Whoever Loves God Must Also Love Whom?

August 15, 2017

Many have condemned both the violence and racial hatred evident in Charlottesville last weekend. Praise God. Russell Moore’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post is an especially strong and biblical example of such condemnations.

Yet I am always concerned when Christians together condemn others for sinning in a way that does not tempt them.

Why?

Because I know my own heart. I know that if I am in a group in which all think the same way, our joint condemnation of others subtly tempts me to glow inwardly, thinking: “We’re not like them!” We very easily slip into such pharisaical, self-righteous attitudes – and self-righteousness is a deadly sin.

Furthermore, such self-righteousness has increasingly infected our political realm. Instead of political dialogue, arguing with evidence and studies about what type of policy can best serve the American people, so much of our politics today – on both the left and the right – is taken up with self-righteous condemnation of those who differ with us.

How should we then live within the church to combat these attitudes?

In this regard, consider what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 15:5-6:

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul is writing about differences in the church on disputable matters of doctrine and practice, as well as the ethnic differences between Jews and non-Jews. In these verses, he says that when, despite our differences, we live in supernatural harmony with each other, we glorify God. That is: overcoming our natural inclinations to despise and reject those who are different from us and instead truly loving each other glorifies God.

Now, this is the purpose of the church: To glorify God. Therefore, harmony across our many differences is a key way that we fulfill the purpose of the church. Being diversity-loving, aiming to express love across our differences, is thus not optional for a biblical church; it is a necessity.

Paul continues: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).

This is pivotal: Paul says that since such harmony is key to fulfilling the purpose of the church, we must welcome one another as Christ welcomed us.

My friends, how did Jesus welcome you?

  • Because you were like Him?
  • Because you shared some common interests?
  • Because you were in the same life situation?
  • Because you had something to offer him?

No! You were repugnant to Him. You could not have been more different. You had absolutely nothing to offer Him. But He loved you with a love that surpasses knowledge. He accepted you as you were, on the basis of His death on the cross – not on the basis of anything in you.

That, then, is the way you are to welcome other believers – especially those who disagree with you on disputable matters and those from different ethnicities.

This passage has clear implications for racial harmony; there is absolutely no place for racial hatred or discrimination in the church of Jesus Christ.

But the importance of welcoming one another extends well beyond race to every area of difference. We are to live in great harmony with everyone in the church of Christ.

So think: Who in the church do you have problems getting along with? What type of person would you least like to sit down with for a long conversation, or have over to your place for a meal? Are you willing to welcome this person as Jesus Christ welcomed you?

My friends, not to welcome this person as Jesus welcomed you is to fail to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s thus a sin. It makes God look less glorious than He really is.

Consider what the Apostle John says:

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:20-21)

Whoever loves God must also love whom? Every brother or sister in Christ!

  • Your brother who is black, your brother who is white,
  • your brother who is fat, your brother who is skin and bones,
  • your brother who is poor, your brother who is rich,
  • your brother who is socially awkward, your brother who is smooth and debonair,
  • your brother who is highly educated, your brother who never finished elementary school,
  • your brother who doesn’t listen to music less than 200 years old, your brother who doesn’t listen to music more than 6 months old,
  • your brother who is a great athlete, your brother who can’t throw a ball 10 yards,
  • your brother who is politically liberal, your brother who is politically conservative,
  • your brother who is a genius, your brother who is unable to learn to read.

Whoever loves God must also love his brother – whoever that brother might be. If we are to be diversity-loving, if we are to be a biblical church, you must love those who are hard for you to love. For some of us the hardest person to love is someone of another race. For others, the hardest person to love will be different in another way. But: when God’s glory is overarching everything, when God’s Word is permeating and saturating everything, when prayer is supporting everything, when joy in Christ is motivating everything, then we will not only tolerate but we will also pursue diversity. We will love across the barriers that naturally divide us.

And such love is completely inconsistent with self-righteousness.

So, yes, by all means, we together condemn racial hatred and violence. But may such public sins lead us to search our own hearts to see how we are failing to love those different from us. Ask yourself: What people are hardest for me to love?

Answer the question. Then step out and do a practical act of love for them – for the glory of God.

[Part of this devotion is taken from the sermon, “How Can the Church Fulfill Its Purpose?” preached January 8, 2006. Text and audio are available.)

 

Look Away from Me!

August 11, 2017

Have you ever felt as if you wished God would look away from you? Like God was disciplining you, and His discipline was so painful you just wanted it to end?

As we saw in Sunday’s sermon, both Job and David felt that way:

Are not my days few? Then cease, and leave me alone, that I may find a little cheer before I go –and I shall not return – to the land of darkness and deep shadow (Job 10:20-21).

Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more! (Psalm 39:13)

How should we respond when we feel this way?

One right response is to remember a central truth of the Gospel: God loves us in spite of ourselves, in spite of who we are and what we do. His love is not a response to our inherent goodness or our pleasing actions. Rather, His love changes and conforms us to the image of His Son. As Martin Luther states:

The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. . . . This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person (Heidelberg Disputation #28).

