Joel Beeke on Unconditional Election

“Is Christ the mirror in which you see your election?  Do you believe in Christ as your only hope for salvation?  Do you see beauty in Christ, finding Him to be the altogether lovely one? Do you desire Christ for His own sake, not merely for the sake of benefits, such as heaven?  Oh, then you have Him and the seal of His election.  You are the elect of God, for the elect are known by their fruits (Matt. 7:20), and the crowning fruit is to know Jesus Christ, whom to know is eternal life (John 17:3).  If you can say, ‘Less than Jesus would not satisfy me, and more is not needed because more than all in Him I find,’ you are elect, for that is what saving faith believes.  As Ernest Kevan writes, ‘Nobody ever came to Christ because he knew he was one of the elect: he came because he needed Christ.’  The great sign of our election is this soul dependence on Christ” (Joel Beeke, Living for God’s Glory, p68-69).

Thank God that you treasure Christ (1 Cor 1.30).

Calvin’s Iron Bowels

And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. . . . For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4.32, 34).

And now we must needs have more than iron bowels, seeing that we are no more moved with the reading of this history.  The faithful did at that day give abundantly even of that which was their own, but we are not only content at this day wickedly to suppress that which we have in our hands, but do also rob others.  They did simply and faithfully bring forth their own; we invent a thousand subtle shifts to draw all things unto us by hook or by crook.  They laid it down at the apostles’ feet, we fear not with sacrilegious boldness to convert that to our own use which was offered to God.  They sold in times past their possessions, there reigneth at this day an insatiable desire to buy.  Love made that common to the poor and needy which was proper to every man; such is the unnaturalness of some men now, that they cannot abide that the poor should dwell upon the earth, that they should have the use of water, air and heaven (Calvin, Commentaries, Baker: Vol XVIII, “Acts of the Apostles,” 192-93).

Five hundred years later, Calvin would regret our bowels have yet to be loosened.

Seeing God in the Outflow of His Abiding Love in the Church

No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us (1 Jn 4.12).

In the middle of a literary “love” feast John peculiarly injects the statement that God has forever been unseen.  What does God being forever unseen have to do with God’s radiating love?  Why would John seemingly interrupt a glorious foray into God’s love with the fact that “ain’t no one ever seen God”?  He did so to elevate the power of God’s love displayed in the church to manifest God’s presence.  Though God has never been seen by anyone, his abiding presence is still nevertheless experienced through his perfecting love in the Christian community.

How can we be sure that someone we’ve never seen really lives in our house and loves us?  We see the effects of their presence in the precious gifts they regularly leave for our joy.  How can we be sure of God’s abiding presence and everlasting love?  “We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us” (1 Jn 4.16a) in the abiding presence of God displayed in his love among his children (v11).  “We know (the) love [lit. ten agapen] by this: that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 Jn 3.16).  We know God’s love (and see God’s abiding presence) in the life-laying-down ministry of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We know God abides in us by the Spirit he has given us (1 Jn 3.24; 4.13), the very Spirit who confesses Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world (4.14-15).  The very Spirit who manifests God’s love in the joyful, sacrificial love among the saints (4.21).

Therefore, I humbly submit:

1.  Without a local church you can neither know nor believe the love God has for you to the extent God intends.  A deeply-entrenched commitment to the local church is necessary to see God’s love manifest in us.  God hasn’t left us to imagine he loves us, but to tangibly experience and taste his perfecting love in the Spirit-filled ministry of brothers and sisters in the local church.  Those distant from the new covenant community struggle to see, know, believe, glory in God’s love for them.    They’re left to imagine what God’s love might be like rather than tasting what it really is.  How would Jesus minister to you if he were physically here?  He would do what his Spirit-filled brothers and sisters now do in his name.

2.  Without a local church you can neither know nor believe you love God to the extent God deserves.  A key evidence that you are born of God is that you lay down your life for your brothers (and sisters).  The local church is the necessary context in which life-laying-down ministry is cultivated.  Left to ourselves, our life-laying-down ministry consists in some holiday charity work or taking the hypothetical bullet for a hypothetical believer.  But in the local church we’re provided and urged toward the daily ministry of giving our lives away to our brothers and sisters in Christ; and thus provided the constant assurance we’re really born of God.  How would you minister to Jesus if he were physically here?  You would treat him how you now treat his Spirit-filled brothers and sisters (i.e., the “manifesters” of God’s abiding presence in Christ).

