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May 2007

May 31, 2007

John Donne: The Reformed Soul by John StubbsI have long had a bit of a fascination with John Donne. A poet and eventual clergyman who lived from 1572-1631, Donne’s poems are among my favorites. His Holy Sonnets have given me much cause to think and his early works, so often sexual and vulgar, have shown a man who underwent a clear and profound transformation in his life. From writing poetry which described forbidden and clandestine affairs that involved bribing servants, hushing siblings, and sneaking past parents in order to consummate love, Donne progressed to poetry celebrating Christ and his triumph over death.

May 31, 2007

Thursday May 31, 2007

Music: Mark Roberts has some interesting questions and reflections on the sheer convenience of downloading music from iTunes.

Music: While on the subject of music, the good folks at Sovereign Grace are offering a free song from an interesting new project called “Asleep in a Storm” which presents remixes of some of their songs. And even further on the subject of music, Mark and Stephen Altrogge will be releasing a new album later this summer. Should be a good one!

Humor: Terrifying.

Technology: I’m going to have to put one of these on my Christmas wishlist.

Education: Here is an interesting article suggesting “Oxford University should end its support for the homophobic, misogynist evangelicals at Wycliffe.”

Sports: David Fisher shares an interesting (and sad) story.

May 30, 2007

In four previous articles, I have discussed the tendency of Christians to put God in a box of our own imaginations. Since it has been a few days since the last article, let me just review each of them really briefly before moving forward in this discussion (and before concluding this discussion).

In the introduction we looked at the apparent conflict between God’s revelation of Himself and our tendency to put Him in a box. We saw that while God’s revelation of Himself is always true, it is not necessarily complete. We then turned to three different areas of life where we tend to box God. The first was in our doctrine and we saw that God’s Word is not given to us so that it might restrain or contain God. On the contrary, the Word is given to restrain and contain us! In the second article we looked at Christian piety and saw the importance of never placing limits on God’s ability to act in and through us. And finally we looked at transformationalism and saw that we can limit God in our pursuit of evangelizing the lost. Always we need to realize that when we place God in a box, this box exists only in our minds, yet manifests itself in our beliefs, words and actions.

Today, in a short article, I would like to conclude this series by suggesting the consequences we must face if we are to have too low a view of God—a view in which we inadvertently contain Him in a box.

There was a time in human history where men worshiped the moon. They saw the moon above them and considered it an awesome manifestation of the divine. And so they worshiped it, paying homage to it as a god. But as civilization advanced, men constructed instruments through which they could study the moon. They came to realize that it was merely a moon orbiting the earth. They saw that it was a giant, dirt ball that had no light of its own, for it only reflected the light of the sun. In the name of science, men were sent to the moon and walked on its surface. Like so many others, I have stood in line at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington to touch a piece of the moon, worn smooth under the pressure of millions of fingers. At this point we can say that the moon has been thoroughly demystified. We know what it is, what it is made of, and even know of its importance to the earth. When we gaze at the moon today, we do so with little of the awe and wonder of men thousands of years ago.

In this case it may be a good thing. The moon does not deserve our worship and it is important that we understand what it is, what it does and what its effects are upon the earth. But the same pursuit of knowledge that has led men to the moon has perhaps driven us to demystify God. God is not like anything else—a mere piece of the Creation that can be examined, understood and conquered. Yet this is a temptation we face in our pursuit of knowledge of God.

It is, thus, crucial that we maintain or rediscover our awe of God. Too many of us have reduced God to a predictable formula. People complain when their jobs are too routine or that each date with their spouse feels the same as the last. In the same way we can so easily begin to feel that God has become part of a boring routine. When we feel this way, it is probably true that we have, in our minds, placed limits on God’s character and His actions. We have somehow come to feel, probably inadvertently, like we have conquered Him.

So allow me to encourage you to seek to recover a sense of awe before God.

The first step to recovering this sense of awe is to understand that awe begins with who God is—with His character—rather than what He does (His actions). We can only know who He is by knowing and believing His revelation of Himself. What God has told us in Scripture is Truth, true Truth, and God desires and expects that we know it. There is no excuse for being ignorant of who He is. Yet we need to remember that this is not the complete picture. Rather it is the picture only so far as He saw fit to give it to us. There is much more to God than what the Bible tells us, but no more than we need to know at the present time. When we go to be with the Lord we will know and understand far more.

