John Wesley called it the “horrible decree.” Many Christians today won’t hear of it. And for many who are not believers, at best the notion is absurd, at worst the epitome of self-righteous arrogance.
I’m talking about election, the doctrine that God chose in eternity those, and only those, whom he would grant eternal life. It’s a shame this teaching is much maligned and misunderstood, for God has revealed it in the Scriptures for our comfort and encouragement in Christ. At the same time, election is a truth that must be handled with all reverence and humility. God’s purpose in predestination, by which he has determined the eternal destiny of all people – heaven or hell, is an awesome mystery. Here we must bow before a God who is wise and good in all his ways, even when the reason for his ways remains hidden from human understanding (Isaiah 55:9).
Here are three truths concerning election:
1. Election is biblical.
Many people associate election almost exclusively with the name John Calvin, as though he alone believed in it. Worse, the popular caricature of Calvin is of a grim man obsessed with a dark and utterly bleak notion of predestination. But Calvin was not unique in teaching election, nor did he invent it. Many Christians have embraced election. When Calvin wrote of it in his Institutes, he quoted liberally from Augustine, the church father who preceded him by over a millennium. And Augustine learned the doctrine from the Scriptures.
Election isn’t a marginal doctrine taught here and there in the Bible. Rather, it is pervasive throughout the Scriptures. Abraham was just another idolater in Ur when God called him, took him, and led him to Canaan (Joshua 24:2-3). God chose Abraham’s son Isaac over Ishmael, and then Isaac’s son Jacob over Esau, to inherit the promises of the covenant (Romans 9:6-12). Israel was chosen “out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” to be God’s people, his “treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
Jesus said to his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you…” (John 15:16). And he said that only those whom the Father gives him, come to him (John 6:37). A sinner cannot come to Christ for salvation, unless he has first been given to Christ by the Father. When Paul preached in Antioch, only those believed who were “appointed to eternal life” (Acts 13:48). And Paul declares in Ephesians 1 that Christians have been chosen in Christ “before the foundation of the world,” and have been “predestined… for adoption as sons” (Ephesians 1:4, 5).
The fact is, election is so clearly present in the Bible that every theological system and tradition has some sort of understanding of it.
The question is, what is Scripture’s understanding of it?
2. Election is unconditional.
The answer to that is: the Bible plainly teaches that God’s election is unconditional. This means there was no condition in a person that served as the grounds for God’s election of him or her to eternal life. In other words, God did not base his choice upon his prior knowledge of a person’s good works or righteousness. Not even foreseen faith was the reason for God’s electing a sinner to salvation. If we take seriously the Bible’s teaching on human sin, or total depravity, then we know it’s impossible for anyone, apart from God’s grace, to do good or even to believe in Christ for salvation. So what possible condition could exist in a person who is “dead in…trespasses” (Ephesians 2:5), that might serve as the basis for God’s choice? There is none.
Rather, God’s sovereign choice of his people was an act of pure grace and love. It is unconditional. As Paul says in Romans 9:11, God loved Jacob over Esau “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad.” And he goes on in vs. 15 & 16: “For [God] says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”
But is this just? Is this fair? No, it isn’t “fair” – but not because God is unfair. Election is not a matter of fairness or justice. If God dealt with the human race on the basis of pure justice, we’d all be condemned and lost forever. That’s what all of us deserve (again, see total depravity). But if God chooses not to deal with some according to what is strictly fair and just, not to deal with some according to their sins, then he is showing mercy. But how can God overlook the sins of his elect? He doesn’t. Rather, Jesus Christ paid the penalty for them on the cross.
So God chooses his own for reasons entirely his, and having entirely nothing to do with a person’s righteousness, or works, or faith. From all eternity, he set apart a people for himself and loved them. What amazing grace!
3. Election is for our growth in grace.
If you are a Christian, God’s decree of election means at least three things for you.
A. Confidence. Election means your salvation is rooted in something greater than yourself, greater than your power to will or decide, and greater than your strength to persevere. If your salvation was ultimately God’s choice, and not your own, will he not guard and keep you in his love and care throughout this life (Philippians 1:6)?
