Luther on the Authority and Clarity of Scripture

October 27, 2017

[Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of the event that many cite as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther’s nailing 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. While the Theses primarily address the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church, the underlying issue was the relative authority of Scripture and the Roman Church. The issue of the authority of Scripture remains of vital importance today; we’ll focus on it this coming Sunday as we celebrate 500 years of the Reformation.  To honor Luther’s role in the recovery of Scriptural authority, here are some of his own words on this topic – Coty]

[When Luther was under trial in the city of Worms for his writings, after being commanded to recant:]

I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.

[Luther’s enemies mocked him for this stance, yet clearly recognized his position on Scripture. Here is part of the Edict of Worms, the final judgment from that trial:]

This devil in the habit of a monk has brought together ancient errors into one stinking puddle and has invented new ones. . . . His teaching makes for rebellion, division, war, murder, robbery, arson, and the collapse of Christendom. He lives the life of a beast. . . . We have labored with him, but he recognizes only the authority of Scripture.

[Luther was the first to translate the Bible into German. He wrote these words on the flyleaf of a German Bible:]

God will not be seen, known, or comprehended except through his Word alone. Whatever therefore one undertakes for salvation apart from the Word is in vain. God will not respond to that. He will not have it. He will not tolerate any other way. Therefore, let his Book in which He speaks to you be commended to you. For he did not cause it to be written to no purpose. He did not want us to let it lie there in neglect, as if he were speaking with mice under the bench or with flies on the pulpit. We are to read it, to think and speak about it, and to study it, certain that He Himself, not an angel or a creature, is speaking with us in it.

[Luther’s response to Erasmus’ claim that Scripture is obscure. From Bondage of the Will:]

God and his Scriptures are two things, just as the Creator and his creation are two things. Now, nobody questions that there is a great deal hid in God of which we know nothing. . . . But the notion that in Scripture . . . all is not plain was spread by the godless [without evidence.] . . . And Satan has used these unsubstantial specters to scare men off reading the sacred text, and to destroy all sense of its value, so as to ensure that his own poisonous philosophy reigns supreme in the church. I certainly grant that many passages in the Scriptures are obscure and hard to elucidate, but that is due, not to the exalted nature of their subject, but to our own linguistic and grammatical ignorance; and it does not in any way prevent our knowing all the contents of Scripture. For what solemn truth can the Scriptures still be concealing, now that the seals are broken, the stone rolled away from the door of the tomb, and the greatest of all mysteries brought to light—that Christ, God’s Son, became man, that God is Three in One, that Christ suffered for us, and will reign forever? Are not these things known, and sung in our streets? Take Christ from the Scriptures—and what more will you find in them? . . .

The profoundest mysteries of the supreme Majesty are no [longer] hidden away, but are now brought out of doors and displayed to public view. Christ has opened our understanding, that we might understand the Scriptures, and the Gospel is preached to every creature. . . . I know that to many people a great deal remains obscure; but that is due, not to any lack of clarity in Scripture, but to their own blindness and dullness, in that they make no effort to see truth which, in itself, could not be plainer. . . . They are like men who . . . go from daylight into darkness, and hide there and then blame . . . the darkness of the day for their inability to see. . . .

The truth is that nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures. All men have their hearts darkened, so that, even when they can discuss and quote all that is in Scripture, they do not understand or really know any of it. They do not believe in God, nor do they believe that they are God’s creatures, nor anything else. . . . The Spirit is needed for the understanding of all Scripture and every part of Scripture.

[From Luther‘s exposition of Psalm 45:4, delivered as a lecture to his students. He here comments on the words “go forth and reign” (translated “ride out victoriously” in the ESV):]

Everywhere there is nothing but misfortune: outside they persecute the Word; among us they despise and neglect it; pastors almost die of hunger and receive no other reward for their godly labors than ingratitude and hatred. Where is the prosperity here? Certainly only in the spirit.

Therefore rouse yourself. Do not give in to evils, but go forth boldly against them. Hold on. Do not be disheartened either by contempt or ingratitude within or by agitation and raging without. . . . It is in sorrow, when we are the closest to despair, that hope rises the highest. So today, when there is the greatest contempt and weariness with the Word, the true glory of the Word begins. Therefore we should learn to understand this verse as speaking of invisible progress and success. Our King enjoys success and good fortune even though you do not see it. Moreover, it would not be expedient for us to see this success, for then we would be puffed up. Now, however, he raises us up through faith and gives us hope. Even though we see no fruit of the Word, still we can be certain that fruit will not be wanting but will certainly follow; for so it is written here. Only we should not be discouraged when we look at present circumstances that disturb us, but we should much rather look at these promises.