What I have come to understand is this: that we as humans cannot be in awe of what we fully understand. We lose the mystery of what we master. It is easy to be impressed by watching wild animals in their natural habitat, but there is far less to appreciate about them when they have been caught, stuffed and mounted on the wall. To continue with the analogy we used earlier, we no longer worship the moon because we now understand it enough that we have removed its mystique. So when we place God in a box, we see Him as far less awesome than He really is. When we catch Him, stuff Him and mount Him on the wall, we reduce Him to the level of a creature that can be fully understood.

And here is something else I have come to understand: expectations run contrary to grace. When we feel that we know exactly how God will, can or even must act we no longer live from grace. Instead we live in expectancy of exactly how God must act in a given situation. Yet God is not as predictable as the path of the moon as it orbits the earth. Read the Gospels; read the Old Testament and you will find multitudes of examples where God did the exact opposite of what people expected of Him. We must not allow our expectations of God to overrule our awe of His grace.

Thus my challenge to myself and to those reading this article and the ones before it is to ensure we have a proper understanding of God. We always need to remember that He transcends any concept or category we can use to define or contain Him. God is infinite and simply cannot be contained. He cannot be boxed. He cannot be conquered. Set yourself free by setting Him free in your mind. Study His Word, and discover anew the awe of God.

May 29, 2007

After fighting our way downstairs this morning (the Galt House hotel always has elevator problems, and they are exacerbated on the last day of a conference when everyone is trying to leave at the same time-all the elevators coming down were full, so we eventually caught one going up and then rode it back down) we had a nice breakfast with Collin Hansen, who is a writer for Christianity Today and the guy who wrote the “Young, Restless, Reformed” article that was so widely read last year. It was great to meet him and his wife and to spend a bit of time with them. And then we headed over to the conference center once more.

This is the last session of the last conference I’ll be attending for a long time. The spring conference season is just about over and most of the major ones have already happened. C.J. Mahaney was given the privilege of delivering the closing message here at New Attitude. It fell to him to help the people who attended this conference to prepare to take all of the theology they’ve learned back to real life. He helped them prepare to think about how they will live what they’ve learned. This was less of a sermon and more of what Josh Harris termed sitting down with C.J. for a cup of coffee and just listening to him.

Because of the intensely personal nature of this message it did not lend itself well to a quick summary. He framed it around the priority of application and the practice of application, first showing the importance of application (while still affirming the beauty and value of correct doctrine) and then teaching three aspects of the practice of application, saying effective application is specific, requires patience with others and must be done in the shadow of the cross. If you know of C.J.’s ministry you’ll know that he is most gifted when it comes to making doctrine practical so this message was, as we’d expect, particularly convicting and useful.

We were told today that all of the conference audio will be available by Monday through the New Attitude site. I really do feel that anyone can benefit from these messages, but certainly younger Christians in particular will benefit from them. In just a few hours Aileen and I will head back home. By tomorrow I should be back to real life and back to our regularly scheduled programming at this site.

May 28, 2007

As has become customary, the good folks at Desiring God have released Piper’s message within a couple of hours of it being delivered. You can download it from their site by clicking right here. This message is titled “Discern What Pleases God—Himself.” It is really a kind of entry level, introductory overview of John Piper’s theology, the insights from Scripture that have formed the foundation for his entire ministry. So if you’re curious about why Piper’s ministry has had such wide reach or you want to get a refresher as to what he teaches, this is a great place to start. This is the doctrine that stands under all the books he has written and all the messages he has delivered.

For those interested in knowing what we’ve been singing at this conference, one of the Harris brothers (and there are a bunch of them, aren’t there?) has collected a complete list of the songs from each of the worship sessions. You can see it here. He talks also about some of the people leading worship and some of the interesting interludes.

