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.

*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.


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.”