

And Jeremiah’s lament is one that must be cried over some church-goers, even in our own day! Because, oh, what a privilege it is to sit under a sound gospel ministry! You may not have the best pastor or the most anointed preacher … but if you have a real shepherd and a gospel preacher, you have more than most of your neighbors! Your access to the sun and showers of God’s word makes you something like the fruit trees in a land where summer brings, not drought, but every inducement for the trees to produce their fruit. But is there fruit in your life today? And, when the summer of your gospel privileges someday comes to an end, will there be anything to show for the privileges you have known? Will you finally be saved, in the end?

As our physical summer has just come to an end, it is a good time to assess ourselves in regard to what we have made of the spiritual summer time that many of us have enjoyed in the church for many years. A new school year has begun, young people … but have you yet begun with the Lord Jesus? The tomatoes have been harvested and enjoyed, but is there any fruit being borne in our lives for God? Could it be that some of us have been hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ, week by week, for much longer than just these few months of summer, and yet are we still unsaved? Are we still unrepentant? Unbelieving? Unchanged?

Oh, may you not come to the end of God’s harvesting season in this world, or to the winter of your own life, and still be forced to say: “Harvest is past, summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

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*Indeed, the whole way in which I unfold the meaning and application of Jeremiah 8:20 in this article is based on Simeon's interpretation.  See his sermon on Jeremiah 8:20-22 in his Expository Outlines of the Whole Bible.

September 15, 2015

Sundays in Narnia

I’ve been thinking a little more than normal, in recent weeks, about what we might call church culture – and particularly how a local church’s culture / ethos / first impression affects those who walk into our Sunday gathering for the first time or three.

Of course there is a sense in which guests should walk in and feel somewhat comfortable with their Sunday morning surroundings. The language we use should be intelligible English. Our building shouldn’t be dingy or bizarre or difficult to find. Our welcome should be warm. Their children should be safe. And so on. Church shouldn’t be a forbidding, or unwelcoming, or completely unintelligible place for the first time guest. And I hope our churches are not any of those things. Let’s continually work to ensure that they aren’t … but are, rather, just the opposite!

And yet, some reading I’ve been doing* has me more and more convinced that, while a church’s culture should not at all be inhospitable, yet it should also be quite challenging, in many ways, to the man who comes in off the street (or out of a less biblically thoughtful church culture).

Walking into a truly biblical (not perfect, but biblical) church should be something like walking into a whole different culture; a whole new world, really – one that (intentionally) does not put the newcomer to Christianity immediately at ease in every way.

Now, many a church leader will be uncomfortable with a sentence like that. Because many a modern church leader has gone out of his (or her) way to create a Sunday morning ethos that looks and sounds very much like what the man on the street experiences at the theatre, the ballgame, the concert, the restaurant, and so on. Often out of good motives, churches attempt to create a Sunday morning aesthetic that feels as familiar and palatable as possible to the outsider. Sometimes churches have even styled themselves as ‘a church for people who don’t like church.’ To put it plainly, churches are bending over backwards to create a Sunday morning experience that doesn’t feel all that other-worldly and strange and different from everyday life.

But here is the problem. God is other-worldly. He is holy, holy, holy! And, thus, to the sinner, He is strange, too! And so are His ways and (purportedly) His people. “Our citizenship is in heaven.” And therefore God calls us to a whole different set of values than what we find promoted in our news media, TV commercials, movie theatres, public schools, literature, and so on. He calls us to stand out as lights “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.” And so you would think that, when people like that gather to worship a God like that …you would imagine (wouldn’t you?) that their meetings would look and sound and operate on a plane that would make them, while not unwelcoming to the newcomer, immensely different, and challenging, and other-worldly!

The Sunday morning worship gathering should be – both for the newcomer, and for the long-time Christian who finds Sunday meeting an oasis from the hubbub and glitz and temptation of the other six days – like stepping through one of C.S. Lewis’s portals and into an entirely different world … with different values, and different assumptions, and different anthems, and different customs, and an altogether different sort of inhabitants. We ought to be, in some ways, as strange to a newcomer as a snowy wood inhabited by talking animals. Lucy understood the trees, and the snow, and even the English language of Mr. Tumnus. But there was no doubting that she was no longer in England! And such should be the experience of the man on the street when he steps into the new world that is the gathered church of Jesus Christ. There will, of necessity, be much with which he is familiar. But the differences ought to be profoundly obvious and challenging and (we hope) intriguing to him!