This message was particularly interesting as Piper kind of hinted that it may be just a bit of a perhaps of the route he will take in his book interacting with errant teaching on justification. At the very least, it shows that he is putting serious time and consideration into how the teaching on justification is consistent from the gospels to the epistles. His talk, which I found just a bit difficult to summarize, went a little something like this:

In the talk he delivered earlier in the day, Piper said that God’s saving love is His commitment to do everything that must be done, no matter the cost, to make Himself the everlasting and all-satisfying treasure of sinners. The link with this message is that when we see what had to be done so that God could make Himself the treasure of fallen sinners, this determines what kind of obedience pleases or displeases God. If you see what He did at Calvary, you will know two kinds of obedience that God cannot abide and two kinds of corresponding obedience that He loves and delights in. What God did through Christ to make Christians treasures Him governs the kind of obedience that pleases and displeases Him.

Here are the two kinds of obedience God hates.

The first kind of obedience that God abominates because of the work He did in Christ to make Himself the treasure of sinners is obedience offered to Him as grounds of our justification. If you take your obedience to the Word of God and commend it to God as the basis of why He should count you as righteous He hates that obedience because it usurps the place of His Son’s obedience. If you come up with obedience that nullifies the death of His Son He will not accept it.

The second kind of obedience God hates is obedience that conceives of itself as payback for God’s grace. The reason He cannot abide this obedience is because what Christ did in order to make God our everlasting treasure was to provide a rock solid ground and guarantee of all future grace including the grace that includes our obedience.

This all needs explaining from the Bible and this is where he went next.

Here is the biblical basis and foundation for why Piper thinks God abominates obedience offered as the grounds of our justification. He offered the following verses and gave a brief explanation for each: Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16, Galatians 2:21. Offering God our obedience as the basis for our justification nullifies grace because it takes the place of Christ in our salvation. It cancels grace and nullifies mercy because Christ is offered in His life and in His death as the obedience and the sacrifice which I must have. This comes from four passages: Romans 5:18-19, Romans 10:3, 1 Corinthians 1:30, Philippians 3:8. In Christ we have righteousness from God.

Can this be found in the teachings of Jesus? Piper has spent a lot of time studying the flow of thought in Luke 17 and 18. Consider three passages: Luke 17:7-10 (a servant comes in from the field, the master demands to be served and then Jesus says, “Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also when you have done all that you were commanded say “We are unworthy servants.”). It doesn’t matter how many commandments you keep because when the end comes, they count for nothing. If you could keep everything you were commanded, it still wouldn’t count. Luke 18:9-14 (He told this parable to people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt. The parable was of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the temple to pray.). The Pharisee believes that his freedom from adultery and his other obedience is a gift of God. He conceives of this obedience as being God-given. The tax collector, on the other hand, was the one who was justified. The one who offered God even the God-wrought obedience did not receive justification. We learn that no obedience that we perform in our strength or God’s strength will be offered to God as the ground for our justification. We have mercy as the grounds, but still not Jesus. The flow of thought continues in this chapter. The next story is that of the Rich Young Ruler (beginning in Luke 18:18). Despite keep all the commandments, the Ruler lacked one thing (and yet Jesus told Him three things to do). The man was clinging tightly to his wealth and Jesus demanded that He be the one held in that way. Luke uses all of this to tell us that we have no claim on God. When you’ve done everything, even by the power of God, you have no claim on God. One thing is needful: follow Him. Jesus tells us that obedience offered to God as grounds for our being counted righteous will not be accepted.

The positive counterpart to this one is delicate. The New Testament calls faith in the gospel message obedience (see, for example, 1 Peter 4:17). The gospel is that Christ died for our sins and provided a perfect sacrifice for our sins and a perfect obedience for our righteousness. You need only cast yourself on Him rather than on what you’ve done. When you do this you’re obeying the gospel and this is renunciation of obedience in anything you’ve done out of obedience. When you see the phrase “obedience to the gospel” don’t begin to mix in your works. Know that what you’re obeying is the demand that you forsake your own works and rely on the obedience of another. Obedience to the gospel is faith. Faith is in a category of its own and there is nothing else that faith is like. It is absolutely unique and must be regarded as such. Faith in Christ for justification is a receiving of an alien obedience, not an offering of my own. It is a turning away from my obedience and my sufficiency and saying I am undone. I will embrace and receive the sacrifice and obedience of another. Faith is a totally receiving act and not a pushing out act. It is a receiving of Christ and all He is for us.