So if you are in Christ, if you have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and are saved, your status before God does not depend on your behavior; it does not depend on your obedience. When you sin, you may well experience the logical consequences of that sin, and you likely will come under God’s discipline – but neither those consequences nor the discipline are punitive; neither are retribution for what you have done. God loves you because of Christ. And like a loving parent, God orchestrates these events to bring about His good and wise purposes in your life (Hebrews 12:3-13).

So that’s one right response.

A second, related response is to consider our Savior on the cross.

As we saw above, in Psalm 39:13 David asks that God might look away from him. He thinks of God as the punisher. Though he knows he deserves such punishment (Psalm 38:18), he highlights how much he has already suffered, and asks God mercifully to end it.

But consider David’s descendant, Jesus. On the cross, He suffered, though he personally was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). And this punishment was indeed punitive and retributive; the Lord had laid on Him the iniquity of all of His people (Isaiah 53:6). Despite Jesus’ innocence, God inflicted on Him the punishment we deserve.

So, think: David asks God to look away from His guilt though He deserves the pain; God does look away from the innocence of Jesus so that He might punish our sin in Him. David is guilty, yet has his discipline lightened as God looks away; Jesus is innocent, yet bears the complete punishment, as God looks away. God looks away from David’s guilt (and my guilt) – and He looks away from Jesus’ innocence.

Thus perfect mercy and perfect justice meet each other at the cross.

So, fellow sinner, fellow rebel worthy of execution by your rightful King: You don’t have to perform any great deed, you don’t have to make yourself righteous to put yourself in the King’s favor. Indeed, there is nothing you could do that would accomplish that. But His Son accomplished on the cross what you never could.  His love will create in you what is pleasing to Him. Submit to Him. Trust Him. Follow Him. And so, by His grace, receive His love and become like Him.

[Thanks to Tim Cain of Kaleo Church for pointing me to the Luther quote.]

 

Silence in Afflictions

August 2, 2017

[In pain because of God’s discipline for his sin, David prays, “I am mute; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it” (Psalm 39:9). While we will consider this verse in the context of the entire psalm on Sunday, the English Puritan pastor Thomas Brooks wrote an entire book based on David’s statement, The Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod (1659). Here are some excerpts and the first part of his outline in updated language for your consideration and meditation. You can read the entire book via this link. To distinguish between my words and Brooks’, my paraphrases are in italics – Coty]

Christians, it is mercy, it is rich mercy, that every affliction is not an execution, that every correction is not a damnation.

There is a PRUDENT silence, a HOLY, a GRACIOUS silence; a silence that springs from prudent principles, from holy principles, and from gracious causes and considerations; and this is the silence here meant.

I: What does this silence include?

It includes and takes in these eight things:

First, acknowledging that God is the author of all our afflictions

There is no sickness so little—but God has a finger in it; though it be but the aching of the little finger.

Such as can see the ordering hand of God in all their afflictions, will, with David, lay their hands upon their mouths, when the rod of God is upon their backs, 2 Sam. 16:11, 12. If God’s hand be not seen in the affliction, the heart will do nothing but fret and rage under affliction.

Secondly, acknowledging God’s majesty, sovereignty, might, and authority over us.

A man never comes to humble himself, nor to be silent under the hand of God, until he comes to see the hand of God to be a mighty hand. . . . When men look upon the hand of God as a weak hand, a feeble hand, a low hand, a mean hand—their hearts rise against his hand.

Thirdly, this silence springs from a quiet and calm mind and spirit

Aaron, Eli, and Job. . . saw that it was a Father that put those bitter cups in their hands, and love that laid those heavy crosses upon their shoulders, and grace that put those yokes about their necks; and this caused much quietness and calmness in their spirits.

Some men . . . hide and conceal their grief and trouble; but could you but look into their hearts, you will find all in an uproar, all out of order, all in a flame; and however they may seem to be cold without, yet they are all in a hot burning fever within. Such a feverish fit David was once in, Psalm 39:3. But certainly a holy silence allays all tumults in the mind, and makes a man ‘in patience to possess his own soul.’

Fourthly, this silence springs from acquitting God of all blame or injustice in bringing the affliction on us.

God’s afflictions are always just; he never afflicts but in faithfulness. His will is the rule of justice; and therefore a gracious soul dares not cavil nor question his proceedings. The afflicted soul knows that a righteous God can do nothing but that which is righteous; it knows that God is uncontrollable, and therefore the afflicted man puts his mouth in the dust, and keeps silence before him.

Fifthly, this silence springs from five conclusions about the eventual impact of the afflictions on us.

Five conclusions based on Lamentations 3:27-33

a) The afflictions shall work for their good

Surely these afflictions are but the Lord’s pruning-knives, by which he will bleed my sins, and prune my heart, and make it more fertile and fruitful; they are but the Lord’s potion, by which he will clear me, and rid me of those spiritual diseases and maladies, which are most deadly and dangerous to my soul!

b) Afflictions shall keep them humble and low

c) The rod shall not always lie upon the back of the righteous.

d) God will he have compassion, according to the multitude of his mercies

The life of a Christian is filled up with interchanges of sickness and health, weakness and strength, want and wealth, disgrace and honor, crosses and comforts, miseries and mercies, joys and sorrows, mirth and mourning. All honey would harm us; all wormwood would undo us—a composition of both is the best way in the world to keep our souls in a healthy constitution. It is best and most for the health of the soul that the warm south wind of mercy, and the cold north wind of adversity—do both blow upon it.

e) God’s heart was not in their afflictions, though his hand was.

