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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Gospel Focus - Youth

Statistics will back me up, but one thing I have personally observed over the years is the sad reality that only some of our youth will come to have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Others will completely turn away, following their own heart's desires and others will "play" at Christianity, knowing all the outward forms, but lacking the regenerative power within their hearts. The response of too many parents will be that the church should "do" something guaranteed to bring about their child's salvation. If people in the church were only friendlier, their child would have been saved. If Youth Group had been more attractional, their child would have wanted to come and subsequently been saved. If more care packages had been sent out to the college freshmen, their child would have been saved. If a Youth Leader or Sunday School teacher had spent more personal one-on-one time, their child would have been saved. If the kids in Youth Group had been less cliquish and more loving, their child would have been saved.  I've heard it all and often wondered if those who hold such opinions have seriously studied the truths of Scripture. Yes, we're to be faithful messengers, but it is the Holy Spirit who saves, and  like the wind, He moves as He chooses. Jesus said, "The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8)

So if it's the work of the Holy Spirit, then what is our role as Sunday School teachers, Youth leaders and parents? Scripture tells us we are to preach the gospel, for it is the gospel that is the power of God for salvation. (Romans 1:16) We are to teach who God is, what He expects of us, how He has worked in the past, how He continues to work today and what He will accomplish in the future. We teach how to rightly divide His Word, in the hope that the Holy Spirit may choose to use it at some point in the future to bring them to a saving knowledge of Christ. We diligently pray for their souls ... without ceasing. We model for them what God can do with an obedient heart that loves Him. These things need to be the focus of our teaching and practice, not merely promoting an outer conformity to prescribed behavior, for that would be repeating the errors of the Pharisees, nor fooling ourselves that attendance alone will guarantee a quickening of their spirit.

Pastor Jon Nielsen, College Church in Wheaton, recently wrote a post concerning these things. Instead of focusing on the youth who walk away, he made observations about the 20-somethings who stayed in the church or came back to it. You may read an excerpt below.

... there is no one easy solution for bringing all of those “lost” kids back into the church, other than continuing to pray for them and speaking the gospel into their lives. However, we can all look at the 20-somethings in our churches who are engaged and involved in ministry. What is it that sets apart the kids who stay in the church? Here are just a few observations I have made about such kids, with a few applications for those of us serving in youth ministry.

1. They are converted.

The apostle Paul, interestingly enough, doesn’t use phrases like “nominal Christian” or “pretty good kid.” The Bible doesn’t seem to mess around with platitudes like: “Yeah, it’s a shame he did that, but he’s got a good heart.” When we listen to the witness of Scripture, particularly on the topic of conversion, we find that there is very little wiggle room. Listen to these words: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2Cor.5:17). We youth pastors need to get back to understanding salvation as what it really is: a miracle that comes from the glorious power of God through the working of the Holy Spirit.

We need to stop talking about “good kids.” We need to stop being pleased with attendance at youth group and fun retreats. We need to start getting on our knees and praying that the Holy Spirit will do miraculous saving work in the hearts of our students as the Word of God speaks to them. In short, we need to get back to a focus on conversion. How many of us are preaching to “unconverted evangelicals”? Youth pastors, we need to preach, teach, and talk—all the while praying fervently for the miraculous work of regeneration to occur in the hearts and souls of our students by the power of the Holy Spirit! When that happens—when the “old goes” and the “new comes”—it will not be iffy. We will not be dealing with a group of “nominal Christians.” We will be ready to teach, disciple, and equip a generation of future church leaders—“new creations”!—who are hungry to know and speak God’s Word. It is converted students who go on to love Jesus and serve the church.

2. They have been equipped, not entertained.

... youth pastors especially need to keep repeating the words of Ephesians 4:11-12 to themselves: “[Christ] gave . . . the teachers to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Christ gives us—teachers—to the church, not for entertainment, encouragement, examples, or even friendship primarily. He gives us to the church to “equip” the saints to do gospel ministry, in order that the church of Christ may be built up.

If I have not equipped the students in my ministry to share the gospel, disciple a younger believer, and lead a Bible study, then I have not fulfilled my calling to them, no matter how good my sermons have been. We pray for conversion; that is all we can do, for it is entirely a gracious gift of God. But after conversion, it is our Christ-given duty to help fan into flame a faith that serves, leads, teaches, and grows. If our students leave high school without Bible-reading habits, Bible-study skills, and strong examples of discipleship and prayer, we have lost them. We have entertained, not equipped them . . . We don’t need youth group junkies; we need to be growing churchmen and churchwomen who are equipped to teach, lead, and serve. Put your youth ministry strategies aside as you look at that 16-year-old young man and ask: “How can I spend four years with this kid, helping him become the best church deacon and sixth-grade Sunday school class teacher he can be, ten years down the road?”