3.  Life-laying-down ministry is more than taking the proverbial bullet for your fellow church member.  Jesus did more than “just” die for his people.  He lived for them until he died for them (1 Pt 2.21-25).  He laid down his life in every respect for them.  He emptied himself of all self-advantage in order to become a bondservant to men, even unto death (Phil 2.5-11).  At his own expense, he spent time on them, fed them, touched them, healed them, comforted them, taught them, encouraged them, exhorted them and confronted them.  Our life-laying-down ministry is to look the same.  We don’t pursue our own agendas and stop every so often to serve folks.  Because Jesus bought us and now indwells us, our agenda is service to the brethren.

Though not commending all of Richard Foster’s thoughts, I am impressed by these from his classic Celebration of Discipline:

“When we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge. There is great freedom in this. If we voluntarily choose to be taken advantage of, then we cannot be manipulated. When we choose to be a servant, we surrender the right to decide who and when we will serve. We become available and vulnerable” (p132).

“If our goods are not available to the community when it is clearly right and good, then they are stolen goods” (p89).

Brothers and sisters don’t steal, they give.  They lay down their lives for each other.  And in so doing they leave tokens of God’s love in Christ for the world to enjoy.

Can You Handle Severe Disease?

In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa became diseased in his feet.  His disease was severe, yet even in his disease he did not seek Yahweh, but the physicians (2 Chron 16.12).

Despite King Asa’s successes (2 Chron 15) his eulogy could not be more sad: “His disease was severe, but he still did not seek God.”  So after two fist-shaking years he died in the shadow of his physicians, but under the wrath of God (2 Chron 16.13).

In no way do I suggest dismissing help from doctors and their technologies.  I do suggest we be very careful about why we seek them and how much trust we put in them.  Seeking God does not stand over against seeking physicians’ help.  It does stand above it, however.  That was Asa’s demise.  He sought the physicians instead of God rather than under God.  He suffered what Jeremiah warned against: “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the LORD” (Jer 17.5).  Asa’s affliction was designed by God to make him seek God, but he did not.  He put his trust and hope in his physicians, who were impotent against Asa’s real disease.

I can sit over God’s word and leave unaffected, but I’ve never left the doctor’s office unaffected.  This ought not be.  I don’t suggest become mystics or stoics.  If we love life we will undoubtedly be affected by a doctor’s news.  But, we must be more affected by God’s Good News.  Love health, but love heaven more.  Love medicine, but love resurrection more.  Consult your doctor, but retreat to the gospel.  Google your affliction, but memorize Scripture.

God’s help might very well come through doctors.  But it might also come despite them.  His help might even be at odds with the doctors’.  Maybe God will prevent medical answers so we will seek God’s Spiritual provision (see Mk 5.25-34).  We remain absolutely confident in God, who reads and remedies the heart, and less confident in doctors, who can only read charts and remedy the body.

God intends your disease (severe or not) to be a catalyst for seeking him.  He may or may not cure you.  In fact, he ultimately won’t in this life.  He will let you die despite every guarantee of the world’s finest physicians.  God sees to it we face the depth our sin, either now in faith and/or later in death.  Will we die with disappointed faces as though we’ve been duped?  Or will we rejoice that God promises to all in Christ:  “Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits” (Is 26.19)?

Is it me or do my feet hurt all the sudden?

Can You Handle the Truth?

When a wise man has a controversy with a foolish man, the foolish man either rages or laughs, and there is no rest (Prov 29.9).


How we respond to controversy measures our spiritual maturity, especially when that controversy concerns truth about ourselves.  How do you handle wisely-targeted truth?

If you are foolish, you might immediately and easily get angry: How dare she say such a thing!  Who do they think they are?  What business is it of his?  He’s no choir boy, either, so if we’re going to play this game then I could say something about him.  I’m never stepping foot in that church again. In stomping off we stomp on grace.  No one makes us angry.  We choose to be angry because we are a lustful, envious, selfishly-motivated people (Jas 4.2).  We are foolish.

If you are foolish, you might laugh it off:  It’s no big deal.  They’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.  She doesn’t understand the situation.  He just blowing off steam.  I know I have some things to work on, but I could be far worse; we should really confront so-and-so. And soon we’ve dismissed ourselves into self-righteous atrophy.  We are foolish.

Whether we rage our way or laugh our way through confrontation, we will not find rest.  Our anger will boil over into slander, gossip and murderous thoughts.  Our laughter will nag us into superficiality and spiritual anemia.  Either way, we will simply not deal with the truth.  And when we repeatedly refuse to deal with truth we will live a lie.  We will create a fantasy world in our minds where we are invincible and untouchable.  Any threat to our self-righteousness will be met with self-justified rage or summarily dismissed as laughable.  God’s rest will continue to allude us.