He takes no delight to afflict his children; it goes against his heart. It is a grief to him to be grievous to them, a pain to him to be punishing of them, a sorrow to him to be striking them.

Sixthly, this silence springs from a conviction from our own conscience to be quiet and still before God

I charge you, O my soul—not to mutter, nor to murmur; I command you, O my soul, to be dumb and silent under the afflicting hand of God.

Peace, O my soul! be still, leave your muttering, leave your murmuring, leave your complaining, leave your chafing, and vexing—and lay your hand upon your mouth, and be silent.

Seventhly, this silence includes a surrendering of ourselves to God while being afflicted.

The silent soul gives himself up to God. The secret language of the soul is this—’Lord, here am I; do with me what you please, write upon me as you please—I give up myself to be at your disposal.’

Eighthly and lastly, this silence comes from a hopeful patience while waiting upon the Lord to work His deliverance.

II: What does this patient silence NOT EXCLUDE

Eight things:

First, this silence does not exclude our feeling the pain of our afflictions

Psalm 39:10-11: [David] is sensible of his pain as well as of his sin; and having prayed off his sin in the former verses, he labors here to pray off his pain.

God allows his people to groan, though not to grumble.

Secondly, this silence does not exclude praying for the end of our afflictions

Thirdly, this silence does not exclude sorrow for our sin that led to the affliction, as well as efforts to crush that sin.

A holy, a prudent silence does not exclude men’s being kindly affected and afflicted with their sins, as the meritorious cause of all their sorrows and sufferings,

In all our sorrows we should read our sins! When God’s hand is upon our backs, our hands should be upon our sins.

Fourthly, such a silence does not exclude teaching others the lessons from our afflictions.

Fifthly, such a silence does not exclude some mourning and weeping

Sixthly, such a silence does not even exclude sighing and groaning

A man may sigh, and groan and roar under the hand of God, and yet be silent. It is not sighing—but muttering; it is not groaning—but grumbling; it is not roaring—but murmuring—which is opposite to a holy silence.

Sometimes the sighs and groans of a saint do in some manner, tell that which his tongue can in no manner utter.

Seventhly, such a silence does not exclude the use of means to end the affliction

We may neglect God as well by neglecting of means, as by trusting in means. It is best to use them, and in the use of them, to live above them.

Eighthly, and lastly, such a silence does not exclude speaking against those humans who have been the earthly cause of our afflictions.

III:  Why must Christians exercise this kind of silence under even the greatest afflictions and trials?

Eight Reasons:

Reason 1. That they may the better hear and understand the voice of the rod.

Reason 2. That they may . . . distinguish themselves from the men of the world, who usually fret and fling, mutter or murmur, curse and swagger, when they are under the afflicting hand of God.

Reason 3, that they may be conformable to Christ their head, who was dumb and silent under his sorest trials.

Reason 4. it is ten thousand times a greater judgment and affliction, to be given to a fretful spirit, a froward spirit, a muttering spirit under an affliction, then it is to be afflicted.

Reason 5: a holy, a prudent silence under afflictions, under miseries, doth best . . . fit the afflicted for the receipt of mercies.

Reason 6: it is fruitless . . . to strive, to contest or contend with God.

Reason 7: [these afflictions] shall cross and frustrate Satan’s great design and expectation.

Reason 8: That we may be like our forefathers in the faith who were patient and silent under such afflictions.

Last sentence in the book:

Thy life is but short, therefore thy troubles cannot be long; hold up and hold out quietly and patiently a little longer, and heaven shall make amends for all.

 

Colonoscopies and Spiritoscopies

July 27, 2017

This week I had a colonoscopy. Colon cancer kills about 50,000 persons a year in the US. More widespread screening has decreased those deaths significantly in recent years.

During my colonoscopy, I was put under a general anesthetic while the doctor inserted a scope into my colon, looking for any abnormalities. Polyps are growths on the walls of the colon that can become cancerous. The doctor found one small one in me, and cut it out. He then sent the tissue to be analyzed for malignancies.

The colonoscopy itself is painless. The prep – controlling one’s diet for several days, then being on a liquid diet the previous dayand drinking a substance to empty the colon the night before – is bothersome, and recovering fully from the anesthesia takes several hours. But all this certainly makes sense given the potential benefits.

Do we need something similar for our spiritual health? A “spiritoscopy,” perhaps? That is, a procedure that would delve into our spirits to pick out normally unnoticeable issues that, if left alone, will grow into deadly problems in the years ahead. A mechanism that will cut out a “root of bitterness” or anger or resentment or lust or pride when it’s still small, before it springs up, causing trouble and defiling many (Hebrews 12:15).

Guess what? God gives us such a “scope.”

What is it?

The Word of God.

The author of Hebrews tells us:

The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)

When we sit under the Word of God, submitting ourselves to it – whether in personal reading, in preaching, or in teaching – that living and active Word cuts into us, laying our thoughts bare, exposing us and convicting us. In this way I have a “spiritoscopy” every day – going to the Word, praying for God to show me “any grievous way in me” (Psalm 139:24), desiring that piercing work.