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.]


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

September 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

The Business of Preaching

May 12, 2016

“”The business of preaching is not merely to make the hearer feel a little happier while he is listening or while he is singing particular hymns; it is not meant to be a way of producing an atmosphere of comfort. If I do that I am a quack, and am a very false friend indeed. No, the business of preaching is to teach you to think. We may have to be severe, to chastise you, and to show you that your thinking has been altogether wrong. And not only so, but also to show you that you have not grasped the doctrines, because the comfort that is given by them is a deduction drawn as the result of working them out for yourselves.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans 8:17-39 – The Final Perseverance of the Saints, p. 24.

Similarly, Ray Stedman from “The Glory of Preaching,” presented at the 1982 Congress on the Bible: “It is the business of the preacher to change the total viewpoint about life of every member of his congregation, and to challenge the secular illusions of our day, and strip them of their deceitfulness, and show people how human wisdom fails, . . . and point out to them what that failure is doing to them if they follow it. The instrument is the exposition and proclamation of these mysteries of God.”

Seeing the Truth of Scripture

April 14, 2016

How does a person come to believe in the truth and authority of the Bible?

John Piper’s most recent book, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness, addresses this question. The answer: We see its glory rather than infer its truth.

Seeing is central because saving knowledge is more than intellectual acknowledgment of truth claims. Saving knowledge includes loving God, treasuring Jesus, and staking your life on the Gospel. These don’t result from research that simply leads to inferences that the Bible is probably accurate. Furthermore, Scripture makes clear that such saving knowledge is available to all mankind, to the educated and uneducated, to the adult and the child, and not only to those with analytical minds and ability in historical research. So Piper writes:

The pathway that leads to sight may involve much empirical observation, and historical awareness, and rational thought. . . . But the end we are seeking is not a probable inference from historical reasoning but a full assurance that we have seen the glory of God. Thus, at the end of all human means, the simplest preliterate person and the most educated scholar come to a saving knowledge of the truth of Scripture in the same way: by a sight of its glory. (p. 15)

Does this even make sense? Note that this is the way Scripture speaks of salvation: Satan has “blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). But God is the One who creates light! He “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Furthermore, if “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17), then the saving sight of God’s glory comes to us through the Word – through Scripture. There thus must be a similar shining of God’s light in our hearts to come to trust the revealed Word.

Piper argues that although seeing the glory of Scripture may sound strange to our ears, there are other times when we must see truth rather than infer it. In Chapter 9 he presents several analogies to help us have some idea of what that seeing by divine illumination consists of. Here we will look at two of them.

First, as C.S. Lewis writes, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” That is, “In Your light do we see light” (Psalm 36:9). Piper writes:

Ordinarily when we seek to have a well-grounded conviction about some claim to truth in this world, we bring all our experience to bear on the claim and try to make sense out of it. . . . Does it cohere with what we know to be true? Does it make sense in the light of what we already know? What we know from experience is the standard, the arbiter, the measure of truth.

But what happens when we encounter a claim that says, “I am the Standard, the Arbiter, the Truth”? This claim is unique. It is not like other claims to truth in this world. When the ultimate Measure of all reality speaks, you don’t subject this Measure to the measure of your mind or your experience of the world. He created all that. When the ultimate Standard of all truth and beauty appears, he is not put in the dock to be judged by the prior perceptions of truth and beauty that we bring to the courtroom. The eternal, absolute original is seen as true and beautiful not because he coheres with what we know but because all the truth and beauty we know coheres in him. It is measured by him, and it is seen flowing from him. (p. 158)

Now, think: Jesus is “the true light, which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9). He is the standard. He is the measure. And He is the One who is the source of all knowledge:

He is one who can be known and the one who makes all knowing possible. He is a point of light—a point of truth and knowledge—that enters our minds, and he is the light by which we see all points of light. Thus we know him to be true, not because our light shows him to be so, but because his divine light shines with its own, all-enlightening, all-explaining glory. (p. 160)

And this provides us with an analogy for Scripture:

We know the Scriptures to be true, not because our light shows them to be so, but because their divine light shines with its own unique, all-enlightening, all-explaining glory.