The second kind of obedience that displeases God is conceiving of your life as a Christian as payback for grace. Why is God displeased by that effort to pay Him back? Because what God did in Christ in love to make Himself the treasure of sinners was not only to provide a ground for their perfection but to provide a ground and guarantee of all future grace bought, secured, by that redemption, by that obedience and that sacrifice. That means that as you walk into the future if you try to think that you must do certain things because they show Him how much you appreciate what He did and can repay some of what He did for me…if that mindset is in your brain, that obedience will be displeasing to the Lord because it will nullify the grace bought for you at Calvary.

There are several texts to prove this, among them 1 Corinthians 15:10. If you try to think of your walk as payback, you nullify what He bought for you. He has gifts for you, triumphs over temptation. You are a debtor to grace and this debt increases daily. The obedience that pleases God is the obedience that banks on the ever-fresh arrival of future grace. Past grace at the cross is magnificent, unparalleled and foundational. It bought a reservoir of grace flowing on to me from the future as I walk into my days. What God wants from me is not payback but increasing debt. He wants me to say “God, what do I have that I did not receive?” Here is another text: Psalm 116:12. “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me?” Is this payback time? The very next verse answers. “I will lift up the cup of salvation call upon the name of the Lord.” For what? For more grace! How do you pay back God? Ask for more! We have a kind of God who is glorified not when we take the buckets of our gratitude up the mountain and pour them into His all-sufficient spring. Rather, this spring is magnified when we take our empty buckets, take it down the mountain, and pour it on people. He doesn’t need any of our payback. He is glorified when we go every day deeper into debt. From 2 Corinthians 9:8 we see that God is able to make all grace abound to you so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times you may abound in every good work. So where do good works that come from? God is able to make all grace abound to you so that you may abound in every good work. When you think that you want to please God by your obedience, you should devote your mind and your heart to seeing Christ for who He is and savoring Him for how much He’s worth. The real battle for obedience that pleases God is receiving grace, being satisfied with Christ. When this happens you are weaned from all other treasures and all other prizes.

Piper ended with a brief reflection on 2 Corinthians 8 - “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” This passage provides a wonderful biblical example of true obedience that brings glory to God.

As with Piper’s other message, I suspect this one will be available shortly on the Desiring God web site. I assure you that I didn’t even begin to really capture it!

The conference will wrap up tomorrow with one more general session led by C.J. Mahaney. By 1 PM it will be over…

May 28, 2007

When I take the time to do some edits to these live-blogged articles I often notice how often it is that speakers change from “me” to “you” to “us.” When I run through these articles I see this all the time and am tempted to change it, but generally choose to leave things just as they are. So if you see me go from first person to second person to third person, chances are that is just the way the speaker spoke. And now you’ll start looking for it!

One other quick note: when I go to conferences I often challenge whoever accompanies me to guess how long it will take before we sing “In Christ Alone.” We usually guess by sessions (i.e. “I guess it will be in the third worship session” or “I guess it will be in the fifth worship session.”). It took us until the fifth worship session at this conference, but that has now given this song the distinction of being the only one that has been sung at each of the six conferences I’ve attended this year. It is possible that “Amazing Grace” has also been featured at all of them, but I don’t think it has been.

This afternoon we had the privilege of hearing John Piper preach. And best of all, he preached the message that has been at the very foundation of everything he has said and written since his ministry began: that the deepest pleasures for God are pleasures in God. It went something like this:

He began with a seven question discernment test. The first five answers were universal and the final two personal.

Who is the most God-centered person in the universe? God.

Who is uppermost in God’s affections? God.

Is God an idolator? No.

What is God’s chief jealousy? To be known and admired and trusted and obeyed above all others.

What is the chief end of God? To glorify God and enjoy Himself forever.

Do you feel most loved by God because He makes much of you or because He frees you to make much of Him forever?

Are you God-centered because God is supremely valuable to you or are you God-centered because you believe you are supremely valuable to Him?

People bristle at what Piper is about to say—about this message he has been preaching for so many years. He has found that there is a way of looking at the truth that stirs up people’s sediment of pride. The root of pride is not severed without seeing that God keeps the first commandment to love God above all else. The root of pride is not seen until we know that God does everything to the glory of God. It is not until we know that God sees Christ as supremely valuable and until we really like it that God has no other gods before Him and that He alone is God in His own eyes.

He will argue from the Bible that God is supremely valuable to God and that there is no more God-centered person in the world. Jonathan Edwards, as you probably know, was the one who opened his eyes to this. If God does an illumining work so you see this, you’ll never read the Bible in the same way and you’ll see this everywhere in the Bible.