Praise God that the Word itself will have this effect even when we encounter it alone. But God frequently uses “physicians” to wield His “scope” – and those “physicians” are in the church body around you.

That same author tells us:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:12-13)

Notice that the command is plural, to all of us. All of us are to take care that there is no polyp (“an evil unbelieving heart”) growing in any one of us. We are to help each other to see what we can’t see for ourselves, and we are to help cut out those “polyps” when they arise. At the same time, we are to exhort, to encourage, to comfort, and to stand alongside one another, thereby helping each one to delight in Christ and to grow in faith. In this way, sin won’t deceive us and harden our hearts against God and against one another.

Such “spiritoscopies” happen on Sunday mornings, in small groups, in meeting one-on-one, in families, and in the normal course of daily life and ministry.

So when was your last “spiritoscopy”? Don’t neglect such screening. Make sure you are putting yourself in situations where they take place. It’s not always pleasant. It can seem bothersome. But “spiritoscopies” can prevent diseases much worse than colon cancer.

The Disobedient, Reluctant Ambassador and the Sovereign, Merciful God

July 21, 2017

The Apostle Paul tells us that we are ambassadors for Christ as God makes His appeal to others through us (2 Corinthians 5:20).

What happens when we fail to fulfill that role? What happens when we are disobedient and don’t speak of Him? What does God do in that case?

The book of Jonah tells us of a man called by God to be His ambassador to a people group that he hates. He is disobedient to the command. What does God do?

Let’s first of all look at four different ways that Jonah disobeys God, one way from each of the four chapters of the book.

God’s Disobedient, Reluctant Ambassador

God gives Jonah three commands in Jonah 1:2-3: Arise! Go! Cry out!

But how does Jonah respond in the next few verses? He does arise, but instead of going to Ninevah, he goes down again and again: down to Joppa in verse 3, down into the ship in verse 5, down into the hold of the ship in verse 5 – and then down into the sea in verse 15.  God tells Jonah to go one direction, to engage in cross-cultural ministry, and Jonah goes completely in the opposite direction.

It is easy for us to laugh at Jonah, and to judge him for failing to obey God. But who were the Assyrians? A cruel, ruthless, and powerful people – the major threat to Jonah’s country at this time. Less than 50 years after the time of Jonah this same Assyria will come and destroy the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Think hard now: What group of people do you dislike the most? What people frighten you, annoy you? What people would you least like to go stay with for several weeks? They are your Ninevites.

So how might we characterize Jonah’s disobedience in chapter 1? This is direct, defiant disobedience. God tells him to do one thing; he does exactly the opposite.

So now God gets the attention of His disobedient prophet by sending a storm and having the sailors throw him into the sea. Jonah thinks this is the end – but God appoints a great fish to come and swallow him. Jonah knows that God has spared his life miraculously.

So in chapter 2 Jonah prays. But does he repent? Read Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 2:1-9). What do you think? Does Jonah repent?

Amazingly, after God has performed miracles both to punish him for his disobedience and to save him, Jonah says not one word about repentance. He thanks God for saving his life, and he ends with the great cry, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” – but he never acknowledges that he was in the sea needing God to save him because of his own disobedience. Furthermore, while salvation does indeed belong to the Lord, the Lord is interested in the salvation of all people groups. Jonah is interested only in the people of Israel.

So Jonah’s disobedience in chapter 2 is a failure to repent.

Chapter 3 provides further evidence that Jonah has had no change of heart. He now comes up with a new way to express his disobedience.

Do you remember the three commands God gives Jonah in 1:2? “Arise, go, call out.” Note that in Jonah 3:2 God repeats those three commands. Does Jonah obey these commands this time? In chapter 1, he arises, but he does not go where God commands and never calls out. This time he obeys the second command: He arises and goes to Ninevah. And he does eventually call out. But  what does he say? Does he say, “Ninevah has defied the Lord God. Now repent! Or God will overthrow you!” No, that is not what he says. He gives no reason for God’s anger and he provides no opportunity for repentance. Indeed, he does not even mention the Name of the Lord! (Jonah 3:3-4)

Is this what God told Jonah to say? The next chapter clearly shows that God intended for the Ninevites to repent at the preaching of Jonah. That being the case, wouldn’t God have instructed Jonah to hold out the possibility of not being destroyed upon their repentance? Indeed, although the Old Testament is full of proclamations of judgment on disobedient nations, in every case there is a clear reason given for God’s judgment. Jonah’s preaching stands in stark contrast to that heritage. We must conclude that Jonah is preaching only part of the message God gave him.

In chapter 3, therefore, Jonah is displaying perfunctory obedience. Perfunctory obedience is when you obey in a grudging manner – you don’t want to obey and you don’t obey from your heart. Instead, you just go through the motions and, in actuality, are disobeying.

So Jonah has disobeyed God directly, he has failed to repent, and he has subsequently obeyed only in a perfunctory manner. Chapter 4 highlights one more way that Jonah disobeys God. In Jonah 4:1-3, Jonah is angry because God grants repentance to the Ninevites and does not destroy the city. Indeed, Jonah accuses God of being “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2).