B. Humility. Election means you have no reason to boast in yourself. You did not possess the superior morality or wisdom to choose to follow Christ. Apart from God’s grace, the last thing you’d ever do in this life is put your trust in Jesus. But God chose you, and gave you a new heart, that you might put your faith in him. Your salvation, from beginning to end, is the work of a merciful God who loved you despite your unworthiness and sin.
So if you are a Christian, be humble. Salvation was not your idea or choice, but God’s.
C. Thanksgiving. If you truly take to heart the Bible’s teaching on election, you’ll respond with praise and gratitude to God for his sovereign, saving grace towards you.
Let this wonderful doctrine encourage you, and lead you to greater faithfulness to God and love for Christ.
(Why did I choose a picture of tulips for this post, you ask? Not because I really like flowers! But because this doctrine of election is one of the “Five Points of Calvinism,” or “doctrines of grace” that are usually set forth with the acronym TULIP – Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.)
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Cheer up. You’re a lot worse off than you think you are, but in Jesus you are far more loved than you could have ever imagined. Jack Miller
There’s a “Good News Bible,” but I have yet to see a “Bad News Bible.” And that’s only right, since the Scriptures’ primary message is the gospel, which means, “good news.” But for the gospel to be for you truly good news, you must first believe the Bible’s bad news. And that is, you are a sinner by birth, and your sin has rendered you both guilty before God and helpless to do anything about it.
“Total depravity” is the doctrine that describes the extent and nature of our sin. It’s not a pretty picture. But once understood, it actually leads to praise and thanksgiving because it paints the dreary backdrop against which the power and grace of God in his saving work shines all the more brilliantly. Like all the “Five Points of Calvinism,” or “doctrines of grace,” total depravity highlights the truth that salvation in Christ is all of God, and all of grace.
It’s crucial to understand what total depravity doesn’t teach. The word “total” may mislead, because it implies that by nature you and I, and all people, are as bad as we possibly could be (until redeemed). But thankfully, that’s not the case! If it were so, life on earth would be a little hell (as it really becomes when wickedness runs rampant). But because God keeps sin in check, at least in a relative sense even sinners love others, and do good to others (Luke 6:32, 33).
But total depravity teaches there is nothing truly good or righteous in us before a infinitely holy God. Perhaps the best explanation of total depravity is from The First Catechism:
Q. 38. How sinful are you by nature.
A. I am corrupt in every part of my being.
Sin corrupts “every part of my being”: my thoughts, will, emotions, affections, desires, and so on. A better term for total depravity, one that points to this pervasive presence of sin in us, is “radical corruption.” So while sin doesn’t reach its full potential of evil in any one person (at least in this life), it radically corrupts everything in a person. There is nothing in us pure and holy; every part of us falls short of the righteousness of God.
If you poison a spring at its source, all the water flowing from it is tainted with that poison. In the same way, sin is in the heart of man, and from there it corrupts our thoughts, words, and deeds. In some of the grimmest, most sobering words he ever spoke, Jesus described our sin nature this way:
What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mark 7:20-23)
You won’t see that passage on an inspirational Christian poster!
However, Jesus spoke nothing but the truth – the good, the bad, and the ugly. When we examine our own hearts with any honesty, we can only affirm this very ugly truth. Can you sincerely say there is anything perfectly pure and holy within you? Even the best in us is tinted with the blackness of sin – my good deeds are mixed with pride, my love of others with self-interest, my worship of God with unbelief.
If you’re not too dismayed to be still reading by this point, I hate to say it, but the bad news gets even worse. Our sin renders us completely helpless to do anything whatsoever that is good and righteous in God’s eyes. We are not just enfeebled or made sick because of sin, but we are spiritually dead because of it. Ephesians 2:1 says that by nature, we are “dead” in “trespasses and sins.” Apart from the grace of God, you are no more capable of doing righteousness than a lifeless corpse is capable of running a marathon.
And what may be the greatest indictment of all, in our sin we don’t even desire or love righteousness. Jesus declared that though he came into the world as light, “people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
So this is the Bible’s bad news: there is no righteousness in us, we can’t think, do, or say anything pure or holy in God’s sight, and our hearts love darkness rather than light. That is total depravity, and it describes every single human being: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God…no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10, 11).