First Piper walked us through the Bible, taking the high points of redemptive history to see what God says about what He does. The answer is always the same: that He does it for His glory. He did this under six headings:

Predestination - Ephesians 1:5-6 – “God predestined us…unto the praise of the glory of His grace.” As clear as day it says that God’s design in your predestination is His glory.

Creation – Isaiah 43:6-7 – “Everyone whom I created for my glory.” Everything is made to make God look good and for the display of His glory. We are to magnify Him like a telescope (which makes huge things look more like they really are), not a microscope (which makes small things look big).

Incarnation – Romans 15:8-9 – “Christ became a servant…to glorify God for His mercy.” You get the mercy and He gets the glory. The reason for His mercy is to bring glory to Himself. The ultimate integrating motif of the Bible is the glory of God (and not, as so many believe, the love of God).

Propitiation – Romans 3:25-26 – Paul says that if God is to pass over sins the Son of God has to die in order to demonstrate His righteousness. The problem is in verse 23: “all have sin and fallen short of the glory of God.” And now we’re back to glory again. Sin is an attitude or action that belittles the glory of God, making a choice that can only be explained that we value something else more than the glory of God. Sin is something you do when you don’t treasure God’s glory as you should. You trample His glory in your simple preference for something else. God could not just pass this over or He would be unrighteous. There are only two ways that God can vindicate the worth of His glory: by sending you to hell or by accepting Christ’s death on your behalf. So there, right in the center of the gospel message, is God’s God-centeredness.

Sanctification – Philippians 1:9-11 – This is a prayer in which Paul asks God to do something in accord with His own designs. He prays that people’s love may abound so that they may be filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ to the praise and the glory of God. Paul asks that God would pursue His own glory. He asks that we may be sanctified unto the praise and glory of His name.

Consummation – 2 Thessalonians 1:9 – Jesus is returning to be glorified in His saints and to be marveled at among all who have believed. He is coming to be glorified and to be magnified. That is why He is coming, ultimately. There are other things He will do, but this is the ultimate.

We could spend another hour doing this but these suffice to show that God does everything for the ultimate reason of bringing glory to Himself. In everything He does He is exalting Himself.

There are some biblical reasons that a person might squirm at this. The most obvious is that this doesn’t sound loving, since, after all, “love does not seek its own.” But we can’t just write off all of these texts. There are other understandings of “love does not seek its own.” It is not wrong for God to seek His own glory in saving sinners. Many people believe God would be morally defective to demand worship. So what is the answer to God’s God-centeredness being morally defective? The answer is that we define love in the wrong way. We define love, morality, to mean being made much of. “You make much of me and I will like the way you love me.” But this is not the Bible’s definition.

Here is what love means in the Bible: love labors, plans, suffers to enthrall the beloved with what is totally and eternally satisfying. It is a heart commitment to plan and labor and suffer and if necessary to die to enthrall the beloved with that which will totally and eternally satisfy their soul. That’s love! Here’s the catch: God is the one being in the universe who, to do that, must be self-exalting. If God plays a mock humility He would be hateful and cruel. He would withdraw from us and bury the one thing that will satisfy our souls totally and forever, namely, Himself! This is not a morally defective God. This is not an unloving God. God is the one being for whom the highest virtue is self-exaltation is the most loving act because in exalting Himself he offers to me the one thing that will satisfy my soul forever and ever and ever.

Piper shared the mission statement for his church (which also happens to be his personal mission statement): “We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.” Some people have asked, “Where is love for people in there?” This mission statement is the definition of love for people. The church exists to spread a passion for the supremacy of God means that it exists to love. What else would people want to do other than to enthrall people with God’s supremacy in everything forever in Christ? What more can be added except practical outworkings of how one might display that passion. The essence of God’s love is to do whatever He has to do to make Himself our joy and satisfaction.

So here was his closing exhortation: Do not, in your quest to be a discerning generation, begrudge God’s God-centeredness. If life has taught Piper anything it’s that this truth is like true north in his life’s compass. He does not have answers to many, many questions but it is amazing how to have one good, clear, solid, true north in your compass sheds light on anything. Does this behavior conform to this reality of God’s pervasive and eternal God-centeredness? Does it conform to the meaning of the love of God of spending Himself at the cost of His Son’s life to save me for His glory?