So Jonah is saying that God is too merciful! He is angry at God for forgiving the sins of the Ninevites. He did not want to come to Ninevah and be the source of blessing for these people. And he always thought that God might grant them repentance – that is why he didn’t want to come.

So Jonah is angry at God for fulfilling His character and displaying mercy to the Ninevites. But remember: in chapter 2 Jonah praises God for being merciful! He cries out, “Salvation is from the Lord!” So Jonah wants God to be merciful to him and to his people – he just doesn’t want God to be merciful to others. He fails to see God’s heart for ALL nations.

So we can summarize Jonah’s sin in chapter 4 as a lack of faith in God’s Word. God’s Word says that He has a heart for all nations – indeed, God’s command to Jonah was further revelation on this topic.

Thus, God uses Jonah as His ambassador, even though he is reluctant and even though he sins again and again and again.

The Sovereign, Merciful God

But although Jonah is prominent throughout the book, the main character is God, not Jonah. This book shows God’s loving persistence in bringing the lost people of Ninevah to Himself – and also His loving persistence in bringing the reluctant prophet to Himself.

What does God do in order to bring the Ninevites to repentance?

  • He calls Jonah.
  • He sends the storm.
  • He sends the great fish to save Jonah.
  • He causes the fist to vomit Jonah on the shore – and not on any shore, but on a shore from which he can walk to Ninevah.
  • He calls Jonah again.
  • He changes the hearts of the Ninevites.

What is the lesson in all this? Psalm 67:3-4 provides it: “The peoples must praise you, O God; all the peoples must praise you! The nations must be glad and sing for joy.”

God will bring the nations to Himself – despite their hardness of heart, despite the inadequacies of His ambassadors. God has begun a good work in this world and He will, He must complete it. Why? Because of His passion for His glory. Habakkuk 2:14: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”

God’s desire to glorify Himself is at the root of His bringing the nations to Himself. He has stated that this must come about, and just as He performed miracle after miracle to bring about the repentance of the Ninevites, just as He brought about that repentance despite the sin and attempted sabotage of His chosen ambassador, God will one day bring those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation to Himself. It must happen.

Do you see how this is a great comfort? God gives us the privilege of being His agents in this great task – He chooses to work through us – but the outcome is certain. We cannot fail. Whatever our weaknesses, whatever our failings, God will break down all opposition and will bring the nations to Himself.

But God is just as intent upon bringing His errant ambassadors to Himself! Consider how He treats Jonah in chapter four. Jonah has just stated how disappointed he is that God has not destroyed Ninevah. Now, in the midst of his pity party, he says, “Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3).

Despite all his best efforts, Jonah has accomplished the task God set before him. God could have responded, “OK, Jonah, if that’s how you feel, ZAP!” And Jonah would be dead.

But God doesn’t do that. Instead He exerts the same loving persistence, the same sovereign mercy in bringing His prophet to Himself as He exerted for the Ninevites. Consider all He does just in chapter 4:

  • He sends a plant to sprout up and give Jonah shade.
  • He sends a worm to destroy the plant.
  • He sends a scorching east wind.

This leads Jonah to become even angrier, as he is upset about the death of the plant.

God then confronts Jonah with impeccable logic in Jonah 4:9-11: Jonah had nothing to do with bringing the plant into existence, and such a plant at most lives only a few days. But because it served a purpose for him, Jonah “pities” it, being sorry that it dies. But God created the Ninevites and had dealt with this city for hundreds and hundreds of years. Now at last the city is fulfilling the purpose for which He created it: to glorify God. Should He not pity them? If Jonah has any reason to pity the plant, God’s reasons for pitying the Ninevites are much greater.

So God pursues Jonah as He pursues the Ninevites: relentlessly, persistently, sovereignly, mercifully, until all opposition fails. God cares about us as individuals and pursues us until we come to Him; and God cares about us as peoples, and pursues peoples until all the peoples praise Him.

Jonah had no love for the Ninevites. Jonah had no desire to see God glorified through the praises of the Ninevites. So Jonah’s heart was not united with God’s heart.

What about you? Is your heart more like Jonah’s or God’s?

Don’t be disobedient. Don’t be reluctant. Don’t just give God perfunctory obedience. He is gracious and merciful to every type of person – even to those you intensely dislike, even to those who frighten you.

But know: Our God is sovereign. And He is merciful. In that sovereign mercy He sent His Son. And through that Son, He will bring all the nations to Himself. And He will bring to repentance all His reluctant ambassadors.

That is our hope. And that is our joy. Praise His Name!

(Much of this is taken and edited from a sermon preached March 16, 2003 – the first sermon I preached on a Sunday morning service at DGCC. You can read that sermon in its entirety at this link.)

God is Everywhere!

July 7, 2017

God is everywhere! Does that give you joy? Or should that make you tremble?

In Psalm 139, David delights in God’s omnipresence:

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7-10)

David sees God as his protector, as his guide, as his ally. In the most dangerous places, in the most remote places, God sees him, leads him, and watches over him. He rejoices that this is so.

Just so with all of God’s people. We are glad that we cannot run away from him, and so He protects us even from ourselves.