3. Their parents preached the gospel to them.

As a youth pastor, I can’t do all this. All this equipping that I’m talking about is utterly beyond my limited capabilities. It is impossible for me to bring conversion, of course, but it is also impossible for me to have an equipping ministry that sends out vibrant churchmen and churchwomen if my ministry is not being reinforced tenfold in the students’ homes. The common thread that binds together almost every ministry-minded 20-something that I know is abundantly clear: a home where the gospel was not peripheral but absolutely central. The 20-somethings who are serving, leading, and driving the ministries at our church were kids whose parents made them go to church. They are kids whose parents disciplined them and held them accountable when they were rebellious. They are kids whose parents read the Bible around the dinner table every night. And they are kids whose parents were tough, but who ultimately operated from a framework of grace that held up the cross of Jesus as the basis for peace with God and forgiveness toward one another.

This is not a formula! Kids from wonderful gospel-centered homes leave the church; people from messed-up family backgrounds find eternal life in Jesus and have beautiful marriages and families. But it’s also not a crap-shoot. In general, children who are led in their faith during their growing-up years by parents who love Jesus vibrantly, serve their church actively, and saturate their home with the gospel completely, grow up to love Jesus and the church. The words of Proverbs 22:6 do not constitute a formula that is true 100 percent of the time, but they do provide us with a principle that comes from the gracious plan of God, the God who delights to see his gracious Word passed from generation to generation: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Youth pastors, pray with all your might for true conversion; that is God’s work. Equip the saints for the work of the ministry; that is your work. Parents, preach the gospel and live the gospel for your children; our work depends on you.

[The entire post may be found here.]

Friday, July 29, 2011

William Wilberforce

The church history website has a short overview of the life of William Wilberforce written by Dan Graves. (See below.) Many of you may have seen the film, but don't stop there! Films are notorious for twisting facts and glossing over spiritual issues. Read a good biography such as Hero for Humanity by Kevin Belmonte. [There's a copy in the FBC Library.] Christian biographies are an excellent way to learn how believers through the ages have persevered to the end, living out their lives to the glory of God. What an encouragement to our own Christian walk!  "Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith..." (Heb.12:1-2)

No man fought harder to abolish slavery than William Wilberforce. A member of Parliament, he introduced antislavery measures year after year for 40 years until he retired in 1825. On ... July 26, 1833, as he lay dying, word was brought him that the bill to outlaw slavery everywhere in the British empire had passed in Parliament. The dream for which he had struggled for decades was now within sight of fulfillment!

Wilberforce had not always been a serious opponent of slavery. As a youth he was a witty, somewhat dissipated man about town who had misspent his time at Cambridge. He was invited to every party.
A friend of William Pitt (who became Prime Minister) and a member of Parliament, Wilberforce seemed assured of a bright political future. And then in 1784, after winning his election in Yorkshire, he accompanied his sister to the Riviera for her health. Isaac Milner, a tutor at Queen's College Cambridge and acquaintance from college days was asked along. Isaac agreed.
Milner had become a deep and evangelical Christian. He began to persuade Wilberforce to commit his life to Christ. Wilberforce had always thought himself a Christian. Now he saw that total commitment to Christ was needed. He struggled in anguish for several months. During that time he read Philip Doddridge's The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. Here was a faith far deeper than anything he had known. Gradually he yielded.

At once he began to wonder if it was proper for him to hold a seat in government. He confided in Pitt. Pitt, wanting Wilberforce as an ally, urged him to remain. Unsettled in his conscience, Wilberforce spoke to the rector John Newton. Newton, best remembered as the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace," had been converted while a blasphemous sailor and slaver. He counseled Wilberforce to remain in politics and champion good causes.

Friends suggested that the young man take up the slavery issue. Pitt also requested it. After many doubts, Wilberforce decided it was what God wanted. He also felt he must tackle causes which would raise the standard of life and morals in England. The friends who gathered around him became known as the Clapham sect because most lived in the village of Clapham.

Rarely in history have so many owed so much to so few. These dozen or so Clapham men and women not only fought against slavery but also against every sort of vice. Many were wealthy. They employed their worldly goods in behalf of godly causes. Education of the masses, support of Bible societies, private charity, protection of chimney sweeps, creation of Sunday Schools and orphanages--these and dozens of other causes received their attention. But it is the abolition of slavery which remains their greatest achievement.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Like Matches in the Hands of a Child

"At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, "Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, "Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Mt.18:1-4) No one comes to God without humble, child-like faith. It's the place we must start the Christian life. Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Only those who come to understand their spiritual poverty, their utter bankruptcy before a holy God may enter, because only they are able to entrust themselves completely to Christ's finished work on their behalf. As long as they hold onto any vestige of the idea they have somehow earned or even co-earned their salvation, they have missed Christ's point.