The second analogy we will consider concerns Peter and Judas. Both lived with Jesus for about three years. Both saw Him, heard Him, spoke with Him, ate with Him. Jesus sent them both out to preach and to heal. Both are called disciples. Both are called apostles. Yet Peter saw Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Judas betrayed Him for a few thousand dollars.

What led to the difference between these two men? Why did one see, and the other did not?

Jesus Himself tells Peter, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). Peter would not have seen apart from the revelation of God.

However, Piper argues that it would be wrong to say Judas did not see because it was not revealed to him. He did not see because he was a liar, a thief, a covetous person.

Consider John 3:19-20 in this regard:

Light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:19-20)

Commenting on these verses, Piper writes:

The root of our blindness is not that we are victims of darkness, but lovers of darkness. The root of our blindness is not that we are hindered from the light, but that we are haters of the light. We love the darkness of doing things our way, and we hate the light of the surpassing beauty of the all-authoritative, all-satisfying, sovereign Christ. And, therefore, our blindness is blameworthy—not, as the lawyers say, exculpatory. It does not remove our guilt. It is our guilt.

In this analogy, Judas represents people who approach the Christian Scriptures with a mind and a heart that are so out of tune with the music of its meaning that they cannot hear it for what it is. There is such a dissonance that the heart repels the revelation of God as undesirable and untrue. Peter represents the people who come to the Scriptures with a mind and a heart humbled by the Holy Spirit and open to the beauty and truth of God’s glory shining through the meaning of the text. What the analogy brings to light is that two people can be looking at the very same person (Jesus Christ) or the very same book (the Bible) and miss what is really there.

So the Scriptures are like Jesus in His essence  – the Light by which all is seen – and like Jesus in His humanity – the One who divides humanity into those who see His glory and delight in it, and those who are blinded by their own sin.

In our fallen state, we must see this glory – and our very fallenness blinds us to this glory.

Thus, there is no way we can have such sight unless we humble ourselves before God and His Word, unless we seek Truth from Him rather than establish ourselves as the arbiters of Truth. So may we approach God’s Word as supplicants, as needy people, as those thirsting in a desert – and may He satisfy us with His Truth, His Beauty, His Glory.

[The pdf version of the book is available as a free download at Desiring God. My approach to arguing for the authority of Scripture – as well as my personal story of coming to trust that authority – can be found in these blog posts from 2013: first, second, third.]

Christ the Door: The Secret of Access to God

February 13, 2016

[Lilias Trotter (1853-1928) was an accomplished English artist who spent the last forty years of her life as a missionary to Muslims in what is now Algeria. Beth and I saw a new film about her, Many Beautiful Things, Thursday night. The following is taken from the third chapter of The Way of the Sevenfold Secret (1926). Trotter wrote this book (originally in Arabic) to reach out to those involved in a mystical branch of Islam, Sufism. Note particularly the clear presentation of the Gospel and the uniqueness of Christ, all the while showing respect for her readers. We can learn much from her – Coty]

We have considered . . . the words of our Lord the Christ, — “I am the Light of the world.” Now . . . there comes through Him by the light the revelation of another wonderful secret: the secret of access to God. This access is the next step to that union with Him which is eternal blessedness. . . .

In the words of Christ [“Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7)], we have the step of drawing near to God set forth to us by the symbol of a door— the door into a sheepfold.

Now a sheepfold is a place of safety in the midst of danger: the wilderness may be all around, and wild beasts may be heard growling only a stone’s throw off, but the sheep in the fold are as safe as if no enemies were there. They have entered in and they are saved.

So, in this new secret, God makes known to us that there is a place where even now in the wilderness of this world with evil prowling all around we may rest in safety as sheep within the fold. There is a place of nearness to God where the devil dares not venture that he may snatch the soul away; there is a salvation that is here and now.

We know, our brothers, that this is to you a new thought. Your belief is that no one can tell with certainty that he is saved until the day of account. You feel yourselves like sheep that may at any moment become a prey. Listen, for Christ speaks of a sheepfold right here in the wilderness, and of a door whereby we may enter in.

Now the symbol of a door of access to God is also to you a new thought. You think of man as separated from Him by the seventy thousand veils; and you hold that of these, ten thousand are abolished at each stage of the road: so that the state of access will only be bestowed by God’s grace when you have accomplished the long journey.

But the door is something different: it implies an entrance that needs but a single step, as we all know in daily life. No one thinks of a gradual progression in entering by a door: one moment he is without — the next he is within.