But if God is your enemy, His presence should be a terror, not a comfort.

In Amos 9, God speaks through His prophet using language quite similar to that of Psalm 139, highlighting His presence everywhere. But the point of this passage is quite different: God says that the disobedient Israelites will not be able to escape His punishment, no matter where they go:

“If they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them; if they climb up to heaven, from there I will bring them down.  If they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, from there I will search them out and take them; and if they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them.  And if they go into captivity before their enemies, there I will command the sword, and it shall kill them; and I will fix my eyes upon them for evil and not for good.” (Amos 9:4-6)

The one true God is a God of justice. Because of this, no crime against the innocent, no oppression of the weak, no rebellion against rightful authority will go unpunished. Since He is omnipresent, since He sees all, since no one can stand against Him, there is no escape. He will right all wrongs. Praise Him!

But the one true God is also a God of mercy. And out of His mercy, to satisfy His justice, He instituted His plan of redemption through the death and resurrection of His Son. We guilty sinners can have our guilt assigned to Jesus, for Him to bear the punishment we deserve, if we confess our sin and rebellion, repenting and turning to Christ in faith. Then justice is done: Jesus takes on Himself the exactly appropriate punishment for our sin. And mercy is effected: God grants us salvation, completely undeserved on our part.

So: Together Psalm 139 and Amos 9 tell us that both God’s justice and His mercy will seek us out. If we continue in rebellion against Him, we will not escape Him. He is everywhere. He will find us. We will not get away with any sin, any rebellion. There is no hope of escape. There is no hope for a plea bargain. There is no hope of getting off on a technicality. God sees all and is always present. You will face Him. And that should make you tremble.

But God’s omnipresence will give you everlasting joy if you are His, if you are redeemed through Jesus Christ. And God offers that redemption to you and to me, to all mankind, to those from every tribe and tongue and nation. So come to Him repenting. Then surely His goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life. And you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

 

Consistency in the Race of Faith

June 30, 2017

“Train yourself for godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7b).

The Apostle Paul uses an athletic term to picture the way we grow in the Christian life. We must discipline ourselves in training so that we run the race of faith well. One aspect of that discipline is consistency.

I was a 16-year-old high school track athlete in 1972, the year of the Munich Olympic Games. When Frank Shorter won the marathon in dominating fashion, the vague idea that someday I might run a marathon become the certainty that I would. My friends and I wanted to be like Frank. So we began reading all we could about who he was and how he trained.

We discovered lots of interesting tidbits, but what struck me most was his consistency. If I recall correctly, in the seven years leading up to the Munich marathon, he ran every day. He never missed even one day.

Consistency in running is central. One coach puts it this way:

[A runner may say,] “Surely to miss training just this once will not matter? After all, there is a long season of it lying ahead.” But to miss training once is to open a breach in the wall of routine. And a single breach will almost certainly be followed by others, to the point where there is no routine left. And then, bang! — there goes your ambition to be a runner.

The runner’s statement actually is true; to miss one day in and of itself is not going to destroy your training. But missing days develops a bad habit; it changes one’s perception of what one is about. Running becomes not something you do because of who you are – running becomes something you do when it is convenient.

Alternately, if you stick to your plan every day, rain or shine, cold or hot, windy or calm, tired or fresh – you see yourself differently. With every step of consistency, you define more clearly who you are.

I went through something similar with cycling this spring, preparing to bike almost 500 miles in four days from Charlotte to DC. Once I registered for the ride, I had to prepare myself to complete it. I couldn’t just ride however I felt. So there was a fundamental change in my attitude towards riding: I had to be consistent to meet the goal. I had to become a cyclist.

Just so in the Christian life. I can dabble in Bible reading and church attendance and prayer; I can do occasional acts that look loving and now and then speak the Gospel. But if this is who I am, then these are central to my life. I no longer just dabble. I train myself for godliness.

For if I realize that I am a sinner at my very core, that without daily apprehending the cross my mind will wander, making me ineffective and unproductive, then I will be sure to get up in the morning, get into the Word, seek God’s face, seek His grace; I will be sure to sit under good preaching and to seek out helpful mentors; I will speak the Gospel even if it makes me uncomfortable and will act in love even when it hurts.

And when you do this – when you consistently train yourself for godliness, as you overcome daily the common hindrances – just as with the runner or cyclist, you define much more clearly who you are.

Furthermore, every day of consistency makes the next day’s obedience that much easier. One coach writes, “Run until the question of not running just never arises.” A day without running is not even an option. Just so for us: A day without seeking God’s face becomes not even an option. Instead of a vicious circle, a downward spiral, we become part of a virtuous circle, an upward spiral: Seeking God’s face this week gives me joy and peace, which spurs me one to seek His face and live out the Christian life that much more next week. And the circle continues.

My wise wife wrote of this several years ago:

Will my children remember their mother reading the Bible consistently? Will they picture in their minds a straw basket with Bible, Valley of Vision prayer book, journal, and prayer notebook? Will they picture their mother swinging gently on the porch swing, Bible in hand or curled up in the wing chair in the music room, head bowed. Will it be a consistent memory?

