Friday, December 31, 2010

Come, Lord Jesus!

December 25th is done. There is still a tree up (just no presents under it), still lights on the houses, still a Christmas cd in my car player; and I feel, just like every year, a sadness, a bittersweet nostalgia. Why's that? I listen again to a Christmas cd, not the silly one (by Mariah Carey) but the good one, with a choir. Now that all the needless rush and stress is over, I want it back! But today, I realized, not "it"; but him. Not the little baby in the manger but the King, riding on a white horse. I want the King to return.

We've celebrated his first advent, but there's another, second advent we wait for, long for now. Christmas is great. Our attention gets focused on the greatest miracle and gift ever: that God came and dwelt among us in human flesh. That he was right here among us for a little while. And at Christmas it's kind of like we get to act that out a little, even setting out figurines in our houses. We imagine seeing it, that we're there and it's all happening, right under our noses. But then, the day is over, and it all gets packed up and put away, and we are still waiting. I know it's just trees and lights and candles and figurines. But still... don't you feel increased loneliness for him? Doesn't Christmas just make you long to see him with your eyes? Don't you long for him to come again, this time for good?

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Acts 1:9-11).

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! ~ Revelation 22:20

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How Do You Meet Needs?

I've been thinking, what are the things God in his Word tells us to do to meet needs, whether in our families, in the church, or in the world? And how good a job are we--am I--doing of paying attention to that?

Here's what the NT has to say about meeting needs in our families:

  1. Wives submit to, love and respect your husbands; be a worker in your home
  2. Children honor and obey your parents, take care of them physically in old age
  3. Husbands love your wives as Christ loves the church, live with them in an understanding way
  4. Fathers, bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord and don't provoke them to anger
(Won't just these four things keep some of us busy for the rest of our lives?)

Here's a sampling of what the Bible says about meeting needs in the church:

  1. Bear one another's burdens
  2. Share one another's joys and sorrows
  3. Share generously what you have with those in need
  4. Show hospitality
  5. Encourage each other in the Lord
  6. Teach and exhort each other through singing together
  7. Think about ways to stir one another up to love and good works
  8. Forgive each other
  9. Speak the truth in love to each other
  10. Make disciples
(Those all apply in the home as well, by the way.)

And here's a sampling of what the Bible says about meeting needs in the world:

  1. Always be ready to give a humble answer to those who want to know the reason for your hope
  2. Do not be ashamed of Christ and his words before unbelievers
  3. Share the gospel
  4. Be willing to suffer for righteousness' sake so that unbelievers may see your good works and (perhaps in this life) give glory to God
  5. Obey and honor the government authorities
  6. Do not love the world or the things of the world
Our ideas of meeting needs often fall short or are even opposed to what God, in his authoritative word, says we should be doing. I'm convicted!

"And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:24).

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

How My View of Scripture Was Altered

From a journal entry a while back:

The reality of the all-encompassing sufficiency and authority of the Bible exploded into my view six or so years ago. Before then, I was casting my eyes about for answers in every direction, looking for the help so sorely needed, looking here, there, everywhere, it seemed, but in its pages. I'd been a Christian 30 years.

But at last the Lord gathered me up to himself, heart wildly pounding, eyes searching for him, and he gently turned and held my face steady to the page. And at long last, the words came into focus and I saw him there. Since then has been a continual feast and fellowship with the Lord, by his Spirit, in the pages of his Book.

May your word, Lord, become foremost, central and prominent in the life of your church, and in our estimation.

I will bow down toward Your holy temple and give thanks to Your name for Your lovingkindness and Your truth; for You have magnified Your word according to all Your name. ~ Psalm 138:2 (NASB)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

His Yoke is Easy, His Burden is Light (Even When We Are Distressed)!

Not long ago, it came up in a conversation with a loved one that all this difficulty in relationships and difficult church situations can't be right. All the arrogance we see around us, born of a false view of God and his ways, plus the struggle with our own sinful hearts, causes forlornness. All this just can't be right, was the conversation, because of this: Jesus said, "Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest; take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).

But here's why these words of Jesus don't make it wrong that we are, both of us, distressed and struggling so often. The first reason why is this one: Jesus was talking about the salvation from sin he offers.

He had, in Matthew 11:1-24, just pronounced a ringing indictment on the unbelief and hardheartedness of the Jews in failing to recognize both the forerunner (John the Baptist) and their Messiah. The cities in which he had done most of his miracles were included, because they did not repent (v. 20); if the miracles these cities had witnessed had been seen in Sodom, said the Lord, Sodom would have repented and would still be here today. How favored these cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum had been, yet by their lack of repentance, their damnation was sealed.

The the Lord in vs. 25 begins to speak of God's goodness in revealing himself, not to these lofty cities, but to "infants." "Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does any one know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal him."

Having made this great statement of praise dor the Father's freedom and pleasure in sovereignly revealing himself to those whom he would, Jesus then extends his invitation-- not to be refused--to those infants, those little ones, those weary ones (us!): "Come unto me."

The weariness and the heavy burden is the guilt of sin; the rest he offers is the forgiveness and the removal of it. His easy yoke is his commands, which are our delight (Psalm 40:8) and not burdensome; his "burden" for us is joy, the joy of our salvation!

This is not a one-time benefit, but is meant to sustain us throughout all our journey in this pilgrim passage. Who can ever "get over" the wonder of a Savior who has canceled the debt of sin?

The other reason why these words of Jesus don't make it wrong that we are distressed and that we struggle so often is this: it was the way of our Master himself, of his apostles, and of all the faithful and suffering church since then. I'll just close with these words from Scripture:

"In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence" (Hebrews 5:7).

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies" (2 Corinthians 4:7-10).

"It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?" (Hebrews 12:7).

"So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" ( 2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Every High Priest Must Offer Something

Hebrews 8:3: "For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest to have something to offer."

Hebrews 10:10: "And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Rehearsals for Judgment

I'm reading through Hosea, using a commentary to help with some of the historical references and allusions. When I read in Chapter 10 verse 8 that the people of Israel would go to judgment calling to the mountains and hills, "Cover us! Fall on us!" I knew the commentary would have something good to say! Because, of course, this cry has been, and is to be repeated elsewhere in history.

But the last word on human arrogance and independence is reserved for the end of the [Hosea] verse: "They shall say to the mountains, Cover us..." - a cry which the New Testament will take up twice; first to predict the still greater horrors awaiting the Jerusalem of AD 70 as the logical outcome of its Good Friday choice, and secondly to portray the terrors of the Last Judgment, with men of every rank and nation "calling to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb'" (Luke 23:30, Revelation 6:16).

So we are not left to contemplate the downfall of Israel on its own, safely isolated in the eighth century BC. It meets us as a foretaste of still weightier events, as indeed are all the local, limited tragedies of history. Our Lord laid down for us the right and wrong reactions to such happenings when he was asked to comment on a massacre: "And he answered them, 'Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.'"

We can hardly complain that the last act of our human drama has been under-rehearsed!

(From The Message of Hosea by Derek Kidner)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Don't Run From God in the Mornings

He who runs from God in the morning will scarcely find Him the rest of the day. ~ John Bunyan

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The One Song

I am hard at work on my next installment in the series on "Prayer and Listening to God." For today please enjoy an article written by Jared Wilson on the "one song" of the gospel. How could we ever tire of its words of mercy, grace and redemption?

