Do Our Actions Please God?

January 6, 2017

How can you please God?

Can you please Him by working on His behalf?

We often think: If we would just witness more (or more effectively); if we would just give more to the church, or attend services more regularly, or pray more, or help the poor more diligently then God would be pleased with us.

Is that right?

Consider what Jesus said to His disciples after interacting with the Samaritan woman, telling her He was the longed-for Messiah: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).

Jesus has quoted Deuteronomy previously, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus loves the word of His Father. He delights to do His will. He finds sustenance and satisfaction and fulfillment in accomplishing the Father’s plan. So, in this particular case, He found joy and sustenance from seeing this woman whose life was a wreck come to saving faith as He shared the Good News of the coming of the promised Christ.

So Jesus found joy in following God. Surely we too should find joy in following Him.

But what about the flip side of that truth? Does our activity, our accomplishment, our obedience please God?

We have to be careful here. Scripture makes some subtle but vital distinctions in this area. Consider, for example, Psalm 147:10-11:

His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the legs of a man,
but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.

We never impress God. However strong we may be, however great our accomplishments might appear, God doesn’t jump up and down, saying, “Awesome! I’m so happy you did that! Do it again! Show me what you can do!”

Instead, what gives God pleasure? He rejoices in our dependence on Him, in our acknowledgment of His power and authority, in our trusting in His love for us and commitment to us.

Furthermore, consider 1 Thessalonians 4:3: “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” That is, God’s will is for you to be made holy. For you to be set apart for Him. For you to be like Him, like Christ.

So putting these biblical thoughts together: We, like Jesus, delight to do God’s will and to accomplish His work. But God’s work and God’s will include not only actions on our part, but also our becoming like Jesus: Having patience, love, kindness, devotion, endurance, gentleness, piety, and self-control. So He desires us to become like Jesus – and for us to help others to become like Jesus. That never happens through our own strength, through our own will-power, through “the strength of a horse” or “the legs of a man.” No. That only happens as we devour His Word, as we depend on His grace, as we submit to His wisdom, as we rejoice in His love. Activity in and of itself does not honor Him. Becoming Christlike and acting Christlike honor Him.

So, no, in and of itself working on God’s behalf does not please Him. He takes no delight in my puny strength, my puny abilities, my puny accomplishments.

But God takes great joy in our fulfilling His purposes for us – as we become more like Jesus inside and outside, in thoughts and attitudes as well as in words and deeds.

So by all means witness – out of the overflow of your joy in Christ. Give generously – knowing all you have is a grant from God to be used for His glory. Worship corporately – in spirit and in truth. Help the poor – with the compassion of Christ for the glory of Christ. Become like Jesus – and act like Him. This is how you can please God.

 

Reading God’s Word in 2017

December 30, 2016

Jesus Christ is the hinge of history. All history prior to His birth points toward Him; all history afterwards looks back at His life, and forward to His second coming. The story of this world is the story of the glory of God, as God redeems fallen man and, indeed, all of creation to the praise of His glorious grace.

At this hinge, at the first Christmas, God became man, Immanuel, God with us; Jesus then lived the only perfect life, a life in which He loved God the Father with all His heart, all His soul, all His mind, and all His strength every minute of every day, and always loved His neighbor as Himself; Jesus suffered and died, taking upon Himself all the sins of all of God’s people of all time; God raised Him from the dead, proving that the penalty was sufficient, the price was paid. He will return to overcome all opposition, to exercise perfect justice, to wipe every tear from the eyes of His people, and to establish His eternal Kingdom of righteousness and peace.

This is the storyline of the Bible, the plotline of God’s work in this creation. Do you know it? Do you see and understand how God has worked through the centuries to fulfill His plan to sum up all things in Christ?

One excellent way to gain that understanding and thereby impact your daily life is by following a Bible reading plan that will help you to make these connections.

In 1984 I first read through the entire Bible following a plan that guided me chronologically through the events recorded in Scripture. I saw God’s plan in a new light; I saw the centrality of Christ in a fresh way; I saw how all Scripture held together, from God’s work through the people of Israel, their apostasy, the destruction of the temple, the exile and the return from exile, the coming of Christ, the crucifixion and resurrection, the spread of the church, and Jesus’ second coming. Passages like Leviticus and Ezekiel, which I had struggled to read before, now I saw in a new light; the familiar gospels and epistles took on new meaning as I read the story of God’s glory in sequence.

A chronological plan does have a weakness, however: For almost 10 months, all of one’s devotional reading is in the Old Testament. While this is fine for one year, as a pattern to follow again and again, it is not healthy. Therefore, fifteen years ago I developed the Bible Unity Reading Plan. Like the plan I had followed in 1984, the Bible Unity Reading Plan takes the reader through the entirety of the Bible over the course of a year. The difference is that the Unity Plan organizes about two-thirds of the Scriptures into a chronological track, but assigns a reading from the other Testament every day. This achieves the benefits of seeing God’s storyline, while drawing our attention every day to both Old and New Testament truth. I have followed this plan or a minor variant every year since.

The Shorter Bible Unity Reading Plan similarly has two tracks every day, a chronological track and a reading from the other Testament. The only difference is that the shorter plan covers only a bit more than half of the Old Testament while taking the reader through the entirety of the New. 