How has The Wise Man (Jesus) dealt with his controversy with us foolish men?  He did not enrage himself against us.  He did not laugh off our sin.  He laid down his life so that his friends would be free from their self-destructive, soul-destroying lives.  The foolish man in us was dealt his fatal blow at the cross.  Now indwelt with the Spirit of Wisdom we can look in the mirror with an honest heart and say with the psalmist: “Let the righteous smite me in kindness and reprove me; it is oil upon the head; do not let my head refuse it, for still my prayer is against their wicked deeds” (Ps 141.5).

Don’t get mad when I ask this, but who’s laughing now?

Touching on Touchstone

In the latest Touchstone Magazine Daniel Boerman wrote a sweet article entitled “When the Wood is Dry.”  The following excerpt was most edifying:

There is . . . a gospel for sufferers.  Jesus not only suffered in our place; he also suffered as an example for us to follow.  He warns us that obedience in a sinful and fallen world will not be easy.  The world does not appreciate or applaud faithful discipleship.  Living selflessly and loving as we serve God and others will sometimes expose us to serious pain.  And sometimes God may compel us to share in some of the forsakenness and bitterness that Jesus himself experienced.

[God’s silence] is a blessing because it enables me to share just a little of what it meant for Christ to be utterly abandoned by God and man when he was hanging on the cross.  I know something of the desperation and exasperation he felt when he uttered that despairing cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46).  I realize that my experience was only a tiny taste of the suffering of Christ, but it is nevertheless real.  I count it a privilege and and honor.

Our suffering is a means of God’s grace to remind us about the ineffable glory of the cross and the assurance of our sonship.  Affliction is not necessary for who we are or are not, but who we’re going to be.  After the glorious declaration of Jesus’ God-pleasing sonship at his baptism (Mt 3.17), Satan immediately questioned that sonship.  Jesus is led into the wilderness where Satan prefaced his tempations with, “If you are the Son of God then . . .” (Mt 4.3, 6). In other words, suffering is unbecoming of God’s Son with whom he is well pleased.  Is this the way God treats his beloved Son?

It is certainly the way God must treat sinners.  And if that Son is to become sin for us (2 Cor 5.21) then, yes, it’s the way he must treat his Son (cf. Heb 5.8).  If any son of Adam is to enjoy heaven then the Son of God must suffer hell.

It’s as though God says to his suffering child, “This really hurts, doesn’t it?  Could you suffer it forever?  Could you suffer it million times worse? Could you suffer it a million times worse for the sake of your enemies?  How would you feel toward someone who suffered such pain on your behalf?  That’s what I did for you, child, so suffer well knowing it’s as close to hell you will ever get.”  Paul expressed it this way:  “For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5.7-8).

Within hours of his passion Jesus prayed, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, be with me where I am, so that they may see my glory which you have given me, for you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn 17.24).  Jesus prayed that if he did all the suffering then his enemies-turned-brothers should share in all his pre-existent glory and Trinitarian love.  And Jesus always gets what he prays for.

Cry for Her Now (or Thoughts on Ministry to Widow(er)s)

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God and Father is this: to visit . . . widows in their distress (Jas 1.27).

It happens every time.  Dad asks me to eat breakfast with some widowers from his church and I hem haw around.  I eventually and reluctantly agree and belly up to a Buttermilk Five.  And every time I leave wondering why I would ever waffle on one of God’s richest gifts of grace.  Wretched man that I am.

My dad is in his twentieth year of widowhood and recently started a breakfast club for other widowers.  Some buried their wives decades ago, some weeks ago.  But they’ve all suffered the same sting (1 Cor 15.56) and live to tell about it.  I hope I’m listening well.

In today’s world of the “power pastor” we easily overlook what James considered essential religion: care for widow(er)s in their distress.  Who has time for such mundane ministry when programs need administrating, numbers need reporting, buildings need repairing, neighbors need evangelizing, twentysomethings need discipling and services need choreographing?  My own hesitations toward a simple breakfast with some widowers proves my point, at least for me.

I’ve been a terrible pastor to widow(er)s and it’s high time I repent from clear rebellion against God’s commands.  This morning’s breakfast along with seeing two women widowed in the last two weeks compel me to write.  For what little they’re worth, I offer these “lessons” in no particular order to strengthen atrophied pastoral muscles.

1.  Widowhood is one of, if not the, most painful experiences of life in a fallen world.  Men who suffered the Great Depression, confronted Nazi Germany, lived in Vietnam jungles, killed national enemies, endured cancer and buried their children don’t cry like they cry when thinking about their wife.  These are hard men who readily confess nothing is harder than losing his wife.