The Beautiful Monotony of the Gospel

One fear we must put aside in our quest for greater gospel-centrality is that it will not preach week to week. The enemy and our own flesh will test our commitment with the "plausible argument" (Col. 2:4) that the gospel will just sound so one-note. We are tempted to think the repetition will have the unintended effect of boring people or making the gospel appear routine and commonplace.

But the gospel is resilient. It is miraculously versatile. It proves itself every day for those awake to it. Because it is the antidote for all sin of all people, power effectual for every type of person no matter their background or circumstance, it is God's might to save every millisecond and therefore every Sunday.

The gospel is indeed one song. But it is a song with many notes. The news is the same, but some of the words may change and the angles shift. (Use a thesaurus if you have to.) If we are awake to the gospel and seek the wakefulness of others, Christian and non-Christian, the playing of the greatest song at every instance is a lot like the exuberance of childlike wonder in monotonous fun. In Orthodoxy, the great G.K. Chesterton writes:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

When we "get" the gospel for what it really is -- the power to save, the most thrilling news there could be, the declaration that God's Son died for us and then came back to life! to be the risen Lord and supreme King of the universe, not just the entry fee for heaven but the currency for all of life -- we revel in the new creation it unleashes in its wake at every turn. We never get tired of hearing it. It's the new song that never gets old. "Play it again, play it again!" we will cry.

Gospel wakened people have been given the strength enough to exult in the beautiful monotony of the gospel.
The further good news is that those who are dulled in their senses will not be further dulled by the gospel. In fact, only the gospel can deliver them from their dulled state. No amount of fog and lasers will do it.

That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel . . . -- Romans 1:15

Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel -- Ephesians 6:19

(Pastor Wilson notes: "This is a slightly edited version of a passage appearing in my book
Gospel Wakefulness coming from Crossway in Fall 2011.")


Friday, December 3, 2010

Consider How Amazing Christ's Conquests!

Over the past few years I've been reading in a book called "The Christian in Complete Armour" by a Puritan pastor in England named William Gurnall. It was published in the 1660's in separate volumes, containing 600 pages in all. The book I have is all the volumes bound together. Not only is it a big book in terms of number of pages, but it's a weighty book in terms of ideas. Spurgeon said of it, "... every line is full of wisdom... John Newton said that if he could read only one book beside the Bible, he would choose 'The Christian in Complete Armour'."

So that's the kind of timeless and helpful book it is. Today I read a couple of paragraphs that talked about the huge wonder of Christ's saving work when certain facts are considered. Here are Gurnall's thoughts from the section of the book, "The Christless Soul is Without Armour" (paraphrased by me):

When we consider how the Christless soul is (a) completely alienated from God and so not sheltered under God's defenses; (b) in a state of darkest spiritual ignorance; (c) impotent to withstand the onslaughts of Satan or even his own desires; and (d) in an actual state of partnership with sin and Satan--then Satan's great conquests in the world are not to be wondered at. We look around and see his vast empire, and then the tiny plot of ground occupied by Christ's subjects; we see what heaps of precious souls lie prostrate under Satan's foot of pride, and what a small regiment of saints march under Christ's banner; and the strangeness of it all can make us ask, "Is hell stronger than heaven?"

Think about this--Satan finds the world unarmed, he finds no one in opposition to him in the whole world. Every single individual is born fully inclined to yield to him at his first summons. Even if a man's conscience tries to hold out against Satan's schemes for a while, the man's will and his affections (his true desires) will rise up and declare mutiny against his conscience. Like an uprising of soldiers in a garrison, the will and the affections will never rest until they've forced the conscience to yield. If conscience tries to hold out, the will and affections will go against conscience's command and throw open the city gate, as it were, to the enemy, and traitorously deliver the conscience over to their side. This describes Satan's easy victory over the souls of men.

On the other hand, when Christ comes to demand the soul, he meets with a scornful and easy reply: "We will not have this man to reign over us." There is no struggle between conscience, will and affection; with one consent they vote against him, rising up in blasphemy.

"You will not come to me," says Christ. Oh, how true are sinners to their master, the devil. They will not deliver the castle they hold for Satan 'til fired over their heads! Just as Pharaoh opposed Moses on the one hand, and enslaved Israel opposed him on the other, so Christ is opposed both by Satan's hand, and also by the very ones Satan so oppresses.

The conquests of Alexander the Great were lessened by the fact that he overcame a people buried in barbarianism, a people who had no arms and no discipline to fight wars. The conquests of Caesar were heightened by the fact that he overcame a people more warlike and furnished. Likewise, Satan's conquests are of poor, ignorant, and graceless souls, who have neither weapons, nor hands, nor hearts with which to oppose. But when Satan assaults a redeemed saint of God, then he finds himself before a city gate with bars; he is forced to sit outside it, and finally to rise with shame, having been unable to take even the weakest hold, or to pluck the weakest saint out of Christ's hands. Rather, Christ turns the tables on him, and brings souls out of Satan's dominion with a high hand, in spite of all the force and fury of hell, which, just like Pharaoh and his host, pursue them!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Prayer and Listening to God Part 4: Before We Go On; Prayer is a Rich Fellowship With God

((This is Part 4 of a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here for Part 1).

In the previous article in this series, I said that I would offer a few quick guidelines for interpreting Scripture, and then look at some Scripture passages that have been used as "proof" that we should expect God to speak directly to us. I need, though, to stop here for a minute and say a few things about the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and in the believer's prayers.

In making the case that we are not to listen inwardly for God's voice, whether in prayer or at any other time (for this is the case I'm trying to make), I am not, not, not saying that we do not enjoy rich fellowship and communion with God in prayer and in other times, too.

This rich fellowship and communion with God is through the activity of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15, "by whom we cry 'Abba, Father'"). The Spirit's work is to assure us that we are God's own. But how does he do this? The Holy Spirit is also the Spirit of truth. The reason He is called this is that He always works in tandem with the truth, i.e., the word of God (John 17:17). He assures us of our adoption as sons through the truths of Scripture. We are born again by the Spirit's work of regeneration, granting us faith to believe through hearing the truths of the word of God (Romans 10:17). The Spirit came for the express purpose, according to Jesus in John 14, of teaching the disciples and bringing to their remembrance all things Jesus had said to them (John 14:26)- which He did-and they wrote all that He said down as Scripture. The Spirit is all about Christ and His words (John 15:26, John 16:13-15).

So when we understand that the Holy Spirit is all about the word of God and the teaching of Christ in fulfilling His role to us as Comforter and Helper, then it's easier to see that knowing and understanding the Bible is hugely important in benefiting from the Spirit's ministry to us. It's a sobering thing, but God has made it so that when we don't know what the Bible teaches we may suffer the loss of the joy and comfort of the Spirit. John Piper has said that Scripture is like kindling that is ignited by the Holy Spirit to inflame our faith. This is true, and God has so designed it that without the kindling of Scripture, our faith will not burn as brightly and warmly. This is how we enjoy the rich fellowship and communion of the Spirit. The Spirit loves, promotes and ignites the word of God in our hearts.

But verses and chapters and books of Scripture have to be understood correctly before they can be kindling used by the Spirit for our help and comfort, because they're not just words, they're truths. If we misunderstand a Scripture, whether through an honest mistake or through being mistaught or through our own carelessness, we are misunderstanding a truth. We are missing a truth. We won't be as comforted, encouraged, corrected and trained as we could be, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth.

