One thing I love about Alaska is the pioneering spirit of independence evident in so many people here. “Do it yourself” is just a way of life for many Alaskans.
But I’m afraid this mindset, as admirable as it is, doesn’t carry over very well to a Christian’s relationship to the church. Many Christians here in Alaska (and throughout the nation) have left traditional churches in favor of forming loosely-organized groups of people who fellowship and worship together at someone’s house. These “home churches” are a kind of “do-it-yourself” or “homemade” church: no formal organization or structure, and no ties to established ecclesiastical bodies.
(To be clear, by “home church” I don’t mean any church that happens to meet in someone’s house. Rather, I am speaking of groups of Christians who meet regularly but are not part of any established, traditional church).
I have some concerns about these home churches.
I’ve been a pastor in Wasilla, Alaska, for about seven years, and our congregation has seen people leave to join home churches. Admittedly, for this reason alone, I am open to the charge of self-interest in expressing my concerns. After all, I’m the pastor of an established church, and I have a definite interest in convincing others of the value of committing to a local, organized church. I confess my bias, but I also believe that a careful consideration of biblical teaching will bear out my concerns.
If you are part of a home church, I’m not saying this means you aren’t a true Christian. My aim is not to impugn the faith, sincerity, or character of those who have chosen home church over traditional churches. I trust that the believers I know who are involved with home churches are in fact true Christians.
At the same time, I believe they are Christians who are making a mistake.
Here are my concerns:
First, home churches fail to conform to the New Testament description of churches.
We sometimes get the impression that the first Christians enjoyed a sort of pure fellowship, blissfully free from the suffocating structure of the institutionalized church. The only rule that governed them was the rule of love.
And to be sure, the book of Acts does describe a wonderful Spirit-wrought harmony and joyful fellowship among the initial converts to Christ (Acts 2:42-47). It’s hard to picture them at a congregational meeting, debating among themselves the finer points of Robert’s Rules of Order.
At the same time, the New Testament shows in many ways how the Lord gave to the early church a definite order and organization. Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians and other structured church bodies may disagree on the fundamental shape of that order. However, all would agree that in the early church, there was in fact an organized system of church government.
First, the church had an appointed and acknowledged leadership. The ascended Jesus gave leaders to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11). Paul told Titus – as part of his assignment to “put what remained into order” – to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5). In Acts 6:1-7, in a very orderly fashion, men were chosen and appointed to assist with distributing food to widows in the church (in my view, the first deacons). And when Paul greeted the Philippians, he included the “overseers and deacons” serving there (Phil. 1:1).
Surely if the Lord Jesus Christ considered ordained leadership to be incidental to the health and well-being of his people, or merely an optional accessory to the church, he would not have provided for them in every New Testament congregation (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).
The first Christians were commanded to “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Heb. 13:17), and to “respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thess. 5:12). What these commands presuppose is that in some way beyond mere common consent or unspoken agreement, certain men were set apart and acknowledged as church leaders.
Also, the worship of the church necessitated some degree of order and structure. Who would teach and preach? Who would decide who would be baptized, and who would do the baptizing? How was the Lord’s Supper to be administered? And to whom? Certainly informal agreement was not sufficient for handling these matters. If worship was to be done “decently and in order,” then some formal organization had to exist to maintain that order (1 Cor. 14:40).
Next, the Bible’s several provisions (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:12, 13; 6:4; Titus 3:10) for church discipline assume a structure of authority in the church. And they require some provisions for due process. It’s impossible to conceive how church discipline can be carried out fairly and consistently in the absence of recognized leadership, without church membership, and without some rules ensuring a just proceeding.
In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit who in spectacular fashion brought mass conversions to Christ, also, in a less dramatic but no less significant work, brought organization to the church. In chapter 15, when there was a sharp disagreement among believers concerning circumcision, the “apostles and elders” (v.22) held a council in Jerusalem to adjudicate the matter. Their decision was binding on all the churches. Again, we see the presence and activity of acknowledged authorities and discernible structure in the church (the presbyterian in me is sure that at this council they appointed a “Circumcision Study Committee” to guide them!).