I’ll be back in a few hours when Piper takes to the pulpit again.

May 28, 2007

I had assumed, when I came to this conference, that we would sing a lot more songs than at most other conferences. To my surprise this has not really been the case (or it hasn’t seemed to be. I haven’t actually been counting). Rather, we’ve sung about the same number of songs as at most events. Yet the worship times are definitely longer. I think it’s just that the Sovereign Grace folk take a little longer to sing each song than perhaps I’m accustomed to!

My day began early with a breakfast with Justin Taylor. He’s one of these guys I like to catch up with whenever we’re in town and, while he’s always kind to deign to spend a bit of time with me (even though he’s always busy meeting with all the important people). And I’m always grateful. Aileen and I then wandered town a little bit to find some little gifts to take back to our two oldest children who stayed home. And then this morning’s session began. Eric Simmons, the brains behind this whole conference, began to speak on the subject of pleasing God in the gray matters.

He spoke of Gray matters such as: Is it OK just to fast-forward the sex scene and watch the rest of the movie? Should I smoke a cigar with my unbelieving father? How tight is too tight? Can a Christian play poker? Can I have a beer with dinner?

Eric recently addressed these same questions in a two-part article posted on the Boundless site. You can find the first article here and the second here. It will doubtlessly prove more valuable to read these article than this summary of them (and the message they were based on).

The talk had two parts, the first dealing with biblical assumptions for thinking about this topic and then transitioning into a process to decide and discern what is pleasing to the Lord in gray matters.

The assumptions were found in the first chapter of Colossians. First, being transferred into Christ’s kingdom has redefined your identity. You are now part of a new kingdom under a new king. In any discussion related to gray matters we need to stand at the foot of the cross and realize that our behavior does not ever earn favor from God. Rather, He gained this favor through His Son. There is no place for pride or arrogance when it comes to these issues for the cross levels the playing field. Entering into this kingdom radically alters our identity. Second, there is no such thing as gray. We are His possession and this means that our life’s direction is the pleasure of God.

He then turned to the process of discernment in gray matters and this involved three steps.

Think Biblically - The more you get to know someone, the more you get to know what they like and dislike. We need to ask how God has revealed to us what He likes and dislikes, what is wise and what is foolish. It’s not through trial and error or through conversation over time, but in His Word. If we want to learn what pleases God in every way, we must study the Bible and meditate upon it. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

He focused in on two words in Hebrews 5:14 - constant practice. If you want to be able to discern gray matters, you must give yourself to constant practice to applying the Word to every situation in life. We cannot be biblically ignorant and discerning at the same time. We cannot ignore God’s Word and then expect to make wise decisions. If you want to be discerning in gray matters you’ll need constant practice in biblical thinking.

Distrust Your Heart - Every gray matter begins with a desire. You have a desire to do something and it is typically a type of pleasure (viewing, tasting, etc). God created pleasure and pleasure is meant to bring Him glory. He wants us to enjoy His world which He has created to be pleasurable. But our desire for pleasure can easily turn to a sinful desire to feed the flesh. My heart typically wants to define the pleasure without examining my motives. We need to put the general issues aside and look at motive. We need to ask ourselves the “why” questions because the key to gray matters is asking about motives. Your motive is critical to discernment. You often require the help of others to see motives. If you’re submitted to God and are in a local church, you have these types of people who can test your wisdom and your discernment. Eric’s encouragement was for young people to find an older person, someone more advanced in the Christian life than they are, to ask about these gray matters.

Imitate Your Father - Who you choose to imitate typically defines what is good and what is evil. So we need to ask, who are we trying to be like? If we’re honest, all of us are really trying to be like someone or something. This recognition is critical to thinking about gray matters because typically, when we want to be like someone, this person can set standards of good and evil, right and wrong. They have a standard to follow if you want to remain and be accepted. In the process of discerning any gray matter you must ask who you’re imitating in this matter. The Bible gives us a standard in Ephesians 5:1, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Our standard is nothing less than God himself. We are called to imitate him. We are to be like God. He is our standard. We are to imitate Him in His righteousness and holiness. Imitating Him brings Him so much pleasure and honor and praise as you orient your life around His definition of pleasure. Who you imitate in gray matters is a key to discernment. Is it God the Father? Has defined what is good and what is evil, what is wise and what is foolish? Or has someone stood in that place and now you’re trying to imitate someone or something else?

