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Christian Living

April 23, 2012

When a new technology explodes on the scene, there is always a period of time in which society negotiates the rules that will surround it. When the telephone first gained popularity it took time to learn what would be considered the polite way of answering it. Alexander Graham Bell suggested “Ahoy!” Others tried, “Who’s there?” Those would be considered rude or ridiculous today, but that is only because society successfully negotiated “Hello?” as the preferred greeting. In years to come we will negotiate the polite way of using a mobile phone (Is it rude or acceptable to use it on a crowded train?). What is considered rude today may become normal; what is considered normal may become rude. We won’t know until it happens.

Electronic devices are quickly becoming the new norm in church. Almost three years ago I said Don’t Bring Your iPod to Church, but today that rebuke seems almost quaint. Just a few years later it is not at all unusual to see all kinds of iPods and iPhones and iPads and iEverythingElse being used in place of a printed Bible. That’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing; it’s just reality. As times goes on, printed Bibles will likely fade into history.

But what about using that same device to do more than read the Bible? What about using it to take notes? And what about sending out Twitter or Facebook updates during the sermon? This is something we often experience at conferences or political events. While people sit and listen to the speaker, they grab ahold of memorable phrases, type them down, and send them out to the world via social media. Is it a good idea to tweet during a sermon?

Let’s get this out of the way: Tweeting during a sermon is not sinful, at least not in the abstract (though certainly your motives could make it sinful). The Bible does not forbid it. However, even though it falls within the realm of Christian freedom, this does not necessarily make it wise or helpful. In fact, I’ll just go ahead and lay my cards on the table and say that I am convinced that it is neither wise nor helpful, either to you or to the people around you. At least for now, I would suggest that you refrain. Here are five good reasons:

April 16, 2012

This is my once-monthly post on the Puritan John Owen. In this series of posts I am sharing some of what John Owen says about putting sin to death, or what he calls mortification. I have been going through John Owen’s book Overcoming Sin and Temptation and trying to distill each chapter to its essence—to a few choice quotes that capture the flavor of what Owen is trying to communicate.

So far we’ve looked at The Foundation of Mortification, we’ve been encouraged to Daily Put Sin to Death, to understand that It Is the Holy Spirit Who Puts Sin to Death and to acknowledge that Your Spiritual Life Depends Upon Killing Sin. Then we saw What It Is Not to Put Sin to Death and What It Is to Put Sin to Death. He now moves on to the actual directions for how to put sin to death; first he deals with a couple of foundational issues (that was last month) and now he moves to specific directions.

The first thing to do when seeking to put a sin to death is this:

Consider Whether Your Lust Has These Dangerous Symptoms Accompanying It

He goes on to list several of those dangerous symptoms.

Inveterateness (hardened or deep-rooted). Here is what he says: “If it has lain long corrupting in your heart, if you have suffered it to abide in power and prevalency, without attempting vigorously the killing of it and the healing of the wounds you have received by it for some long season, your distemper is dangerous. … When a lust has lain long in the heart, corrupting, festering, cankering, it brings the soul to a woeful condition. In such a case an ordinary course of humiliation will not do the work: whatever it be, it will by this means insinuate itself more or less into all the faculties of the soul, and habituate the affections to its company and society; it grows familiar to the mind and conscience, that they do not startle at it as a strange thing, but are bold with it as that which they are wonted unto.”

Secret pleas of the heart for the countenancing of itself without a vigorous gospel attempt for its mortification. He offers two ways in which this may happen:

April 16, 2012

Many of the best days of my childhood were spent exploring, wandering through small forests that have long since been felled in the name of suburban expansion, wading down long, shallow creeks, following abandoned railroad lines, discovering old and derelict buildings, wondering who may have walked that way before, what may have happened, what might have been. Those days remain fixed in my mind as golden memories, the memories of a boy discovering his world.

One lazy summer afternoon I came across a clay pit. Down along the bank of a meandering creek now long-since dammed, where the water seeped from the ground, pure, gray clay shimmered as it caught the sunlight. It was perfect clay, ideal for molding, playing, forming, throwing. It lay in great streaks in and along the ground, long lines of it mixed with dirt and mud and leaves and tree roots and bits of debris that had been carried downstream. I scooped up what lay on the surface and then began to dig to uncover what was out of sight.