There is another great difference in the two symbols. Your thought in the veils is that it is the ignorance and imperfection of man that separates him from God. But the idea of a door implies a wall, and we find in the teaching of the Holy Book, that man is separated from God, not so much by his ignorance and infirmity, as by his sin: as it is spoken by the mouth of the prophet Isaiah: “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear.” [Isaiah 59:2]

This wall has arisen, not as a veil under which we were born, but by our own building. It is true that the foundation of the wall between man and God rests on the sin of our father Adam, but it has been raised by the million sins of his race. The foundation of our sinfulness lies buried, so to speak, in the sinful nature that is our heritage, but since our childhood the wall has been built up by stone after stone of personal sins, great and small, that are uncounted by us, but counted by God. . . .

If indeed any ray of light has come to you, my brother, from Him who is the Light of the world, then you will see this wall of your sins to be great and high. What then is to be done to find the way of access? Man may go round the wall that he has built, seeking entrance, but he finds none. He may seek, as it were, to loosen the stones, that is, he may think that he throws down a stone from the wall of his sin when he performs a good action, but in truth he only replaces one stone by another, for even our good deeds are full of sin before God, and our very repentance needs to be repented of. [Like Paul in Acts 17:28, Trotter here is quoting a saying of the people she is writing to.] He says in the Holy Book, “In all your doings your sins do appear.” [Ezekiel 21:24]

Man’s repentance cannot undo his sin, and even the intercession of the saints and prophets is unavailing in this, for they shared our sinful estate. Neither our own repentance nor the intercession of others will move the wall, and the sin that has built it must be taken away if we are to find entrance.

You cannot get to God till you have found someone who can take away those sins, just as you cannot get through a wall except by finding some means of taking away that with which it was built

This brings us back again to the symbol of a door, . . . a door broken through in a wall that stands strong and high. If the wall is of brick, you must take away the bricks; if the wall is of stone, you must take away the stones. If the wall is of sin, a means must be found by which sin can be taken away.

Now Islam, my brother, shows no way by which these stones of sin can be removed: there is no revelation set forth in it showing a ransom whereby sin can be put away.

So this is the next of these seven secrets: God has found a way in Jesus Christ for the taking away of sin. It is said of Him,— “Now once, in the end of the world, hath He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” [Hebrews 9:26] He could do this, for He was of another nature from us, one with God, pure and sinless. “Christ hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.” [1 Peter 3:18] “He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him is no sin”. [1 John 3:5]

The way in which this was accomplished was foretold in prophecy by the prophet Isaiah, when he said, —”All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord hath laid upon Him (that is, on the Christ) the iniquity of us all.” [Isaiah 53:] This word was fulfilled, and Christ gathered the sin of the world on Himself, though its touch must have been agony to Him, and “His own self bare our sins in His own Body on the tree”. [1 Peter 2:24] He bore them six hours till their burden and their darkness shut Him away from the Presence of God, and at last His Heart broke, and death came, when He could say, “It is finished.” [John 19:30]

In those hours God identified Him with our sin in His sight, as it is written.—”He hath made Him to be sin for us Who knew no sin”. [2 Corinthians 5:21]  And so when He went out of the world by death, with His Heart broken, the sin of the world was borne away from before God, and the door was left. [John 1:29] Christ Himself by gathering our sin on Himself and taking it away, has become the Door. Praise be to His Name.

Now see the words that follow: “I am the Door, by me if any man enter in He shall be saved.” [John 10:9] This does not mean only that he shall enter heaven after death. . . . These words mean that the man who takes Christ as his Door can pass here and now from the state of danger, shut out from God and a prey to Satan, into a state of shelter and rest as of sheep within the fold.

This is the rest and the nearness for which you long. You have wearied yourself to find the door by many efforts, by prayers and meditations and fastings. . . . But this new secret is that nearness may be yours to-day. If you have come to see that your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and that you need a Mediator who is not of this earth, then you are on the threshold. Take one step more and trust yourself to Christ in faith that His death for you has broken down every barrier, and that He brings you into reconciliation with God, here and now.

Fear not, for the word “if any man enter in” must mean you, for no exception is made of race, or creed, or state: you cannot be outside that number. It is not over-boldness when we enter in, just as we are, through this wonderful door. The overboldness would [be] seeking for some way other than the way God has appointed.