But in fact, there is one who was righteous, and who did good. The Bible says that Jesus was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). When the Son of God became man, he maintained his divine purity and holiness throughout his earthly life: never an unclean thought, never a flash of sinful anger, never a desire for vengeance, never any thought, word, or action that was anything less than perfect love for God and for his fellow man. Total righteousness; radical holiness.
And here’s where the Bible goes from bad news to good! When you belong to Christ by faith, God forgives your sin and imputes to you this perfect righteousness of Christ. Though sin still indwells in you as a believer, God now sees you as you are in Christ: as though you have lived a life of flawless obedience.
And the sheer corruption of our nature as sinners serves to magnify the love of God. For Jesus did not lay down his life for the righteous, or even for the pretty-decent, but for totally depraved wretches: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Do you believe in Christ as your Savior? If so, total depravity teaches that even your faith is a gift of God’s grace. You would not and could not believe in Christ apart from God’s work in your heart. You are not loved by God because you put your faith in Jesus for salvation, but you put your faith in Jesus because you were loved by God.
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Winston Churchill said of Russia: it is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” After months of studying Daniel for the 14 sermons I preached from it, I find these words strikingly apposite to describe much of this book of prophecy. So many parts of Daniel are as opaque as they are fascinating: Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue in chapter 2, the handwriting on the wall in chapter 5, the four beasts of chapter 7, the “seventy weeks” of 9:24-27, and the mysterious numbers of chapter 12. Many times in preaching through a given passage in Daniel, I had to say, “I don’t know what this means.” And, I believe we should be wary of dogmatic assertions of interpretative clarity regarding the difficult passages.
However, at the end of the book in chapter 12, and in the midst of another cryptic prophecy of the end-times, Daniel (reporting the words of angel) declares with crystalline clarity the ultimate hope we have as the people of God. And that hope is the promise of resurrection: And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt (12:2). We may not know when Christ will return, and we may not understand all the details of the appearance of the Antichrist, but we can know with perfect certainty that one day Jesus will call all people from their graves, and those who are his will enjoy eternal life in a body that is new and incorruptible, never to die again (see John 5:28, 29).
Daniel’s vision of the future resurrection of believers is the hope God wants us to have as Christians. To be sure, when you die as a believer, though your body remains in the grave, you will go to be with Christ in glory (Phil. 1:23). But the hope the Bible gives you is not an eternity spent in a ghost-like, disembodied state. Rather, the biblical promise of heaven focuses on the day of resurrection, when your body and soul will united together forever, never to die again. Just as God’s purpose for us in creation was bodily life, so his plan for us in his work of recreation is redeemed bodily life.
Christian, is this your hope today? One of the many miseries that plague our life in a fallen world is living with the mortality of the body. We get sick, we suffer injury, we gradually weaken as we age, and ultimately we all face death. Though it’s not wrong to pray for healing, don’t set your hope upon it. God doesn’t promise health in this life, but he does promise resurrection in the life to come. Set your hearts on this.
And if you are not a Christian, receive Daniel’s words as a sober warning. Not only will God’s people be raised to everlasting life, but those who do not know God by faith in Christ will be raised to “shame and everlasting contempt” (v.2). Perhaps the weightiest word of all in this verse is “everlasting.” The horrors of living under the wrath of God will continue unabated forever, with no end and no prospect of relief. The only hope you have to escape this dreadful judgment is to submit to Christ in faith and obedience.
And we know this prophecy is true because it has already begun to be realized! The Bible says that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). In other words, though the day of resurrection for all people is still in the future, in principle that day arrived when Jesus burst from the tomb three days after his crucifixion. Not only do you have Daniel’s prophecy to anchor your hope, but you have the resurrection of your Savior as a seal to its truth.
But as you wait for this great day, how should you then live in this world? Daniel provides the answer in the final words spoken to him by his angelic visitor: But go your way till the end. And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days (Daniel 12:13).
“Go your way,” the angel tells Daniel. For you, Christian, this means go your way in this world and serve Christ with all your heart. Go your way and love others for the sake of Christ. Go your way and, by the grace of God, fulfill your God-given calling in this life. Don’t sweat the details of the end-times. If God wanted us to know when Christ would return, and exactly what would take place before he came, he would have made that clear to us. It is not for you to know these things. But you can know that God is preparing for you an eternal weight of glory far greater than your light and momentary afflictions in this life (2 Cor. 4:17). That glory is resurrection glory. If you belong to Christ, that is your hope. Go your way and serve the Lord, and know that you, like Daniel, “shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days.”
