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The Beginners Guide to Conflict Resolution
September 21, 2016

One matter of continual concern to me is interpersonal conflict within the church. It’s not the existence or even the quantity of conflict, but the inability or unwillingness to deal with it when it arises, and this despite the Bible’s clear teaching that Christians are to resolve conflict and how Christians are to resolve conflict. It’s simple: As believers we are not permitted by God to have open, unaddressed quarrels with other believers. We are to work to bring any and every interpersonal conflict to appropriate resolution.

Yet our churches have too many people who are willing to grumble and complain about one another, who allow disputes to go unresolved, who allow petty quarrels to fester and to threaten to grow into full-out battles. Today I offer this brief piece on how to identify conflict within local church relationships and how to bring them to healthy resolution. It involves just two questions: What kind of conflict are we in? And what do we need to do to resolve this kind of conflict?

What Kind of Conflict Are We In?

Before you can resolve any conflict, you need to understand its nature. Broadly speaking, you will encounter three different kinds of interpersonal conflict in your local church relationships. I’ve been helped here by Lou Priolo who in turn draws from Wayne Mack.

  • Conflicts of differentness arise between people who disagree on matters of preference, especially when it comes to ministry. Here we think of Paul and Barnabas and their conflict over whether to bring John Mark on their missionary journey (see Acts 15:39). Both wanted to do what was best for the sake of ministry but right there a sharp disagreement arose. They saw the situation differently and were unable to bring it to healthy resolution.
  • Conflicts of righteousness arise when people have different understandings of how Christians are to interpret God’s guidance in matters of conscience. In the first century, Paul addressed Christians eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols (Romans 14). Contemporary examples might include Christians using birth control, abstaining from alcohol, or enrolling their children in public schools.
  • Conflicts of sinfulness arise when one person commits sin against another. Biblical examples abound and, undoubtedly, each of us can think of many examples from our own lives, families, and churches.

Most, if not all, conflicts will fit into one of these three categories. The way to resolve a conflict depends on its nature and this is why we must give thought and prayer to discerning what kind of conflict it is. Once we have made that determination, we are ready to work toward resolution. We are ready to ask, What do we need to do to resolve this kind of conflict?

Resolving Conflicts of Differentness

While we may resist differentness in our churches, it can actually be a sign of God’s blessing. After all, God means to call us into countercultural communities that include representatives of all kinds of backgrounds, cultures, races, and socio-economic groups. The very differences that give opportunity for believers to grow in love, unity, and Christlikeness also represent an opportunity for Satan to incite conflict.

Generally, such conflicts are not resolved through a formal process of confrontation, but through growth in Christian character and deliberate expression of that character. If you find yourself in a conflict of differentness, learn to listen, learn to appreciate rather than fear or resent the differences in other believers. Find ways to express the Christian virtues of kindness, love, and patience. Guard yourself against making rash and unfair judgments about another person’s motives or maturity. Do what you can to care more for the other person than for defending your own views. And if you realize that you have sinned against another person along the way, humbly seek their forgiveness (See “Resolving Conflicts of Sinfulness” below).

Resolving Conflicts of Righteousness

God calls his people to himself but does not make us clones. He does not make us utterly uniform in all we believe when it comes to understanding and applying his Word. This is especially true when it comes to matters of conscience such as the number of children we have, whether we have liberty to enjoy alcohol, or whether we must set aside Sunday as the sabbath. We cannot be without convictions in these areas, but we soon realize that our convictions may differ from those of other people in our local church.

Once more, conflicts of this nature are not resolved by a formal process of confrontation. They, too, are addressed through Christian character. In Romans 14, Paul uses the language of “weak” and “strong” and warns of the unique temptations that will threaten to divide Christians. The temptation of the strong will be to despise the weak while the temptation of the weak will be to condemn the strong. The strong may see the weak as ensnared by legalism and immaturity and this will lead to hatred and mockery. The weak will see the strong as licentious and will condemn them for lawless behavior. Both will distance themselves from the other. Paul’s solution is two-fold: Welcome one another and refuse to pass judgment.

When you find yourself in a conflict of righteousness, understand that healthy resolution involves self-confrontation, not confrontation of the other person. (Lou Priolo says, “If anything, some form of self-confrontation may be in order to bring about repentance for any selfish thoughts, motives, and attitudes (if not words and actions) that have been brought to light by the differentness conflict.”) Deliberately seek out the people who differ from you, get to know them, and learn to express love to them. Do your best to understand how they have arrived at their convictions. Be aware of your temptation to divide from people who differ from you (and group together with people who agree with you) and utterly refuse to judge others as godly or ungodly, mature or immature, worthy or unworthy, on the basis of similarity or difference.