So the churches in the New Testament had a definite structure, a structure given by Christ himself (Eph. 4:11, 12).
On the other hand, by their very nature, home churches lack ordained leadership and formal organization. Although the early church had elders and deacons, home churches have no provisions for ordaining such. The organization and structure necessary for faithful church discipline is lacking. In this way, home churches fall short of the biblical norm for Christian congregations.
Now I don’t deny that Christians may be blessed by the fellowship they enjoy in a home church, and they may love the people in their group, and they may receive edifying teaching. But the question must be asked: if the structure of New Testament churches is normative, and if that structure included officers and provisions for church discipline, then if we are not involved in churches that seek to mirror, in some meaningful way, New Testament churches, are we being as faithful as we should when it comes to our relationship to the Body of Christ?
If you are in a home church, let me ask more pointedly: who are the church leaders whom you are called to obey (I Thess. 5:12; Heb. 13:17)? Were they made leaders by others, or were they self-appointed? If they wished to exercise church discipline with you, is their authority one you have formally submitted to? If they were being unfair, how would you appeal?
My second concern is that home churches are more vulnerable to poor, or even abusive, leadership.
As we are sadly reminded on a regular basis by the news, leadership failures can plague any church of any kind. I readily acknowledge this. No church structure can guarantee the full protection of God’s flock from leaders who are incompetent shepherds, or worse, hurtful to sheep.
Who leads, and what makes a qualified leader, is manifestly a matter of great importance to Christ. In both 1 Timothy and Titus, Paul lays down certain qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Peter, knowing the inherent danger of heavy-handed leadership in the church, warns elders not to domineer over those in their charge, but to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-4). In fact, we even see in the Bible a certain circumspection regarding church leadership. James 3:1 says “not many of you should become teachers,” and 1 Timothy 5:22 warns “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.”
Given the New Testament’s caution and concern regarding church leadership, the character of men who are to lead, and the manner in which they are to lead, a church must take great care in how it selects, trains, and tests her potential leaders. But is this possible without some formal process in place?
What’s more, in a formal church structure, there are (or should be) a mechanism in place that ensures some accountability for leaders. I know that is the case in presbyterian churches. I am accountable to my elders and my presbytery. If a church member has a complaint about the leadership, he will be heard. He may even bring it to the presbytery if he believes the elders have not fairly handled his complaint (and if still not satisfied, he can appeal all the way to the General Assembly!).
This provision of accountability is a biblical principle, not the invention of Spirit-quenching church bureaucrats. Paul gives explicit directions on how charges against elders are to be handled (1 Tim. 5:19).
Underlying these formal constraints against poor or abusive leadership is the biblical understanding of human sin. Even otherwise godly men may overstep their bounds once in a position of authority, or they may have certain flaws that render them unfit for leadership.
My concern is that in an informal home church that lacks accepted provisions governing leadership and any formal accountability for leaders, the possibility is increased of the wrong people becoming leaders. Leaders may emerge based on the strength of their personality or charisma, or based on their knowledge of Scripture or ability to teach. They may be natural leaders but they may not possess the biblical qualifications, or even the character, to lead in a way that is humble and not self-seeking.
My third concern is that home churches may rob believers of the resources of the broader church.
Most likely, a home church will not enjoy the services of a trained pastor and preacher. Again, at the risk of sounding self-serving, it seems to me that Christians will be better off sitting under the teaching of a man who has spent time studying the Scriptures, theology, and the work of ministry, and whose overall fitness for pastoral work has first been tested by others. I don’t want to sound like a clerical snob; I know all too well my own shortcomings as a pastor and teacher. And I admit that there are men who may be more gifted and better than I at preaching and teaching, but who’ve never had an opportunity for theological study or ministerial training. But on the balance, surely churches that have the structures and means to produce a learned and trained ministry will receive better teaching than those that don’t.