It is certainly not just for the memory in my children’s minds that this consistency is important. Oh no. It is vitally important for now, for every day, for wisdom and discernment, for knowledge and understanding, for contentment and spurring on. It is as vital to my life as an Olympic athlete’s consistent training is. No, it is more vital. Because, unlike the Olympic athlete who may only take his gold medal as far as the grave, the benefits of consistency in walking with God are eternal. . . . “Consistency makes a statement to yourself, ‘I am a child of God.’” That’s who I am. Spending time in the word is simply what a child of God does, like running is what a runner does. I can’t live without it.

So train yourself for godliness – consistently. Become who you are: A child of God.

 

 

Your True Home

June 2, 2017

I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named (Ephesians 3:14b-15)

Two weeks ago while reflecting on Joel’s graduation and the bike ride to DC, I noted the frequent repetition of the word “home” during the ceremony in Chapel Hill: “Chapel Hill is home. You can always come home. This place is your home forever.”

What is the nature of a good home? In a good family we are loved and accepted. We indeed can always return home. Our family welcomes us and takes us in.  Nothing we do will get us kicked out of a good family.

But a family includes something more which the Apostle Paul brings out in Ephesians – something missed in the picture of “home” painted at the graduation:

In a good family, there is a father, and he has authority.

  • Yes, in a good family there is acceptance. And in a good family there is also loving authority.
  • Yes, we are never kicked out of a good family. But there is also discipline in that good family, for our good and the good of the family.

There cannot be a family, there cannot be a home without authority.

Indeed, the Apostle says that every family in heaven and on earth is “named” after that heavenly family with the heavenly Father. Every family – and especially every father – ideally should picture the love, watchcare, guidance, provision, and discipline of our heavenly family.

Our culture is reluctant to recognize such authority, in part because it has been distorted so often. Too many fathers check out, and just want peace and quiet in the house so they can relax. Others discipline harshly, or verbally and physically abuse their wives and children.

But do you see the Apostle Paul’s point? Such behavior on the part of fathers is evil not only because of the sin against family members; it is also wrong because God created fatherhood to display His character. Checked-out and abusive fathers sin against God by providing others a terrible picture, a distorted picture, of what God the Father is like.

Yet see how God provides for us the perfect picture of acceptance and authority in Jesus Christ. He accepts us: “Come to me all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). His sacrifice enables us to be part of His family – indeed, part of His Bride (Ephesians 5:25-32). He accepts us as we are – but praise God He loves us too much to leave us as we are. He sanctifies us. He cleanses us. He Himself presents us to Himself, “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Ephesians 5:27).

David concludes Psalm 23 with these words: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” In Christ, we will be part of God’s loving family forever: Under His authority, loved beyond our imagining, enabled to see Him face to face and to enjoy Him forever. That indeed is our true home.

Commit Yourself to God Daily!

May 25, 2017

[In Sunday’s sermon, I quoted from Charles Spurgeon’s sermon #2644, preached June 25, 1882, on the idea of committing ourselves to God. Spurgeon spoke on three texts: Luke 23:46, Psalm 31:5, and Acts 7:59. Here is a longer excerpt from that sermon, before and after the passage I quoted. You can read Spurgeon’s sermon in its entirety at this link – Coty]

May God bring us into such a state of mind and heart that there shall be no struggling to keep our life, but a sweet willingness to let it be just as God would have it—a yielding up of everything into His hands, feeling sure that, in the world of spirits, our soul shall be quite safe in the Father’s hands. . . . When God calls us to die, it will be a sweet way of dying if we can, like our Lord, pass away with a text of Scripture upon our lips, with a personal God ready to receive us, with that God recognized distinctly as our Father and so die joyously, resigning our will entirely to the sweet will of the ever-blessed One. . . .

My second text is in the 31st Psalm, at the 5th verse. And it is evidently the passage which our Savior had in His mind: . . .  ”Into Your hands I commit my spirit: You have redeemed me, O Lord God of Truth.” It seems to me that THESE ARE WORDS TO BE USED IN LIFE, for this Psalm is not so much concerning the Believer’s death as concerning his life.

Is it not very amazing, dear Friends, that the words which Jesus uttered on the Cross you may still continue to use? You may catch up their echo and not only when you come to die, but tonight, tomorrow morning and as long as long as you are alive, you may still repeat the text the Master quoted, and say, “Into Your hands I commit my spirit.” . . .

That is to say, . . . let us cheerfully entrust our souls to God and feel that they are quite safe in His hands. Our spirit is the noblest part of our being; our body is only the husk, our spirit is the living kernel, so let us put it into God’s keeping. Some of you have never yet done that, so I invite you to do it now. It is the act of faith which saves the soul, that act which a man performs when he says, “I trust myself to God as He reveals Himself in Christ Jesus. I cannot keep myself, but He can keep me and, by the precious blood of Christ He can cleanse me. So I just take my spirit and give it over into the great Father’s hands.” You never really live till you do that! All that comes before that act of full surrender is death! But when you have once trusted Christ, then you have truly begun to live. And every day, as long as you live, take care that you repeat this process and cheerfully leave yourselves in God’s hands without any reserve. That is to say, give yourself up to God—your body, to be healthy or to be sick, to be long-lived or to be suddenly cut off. Your soul and spirit, give them, also, up to God, to be made happy or to be made sad, just as He pleases. Give Your whole self up to Him and say to Him, “My Father, make me rich or make me poor, give me sight or make me blind. Let me have all my senses or take them away. Make me famous or leave me to be obscure. I give myself up to You—into Your hands I commit my spirit. I will no longer exercise my own choice, but You shall choose My inheritance for me. My times are in Your hands.”