I found that the clay extended in long veins that streaked through the ground. As I dug, pulling out handfuls of clay and adding them to a growing pile, I would follow a vein that was wide at first, yielding great handfuls. As I pressed on, the vein would narrow and widen again and sometimes split into two or three more veins. Finally it would peter out so that only bare flecks of gray remained visible against the dark earth. As I reached the point that only mud-mixed speckles remained, I would retrace my route, begin again at the source, and chase the next vein until it too was nearly exhausted.

It was marvelous entertainment for an afternoon, though by the time I had finished collecting all I could, the day was spent, the sun had moved low and west, and my mind had moved on to other things. What strikes me as remarkable as I look back is that I had seen that creek so many times and had never known that the clay was there. But of course it was, the bits that were visible hinting at its presence on the surface, suggesting that so much more lay buried just beneath. 

Many of the most difficult days of my adulthood have been spent discovering great, wide veins of sin in my heart. Just recently I encountered one of those veins. Maybe it’s better to say that the Lord revealed it to me; I don’t really know how these things work, but somehow and for some reason I saw flecks of it on the surface and followed those flecks to a wider vein that led deep inside. I began to grab handfuls of sin from inside my heart, tracing it and finding that it is long and broad, that it branches into other areas, that it intersects other veins, that it goes deep. Even now I know that I haven’t yet gotten to the end of it.

April 04, 2012

One of the great privileges of pastoral ministry is pronouncing a benediction before the congregation. The benediction is not a mystical performance in which a pastor invokes his own authority or his own position to bless the people, but a time in which he stands before the congregation and brings them a blessing from the Lord. This is why benedictions tend to be drawn directly from Scripture. The pastor simply conveys God’s words of blessing.

But consider this. Where there are benedictions—good words from the Lord—there must also be maledictions—bad words. As God gives words of blessing to the people to whom he shows favor, he gives words of curse to those who remain in willful rebellion against him.

I once sat transfixed as R.C. Sproul preached on the curse motif in the Old Testament (this was at Together for the Gospel 2008). He spoke of the well-known benediction that we all love.

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
 (Num. 6:24–26)

He spoke of the hope this benediction offers, the hope and confidence of never-ending peace under the loving gaze of a good God.

Sproul spoke also of the supreme malediction, the ultimate curse from God, the very opposite of that great blessing. That terrible malediction might go something like this:

April 02, 2012

Yesterday I had the rare opportunity to preach for just one Sunday which meant that instead of beginning a sermon series or continuing a series, I could preach any text that seemed fitting. As I thought and prayed, I was drawn to Luke 10 and the short story of Mary and Martha and the sibling rivalry between them. My purpose in going to that passage was not primarily to teach on the contrast between the life of busy service and the life of quiet contemplation, but to see Jesus as the central character in the story and to learn from him.

As I studied the passage and read other sermons about it, I was surprised at how many preachers forget about Jesus and focus on the sisters instead. In contrast, I found it such a blessing to focus on Jesus and to meet him in that text. Let me tell you about just one of the blessings I found there.

That little story so clearly displays Jesus in his humiliation. Humiliation is a term we use to describe God becoming man, to describe the fact that the Son of God humbled himself by laying aside his glory and becoming human and ultimately dying the death of a criminal.

I don’t ever want to lose the wonder of God being there in Martha’s home. We are less than a week away from Good Friday and Easter, when Christians will meet together to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus, the pivotal events in all of human history. We will proclaim our belief that Jesus was put to death so he could face the wrath of God against sin, so he could suffer the punishment for the sin of all those who would believe in him. As Christians we proclaim the death of Jesus every week, we sing about it, we celebrate it, we have nothing and are nothing without it.

But in all our talk of the death of Jesus, we need to guard against losing the wonder of the fact that Jesus first lived. God was born in human flesh and came and lived among us. I think we sometimes forget just how miraculous it is that God himself, the second person of the Trinity, was born in human flesh, that he was truly human—as human as you and me. The one who created the world was born into this world, as a crying, naked little baby, he was raised by a man and woman that he had created, he was obedient to these people, he had to grow in wisdom and understanding, he really did walk from place to place, he got blisters on his feet, he got tired and hungry, he needed hospitality. The One who created the universe needed hospitality. Isn’t that an amazing thing to consider?