And yet the difference is not to be the trading of one earthly culture for another. This is not a plea, in other words, for the church to go back in time – singing, dressing, and speaking as though we were from a different era. That is mere traditionalism – the attempt to replace modern American culture with the culture, for instance, of the 1950’s. That sort of strangeness is of no avail! No! The man or woman who walks into our services ought to feel, not like he’s entered a different era, but a whole new world! And in any number of ways …

For instance, the modesty of people’s dress should be an immediate sign that one has entered a new realm. Note that I didn’t not say ‘the formality’ of the dress (for God cares little for that). But in a world where people show way too much, the church should look altogether different on a Sunday morning. And when it does, the guest is immediately struck with the realization that she is on more holy ground than she usually dares tread.

And the praise, too, should be a great challenge to the outsider’s worldview. Here are a bunch of people voluntarily singing aloud together … and without the necessity of a great band, a humming beat, or any alcoholic lubrication? Where else on earth can you find a scene like that? And there seems to be a reverence about their singing … and an intenseness about the words more so than the pulse of the tune. And the words themselves are not about everyday themes; not so much about horizontal loves (like the standard fare on the radio); not much about the singers at all, in fact. The lyrics can only be described as vertical, self-effacing, other-worldly!

And observe how parents and children sit together, and how the children are learning to actually sit still for over an hour, and how the teenagers don’t seem to be embarrassed by their parents, and how the men are actually present with their families on a Sunday morning (and singing, too!).

And then there is the preaching. Can people really sit, in 2015, for 45 minutes … listening intently to someone explaining the Bible? With no moving pictures? And no theatrics? All the more interesting because the message seems to be, not about a cause of some sort, but about a Person. Indeed, they talk so much and so well of this Jesus that it’s beginning to seem like they actually do mean it when they speak of Him being alive, and their only hope.

And are they really listening to this man telling them, week by week, that they aren’t actually good people; that they are sinners; that they are hopeless without God’s miraculous and merciful intervention in their lives? What on earth would coax people to put up with such? Or is it that they are in tune with something (or Someone) that is not actually on earth?

And the prayer meeting! Even many church-goers will find this a whole new experience! People actually circling together and sending all these pleading words heavenward … and truly believing that there is someone out there who is listening? Seeing a group of Christians earnestly praying together is perhaps the most other-worldly sight that a modern American will ever see!

But, you see … the man on the street will never see these things; he will never be challenged to enter, himself, into a different world and take up a new citizenship if the church continues to trip over itself trying to look more and more like the culture with which such a man is already familiar. We think we are doing people a good turn, by dressing the Sunday meeting in more culturally ‘relevant’ garb. But we’re actually shooting ourselves in the foot – we who are called to woo people out of their allegiance to this kingdom, and into citizenship in an entirely different realm … “the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son.”

Truly, one of the best things we can do for our neighbors is to strive to create a church culture that is not immediately recognizable and comfortable to them … but attractively other-worldly; appealingly (and biblically) strange; intriguingly unlike anything they have ever encountered before. Like they have, in walking into our gathering, crossed the border into an entirely different and better kingdom.

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*Specifically, Rosaria Butterfield’s The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Terry Johnson’s chapter “Restoring Psalm Singing to our Worship” (in Give Praise to God; Philip Ryken, Derek Thomas, and Ligon Duncan, eds.).

September 7, 2015

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert

Several days ago ... and I almost never have the wherewithal or interest to pull this off ... I devoured nearly an entire book in a single day. It was Rosaria Butterfield's The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, and I highly recommend it.

Carl Trueman's words of recommendation hit the spot for me:
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I do not agree with everything she says; but I did learn from everything she wrote. It deserves the widest possible readership.
Indeed, I was moved and challenged and refreshed and compelled by this book like I haven't been in a long time. It is the personal memoir of a woman who was a highly successful lesbian professor of English … and whose life, in her mid-thirties, was utterly altered by what she calls a train wreck conversion.

The lessons are many – one of the most powerful being how she was slowly led to Christ and his cross by the patient friendship of a local pastor and his wife who opened their homes, listened, loved, and accepted who Rosaria was, without condoning their new friend’s lifestyle.

She also makes no bones about the fact that she wasn’t looking for Jesus, didn’t make an easy and quick ‘decision for Jesus,’ and was only won over by the sovereign, electing grace of God that overcame her in spite of herself and her sin. And she seems quite content – even glad – to confess that it happened that way! God gets the credit!

Some of what she says is edgy, maybe even stinging. Perhaps it needn’t be quite so much that way in every case. But sometimes we who are tempted to cocoon in our Christian culture circles need to hear, plain and simple, how outsiders view us (and some of the flaws that this outsider-turned-insider can still see).

One of the amazing things about the book – perhaps especially noticeable because I read it almost all the way through in a single day – was how the beginning of the book and the end of the book really seemed like they were written about (and almost like they were written by) two different people. And, in the most profound sense, they were! I’m no literary scholar, but Butterfield’s later accounts of her life as a pastor’s wife and adoptive homeschool mom read so very differently from her descriptions of her English professor days at the beginning of the book – and not just in content, but in the very feel of the words! But such is the change that Christ brings. We cannot tell our old stories in the same way that we rehearse the new.