 For the true child of God, being confused about the Bible's teaching or just plain neglecting it won't make him "unsaved"; but he will suffer loss, perhaps in his sense of assurance or confidence in the work of Christ or even in how he lives his life. This is a very sobering truth, and I know firsthand that it's so, because I lived much of my Christian life with a lot of this kind of misunderstanding of Scripture. I'm so thankful that God was kind and showed me my error. Most of the things I thought one was supposed to do in order to be close to God, I was astonished to find were just made up stuff, based on man-made ideas and so they certainly didn't really work! I was so surprised to learn that it really was simply faith in Christ's finished work and an understanding of what that meant, based on the teaching of the Bible, that God actually required of me. No more attempts to jump through hoops, no more dog and pony show. The truths taught in Scripture were what the Spirit used to draw me closer to God and Christ.

So, to sum up, there is a richness, an intimacy, a life-changing knowledge of God to be had in the ministry of the Spirit through the word of God. And that's the very reason I'm writing against the practice of listening inwardly for his voice, as taught by so many today. It teaches us to bypass the Scriptures, where we really do hear Him speak, and which is the kindling the Spirit uses to ignite a warmer and more confident faith. Seeing prayer and the Holy Spirit's work in a false way will rob you of what is really available to you when you cling to his promises in trust, look to him for his mercy, fear him for his excellent greatness, and tremble at his word, the Scriptures (Isaiah 66:2).

So, please keep in mind as you read this series of posts that prayer, though not a time for listening inwardly for God's voice, is meant to be a time for fellowship with God, helped by his Spirit as you pray in accordance with his word. Next post, I hope to get back to dismantling, as best I can, the wrong stuff, in the hopes of making more way for the good stuff. We'll look at guidelines for correctly interpreting Scripture, and we'll look at examples of misinterpreted texts that have led to the notion of our listening for God's voice (starring one of the biggies, the much-misunderstood "still, small voice").

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to share your thoughts, questions and ideas in the comments.

Please click here for Part 5.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Prayer and Listening to God Part 3: How We Got Here and Why It Matters

(This is Part 3 in a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here for Part 1.)

In the previous post in this series, I said I would talk next about how we in the Church came to believe we should listen inwardly for God's voice in prayer; and I said that I would talk about why it matters. So to begin, here's a quick (and incomplete) history on how we got here.

Over fifty years ago, something was happening in the theological academies that most in the pews knew little or nothing about. In many seminaries, including Southern Baptist ones, liberal theology imported from the German schools had taken hold; this theology sought to do away with belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, and sought also to do away with the historical-grammatical method of reading and interpreting Scripture. After all, if the historical-grammatical method could be done away with, then anything in the Bible could be reinterpreted, denied or explained away. And this is just what happened.

Young men trained in these American seminaries became pastors with a more liberal understanding of what the Bible is and how we are to view it, an understanding that was shifting dangerously away from historic Protestant Christianity. The "new understanding" did not necessarily show up in ways that people noticed. There was still preaching from the pulpit that at least gave lip service to the gospel, there were still professions of faith, baptisms, Sunday Schools and training unions. In a way, things seemed much the same. However, much had changed. Slowly, the churches began to forget about some of the important things that had once been widely understood, including a basic knowledge on understanding and interpreting Scripture.

In the 1950's and 60's a charismatic "renewal" with roots in an earlier Pentecostalism and mysticism began to influence the beliefs of churches. The combination of the liberal views on Scripture and the highly subjective tendencies of the Charismatic/mystical movement resulted in sea changes that left much of the Church more vulnerable to new doctrinal ideas. The way was paved for acceptance of the idea, among many other new ideas, that Christians were supposed to seek to know God's specific will for their lives (what job to take, who to marry, and other specifics of everyday life) by listening inwardly for God's voice. This new teaching (new, at least, since the Reformation) was supported by its proponents with misinterpreted biblical texts, often with isolated verses lifted out of their contexts. And now the idea that we are to seek to know God's will for our lives by listening inwardly for God's voice has become widely accepted as normal and Scriptural.

(You may be thinking by this point that if all this is true, how did people 'discern' God's will for their lives 100 years ago, before all these doctrinal changes took place? The answer is, basically, that Christians did not generally seek to find that out. They understood that the Bible tells the believer everything he needs to know about God's will for him. As far as the specifics of God's plan for their lives, Christians of stouter times widely understood the doctrine of God's providence, which is His "governing and preserving of all his creatures and all their actions", as taught and illustrated in Scripture. They also understood that the Bible teaches us to make our own wise decisions like a grownup! For more on this, you could do worse than start here.)

At stake in this issue of whether or not we are to listen for God's voice in prayer is the sufficiency of Scripture for our thinking and for our practice. It may take some patient pondering and study to see why this is true, and to see what it means that the Bible makes this claim of sufficiency. For instance, the Bible claims to be the only source of revelation of God's will, and that its pages contain all we need to know of his will for his people (Psalm 19:7-11, 2 Peter 1:16-21). The Bible claims, as well, that many things are for God alone to know (Deuteronomy 29:29). For making life choices in regard to these unrevealed things (what jobs we will take, who we will marry), the Bible claims to provide abundant wisdom from its own pages. The Bible holds the place of honor in our lives for teaching us the wisdom we need to make life's decisions (Proverbs 1).

All this hopefully raises good questions: "What about Paul--what about the Old Testament prophets? They heard God's voice and were directly guided by him. So were others in the Bible. Are you saying that in those narratives, the Bible isn't teaching us to expect such guidance ourselves?" Those are exactly the sorts of things we'll look at in my next post. In it, I'll offer a few quick guidelines for interpreting Scripture, and then look at some Scripture passages that have been used as "proof" that we should expect God to speak directly to us.

The  news that we aren't told in Scripture to listen inwardly for God's voice-- or to find out his specific, day-to-day will for us-- is actually very good news for God's people. There is a "God's will for us" that is far better than anything contrary we may have believed. Proverbs 25:25 says, "Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country." The good news of how we may know what God wills for us, and how we are to think about guidance and decision-making, brings relief and freedom from the anxieties of wondering whether we've missed God's will, or if we've "heard" him right. It offers a cure for the hyper-individualism of our culture that is so contrary to peace and well-being. This good news offers the hope of greater freedom in Christ, and the hope of a wisdom that "adorns the doctrine of God our Savior" (Titus 2:1-10). Oh, yes, and and the right knowledge of this good news can bring great benefits to your spouse, your children and your church as well.
(Click here for Part 4).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Prayer and Listening to God Part 2: A Biblical Definition of Prayer (What the Bible Teaches [and doesn't] About Prayer)

(This is Part 2 in a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here to begin at Part 1).

In my first post in this series, I explained my purpose for writing on this topic: the Church's need to know whether listening for God is part of biblical prayer. Are we taught in Scripture to listen for God's voice speaking directly, apart from Scripture, to us? By "God speaking", I mean his giving us messages directly into our thoughts--nudgings and inner promptings about decisions we need to make, for instance. Our thinking on these things needs to right, so that we can know if this is something the Bible does teach us to expect, or not. If the Bible does not teach this, how in the world did we come to believe it? What's the harm in trying to practice hearing God's voice outside of Scripture? And also, if we are not to do so, how can we discern God's will in the decisions and choices of life?