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Do you have family devotions in your home? Does your family read Scripture and pray together on a regular basis?
If not, I urge you to start a routine of family worship. Don’t just relegate the worship of God to Sunday at church, but bring a little bit of church into your home. It’s one of the most important things you can do as a Christian family.
Granted, no single Bible verse commands what we call “family worship”. However, devotions as a family is one important way to carry out the teaching of these verses:
1. Deuternonomy 6:6, 7.
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
God meant for his people to weave his Word into the daily fabric of their lives at home. Parents were to teach their children about the Lord in the humdrum of their day to day living. I fear that many Christian parents today haven’t adopted this biblical standard of incorporating the Word of God into their families’ lives. A routine of family devotions is a way to remedy that.
2. Ephesians 6:4.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
God has appointed fathers to take the lead in training our children in the Christian faith. This verse doesn’t give a formulaic method for how to do this, but regular family worship is certainly one crucial component.
So dads, how are you doing in this area of spiritual leadership?
Like everything in the Christian life, we need God’s grace to begin and sustain this spiritual discipline. But if by his grace we make this a habit and pattern in our homes, I am convinced the blessings of God will follow. When you read the Scriptures with your family, pray with them, sing psalms and hymns with them, you are making a deep and indelible impression on the hearts of your little ones.
And in general, what’s important to parents becomes important to kids. If they see that Christ means enough to you to make family worship a priority, likely Christ will mean much to them.
In a word, God may use regular family devotions as a means of drawing our children to faith in Christ. Covenant promises entail covenant responsibilities.
If you haven’t begun family worship, I write this as a brotherly exhortation, not a guilt-inducing rebuke. And in that spirit of offering what I hope is help and encouragement, here are the “ABC’s” of family worship:
A. ARRANGE time for family devotions.
Like prayer, or exercise, or writing letters, family devotions will never become a reality until you actually plan for it. Simply making this a priority, and making time for it, is 90% of the battle. Families don’t “naturally” have times of worship. Until you plan them, devotions will forever remain in that nebulous category of things you know you really should do… one of these days (but somehow you never get to them).
B. Be BRIEF.
You need not inflict a 45-minute sermon on your family. Leave that to the professionals! Even 5 to 10 minutes is enough time to read a passage of Scripture, talk about it, and pray. I believe the blessings your family will reap from this practice are hugely disproportionate to the time and energy you spend in it.
C. Be CONSISTENT.
By “consistent”, I mean regular, habitual. Don’t worry if you miss a day or two now and then. Or if your devotions languish during a vacation. The key is to establish a habit of family devotions so that doing them is the norm, not the exception.
Why not start (or resume) family worship – today?
For more help:
I usually don’t recommend books I haven’t read myself, but just based on others’ recommendations, this looks like a good resource to help and encourage you in leading family worship: A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home, by Jason Helopoulos.
Henry Ford famously quipped, “history is bunk.” Which is to say, why let the past distract us from the possibilities of the present and the future? Perhaps as good an indication as any that most Americans share Ford’s disdain of the past are the programs featured by the (so-called) History Channel. Turn it on and you’ll be instructed in such subjects of historical interest as: “Swamp People,” “Pawn Stars,” “Big Rig Bounty Hunters,” and our favorite up here in Alaska, “Ice Road Truckers.” All fascinating programs I’m sure, but not exactly an education in history. Evidently even the History Channel finds the past boring and irrelevant (or at least, terrible for ratings).
But the Bible has an entirely different view of the past. Have you ever thought about the fact that a great deal of Scripture is the record of God’s dealings with his people - in history? In the Old Testament we learn about the history of Israel; the New Testament records the early history of the Church. The reason the Bible is so concerned with the past is because God is the Lord of history. Far from being boring or pointless, history is nothing other than the unfolding of God’s eternal plan as he, in his sovereign rule, directs all things towards the purpose for which he has ordained all things. And that purpose is the glory of Christ, and the salvation of his people.