May 27, 2007

Whenver I blog these conferences, people want to know what books have been recommended. Before each session we’ve had a couple of books recommended to us. Here is the list thus far:

Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J.I. Packer
Questioning Evangelism by Randy Newman
Doing Things Right in Matters of the Heart by John Ensor
The Message of the Old Testament by Mark Dever
The Message of the New Testament by Mark Dever
Holiness by J.C. Ryle

Tonight finds C.J. Mahaney delivering the first of two messages he’ll bring this weekend. This is one of the first messages by C.J. that Josh ever heard and he asked him to preach it this weekend because it is relevant to the topic of discernment. It is titled “The Idol Factory” (though Josh referred to it as “Idols of the Heart”).

How interesting and ironic that American Idol, this massively popular show, makes an explicit reference to idolatry in its title. Yet in our culture the practice of idolatry seems remote, antiquated and irrelevant. Most people think idolatry is something from the past. Idolatry, though, endures. Modern day idolatry is prevalent and powerful. It exists in many subtle and sophisticated forms. For most of us the word idolatry brings us thoughts only of ancient cultures. We have distanced ourselves from the whole idea of idolatry and this is true even of the evangelical church. Understanding and applying this topic has the potential to make a dramatic difference in your understanding of God, your growth in godliness, your involvement in the local church and in your heart. In this message we draw near to this topic rather than distance ourselves from it. We’ll discover that idolatry is the most frequently discussed and most seriously condemned sin in Scripture.

It doesn’t get any clearer than Exodus 20 where God commands, “You shall have no other Gods before me.” This appears as clearly in the New Testament, for in Romans 1:18 and 21:25 we are told that before conversion idolatry was our primary sin. This is the without doubt the worst trade in history-trading truth for a lie. This trade has eternal consequences and prior to conversion each and every one of us has made this trade and approved of it. Prior to conversion we were all worshiping someone or something else other than God. We loved and worshiped and served and obeyed the creature rather than the Creator. But by the grace of God it is a different story when we encounter idolatry in 1 Thessalonians 1:9 for there the spell of idolatry has been broken. All who have been genuinely converted have seen this happen.

But this is not where the experience of idolatry in our lives concludes. The presence of sin remains. Because of remaining sin a propensity for idolatry remains as well. But the daily temptation and tendency to idolatry remains. Scripture addresses this tendency and provides numerous ways to fight it. 1 Corinthians 10:13-14 tells us that God will not let us be tempted beyond we can bear but tells us to flee idolatry. In Colossians 3:5 we are told to put aside covetousness which is idolatry. We will not conquer this sin fully and finally before death. Conversion contributes to the weakening of this temptation but will not destroy it.

It is unacceptable that this is a foreign topic for the church. Yet, sadly, as one looks out at the evangelical landscape, there is no real difference between the church and the world when it comes to this issue. For many of us the most discussed sin in the Bible is the least considered in our lives. We’re little better at recognizing idols than those who have not been converted. We need theologically-informed discernment so we can detect and destroy the idols of the heart.

Understanding idolatry will give you new eyes so you might discern and detect and destroy the idols that are active and at work in your soul. Understanding idolatry will give you new eyes to discern and appreciate the Savior’s sacrifice on the cross for our idolatry. May there be the gift of new eyes in the form of discerning eyes as the result of this message!

This message has three points: defining idolatry, discerning idolatry and The effect of destroying idolatry.

Defining Idolatry. An idol is a substitute for God that one loves and worships and serves rather than the one true God. It is anyone or anything you love or serve in place of God. An idol is a false God. As a Christian it is possible to sincerely profess a love for the true and living God while functionally serving a false God. Here C.J. quoted Richard Keyes who wrote, “An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as God. All sorts of things are potential idols, depending only on our attitudes and actions towards them…idolatry may not involve explicit denials of God’s existence or character. It may well come in the form of an over-attachment to something that is, in itself, perfectly good…An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero - anything that can substitute for God.”