March 22, 2012

The more I learn of God, the more I marvel at the complexity of his being and purpose—the sheer eternality of it, the otherness of it. He is knowable, but knowable only in the smallest part, he reveals himself to us, but does not reveal all of himself to us; not even close. He truly is transcendent, so far beyond us. His revelation of himself in such that a man may spend his entire life reading it, studying it, pondering it, and uncovering its treasures. He may earn postgraduate degrees and teach systematic theology and lead Bible studies and preach every Sunday for his entire life and still not come close to knowing all there is to know about this God.

And yet that is not the whole story. What God reveals about himself is such that a mere child may know it and believe it and grasp it with childlike hope and confidence. Even a child really can know this God and really can have genuine faith in him.

I find it a strange thing and even an alarming thing that the more I know of God, or the more I think I know of God, the more I am prone to forget the utter simplicity of this message. In the midst of my delight in his complexity, I can so easily forget the simple heart of it all. This matters. This ought to matter.

Sometimes I need to be reminded of the power of the Bible, the simple power of the Bible. I need to be reminded that there have been so many people who have come to faith simply by reading God’s Word. There has been no preacher but the Author, no sermon but the pages of the Bible, and yet many a person has read and seen and understood and trusted and been transformed. No wonder that organizations labor to translate the Bible—or at least parts of the Bible—into every known language and to send these pages into all the world. Every Bible or piece of the Bible goes into the world as a missionary, taking hope, taking life, taking that oh-so-simple message.

March 19, 2012

Sin is inherently anti-God, inherently pro-self. Each time I sin I make a statement about myself and a statement about (and against) God. Each time I sin, I declare my own independence, my own desire to be rid of God; I declare that I can do better than God, that I can be a better god than God. Recently I took some time to think about how life changes when I am god. The results were not pretty.

When I am god, it is against me, me only, that you may sin and do evil in my sight. This world exists for my pleasure, for my glory, and the gravity of your sin is measured according to how badly it interferes with my sovereign will. My wrath falls upon those who do their will instead of mine.

When God is God, your sin against me is light when weighed against its offense to God. This is the Father’s world and it exists to bring glory to him. Sin is any lack of obedience to God or any lack of conformity to his just and holy ways. For such sinners I have sympathy, and love, and hope in the gospel.

When I am god, worship of God interferes with my plans, with my slumber, with my loyalty to pleasure, to socializing, to sport, to amusement. I hate the thought of worshipping another, but long to worship myself or have others worship me.

When God is God, worship is joy, it is nourishment, it is life. There is no greater joy than to gather with God’s people to bring glory to the Creator, to give thanks to the Redeemer.

 

When I am god, sexual fulfillment is my right; sex exists to bring me pleasure and the value of other people is measured only in their ability to fulfill what I am convinced that I need.

March 16, 2012

Paul was a humble man. To read of his life and to read his letters is to encounter the testimony of a man who had been utterly captured by pride until the Lord set him free. Free from the captivity of pride he could now say, “Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” He spent his life among sinners, he labored to convince sinners of grace, he turned men over to Satan so they would learn not to blaspheme, and still he could say that he, he himself, was the chief of sinners. He looked to his own heart, to his own life, and declared, I am the greatest sinner I know.

It takes humility to say those words without a shred of pride, but those are not his humblest words. Paul’s humblest words were written to the Christians in Corinth. To them he said, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me.”

“Be like me.” Those are words that may come from the proudest of hearts and, indeed, we all long for others to be like we are. Sin is inherently narcissistic and the cure we propose for most of the world’s ills is for others to be more like us. “If only she saw things my way.” “If only he did it like I want him to.” To sin is to put yourself in the place of God, to declare that your will ought to be done. Adam and Eve wanted their will to be done even if that came at the expense of God’s; you and I are no more sophisticated than they were.