Resolving Conflicts of Sinfulness

And then there are the conflicts of sinfulness in which one Christian has sinned against the other. In many cases, the best course of action is to overlook the offense in love (1 Peter 4:8, Proverbs 10:12). This is not pretending that it never happened, but identifying it as a minor matter that does not need to confronted.

The second option is to confront the sinner, and this is advisable or even necessary if the sin is too hurtful, habitual, or significant to overlook. The purpose of such confrontation is to bring reconciliation and it involves a process that begins informally but may end with the gravest formality. Jesus lays it out in Matthew 18.

Step 1. Speak to the person who sinned against you. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (15). Approach that person in a spirit of gentleness and humility, explain how he sinned, and allow him to express repentance. Be sure to ask clarifying questions instead of relying on bold accusations. Be willing to believe that perhaps he did not sin at all and that you simply misunderstood the situation. In most cases, forgiveness is sought and extended and the issue goes no further.

Let me add two pieces of counsel here. For church leaders: Some of the most common phrases pastors should utter is, “Have you spoken to him about this?” or “Have you confronted her for what she said?” Leaders can be too quick to short-circuit this Christian-to-Christian process. For church members: There is a fine balance between confronting too often and too rarely. Immaturity or fear of man may keep us from confronting sinners and pursuing reconciliation. Many relationships remain broken simply because no one had the courage to confront. On the other hand, immaturity and pride can compel us to address even the smallest issues. There is a balance that can be attained by seeking counsel from wiser, more seasoned believers. But all the while, know that it is your responsibility to maintain discretion and, initially at least, to protect the reputation of the other person. The best outcome is when the matter is known only to you and the other person.

Step 2. If the person does not express remorse or ask forgiveness after your confrontation, you are bound to follow the second step: “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (16). Appeal to one or two mature believers in the church, explain the situation, and let them affirm that you have taken the right approach to this point. Be willing to hear that the other person did not sin or that you misunderstood the situation. But if they affirm your actions, take them with you as you approach the person a second time. As you confront that person, make it clear that you are following the steps laid out in Matthew 18. Once again, the hope and expectation is that the person will seek forgiveness and the matter will be closed. If the person remains unrepentant even now, then it becomes a matter for the church membership and leadership. You may still be involved, but the main responsibility passes out of your hands.

Conclusion

Conflict between believers is a sad, inevitable reality. If even Paul (the great Apostle) and Barnabas (the son of encouragement) had a sharp disagreement, what is the likelihood that we will live out our Christian lives unscathed? Yet conflict is an opportunity to grow in grace, in character, in love, in humility. It all begins with two simple questions: What kind of conflict are we in? And what do we need to do to resolve that kind of conflict?

Note: Lou Priolo’s Resolving Conflict is an excellent book that I’ve drawn from substantially (as well as from his previous writings that formed the basis of this work).

Sex Under Law, Sex Under Grace
September 19, 2016

As people of The Book we know that God did not only create sex, but he also created stipulations to go with it, for there must be boundaries on something so significant, so powerful. The clearest stipulation is that sex is for marriage—only for marriage. There are many reasons for this, and at least one of them reflects the loving, caring heart of God: Marriage allows us to enjoy sex under grace instead of under law. This is a crucial lesson Christopher Ash draws out in his book Married for God.

You know the difference between law and grace, I’m sure. Law is a system in which blessings and benefits are bestowed according to performance so that those who perform well enjoy benefits while those who perform poorly have benefits revoked or removed. Grace is a system in which blessings and benefits are contingent on covenant. Under grace, love and commitment compel patience, kindness, and endurance regardless of performance. A marriage relationship is a relationship of grace, not law, and such grace is crucial for the flourishing of sexual intimacy.

As a pastor—one who has performed weddings and counseled many couples—I know how many struggle mightily in the early days and months of marriage. So many couples quickly learn that sexual intimacy isn’t immediately as simple, pleasurable, successful, or fulfilling as they had expected, as they had wished, as they had seen modeled in a hundred Hollywood movies. For some this is the case for a short time and for some it is a lifelong struggle. Ash makes the crucial point that it is God’s good grace that gives us the secure context of marriage to persevere through such vulnerability, fragility, and even failure.