As D.A. Carson says, “At their best, Christians have saturated themselves in the Bible. They say with Job, ‘I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread’ (Job 23:12).’” Will you saturate yourself with the Bible in 2017? I encourage you: Commit yourself to following the plotline of the Bible consistently through the coming year. Come to next Christmastime with a deeper understanding of how the birth of Christ is the hinge of history, so that you might be that much more in awe of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, rejoicing in His sovereign mercy and being steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, confident that He will indeed sum up all things in Christ to the glory of His Name and the good of His people.

[We’ll have copies of the Bible Unity Reading Plan and the Shorter Bible Unity Reading Plan on the foyer table at our services this Sunday. You can also download them at the links. In addition, there is an Android app available that takes you through the plan.]

Unto You is Born . . .

December 9, 2016

How do you respond to Christmas?

  • Not to materialism, ads, crowded malls, TV specials, and fake Santas;
  • Not to performances of Nutcracker and Messiah and Dickens’ Christmas Carol;
  • Not even to caroling and Christmas Eve services.

But how do you respond to the story of the birth of Jesus?

Consider: How does a four-year-old respond to Christmas?

Most four-year-olds have only the vaguest memories of the previous Christmas, but they remember enough to be thoroughly excited.  All is fresh and wonderful and magical and delightful.

Can you recapture that wide-eyed response – to the true story of Christmas?

As we walk through Luke’s account of the first Christmas, put yourself in the place of someone who has never heard it before. Imagine yourself a traveler in Judea in the first century. You hear the story from a shepherd. All is new. All is fresh. How do you respond?

Let’s look at Luke 2:1-21 under 3 headings:

  • Action
  • Proclamation
  • Response

Action

The first action is taken by Augustus, emperor of Rome – seemingly the most powerful man in the world. He commands that all in the Roman Empire be registered for taxation. Among the Jews, this meant that the male head of each family would have to return to the town of his ancestors, Bethlehem.  So Joseph must travel with pregnant Mary.

Understand: Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem only because of the command of Caesar Augustus. Surely this is an unwelcome inconvenience for Mary, to take a several-days journey while pregnant.

But they had to go – for God had said through the prophet Micah that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2-5). So God uses Caesar Augustus to get Mary to Bethlehem, in fulfillment of prophecy.

Don’t pass over this incident. Marvel at the sovereignty of God.                Augustus had his own reasons for calling for this tax registration. He did what he thought would secure his own reign and build up his power own power. He had no idea that the most important effect of his registration concerned the new-born king who far surpasses him in power and might.

As Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” And God turned the heart of Caesar Augustus in order that Mary gave birth in Bethlehem.

The second action: Mary gives birth to her son, wraps Him in cloths, and lays Him in a manger – a feeding trough for cattle (Luke 2:6-7). Unlike in most popular accounts, Luke does not say she gave birth the night she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. But the birth does take place as prophesied. The child is born. The son is given. And the government will be upon His shoulders. He is the long-awaited Messiah. He is the conquering King.

Yet this magnificent birth takes place in a far from magnificent setting: Within the prophesied city, yes, but not in a palace, not even in a house.

Traditionally, Mary gives birth surrounded by animals – “the friendly beasts.” But we don’t know that. All we know is what Luke tells us: There was no room for them in the normal place travelers would stay, so stayed elsewhere. Either there was an animal’s feeding trough in the place where they stayed, or, needing some resting place for the child, Joseph found an unused manger, cleaned it out, and carried it to where they stayed.

So a young girl, a virgin, gave birth to a tiny, crying baby and put him in a feeding trough.

Meanwhile,

  • the emperor gave commands,
  • armies marched,
  • politicians connived.

They all thought they were very important men of action.

But the most important event  – the most important event to that point in all of history – took place when that young girl gave birth. The Messiah is born.

Proclamation

God has planned this event since before the beginning of time. And so now He proclaims it, telling others the significance of what just happened. He sends a large number of angelic messengers to announce the birth of the long-awaited Messiah.

  • He could have sent them to Caesar Augustus, but doesn’t;
  • He could have sent them to King Herod,  but does not;
  • He could have sent them to the High Priest or the chief priests, but He avoids them.

Instead, God chooses to send His messengers to a group of poor shepherds herding their flocks in the middle of the night.

Picture the scene: The night is dark – exceptionally dark to our eyes, for of course there are no electric lights anywhere. There is not even any glow from Bethlehem or Jerusalem. They’ve collected the sheep and goats so they can guard them from predators, and have kindled a fire in their midst. It is dark. Quiet. No sound of cars or trains. Perhaps a dog barks in the distance. The only sound is the low murmur of their conversation.

Then: Flash! A tremendously bright light!  An Angel, blazing brightness, mighty in strength, overwhelming in power, appears in front of them. They are blinded, hardly able to see anything. In the midst of their surprise and fright, the angel speaks: “Fear not! For behold, I proclaim to you a good and great joy that will be for all the people.”

Why is this is so good, so joyous?

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord!”

Why did the angel say, “Unto you”? He could have truthfully said, “For a Savior, Christ, the Lord is born this day!” But he adds, ‘Unto you.”

He adds the phrase because that’s what makes it joyous! Unto you! Unto all the people!

  • Not just to the rich and powerful
  • Not just to the Pharisees and Sadducees
  • Not just to the chief priests and the scribes

But to you shepherds! To all the people, young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, strong and weak! The prophecy in Isaiah had been, “Unto us a child is born,” so the angel says: This child is born unto you!

So this is the long-awaited day, the day when there would be no more delay. The child is born. At last.