In traditional churches such as ours, elders and deacons are also trained and tested. Again, this doesn’t make our church perfect – not by a long shot. But the point of all this is that traditional churches have far more resources available to them for the raising up of qualified leaders and servants in the church.
Furthermore, a home church, because it is by definition unaffiliated with any one ecclesiastical body, and because it does not have a formal commitment to any particular body of doctrine, will not benefit from a developed and time-tested confession of faith or system of Christian theology to ground its teaching and worship.
Both a trained clergy and a shared body of doctrine (such as a confession of faith) will help prevent what may be a particular vulnerability with a home church. That is, a teacher who focuses primarily on his own personal interests or passions. Indeed, a home church will probably tend to attract very like-minded people to its fellowship, thus only magnifying the potential of a teaching ministry that dwells inordinately on a few choice issues. Unless I am mistaken, for these reasons it seems less likely that in a home church, especially in the long run, a believer will hear the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), and be exposed to a faithful ministry of systematic, Christ-centered, Scriptural exposition.
My fourth concern is that home churches may offer a narrow vision of the Kingdom of God.
Because home churches lack ties with larger ecclesiastical bodies, it seems inevitable they will struggle to maintain and communicate a vision for the Kingdom of God that is broader than the personal concerns and ties of the people in the home church. What may develop is a kind of spiritual myopia, in which the work of Christ beyond the small orbit of the home church gradually fades from view.
Although the church I serve is a small church, since we belong to a larger denomination, we have a stake in its various ministries at home and abroad. We pray for missionaries throughout the world, and for other churches in our denomination. We’ve had speakers visit from other places who are engaged in different types of ministries, including church historians, biblical scholars, Christian authors, missionary workers, pastors, and others. They’ve broadened our horizons.
As for home churches, without that broader vision of Christ’s church, I wonder, will their children grow up with an interest in devoting their lives to some form of full-time service in the greater church? Or will they view the work of missions, pastoring churches, theological instruction, etc., as concerns alien to them, having received the impression through home church that such work is done by others in traditional churches? Of course I could be wrong about this, but it would be a shame if home churches inadvertently kept talented and gifted young Christians from devoting their lives to full-time Christian service in the broader church.
As well as the danger of this sort of spiritual nearsightedness, a home church may also be prone to a similar shortsightedness. Will the home church be the same home church for their children, and for their children’s children, and for their children’s children, and so on? A home church arrangement may serve well in the present circumstances of the families involved, but without some formal structure that survives the present, I don’t see how a home church can continue down through the generations. For all the problems of church tradition divorced from a living faith, tradition (including forms of worship, a codified body of doctrine, and provisions for church government), when it works, is a wonderful mechanism for enabling future generations to inherit the “faith of our fathers.” Paul certainly looked far beyond his own time when he commanded Timothy to take the teaching he heard from him and “entrust [it] to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
I’ll admit that programs, committees, bureaucracies, and other such creatures of institutional churches can have a suffocating effect for Christians who long for the pure joy of fellowship and worship with others. A home church holds out the prospect of undiluted Christian fellowship, free from the institutional constraints of traditional church. That is an attractive promise.
But structure and organization need not be the enemy of true fellowship and joyful worship in the Body of Christ. Ideally, in fact, they facilitate these things. Like a well-built aqueduct system, proper church structure and organization are stable channels through which God’s grace freely flows to bless his people. Neither is church authority necessarily oppressive and antithetical to Christian freedom. When leaders are faithful to Christ, their authority is nothing more than a ministry of the lordship of Christ, obedience to whose will is the very key to true freedom and liberty.
Let’s remember God is a God of order. “God is not a God of confusion” (1 Cor. 14:33). The creation reflects his concern for order. God gave order to marriage and the family. The Old Testament people of God lived under a divinely-given and highly-structured system of laws governing all aspects of their lives. The New Testament church possessed a definite order of government.
If God is the author of order, even of the order of institutional structure, then by what wisdom would we seek to establish a separate Christian community that effectually rejects the structure and order of every existing church in the community? Why do that, especially when there are churches nearby that are faithful to Christ, proclaiming the gospel and ministering the Word of God? Why not unite with such a congregation, rather than forming a home church that is arguably, in essence, a new and separate denomination? Is this not a further severing of the already tragically splintered Body of Christ?