But we are not to remain child-like when it comes to knowing and obeying God's Word. "For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil." (Heb.5:13-14) The implications of long-term biblical illiteracy are catastrophic, both personally and corporately! As believers, we need to maintain that child-like humility as we approach God's Word, but we need to be progressively maturing in our understanding of and obedience to it.

I recently came across a descriptive post making this very point at The Ordinary Pastor blog. Personally, I'm better at handling Scripture than I am at illustrating it. Therefore, I'm always thankful for those who excel in this area!

One of my joys in life is the time that I get to spend with our kids before their bed time. They love to read their books. They talk and discover. It’s great.

I noticed an alarming trend with our youngest little girl though. Zoe likes to skip pages. She moves ahead to her favorite part and then she starts gabbing. Oftentimes she is talking about things that do not even relate to the story. You  know, things like, “Monkey says “AHAHAHA!” or “RED hat!” These are important facts, no doubt, but not really related to the story.

As I was sitting there, smiling and laughing, I was convicted. I think that a lot of times we read our Bibles like Zoe reads her cardboard books. Sometimes we are all about moving the book mark ahead in the Bible reading program. We fail to sit and stare at the scenery, discover new details, and breathe in the fresh gospel breeze. 

Other times when we do focus on details, we focus on things that aren’t key components of the big picture. We can get really good at knowing verses and not knowing the story. Texts without a context are like matches in a kids hand. It’s just a matter of time.

Still other times we may read our Bibles with the level of intellectual engagement that rivals a 2-year-old. The Bible is meant to be read, chewed upon, digested, and lived out. It is not merely a spiritual flouride that we swish around in our mouths for a morning cleaning, and then spit out with little impact throughout the day. Instead, we are to marinate our very souls in it that we might begin to have the biblical flavor and scent sweat out in our very lives.

So, yes, become like a dependent, humble, amazed and vulnerable little child when you come to Jesus. And walk in this posture in your ongoing neediness. However, when it comes to our Bible reading, we would be better off if we wiped our chins and engaged with the Book a bit.

Monday, July 25, 2011

20 Ways to Engage Your Neighbors

The past few months I've become aware of several families at church who have been making concerted efforts to  reach out to their neighbors. Sometimes it can be difficult to come up with creative ideas, so I thought I'd share some suggestions I happened upon in a blog and adapted a bit for our area. "Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us." [2Cor.5:20]

Not all of these are for everyone, but hopefully there will be several ideas on the list that God uses to help you engage your neighbors.

1. Stay outside in the front yard longer while watering the yard
2. Walk your dog regularly around the same time in your neighborhood
3. Sit on the front porch. letting kids play in the front yard
4. Pass out baked goods (fresh bread, cookies, brownies, etc.)
5. Invite neighbors over for dinner
6. Attend the parties invited to by neighbors
7. Do a food drive or coat drive in winter and get neighbors involved
8. Have a game night (yard games outside, or board games inside)
9. Grow a garden and give out extra produce to neighbors
10. Start a weekly open meal night in your home
11. Do a summer BBQ every Friday night and invite others to contribute
12. Host a sports game watching party
13. Host a coffee and dessert night
14. Organize and host a ladies' craft night
15. Organize a tasting tour on your street (everyone sets up food and table on front porch)
16. Start a walking/running group in the neighborhood
17. Start hosting a play date weekly for other stay at home parents
18. Organize a carpool for your neighborhood to help save gas
19. Have a front yard ice cream party in the summer
20. Help elderly neighbors with yard work or home repairs

[original post]

Friday, July 22, 2011

Who's Running the Show?

Living the balanced Christian life is not an easy thing. A motivating pastor or college professor, a book or two promoting "extreme" Christian living, having an awakening sense of the great need in the world all have the potential to get us running around, darting in different directions like humming birds seeking out nectar. The current stress in Christendom seems to be upon "doing."  But undergirding all that "doing" needs to be a life centered upon Christ. That's ground zero, that's our starting point and that's our resting point. If it's not, then what we're "doing" is in our own strength, not Christ's, for our own glory, not Christ's. Goals can become "ours," not Christ's. Our methods can easily become "what works," not what honors Christ. Here's an interesting piece concerning these things. An excerpt...

“There is a first-rate commitment to a second-rate mission.” That is what Roger, a leader in global church planting, said as he looked at the rock climbers ascending a cliff in the Alps. Many of us called into ministry feel the same way. Rather than giving our lives to climbing a rock, building a business, or amassing a fortune, we are committed to what really matters; a first-rate mission -- advancing the Gospel and the Church of Jesus Christ.