Lesson: Learn to be a better husband from men who aren’t anymore.  There is great benefit from the flood of new marriage books on the market.  Slick covers depicting Tintselesque couples helping suburban families navigate the American dream.  Read them, learn from them, practice them.  But then go sit down with a Christian man who served his wife faithfully for decades but now sleeps alone.  Watch him cry.  Listen to him laugh.  See his pictures.  Enjoy his stories (again!).  Imitate his faith.  Make sure the thought of your wife makes you cry now so that you can cry without regret later.

2.  Effective pastoral care begins after the funeral.  Arranging funerals is an extremely busy time.  People are constantly around.  There is little time for contemplation and mourning beyond the trite platitudes we might expect.  But that time will come.  His clothes might still be in the closet.  Her favorite coffee cup might still be in the dishwasher.  He always took care of the car and it’s time for an oil change.  She always took care of the laundry and a shirt needs a new button.  He always drove and the doctor’s appointment is tomorrow.  She always wrote the checks and the utility bill is due.  It’s those simple times when the reality of loneliness sets in.

Lesson: Make sure we regularly visit widow(er)s.  They don’t need a sermon every time.  They need light bulbs changed and furniture moved and yards mowed and rides to doctors.  It’s just that simple.  They don’t need someone profound, just around.  You don’t always have to have something to say.  Besides, you’ll find they have far more to teach you than you them.

3.  In our suffering-averse culture, we do anything to escape pain.  Rather than retreat to the gospel we retreat to anything else.  Our impulse is to help everyone we can out of their distress.  Yet, James commands us to visit widows in their distress.

Lesson: Widow(er)s have lost someone, not something.  Helping them is not as easy as encouraging a new hobby, replacing their time or keeping them busy.  They cannot substitue for what they’ve lost.  They have a new normal now and things will never be the way they used to be.  We shouldn’t encourage a hermitic lifestyle, but we must be sensitivite and patient.  So play checkers with them, but get them talking about their wife during the game.

Lesson: Death is hard and is not supposed to be easy.  Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb  knowing he was about to raise him from the dead (Jn 11.35).  The gravity and extent of the Fall is a painful reality and only the sovereign grace of God can make it easier.  A dear friend who recently buried her son confessed in a hug, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”  That’s right, it is.  And it must be so that we will grope for grace.  It must be hard so that our God can be big.  We must hate the grave so that we can love the resurrection.  God must leave us speechless so we might finally hear him.

Lesson: Widow(er)s are not afraid to talk about their deceased spouses.  In fact, they love to!  They fear not talking about them.  They fear folks forgetting them.  They fear folks acting like nothing has happened.  It’s not taboo to bring up memories or ask about pictures.  It’s actually helpful.

4.  We’re obsessed with answers and demand explanations.  We want a black-and-white world where everything is either right or wrong.  We often fail to realize God’s mysterious providence.  The gospel demands we trust a Sovereign Savior who doesn’t owe us explanations.  The cross is a sufficient witness that whatever he does he does in infinite love and for our eternal benefit.  He may hide his specific reasons, but he has put the cross on glorious display to alleviate all doubt that he is good.

Lesson: Be careful of ascribing right/wrong distinctions to a widow(er)’s decisions.  I don’t mean decisions involving sinful or dangerous behavior, but decisions involving mourning and comfort.  In 1990, my dad buried Mom in her hometown of Itta Bena, MS.  Fifteen years later he hated not being able to visit her grave as often as he wanted.  So he had her casket moved to where they spent their whole married life together.  He asked me if that was right or wrong.  It’s neither, Dad.  He doesn’t deny the doctrine of the resurrection.  He doesn’t doubt Jesus will raise her from the dead, whether her body be in the Delta or down the street.  He doesn’t think there is a ghostly power associated with her body.  He’s just a widower who wants to visit his wife’s grave and remember their 38 years together.

Widow(er)s make many decisions along these lines.  Maybe he keeps her clothes in the closet for a year.  Maybe she goes back to work soon.  Maybe he doesn’t go back at all.  Maybe she still wears her wedding band.  Maybe he keeps her car in the garage.  Maybe he keeps her perfume on the kitchen sink.  Maybe she keeps his work shoes outside the back door.  It doesn’t matter what you would do in their situation.  They don’t need to explain why because it’s often the cry of their heart rather than the reasoning of their mind.  It’s not a matter of right or wrong, but of comfort and consolation.  Simply be there and listen and help.

Now, when is that next breakfast?

The Church’s “Public Option”

If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. . . . And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body (Rom 8.11, 23).

A revolutionary spirit blows across the Fruited Plain.  Arguably sensationalized by a ubiquitous media, congressional “Town Halls” erupt with vehemence over government-sponsored health care.  The issue has become too unwieldy for even those-(supposedly)-in-the-know to sort through the details.  For the federal government the infamous “public option” has become a public relations nightmare and a financial boondoggle.  For the church, however, it is another golden opportunity to proclaim the excellencies of Christ.