This is another way in which the marriage institution is a good gift of grace. For sex within marriage is sex under grace, with nothing to prove. A married couple may ‘do well’ or ‘do badly’ at sex, and cheerfully laugh about it knowing that their relationship is not threatened when they do badly. And even if the problems are too severe for them cheerfully to laugh, they can work patiently at them, knowing that the marriage does not depend on success in this area, but rather on the solemn public promises already made. For them, sex is “under grace,” within the security of promises made.

It is God’s wisdom and kindness that provide marriage as a secure context to figure out something that often presents such difficulties. As married people, and especially people who believe that marriage is a lifelong commitment rather than a mere covenant of convenience, we have the joy of working patiently at sex, knowing that our performance never threatens to change the nature of our relationship. Great sexual performance does nothing to build or strengthen the foundation of marriage and poor sexual performance does nothing to undermine it. This is such sweet comfort for those just getting started and equal comfort for those suddenly discovering unexpected troubles. Marriage is equally secure when sex is lacking as when it is plentiful.

But this is not the case for sex outside of marriage, for “sex outside marriage is always sex ‘under law’ (as it were): always seeking to prove, always striving to do well enough to keep the other one in the relationship, always anxious lest at any time the other may decide there is not enough in it for him or her, always under trial.” When sex is removed from marriage, it reverts to law, where blessings and benefits are bestowed based on performance. We often hear of people cohabiting to determine their level of sexual compatibility. “How else will we know if we can have a successful marriage?” This is sex under law! This is sex that must prove itself, that must provide sufficient quantity and quality to keep the other person interested and committed. This is sex diminished, hampered, crippled, blasphemed. Adultery, too, is sex under law, with the relationship depending on its frequency and titillation. Fornication is sex under law, with the relationship existing only as long as the sex is plentiful and exciting. Any sex outside of God’s good stipulations is sex under the terrible burden of law.

But marriage is sex under grace, sex with nothing to prove, sex that is free to flourish without fear of failure. “A couple may sleep together and not be married. But if they make their public vows, then they are married, whether or not they then succeed in consummating the marriage. A marriage where the couple fail to have sexual intercourse (for physical or psychological reasons) is still a marriage, albeit a sad and frustrating one. This is important, so that the vulnerabilities and fragility of learning sexual intimacy may take place within the secure context of knowing the promises have been firmly made. At no point in marriage do husband or wife need to prove anything by successful sex.”

This is freedom, this is joy: That neither a husband nor a wife have to prove anything to one another by successful sex. For they live and make love within a sweet covenant of grace.

September 18, 2016

It’s time for a new batch of letters to the editor. These week’s letters address three topics and come from all over the world. As you will see, the majority of them address that tricky matter of whether or not it is okay for Christians to decide deliberately not to have children. But first, there’s a letter from a friend.

Letters on Simple Ways to Spark a Lukewarm Devotional Life

David Powlison kindly sent along a lengthy but helpful letter on sparking a lukewarm devotional life and I felt it was worth sharing in its entirety.

Here’s another item to add to the list, something I’ve found extremely significant in my life. Lukewarmness is not only about the Bible seeming dull and distant. It is equally about our souls becoming dull and distant from how we are doing and what we are facing.

Scripture’s relevance arises because it is exactly keyed our daily, real life struggles. Feel the sting of your sins; feel the weight of the life pressures you are facing; feel concern for the struggles (sins and afflictions) of those you love—and you will know where you need immediate help from the Lord. Whenever we become vividly aware of where we actually need outside help today, Scripture comes alive. Promises speak exactly the hope you need. Commands give exactly the guidance that will set you free. God’s perspective is exactly the perspective that will reframe whatever you are facing. And stories demonstrate how other saints have struggled in very similar ways—different in every detail, but similar in pattern. We do not live by bread alone but by every word from the mouth of God. That’s true in detail, not just as a noble sentiment to profess.  

So, for example, Philippians 4:6 speaks a life-rearranging word: “Don’t be anxious about anything.” That’s not just a vague good intention and a call to calm down. It invites you in. Begin your devotional time by stopping to ponder these questions: “What are all the things I’m anxious about? What’s stressing me? Where am I brooding on yesterday or apprehensive about tomorrow?” The entire context in Philippians 4 will explode with significance, with relevant promises, with guidance, with invitations to hard thinking about the intersection of God’s truth with your life, with awareness that you must pray real prayers to the real God whom you really need.