But what if we’re wrong?
Roger spent decades serving Christ and planting churches on four continents. But after reflecting on his labor for the kingdom of God, his confession surprised many of us. “I’ve given most of my energy to a second-rate mission as well,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. Church planting is great. But someday that mission will end. My first calling is to live with God. That must be my first commitment.”

What Roger articulated was a temptation that many in ministry face. To put it simply, many church leaders unknowingly replace the transcendent vitality of a life with God for the ego satisfaction they derive from a life for God...

Is impact everything?
The students I meet with often worry about what awaits them after graduation. This is a reasonable concern for any young adult, but for many of them the worry extends far beyond finding a job with benefits. They fixate, and some obsess, about “making a difference in the world.” They fear living lives of insignificance. They worry about not achieving the right things, or not enough of the right things. Behind all of this is the belief that their value is determined by what they achieve. .. When we come to believe that our faith is primarily about what we can do for God in the world, it is like throwing gasoline on our fear of insignificance. The resulting fire may be presented to others as a godly ambition, a holy desire to see God’s mission advance--the kind of drive evident in the Apostle Paul’s life. But when these flames are fueled by fear they reveal none of the peace, joy, or love displayed by Paul. Instead the relentless drive to prove our worth can quickly become destructive.

Sometimes the people who fear insignificance the most are driven to accomplish the greatest things. As a result they are highly praised within Christian communities for their good works which temporarily soothes their fear until the next goal can be achieved. But there is a dark side to this drivenness. Gordon MacDonald calls it “missionalism.” It is “the belief that the worth of one’s life is determined by the achievement of a grand objective.” He continues:
Missionalism starts slowly and gains a foothold in the leader's attitude. Before long the mission controls almost everything: time, relationships, health, spiritual depth, ethics, and convictions. In advanced stages, missionalism means doing whatever it takes to solve the problem. In its worst iteration, the end always justifies the means. The family goes; health is sacrificed; integrity is jeopardized; God-connection is limited.[1]
...While a vision for serving God is needed, and the desperate condition of our world cannot be ignored, there is a higher calling that is going unanswered in many Christian communities. As shepherds of God’s people, we must not allow our fears of insignificance to drive us into an unrelenting pursuit of church growth, cultural impact, or missional activism. Instead, we must model for our people a first-class commitment to a first-class purpose -- living in perpetual communion with God himself.

[Related post "Eyes on God"]
[entire post here.]
[1] Dangers of Missionalism

Thursday, July 21, 2011


In Letter 30 of The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis), the high-ranking demon, Screwtape, counsels his young protege, Wormwood, with this bit of advice for tempting men away from God and into sin: "Whatever men expect, they soon come to think they have a right to." One difficulty we face as we live out the Christian life is that we've synthesized our expectations concerning what this life should be like, our "world view" if you will, from any number of sources ... not all of them biblical. The more time we personally spend in God's revelation, the more aware we become of areas in our thinking where we need to change our view of reality and truth. That's what it means to "renew your mind." (Eph.4:22-24).

Though it was more than 40 years ago, I can clearly recall the high expectations everyone had for the members of my graduating high school class.  Our class song was "The Impossible Dream"... 1968 was the beginning of the you-can-be-whatever-you-want-to-be, you-can-have-it-all movement. That's not true, of course. It's really an unkindness to even make such promises. It didn't take long for things to fall apart... bad behavior, bad circumstances, bad health, bad luck. In similar fashion, many begin the Christian life with equally impossible expectations. Often it comes down to one question ... Why did you start the Christian walk? Was it in the expectation of having an easier life? Was it in the expectation of having a support system of people to help smooth your path through life? Was it in the expectation of having a life crisis resolved? Or was it because you saw the beauty and value of Jesus Christ, and came to understand that His worth, His excellence was such a treasure, you were willing to suffer any insult, any want, any deprivation, any difficulty or unpleasantness if you could only follow Him, love Him, serve Him?

Jesus told us to consider the cost of following Him ... "And He was saying to them all, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me." [Lk.9:23] Luke uniquely adds that one interesting little word to Jesus' call to those who follow Him ..."daily". Today ... and tomorrow ... and every single day after that until you're home. Are you willing to deny "self" daily... i.e. are you willing to have your toes stepped on, willing to be ignored in ministry, willing to suffer illness, mistreatment, discomfort, criticism, pain, insult, willing to have things not go your way? Are you willing to graciously submit to the authority He has placed over you, willing to live for Christ's glory, not your own, willing to completely entrust yourself to Him, to deny your will for His will? That is what Jesus asks of His followers.