“Be like me.” Those words may also come from the humblest of hearts. They may come from a heart that has been utterly transformed and that is now utterly transfixed. “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ.” Paul wanted others to imitate him only because he himself was imitating Jesus Christ. Paul had a realistic assessment of who he had been—a proud Pharisee, a religious authority, a man whose academic credentials were unparalleled, whose curriculum vitae was matchless. Yet for all of that his heart had been infinitely distant from God’s. He had hated God and persecuted his people, seeking to destroy his bride.

March 15, 2012

This is my once-monthly post on the Puritan John Owen. In this series of posts I am sharing some of what John Owen says about putting sin to death, or what he calls mortification. I have been going through John Owen’s book Overcoming Sin and Temptation and trying to distill each chapter to its essence—to a few choice quotes that capture the flavor of what Owen is trying to communicate.

So far we’ve looked at The Foundation of Mortification, we’ve been encouraged to Daily Put Sin to Death, to understand that It Is the Holy Spirit Who Puts Sin to Death and to acknowledge that Your Spiritual Life Depends Upon Killing Sin. Then we saw What It Is Not to Put Sin to Death and What It Is to Put Sin to Death. He now moves on to the actual directions for how to put sin to death; first he deals with a couple of foundational issue (which is what I’m looking at today) and in the months that follow he’ll move on to very specific instructions.

#1 - There Will Be No Mortification Unless a Man Be a Believer

Unless a man be a believer—that is, one that is truly ingrafted into Christ—he can never mortify any one sin; I do not say, unless he know himself to be so, but unless indeed he be so. … There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.

There’s a Tweet-worthy phrase: There is no death of sin without the death of Christ. That’s a compact summary of a whole lot of theology! Though it is somewhat obvious, he wants us to know that only Christians, only those who have the Holy Spirit to help them, can put sin to death. Here are a few more helpful quotes.

A man may easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit.

Mortification is not the present business of unregenerate men. God calls them not to it as yet; conversion is their work—the conversion of the whole soul—not the mortification of this or that particular lust. … Let the soul be first thoroughly converted, and then, ‘looking on him whom they had pierced,’ humiliation and mortification will ensue.

This is the usual issue with persons attempting the mortification of sin without an interest in Christ first obtained. It deludes them, hardens them—destroys them.

In classic Puritan fashion, Owen now anticipates and answers an objection: “Shall [unregenerate men] cease striving against sin, live dissolutely, give their lusts their swing, and be as bad as the worst of men?” Here is his answer:

March 14, 2012

Wayne Gretzky is generally considered the greatest athlete to ever lace up a pair of skates. In twenty seasons of professional hockey he dominated the league, redefined the game and tallied an astounding number of records and awards. An outstanding goal-scorer and play-maker, he was also a great sportsman. Five times in his career he was awarded the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, presented every season to the “player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.” He was a true superstar.

Sportsmanship is an interesting concept in sport and one whose meaning seems to have morphed over the years. Once held up as a virtue that emphasized respect for the game and grace toward an opponent in both victory or defeat, it now seems to speak to the misguided ethos that it doesn’t really matter who wins, as long as we all try our hardest and have fun. I prefer the original concept and have tried to instill this in my son; I want him to be a good sportsman who honors the game and respects his opponents, even while seeking victory. This kind of sportsmanship is worth recovering where it has been lost and worth maintaining where it still exists.

There is another idea, a similar one, that has been much on my mind recently. Churchmanship is a virtue that may also be fading into history. We all lead busy and multi-faceted lives. We have obligations at home and at work and we have relationships to nurture with family, extended family, neighbors, friends. Somewhere in that mix is commitment to a local church. For some people church ranks so highly that ministry always comes first, even at the expense of everything and everyone else; for some people church barely ranks at all and receives only the few moments that are left over when everything else has been taken care of.

Between these extremes is the virtue of good churchmanship. The good churchman is a Christian who truly and wholeheartedly dedicates himself to his local church, to the community of believers he loves. This is the Christian who who loves those people, who serves them, and who prioritizes them. This is a fading virtue we would do well to recover and to call one another to.

Here are some of the ways a Christian can face particular challenges in our time and in our churches and excel at churchmanship.

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