There is no other way: the sheepfold has only one door. You may go round about it, and you will find but the one opening. Christ says not “I am a Door,” but, “I am the Door.” God has but one door to the fold and that door is Christ.

Make haste to enter, my brother, for whilst you are yet outside, even on the threshold, you are still within reach of Satan, who “as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour”. [1 Peter 5:8] Dare to “enter in.”

With one more word from that same verse we end this chapter. The verse ends,— “He shall be saved, and shall go in and out and find pasture.” [John 10:9]

For when we have come to this state of salvation, we can, if we are under the guidance of the Good Shepherd, go back with Him, so to speak, into the world, to help those who are still outside the fold, and to find in this our joy. He does not mean our lives to be spent in idleness when we are saved or even in reading and meditation, but in seeking that we may follow His steps “Who went about doing good.” [Acts 10:38]


What Might God Do in 2016?

January 8, 2016

What might God do in 2016?

What might God do through you in 2016?

We must be careful when asking such questions. God does not need our skills, our intelligence, our education, our experience, or our wisdom. Indeed, God chooses to work mightily through the foolish, through the weak, through the low, through the despised, “so that no human being might boast” before Him (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). If we even begin to think, “Look how much I have to offer – I’m such an asset to God!” – then we are headed to a fall (Proverbs 16:18).

But God always is at work through small, weak, insignificant people to fulfill His great plans.  On the last night before His crucifixion, our Lord said,

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  (John 14:12-13)

He promises us the opportunity, the power, and the ability, through dependence on Him, to do greater works than He accomplished in His earthly life. He continues to act today – through you. Indeed, the Apostle John tells us, “As [God] is, so also are we in this world.” (1 John 4:17b)

C.S. Lewis captures this idea marvelously. In That Hideous Strength, all humanity is threatened by the forces of evil. All the powerful elements in society have been co-opted by this force. A small band of believers is able to seek assistance from a man from another century; he asks the band’s leader, “Are we not big enough to meet them in plain battle?” The reply: “We are four men, some women, and a bear” (chapter 13). Yet in the end God uses these few not only to overcome but also to embarrass and mock the evil forces.

In Lewis’ Perelandra, the evil man Weston and the follower of God Ransom are both on the planet we call Venus. The first rational beings on the planet, a man and a woman, are in their innocence, and Weston, playing the role of the serpent in the Garden, tries to turn the woman away from God (“Maleldil”). The temptation goes on and on; Ransom sees her slipping away, despite all his efforts. He asks himself:

Why did no miracle come? Or rather, why no miracle on the right side? For the presence of the Enemy was in itself a kind of Miracle. Had Hell a prerogative to work wonders? Why did Heaven work none? Not for the first time he found himself questioning Divine Justice. He could not understand why Maleldil should remain absent when the Enemy was there in person. . . .

“The Enemy is really here, really saying and doing things. Where is Maleldil’s representative?”

The answer which came back to him . . . almost took his breath away. It seemed blasphemous. “Anyway, what can I do?” babbled the voluble self. “I’ve done all I can.” . . . And then – he wondered how it had escaped him till now – he was forced to perceive that his own coming to Perelandra was at least as much of a marvel as the Enemy’s. That miracle on the right side, which he had demanded, had in fact occurred. He himself was the miracle. (Chapter 11)

He was the miracle! God had put him there for His purposes. God was working through him to defeat Evil and to magnify His Name. And just so with you and me. We are God’s miracle, placed in our time, in our place, as His agents to fulfill His plan, His story.

Later, when Ransom wonders at this, he is told:

Be comforted. . . . It is no doing of yours. You are not great, though you could have prevented a thing so great that Deep Heaven sees it with amazement. Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad. Have no fear, lest your shoulders be bearing this world. (Chapter 17)

Just so with us. We are not great. We gain no merit. We are small. We are a few men and women – without even the bear!

And yet we are as God in this world. God will do great works through us. Sometimes through our small, spontaneous acts of love. Sometimes through planning and strategizing on how to glorify His Name. But in all ways, at all times, God is powerfully at work through His people.

So what might God do through you in 2016?

Be confident. Be dependent. Be humble. Be in prayer. And look forward expectantly to how our Lord will use the weak and insignificant to advance His great Plan in 2016.