Chapter 11 of the book of Daniel testifies to this glorious truth. In terms of surface clarity, this chapter may be one of the most difficult passages in all of Scripture to understand. Here Daniel records for us the words of an angelic visitor, who told him of events that would take place hundreds of years from his time. We read of a seemingly endless stream of kings and nations, of battles and wars. What makes this prophecy both fascinating and unique is the remarkable amount of detail Daniel provides. You can literally read his prophecy alongside a book of ancient near east history and see an exact correspondence between the two.
And I believe the reason God gave Daniel this prophecy in such minute detail was to highlight the truth that God reigns over all things with absolute control. He knows exactly what will happen in human history because he has ordained all things to happen that way, according to his eternal plan (Ephesians 1:11).
But the truth of God’s sovereignty over all things, including human affairs, seems harder to accept when you look more closely at what Daniel 11 describes. Here is a rogue’s gallery of arrogant and ruthless kings, fighting one another for dominance and territory, and leaving death and destruction in their wake. One king in particular whom Daniel describes, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175 – 164 B.C.), exceeded them all in his hubris and cruelty. He murdered tens of thousands of Jews, banned the worship of God, and took blasphemy to new heights by setting up an pagan idol in the temple (the “abomination that makes desolate” of v.31) to which he sacrificed swine.
Was God in control of all this evil, too? Was he sovereign over these wicked rulers and their unrighteous deeds? The answer is: absolutely yes. God is Lord of all history, even the evil in it: “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19).
And this truth would have been a comfort for the Israelites in Daniel’s day. They needed to know that, although their fortunes seemed to depend on the whims of powerful rulers, or on the outcome of the conflicts between empires, in truth their lives were securely in the hands of their God. God was still God, even when it seemed that kings and nations were calling the shots and determining their future.
And today, Jesus Christ rules over all things as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16). This should comfort the heart of every Christian, especially today. We may not be living in exile in a foreign land (as Daniel was), and we may not be suffering intense persecution (as the people of God did under Antiochus), but we live in a time of unprecedented moral upheaval. Before our very eyes, society’s understanding of such basic matters of life as family, marriage, and human sexuality is undergoing radical change. And the change is decidedly away from God’s standards of right and wrong in these matters, as revealed in his Word. This moral revolution is profound and far-reaching. And in the midst of it, we feel disoriented, helpless, and fearful.
But this is why we need to take to heart the truth Daniel 11 teaches. Christ is still Lord today, over the history of our time, and he has promised to accomplish his purposes in all things. The greatest proof of all that God uses even the darkest and most evil events in human history to further his gracious and good purpose is found at the cross. As Peter declared in his Pentecost sermon, although Jesus was “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men,” he was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).
God was Lord even over the cross. And through it he gave us eternal salvation. If that is so, Christ assuredly reigns over our times for our good. Thank God he is the Lord of history!
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In the Christmas spirit, Alaska-style! (with apologies for the crummy picture).
Last night at the prayer meeting we sang one of my favorite hymns, “Thou Who Wast Rich beyond All Splendor”:
Thou who was rich beyond all splendor,
all for love’s sake becamest poor;
thrones for a manger didst surrender,
sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who was rich beyond all splendor,
all for love’s sake becamest poor.
Funny how we look forward to being “enriched” with Christmas presents, and hope for a prosperous New Year, when the Son of God impoverished himself by being born a man. We are most true to the “Christmas spirit” when, out of love for our neighbor, we make ourselves poorer by giving our resources, time, and attention to others for their enrichment. But this is only possible by the grace of God – may God help us give ourselves to others as Christ gave himself to us!
The birth of Christ will be the subject of my sermon this Lord’s Day morning. I’ll preach from Matthew 1:18-25, focusing on the salvation from sin Jesus came to accomplish for us.
At the evening service, I’ll preach from Psalm 146. You could say Psalms 146-150 are the original “Hallelujah Chorus,” each beginning and ending with the phrase “Hallelujah,” or in English, “Praise the Lord!”
We’ll observe the Lord’s Supper at the evening service.
I’m excited about a new adult Sunday School class Elder Rob Renner and I will be teaching beginning this Sunday. It’s based on the book Jesus on Every Page, by Dr. David Murray. The book’s purpose is to help us see how the entire Old Testament reveals to us the person and work of Jesus Christ. I hope this class will encourage us to read the Old Testament, and even more so, help us to know Jesus better. Here’s the website for the book.
