Questions at the Installation of an Elder

September 5, 2017

[We installed Daniel Camenisch as an elder last Sunday, following the unanimous vote in his favor at our members meeting of 27 August.  These are the questions we asked him at the installation, as well as  two questions we asked the congregation, along with some brief commentary. These began as questions used by our friends at Capitol Hill Baptist Church; we have edited and added to them over the years.]

Do you reaffirm that the God of the Bible is the one and only true God, eternally existent in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

(In a time of much doubt about the reality and character of God, we must stand firm on this most central point.)

Do you reaffirm your faith in Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, the Head of the Church as your Lord, Savior, and Treasure?

(That is: Do you believe in Jesus as your Master, who has a right to control your entire life? Do you believe in Him as your Savior, the only One who can pay the penalty for your sin and grant you entrance into God the Father’s presence? Do you see Jesus as your Treasure, worth more than all the world has to offer?)

Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, totally trustworthy, completely sufficient, fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, the supreme, final, and only infallible rule of faith and practice?

(We as elders acknowledge that we thus have no authority over what we as a church believe – faith – and what we as a church do – practice – except as we guide this congregation to follow God’s Word. We also admit that to put anything other authority on an equal standing with Scripture is effectively to put that other authority over Scripture.)

Do you sincerely believe that the covenant and the Statements of Faith of this church contain the truth taught in the Holy Scriptures?

(Similarly, our covenant and Statements of Faith have derivative authority: we as elders affirm that we believe they are useful summaries of the truths of Scripture. But they have no authority apart from Scripture.)

Do you promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with anything in the Statements of Faith or covenant, you will on your own initiative make known to all the other elders the change which has taken place in your views since your assumption of this vow?

(Churches have frequently gone astray when following leaders who have gone astray. And many leaders have not been open concerning their doubts about the truths of Scripture. Elders here affirm that should their beliefs change, they will make that known – and therefore resign, unless the other elders and the church as a whole agree that the truths of Scripture are better stated in a different way.)

Do you promise to submit to your fellow elders in the Lord?

(Hebrews 13:17 holds for elders as well as for the rest of the congregation. This doesn’t mean that one elder always gives in to what the other elders desire. But elders should have an inclination to work as a team, a desire to be unified, a willingness to hear from others and to be persuaded by them. We don’t come together each representing part of the congregation and fight it out for our private subset of the congregation; each of us is working for the good of the entire body. )

Is it your desire, as far as you know your own heart, to serve in the office of elder from love of God and a sincere desire to promote His glory in the Gospel of His Son?

(That is, are you serving in this position for your own glory or for God’s glory?)

Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in promoting the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace of the Church, whatever persecution, criticisms, opposition or discouragement may arise?

(All elders will face opposition – sometimes from outside the church, sometimes from loved ones within the church. An elder must be aware of the certainty of future opposition, and he must be prepared to continue to serve faithfully despite opposition. Similarly, discouraging circumstances and events will happen to every elder, and he must be prepared to continue the labor despite the discouragement.)

Will you pursue and strive for unity of this church, committing yourself humbly to a ministry of biblical peacemaking and reconciliation?

(An elder must be humble, gentle, bold and resolute in pursuing confession and repentance in himself and the flock. Restoration and reconciliation of fellowship with God and fellow believers within the flock must be an essential priority.)

In dependence upon Jesus Christ’s redemptive work in your life and by the power of the Holy Spirit, will you strive to love your wife as Christ has loved you and gave Himself for you?

(Elders are to be examples in all aspects of their lives; marriage is the area Satan is most prone to attack, and where, conversely, God can be most glorified by our faithful example.)

Will you be faithful and diligent in the exercise of all your duties as elder, whether private or public, and will you endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your manner of life, walking with exemplary piety before the congregation?

(That is: Are you going to walk the walk and not just talk the talk? “Piety” is not a word we use frequently these days; it refers to a godward orientation of one’s life, a respect for God that pervades all of one’s thoughts and actions. Who is equal to this? None of us, except by the grace of God.)

Are you now willing to take personal responsibility as an elder by God’s grace to oversee the ministry and resources of the church, and to devote yourself to prayer, the ministry of the Word, and the shepherding of God’s flock, in such a way that Desiring God Community Church and the entire Church of Jesus Christ will be blessed, built up, and protected against false teaching and division?

(Here we lay out the responsibilities of the elders: Prayer, the Word, and shepherding/pastoring the flock. As elders fulfill these three responsibilities, the entire Church is blessed.)

Questions to the Congregation:

Do you, the members of Desiring God Community Church, acknowledge and publicly receive this man as an elder – a gift of Christ to this church?

(Who is the Giver of this gift? Jesus Himself! He is the One who raises up elders, not the existing elders and not the church. God equips men and raises them up to serve in this capacity. So praise God for your elders!)

Will you love him and pray for him in his ministry, and work together with him humbly and cheerfully, submitting to him and giving him all due honor and support in the leadership to which the Lord has called him, that by the grace of God you may accomplish the mission of the church, to the glory and honor of God?

(This is a wonderful summary of the responsibility of the congregation to the elders. How we need your prayers; how we covet your love. And note what happens when the congregation rightly loves, prays for, and submits to her elders: The church fulfills its purpose – glorifying God. May God be pleased to glorify Himself through this church as the elders and the congregation work together by His grace.)

 

 

Taste and See that the Lord is Good!