We need to go to the Bible for insights and answers to all these things. But in order to give the Bible the "final say" on these matters we must see Scripture as our "only rule of faith and practice". We have to come to the Bible willing to agree and submit to its teaching as the very word of God, the source of all our doctrine. The Bible's teaching trumps everything, even our own experience. That's what Scripture claims for itself (2 Timothy 3:16), and to fail to submit to it is to fail to submit to God. So with that said, we soldier on to a biblical definition and look at prayer.

A Biblical Definition of Prayer

It'll be helpful to first take a look at a couple of definitions from two respected Bible study tools, Easton's and Baker's Bible Dictionaries. Here’s how Easton’s defines prayer:

Prayer is converse with God... not in contemplation or meditation, but in direct address to him. It is a "beseeching the Lord" ( Exodus 32:11 ), "pouring out the soul before the Lord" (1 Samuel 1:15), "praying and crying to heaven" (2 Chronicles 32:20), "seeking unto God and making supplication" (Job 8:5), "drawing near to God" (Psalm 73:28), and "bowing the knees” [Paul’s euphemism for petitionary prayer] (Ephesians 3:14).

So prayer is here defined not as listening, meditation or contemplation, but as our talking to God.

Baker's makes this point:

Though prayer also includes adoration (Psalm 144-150; Luke 1:46-55), confession (Psalm 51; Luke 18:13), and thanksgiving (Psalm 75 ; 1 Thessalonians 1:2), Christian prayer has always been essentially petitionary… The immediate source of this confidence came from the teachings and examples of Jesus himself, such as the model prayer he offered (Matthew 6:9-13 ; Luke 11:2-4) and his assurance that one had only to ask the Father in order to receive what was needed (Matthew 7:7 ; Luke 11:9) (italics mine).

On this petitionary character of prayer in the Bible, Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne say helpfully, "...people today may refer to any number of different activities as 'prayer' but when God speaks about prayer in the Bible, he is really only talking about one thing. In the Bible, prayer simply means 'asking God for things'... prayer in the Bible is unashamedly and universally verbal."1

Is Listening to God Part of Prayer?

Missing from these descriptions of prayer is the idea of our listening for God to speak. And that, of course, fits exactly with the whole testimony of the whole Bible. Nowhere in all the accounts of people praying in the Bible, nowhere in all its teachings on prayer, nowhere is a listening mode in prayer ever modeled, taught or implied. That probably needs to be read again, digested for a moment and considered. The idea of waiting on or listening for God to speak, to impress something in the way of guidance for decisions on our minds during prayer, is unknown in Scripture.

I hear the protests, I really do. You may be wondering about all the Scripture verses that are quoted as proof we should be quiet and still and try to hear God speak into our hearts. There are many helpful things to know concerning those various passages in the Bible, and we'll get to those as we go along.

For now, consider just these two things about Christ's prayers and what he taught on prayer. When his disciples came to Jesus for instruction on how to pray, Christ did not describe listening as part of prayer; rather he taught his disciples to make requests that were in accord with the Father's revealed will (Matthew 6:7-13). In his Gethsemane prayers, Jesus spent no time listening for his Father's voice and asked for no answer from him, but rather made requests: "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence" (Hebrews 5:7). Christ petitioned; the Father heard (and acted). This is the model and pattern of all prayer in the Bible.

I realize this idea may be a surprising, even an offensive claim. We're steeped in decades, now, of being taught that it's normal to expect God to direct us by inner promptings, whispers and nudgings; that listening is as important a part of prayer as our speaking. I'm not saying we have no warm communion, no fellowship with God in prayer, of course not! But what we have come to mean by "fellowship" with our heavenly Father needs a more biblical light shined on it, which I'll also attempt in a later post. For now, I'd ask you to prayerfully and with an open Bible consider the things I'll be talking about. With your Bibles open you'll see texts that hopefully will raise honest questions, and addressing some of those will be the topic of my next post: why did we come to believe we should listen this way for God's voice? There are very understandable, and fascinating, reasons this view has taken hold in the Church! We'll also talk about why it matters.

Click here for Part 3

1 Phillip D. Jensen and Tony Payne, Prayer and the Voice of God: Listening to God's Living Word Will Transform the Way You Pray (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2006) pg. 15

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Chasing the Wind and the Words of the Preacher

I needed Ecclesiastes this week. Life is real and life can be painful, and God was good to let me hear Alistair Begg on the radio teaching a little from that book the other day. So I decided to turn to its pages once again and am so glad I did.

The message of Ecclesiastes is a confirmation that no, you're not crazy, and yes, the creation is in trouble and all our lives reflect that. It is because of the fall of Adam in the garden, because of the disastrous effects of sin. We're all now subject to the vanity of all worldly pursuits. They are all "fleeting, ephemeral, and elusive," as the ESV Study Bible introduction to the book puts it; the word translated "vanity" (over 38 times) in Ecclesiastes is literally "vapor." It is the same word and idea Paul uses in Romans 8 as he explains that in the Fall, the "creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it" (Romans 8:20).

We all know this, deep down. We may forget it for periods at a time, we may push it to the backs of our minds, but it only takes the right difficult circumstance to remind us vividly that the world is broken, and so to a great extent are our lives. It is a fact too painful to be acknowledged apart from hope. Some of the philosophers acknowledged it and came up with observations and solutions that lead nowhere but to a stoic bearing up under it all until death comes in relief. Some of the philosophers ended in despair. But that's not where Ecclesiastes goes. Thank God!

The message of Ecclesiastes is the greatest of news for the weary, the hopeless, the one who has "eyes wide open" and does not want to sugar-coat this life. The good news is this: God has told us all that he expects of his people (Micah 6:8). It is not too hard for us! (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Romans 10:6-8, Matthew 11:28-30). That is because of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh who "came near" to make a way for us to heaven and to the resurrection (John 14:6). (Yes, I know Ecclesiastes doesn't know all this yet, but this is the way the Bible interprets itself.) More good news, straight from the pages of Ecclesiastes:

"He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I [the Preacher] perceived that there is nothing better for them [the children of men, that's us] than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil--this is God's gift to man" (Ecclesiastes 3:11-13). Isn't that such kindness from God?

God is sovereign over all our affairs, whether we have abundance (materially) or little: "In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him" (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Quit trying to play God, and relax! Trust him who holds all these things in his sovereign hands.

Don't labor and toil for vain things, but do toil: "Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot [there's God's sovereignty again!]. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil--this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart" (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20).

The message of Ecclesiastes is that there is so much about God's ways and his decretive (secret) purposes we don't know, that therefore we should live the short life we have on this earth humbly, in recognition of that, but in gratitude for the blessings of work, and family and God's provision for us (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9), whether little or a lot (it's always enough!). We should not be puffed up and "think more highly of ourselves than we ought to" (Romans 12:3). All mankind is in the same boat--the end of us all is the grave (Ecclesiastes 9:1-2). All this wisdom and truth of Ecclesiastes is to be understood in the New Testament revelation of Christ and what God did through him to win our salvation. For those who have received the truth of the gospel there is Heaven to look forward to.

Ecclesiastes ends with this: "The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:13). This is the key to living. Life is complicated and fraught with difficulty, even evil, but God has given us a compass that points true North as we journey through: "Fear God and keep his commandments." He gave us the best motivation to do so, as well: "For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil." In between those two things lies our life, to be lived in simple, glad obedience, trust and gratitude.