Now, dear children of God, are you always doing this? Have you ever done it? I am afraid that there are some, even among Christ’s professing followers, who kick against God’s will and even when they say to God, “Your will be done,” they spoil it by adding, in their own mind, “and my will, too.” . . .  Let us each one pray this prayer every day, “Into Your hands I commit my spirit.” . . .

Notice, dear Friends, that our second text has these words at the end of it—”You have redeemed me, O Lord God of Truth.” Is not that a good reason for giving yourself up entirely to God? Christ has redeemed you and, therefore, you belong to Him. If I am a redeemed man and I ask God to take care of me, I am but asking the King to take care of one of His own jewels—a jewel that cost Him the blood of His heart!

And I may still more especially expect that He will do so, because of the title which is here given to Him—”You have redeemed me, O Lord God of Truth.” Would He be the God of Truth if He began with redemption and ended with destruction—if He began by giving His Son to die for us and then kept back other mercies which we daily need to bring us to Heaven? No, the gift of His Son is the pledge that He will save His people from their sins and bring them home to Glory—and He will do it. So, every day, go to Him with this declaration, “Into Your hands I commit my spirit.” No, not only every day, but all through the day! . . .

David said to the Lord, “Into Your hands I commit my spirit.” But let me beg you to add that word which our Lord inserted—”Father.” . . . That is a sweet way of living every day—committing everything to our Heavenly Father’s hands, for those hands can do His child no unkindness.

 

Reflections on a Graduation and a Bike Ride

May 18, 2017

Last weekend our youngest child, Joel, graduated from UNC Chapel Hill. During those four years of college, Joel and thousands of his classmates worked hard at their academics, spurred each other on to excel, developed deep friendships, and grew to love their university. Indeed, the graduation ceremony emphasized again and again: “Chapel Hill is home. You can always come home. This place is your home forever.”

Speakers exhorted the new graduates to be true to themselves, forging their own path, not allowing others to define them; to continue to practice and develop critical thinking in order to live a good, moral life; and to continue to pursue higher learning, for in that way they will find fulfillment. Indeed, when acting like this, we were told, there is no limit to the good they can do.

Prior to graduation weekend, I participated in the 2017 Law Enforcement Bike Ride to DC, an annual ride from Charlotte covering about 500 miles in four days, to honor law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. During those four days, more than a hundred cyclists worked together, persevering through the long miles and the cold, wet weather. Many placed a picture of a deceased officer they knew personally on the rear of their saddle. A support crew accompanied us and served us faithfully; churches and volunteer fire departments opened their doors to warm us and feed us. Like Joel’s classmates, we all – riders and support crew – developed a strong sense of camaraderie, and rejoiced to accomplish a challenging task together.

I delight in Joel’s hard work and fine education, as well as in the privilege of biking last week with so many dedicated riders. Joel grew and changed in positive ways through his four years at UNC Chapel Hill; those four days of riding had an impact on me. Praise God for such opportunities to stretch ourselves, to step out to accomplish something difficult, and to be able to carry it through to the end.

Both experiences point to eternal realities revealed in Scripture. God made us for something larger than ourselves individually. He created us to accomplish His tasks together. He made us for Himself, so that together we would be His intimate family – so that we would be truly at home with Him forever.

As humans made in the image of God, we long for that home. We long for that sense of belonging, that sense of accomplishment, that sense of camaraderie in working together for a vitally important task. Throughout our lives, we experience pointers to that real home, that real sense of purpose, that real camaraderie. But these pointers are most helpful and valuable to us only if we look through them to see the much greater reality they signify. Our home forever is not our alma mater; our great accomplishment is not persevering through challenges to fulfill an earthly academic or physical goal. Our home is with God, through union with Christ, with all the redeemed from every tribe and tongue and nation. Our great accomplishment is to disciple all these people groups, and then to worship our King with them in word and deed forever and ever, never ceasing to increase our delight in Him.

Along the way, we may need to forge our own path if others are leading us away from God; but we also need to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus. We would do well to develop critical thinking skills and to apply them to help us understand better both Scripture and the world around us;  but critical thinking in service of our fallen desires will lead to the opposite of the good life. Higher learning subject to God’s revealed truth can help many to understand that truth in a deeper way; but when not subject to God, such learning easily puffs us up, and God opposes the proud. We can forge our own paths, think critically, and achieve the highest standard of learning – and yet do great evil in the world.

So pursue tasks you love; word hard together with Christians and non-Christians in education, in sports, in service. Enjoy the sense of common purpose, the joint accomplishment of a difficult task. But remember to look through the sign to the signified reality. God invites us to participate in the greatest accomplishment of all time; He welcomes us into the only eternally, perfectly loving family; He grants us the greatest joy and fulfillment imaginable. Don’t focus on pursuing the sign and then miss out on the reality.

 

Next Page »