Many idols are obvious and easy to identify. Yet many idols may come in the form of an over-attachment to something that is, on its own, good. John Calvin wrote “The evil in our desires usually does not lie in what we want but that we want it too much.” Often what we want are gifts from God. The evil is in wanting this too much. The desire for a gift from God becomes a sinful craving, a ruling craving. There is an endless list of things that can become idolatrous: leisure, health, marriage, vocation, food, and so on. They are all gifts from God but are all also potential objects of idolatry not in and of themselves but when idolatry emerges internally when we want this gift as a substitute for God. As we consider this list we need to ask, is there some gift of God we really want too much? It is probably what you think of when we hear or read this very point.

Discerning Idolatry. The source of idolatry is sin that remains within. “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14.) Calvin writes, “The human heart is a factory of idols…every one of us is, from his mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.” Our hearts will regularly create idols of the heart.

There are four ways God has given by which we can identify idolatry:

Through Holy Scripture (see Hebrews 4:12 - “For the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword…”). The Bible has a unique ability to penetrate and reveal our hearts.

The person and the work of the Holy Spirit. The opening of our eyes is an act of the Spirit and we must appeal to Him (Psalm 139:23-24). We are not to engage in morbid introspection but are to ask God to search and try us. When we talk about how to identify idolatry we are dependant on the Spirit as we contemplate Scripture in the shadow of the cross, secure in our justification.

The church. We need the church to help us identify idols. We need the preaching of the Word and we need brothers and sisters in Christ. In the local church we are to receive the caring and discerning eyes of others on our souls because sin blinds and deceives. Sin always blinds and deceives the self before others. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” We need to approach our friends and invite them to help us examine our hearts since we are so obvious oblivious to what is obvious to them. We need to initiate and invite and persist because we need the caring and discerning eyes of others on our souls.

Circumstances. (Here C.J. introduced two tests: the test of adversity and the test of prosperity) The test of adversity asks “what is your response if you do not obtain a desire of your heart?” What is our response if it is taken away? At this moment we find if we are worshiping someone or something other than God. What could begin as a good and godly desire may turn into a sinful craving. What is your response when things to do not go as you had hoped? Idols never deliver. They always disappoint. Discernment protects us from the consequences of sin. Whenever you experience the test of adversity God is testing your heart and there is a shift from created things to the Creator. This is what God does through this test.

Sadly, time did not permit a discussion of the test of prosperity, though C.J. pointed out that heroes of the faith more commonly fail the test of prosperity more than the test of adversity. He said also that it can be particularly difficult to cope with the test of adversity when another person or a friend is going through the gift of prosperity, and especially if this happens around the same gift (such as when one person is struggling with finances and another is enjoying a time of outpouring).

At this point the time had long since lapsed and he was able to give little more than “A Discerning Idols Starter Kit.” He pointed us to 1 John 5:21 which says “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” He then told us that David Powlison has taught him all he knows about idols and he stands on this man’s shoulders. He pointed us to a chapter in one of Powlison’s books that will be distributed here and which will be posted on the New Attitude web site.

Very quickly he gave two quick pointers for the fruit of identifying idolatry. The first is growth in godliness. If you feel you are unsuccessfully battling against sin, it may be that you are not addressing the root issues which may be idolatry issues. The second is growing in gratefulness to God. Idolatry reminds us of our need for forgiveness for sin and the Savior’s sacrifice on the cross for our sin. As you study this topic you will find yourself affected and profoundly grateful as you find how much you’ve been forgiven by God. “But he who is forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). Is your love for God little or much? If you study idolatry you’ll become freshly aware of how much you’ve been forgiven. If you are lacking passion and gratefulness perhaps you don’t realize how much you’ve been forgiven. Those who know they’ve been forgiven much, necessary love much. Prior to your conversion, you, on a daily basis, insulted God. You created one false God after another. You exchanged truth about God for a lie. You served and worshiped the creature rather than the Creator. You offended Him and were justly and righteously the objects of His wrath.

If you have turned from sin and trusted in the Savior you have been forgiven much. You are now free from future wrath. We must love Him much because we’ve been forgiven much.

After the band led in a song, Josh led a time of repentance in which he encouraged people to search their hearts to identify the idols that they have allowed in their hearts. He asked that God would allow us all to see the wickedness of idolatry and to turn from it. And then the evening was over.