Or consider how the Psalms are written to draw us in and express our life experience. Psalm 25, for example, grapples with feeling the assaults of a godless world, with sensing ones personal need for the Lord’s mercy and instruction, with honest distress at life’s pressures and afflictions, with awareness that brothers and sisters face these same problems and need similar help. It is guaranteed that some or all these realities are relevant today. Unlike the Bible’s stories, a psalm speaks in experiential general categories, inviting us to fill in our details. And psalms do the same thing with the promises of God. We are given summary categories: steadfast love, faithfulness, mercy, blessing, watchful care, refuge, and the like. These speak to us in their own right; they can also be filled in with New Testament details. 

Or consider how the Proverbs are written to provide immediate flashes of insight into what you are pursuing in life, what voices you listen to, how you talk with other people, how you relate to sex, money, food, drink, rest, work. They are relevant. How can we bring our day into contact with a beam of light? One could do worse than simply read in Proverbs until something strikes home, and then take that one striking bit of wisdom out into the day.

It is impossible for our devotional life to stay same-old same-old when we awaken to the intersection of two things: 1) what is really happening in my life?, and 2) how does who God is touch what is really happening? The blessing on the “poor in spirit” comes first for a reason. When we know our need for outside help, for gifts that only the Lord can give, then the kingdom of God is at hand in our day today.
—David Powlison

Letters on The High Calling of Bringing Order From Chaos

I’d just like to say thanks for this article. It’s a great reminder amongst the drudgery of daily chores that each action has purpose and dignity. It is too easy to believe the lies that much of daily life is repetitive and purposeless. Yet it is all ordained by God and given to us for our good. Thanks. I’ll keep this in mind when I pick up after the kids… again.
—Jane S, Brisbane, Australia

Comments on Is It Okay Deliberately Not to Have Children?

Your article was excellent. For those of us who cannot have children, there is another compelling problem – must we pursue having children by other means, and how far do we take this? In an era of increasing infertility, IVF, surrogacy and whatever else, those strongly (and rightly) desiring a child can be tempted to pursue this desire to great lengths and at any cost. I realise this is a whole different topic to your article, but one also worthy of greater exploration.
—Elizabeth C, Canberra, Australia

***

I really appreciate everything you continue to do for the church, Tim. I just had one caveat to this particular article. It may help explain an example of what constitutes an “exception”. My wife and I both desire to have biological children, but we have not been actively trying to for years because of my wife’s serious health issues which prevent her from sitting and have caused her many painful back problems. We have tried many things to help, even surgery, but it hasn’t yet resulted in what we had hoped for. This is why we are looking at adoption, possibly of an older child so they will not require my wife to sit as much. On the positive side, this has allowed her to spend more time discipling other women, even using her physical suffering as an example of God’s perfect purposes for her, and for me to lead a street evangelism ministry. I guess I’m trying to say that there are other valid physical reasons for not trying to have biological children than we often think of. Perhaps in our case, your statement should read “try to have biological children or adopted children.” That would help clarify more exceptions that exist for people in our situation that people often don’t think about. Thanks!
— Jeremy Z, Hudson, WI

***

I thoroughly enjoyed your recent article on whether or not it is ok for a Christian couple to abstain from having children. While your article did mention that for some they may not be able to have children you seemed to have left out the option of adoption. So my question is whether or not it is okay for a Christian couple who is perfectly able to have children to choose not to and instead choose adoption? I often feel like adoption is every parent’s second choice, or it is only something a family does after having biological children. But what if this is their first choice and do not want to have children by natural means?
—Scott R, Wake Forest, NC

***

Your article is very good but misses a reason for deliberate childlessness which is, I think, rather more serious and merits some attention. For many persons (Christians included, see John 16:33), we live in a world filled with pain and senselessness. Even a good life is difficult to bear for many persons. So, why bring children to the world only to be subjected to a difficult, painful existence? See Ecclesiastes 4:2-3 for a similar point of view. Thanks!
—Eduardo S, Asunción, Paraguay

***

I appreciate your insight in writing about a question I have struggled to answer myself as Christians I know begin to consider deliberate childlessness. Though no reasons will suffice (children cannot be imposed on anyone), your article has given me the arguments to defend my point of view.