Christians cannot be disinterested in health care.   Like Jesus, we are to be the world’s strongest advocate for merciful, timely, indiscriminate care for suffering people.  We champion the sanctity of life and must encourage any and all means that encourage life in every context.  And by “every,” we must mean “every”!  Being pro-life means more than being pro-breathing.  The church is God’s “welfare” provider as she takes seriously the commands to care for her widows and orphans.  But our Babelesque compounds have eclipsed “pure and undefiled religion” (Jas 1.27), hogging all the light to leave the least of these in our impressive shadow.  But I digress.

Our concern for health care is not an ultimate concern.  Even the world’s greatest health care “system” (which the United States obviously has) merely prolongs the inevitable.  No health care system in all the world at any time will ever be able to remedy our greatest enemy: death.  The libertarian and the socialist may live differently but they die just the same.  They may stand on opposing sides of the aisle but they share the same coffin.  They may differ on the government’s public option but they will both run out of options when the wages of our sin come due.

The church, therefore, offers a public option from another world that is guaranteed to secure life for all those who “buy” into it.  That option is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The best free-marketeers, socialists or anyone in between can offer when it comes to health care is a way to temporarily sustain this life.  The church offers a way to live eternally.  Our hope is not in health care no matter who runs it.  Our hope is in the Risen Lord Jesus who has solved our health care “crisis” by resurrection, not legislation.  And we proclaim that Christ Jesus gives life to our mortal bodies through a glorious resurrection.  This option is already paid for by the blood of our Lord Jesus and all who repent and believe are guaranteed eternal care.

Health care options may help us die painlessly, but no health care option helps us die well.  Only the gospel can do that.  So, dear Christian, have your debates and assert your convictions.  But make sure your zeal is not misplaced or sinfully earthbound.  Let us not leave people hoping in affordable health care, but in the redemption of our bodies by the Spirit of God.  That’s something worth shouting about.

The Kohath Privilege and Pastoral Temptation

Then Yahweh spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, ‘Do not let the tribe of the families of the Kohathites be cut off from the Levites.  But do this to them that they may live and not die when they approach the most holy objects: Aaron and his sons shall go in and assign each of them to his work and to his load; but they shall not go in to see the holy objects even for a moment, or they will die’ (Num 4.17-18, 20).

Not only am I not a tabernacle expert, I’m not worthy to untie the shoes of one.  I am nevertheless intrigued (probably naively so) by the role of the Kohathites in the tabernacle administration.  Kohath was one of Levi’s three sons and therefore part of the priestly function in Israel (Num 3.17).  Each on of these sons and their lineage would have particular responsibilities for the administration of the tabernacle.  The Kohathites were in charge of the “most holy things” (Num 3.31; 4.4).  When Israel would pack up and move the Kohathites would chauffeur the most important items: the Ark, the Table of the Bread of the Presence, lampstands, altar and all the utensils.  They were an indispensable part of safely moving the tabernacle in a way that protected God’s holiness and Israel’s worship.

But as important as their function was, no Kohathite son ever set eyes on the very things he was raised to carry.  Imagine carrying the most holy objects in all of Israel, but never being allowed to see them “even for a moment” (Num 4.20). Only Aaron and his sons see them.  By the time you are called in for your assignment Aaron and his sons have already covered them up under several layers of protective skins and cloths (Num 4.5-15).  You don’t poke your head in to see how Aaron was progressing.  You don’t sneak a peek when the wind blows up a corner of the cloth (perhaps why heavy porpoise skins top the items).  And although you must not see them, you must carry them.  It’s like an Air Force One pilot who will will be shot on sight should he ever see the President out of the corner of his eye.

God charged Moses and Aaron to make sure the packing job is done perfectly well so as to protect the Kohathites (Numb 4.17-19a).  If Aaron misses a button or slips a knot then a Kohathite life is at stake (v20).  God is supremely holy and no one sneaks a peek at God’s holiness.  No one treats God’s holiness like a giggly schoolgirl who wants to see what her boyfriend got her for Valentine’s Day.  God’s “otherness” is not be trifled with.  Like it or not, God decides who sees him and how.  If you’re a Kohathite you do your job of carrying holy things because your life (literally) depended on it.  You leave them at the entrance of the tabernacle and joyfully go home thanking God for the privilege.  You praise God for what he allows you to do without resenting him for what he restricts you from seeing.  Any peek at the goods would lead to pride rather than worship.