But who is this child? How does the angel describe Him? With three words: Savior. Christ (or Messiah). And Lord.

Realize: The normal Jewish teaching at this time did not consider the Messiah to be divine. He was clearly a descendant of David. With great power He would restore the Kingdom of Israel. So they thought of Him as a Savior in that sense: He would deliver them from their earthly enemies, their earthly oppressors.

But throughout the Old Testament, God Himself is termed the Savior, or the “God of my Salvation.” And God saves not only from earthly enemies, but also from spiritual enemies – and even death itself.

So in the Old Testament God is Savior, and the Messiah is Savior.

But the angel doesn’t only call the child Savior and Messiah. He also calls this child Lord.

This word is not usually associated with the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament. Rather, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament used in Jesus’ day, this same word translated “Lord” is used in place of Hebrew name of God (Jehovah or Yahweh).

So is the angel then saying: “God is Savior; the Messiah is Savior. God is Lord; the Messiah is Lord. Therefore the Messiah is God”?

Since the word “Lord” can also be used of a king or a prominent individual, we can’t be definitive. Nevertheless, there is a strong hint in the angel’s words: “This is the Messiah that you have expected, that you have hoped for – but He is greater than you ever imagined! This Messiah is Savior – He will save you from a far greater enemy than the Romans. This Messiah is Lord – not just an earthly king, but Immanuel, God-with-us, Yahweh, God Himself.      This child born unto you is God Almighty.”

Picture the shepherds at this point: Overwhelmed with fear and surprise at the angel’s appearance; astounded and confused by the angel’s words; knowing they are at the center of a great event. And then the angel says something preposterous: “This will be a sign for you. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

That might have been the greatest surprise of the night! That these angels would appear to poor shepherds to announce the Messiah’s birth is quite surprising. But the long-awaited Messiah – wrapped up like a common poor infant, placed in a feeding-trough?

But as if to underline that this is the greatest news the world has ever heard, so that shepherds see that being a baby in a manger does not diminish His glory, a huge number of angels now suddenly appear, praising God: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.”

Indeed, God’s is bringing the highest glory, the deepest praise to Himself through the birth of His Son. And He promises peace among those with whom He is well-pleased. Not a general “goodwill toward men.” But peace with God for those who are His people, for those who are His treasured possession, for those who are the true Israel.

In the same prophecy in which Micah names Bethlehem as the place of the Messiah’s birth, he says, “He shall be their peace” (Micah 5:5). And so the angels say: “The time is now! The child is born unto you! God’s peace is here! God’s glory shines forth! The Messiah, the Savior, the Lord is with you!”

Response

The shepherds are the first to respond. They say, “We’ve got to get to Bethlehem, now! We’ve got to see what God has told us about.” So they go as fast as they can.

It must take a while – where are they to find a baby lying in a feeding trough? But they succeed. In some nondescript place, they find Mary, and Joseph, and the infant Messiah.

The shepherds excitedly tell Mary and Joseph all that happened, all the angels said. “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20).

So how do the shepherds respond?

  • Not with pride “Aren’t we special! God sent his angels to us!”
  • Not with marketing savvy: “Let’s see if we can get a book contract for the story!”
  • Nor with skepticism: “How can that poor little baby be David’s heir?

Instead, the shepherds respond with joy.  With faith. They give glory to God. They tell others – not to make a buck, but to share this great good news.

What about Mary? What is her response?

Verses 18 and 19 contrast Mary’s response with the response of those who heard the shepherds’ story: “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:18-19).

Those who hear the shepherds wonder at the news. The word translated “wonder” can imply surprise, or even being disturbed. So for most who hear the news, the shepherds’ report becomes an interesting tidbit of news:  “Did you hear what old Joe said happened last night?” “And I heard from Sarah that . . .” The news sparked conversation. It made life interesting for a while. Each person wanted to be the first to let others know of this strange report. But like most news stories today, after being a topic of conversation, of concern for a  while, life goes on. People forget about it. They don’t talk about it any more. Oh, they have some vague recollection of the story. But it has no real impact on their lives. They have no change of heart, no deeper understanding of God.

Mary’s response was different. She took all this to heart. She turned them over and over in her mind. She didn’t understand them, but more and more she sees that her conception of her baby, this Messiah, needs to grow.

Indeed, her question is: “What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?”

And that’s your question too: Who is this child? What is your response?

  • Can you respond like a four-year-old – with wide-eyed wonder at the good and great joy?
  • Can you respond like the shepherds – with faith and excitement, praising God, telling others?
  • Can you respond like Mary – pondering these truths, treasuring them up, thinking about them over and over?

How we need all three responses!

For this is the joyous news, the greatest of all joys!

  • Unto you has been born a Savior, the Messiah – the Lord!
  • Unto you – lost in sin, dead in rebellion, doomed to destruction;
  • Unto you – mockers of God, violators of His Law, idolaters at heart;
  • Unto you  a child is born.
  • Unto you a son is given.

This Child Himself will be your peace. This Child will be your entryway to God. This child will die to pay the penalty for your sins, if you only believe in Him, if you only see Him for who He is: Your Savior, Your Messiah, Your Lord.

Unto you is born this day a Savior!

God orchestrated all events for centuries so that a Roman emperor would issue a command bringing an unknown young girl from Nazareth to Bethlehem. God enabled her to give birth in humble surroundings, yet sent His majestic army to proclaim the great joy. And similarly God has brought you to the point where you have heard this story, this great joy.