I consider procreation a crucible to develop generosity and believe choosing childlessness is the ultimate expression of materialism and self-centeredness, in choosing things and what money can buy over people.

That being said, a question remains. If we can choose how many children to have, couldn’t we choose to dismiss them altogether? Isn’t birth control also a rebellion against God’s sovereignty and a desire to fulfill his plans for fruitfulness our way?
—Adriana F, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

***

Recently you wrote about the question “Is It Okay Deliberately Not To Have Children?” with reference to Christopher Ash. Most of the time I find myself agreeing with you, or at least respecting your well thought-out thoughts. However this time, I feel maybe you have erred somewhat.

First of all let me say that, to Christians who do and want to have children, they are indeed blessings - an “inconvenient blessing”, maybe, but a blessing nonetheless. They are not only a blessing to parents, but to others, and to God as well - in time. However, to create out of this a Biblical mandate that all Christians are commanded to have children seems something of a stretch.

Putting aside for a moment the blessings that do come from having children, you refer to three pieces of evidence for your conclusions: Psalm 127:3-5, Genesis 1:28, and Genesis 1:26-27. You state that “they build a solid case” for your conclusions, but it really feels like you’ve pulled them out of context. God’s command to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” was for the creation of humanity - not a command for all people, but for a specific time and place. Childlessness as a curse is understandable, in a culture which valued lines of succession, family, etc, and in which older members of the family were reliant upon children for their survival. And humans may still be God’s most important creation without there being a hidden mandate for more and more children.

In the end, does the Bible command Christian couples to have children? No, I do not believe it does. It commands them to follow God’s will for their lives, and throughout all I can remember of the New Testament, that is never combined with a command to have children.
—Josh H, Melbourne, Australia

Give Up the Ghost
September 17, 2016

There are all kinds of phrases and idioms we use day to day even though we have lost their origins. We know what they mean, we know when to use them, but we don’t know where we got them. In so many cases they come to us by way of the Bible, and especially the King James Bible. This is exactly the case with the common little phrase “Give up the ghost.”

The Expression

We use the expression “give up the ghost” to describe death—the disconnection of the soul (the ghost) from the body. Yet today we would not use the phrase in a solemn occasion (“We are gathered here today to honor our friend who gave up the ghost on Saturday”). Rather, we tend to use it humorously to describe the “death” of something that is inanimate or relatively unimportant, as in “My iPhone finally gave up the ghost.” A small-town newspaper laments, “History is strewn with towns that gave up the ghost when companies moved on” while a home renovation column in the Sydney Morning Herald begins “The vanity unit in our bathroom gave up the ghost recently, and as we are saving for a major renovation in a few years…” In this way we use it as a form of personification, to make it seem as if something has greater significance than it does intrinsically.

The Origin

The phrase was popularized by the King James Version of the Bible, though the King James drew from the Coverdale Bible. The KJV uses it in a number of passages: Luke 23:46 and John 19:30 when describing the death of Jesus and Acts 12:23 when describing the death of Herod. “And immediately the angel of the Lord smote [Herod], because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.” Most current translation render “gave up the ghost” as “breathed his last” or simply “die.” A quick check of the Greek shows that the John passage is different from the others in that it explicitly references “pneuma” or “spirit.” Thus the ESV does well to translate it differently from the other two: “he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” It is only here where “give up the ghost” is a literal rather than idiomatic expression.

The Application

Though the idiom is no longer used in modern Bible translations, it lives on in the culture around us. In this way it gives us reason to consider its significance. It is drawn most naturally from John 19:30 and, thus, from the most momentous event in human history—the death of Jesus Christ. There is much we can and should learn from it. We see that Jesus “gave up his spirit” and this reminds us that Jesus was fully human even while he was fully God. There is and was unity of body and soul, of the material and the immaterial. And then we see that he “gave up his spirit.” This reminds us of his uniqueness, for there was something active rather than passive in this “giving up.” To the end, Jesus was willingly enduring his suffering and sacrifice. Yes, he was dragged to the court and the cross, yes he was nailed to the tree, but all the while he was willing, he was still in control. He was willing to suffer in this way even while he had the power and authority to make it stop. This is consistent with what he said in John 10:17-18: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

And finally, this little phrase is a call for us to remember that we, too, are more than bodies, more than what can be seen, touched, and killed. Though our bodies can and will be destroyed, in that moment we, too, will give up the ghost. The soul will live on until it is at last reunited to a body that is remade, restored, and perfected. This is the great promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Not surprisingly, many Christian songs express worship for these beautiful realities. “In Christ Alone” is a stirring example:

No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.