Bonhoeffer on Confession, Counseling, and the Cross

January 5, 2016

Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Anybody who lives beneath the Cross and who has discerned in the Cross of Jesus the utter wickedness of all men and of his own heart will find there is no sin that can ever be alien to him. Anybody who has once been horrified by the dreadfulness of his own sin that nailed Jesus to the Cross will no longer be horrified by even the rankest sins of a brother. Looking at the Cross of Jesus, he knows the human heart. He knows how utterly lost it is in sin and weakness, how it goes astray in the ways of sin, and he also knows that it is accepted in grace and mercy. Only the brother under the Cross can hear a confession.

It is not experience of life but experience of the Cross that makes one a worthy hearer of confessions. The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is. Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it also does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner. The psychiatrist must first search my heart and yet he never plumbs its ultimate depth. The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness. The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God. The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Life Together (published in German in 1939; English edition: Harper and Row, 1954), p. 118-119.

Our Only Hope

November 3, 2015

How serious is sin? How serious is your sin?

How would you answer that question? Would you describe the impact of your sin on those you love – your family, your friends, your neighbors? Or would you focus on the impact of sin on yourself – destroying what you love most, changing you into something you hate?

Sin does hurt others. Sin does destroy us.

But so often we fail to consider the greatest impact of our sin: The affront against a holy and loving God.

John Bunyan’s The Holy War highlights this truth in startling terms. In this allegory, the town of Mansoul rebels against its King Shaddai and makes Diabolus its ruler. King Shaddai sends his armies, led by Captain Conviction and Captain Judgment, to battle against the town. They eventually call for more assistance, so the King sends His Son, Emmanuel. Emmanuel offers them mercy, but, spurred on by Diabolus, Mansoul continues to resist. So Emmanuel’s forces break down the gates, conquer the town, throw out Diabolus, and execute a number of his commanders.

At this point, frightened of impending judgment and seeing the foolishness of their past actions, the town sends a petition to Emmanuel asking for mercy. What does Emmanuel do?

Bunyan’s picture of Emmanuel’s response is almost shocking to our contemporary ears. He initially does nothing, sending the messengers back. They send petition after petition. Finally, Emmanuel speaks to the messenger:

The town of Mansoul hath grievously rebelled against my Father, in that they have rejected him from being their King, and did choose to themselves for their captain a liar, a murderer, and a runagate slave. For this Diabolus, your pretended prince, though once so highly accounted of by you, made rebellion against my Father and me, even in our palace and highest court there, thinking to become a prince and king. But being there timely discovered and apprehended, and for his wickedness bound in chains, and separated to the pit with those that were his companions, he offered himself to you, and you have received him.

Now this is, and for a long time hath been, a high affront to my Father; wherefore my Father sent to you a powerful army to reduce you to your obedience. But you know how these men, their captains and their counsels, were esteemed of you, and what they received at your hand. You rebelled against them, you shut your gates upon them, you bid them battle, you fought them, and fought for Diabolus against them. So they sent to my Father for more power, and I, with my men, are come to subdue you. But as you treated the servants, so you treated their Lord. You stood up in hostile manner against me, you shut up your gates against me, you turned the deaf ear to me, and resisted as long as you could; but now I have made a conquest of you. Did you cry me mercy so long as you had hopes that you might prevail against me? But now that I have taken the town, you cry; but why did you not cry before, when the white flag of my mercy, the red flag of justice, and the black flag that threatened execution, were set up to cite you to it? Now I have conquered your Diabolus, you come to me for favour; but why did you not help me against the mighty?

Many of us today picture God as sitting in the heavens, desperately hoping that we might turn to Him. When we make the least step towards regret for past sins, we then think God is overwhelmed with joy.

But God desires much more than regret for past actions. Remember Esau: As Hebrews 12:15-17 tells us, he regretted selling his birthright – he even wept over that – but God rejected him.

Bunyan rightly pictures Emmanuel opening the eyes of the petitioners to the depth of their sinfulness. The fundamental problem was not that Diabolus was a tyrant, though he was; the fundamental problem was not that the town failed to flourish under him, though it did. The fundamental problem was that the town spurned its rightful king and submitted to His enemy.

What can the petitioners say in response? Why did they not cry before? The only answer: They are desperate sinners, and have absolutely no basis on which to approach Emmanuel except his mercy.

Does Emmanuel offer any hope? He concludes His speech with these words:

Yet I will consider your petition, and will answer it so as will be for my glory.

That is the town’s only hope: That Emmanuel might be glorified through His mercy.