Unto you a child is born: So glory to God in the Highest! Praise Him!

How will you respond?

 

(This is a shortened and edited version of a sermon preached December 18, 2005 at Desiring God Community Church. The audio is available here.)

 

 

 

Advent and the Judgment Seat of Christ

December 2, 2016

The Advent season is upon us: Jesus is coming!

But what Jesus?

Yes, Jesus the tiny baby, born to Mary while she was still a virgin, really unable to care for Himself, really human.

Yet also Jesus the promised King, the future Judge, the One before whose Judgment Seat we all must stand, “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

This Jesus was born on Christmas Day. The Final Judge.

And one day you will stand before Him.

Think about that: You! You, alone. Not with your father or mother. Not with your brother or your sister. Not with your pastor or your friend. You must stand before this King. And there, as Paul says, you must bear your own load alone (Galatians 6:5).

So imagine yourself there before Him. Your Judge knows all you ever did, all you ever said, all you ever thought. You can’t hide. You can’t make excuses. You can’t compare yourself to others. You can’t plead ignorance. You can’t claim there were extenuating circumstances. You can’t lean on your spouse or your parent or your child or your pastor or your friend.

Your Judge will expose every selfish motive and every hidden sin.

Ponder that encounter – that encounter that is sure to come.

Does that image strike you with fear?  Are you terrified to have all you’ve hidden brought to light?

With that coming judgment in mind, the Apostle Paul exhorts us, “Each one must examine his own work” (Galatians 6:4 NAS). We must test ourselves – and see if we pass the test.

But what is the test? Is it: “Did I do enough good works to satisfy God? Am I good enough to meet His standards?”

No! Rather, the test is a test of faith. Is my “faith” just lip-service? Or is there evidence that my faith in Christ is real?

So, Jesus the Judge asks: “Did you live a life of active dependence on Me, turning away from yourself and your own resources and your own wisdom and turning to Me? Did you acknowledge My power and My sacrifice on the cross? Did you show that I was worth more than all the world has to offer?”

If you are indeed saved by grace through faith, there should be no terror at the prospect of this judgment. No worry. No embarrassment.

For there is no purgatory, no remaining punishment for sins, no painful recompense for those in Christ. He already has paid the price! Instead, if you are in Him, the Father will wipe every tear from your eyes, and there will be no more sorrow or crying or pain.

Indeed, to the extent that you are worried about your sins coming to light at Christ’s Judgment Seat, to that extent, you are depending on works; to that extent, you are guilty of the sin of pride.

For if your faith is genuine, what will be outcome of Christ’s judgment?

Your Judge will proclaim, “I paid the penalty for all these revealed sins! My blood covers them all.”

And that leads to all the more amazement, all the more joy, all the more delight for you in the Savior. As you see the depth of your own sinfulness as never before, you will see the depth of His mercy as never before. In this way, even your sins will work to the praise of His glorious grace.

So the result is not embarrassment. Not suffering. But joy at His amazing grace.

Thus, at Christ’s judgment seat, there are two possible final statements from the Judge:

First: “Created to glorify Me, you instead showed that you despised Me. I cast you into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30).

Fear that final judgment!

But if you pass the test, if you are in Christ, no matter what your sins might be, the final statement from the Judge will be: “Well-done, good and faithful servant – by My sacrifice, by My grace, enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:21, 23).

Jesus was born to Mary in order to make that final, merciful judgment possible. So throw yourself on His mercy! Lose all desire for the praise of men! Rejoice that Jesus was born to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10)!

Voting as a Joyous, Secure Christ-Follower

November 4, 2016

Who are you?

Where does your security come from?

Where does your joy come from?

We who call ourselves Christians must ask these questions whenever we are making decisions. Whether we are deciding how to budget our income or how to vote, we need to test our motives and passions: Are we acting consistently with who we are in Christ, with our security in Christ, with our joy in Christ?

With the election four days away, let’s think about each of these questions with respect to Christians in this world, and then draw some implications for how we should vote.

First: Who are you in Christ?

If Jesus is your Savior, if He is your Lord, you are a citizen of the Kingdom of God (Philippians 3:20). You are loved by the Father as His child (John 16:27, Romans 8:13-17). You were dead in trespasses and sins, but He has miraculously made you alive in Christ (Ephesians 2: 1-5). Having begun this great work in you, He guarantees that He will complete it (Philippians 1:6), as He makes you – together with all those in Christ – into the perfect, spotless Bride of Jesus (Ephesians 5:27).

Thus, your identity does not come from your race, your ethnicity, your class, your income, your education, your height, your weight, your physical prowess, or your intelligence. Nor does your identity come from the country of your birth, or the country of your earthly citizenship. We can celebrate our ethnicity; we can rejoice in our countries. And all these factors influence how we think and how we serve. But our identity in Christ trumps them all. Our identity in Christ is far more central than them all. Thus, as children of God we are free from the control of government (Matthew 17:24-27). So the apostles did not bow to the will of powerful leaders when commanded not to speak of Jesus (Acts 5:27-29). Nevertheless, for the sake of Jesus we submit to government when to do so does not conflict with God’s commands (1 Peter 2:13-17).

Second: Where is your joy?

As those united to Christ, our greatest joy must come from Him – not from the things of this world, not from our position in this world, not from the country of which we are a part (Philippians 4:4-5, 1 John 2:15-17, Psalm 73:25-26).  Jesus is our great treasure – worth more than all the world has to offer, so that even if we lose all in order to follow Him, our joy increases (Matthew 13:44-46, Mark 10:17-31).