3 Godly Ambitions for the Christian
September 16, 2016

Some of my favorite biblical commands are the ones that most counter our culture, and even our little Christian subculture. We find just such a series of commands near the end of 1 Thessalonians. There Paul tells this church to “…aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (4:11). The ESV is nicely complemented by the NIV’s slightly different rendering: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you.”

When Paul says “make it your ambition” he indicates that this is the good, right, and honorable way for them to live their lives—and for us to live our lives. Over against all the other things we could aspire to, we are first to aspire to these, for these are matters of first importance. He highlights three godly ambitions for the Christian.

Live a quiet life. Paul first exhorts us to live a quiet life and to be content to live such a quiet life. What is this quiet life? It’s a life that is not obsessed with thrusting itself into the public eye. It’s a life that is content to be unknown and unnoticed if that is the Lord’s will. It’s a life that is measured not by popularity or platform but by faithfulness. In that way it’s also a life that avoids conflict, that avoids being contentious and is, instead, willing to forgive or overlook as a situation requires. Sure, we thrust some people into the spotlight and often for very good reasons. We need some people (like Paul!) to take on positions of prominence. But these ought to be people who have first proven their character in obscurity and who would be equally content to remain far out of the spotlight. Make it your ambition to be unknown—to be joyfully, contentedly unknown.

Mind your own business. And as you live that unknown life, mind your business. Whether in community, workplace, local church fellowship, or family, there is always a temptation to get involved in things that are not our concern. There is something in us that gives us arrogant confidence that we know how to live other people’s lives, do other people’s jobs, fulfill other people’s ministries better than they do. We are quick to get involved in things that are none of our concern. Paul says to make it our ambition to mind our own business. We need to give full attention to the few matters that belong to us and butt out of all those that do not. We love people best not by meddling but by staying far out of their affairs. Make it your ambition to stay in your lane, to humbly give your full attention to those few responsibilities God has called you to.

Work hard. And then there is the call to work hard. Each of us deals with the temptation to refuse to get involved in much of anything. Laziness haunts us. And yes, Christians can be embarrassingly lazy, refusing to “work with our own hands,” as Paul commands—to work hard at providing for ourselves and to work hard at having enough that we can provide for those who have true needs. There is great value in our work: “so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (4:12). Hard work has evangelistic value in showing unbelievers our refusal to lazily meddle and it has congregational value in that it frees us from being dependent upon others. Better still, it frees us to help those who need our help.

So, says Paul, be ambitious. But be ambitious first for the basic and lowly things. Master these few matters. Be content with these few things. This is a life that pleases God.

Is Your Church Messy Enough
September 15, 2016

I love my church. I love the people I gather with week-by-week. They are fun and safe and easy to be with. But who said church should be safe and easy? What if one of the marks of a good church, a blessed church, is that it’s a messy church?

I’m sure you know of the parable of The Lost Sheep in Luke 15. We call it “The Parable of The Lost Sheep” but it is actually “The Parable of the Kind and Loving Shepherd.” The sheep aren’t the point of the story. Like so many of Jesus’ parables, this parable was told in the presence of two groups of people—people who were convinced of their own badness and people who were convinced of their own goodness. And in this case Jesus was speaking primarily to those good and religious people.

The parable is simple: A sheep has wandered off from the flock and become lost. The shepherd will not rest until he has found it and restored it to himself. He goes, he searches, he finds, he restores, he rejoices. Just think about that silly, helpless sheeping, wandering lost and alone in the wilderness. Think about that tired shepherd who had to go wandering far and wide to find him. Think of the ways he could have responded when he finally tracked it down.

The shepherd finds his sheep and rebukes it: “You stupid, ignorant sheep. How dare you wander off from me?” No. He doesn’t rebuke it.

The shepherd finds his sheep and punishes it: “You dumb, disobedient sheep. I’ll teach you to wander off!” No, he doesn’t punish it.

The shepherd finds his sheep and is disgusted by it: “You are filthy and smelly! What on earth did you get into? You go clean yourself up right now and I’ll come back later.” No, he doesn’t make it clean itself up.

The shepherd finds his sheep and sells it: “I can’t have a sheep like you polluting my flock. Do you know how you made me look in front of everyone else?” No, he doesn’t get rid of it.