Dates are set for next year’s Family Camp/Conference. At this point, I don’t know if it will be a camp, or a conference, or what exactly, but we do have a speaker! His name is Dr. Rev. Chad Van Dixhoorn (that’s him above). And we have dates: Friday, August 15th – Sunday, August, 17th. For more information on Dr. Van Dixhoorn, click here.
In the course of the week I read/scan several online articles and blog posts. I’d like to share a few you might find interesting or helpful.
First, Kevin DeYoung challenges a lackadaisical attitude toward church attendance in The Scandal of the Semi-Churched. I’m glad he wrote this post because the casual attitude of many Christians towards being at church on Sunday is a real problem.
Second, here’s a World magazine interview with one of my favorite Christian authors, J. I. Packer. Packer’s books Knowing God and Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God made a deep impression on my thinking as a brand-new Christian. I first learned from him that God’s greatest purpose is not my salvation, but his own glory. For those of you who met Carl Trueman at our Family Camp a few years ago, you’ll be interested to know J.I. Packer considers him a candidate for something like “today’s J. I. Packer”! Also, Packer, an Anglican, makes a friendly critique of Presbyterianism (I’ll let you decide whether he’s right or not on that one).
Third, Al Mohler writes a very thoughtful reflection on the ambiguities of a great historical figures like Nelson Mandela.
Finally, here’s an useful article that should help if your blood boils at the sight of “X-mas” as a substitute for “Christmas.” Bottom line: “Xmas” is not what you think!
Sometimes I pray that God will re-ignite a passion in my heart for the simple truths of the gospel – the realities of sin, salvation, judgment, heaven, and hell. I still believe them and haven’t forgotten them, but I’m not gripped by the sheer urgency of the gospel as I ought to be.
Maybe your experience is similar to mine? When I first believed in Christ, it was like I had stumbled out into a burst of brilliant sunshine after walking for hours in a dark tunnel. In the light of God’s Word and Spirit I saw – maybe “felt” is better, since it was not mere understanding but deep conviction – truths I had never seen before, truths that were both awful and glorious.
The true nature of my sin, that it is wicked and damnable in God’s sight, was heavy on my heart. And the hopelessness of unbelievers was grievous to me. The sheer horror of the reality of hell made me shudder.
But I marveled at God’s grace to me. What ineffable love that he chose me - me! - for salvation! What wonder that Jesus Christ really and truly was God incarnate, and that he really and truly died on the cross - for me! What joy and freedom that my sins were forgiven!
Like a young man obsessed with thoughts of his bride-to-be, these gospel realities consumed me. I pondered them, read about them, talked to others about them.
But time passed and my initial zeal cooled off; I became even-keeled. I didn’t lose my love for Christ, but the sheer urgency of the gospel weighed less on my heart. When I light the charcoals in my Weber grill, after a healthy dousing of lighter fluid, at first they send up flames but later they smolder. In the same way the flames of my convert zeal died down to a calm smolder.
And then I got busy. Busy with work and school, busy with kids, busy in the ministry. I still believe in Christ as much as ever, but the pressing nature of gospel realities doesn’t burden me like I wish it would. The Bible says, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). But I say to myself, “Now is the day the Visa bill is due, now is the day I must write my sermon, now is the day I must get the oil changed in the Camry.” I don’t like it, but the ordinary demands of life feel more urgent to me than the gospel.
Is it just me, or do others feel the same way? I suspect many other believers also struggle not to lose sight of the urgency of the gospel. Here are a couple of reasons for this challenge:
We are wholly satisfied with life in this world. It’s hard to look above and beyond this life to the life to come, when we are filled with so many good things in this world. The Lord warned the Israelites about this problem before he led them into the Promised Land. Once they had eaten and were full, and grew wealthy and prospered, they would soon forget the Lord their God who delivered them from their bondage in Egypt (Deuteronomy 8:11-14). When we are prosperous and full, we tend to do the same: forget all that Christ has done for us. And we lose a sense of the urgency of the gospel.