It may be a stretch, but a helpful one to consider how the Kohathites might help pastoral ministry.  We tend to most holy things.  We deliver them to God’s people so they may worship the right God rightly.  We’re not the priests, but agents of the High Priest to make sure his things get to his people unprofaned and intact.

But Monday always comes when we’ve dropped off the most holy things at the hearts of men and women.  We’ve gone home to leave the unpacking of those goods to Someone else.  And what God may do with them is above our pay grade.  Yet I demand that God show me exactly what it is that he is doing through my service.  If he would have me preach then he owes me a peek at what lies under his mysterious providence.  If I’m going to carry the most holy things then I deserve to see some affect of doing so.  It’s not enough that God grant the sheer privilege of tending to the most holy things.  I deserve see what no one else is allowed to see.  Let me peek under the cover to see more people, more commendation, more money.  All the while, God restrains such insight for our own good and maybe our own lives.   Any peek at the goods will lead to pride rather than worship.

We must not insist on seeing what God hides under the surface of our ministry.  We deliver the gospel as God has packaged it in Christ.  We care for the gospel with acute attenion and keen consciences so that men do not die.  We take no credit for the gospel or the privilege of preaching the gospel.  “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9.16).  The Kohathites received no praise for carrying the most holy things so well.  They were a means to an end: the honoring of God’s holiness among the people of God.  Likewise, we get no praise for preaching the gospel.  We’re errand boys.  We’re couriers.  We merely bring God’s truth to God’s people and leave whatever progress that truth makes to the Most Holy God (1 Cor 3.6).

So what did God do yesterday in our preaching?  Did he convert a soul?  Did he convict a tempted believer?  Did he encourage a faint heart?  Did he prosper a gift?  Did he amaze the masses?  I don’t know.  And as much as I want to know, I cannot know and must not know lest pride sow its sneaky seed.  Our assignment was simply to pick up the gospel as God has packaged it in Christ and deliver it safely to God’s people.  How and when he unpacks it is up to the High Priest to do with it what he wills.  In the meantime we go home joyfully, thanking God for the privilege and waiting for our next assignment.

“For not man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. . . . but each man must be careful how he builds on it” (1 Cor 3.11, 10b).

Keep Farming!

“Failures in particular circumstances don’t mean the failure of the kingdom.  Our Lord is faithfully warning us from the beginning that we are going to meet with a variety of failure and that that is always going to pain us.  One thing we must never do and that is to turn every failure onto ourselves and say, if only we as a church had been a more loving, and a more holy and a more evangelistic congregation then there’d have been no failures.  The minister too must resist personalising [sic] the loss of every one who turns back, and blaming himself: ‘If only I were a more powerful preacher and a more hardworking pastor then tehre would be no falling away.’  Of course, let’s all seek to be more holy and loving and evangelistic, and let’s be steadfast and unmoveable and always abounding in the work of the Lord, but don’t get crushed down into sinful lethargy because some you know and love have given up the faith.  Keep going, keep sowing, keep farming!  We carry the weight of such disappointments for the rest of our lives, and we go over all the circumstances too much so, but they must drive us to God not to despair.  There is a work to be done and a harvest to be reaped” (Geoff Thomas in a sermon on Mark 4.1-20).

How did my mail get to Aberystwyth?

Hurts so Good

We have enough Bibles for every household in America a couple of times over.  We have churches galore; religious organizations; educational institutions; religious presses that never stop pouring forth books, Sunday school materials, and religious curricula; and unparalleled financial resources.  What don’t we have?  All too often we don’t have what the Old Testament people didn’t have.  A due and weighty sense of the greatness and holiness of God, a sense that will reach into our lives, wrench them around, life our vision, fill our hearts, make us courageous for what is right, and over time leave behind its beautiful residue of Christlike character.

. . . Let us not mince words.  If we could see more clearly God in the full blaze of his burning purity, we would not be on easy terms with all the sins that now infect our souls and breed easy compromises with the spirit of the postmodern age.  This is what leads to the casual wasy in which we live our livces with their blatantly wrong priorities.  If we could see this more clearly, the church would be filled with much more repentance and, in consequence, much more joy, and much more authenticity  (David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, 132-33).

Dang.

Prayer and Pain

During our congregational prayer gathering last night my beautiful-in-every-sense-of-the-word wife thanked God for affliction.  It’s one thing to read Piper on suffering or digest Brainerd from afar.  But it’s of a another other order when I am driven to God’s throne to celebrate the pain he builds into my life.  Oh, what grace there is in congregational prayer!  A thousand sermons on suffering having nothing on hearing a sister thank God for affliction.  A library of books on prayer cannot hold a candle to the growth provided by being with God’s people in prayer.  Do you want to grow in the depth, effects, and joy of your prayer life?  Get around Christians who pray deeply, biblically and painfully.  Listen to their vocabulary and long for their heart.  When we listen to brothers and sisters pray we’re not eavesdropping on a conversation.  We’re part of it.

