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Christian Living

January 18, 2012

It has come as kind of a shock to me, now that I am a pastor and preaching on a regular basis, that the vast majority of the sermons I preach will be rather ordinary. I will study hard and pray hard and work hard, I’ll get started early in the week and give it a couple of days to germinate and give it another look-through early on Sunday morning, and at the end of it all I will have a rather ordinary sermon. Not a bad one, but an ordinary one. It certainly won’t be the sermon I had envisioned when I first sat down with my Bible and a cup of hot coffee on Monday morning. In my mind I’ve got these visions of greatness; before me on the pulpit I’ve got this reality of ordinariness.

Last week a friend asked me how my sermon had gone and I said, “Somewhere between being receiving a standing ovation and being pelted with dead cats.” That seems to about capture it, because honestly, I don’t know. It’s not like the people were weeping and throwing themselves to the ground in sorrow and repentance, and it’s not like they all just got up and left. Their response was as ordinary as my sermon—some people expressed gratitude, a couple of people offered correctives or improvements, and the majority said nothing while showing nothing out-of-the-ordinary.

I guess when I had considered preaching I figured I’d be able to knock it out of the park every Sunday—that if I began early enough in the week and gave myself enough time to study I would always be able to put together an amazing sermon, or an above-average one at least. If I just put in the time, I would be able to do something extraordinary and put together something sublime. But even in those weeks that I can dedicate a full 30 or 40 hours to sermon preparation, Sunday rolls around and I find myself wishing for just another week or just another two weeks, to iron out the kinks and get the sermon where I hoped it could be.

This month I am preaching through the second half of Ephesians, a text that really deals with the ordinary Christian life. What does it look like to live a life that has been transformed by this gospel of grace through faith? Paul lays it out in all its ordinariness. It is not a life of doing things that makes all the world take notice and declare your virtues, but a life of quiet, humble service and a long, slow growth in godliness. And yet I still find myself hoping to write extraordinary sermons on being ordinary. Until now I had missed the irony.

January 17, 2012

Yesterday I wrote about Satan’s Great Desire which is to bring about disunity in your local church, somehow convincing you that the people in your church are no longer worthy of your love. I ended by giving the encouragement that God has equipped us to build and maintain this kind of unity and that all we need to do is use the tools he has equipped us with. How has he equipped us? According to Ephesians 4, he has given each of us a spiritual gift that is to be used to build unity through service to one another. 

This area of spiritual gifting is noticeably Christ-centered and along the way Paul makes three big points:

First, Christ is the giver of gifts. Paul goes all the way back to Psalm 68 and shows that this Psalm speaks of the resurrected Jesus giving gifts to the people he loves. These aren’t gifts wrapped in paper that we can open and put on display, but gifts in the form of abilities we possess. Christ doesn’t toss these gifts out to Christians in a random way, but thoughtfully and deliberately gives a gift to each person as he sees fit. Christ has a plan in giving out these gifts. He is the one who determines who will receive each gift and how much of that gift each person and each community of Christians will receive.

Second, Christ gives gifts that are diverse. If we look throughout the whole New Testament we’ll find several lists of these gifts and when we put them together we find that there are at least 20 of them; there are undoubtedly many more than the ones listed. What we see is that Christ gives out diverse gifts. In this letter Paul gives a partial list and one that focuses specifically on teaching. Some Christians are given gifts of teaching and here he lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. The job of these teachers is not to do all the ministry or to use all the gifts, but to shepherd and teach and equip every Christian to use his own gift. These teachers are to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Why? So each one can then use his gift in a fuller, more comprehensive way.

January 16, 2012

I have been engaged in a study of the second half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and, not surprisingly, the themes from that letter have been resonating in my mind over the past few weeks. I have been struck by Paul’s emphasis on the importance of love and unity in the local church. On the one hand it’s kind of obvious—we need to love the Christians around us—but on the other hand, the personal implications are profound. I’ve always known that God calls me to love the people I covenant with in my local church, but until now I haven’t been quite so aware of the danger of falling out of love.

Paul did not seem to have any particular concern with the unity of this church in Ephesus. As far as we can tell he wasn’t writing because the church was splintering apart or because he had heard rumors of their disunity. But perhaps this was even more reason for him to address the issue. Paul knew that Satan is the great enemy of God and his people, and one of his enduring tactics to disrupt the church and to hinder our witness to the world is to bring about disunity. How does he do this? He does it by first eroding the love between brothers and sisters in Christ.

Wherever there is disunity there will first be the absence of love and the presence of pride. Satan’s great desire for your church and for mine is to fracture the people in those churches into camps, into groups built along lines that have no business dividing us. We may know this in the abstract, but we need to make it personal. Here is what we need to see: God wants me and commands me to love the other people in my church; Satan wants me to hate them. God wants me to feel a great deal of unity with those people; Satan wants there to be an issue between us—something, anything, to drive us apart.

Have you ever paused to think about this? Do you know that Satan is actively working in your local church right now to drive a wedge between you and the other people there? He wants you to hate that other person—or at least to stop loving that other person—and he is constantly giving you opportunity to do just that. A quick survey of church history, whether on a global or local scale, will show just how successful he has been. He will split churches into factions by first making those Christians find reasons not to love one another, not to bear with one another in love.

January 05, 2012

This is my once-monthly Puritan post. I know that I’ve lost 50% of you with the word Puritan, but don’t be too hasty to run away; if you take the time to read this post, I know that you’ll benefit from it. I am simply sharing some of what John Owen says about putting sin to death.

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 and seen that It Is the Holy Spirit Who Puts Sin to Death. Last month we saw that Your Spiritual Life Depends Upon Killing Sin.