In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul offered believers great insight from his own walk before the Lord. Few, if any, of us can say we have followed our Lord as faithfully and single-mindedly as Paul did. And what did he get for his life of faithfulness? Ease? Respect? Appreciation? Safe travels? No pain? No trials? No discomfort? He lists his earthly struggles in 2 Cor.11:23-27. 
... in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.  
Yet, to the church at Philippi he wrote, "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content." [Phil.4:11] How did he do that? Well, he says it was something he "learned," which means God allowed him ample opportunities to practice being content in Christ, to find his joy and contentment in his relationship with Him. Secondly, we see in other portions of this letter that Paul set his expectations upon the right goals for his earthly life, God-honoring goals, ones that were impervious to any circumstance he might face. Read through Philippians and find them. He made it his goal to magnify Christ [Phil.1:20]. He made it his goal to pour out his life in Christ-honoring service to others [Phil.2:17]. He made it his goal to know Christ [Phil.3:8]. Philippians 1:21 sums it all up, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." Make THAT your goal in life and you will be content, no matter the circumstance, no matter the trial, no matter the pain, no matter the grief. Develop an eternal perspective to life and like Paul, though you may grieve, though you may suffer, though you may be mistreated or maligned ... you will be content.

Monday, July 18, 2011

God's Classroom of Illness

No one enjoys being ill. I've been incapacitated by illness for long periods of time throughout my life and expect there are many more likely to be waiting in my future. Watching my daughter recently go through chemotherapy for breast cancer has reinforced my trust that God uses these times to teach us truths about Himself, about ourselves and about the value of being built up in His Word prior to the onset of  serious illness or any deep trial for that matter. J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), a pastor who saw much illness among his parishioners during his years of service to the Lord, wrote the following to encourage believers to turn their eyes off their illness and onto their Savior, that they might enjoy spiritual growth during times of trials and joy in their relationship with Christ in the midst of it. Following is an excerpt from his tract.

That King Hezekiah received spiritual benefit from his illness I think there can be no doubt. The beautiful and pathetic language of his "writing," which Isaiah was inspired to record, places that beyond question. The good man saw things in his sickness which he had never seen clearly and fully in the days of health. "By these things," he says, "men live." He might have added, "By these things men learn."

I do not say that sickness always does good. Alas! We ministers know to our sorrow that it frequently does no good at all. Too often we see men and women, after recovering from a long and dangerous illness, more hardened and irreligious than they were before. Too often they return to the world, if not to Sin, with more eagerness and zest than ever; and the impressions made on their conscience in the hour of sickness are swept away like children's writing on the sand of the sea-shore when the tide flows. 

But I do say that sickness ought to do us good. And I do say that God sends it in order to do us good. It is a friendly letter from heaven. It is a knock at the door of conscience. It is the voice of the Savior asking to be let in. Happy is he who opens the letter and reads it, who hears the knock and opens the door, who welcomes Christ to the sick room. Come now, and let me plead with you a little about this, and show you a few of the lessons which He by sickness would teach us.

1. Sickness is meant to make us think—to remind us that we have a soul as well as a body—an immortal soul—a soul that will live forever in happiness or in misery—and that if this soul is not saved we had better never have been born.

2. Sickness is meant to teach us that there is a world beyond the grave—and that the world we now live in is only a training-place for another dwelling, where there will be no decay, no sorrow, no tears, no misery, and no sin.

3. Sickness is meant to make us look at our past lives honestly, fairly, and conscientiously. Am I ready for my great change if I should not get better? Do I repent truly of my sins? Are my sins forgiven and washed away in Christ's blood? Am I prepared to meet God?

4. Sickness is meant to make us see the emptiness of the world and its utter inability to satisfy the highest and deepest needs of the soul.

5. Sickness is meant to send us to our Bibles. That blessed Book, in the days of health, is too often left on the shelf, becomes the safest place in which to put a bank-note, and is never opened from January to December. But sickness often brings it down from the shelf and throws new light on its pages.

6. Sickness is meant to make us pray. Too many, I fear, never pray at all, or they only rattle over a few hurried words morning and evening without thinking what they do. But prayer often becomes a reality when the valley of the shadow of death is in sight.

7. Sickness is meant to make us repent and break off our sins. If we will not hear the voice of mercies, God sometimes makes us "hear the rod."

8. Sickness is meant to draw us to Christ. Naturally we do not see the full value of that blessed Savior. We secretly imagine that our prayers, good deeds, and sacrament-receiving will save our souls. But when flesh begins to fail, the absolute necessity of a Redeemer, a Mediator, and an Advocate with the Father, stands out before men's eyes like fire, and makes them understand those words, "Simply to Your cross I cling," as they never did before. Sickness has done this for many—they have found Christ in the sick room.