“And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” Yeah, that’s the one. When that shepherd finds his sheep, he cares for it. He hoists that big, heavy, dirty sheep onto his shoulders and carries it home, rejoicing all the way. He carries it home and calls his friends and throws a party to celebrate.

The point of the parable is that God loves to save the lost. He loves to save sinners. He doesn’t save those who are righteous and whose lives are all put together, he saves those who are just plain bad. He saves the messy ones, not the ones who are convinced they are clean.

If God is in the business of saving sinners, we need to expect that church will be full of sinners—those who are still wandering and those who have only just been found. If our churches reflect God’s heart for the lost, they will be full of people with problems, full of people showing the consequences of a lifetime of wandering. And this means that church may not be a safe and easy place. It may not be a place full of people who have it all together. It may be messy. It should be messy. Thank God if it is messy.

Think on These Things? What Things?
September 14, 2016

What makes holy people holy? What makes unholy people unholy? To a large degree it is what fills their minds and their hearts. This is why the battle for holiness is first a battle to flood your mind and heart with the right things, the best things, and why it’s equally a battle to avoid flooding your mind and heart with the wrong things, the worst things. So let me ask you, when it comes to what you see, what you watch, what you read, what you ponder, what you enjoy, what you find entertaining, what fills your mind and thrills your heart—what is your standard? What do you invite into your mind, your heart, your life? What do you deliberately keep out? What is your standard? Here are three options, each a variation of Philippians 4:8.

Finally, brothers, whatever is false, whatever is dishonorable, whatever is unjust, whatever is perverse, whatever is repulsive, whatever is unworthy, if there is any imperfection, if there is anything unworthy of honor, think about these things—give weight and value to them, and allow them to influence the way you live. They will. They must.

Finally, brothers, whatever is reasonably accurate, whatever isn’t too outrageous, whatever is minimally unjust, whatever isn’t wildly impure, whatever isn’t absolutely vile, whatever doesn’t make you too uncomfortable, if there is anything that isn’t too far gone, if there is anything that’s not completely without virtue, think on these things—fill your mind with them, let them go down deep within, and live accordingly.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things—think about them until they fill your mind and heart and rejoice as they then work themselves out in loving behavior toward both God and man.

I ask again, what’s your standard?

Recently, at the death of Alec Motyer, a number of people wrote remembrances of the man and a common thread was his holiness. Perhaps Motyer was deeply impacted by these verses as he wrote his excellent commentary on them. As he wrote that commentary he recorded this challenge:

We are to meditate on, to prize as valuable, and to be influenced by all that is true, all that merits serious thought and encourages serious-mindedness, all that accords with justice and moral purity, all that is fragrant and lovely, all that brings with it a good word, that speaks well, whatever has genuine worth of any sort and merits praise. It is the will of God that by giving attention to things of which he approves we should shape our minds to be like his: to those who do so, he pledges his guardian peace and his own presence as the God of peace. (The Message of Philippians)

Motyer was preceded into glory by Jerry Bridges, another man who was spoken of with respect and honor for his holiness, for his desire to please God in all he did and said. Here is what he wrote in his great work, The Pursuit of Holiness:

As Christians we are no longer to be conformed to the pattern of this world but we are to be renewed in our minds (Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 4:23; 1 Peter 1:14). Holiness begins in our minds and works out to our actions. This being true, what we allow to enter our minds is critically important. The television programs we watch, the movies we may attend, the books and magazines we read, the music we listen to, and the conversations we have all affect our minds. We need to evaluate the effects of these avenues honestly, using Philippians 4:8 as a standard. Are the thoughts stimulated by these various avenues true? Are they pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy?

So I ask one more time: What’s your standard?

Let me give the final word to Charles Simeon: “Think of their nature, that you may be apprised of their extent: think of their obligation, that you may be aware of their importance: think of their difficulty, that you may obtain help from your God: think of their excellency, that you may be stirred up to abound in them: and think of their complicated effects on the world around you, that you may make your light to shine before men, and that others, beholding it, may glorify your Father that is in heaven.” Think on these things!

What God Does With Your Sin
September 12, 2016

Sometimes it’s better to show than to tell. Sometimes it’s more effective to rely on illustration than description. Maybe this is especially the case when we are distressed, ashamed, or sorrowful, when emotions threaten to displace reason. In those moments, God comforts us not only with descriptions of what he does with our sin, but also with vivid illustrations. Are you distressed by what you’ve done? Do you hear whispers that you have sinned beyond God’s desire or ability to forgive? Let these illustrations comfort you. Listen to—no, see!—all that God does with your sin.