Thus, your joy is not rooted in your country. Your country might fall apart, or be overcome by a foreign power, or be taken over by evil men. Such has happened to Christians time and again over the last 2,000 years. Yet you have an indomitable joy in Christ.

Third: Where is your security?

Jesus tells us that He has all authority in heaven and on earth – all authority, over every ruler, over every terrorist, over every spiritual power. Furthermore, He promises that He is with us; God will never leave us nor forsake us (Matthew 28:18-20, Hebrews 13:15). He knows exactly what we need, and will provide us with everything necessary for us to grow in Christlikeness and to serve His purposes (Matthew 6:25-33, 2 Peter 1:3). Furthermore, Jesus will return in power and great glory (Matthew 24:30); He will overwhelm all rebels against His authority, right every wrong, end all human countries and states, and establish His eternal Kingdom of peace (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Revelation 11:15). God Himself will wipe every tear from our eyes, and we will see Him face to face (Revelation 21:4, 1 Corinthians 13:12).

So our security does not depend on the defense policy of our government or on the effectiveness of the police force or on the equity of the criminal justice system. The IRS may run amuck and the Fed may exercise foolish economic policy. We may be persecuted; we may be convicted unjustly and sentenced to death. But, as the Apostle Paul said even when facing execution, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (2 Timothy 4:18). Not a hair of our head will perish, even if we are hated by all and put to death (Luke 21:16-18).  In Christ, we are completely secure.

What, then, are our responsibilities as citizens?

In this world, we are aliens and exiles (1 Peter 2:11), similar to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah tells these exiles that their sojourn in that foreign country will not be permanent, but will be lengthy – longer than the lifespan of most of the exiles. So he instructs them, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). Just so for us. We and we are to work to improve the country of our sojourning in a variety of ways – but especially, of course, in bearing witness to the love and grace of God the Father through Jesus His Son.

Surely voting is one way that we exercise that responsibility. We are to seek the welfare of the United States where God has sent us into exile. By voting, we can help to bring into local, state, and national offices men and women who will serve the country well, who may improve the welfare of our city, our state, our country – and even the world.

So I am mystified by statements from some Christian leaders, arguing that we have no obligation to vote. Surely the state cannot force us to vote – let us obey God rather than man! But just as surely we are to seek the welfare of this country – and we can, we must do so through voting (and through thousands of other means).

Voting as a Joyous, Secure, Christ-Follower

So if we are to vote, how do we decide on which candidates to support?

On my ballot in North Carolina this election are candidates for 23 offices. Some of these candidates are wise and well-qualified; they will serve well. Enthusiastically support such candidates. Vote for them as a way to seek the welfare of those around you. Your hope, your joy, and your security are not wrapped up in their winning the election. But learn about the candidates and vote for those who you think will improve life for your fellow citizens.

But the big question this year is how to vote for president – an office which is consequential not only for the welfare of this country, but for the welfare of the entire world. Some Christian leaders have opined that no Christian should vote for Trump; others have said no Christian should vote for Clinton; still others have argued that no Christian can vote in good conscience for either of them.

I think these arguments are wrong. Why?

First, as we’ve indicated, our identity, our hope, and our joy are not wrapped up in any candidate. We can vote for a candidate without setting our hope in him or her, without identifying ourselves as followers of him or her.

Second, in voting we are seeking the welfare of our country, state, and city to the glory of God. That voting decision – particularly in a case like this year’s presidential election – is a judgment call. Indeed, it is a particularly complex judgment call. We should expect different Christians  - with varying levels of understanding of economic policy, foreign policy, and judicial policy, and different weights on the importance assigned to each– to differ in their judgments. Past experience will also affect the way such judgments are made. So surely how to vote in a presidential election like this is a disputable matter among Christians, a matter of wisdom. We therefore should treat it like the disputable matters discussed in Romans 14. In particular, “Let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Romans 14:13). Your brother or sister in Christ had better be much more precious to you than your presidential candidate. And the way you discuss politics could indeed put a stumbling block in the way of your brother or sister. So treat this presidential election as a judgment call – and respect the judgment calls of fellow believers, even when you think they are wrongheaded.

Third: How can you make a wise judgment between Trump and Clinton?

Let me lay out four scenarios. Which is most applicable to you depends on your judgment of the candidates and what other considerations you think are most important for the future welfare of the country.

a)      First possibility: You think there is a good chance one of the two major candidates would end up on balance being good for the country. You disagree with some political stands that candidate takes, and you recognize and regret his or her character flaws – yet, on balance, with the uncertainty about the future that always accompanies voting, you honestly believe there is a chance this candidate could serve the country well. If so, vote for that candidate.

b)      Second possibility: You think both candidates are deeply flawed, and electing either as president could have serious negative consequences for the country and the world. But while you think both are potentially disastrous, you think one has the potential to be much worse than the other. You may decide to vote for the lesser disaster (but may not – see scenarios three and four also). For example, abstracting from this election: If I thought one candidate would end up killing ten million people, and the other would end up killing thirty million people, I might well vote for the one who would kill ten million. I would not be endorsing that candidate; I would not be aligning myself with that candidate; I certainly would not be setting my hope in that candidate. Rather, in wisdom before God I would be making the decision that as far as I can tell will lead to the greatest welfare for the country of my exile.