Just so with us. God saves us “to the praise of His glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6).

My friends, regret does not save. Acknowledging the negative consequences of sin does not save. Wanting to live a better life, to be a better person, does not save.

We are rebels. We deserve execution. Our petition to the King we have so grievously offended can be based on nothing else except the mercy that He offers us by the blood of His Son, to the praise of His glorious grace. May He be pleased to grant such true repentance to you. And may He open our eyes to the extent of His majesty and holiness, so that we might comprehend the enormity of His grace.

(A free Kindle version of The Holy War is available at this link.)


C.S. Lewis on Prayer

November 22, 2013

C.S. Lewis died 50 years ago today. God used him powerfully in my life, as in the lives of so many others. In celebration of and thankfulness for his life, this morning I read one of his less well known works: Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1963).

Lewis is properly humble about the shortfalls of his own prayer life:

If God had granted all the silly prayers I’ve made in my life, where should I be now? (28)

For me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence. (63)

And his speculations, while always stimulating, in my opinion sometimes stray from their biblical moorings. But you will profit from meditating on the following quotes. The lengthy quotations from chapter 17 have been especially powerful for me.

So thank you, Father God, for the life of C.S. Lewis – for your sovereignly drawing him to Yourself, for his devotion to you, for his careful thought about You and Your Word. Continue to use his writings for the glory of Your Name – and may we, like him, strive to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration.

(Should you want to explore more of Lewis, Desiring God’s fall conference on him was excellent. All the talks are available online. I particularly recommend those by Joe Rigney and Kevin Vanhoozer. ) – Coty

[A writer] has substituted religion for God—as if navigation were substituted for arrival, or battle for victory, or wooing for marriage, or in general the means for the end. But even in this present life, there is danger in the very concept of religion. It carries the suggestion that this is one more department of life, an extra department added to the economic, the social, the intellectual, the recreational, and all the rest. But that whose claims are infinite can have no standing as a department. Either it is an illusion or else our whole life falls under it. We have no non-religious activities; only religious and irreligious. (30)

One of the purposes for which God instituted prayer may have been to bear witness that the course of events is not governed like a state but created like a work of art to which every being makes its contribution and (in prayer) a conscious contribution, and in which every being is both and end and a means. . . . Let me hasten to add that [prayer] is also an end. The world was made partly that there might be prayer; partly that our prayers . . . might be answered. But let’s have finished with “partly.” The great work of art was made for the sake of all it does and is, down to the curve of every wave and the flight of every insect. (55-56)

How or why does such faith [in particular answers to prayer] occur sometimes, but not always, even in the perfect petitioner? We, or I, can only guess. My own idea is that it occurs only when the one who prays does so as God’s fellow-worker, demanding what is needed for the joint work. It is the prophet’s, the apostle’s, the missionary’s, the healer’s prayer that is made with this confidence and finds the confidence justified by the event. The difference, we are told, between a servant and a friend is that a servant is not in his master’s secrets. For him, “orders are orders.” He has only his own surmises as to the plans he helps to execute. But the fellow-worker, the companion or (dare we say?) the colleague of God is so united with Him at certain moments that something of the divine foreknowledge enters his mind. Hence his faith is “evidence” — that is, the evidentness, the obviousness — of things not seen. (60-61)

On the one hand, the man who does not regard God as other than himself cannot be said to have a religion at all. On the other hand, if I think God other than myself in the same way in which my fellow-men, and objects in general, are other than myself, I am beginning to make Him an idol. I am daring to treat His existence as somehow parallel to my own. But He is the ground of our being. He is always both within us and over against us. Our reality is as much from His reality as He, moment by moment, projects into us. The deeper the level within ourselves from which our prayer, or any other act, wells up, the more it is His, but not at all the less ours. Rather, most ours when most His. . . . To be discontinuous from God as I am discontinuous from you would be annihilation. [68-9]

It is well to have specifically holy places, and things, and days, for, without these focal points or reminders, the belief that all is holy and “big with God” will soon dwindle into a mere sentiment. But if these holy place, things, and days cease to remind us, if they obliterate our awareness that all ground is holy and every bush (could I but perceive it) a Burning Bush, then the hallows begin to do harm.  . . . We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.  And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.