I'm so thankful for Ecclesiastes. It's words are like "goads" (Ecclesiastes 12:11), the sharp, pointed sticks that keep the flock to the right path, and they are like "nails firmly fixed" (12:11), providing "moral and intellectual stability" (from the ESV Study Bible explanatory notes). It has been that for me over the past few days. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity apart from Christ. All flesh is as grass; the grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of the Lord, it lasts forever (1 Peter 1:22-25).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Going About It Our Own Way

What a tragedy in the Church and in the families in the Church! Our Lord gave us the model to pray and what could be more clear? It is "our" Father and give "us" this day "our" daily bread; forgive "us" our trespasses and deliver "us" from the evil one. It's a prayer, and a model for prayer, meant to be prayed together with other believers.

I'm sad that we don't pray together like that; sad that we don't feel the need to.

(Maybe one day we will!)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Prayer and Listening to God

“I believe that prayer should be as much about listening to God as it is about talking to him.”

Listen to popular Christian radio, take a walk down the aisles of most Christian bookstores, or do a Google search on the topic and this is the sentiment and belief you're sure to hear. But is this really what the Bible teaches us to believe and to expect about prayer and about listening for God's voice? It's certainly what a large segment of the Church has come to expect. But believe it or not there was a day, not so long ago, that the claim that we are to listen for God's voice would have been soundly rejected. Why not these days? Has the church learned something new-- or have we forgotten something we used to know?

I believe that the latter is true. I'm not alone in saying so; the record of Church history, and (I believe) the Bible, and fortunately a growing number of people speaking on this issue today, agree. We're up against a battle in trying to shed light on and correct this wrong view, though. Popular teachers and speakers hold conferences and write books that promote just the sentiment quoted above. It's a difficult and emotional issue to talk to people about, because the effort to convince of a better way necessarily involves pointing out a bad, but very accepted, way.

But the Bible tells us, if we are willing to hear what it says, just what God wants his people to know about prayer and listening to God. What God's people believe about prayer and about how to hear God's voice is very important. What we believe about it will determine how, and why, we pray. We must gain the knowledge from God's word we need to discern whether popular authors and speakers are right in what they are claiming about listening for God's voice. We must determine if it's possible that the wool has been pulled over our eyes concerning this whole idea of hearing God's voice in prayer.

It's not a simple issue in our day and time. Much has been mistaught (as I'll provide examples to show in later posts). It takes a lot of words, and patience, to accurately convey what the Scriptures teach on this. As with all doctrine, the doctrine of prayer and of how God guides his people won't be grasped simplistically or overnight. But over the course of some upcoming blog posts, I'd like to offer some things for people to consider, chew on, go prayerfully to key Scriptures about. I hope you'll consider reading them and interacting with me, if you'd like, in the comments.

Next post, "A Definition of Prayer," something we may think we've had down pat, but could find surprising in some ways.

(This is Part 1 of a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here for Part 2).

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Words Called Out

God's plans, the ones he's revealed in Scripture, are not fodder for Bible Trivia or the Bible category on Jeopardy. His plans are more like words called out over a strong wind, words you've shruggingly neglected until your house starts to break up and blow away; then you realize that the syllables you've heard have been the plan to survive this wind, which has turned out to be a deadly tornado, after all. His plan suddenly is understood to be the most important message in the world to pay attention to.

"Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will" (Hebrews 2:1-4).

This plan, it turns out, is everything.

Illustration copyright © 2009 by Michael Wimmer. The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (Crossway 2009), p. 129.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Scary Story--Stalked By A Corpse

What if you found out that a corpse is stalking you? I mean a real corpse... a bone-a-fide (pun intended), verified dead person; and not just any old dead person, but one who was, when alive, a vile, immoral, impure, evil and covetousness person. A corpse who has no love for you or anyone else and in fact would just as soon see you dead, too. A stinking, rotting, decayed mass of sinful pride, jealousy, false love, disobedience and gossipy envy. I have news for you: there may be such a being stalking you right now. The Bible tells all about it, and even identifies it. It's your old self.

If you have been born from above, made alive in Christ by God's gracious gift of salvation, then you've definitely experienced the dilemma of being stalked by the "corpse" of your old self. "We know that our old self was crucified with him..." (Romans 6:6a). The old self of the believer, nailed to the Cross of Christ, is indeed dead as dead as can be. The old self was killed "in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin" (Romans 6:6b). That means that we have been legally freed from the old self's control. The problem is that this sinful old self refuses to admit he's dead! He's like the battlefield enemy who heard that the war is over and that his side lost, but is bitterly determined to fight on to the very end, taking down any enemy he can. And you're the enemy. Though defeated, the old self still stalks you, trying to entice you back into the old life of sin and misery.

And if you don't understand that the new you--the you who was raised to new life in Christ--has been freed by the Cross from obligation to him (Romans 8:12-13), then the old self has won a temporary victory! That stinking, rotting body of death will draw you in at every opportunity, luring you into all manner of earthly deeds--jealousy, covetousness, gossip, strife, and a host of others. That oozing corpse will try to attach itself around your affections and tempt you to neglect God and his word, to avoid prayer, and to isolate yourself from the body of Christ. Your old self--that grinning, hideous corpse of death--can be very persuasive.

What to do? Why, as John Owen said, you must "be killing sin or it will kill you." Though the old self is legally dead we find must keep killing it, as it were (Ephesians 4:22, Romans 13:14). Though that law of sin was decisively dealt with on the Cross, God has ordained that these vicious, intensive skirmishes will continue until the day we die or the Lord returns. But learning to glory in the truths of Romans 6:6 and Romans 8:12-13 encourages us to reckon ourselves "dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:11). Knowing these truths gives us the strength to overcome this "law of sin... this body of death" (Romans 7:23, 24)-- to deal with by faith with this un-alive corpse that rises up to wreck our Christian walk. The gospel, the good news of what Christ accomplished on the Cross, is the truth that enables us to fight the good fight of faith. God is for us in this fight.

Being stalked by a rotten, defeated corpse isn't really the scary thing. The really scary thing would be not to know or care what the Scriptures say about these things! The most scary thing of all would be to refuse to do this: "Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming" (Colossians 3:5-6).

Don't be scared of a corpse this Halloween. Learn to fear the Lord!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Lord Will Give You Understanding

In 2 Timothy 2:1-6 Paul, nearing the end of his life, gives Timothy three illustrations that will help him in faithfully living out his charge. The three brief illustrations involve a soldier, an athlete, and a hard-working farmer. Paul tells Timothy, "Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything."

"Think Over What I Say"

We must think over many things the Scriptures say. In our time and culture, we want to "get it" immediately, or at least fairly quickly. We have short attention spans, and have lost our taste and tolerance for riddles. But in the opening verses of Proverbs, which introduce the book's goals and purpose, the writer exhorts, "Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles" (Proverbs 1:5-6). Proverbs is a great collection of sayings and riddles designed to give greater wisdom to the wise.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul imparted wisdom to his young son in the faith in a form that Timothy, "trained in the words of the faith" and having been brought up from childhood "acquainted with the sacred writings" (i.e. the Old Testament, including Proverbs) would be very familiar with--a riddle. In keeping with Proverbs 1:5, Paul's riddle (or proverb, or saying) is for the purpose of Timothy's obtaining understanding. God wanted Timothy to use his mind and his sanctified reasoning, and so be helped.