God throws your sin into the sea (Micah 7:19). Here is a clear reference to the Exodus when God rescued his people by drowning Pharaoh and his army in the sea. John MacKay says, “The Egyptians were prevented from catching up with the fleeing Israelites and reversing their deliverance. The freedom of the people of God will not be marred by some consequence of their past sin catching up with them to spoil their delight in the provision God has made for them.” Not a single Egyptian soldier crawled onto the bank to continue to torment Israel. Not a single one of your sins will continue to torment your soul.

God treads your sin underfoot (Micah 7:19). God doesn’t only drown your sins in the sea, but he also stomps them under his feet. Richard Phillips explains the illustration this way: “God responds to our sins the way a protective parent destroys a snake in the children’s playground.” He throws it to the ground, stomps on it, reduces it to nothing. He grinds it underfoot until it is dead and gone.

God throws your sin behind his back (Isaiah 38:17). God drowns it, he stomps, and he also tosses it away. You would only throw something that is insignificant to you, something you are willing to forget about. Your sin has been so thoroughly dealt with that it is as if God tossed it behind him where he can no longer see it, where he no longer cares about it.

God blots out your sin (Isaiah 43:25). To blot out sin is to so utterly destroy it is as if it never existed. While “blotting out” is often a judgment of wrath against God’s enemies, here it is a judgment of mercy toward his friends. John Oswalt says, “In this instance what he does is to erase from the record every trace of the transgression and sin of his people, not once but continually and forever so that he cannot remember it.” He blots it out of his books, out of his mind, out of his memory, out of the ways he would otherwise treat you. It’s gone!

God forgets your sin (Hebrews 8:12). God’s forgetfulness is a repeated promise and encouragement in both the Old Testament and the New. The God who blots out sin must also forget those sins, to forget them in the sense of never again bringing them to mind and never again making you face the consequences of judgment for them.

God removes your sin (Psalm 103:12). This was David’s proclamation in Psalm 103: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” How far is east from west? Infinitely far! How far has God removed your sin from you? Every bit as far as that.

God covers your sin (Romans 4:7-8). David marveled that God removed his sin, and he equally marveled that God covered his sin. “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” There is no greater blessing than this, to have your sins covered by another. Paul also marvels at this fact in Romans 4. If it brought comfort to David and Paul, shouldn’t it bring comfort to you?

God takes away your sin. When John the Baptist saw Jesus he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Through Jesus, God would take away your sin. This act of taking away means something like “bear off” or “carry away.” Through the sacrifice of Jesus, your sin would be carried away like an unbearable burden, borne away by one fit to carry it.

God cancels the debt of your sin (Colossians 2:14). Sin creates a legal debt, a conviction of the law-breaker in the courtroom of the law-giver. God cancels that debt on your behalf by issuing a verdict of not guilty. “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14). You are not guilty!

God washes your sin (Isaiah 1:18). Your sin is like bloodstains on a white dress. They stand out, they mark, they mar, they ruin. But God promises “Come, now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall by white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” He washes those sins from scarlet to snow, from crimson to pure wool.

God forgives your sin (1 John 1:9). Your sin creates disunity between you and your creator, but God graciously forgives that sin. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

So, what does God do with your sin? He throws it behind his back, drowns it in the sea, treads it underfoot, blots it out, forgets it, removes it, covers it, takes it away, cancels it, washes it, and forgives it. And God can do and will do all of this in the present because of one thing he did in the past.

God laid your sin on Jesus. To understand this, we need to zoom back in time a little to the Old Testament sacrificial system. In that system a goat—a scapegoat—would be seen to symbolically take on human sin. It would then be sent to wander in the wilderness away from God’s people. Here’s how God commands it in the book of Leviticus. “And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.” The goat would never return, symbolizing that the people’s sin would never return upon them.

This unusual act finds its fulfillment in Jesus. Here it is God who lays his hand on Jesus, God who lays your sins upon Jesus, and who banishes Jesus from his presence. Your sin was laid on Jesus so he could deal with it on your behalf. And, praise God, he did! What does God do with your sin? Everything necessary to reconcile you to himself and everything necessary to give you confident comfort today and every day.