Death is distant. At least it is for most of us, most of the time. I’ve been a pastor for ten years and in that time I’ve only conducted one memorial service! But when I read of great spiritual awakenings among people who become gripped with the truth of the gospel, it’s often in an environment enshrouded by the pall of death. I think of Corrie Ten Boom’s experience in Nazi concentration camps (The Hiding Place) and or Ernest Gordon’s time as a Japanese POW in Burma (To End All Wars). Both tell of amazing revivals in the most nightmarish of circumstances. When death is near and can strike at any moment, by God’s grace the truths of the gospel hit home with intense power.
Now I don’t want to suffer poverty and hunger, or the fear of sudden death, but I do want to have a heart aflame for Christ and burdened with the spiritual realities of the gospel. I pray that instead of the affairs of everyday life or trivial distractions taking up all my thoughts, I might be experience the deep conviction of the truths I believe. O Lord, may I grieve my sin, weep over the lost, rejoice in salvation, and hope in heaven.
Your life is so short. Have you given thought today to life beyond this life? “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
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The sun is shy these days in Alaska. Reluctantly he peers above the mountain peaks for just a few hours during the day, before hastily exiting the northern firmament to find some other place where he may linger long in the sky. There his cheery visage sends out warm and radiant beams on the favored land below, having bid us good night – a long and dark night!
But soon enough the sun will make Alaska his home again. And we’ll savor his company each day then, for as long as we miss him each day now. In the meantime, at least we can enjoy some nice sunrises and sunsets. I took the picture above from the church a few mornings ago.
And, our near-lightless days afford the perfect backdrop for considering the spiritual darkness that enshrouded the earth before the coming of the Sun of Righteousness. When we lived in our sin, what blackness enveloped us! But with the coming of Christ, light from heaven has dawned on earth, radiating the glory of God everyplace where Jesus is proclaimed. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
At the morning service this Lord’s Day I’ll begin a three-part sermon series on the birth of Christ from Matthew’s Gospel. This Sunday we’ll consider Matthew 1:18-25. And at the evening service we’ll continue our study of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. This week the subject will be the 4th Commandment (Q & A 57 – 62).
This blog post on evangelism both challenged and encouraged me. Are we afraid to tell others about Christ because we think all unbelievers are snarling atheists ready to take our heads off, forgetting that most people are simply lost and confused? Maybe so.
And this post on family worship is outstanding. It’s a bit long, but I guarantee you – and this is in writing! – if you take to heart what he writes, and begin (or continue) family worship at home, God will bless your family for it. It’s well worth reading, especially if you are the head of your household. Fathers, are you leading your family in worship? Read this and start.
Greetings from a wintry Wasilla! This morning freezing rain left a nice quarter-inch thick coat of solid ice on our little corner of the far north. The roads were as slick as a bobsled track (without, alas, the sidewalls to keep the cars on the street). However, this afternoon’s half-foot of snow should cover all that up very nicely! But enough of the weather….
Sunday services. This Sunday morning I’ll preach from John 19:1-16, in which the Jewish leadership compels a reluctant Pilate to condemn Jesus and sentence him to die by crucifixion. Pilate may have been reluctant, but his pusillanimous caving under pressure earned him special infamy forever enshrined in the creed: “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” But Pilate was only God’s instrument – what a mystery! – to bring eternal salvation to sinners through the death of Christ.
At the evening service we’ll consider the 2nd Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image” (Exodus 20:4). As with all the commandments, there is more here than meets the eye. These words have much teach us about how we are to worship the Lord.
Courage in the Ordinary. Robyn and I were blessed by this White Horse Inn interview with blogger Tish Harrison Warren. The subject is how God is active and working even in the mundane and ordinary, which is where most of us live. Listen to it, you’ll be encouraged. You’ll also like this very well-written blog post Warren wrote that led to the interview.
Courage in the Extraordinary. This is a superb article about a man of God you’ve probably never heard of, Paul Robert Schneider. His unwavering faithfulness to Christ as a Reformed pastor in Hitler’s Germany cost him his freedom and ultimately his life. It’s not a long article, but you’ll be inspired and encouraged by his example. May we have men like him in our day – preaching Christ at all costs and calling evil, evil! (I also liked the fact his last sermon was on Psalm 145, which I happened to preach from last week).