One final observation. It’s safe to say Christians in home churches are virtually all Protestants. And from what I understand, some in home churches are even sympathetic to historic Reformed theology. But the rejection of the institutional church per se is an idea that was anathema to the original Protestants, especially the Reformed. With that in mind, let’s give John Calvin the last word:
[It is]… the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants an children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal faith. “For what God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder” [Mark 10:9], so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother.
My concern is that a home church just isn’t the quite the same as the church as it has been understood historically, by Calvin and others; and more importantly, a home church is not quite the same as the church that was founded by Christ.
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Last but certainly not least, the “P” in “TULIP” stands for the perseverance of the saints. Like all the doctrines of grace (or “Five Points of Calvinism”), this is no dry and abstract concept divorced from our lives as Christians. Rather, it is a promise of God that comforts and encourages our hearts. Nothing can put a spring in the step of a believer than knowing he is forever secure in the love of his Heavenly Father.
The perseverance of the saints simply means that true Christians can never lose their salvation. Once a sinner has been united to Christ by faith and by the irresistible grace of the Holy Spirit, he will never be separated from his Savior. To boil the doctrine down to bumper-sticker length (though oversimplifying things a bit), it means: “once saved, always saved.”
The Bible declares this truth beyond any reasonable doubt. Jesus said of his sheep: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). The apostle Paul declared, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). And many other similar verses confirm this most precious promise of God (John 10:27-29; Romans 11:29; 2 Thessalonians 3:3; 2 Timothy 4:18).
You’ll notice that the doctrine is called the perseverance of the saints, not the perseverance of “all who profess faith in Christ.” This promise belongs to the true children of God, those whom the Father has elected for salvation and for whom Christ died. When the Scriptures speak of the falling away of those who have professed faith in Christ and even have been part of the church (e.g., Hebrews 6:4-6), those in view are people who never had genuine saving faith in Christ in the first place. They were never born again by God’s Spirit, and thus in their apostasy they haven’t lost their salvation because they never possessed it to begin with. According to John, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). Though true Christians may backslide and sin grievously for a season, they never completely fall away from Christ so as to forfeit their salvation.
Though I don’t want to quibble over words, it’s also important to call this doctrine the perseverance of the saints, not the “preservation” of the saints. It’s a glorious truth, of course, that our persevering in faith is ultimately the product of God’s preserving us in his love and grace. Without God’s preserving grace, we’d all naturally fall away from Christ. At the same time, the word “perseverance” highlights the fact that Christian perseverance involves our faith, and faithfulness, and obedience. Jesus said, “… the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13). No one will be saved who fails to endure to the end. God has chosen us “that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4). The path to holiness and blamelessness is one of holiness and blamelessness. Perseverance is God’s promise that he will keep us on this path throughout our lives, until we reach heaven (though of course we often stray and must be brought back to it).
For this reason nothing could be further than the truth than the idea that this doctrine ministers to sin and licentiousness because it gives believers a giant green light to go out and live as wildly as they want, being secure in the knowledge that they’ll make it to heaven no matter what. Again, the promise is that God will guard us in the way of salvation, which the way of faith and obedience. The same Christ who justifies us by his grace will also sanctify us by his grace. The fact is, anyone who thinks this teaching gives him the “freedom” to live in sin has never really understood the grace of God. We have received grace in order to serve and worship Christ (1 Peter 2:9), and God’s promise is to secure us in that grace.
In fact, knowing you are secure in your redemption frees you to serve Christ with joy and gratitude. What bondage it would be to worry that every time you stumble or fail, you’re in danger of losing your salvation! Your obedience and worship would be driven by fear and guilt. But with the assurance that God’s promise of perseverance brings, you may freely serve your Savior with a thankful and joyful heart.