Oddly enough, what corroborates me in this faith is the fact . . . that the awareness of this presence has so often been unwelcome. I call upon Him in prayer. Often He might reply—I think He does reply—“But you have been evading me for hours.” For he comes not only to raise up but to cast down; to deny, to rebuke, to interrupt. The prayer “prevent us in all our doings” is often answered as if the word prevent had its modern meaning. The presence which we voluntarily evade is often, and we know it, His presence in wrath.

And out of this evil comes a good. If I never fled from His presence, then I should suspect those moments when I seemed to delight in it of being wish-fulfillment dreams. That, by the way, explains the feebleness of all those watered versions of Christianity which leave out all the darkest elements and try to establish a religion of pure consolation No real belief in the watered versions can last. Bemused and besotted as we are, we still dimly know at heart that nothing which is at all times and in every way agreeable to us can have objective reality. It is of the very nature of the real that it should have sharp corners and rough edges, that it should be resistant, should be itself. Dream-furniture is the only kind on which you never stub your toes or bang your knee. You and I have both known happy marriage. But how different our wives were from the imaginary mistresses of our adolescent dreams! So much less exquisitely adapted to all our wishes; and for that very reason (among others) so incomparably better.

Servile fear is, to be sure, the lowest form of religion. But a god such that there could never be occasion for even servile fear, a safe god, a tame god, soon proclaims himself to any sound mind as a fantasy. I have met no people who fully disbelieved in Hell and also had a living and life-giving belief in Heaven. (75-76)

It’s comical that you, of all people, should ask my views about prayer as worship or adoration. On this subject you yourself taught me nearly all I know. . . .

You first taught me the great principle, ‘Begin where you are.’ I had thought one had to start by summoning up what we believe about the goodness and greatness of God, by thinking about creation and redemption and’ all the blessings of this life’. You turned to the brook and once more splashed your burning face and hands in the little waterfall and said: ‘Why not begin with this?’

And it worked. Apparently you have never guessed how much. That cushiony moss, that coldness and sound and dancing light were no doubt very minor blessings compared with ‘the means of grace and the hope of glory’. But then they were manifest. So far as they were concerned, sight had replaced faith. They were not the hope of glory; they were an exposition of the glory itself.

Yet you were not – or so it seemed to me – telling me that’ Nature’, or ‘the beauties of Nature’, manifest the glory. No such abstraction as ‘Nature’ comes into it. I was learning the far more secret doctrine that pleasures are shafts of the glory as it strikes our sensibility. As it impinges on our will or our understanding, we give it different names-goodness or truth or the like. But its flash upon our senses and mood is pleasure.

But aren’t there bad, unlawful pleasures? Certainly there are. But in calling them’ bad pleasures’ I take it we are using a kind of shorthand. We mean ‘pleasures snatched by unlawful acts.’  It is the stealing of the apple that is bad, not the sweetness. The sweetness is still a beam from the glory. That does not palliate the stealing. It makes it worse. There is sacrilege in the theft. We have abused a holy thing.

I have tried, since that moment, to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration. I don’t mean simply by giving thanks for it. One must of course give thanks, but I mean something different. How shall I put it?

We can’t – or I can’t – hear the song of a bird simply as a sound. Its meaning or message (‘That’s a bird ‘) comes with it inevitably-just as one can’t see a familiar word in print as a merely visual pattern. The reading is as involuntary as the seeing. When the wind roars I don’t just hear the roar; I ‘hear the wind’. In the same way it is possible to ‘ read’ as well as to ‘ have’ a pleasure. Or not even’ as well as’. The distinction ought to become, and sometimes is, impossible; to receive it and to recognise its divine source are a single experience. This heavenly fruit is instantly redolent of the orchard where it grew. This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. There need be no question of thanks or praise as a separate event, something done afterwards. To experience the tiny theophany is itself to adore.

Gratitude exclaims, very properly: ‘How good of God to give me this.’ Adoration says: ‘What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!  One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.

If I could always be what I aim at being, no pleasure would be too ordinary or too usual for such reception; from the first taste of the air when I look out of the window–one’s whole cheek becomes a sort of palate – down to one’s soft slippers at bedtime. . . .

One must learn to walk before one can run. So here. We-or at least I-shall not be able to adore God on the highest occasions if we have learned no habit of doing so on the lowest. At best, our faith and reason will tell us that He is adorable, but we shall not have found Him so, not have’ tasted and seen’. Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are, patches of Godlight ‘ in the woods of our experience. . . .

In this world everything is upside down.  That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends.  Joy is the serious business of Heaven. (From Chapter 17, p. 88-93)



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