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Christian Living

May 07, 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 his 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 and then with dangerous sin symptoms.

Today he moves to the first of his practical instructions on putting sin to death and the first action you need to take when you identify a sin in your life. It is this: You need to ponder the guilt, the danger and the evil of that sin and let it rest in both your mind and heart. Or as he says it, “Get a clear and abiding sense upon your mind and conscience of the guilt, danger, and evil of your sin.” He will discuss each of these three things in turn.

The Guilt of It

First, you need to consider the guilt of your sin. Your sin will try to convince you that it isn’t very serious and that it is not worth worrying about. “It is one of the deceits of a prevailing lust to extenuate its own guilt. ‘Is it not a little one? Though this be bad, yet it is not so bad as such and such an evil; others of the people of God have had such a frame; yea, what dreadful actual sins have some of them fallen into!’ Innumerable ways there are whereby sin diverts the mind from a right and due apprehension of its guilt. … This is the proper issue of lust in the heart—it darkens the mind that it shall not judge aright of its own guilt.”

There is more. The Christian who sins needs to be aware that he does so in spite of God’s grace in his life. Reflecting on Romans 6:1-2 Owen says, “How shall we do it, who, as he afterward describes it, have received grace from Christ to the contrary? We, doubtless, are more evil than any, if we do it.”

May 02, 2012

Today I want to wrap up my short series on the sin of Envy. Yesterday I looked at How Envy Behaves and this morning I want to show what Envy wants from you and then to give some instruction on putting him to death. There are at least four things Envy wants from you.

Envy Wants to Destroy Your Joy

Envy is unique among the sins in that you never, ever enjoy it. Envy never brings any satisfaction. If you commit the sin of adultery, you enjoy the fleeting pleasures of the flesh; if you commit the sin of gluttony you get to enjoy the taste of food while it slides down your throat. These are very fleeting and fleshly pleasures, but they are pleasures still. Envy only, ever makes you more miserable than you were before.

Envy also bring misery by making you unwilling or even unable to confess the sin. He cuts so deep, he exposes so much of what you really want that confessing that he exists requires a true baring of the deepest, darkest recesses of the soul. You may not know just how ugly and dark your sin is until you look into your soul and see Envy and then go digging around to try to get him out of there, to find the source and to uproot it.

When I am walking with Envy and allowing him to influence me, I cannot enjoy anything in itself because I only see what I have and what I am in comparison to someone else. I am not popular, I am less popular than he is. I don’t sell books, I sell fewer books than he does. In every case, I can never be joyful, because everything the other person has calls me into question.

Proverbs says that Envy is rottenness to the bones (14:30). Envy makes you sick with grief and dissatisfaction, rotting you from the inside out.

Envy Wants to Destroy Your Love

Envy is anti-love. 1 Corinthians 13 says it plainly: “Love does not envy.” Why? Because love cannot envy. They cannot co-exist. You cannot be envious and loving at the same time toward the same person and this means that you have the choice before you: will I love this person or will I be envious toward him? To love is to rejoice in who he is and in what he has been given. To be envious is to hate who he is and to want to watch him lose what he has been given.

May 01, 2012

Yesterday I began to write about what I called The Lost Sin of Envy. I gave a short history of Envy and then shared some of what the Bible says about him. Today I want to show how he behaves and how you can expect him to work himself out in your life.

Envy Competes

Who is Envy? What does Envy do? How do we define Envy? Something like this: Envy makes you feel resentment or anger or sadness because another person has something or another person is something that you want for yourself. Envy makes you aware that another person has some advantage, some good thing, that you want for yourself and, while he’s at it, he makes you want that other person not to have it.

This means that there are at least three evil components to Envy: the deep discontent that comes when you see that another person has what you want; the desire to have it for yourself; and the desire for it to be taken from him.

It’s crucial to understand that Envy flows out of Pride. (A commenter said it well: “In my wretched experience pride has always been envy’s father…”) Pride says, “This is what I deserve” or “Let me boast about all I have” or “I am better than you in all of these ways.” Have you ever thought about the fact that pride always compares? C.S. Lewis says, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.” When you are proud you compare yourself with another person and there are only two possible outcomes: If you believe you come out on top, you feel even more pride; if you believe you come out on the bottom, you feel envy. Envy comes when Pride is wounded.

Envy does something very strange and ugly. When I look at your success or your money or your joy, that good thing makes me feel bad. It somehow calls me into question, it taunts me, it makes me doubt myself, it even makes me doubt God. When I see your success, it makes me think less of myself. It calls into question all that I am, all that I’ve done, all that I’ve accomplished, all that I’ve worked for. It becomes an issue of my own identity. Your success screams that I have failed.

April 30, 2012

A little while ago God did what he sometimes does and rather suddenly made it very clear to me that I had a sin in my life—a prominent sin—that had somehow been hidden to me. It surprised just how prevalent this sin was, how ugly, and how little I knew about it. Once I saw it and once I tried to understand it, I came to see that it may well be a sin you struggle with as well. It is one of those sins we talk about very little and one of those sins that has wormed its way into our culture and into the church. It may just be a lost sin, a sin we’ve forgotten about. Many of us don’t even have a clear category for it anymore. Ancient writers and theologians talked about it a lot, even suggesting that it was the second most serious and second most prevalent of all the sins, and yet today it has almost disappeared from our vocabulary or it has been confused with related sins like jealousy or covetousness. That sin is Envy.

Proverbs says that whoever walks with the wise will be wise, but a companion of fools will suffer harm (13:20). What I found out is that Envy has been a friend of mine for a long, long time. I just didn’t realize it until recently. He has infected me with his foolishness. Let me tell you how he’s worked in my life.

Nine years ago I slapped together a little web site so I could share a couple of articles with my parents. The Lord took that site and has done something amazing so that today tens of thousands of people read it every day. Not only that, but I have been able to write books and I have been able to travel all around to teach and preach and so much more. You might think that I would be just thrilled with all that has happened and certainly I should be. And yet I came to see that this really was not the case. Instead I was growing resentful, I was envious of what I didn’t have and of what God hadn’t given me. I came to see that I had made friends with Envy. 

For the next couple of days I want to write about Envy, sharing some of what I’ve learned about it, about him. I want you to be able to know Envy when you see him because maybe, just maybe, you’ve become friends with him as well.

Today I want to introduce to you Envy in two ways—first by giving you a look at his list of accomplishments and then by telling you what God says about him.

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.