9. Last, but not least, sickness is meant to make us feeling and sympathizing towards others. By nature we are all far below our blessed Master's example, who had not only a hand to help all, but a heart to feel for all. None, I suspect, are so unable to sympathize as those who have never had trouble themselves—and none are so able to feel as those who have drunk most deeply the cup of pain and sorrow.

When your time comes to be ill, I beseech you not to forget what the illness means. Beware of fretting and murmuring and complaining, and giving way to an impatient spirit. Regard your sickness as a blessing in disguise—a good and not an evil—a friend and not an enemy. No doubt we should all prefer to learn spiritual lessons in the school of ease and not under the rod. But rest assured that God knows better than we do how to teach us. The light of the last day will show you that there was a meaning and a "need be" in all your bodily ailments. The lessons that we learn on a sick-bed, when we are shut out from the world, are often lessons which we should never learn elsewhere. Settle it down in your minds, that, however much you may dislike it, sickness is not an unmixed evil.

[from J.C. Ryle's tract, Christ in the Sick Room; sketch by Rembrandt, Sick Woman Lying in Bed, probably his wife Saskia]

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Is Your Mind In the Battle? (Part 2)

  'Do not let your heart be troubled; 
you believe in God, believe also in Me.'  (John 14:1)

"Why is it so hard to just find some peace of mind? Well, peace is hard to come by when you live in a warzone. And like it or not you are in a war — a very serious one. This war is cosmic in its proportions. It involves God, humans, angels, demons, principalities, powers, nations, and antichrists.

And do you know where the front of the battle is? It’s in your head. Here is how Paul describes it in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5:
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
Where is the battle raging? Where your thoughts are. What are the strongholds that spiritually imprison people? Arguments and opinions.

And arguments are not merely strongholds, they are weapons of mass destruction. Adam and Eve (and all of us with them) fell because of an argument. They believed the serpent’s argument and stopped believing God.

That is the deadly essence of sin: not believing God. To not believe God is to ally with Satan, whom Jesus said is “a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth… for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).  You don’t want Satan as an ally. He’s treacherous. He’s out to murder you with lies.

Watch your emotions. They are signals of arguments. Your emotions, which can land on you like vague impressions or moods, are usually responses to an argument. Moods don’t come out of nowhere. When we are angry, discouraged, depressed, anxious, self-pitying, fearful, or irritable, it is likely because we are believing something very specific.

To battle sin is to battle unbelief—or destroy arguments. And in order to battle unbelief effectively, we must press doubts and temptations into specific arguments. What specifically is being asserted or promised to us? Only then can we destroy the enemy’s false arguments with true ones.

The devil does not want us to think clearly about sin. He wants to keep things vague so he can imprison or disarm us. But Jesus wants us to think clearly. He wants us to know the truth because the truth brings freedom:
If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. (John 8:31-32)
So as freedom fighters let’s fight against “unbelieving hearts” by exhorting one another every day (Hebrews 3:12-13) to live in the freedom—and peace (John 16:33)—of the truth."

[From: Jon Bloom, "We Destroy Arguments"]

(Earlier post: Is Your Mind in the Battle? (Part 1) can be found here.)

To the Soul In Despair - "Don't listen to yourself." (Psalm 42)

 Psalm 42

As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for You, O God. 
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; When shall I come and appear before God? 
My tears have been my food day and night, While they say to me all day long, "Where is your God?" 

These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me. 
For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, 
With the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. 

Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? 
Hope in God, FOR (the reason) I shall yet thank Him for the salvation of His presence.

O my God, my soul is in despair within me; Therefore (resulting conclusion) I remember You...

The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; 
And His song will be with me in the night, A prayer to the God of my life...
(daytime + night = all the time)

Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? 
Hope in God, FOR (the reason) I shall yet praise Him, The help of my countenance and my God.
"The main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problem of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now [the Psalmist's] treatment was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been repressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you’. Do you know what I mean? If you do not, you have but little experience.
The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’- what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’- instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God’.
[D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in Spiritual Depression]
Related Post: "How God's People Handle Despair" (Psalm 77)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Preview: "Uneclipsing the Son"

I've started reading Rick Holland's debut book, "Uneclipsing the Son." Too many settle for "Christianity" rather than delighting in the glory of Christ. Holland compares it to settling for the aura around the sun seen during a total eclipse, instead of basking in the full radiance of the sun itself. It's an apt metaphor that will get you thinking ... and growing! This is a short book with a dull cover... that may help you discover what it means to have joy in Christ. Here's a taste...