"The Lord Will Give You Understanding"

This is a thrilling and hopeful promise. Like Timothy, we're called to prayerfully think and ponder on the words of Scripture, knowing God is able to give us understanding of what the writer meant (that is to say, what the Holy Spirit meant, and means for us to understand). The ESV Study notes on this text say that "Paul exhorts Timothy to make the effort to think and meditate on what Paul has written; as he does so, God will give him understanding in everything about which Paul has instructed him. The believer's efforts and God's empowering work together" (italics mine).

The whole Bible is certainly not written as a riddle. A riddle (or a proverb or a saying), as mentioned above, is a literary device, and where such things are used in Scripture is obvious. But there are plenty of passages in the Bible that require this kind of "thinking over."

In a blog article (recommended) entitled "When the Bible Gets Too Hard" the author quotes John Piper and Philip Jensen:

If you only read things [in the Bible] after which you said “duh!” you'd stop reading in a hurry, because you already know and feel the way you should. But if you start bumping into things that are weird or strange, then you'd better live there. You'd better camp there until your brain and your heart get shaped by the strange things.1

I love puzzling over difficult parts of the Bible. I love it, for the difficulty is in my head, not on the page, and puzzling over these difficulties gives me an opportunity to change the way I think.2

May we learn more and more to think over what the Bible says, asking and trusting that the Lord will, in his time, give us understanding.

1 From the audio version of John Piper's sermon Thinking and feeling with God: A broken and contrite heart God will not despise.

2 Phillip Jensen's ‘Problems With the Text’ from So Long And Thanks For All the Fellowship.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Organic God

I did not realize that the roots of postmodernism are firmly in the Romanticism of 19th century Germany (and elsewhere).

"Postmodernism is a reaction against Enlightenment rationalism... and the sense of alienation that came from urbanization. This sense of alienation included a desire to connect with nature. Germany after World War I was characterized by a desire to reconnect with nature that included a desire for pagan religious ideas that were linked to nature...

"This same sensibility characterizes postmodern thinking today which, as I have claimed in another work, is a resurrected version of Romanticism. People want to be connected to nature and to react against the Enlightenment; to do so involves making decisions on a basis other than logic and rationality. Most people would be shocked to realize that their postmodern inclinations are those of fascist ideology which led to [the rise of] Hitler."

~ From the internet article "Ideas Have Consequences: A Partial Paraphrase and Review of Modern Fascism by Gene Edward Veith" written by Bob DeWaay and found here.

If that idea sounds far-fetched, you need to read Bob DeWaay's paper, as it really does help explain a lot. We tend to think that postmodernism is a truly new way of looking at the world. But we know from God's word that there is nothing really new.

"What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun."
Ecclesiastes 1:9
There is no new truth and there is no new error. The Bible tells us everything we need to know to be equipped with knowledge in both categories, if we'll just read it and understand it. Farther down in DeWaay's paper was this:

"Again Veith explains: 'Fascists seek an organic, neo-mythological unity of nature, the community, and the self. The concepts of a God who is above nature and a moral law that is above society are rejected'" (Veith: 17).

The word that jumped out at me is "organic," which is a term growing in popularity in the emerging/postmodern/church-growth movement.

As in, for instance, "The Organic God." This "video driven Bible study" promises to get us in touch with Mother Nature, er, God as we've never known him/her before. A video trailer on the website plays haunting, Chris Isaak-esque "I Don't Want To Fall In Love Again" music as a female commentator speaks:

"Imagine if we could simplify our faith---strip it of all the pollution and additives--and know God for who he is... natural, pure, essential, organic.

"Imagine if we could experience his big-hearted love... his    surprising talkativeness... it would change us--forever.

"The organic god. It's like falling in love all over again."

I wonder if the "pollution and additives" the author wants to strip out of our faith are doctrine and theology. With those out of the way we can be really free to imagine this talkative God. At about two-thirds of the way through the video--I'm not kidding about this--a rock (?) shaped suspiciously like a woman's breast and dripping water from just where you'd think (pure, essential and organic water, I'm sure) appears. God as Nurturing Mother, maybe. It's earthy, it's sensual, it's organic. I'm telling you, somebody's buying this stuff at $159.99 a pop. (I suppose I must provide a link to the video so here it is. I hate to send anybody around this stuff.)

This is simply one more way to by-pass the Scriptures in order to find a better way to know God. The fact is, though, there is no other way to know him. Any God we think we can imagine or cobble together outside of his revelation of himself in the Bible is a false god. And happily, the true God of Scripture is so much better than an organic image we could fashion for ourselves.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Tuesday Texting--Paul's Limited "All"s

Paul (and other writers of Scripture) use the word “all” in ways that might be initially confusing to our Americanized ears and eyes. For some reason in our reading of the Bible we take this word, when we see it in reference to people, to mean “every person ever born.” But what it actually means, many (or most) times, is “all people in a certain category” or “all kinds of people.” Sometimes “all” means both Jew and Gentile (i.e. the promises are not just for the Jews anymore). Sometimes, like in the text we’re looking at today, it means all the people Christ died for.

But wait, you might say, that’s everybody; that’s every person ever born. Well, not in this passage or others like it; in the context of who Christ died for, “all” is a limited category. A look at this today’s text makes it clear.

[14] “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; [15] and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15).

You see right away that the “one” of verse 14 is Christ. Then who are the “all” that Christ died for? Before you answer, “everybody ever born duh,” see the whole line… “one died for all, therefore all have died.” The "all" who died are the same "all" Christ died for, and they are also "those who live" (verse 15). They are a special category of people!

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11).

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

So that’s how Paul’s “all”s are often limited. When it says that Christ "died for all," it isn't saying that Christ died for everybody ever born. Rather, he died for all who have died and now live again in this way… in the Colossians 3:3 and the Romans 6:11 and the Galatians 2:20 way. And they not only died, but now they live no longer for themselves, but for him who died for their sake and was raised.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Only Question

"Our missionary activity, our church activity, everything we do ought to flow from the theologian and the exegete, the man who opens up his Bible and only has one question: 'What is Thy will, O God?' We are not to send out questionnaires to carnal people to discover what kind of church they would attend. A church ought to be seeker-friendly but a church ought to recognize there's only one seeker--His name is God--and if you want to accommodate someone, accommodate Him and His glory. We are not called to build empires, we are not called to be accepted, we are called to glorify God."

Paul Washer, "Ten Indictments Against the Modern Church"

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tuesday Text(ing)

As you might see, I’m gradually changing the name of this hopefully weekly feature into something really clever. Next Tuesday, if I can maintain my good intentions to post again, I’ll drop the parentheses. And hope everybody gets it.

Anyway, this Tuesday Text(ing) is from 1 Corinthians 7. In this chapter Paul says all these things:

“…because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (verse 2).

“…to the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am” (verse 8).

“Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity)” (verses 20, 21).

“So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God“ (verse 24).

It sounds as if Paul is all over the place in his thinking, saying one thing then contradicting it with another. Which is it, Paul… “do not be concerned about it” if you were a slave when called, or “if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity”? Is it true that “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” or is it “good for them to remain single” as Paul was?

I’m sure it’s obvious that reading the whole of Chapter 7 with these verses in their proper context, and reading Chapter 7 itself in context with the whole epistle, makes Paul’s thought clear. His aim is to “promote good order” and secure the Corinthian church’s “undivided devotion to the Lord.” This will be of greatest benefit to them, for whatever most glorifies God also happens to be what’s best for us. This chapter shows the liberty and flexibility for the believer within God’s bounds of holiness. We should do what is holy and right towards God and each other in each circumstance of life.