c)       Third possibility: Your assessment of the two major candidates is similar to (b) above – you think either would be disastrous. But in this scenario you want to do all you can to raise the low probability of another candidate becoming president. That would require that neither Trump nor Clinton attain 270 electoral votes, and that some electoral votes go to another candidate. In that case, the House of Representatives would choose the president from among the top three candidates in the electoral college, with each state delegation getting one vote. With Clinton’s lead in the polls shrinking and Evan McMullin having a decent shot at winning Utah this outcome is not impossible. In this case, you would vote for McMullin in Utah, Johnson in New Mexico, or any other third party candidate in states where they might win. But North Carolina is different. Should Clinton win here, she almost certainly will get 270 electoral votes. The only candidate who can beat her in this state is Trump. So in this scenario, you would vote for Trump in North Carolina as the strategy that will most effectively raise the probability of someone other than the two major candidates becoming president.

d)      Fourth possibility: Again, you think both Clinton and Trump would harm the country. You may or may not think one is considerably worse than the other. But in your judgment, the two parties are able to nominate deeply flawed candidates and then run predominantly negative campaigns because they do not believe voters will abandon them for a third party. You think the country would benefit from having more than two choices in future elections – and you think that the two parties would be more likely to work together during the next four years if they were to perceive a third party threat (as they did after the 1992 election, when Ross Perot received 19 percent of the vote). In this case, vote for whichever third party or write-in candidate you consider the best.

My friends, in Christ we are secure. In Christ we have indomitable joy. And in Christ we know who we are: Chosen, beloved, set apart for Him. No election will change any of that.

So work for the welfare of the country of your exile. Pray for this country. Vote wisely – following whichever scenario most accurately fits your judgment.

And then – with joy, with confidence – entrust the church in this country to God and to the word of His grace (Acts 20:32).   He is able to build her up and to give her the promised inheritance – and will do so. And in the end – whatever the outcome of this election – the gates of hell will not prevail against her (Matthew 16:18).

 

At Last! The Psalms!

October 7, 2016

This Sunday we begin a multi-year sermon series on the book of Psalms. If our Lord is willing, over something like 75 sermons, we’ll cover the entire book from “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Psalm 1:1) to “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:5). Most weeks, as on October 9, we’ll consider more than one psalm. We’ll also break up the series into groups of about 15 sermons, returning to Romans to complete that series after the first set of psalms, and interspersing other New Testament series with the remaining psalms.

Why the book of Psalms?

At one level, it’s about time to consider it! While we read Scripture from this book almost every Sunday, only a handful sermons at DGCC have taken any of the psalms as their text.

At another level, the book of Psalms fits well with where we are in our preaching. Both Fred and I have focused in the past several months on key doctrines of the faith – who is God, what is man? How are we not condemned before Him? Where is the world headed? The psalms help us to see and to live out what must follow from such doctrines – the emotions, the affections, the praise, the crying out – as we live life in a sinful, fallen world.

Furthermore, when you read the psalms – personally, in your family, or in corporate worship – you are linking yourself with followers of God over the last three thousand years. Over centuries and millennia, these psalms have expressed and shaped the affections and emotions of God’s people. We pray that God will do the same with us – that our prayers might be shaped by these psalms and our attitudes might become more consistent with biblical doctrine as we hear and speak and live out these psalms.

Let’s look at seven forms that this expressing and shaping of emotions takes (modified from Mark Dever’s similar list in The Message of the Old Testament):

Praise: We proclaim the greatness of our God to all peoples and, indeed, to all creation, citing who He has proclaimed Himself to be:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! 
Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. 
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!  
For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. 
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens. 
Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. 
Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength!
Psalm 96:1-7

Remembering: We remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness to His covenant, especially as shown in the history of His people:

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
indeed, the deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lighted up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
Psalm 77:16-20

Thanksgiving: Giving thanks in the psalms is not private, between an individual and God. Rather, thanksgiving in the psalms is always a form of public praise. Whether the psalmist is thanking God for assisting him personally or for helping the people, the thanksgiving praises God for such acts:

Some were fools through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction; 
they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. 
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. 
He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction. 
Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! 
And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!
Psalm 107:17-22

Trust: Praising God for who He is, remembering His covenant love and faithful deeds, and thanking Him for His work on our behalf all serve to deepen our trust in Him. So the psalms call upon us to trust Him always, especially in the midst of trials and difficulties:

Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand. 
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. 
They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.
Psalm 20:6-8

Honest Lament:  Yet while we are in such trials and difficulties, God often seems distant and confusing. We cry out and don’t see an answer; we ask God to intervene, and don’t understand how He is at work. Many psalms reflect this confusion, this darkness; indeed, more than one-third of the psalms contain a lament. One author says there is so much lament in the psalms to “show that the experience of anguish and puzzlement in the life of faith is not a sign of deficient faith, something to be outgrown or put behind one, but rather is intrinsic to the very nature of faith” (R.W.L. Moberly, as quoted by B Waltke et al, The Psalms as Christian Lament, p. 1). Often these laments sound similar to Job’s cries:

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? 
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. 
Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. 
They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together. 
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.
Psalm 88:14-18

Love for and Obedience to God’s Law:  We delight in God’s revelation of His character in His Law, and strive to follow it by His grace, knowing that in following Him we find true life, true joy.

Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. 
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. 
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. 
I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. 
I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me. 
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! 
Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.
Psalm 119:97-104

Repentance: Though we love His Law and strive to follow it, we often fall short. So we turn from our sin, confessing that God rightly condemns us and seeking forgiveness by His grace and mercy.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
Psalm 51:1-4

May God be pleased to express and shape our affections and emotions through this great book, and so continue to transform us into His people who live to His glory among all the nations.

 

Cancer Cannot Separate Us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus

September 27, 2016

After preaching Sunday on Romans 8:35-39, I learned via Facebook that Anjel French has melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer that has spread to other parts of her body. Anjel is married to Jason French, former worship leader at one of the campuses of Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis and the author of some of the songs we sing at DGCC. In Jason’s post on Sunday evening, he discusses how the very truths we sang about and heard about that morning are life-giving and spirit-feeding in the midst of such serious trials. An excerpt:

Cancer is not God. It is created. It is creation. It is not self-existing. It is not autonomous. It does not have a will of its own such that it can live and move, expand or shrink, or even die apart from the will of the Creator of the entire Cosmos whom we are so privileged to call “Father,” because we have been adopted into his family through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of his beloved Son, Jesus, and are now sealed with the promise of and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

So, cancer does not have the final say. Cancer must obey God. God has the final say and for his children, this will is always for us. It can never, ever be against us. If God commands the cancer to go, it will and must go. If God in Christ commands the cancer to remain, or grow, or shrink, or stay the same, it bends to the will of him who holds as things together—even cancer—by the word of his power. And if he wills the cancer stays, we know and believe he hides a smile behind the frowning providence, for he has written down all of our days in his book when as yet there were none of them (Psalm 139:14). Our days will not be cut short, nor prolonged. This is not fatalism. This is faith in our Father, Lord of heaven and earth.

Do pray for Anjel and Jason. And do read the whole post.

Keith Lamont Scott and Brentley Vinson

September 21, 2016

Keith Lamont Scott, 43, father of 7, is dead, killed by Police Officer Brentley Vinson, 26, a 2012 graduate of Liberty University, where he played football.

Both are African-American.

It should go without saying – but unfortunately still needs to be said – that black lives matter.

It should go without saying – but unfortunately still needs to be said – that black cops’ lives matter.

Was Officer Vinson acting out of racial hatred? Clearly not.

Was Officer Vinson acting out of a justified assessment that he and other police officers were about to be attacked? That is what Police Chief Putney – also African-American – states emphatically.

Based on our past experience, some of us tend to believe what police tell us.

Based on our past experience, some of us tend not to believe what police tell us.

Thus we can react very differently to the same set of facts.

Our local political leaders, Democrat and Republican, have handled the situation well in my assessment, calling for calm, condemning violence, acknowledging the right of peaceful protest, and assuring the city that there will be a full and fair investigation. Some of last night’s protestors rightly called for accountability – and there must be. May we all work to make sure that happens.

Yet right now, in the fog of these chaotic events, many people are speaking out, in public and on social media, after hearing what can only be partial accounts of what happened, condemning Officer Vinson, condemning Chief Putney.

Brothers and sisters, all Christians should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). All Christians should know that “the one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17).  And all Christians should know that:

There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16-19)

If Officer Vinson is guilty of shedding innocent blood, and if Chief Putney is guilty of having a lying tongue, they should be convicted in a court of law, and in the end will be found guilty before our Lord’s perfect tribunal. So may the process play out justly. If others are acting as false witnesses, breathing out lies, trying to sow discord, they too in the end will be found guilty before our Lord’s perfect tribunal.

So may we call for justice. May we work for justice. May we mourn with the Scott family, who have to face this tragedy. May we mourn with the Vinson family, who also have to face a tragedy – a tragedy of a lower order of magnitude, but  a tragedy nevertheless.

And may we pray – together, with one heart, with one accord – that God might use even these horrible events to heal our city, to enable the Gospel to shine forth in a thousand acts of love and comfort, and to display the unity all believers of all races really, genuinely have in Christ.

 

Call to Me and I Will Answer

September 9, 2016

Jeremiah 33:2-3: “Thus says the LORD who made the earth, the LORD who formed it to establish it – the LORD is his name: Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.”

We should be amazed at this statement. The One who made all things, the One who fulfills all His plans,  tells part of His creation – us! – to call out to Him. And He promises to answer! Indeed, He promises not only to answer, but to reveal to us what we could never know on our own, “great and hidden things.”

God declared these words to Jeremiah while he was under arrest for speaking truth. The Babylonians had besieged Jerusalem, cutting off all sources of food. Jeremiah had prophesied again and again that they would conquer the city as a judgment from God. The Lord God had rejected His people, and had ordained that even His temple – the physical picture of His presence in the midst of His people – would be destroyed. Since many officials found these prophesies treasonous, they had him arrested. Unable to scrounge for food in a city where starvation was rampant, Jeremiah was in danger of death. And the Babylonians were coming soon.

In this time of despair, God speaks to His people through His suffering prophet, saying: “Remember who I am. Remember my power and might. Remember my authority. Yes, my people have been disobedient. Yes, judgment is coming – it must come. But you, my faithful remnant: Call to me. Seek my face. Cry out to me. Run after me. For I will answer you. I will reveal to you more of who I am than you’ve ever known: more of my covenant promises, more of my plans, more of my glory. Call to me! For this is who I am – the revealing God, the God who speaks.” And in the following verses, He speaks of His plans to restore the people and to bring forth a “righteous branch” – Jesus Himself! – from the line of David.

Today, we too live in a society which rebels against God’s authority. We too can look around and be tempted to despair. We too can think that there is no hope.