"Love craves knowledge of its Beloved. It is impossible to overstate how important the knowledge of Christ is to loving Him. The less we know about Him, the less air flows into the lungs of our souls. The more we inform our minds with truth about Jesus, the more captivated we become with wonder of the God-man. Knowledge of the Savior provides an authentic, rational encounter with divine majesty...

Peter (2 Peter 1:2-3) understood that the reception and experience of grace and peace are the consequences of the knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord. Beyond that, this knowledge grants us all, everything we need for living life and being godly. Everything our soul desires comes from understanding Jesus.

Sometimes - too often - we want other things, but Peter gives us a clear hint that if our souls recognize the spiritual needs that the knowledge of Jesus meets, then He will become the object of our desire. The truth is, what you want and what you need is Jesus, but you won't know that until you know Him. The more intensely He becomes the focused centrality of our faith, the more His worth overshadows all other joys...

The whole reason you have affections is to enjoy Christ. And everything recorded about Christ in Scripture was specifically put there to draw out your affections, to discover His attractiveness, to make your love more deep and intimate. What does it look like when our love for Jesus controls our affections? He Himself will be the object and focus of our love; our hopes will long for Him; our desire will be for Him; our hate and anger will be directed at sin because it offends Him. All the powers and aspirations of the heart will look to Him. Thoughts of Him will be our favorite thoughts. Remembrances of Him will be our most precious memories. Our consciences will be tuned to His heart. Every sense and ability will be at His disposal:
eyes to see His glory, 
ears to hear His word,
tongues to proclaim His praise,
feet to serve His mission,
awareness to give Him attention.

Our gifts will be used for Him, our talents displayed for His glory. Our resources will all be at His disposal. every relationship will be regulated by our greater love for Him. Every moment of life will be about Jesus. He will come to have first place in everything. (Colossians 1:18)"


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Worldliness - Is Your Mind In the Battle?

"Worldliness, that which makes the ungodly seem normal and the godly seem abnormal (David Wells), can seep in under the door, crawl in through the cracks, and flow in through the vents—all unannounced. This afflicts us when our taken-for-granted habits engender sensibilities (modes of thought, perception, and conduct) that make us less likely to hear God’s voice, to do God’s will, to redeem the time (Ephesians 5:16), and to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12)."  [Douglas Groothuis, in a review of Tim Challies' book, The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion]
["Is Your Mind in the Battle? (Part 2) found here.]

Sunday, July 10, 2011

"... From Self and Pride to Set Thee Free"

Tim Challies' posted an unfamiliar hymn from the pen of John Newton. In it, we are reminded that God does not often answer prayer in the way we had hoped, but instead answers it in the way He, in His omniscient goodness and love, knows is eternally best. Newton's hymn is a good reminder of the need to approach God with a humble and submissive heart ... and to trust Him in His answer.

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace,
Might more of His salvation know
And seek more earnestly His face.
Twas He who taught me thus to pray
And He I trust has answered prayer,
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He’d answer my request,
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins and give me rest.
Instead of this He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of Hell
Assault my soul in every part.  
Yea more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe,
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, laid me low.
Lord why is this, I trembling cried
Wilt Thou pursue thy worm to death?
“Tis in this way,” the Lord replied
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”
These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free,
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in Me,
That thou mayest seek thy all in Me.”

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Starting Out Right - Am I Saved? (The Beatitudes)

Some who read this blog are struggling, perhaps to the point of wondering if they actually are "in Christ," that is, spiritually united to Him. Scripture tells us to examine ourselves, whether or not we're "in the faith." This format is certainly not the best approach for helping you grasp the realities of life in Christ. But not everyone can be approached face to face. So I thought I'd try to share some of the things the Ladies' Bible study has been studying from the book of Matthew. [If you're a woman who is struggling and you live in my area, please, please ... join us every other Monday night. These very issues are being covered!]

The best place to start is where Jesus started in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Let's get a little background behind these three chapters. Matthew's purpose in writing the gospel is to present the King and His kingdom to the nation Israel, in fulfillment of OT prophecy. (Mt.21:5) At the end of Chapter 4, Matthew gives an overview of Jesus' message and His approach to ministry. [From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Mt.4:17);  And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. (Mt.4:23)] The kingdom of heaven, i.e. an earthly kingdom ruled over by God Himself (Zech.14:9), was "at hand" because its King was in their presence! His miraculous healing of all types of afflictions was in fulfillment of OT prophecy concerning the Messiah, God the Father's "Anointed One," signs meant to verify His message and His person. (Isa.35:5; John 14:11)

In Chapters 5-7, Jesus gives the first of five discourses found in this gospel. Though specifically addressing His disciples (Mt.5:1-2), we find the crowds had eventually surrounded them and are intently eavesdropping on His teaching (Mt.7:28-29). Those verses also explain WHY the multitudes are so "amazed" at His teaching. [The Greek word translated "amazed" means to have the wind knocked out of you!] He spoke in His own authority! They had never heard anything like it! Unlike the OT prophets who prefaced their teaching with "thus says the LORD" or the Jewish religious leaders who constantly quoted key teachers, "according to Shammai," "according to Hillel," Jesus says, "But I say to you" and "Truly I say to you". The Greek construction doubles the pronoun for emphasis, "But I, I say to you..."  He speaks as the very author of the Law!