Please allow a momentary detour.  In commanding our (plural) devotion to prayer, Paul immediately commands alert thanksgiving (Col 4.2; cf. Eph 6.18).  He’d heard the story about Peter and the boys catnapping while Jesus sweat bloody bullets for them.  He didn’t want that happening on his watch and therefore he commanded us the same attention to prayer Jesus did them (Mt 26.41).  Does “alert” describe how we listen to prayer?  Are we joining in our brother’s invocation with alert thanksgiving?  Are we shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-t0-heart with him before our God?  Are we paying attention to both what our sister prays and how she prays it?  Are we like a sentinel, keeping a careful watch on the flanks so that Satan doesn’t sneak in with stealth temptation?  Are we guarding our brother with gratitude that God hears us when we pray?  Do we pepper our sister’s prayer with the “amen” of our heart . . . so let it be?  Do we join them in their inner room so that our Secret Father will grant them a hearty reward (Mt 6.6)?

Or, are we strangely sleepy when the heads bow?  Do we get uncomfortable and twitchy?  Do we find ourselves thinking of anything else but what is being spread out before God’s face?  Are we antsy when “so-and-so” prays because we know it’s going to be a while?  Do we get bored (i.e. unalert) and resentful (i.e. ungrateful)?  Do we get impatient so that a few minutes in prayer seems like a few hours?  Given a thousand days at Disneyland (or Daytona or Pebble Beach or Macy’s) or a day in God’s courts with God’s people, which one would we instinctly choose?  Do we want the church praying for us but find it hard to join the church in praying for others?  Indeed, Lord, teach us to pray (Lk 11.1).

As I was saying . . .

Through my wife’s prayer I was driven to God’s throne to thank him for the pain he builds in my life.  God should be absolutely, regularly and joyfully thanked for the result that he works in our lives through pain and affliction.  But this doesn’t go far enough.  It’s easy to thank God for the ends, even if we’re not grateful for the means to those ends.  We can love what God does but hate how he does it.  Our heart’s prayer (because we’d never say it out loud!) might sound something like: “God, I’m grateful that you’ve produced new joy in my life, but I am not no sure you had to drag me through what you did to do so.  Next time please use other means.”  We strangely exalt God while we’re begrudging him.

We don’t merely thank God for the product of pain, but for the very pain itself which is the only means by which the godly product comes.  There is no glory in Christ that is not forged by the cross of Christ (Phil 3.10f; 1 Pt 4.13).  So we don’t glory in merely being conformed to Jesus, but in everthing that goes into conforming us.  We don’t thank God for the resurrection even if he happened to choose the cross (as opposed to other options) to get there.  We thank God for the cross so that there would be a resurrection.  We thank God for death so there can be new life.

Through my wife’s prayer I’m compelled to consider the following:

“But it is still my consolation, and I rejoice in unsparing pain, that I have not denied the words of the Holy One” (Job 6.10).

Not only do we exult in the hope of the glory of God, but “we also exult in our tribulations” (Rom 5.3).  We don’t simply exult in the hope that our tribulations produce (v5), but in the tribulations themselves which are the only means by producing the never-disappointing hope.

“Therefore I am well content with my weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12.10).  We’re not content only when Christ’s power is made perfect (v9), but we’re well content in the purposeful difficulties themselves.

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (Jas 1.2).  We don’t reserve joy until the perfect product emerges (v4), but rejoice when painful the process begins!

“. . . to the degree that you share in the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exaltation” (1 Pt 4.13).  Our future enjoyment of Christ has a direct (not inverse) relationship to the degree we joyfully suffer now (see also 1 Pt 1.6-9; cf. 2 Cor 4.17-18).

We’re to be neither sadistic (as though we enjoy affliction in itself) nor stoic (as if affliction is not really painful).  But insofar as God builds pain in our life we’re to be thankful for it because God has made it useful.  We don’t reserve praise until we know God has worked affliction for our good, but we praise him for any and all means that will lead to that good.

So thank you, my dear wife-who-is-also-my-sister, for thanking God for affliction.  Today is far better for it.

Digging Wells

Does not the gospel call into fellowship those whom a society divides? There, side by side, should we not see the rich and the poor, men and women, powerful and marginalized, boomer and nonboomer all united in the same Christ by whom they have all been bought? (David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, p57).

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise (Gal 3.28-29).