August 25, 2017

[This devotion is the sermon from last Saturday’s marriage ceremony of Joel Pinckney and Louise Goodfellow in Chapel Hill.]

Joel, you have heard many wedding sermons from me, including four at your siblings’ marriage ceremonies. We’ve spoken on many other occasions of marriage as a picture of Jesus and His Church, and the unity, love, headship/submission, and perfection that God intends in marriage.

In addition to the joys of marriage, we’ve spoken of its challenges and trials – and thus the necessity of commitment and the constant need for dependence on Christ.

You know I came near to destroying my marriage 35 years ago, and God worked through those problems to show us His grace, His love – indeed, to show us what marriage truly is.

You’ve heard of the necessity of forgiveness, of keeping short accounts, of the centrality of forbearance.

You know of the need for marriage’s compost pile, where you can take the tough parts of your relationship and leave them, so they become fertilizer for later growth.

You’ve seen the complicated portrayals of marriage in Scripture, as well as in the novels of Wendell Berry, Leo Tolstoy, and other authors.

But this afternoon, for you and Louise, I want to emphasize a different point – a point found in Psalm 34 from which we read.

I’ll highlight two verses in this psalm of David, say a few words about the circumstances in which he wrote it, and then draw out some implications for your marriage.

First, Psalm 34:1: “I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.”

Notice David’s emphasis: He doesn’t just say, “I will bless the LORD; His praise shall be in my mouth.” Rather, he underlines that he will do this at all times, continually. There will never be a moment when he will not be praising the Lord.

And out of that praise in his heart, in Psalm 34:8 he exhorts his listeners, including us: “O taste and see that the LORD is good!”

That is, for us today:  Don’t just acknowledge the fact that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is good; don’t just check a theological box that says, “Oh, yes, Jesus died on the cross for my sins.” Taste that truth. See that truth:

  • When the hummingbird hovers outside your window,
  • When the clouds turn yellow then orange then deep red
  • When the moon moves in front of the sun near midday on Monday
  • When a rabbit hops across your path on an early morning walk
  • When a friend counsels you and encourages you and stands beside you
  • And, yes, when in a few moments you commit the rest of your life to the one you love:

See that these are all good gifts, tokens of love from the One who loves you with a love that surpasses knowledge; taste His goodness in each of these experiences, and thereby fulfill verse 1: Bless the Lord at all times. Continually have His praise on your lips.

Here today, in this lovely setting, with these beloved friends and family, standing together with your one true love, I’m sure you do taste and see God’s goodness.

But now, let’s turn to the circumstances in which David wrote this psalm. He had just come out of a very severe danger, during which he seemed to have lost all earthly hope, all earthly expectation of success. Furthermore, he continued to be in a weak position as he wrote, with only a handful of men around him,             under potential attack both by the armies of his own country and by suspicious leaders of a foreign nation. So his future looked bleak and uncertain.

In addition, in the midst of such danger, in the absence of earthly hope, he knows his life is brief, like a mist. Indeed, as he will write later in Psalm 39:4-5: “Let me know how fleeting I am. . . . Surely all mankindstands as a mere breath!”

Therefore, realize: It is in tough circumstances that David says, “I will bless the Lord at all times.” That is when David commands us: “O taste and see that the LORD is good.”

So then some implications for your marriage.

Joel and Louise, this is your responsibility and your joy everyday, whether all seems to be going well or you’re under great stress: To wake up each morning and to pray:

“We will bless You, O Lord, this day. We will go to Your Word today and taste and see your goodness, reminding ourselves that as rebels against you, apart from Jesus we have no hope but only a fearful expectation of judgment. But because of His sacrifice, because of Your sovereign work of granting us eyes to see Jesus for Who He is, we are loved with an everlasting love this day and all the days of our life. What amazing goodness!

  • “Today and every day we will go to each other and taste and see Your goodness.
  • “Today and every day we will go to the world around us and taste and see your goodness: Weeping with those who weep, crying out for the pains of the world, rejoicing with those who rejoice, and rejoicing in your daily gifts of breath and vigor and . . . coffee.
  • “We will praise You continually as we rejoice in sustenance and love and family and friends,
  • “We will delight in Jesus above all the world has to offer
  • “By the power of the Holy Spirit we will live and love as Jesus in this world.
  • “Knowing that our life is a mere breath, we will breath in deeply, love fully, and live in light of eternity.
  • “We will taste Your goodness, O Lord; we will notice those tokens of love You drop in our path.
  • “You have placed us in this world to show – individually and as a couple – who You are and what You are worth, how You love, how You forgive.
  • “We may live a long life together, we may not;
  • “One of us or both of us may have successful and lucrative careers, we may not;
  • “We may have good health for decades, we may not:
  • “But whatever happens, whatever our circumstances, we will praise you continually with our mouths; we will taste and see that You are good.”

Joel and Louise, I know you already do this; I encourage you: Do it all the more, for this is the message of Psalm 34 for you: For you to treat this wedding day and every future day as a gift from God’s goodness – indeed, a picture, a foreshadowing of the final great day, the wedding banquet of Christ and His church. So that our tasting and seeing that He is good each day prepares us for that deepest, most satisfying joy, that final state that marriage points to: When Jesus Himself rejoices over His Bride, His Church, His people, redeemed by His blood and perfected by His love.

Live this out in your marriage; and so help prepare both yourselves and us all for the perfect marriage yet to come.

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.

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