Finally, the perseverance of the saints extends into all eternity; it is sometimes called the “eternal security of believers.” Not only do Christians enjoy the promise of reaching heaven, but also the promise that they’ll never leave heaven. Jesus spoke of a great chasm separating heaven from hell that no one can cross (Luke 16:26). The promise of perseverance means that, just as you as as sinner could never earn your way into heaven by your righteousness, so you as a glorified saint will never be in danger of sinning your way out of heaven. You’ll be made perfect, incapable of sinning – forever.
Until then, as every Christian knows all too well, we can and do sin in this life. But the promise of perseverance assures us that, if we truly belong to Christ by faith, God will keep us in his love all the way to our heavenly home. Because God gave us his Son to save us, and because Christ died and was raised for us, and because Jesus continues to intercede for us, nothing in all creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).
This is the promise of the perseverance of the saints – Amen!
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The Bible contains some teachings that are just plain hard to accept. As Christians, however, we must humble ourselves before God, acknowledge that his thoughts and ways are higher than our own (Isaiah 55:9), and seek to understand even the difficult teachings of Scripture. One such teaching is the doctrine of limited atonement (the “L” of “TULIP”, an acronym denoting what are known as the “five points of Calvinism,” or the “doctrines of grace”). Limited atonement teaches that when Christ died on the cross, he died as a sin-bearing sacrifice not on behalf of every single person in the world, but only for God’s elect. In other words, God’s purpose or design in sending Christ was to accomplish a certain salvation for his people, not a possible salvation for all people.
Like all the other doctrines of grace, limited atonement is taught in several places in Scripture. The angel who spoke to Joseph in a dream concerning the birth of Christ said: “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus declared: “For even the Son of Man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In John 10:11, we read, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (that is, “his own sheep”, v. 3). And Hebrews 9:28 says that Christ was “offered once to bear the sins of many.”
Other verses may be added to these, but just as important as these proof texts is the fact that every time the Bible speaks of the redemptive work of Christ, it speaks of it as an accomplished deed, as a work that has most definitely brought salvation to sinners. But if Christ somehow died for all people equally, and the salvation he purchased for all only becomes a reality for any one sinner when he or she chooses to accept that salvation, then the efficacy and success of Christ’s sacrifice was never really a certainty. It was only a potential salvation, wholly contingent on the (possible) acceptance of it by sinners. But there is no such tinge of doubt or uncertainty in the Bible’s clarion declaration that Jesus Christ died to save sinners.
Likewise, only a limited atonement upholds the absolute sovereignty of God over all his creation (which is the uniform teaching of the entirety of God’s Word). If Christ died to atone for the sins of every single individual in the entire human race, yet some are not saved, does this not constitute a massive failure on God’s part? How can a sovereign God who “does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3) fail at anything? If we gladly ascribe to God all power in the works of creation and providence, why would we withhold his power when it comes to his greatest work of all, the salvation of sinners? Instead, let’s glorify God by ascribing to him sovereignty in redemption: Christ died to accomplish an infallible salvation for his own, not a potential salvation for all.
Besides all this, simple logic demands a limited atonement. If it is true that Christ died for the sins of everybody, then why doesn’t everybody go to heaven? And how can God be just if he condemns one sinner to hell for whom Christ died?
Now a limited atonement certainly doesn’t entail any limit to the value of Christ’s sacrifice. As the Son of God, his death on the cross has infinite worth. The atonement is “limited” in its extent, not in its inherent value. You could put it this way: if God willed for every single sinner in the world to be covered by the sacrifice of Christ, Jesus would not have had to hang one more minute on the cross. His death was of sufficient worth to cover the sins of all people. But he actually expiated the sins only of God’s elect.
And, a limited atonement in no way contradicts the truth that the gospel is to be proclaimed to all people indiscriminately, or the truth that all people are called to repent and believe in Christ for salvation. There is a free and genuine offer of eternal life in the gospel to all who hear the good news. As the Lord proclaimed through Isaiah the prophet, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!” (Isaiah 45:22). But as mysterious as it may be, at the same time salvation is freely offered to all, God actually brings to saving faith in Christ only those whom he has chosen, that is, those for whom Christ died.