The church is the glorious display of Christ’s power to do what no other person can do.  Jesus unites folks in the church who otherwise have little to do with each other in the world.  The world organizes us into categories.  Middle class and low class.  Blue collar, white collar, and no collar.  Those on the fast track and those from the other side of the tracks.  The well-to-do and the ne’er-do-wells.  Homeschoolers and public schoolers.  Democrat and Republican.  Tell it your name the world has a category for you and how your category is to relate to the others.

In the church, though, the gospel so transforms how we understand (or love) each other that the dividing lines are erased.  The PhD is comfortable singing God’s praises next to the GED student.  The stay-at-home mom is as joyful to share the cup with the widow who had to go back to work.  The burger-flipping, floppy-haired teenager feels right at home with the local bank president.  The former Black Panther shares the same loaf with the former Skinhead.   The homeschooling mom prays just as fervently for  the single, working mom.  Children enjoy the same Word as their parents (Eph 6.1-4; Col 3.18-21).  Slaves stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their masters (Eph 6.5-9; Col 3.22-4.1).

We may run in different circles in the world but we all bow at the same cross in the church.  We may have nothing in common while having Everything in common.  We may look and live differently outwardly, but we all suffer the same guilt, earn the same wage for our sin and all desperately need the same grace to overcome it.

Paul had no category of a cowboy church, GenX church, children’s church, purpose-driven church, ancient-future church, or emergent church anymore than he did a Jewish church or Gentile church.  In fact, it was precisely such distinctions he died to obliterate.  There is one body (Eph 4.4).  It is our responsibility to fit into that one body, not demand it fit into us.

Salute to the SBC

While I often have my bones to pick with the Southern Baptist Convention, I could not be more proud of their 2009 resolution on Adoption and Orphan Care.  May we be resolute!

The Paradoxical Love of God

It is God who takes the initiative in reconciling us to him, not Christ who take the initiative in persuading his reluctant Father to relent.  The cross occurred because God is a God of grace, not to make him a God of grace (Derek Tidball, The Message of the Cross, p223).

Jesus did not convince the Father to love us.  Jesus convinced us the Father loves us.  God was not reluctant to love us until Jesus persuaded him otherwise.  We are reluctant to love God until Jesus persuades us otherwise.

Scripture is quite clear that we are born enemies of God (Rom 5.10) and children of wrath (Eph 2.3).  And until we obey the Son we remain under the wrath of God (Jn 3.36).  Apart from Christ we are have “no hope and are without God in the world” (Eph 2.12).  God stands against us from birth because we stand against him from the same.  God hates all who do iniquity (Ps 5.5; 11.5).  I do iniquity.  Therefore, barring some change in either God or me, God hates me.  And God does not change.

Yet, at the same time God stands against us he also makes provision in love to reconcile us to himself (Jn 3.16).  The emphasis of John 3.16 is not “whoever believes” but on the extent of (or “the manner of” which is the meaning of “so”) God’s love to provide salvation to the very people (i.e. “world”) he must damn.  Or, stated differently, John did not argue the extent man’s free will to believe Jesus.  He stressed the extent of God’s free will to love those he otherwise hates.  God purposed to hate his Son in order to prove his love for us.  “Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love” (Micah 7.18).

God pledges himself to love (by virtue of his grace) those he is obliged (by virtue of his holiness) to hate.  This is the epitome of love.  God did not hate us until he loved us.  He loved us despite hating us.  God does not start loving us when we believe.  We believe because he loves us (1 Jn 4.10)!  “What the cross changed was not his attitude but our standing before him” (Tidball: 224).

Jesus asked, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same” (Lk 6.32-33).  For God to love us because we’re just that lovable makes God no more virtuous than any work-a-day sinner.  But to love one’s enemies and bless those who deserve to be cursed?  That’s love from another kingdom which operates under a different economy.

When Jesus commands us to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk 6.27-28) he’s not helping us toward less stress.  Loving and blessing enemies is quite stressful!  He’s commanding us to do what God did for us.  He loved his enemies (Rom 5.8, 10).  He did good those who hated him (Eph 2.4-7).  He blessed those who cursed him (1 Cor 6.9-11).  He prayed for those who mistreated him (Lk 22.31-32; 23.34; Jn 17.20).  He loved sinners like us despite having also to hate us.  He initiated (and affected!) reconciliation with the last people on earth who deserved to be reconciled (2 Cor 5.19).  Therefore, God’s people love in the way only God can love (2 Cor 5.18).

Friend, who do you hate?  From whom do you withhold blessing and prayer?  And has God treated you (his enemy) the same way you’re treating your enemy?  You may be rightly offended and justly owed but that is true of no one like it’s true of God.  Yet, he did not let your hatred of him stop him from loving you to death (literally).  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven” (Mt 6.10).

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