One can easily see how taking certain of these verses in isolation could lead to a misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching and purpose. This is true throughout the Bible, not just in Paul’s letters. The writers of the Bible breathed the air of a different time and culture than we know, especially in the West, and their flow of thought was sometimes different than we are used to. But that doesn’t mean we can’t understand and get their (inspired!) point. With prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit for spiritual understanding and with a thoughtful attention to context and argument (flow of thought) for the literary understanding, all of Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness“ (2 Timothy 3:16).

Saturday, August 28, 2010

What All I Have

Truth #1: I have a widescreen tv and a Blu-ray disc player, a stove and an oven and a dishwasher, a car that runs fairly dependably, a house to live in and groceries in my pantry; some pets, a family, fairly good health and a somewhat capable mind; a guitar, a piano, a Bose stereo, a computer, a sense of humor, a family physician, health insurance, life insurance, home-owners' insurance, books and bookcases, lamps and lightbulbs and eyeglasses; clothes and shoes, a few friends, memories, regrets, and worries and difficulties. I have goals and ambitions, successes, defeats, sadness and joy. I have it all.

Truth #2: All I have is Christ.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Why We Need the Puritans

Why should those seeking to develop a truly biblical counseling approach give special consideration to the Puritans? Because they were the first Protestant school of Biblical Counseling.

J. I. Packer, who is most conversant with the writings of these men, puts it well:

". . . the Puritans . . . were strongest just where evangelical Christians today are weakest . . . Here were men of outstanding intellectual power, in whom the mental habits fostered by sober scholarship were linked with a flaming zeal for God and a minute acquaintance with the human heart."

Today’s biblical scholars don’t understand the human heart, Packer says, while our counselors don’t know the Scripture. But the Puritans were an entire generation of men who combined these two strengths. He goes on:

"The hollowness of our vaunted biblicism becomes apparent as again and again we put asunder things God has joined . . . we preach the gospel without the law, and faith without repentance . .. in dealing with the Christian experience we dwell constantly on joy, peace, happiness, satisfaction, and rest of soul with no balancing reference of the divine discontent of Romans 7, the fight of the faith of Psalm 73, or any of the burdens of responsibility and providential chastenings that fall to the lot of the child of God. . . they consult their pastor, and he perhaps has no better remedy than to refer them to a psychiatrist! Truly, we need help, and the Puritan tradition can give it."

(excerpt from an article by Tim Keller; read the rest here)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tuesday Text

I used to read this and be slightly troubled: “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you” (1 John 2:26, 27). What, John? How terribly uninformed of you. Surely you’re familiar with this: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-14). Hmph. No need of anyone to teach us, indeed.

My former, mild hmph-ing illustrates the need to grasp basic principles for interpreting Scripture, one of the primary ones being, of course, that Scripture interprets itself. Put another way, passages like that one in 1 John, passages that may seem confusing, are interpreted in light of very clear passages that speak to the same issue. Specifically, such New Testament thoughts as John's above often need the knowledge of pertinent Old Testament thought in order to be understood correctly. There is a very simple reason for that: New Testament writers are writing in light of Old Testament truth that they are intimately familiar with. They now understood what the Old Testament had been talking about all along, and so their writing often refers back to that older revelation. John's statement goes back to the prophet Jeremiah.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

Thus, John and Jeremiah are both talking about the same thing--the power of the new covenant, of the new birth--by which the true knowledge of God is birthed in the heart of forgiven sinners. John’s language for this gracious act of God is "the anointing that you received from him abides in you." Jeremiah’s language is "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts." Jeremiah’s vision of a future surety, the true knowledge of God, has become a reality for John and for those Jew and Gentile believers to whom he is writing. This kind of knowledge of God could never be taught; it is a gift of revelation from above. It will come to its full culmination in the new kingdom, when we behold him face to face ("And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God'" [Revelation 21:3; compare with Jeremiah 31:33] ).

(P.S.--I won’t even mention the terrible misuse and abuse the biblical meaning of “anointing” has received at the hands of the pseudo-“charismatics” and such. Sigh. That word, too, is rooted in Old Testament realities that inform New Testament usage, and a responsible study of it would go a long way toward correcting the silly statements about this and that speaker you hear tossed around.)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Part 2 of The Azalea Chronicles

Part 2 of The Azalea Chronicles, in which I attempt to come through with the second part of what was purported to be a two-part post. There. And on to the topics at hand. How did my pruning attempts go; did I make any improvement in the looks of the front of our house; and most importantly of all, why is any of this worth blogging about? I shall attempt to answer.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I did pare down those azaleas, big time. To my daughters' horror, I lopped and cut and pruned them until they were mere shadows of their former selves. I sliced, diced and shredded (didn't mean to do that). I was a bit horrified myself as our lush, jungle-like azaleas were suddenly transformed into docile, mealy-mouthed bush sorts of things, but not even that--mostly just shy bare limbs of wood, with sprigs of green sticking out here and there just to show they were still alive. Here's a picture of the results.

Okay fine, this isn't me and these are not my azaleas. But the shocking denuding done to these is just the same shocking denuding that I did to mine. I just can't ever find my camera cord.

Now I understand that large, older shrubs like mine can be pretty much cut down to the nub, maybe six inches or so from the ground, and will come back just fine. I can't expect any blooms next spring--I lopped all those right off--but it should put out new growth, which I should definitely pay attention to in a timely manner so that the whole big overgrown thing doesn't happen again. So I may cut 'er down a little more, just to show 'er who's boss. And her children, too. (The several random trunks which surely were never planted on purpose). (Obviously I need to learn a bit more about botany or gardening.) The other tall shrub things are still just there, a little less tall, and maybe they need to be whacked down to 6 inches high as well, but I still need to consult a professional about all this. So all in all, it definitely looks different. Better? Don't know about that.

But here's the reason I'm even writing about all this on my blog. It's not because I'm looking to start posting gardening tips or lots of oh-so-humorous accounts of my day--no, the reason I wanted to write about it was because of the thought process that got started that day as I was whacking away at the azaleas. Any time I do any bit of gardening, which is usually just pulling a few weeds, the analogies start popping into my head and they are just so... analogous. Just so true and so helpful. So as I'm cutting severely away at this azalea, removing so much of it that it seemed I may end up killing the thing instead of improving it, I thought of John 15:1-8: "I am the true Vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch in me that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit."

So this is azalea, not grapes, and it's a matter of appearance, not fruit-bearing, so the analogy had to leave off what I was doing at some point. But still, I was imitating the work of a husbandman--taking away the branches that weren't pleasing to me, and didn't suit my desires. Mere aesthetic appearance, of course, is not nearly as important as a dead, fruitless branch. The silly problem of an azalea branch growing to the left when you need it to grow to the right is nothing compared to the seriousness of a branch apparently attached to the trunk, yet that just doesn't bear fruit. Something's really wrong with that branch, not just annoying. Something looks alive when really it's not. Something is proving by its lack of fruit that it's not really connected to the life of the vine.