In closing, here is one quote that I found particularly challenging (though it has not so much to do with the narrative of Butterfield’s conversion, but rather the convictions that she now holds as a Christian) Speaking of her Reformed Presbyterian denomination's commitment to biblically simple corporate worship, Butterfield writes:
In an RP church, you will get no show, no comedian pastors, no rock bands, no videos, no interpretive dancing. Either Jesus comes to worship with us and the Holy Spirit fuels and fills us and God is honored or we have, simply, painfully, nothing at all.
Read it again, slowly. Then read it a third time, plugging the name of your church into the first sentence, along with whatever ambiance, aesthetics, experience, or tradition you have come to believe necessary for you to 'really worship.' And then ask if you could still leave the second sentence as-is.

Is meeting with the Triune God enough for us? And, when we gather, do we really expect to meet with Him, or just with a set of people and norms that have become comfortable to us? And, if it’s the latter, have we really gotten what Rosaria Butterfield got when God shook her life to its core, and rebuilt it all over again?  Perhaps God might grant us a train wreck of our own.  

September 5, 2015

'Or ... nothing at all'

In an RP [Reformed Presbyterian] church, you will get no show, no comedian pastors, no rock bands, no videos, no interpretive dancing.  Either Jesus comes to worship with us and the Holy Spirit fuels and fills us and God is honored or we have, simply, painfully, nothing at all.
Rosaria Butterfield

Read it again, slowly.  Then read it a third time and plug your church name into the first sentence, along with whatever ambiance, aesthetics, traditions, or experience you have come to believe necessary for you to 'really worship.'  And then ask if you can still leave the second sentence as-is.

May God give us more pastors, elders, and congregations with the heartbeat of Mrs. Butterfield and the Reformed Presbyterians. 

September 4, 2015

Some Thoughts for Labor Day

We all love a holiday, don’t we? An extra day off work (maybe even a paid one!). A free day with family or friends. Maybe some shish kabobs on the grill, or a nap in the afternoon. And so we welcome with glad eyes this three day weekend, and the extra day of rest that falls on Monday.

And it’s only natural. Because we were made for rest. That’s right! God made us, yes, for work – “six days you shall labor”. But God also made rest part and parcel of the human experience, too … even before the fall. Adam and Eve, even before the fall, would have put their heads down each night on some sort of Edenic pillow, closed their eyes, and rested from the day’s labors. And even in the garden, God marked one day in seven as a special day of rest, based on the fact of His own resting from the work of creation. And so I say that rest was built into God’s plan, and into man’s DNA, from the beginning. We were made for rest!

Think it out ...

First, we were made for daily rest. Every one of us, if we hope to be healthy, must get a certain amount of sleep each night. It’s quite amazing, isn’t it? The machinery at the various factories around town can run night and day, for weeks on end, without a break. But you were made to shut it all down for approximately one third of every day! Why? I think John Piper is right when he says that our need for sleep reminds us that we are not God!

But then also, we were made for sabbath rest … for a weekly break from the normal routine; a day when all the normal chores get put off until another day, and all the normal games go back into the closet, and we worship and rest and enjoy what God has given us as a gift – one day in seven for spiritual and physical refreshment and recharge.

And that sabbath rest is emblematic of our gospel rest. We rest from our labors one day in seven, not only to remember God’s rest in creation, but also so that we might have a weekly reminder that it is not in all our striving and laboring for God that we attain heaven. No, no! “In repentance and rest you will be saved” (Isaiah 30:15) – rest in the work that Christ has done on your behalf; rest in the fact that His sinless life and His substitutionary death are enough to secure us a home with God!

And speaking of our home with God, there we will enjoy our eternal rest. The weekly sabbath points to this, too. And so can a holiday like Labor Day. We long to get to this day, and this weekend … because we know that we can punch out on Friday afternoon, and just enjoy for a few days. And that longing that we feel for the sabbath, or for the weekend, or for the holidays is, at its deepest level, a reminder that we were, indeed, made for rest! God “has set eternity in [our] heart.” And one of the ways we can sense that this is true is by our longing for rest, and feasting, and joy, and fellowship. It’s true we don’t always make good or godly use of that rest. But the fact that we long for it is a signal of something profound. We were made for eternal rest!

So, yes, work hard on those “six days” that God has given for our various labors! But then, when it comes time to put your feet up, or to lay your head down, remember that the delight you feel in that respite is God’s way of wooing you to Himself – to His good pattern for your life, to His gospel, and to the unsullied shores and unhurried days of His eternal rest.