At the beginning of the discourse (Mt.5:3-12), He describes the Kingdom citizen and pronounces God's favor upon him ("blessed"). He then attaches future promises. But you'll also notice the first & last Beatitude (Mt.5:3,10) are in the present tense.  This passage has the sense of "now/not yet" that we often see in Scripture. Being a citizen of the kingdom starts now, but is ultimately, completely fulfilled at a time in the future.

Jesus bases each beatitude on an OT psalm or prophecy. He starts out with the foundation of kingdom citizenship in Mt.5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit..." and then builds upon that, block by block, one Beatitude at a time. This first Beatitude ... being "poor in spirit," is foundational to entering the kingdom. It's what turns you towards the "the narrow way." Two different Greek words are used for "poor" in the NT. The one used here means "absolutely destitute." It's also used of the poor man Lazarus in Jesus' story of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk.16:20-31). Here, it describes the individual who understands his own spiritual bankruptcy, the one who comes to realize he has absolutely nothing to offer a perfectly holy God, the one who has a clear understanding that even his best deeds are "as filthy rags" before a holy God (Isa.64:6) because they spring from a self-promoting heart, not a God-honoring one. That  person is the one who is "poor in spirit." 

The person who is "poor in spirit" is the one who "mourns" over his sin against a God of infinite worthiness, a Being who deserves His creation's obedience and honor. (Mt.5:4) And the one who is "poor in spirit" and who "mourns" over his sin is the only one able to be "meek/gentle," i.e. humbly obedient to God. In Mt.11:29, Jesus equates being meek/gentle with being "humble in heart." Meekness/gentleness is "a Holy Spirit empowered attitude, a humility of mind towards God whereby we willingly accept His dealings with us as good and loving and do not dispute or resist His will." 

In turn, one who is "poor in spirit," who "mourns" over his sin, who is "meek/gentle/humbly obedient to God" is the one who has a hunger and thirst for God's righteousness in their own life (Mt.5:6). The Greek word translated "hunger" is the same word used of Jesus after he had fasted 40 days in the Wilderness of Judea prior to His temptation by Satan. It's having that depth of hunger for God's righteousness in your life!

In these opening verses of His discourse, Jesus teaches that the basis for entrance into the kingdom is a clear recognition and confession of your own spiritual bankruptcy before a holy God. It means having a deep sorrow over your sin against Him, having an attitude of humble obedience to God in your inner man and a ravaging hunger and thirst to have His righteousness in your own life. That's exactly what we should use to evaluate our own hearts, our own attitudes towards God. That's the point where it all begins...

[If you'd like to think about these things further, I highly recommend listening to the four sermons on Mt.5:3-6 given by Pastor Brian Sayers, Christ Community Church in Plainfield, NH: "Misery Is the Key to Happiness" (Mt.5:3), "Sorrow Is the Key to Comfort (Mt.5:4), "The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth" (Mt.5:5) and "Are You Hungry for Holiness? - Part 2 (Mt.5:6). I'd be happy to burn these onto a CD for you, if you'd prefer. Just ask.]

Sunday, July 03, 2011

"What It's Like to Live in Romans 8:28"

"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?"  [Romans 8:28-32]
"If you live inside this massive promise, your life is more solid and stable than Mount Everest. Nothing can blow you over when you are inside the walls of Romans 8:28. Outside Romans 8:28 all is confusion and anxiety and fear and uncertainty ... Once you walk through the door of love into the massive, unshakable structure of Romans 8:28 everything changes. There come into your life stability and depth and freedom. You simply can't be blown over any more. The confidence that a sovereign God governs for your good all the pain and all the pleasure that you will ever experience is an incomparable refuge and security and hope and power in your life. When God's people really live by the future grace of Romans 8:28 - from measles to the mortuary - they are the freest and strongest and most generous people in the world. Their light shines and people give glory to their Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:16)

[excerpted from John Piper's Future Grace]

Spiritual Depression - D. Martyn Lloyd Jones [Book Trailer]

Friday, July 01, 2011

One Savior, One Life