Family Camp/Conference Speaker. Rev. Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn will be our speaker for next summer’s Family Camp/Conference (we need to work out the details of the format). Rev. Van Dixhoorn is Associate Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia, and teaches Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He is an expert on the Westminster Assembly (the men who wrote our Westminster Standards), having edited a five-volume set of the minutes and papers of the Assembly.
We’re looking forward to having Chad, his wife Emily, and (hopefully) his five kids visit us next summer!
Jesus blasted the scribes and Pharisees for their rank hypocrisy: “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matt. 23:24). They punctiliously tithed mint, dill, and cumin, but “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23).
And they unwittingly demonstrated the truth of this charge when, after having condemned Jesus for blasphemy and having led him to Pilate to be crucified, they “did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover” (John 18:28). What pious and devout men, so conscientious to avoid uncleanness! Yet John doesn’t need to state the obvious: they were at that very same time defiling themselves with the blood of the innocent Son of God.
Last week I came across this article with an horrific example of how those who claim to be Christians can also strain out gnats while swallowing camels. It’s about a 13-year Washington girl who died in 2011 after suffering brutal (and truly sadistic) abuse at the hands of her adoptive parents. She was from Ethiopia and adopted in 2008 by a family that, according to the article, led a “lifestyle of devout, fundamentalist Christianity.” They homeschooled their children and lived in relative isolation, socializing with just one or two families besides their relatives (the article mentions their church but says very little about it). They prohibited most TV and access to the internet, the mother wore only skirts or dresses (no pants), and the father preached sermons to his family in the backyard.
Any story involving the abuse of children is heart-wrenching and morally revolting. But what makes this story all the more grievous is the religiosity of the parents. They claimed to be Christians yet at the same time abused a young girl until she died. Here was a home where television, the internet, and immodest dress were carefully avoided, yet unspeakable evil had free reign. Straining at gnats and swallowing a camel.
Though what took place with this family is an aberration (the article says, fairly, “It should go without saying that most devoutly religious adoptive parents, or conservative Christians parents generally, are not abusive”), it’s a tragic and very extreme example of a tendency we Christians must guard against. And that is, seeing sin and evil as something fundamentally extrinsic to ourselves, and not something that comes from within our hearts.
Jesus said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness, All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:22). Sin is not just something “out there”, but it’s also “in here”, in the heart. As one minister put it: The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart.
I found this story of the abused girl hard to read, not only because it described a sickening evil, but because the parents had adopted (but made a grotesque caricature of) concerns common to Bible-believing Christians like myself. We do need to shelter our children, to some degree, from worldly influences prevalent in the surrounding culture. We also do need to provide Christian training for our children (homeschooling is one valid way to do that). Children do need to learn obey their parents. And godly modesty is important.
But how easily we begin to think we have properly dealt with sin if we have shielded ourselves from outside evil influences, or if we have embraced strict standards of dress and conduct. We deceive ourselves that way, and in the process we become increasingly blind to the sin that comes from within us. And before long we are straining out gnats and swallowing camels. An isolated, sheltered home is no safe haven from evil if those in it are not, by the grace of God, putting to death the sin in their own hearts. Where sin is unchecked, any home, no matter how sheltered or outwardly “Christian”, can become a house of horrors.
I believe the author of the article tried to be fair in not simply pinning the blame for the girl’s death on her parents’ Christianity. However, the slant of the article certainly suggests that aspects of conservative Christianity itself are partly to blame. And of course, for many secular readers, the easy take-away point from the story is simply: see how evil religion is (just read the reader comments for proof of this!).
What’s ironic about that response, however, is that it commits the same fundamental error I’ve described above. It locates evil not in the human heart, but in something external to it, in this case religion. More broadly, a worldview that denies the fall blames everything but man for evil: it’s the result of bad government, or poverty, or society, or a lack of education, and so on. So both those who commit such great evil, and those who condemn their religion for it, fail to reckon with the truth: the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart.
The solution to the problem is the cross of Jesus Christ. He died to purify us from within, to give us a new heart. Let’s not turn the Christian faith into a religion obsessed with avoiding evil in the world, or with upholding standards of external appearance or conduct. Rather, focus on this: humbling yourself before Christ and tending first and foremost to your own heart.