This doctrine also magnifies the love of God. God is love (1 John 4:16), and he loves the world (John 3:16), but his love for his people is not a vague and abstract love for all humanity. Rather, God loves his people with a special love reserved for them; it’s a particular love for his own. In Ephesians 5, we read that Christ is a husband who loved his bride, the church, and gave himself up for her (v.25). A husband’s love for his wife is personal and particular; he loves her uniquely. No husband says to his wife, “Honey, I love you because I love all women!” In the same way, God loves his people because he chosen them to be his own, not because he loves all people indiscriminately.
The wonderful truth at the heart of this doctrine is that, if you belong to Christ by faith, then all that Christ did – his incarnation, his life of obedience, his suffering and death on the cross – he did with you in mind, because he loved you in particular. He is the Good Shepherd who knows your name, who calls you by name, and who died with your name on his heart. This truth should not only fill your heart with joy and praise, but once grasped, should compel you to share with others the good news of the gospel that they may also come to know the riches of Christ’s love for his own.
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Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
While the Bible’s teaching on unconditional election is extensive and unambiguous (Romans 9), the Scriptures also give plain testimony to the truth that people are responsible to repent, and to exercise faith in Christ, in order to be saved (Mark 1:15; Acts 17:30). And doing so is an act of human willing. However, we learn from total depravity that sin has so corrupted our entire being – indeed it has rendered us spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1) – that we are not even capable of repentance and faith (Romans 3:10-18).
We must repent and believe for salvation, but we cannot. So how can the elect be saved? How can any sinner be saved? The answer is grace, irresistible grace.
Irresistible grace means that God, by the Holy Spirit, works so powerfully in the hearts of his elect people, that they are not only enabled to exercise faith and repentance, but they most certainly will do so. In this act of sovereign grace, God effectually overcomes all natural resistance to the gospel, and wins a sinner to Christ by transforming his heart so that, by virtue of a new nature, the sinner most freely and willingly turns to Christ.
In John 6, Jesus spoke to some fair-weather disciples who objected to “hard sayings” of his, and who ultimately quit following him. The Lord reminded them of what he taught earlier, that no one can believe in him unless the Father draws him to Christ: “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (v. 65). So no one can put their faith in Jesus unless God grants it. And Jesus also taught that whomever the Father gives to him, will most definitely come to him: “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (v. 37).
This is irresistible grace: only those whom the Father gives to Jesus, can come to Jesus (v.65), and all those whom the Father gives to Jesus, will come to Jesus (v. 37).
Many Christians object to this doctrine because it teaches man is incapable of choosing to believe in Christ. So the Arminian and semi-Pelagian will affirm that grace is necessary for salvation, but, they say, there is still within natural man some capacity of will to believe. In this understanding, God’s grace makes salvation a possibility, but not an inevitability. Ultimately, man must decide if he’ll put his faith in Christ. Grace may lead him to the wells of salvation, but he still must lower his cup to drink.
But this view is wholly incongruous with the way the Bible depicts man’s salvation. The Scriptures speak of a spiritual re-birth: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:4). Another analogy is re-vival, or resurrection: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of the your flesh, God made alive together with him” (Colossians 2:13). Yet another way Scripture describes salvation is re-creation: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Does a baby will herself to be born? Does a dead man choose to come to life? Did the universe decide to spring into being?
Of course, no. Neither does a sinner will to be reborn, or choose to be revived, or decide to be remade. The only understanding of God’s grace in the redemption of sinners that does full justice to these biblical descriptions of salvation is irresistible grace.
What this means for you, Christian, is that you must not only give thanks and praise to God for what Christ has done for you, in his death and resurrection, but you must also give thanks and praise to God for what the Holy Spirit has done in you, in his work of regenerating grace.
For this teaching, like all the doctrines of grace, brings us face to face with that humbling and profound reality, that our salvation is God’s doing, from beginning to end. “Salvation belongs to the LORD” (Psalm 3:8). Amen!
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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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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