And so here must come the Husbandman with his sharp blade. For this branch, the one described in John 15:1-8, it's not to prune, or to train back, or to improve an appearance. It's to remove. Perhaps he lifts up the branch once more, just to be sure. Perhaps he examines it one last time, searching in vain for the fruit that should be there. He is a long-suffering Husbandman and he is kind; he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. But alas, there is no fruit, just like last time, just like every time before, and the time has come for the inevitable. He wields the knife; the fruitless branch is severed from whatever attachment it bore to the vine; it falls to the ground with a thud, and there it lies withering until at last it is gathered up with the other fruitless branches, thrown into a pile, and burned. This is the end of all such branches who profess a life in the Vine, who boast of their capabilities but who bear only lots and lots of foliage and no real evidence of their union to their Lord. It is a tragic thing. "Abide [remain] in me," commands our Lord, the True Vine of Israel, to the disciples (minus Judas) who huddle near him at the end: "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you" (John 15:16).

The Lord Jesus is not inviting the disciples to come hang out with him overnight. He's promising them that those who are in him in a regenerated way will bear fruit ("If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you.") It's one of those many puzzling places in the Bible where we are commanded to do what we cannot do (think Jesus to Nicodemus, "You must be born again"). None of the disciples can manage by self-effort this kind of abiding; none of them can make themselves become attached to Jesus in a life-giving way, none of them can simply will fruit to pop out, none of them have any hope of asking whatever they wish for and having it happen. But Jesus can do it. He can give life; he can cause abiding, and growth and fruit; he can so transform their minds by his abiding word in them that their wish is his command.

Enough already; a long post, longer than people (according to statistics) are willing to read on a blog post, so if you've read this far, congratulations, you're not a statistic. I still didn't talk about a lot of other analogies I thought about as I pruned the azaleas, about how severe his pruning of the fruit-bearing boughs must sometimes be, about how it seems like some pruning could be the death of one yet. You draw those analogies. I'll just leave it at this--I think God wants his people to know a little something about gardening. And I think he wants us to see that he is the Husbandman who will do what is right; he is the Master Gardener of us all.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Bible is Everything

"If we will not listen to the Bible we will listen to nothing, and if we will not be changed by [the Bible] we will be changed by nothing." (Quoting Alistair Begg, heard on the radio this morning commenting on Luke 16:19-21.)

"And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.' But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'"

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Part 1 of The Azalea Chronicles

We have an azalea plant that is trying to take over one side of our house. I wish I had a picture of how it looked, to show you that this is true, but I failed to take one earlier (and it is now too late, as you shall learn). However, here is a picture I found on Google that somewhat depicts the former state of our azalea here at the house.

That is a very pretty house, I think. And that large azalea looks much like ours did when it was in bloom this spring, including the whole covering up the windows thing, except theirs looks like it has at least been touched by pruning shears before.

In fact, all our foundational shrubs and hedges had gotten quite out of hand. They were all very large and quite intimidating to me. I'm not a gardener, though I love gardens and timidly like to wish I were one (a gardener, not a garden). The larger and shaggier our shrubs and hedges became the more I left them alone, looking the other way when I walked past, often even whistling to keep my nerve up. It became ridiculous and something had to be done. Well look here, you can see for yourself. See these beautiful young ladies, who just happen to be some of my nieces and soon-to-be-niece (I think; when are you guys ever going to set a date?) but anyway, look just past them, over their heads, and you'll see who I'm talking about.

The Towering shrubs and hedges. They're much taller than foundational shrubs and hedges ever should be.

So finally, about four days ago, I just snapped. Into action, and I said, this is it. I'm taking down those towering monstrosities and especially that insane azalea (it looked, by then, like some snaggle-toothed monster because I had sheared the section that was covering my bay window but left the other half looming and veering crazily skyward).

I had bought an electric hedge trimmer about two months ago but did not have the nerve to get it out of the box. David my husband, Protector and friend was home and with me on this project, so he did the honors, and also made a trip to Lowes for a shovel, some loppers, some potting soil and a new rake (because our plan wasn't just to destroy and remove but to beautify and add, as well).

(This is just a shot of me as I wish I looked in my garden. I've just been wanting to use this picture for something. But back to the real project.)

I did not know what I was getting into. Had I known, I would surely have hesitated; I might even have called the whole thing off. I did, in the middle of the project, make a desperate phone call to the lady at Ace Hardware who is a horticulturist and has helped me with plants before. I got her voice mail and tried to sound nonchalant, asking her "just to call me when she got a minute" and I'd like to "hire her to come by sometime and help me identify some shrubs and give me some advice on how to prune them" and stuff like that. I really wanted to scream "Come to my house right now!!! Where are you? You have about two minutes to call me back or so help me..." But I didn't. And she never did call me back, anyway.

So, you're probably ready for me to get on with some descriptions that would explain all this... melodrama, and I'm anxious to, believe me, but this post has been long enough, so I'll call it Part 1, and the next post I will call Part 2, In Which I Begin to Hack Away at the Azalea. Then you'll see more what I'm talking about (just like I did). So stay tuned.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Various Thoughts, Ruminations and Hopefully Non-Platitudes

Just some completely random thoughts today:

I so like and appreciate Tim Challies. I don't know another internet writer/presence/person with more to offer and a sweeter, humbler soul than him. And besides that, it's fascinating to see how his career has come along in the seven or so years I've been reading (and listening to) him.

Relationships are hard, at home and in the church. We have to love each other. (It's different in the workplace; certain things are required of us there, but not like with family.) We can't run away. We're called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:10-16) to each other when everything in us wants to ignore, pout, quietly leave, rail against. We're called to press in tighter when the going gets rough. It's contrary to our flesh, our society and our desires. It is the way of the Cross.

John Calvin is cool and helpful. I have a booklet entitled "Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life" which is simply Chapter Six of Book III of his "Institutes." That little book talks about things like those mentioned above: the true Christian walk and calling of a disciple (as opposed to the grandiose and silly things we sometimes like to make it). We're called to self-denial, he explains; but beyond that, we're called to take up our Cross and follow the Lord Jesus. Cross-bearing, Calvin says, is more difficult than self-denial.

I appreciate my family. I feel so inadequate in my efforts for them. I either over-do or under-do; my weakness and stumbling in this become more apparent to me everyday. "For we all stumble in many ways." It makes me (after I remember to think about it) more consciously dependent on, and earnestly desirous of God's mercy for them, for us all. In the end, all our best efforts will be seen to have been far short of the perfection required in order to accomplish the great tasks we've been given (loving our husbands and children, being a Proverbs 31 lady, etc.) But what will be seen is the perfect accomplishment of our Lord and Savior in his sinless and perfect obedience, including his death on the Cross. In his resurrection, we are made to share in his very own perfection, righteousness and glory. What a thought; what a hope! It spurs me on to renewed effort and willingness to die to myself daily and finish well the race set before me.

Well, those are some of my thoughts for the day. Be blessed in your day.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

All I Have is Christ

Growing older stinks sometimes. I often am aware that I've brought a lot of the difficulty of this time of life on myself. It is all too true. But yet...

There's grace. My Lord loves me; he thought of me before the foundation of the world was even laid and determined to have me for his own child. He purchased me out of the world with blood-soaked mercy. I am forever his.

I am a mess-up in many ways, but Jesus Christ redeems mess-ups just like me, swoops them up out of the pit of despair they've dug for themselves and makes them part of his story, to the praise of his glorious grace, as it says in Ephesians 1:3-10. He is sure-handed and able to do everything I cannot. All I can do is fall on him for mercy and grace for help in time of need.

Growing older is another way God is using to make me see that it's in Christ alone my hope is found. Some young people out there are sure able to put that into words very well! Here's one example. When I'm young and when I'm old... all I have is Christ.

Sovereign Grace's Devon Kauflin