But the Lord God tells us also: “I made all this. I am in control. I am working out my good and right purposes in the entirety of this creation and in this specific country. So know me! Cry out to me – and I will answer! I will tell you great and hidden things!”

So cry out to Him! Open His Word, in which all things were written for our instruction that we might have hope (Romans 15:4). Go to the Word in prayer, as a supplicant, asking for insight, acknowledging your dependence. Go to church services, asking to hear of God’s marvels in that Word. Expect to see great and hidden things about our Lord, which only He can reveal. Expect to have that Word mold your thoughts and attitudes, conforming you to the image of Christ, the Righteous Branch. Ask that it might be so, for you and for all of God’s people, God’s remnant.

And the Lord God – He who made the earth, he who formed it to establish it, Yahweh is His Name – He Himself will answer Your call through His Word, and will show you wonderful things from His Law (Psalm 119:18).

What is a Member Initiative Driven Church?

August 31, 2016

Desiring God Community Church is a member-initiative driven church, rather than a program-driven church.

What does that mean?

Let’s get to that question first by asking: Did the first-century church have programs? That is, did the leadership set up ministries in the church, decide what positions were necessary to operate those ministries, and then fill those positions from within the church?

The answer? Maybe.

Consider the church’s support of widows, first mentioned in Jerusalem in Acts 6 and discussed more fully by the Apostle Paul about 25 years later in 1 Timothy 5:3-16. Paul, writing to Timothy in Ephesus, describes conditions under which certain widows should be “enrolled” (ESV) or “placed on the official support list” (HCSB). So there must have been at least a somewhat formal organization, defining who was to be served, who was doing the serving, and what services would be offered. We don’t know how the ministry to widows began – whether by church leadership, or by an individual beginning to minister, and then as the ministry expanded gradually bringing in others to help. In any event, this is an example of a ministry that at least takes on some characteristics of a program. We want to be careful, therefore, not to think of programs per se in a negative light.

Today, many churches not only have programs, but are program driven: That is, their programs define the church. Ask why you should attend such a church, and the answer often will be a list of the various programs that are set up to serve members, or to reach the community.

What are some advantages of a program-driven church?

  • First, the leadership may have a good feel for the needs of the congregation and the opportunities in the community, and can set up ministries that will effectively meet those needs
  • Second, when people come to the church, the leaders can guide them quickly and easily into a slot in a program, and thus assimilate them into the life of the church.
  • Third, the leaders can define a plan for the future, and see that plan implemented over several years.

What are some disadvantages of a program-driven church?

  • The first is the flip side of one of the advantages: The leadership may not have a good feel for the needs of all parts of the congregation, or for the opportunities in many segments of the community. Church members may have a much better sense of these needs and opportunities – particularly in the relationship circles in which they regularly function.
  • Second, when ministry is understood to consist of participating in the church’s programs, members often will close their eyes to needs and opportunities outside those programs.
  • The third disadvantage is related to the second: In a program-driven church, it is easy to fill up all your spare time with the church’s programs. Then, even if you notice needs and opportunities elsewhere, you don’t have the time and energy to serve.

So, as stated above, we aim to be a member-initiative driven church. What does that mean?

Fundamentally, it means that all of us are taking initiative to grow as disciples and to step out in ministry in our circles of relationships, in the Charlotte area, and with unreached peoples around the world. Our leaders speak the Word to us, provide us resources, set an example, help us partner together with others, pray for us and with us, speak with us about the needs and opportunities that they discern, and help us imagine what God might do in us and through us – but we all are responsible to grow in Christlikeness and to serve faithfully and lovingly, reaching out with the Gospel and with Christ’s love.

When that happens, it is impossible to plan for what God might do. For in a member initiative-driven church, a key way the church fulfills its ministry is by everyone in the body stepping out and ministering. A member may see a need, and begin to serve. Opportunities to serve may expand. In consultation with leaders, that member may invite others to participate and serve. As the ministry grows, it may take on some characteristics of a program. But it all began with one person stepping out faithfully. And this is replicated time and again, the church’s array of ministries can become what the leaders never imagined.

We want our people to be like the Good Samaritan – on his way, presumably traveling for business, he encounters a needy man, and is a neighbor to that man (Luke 10:25-37). Or like Philip – in response to mysterious leading by the Spirit, he heads away from town on a road, and encounters an Ethiopian reading Isaiah. He takes the initiative to begin from that passage to speak the Gospel (Acts 8:26-39). Philip wasn’t participating in the Jerusalem church’s evangelism program – he was simply sensitive to the way the Spirit was leading him in his day to day life. Or – especially – like Jesus. Whether He unexpectedly encountered Jairus, or the woman with the flow of blood (Mark 5:22-43), or the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22), or the widow from Nain (Luke 7:11-17), or a woman wiping His feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), or a blind man (Mark 10:46-52), or a man with a demon (Mark 5:1-20), He loved them, He served them; He glorified the Father.

So, we thank and recognize the many of you who are taking initiative, stepping out, and serving faithfully, whether that is with international students, with neighbors, with refugee women, or with poor children. We encourage all of us: Do this more and more. Open your eyes. Grow in Christ. See the fields ripe for harvest. Pray. Go. Speak the Gospel. Live out the Gospel.

And may God be pleased to build up from our initiatives hundreds of people coming to faith, hundreds of lives changed, hundreds of people loved and served , all to the glory of God.

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