Having laid all the groundwork of the first four chapters, Owen is now ready to proceed to his primary concern, which is a practical consideration of how to put sin to death. Here is how he will go about this in the chapters to come: First, he will show what it is and what it is not to mortify any sin; then he will give directions for things you will absolutely need if you are to mortify any sin; and finally, he will discuss the particulars of how we actually go about putting sin to death.

Owen first covers what does not mean to mortify sin; this is what I am writing about today. The big theme of this section, at least in my view, is the deceptive nature of the human heart. There are many ways and many times that we convince ourselves we have put our sin to death when in reality we have done anything but.

Mortification is Not the Utter Destruction and Death of Sin

To mortify a sin is not utterly to kill, root it out, and destroy it, that it should have no more hold at all nor residence in our hearts. It is true this is that which is aimed at; but this is not in this life to be accomplished. There is no man that truly sets himself to mortify any sin, but he aims at, intends, desires its utter destruction, that it should leave neither root nor fruit in the heart or life. … Now, though doubtless there may, by the Spirit and grace of Christ, a wonderful success and eminency of victory against any sin be attained, so that a man may have almost constant triumph over it, yet an utter killing and destruction of it, that it should not be, is not in this life to be expected.

We should not expect that any one sin will be eradicated to the point that we can declare it fully and finally dead, never to appear in our lives again. In fact, the moment we do that, we invite Satan to tempt us in that very way. We aim at eradication, anticipate a great level of success, but know that it will only be completed destroyed when we are made perfect.

Mortification Is Not Simply Masking Over an Existing Sin

When a man on some outward respects forsakes the practice of any sin, men perhaps may look on him as a changed man. God knows that to his former iniquity he has added cursed hypocrisy, and is now on a safer path to hell than he was before. He has got another heart than he had, that is more cunning; not a new heart, that is more holy.

Do you see how deceptive the heart is? A man may forsake a sin, he may stop committing it for one reason or another, but that is not the same as actually putting that sin to death. Bad motives may cause us to mask over a sin for a time, but without the work of the Holy Spirit, that sin still lives on, even if it is quiet for a time.

December 22, 2011

Acts 12 contains one of my favorite stories of the early church. It is a great little bit of writing—a short story in three acts. I was reflecting on that story recently and just had to tell you about it.

The chapter begins with a description of Herod’s persecution against the church. In order to please his Jewish subjects Herod has James arrested and killed. This makes his subjects so happy that he then goes after Peter, throwing him in prison as well. Knowing the popularity of these upstart Christians, Herod puts Peter under the care of four whole squads of soldiers. The first act ends with these words: “So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” This earnest prayer is no incidental detail; it is a little fact, some narrative tension, that the author offers to foreshadow what will come.

The second act tells how Peter is delivered by God through one his angels. Peter, half asleep, sees his chains fall off and quickly passes all the guards before waking up and realizing what is happening. He hurries quickly to the church, to the gathering of people who just happen to be praying for him at that very moment. There is a delightful bit of comedy injected into the text when Rhoda, the servant girl, so excited to hear Peter at the door, runs to tell everyone that he has arrived. But she forgets to let him in; he is left standing on the street, pounding at the door. With the prayer meeting coming to a prompt end, the people belittle Rhoda, refusing to believe that Peter has actually arrived. And yet, because of Peter’s persistent knocking, they soon come to realize that he really has been rescued. Peter quickly tells his story and then disappears, presumably opting to lay low for a little while.

In the third act we return to Herod. Herod has ordered the execution of the soldiers who allowed Peter to escape. And then we find him accepting worship as a god. His Creator is most displeased and strikes him down so “he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” Herod bookends this story, appearing as a cruel tyrant at the beginning and as a pathetic worm-eaten corpse at the end. He has gone from holding the power of life and death in his hand to being struck down by the Lord himself. It’s a pathetic end to a pathetic ruler.

December 14, 2011

There is no greater challenge in all the earth than living the Christian life. There is no challenge more difficult, no pursuit that demands more of us. Of course there is also no better pursuit and no greater joy than this—to seek the Lord. In the midst of this all-consuming task, it is wise to ask, at least occasionally, “How are we doing?” What is the state of the Christian church at this time?

It can be difficult to answer a question like this. We tend to look at Christianity from a too-earthly perspective. We know what the Lord has called us to be, we know what the Lord has called us to do, and so often all we can see is our own shortcomings and failures. The Lord has called us to take the gospel into all the world and to do so with boldness. Yet we are terrified to even whisper that good news to our neighbor. The Lord has called us to live righteous lives, to live lives that are marked by the gospel. Yet our lives are marked and stained by worldly values and worldly desires. We know that Jesus has told us not to worry about what we will eat and drink but always to trust in the Lord’s provision. And yet we worry, we save, we horde, we hold tightly to the things we know we should hold loosely. We feel the weight of all of this; we feel the shame of all of this, the guilt of it.

But let’s pause for a moment to ask whether we are thinking about it from the right perspective.

Let me tell you about my son. He is an utter failure and a terrible disappointment. Though he professes Christ, he is too often rude to his mother and to me; though he says that he is a Christian, he refuses to get along with his sisters, he refuses to do his job to the best of his ability, he gets grades that are so much less than they ought to be. And we won’t even speak of his personal hygiene! He is a grave, grave disappointment to me.

But hang on. What kind of a father would I be if I looked at my son in this way? What kind of a Father would have such a narrow view and such a negative view? When I look at my son from the perspective of a father, I see the sin and I see the things I wish he would do better, but that is not who he is to me. I am proud of my boy. I love my son and am thrilled at the way he is growing and learning and developing. I see him growing in his knowledge of the Word of God and growing in his ability to live as if it is true. Sure, he and his sisters fight too often, but I know that he sees his sin (eventually) and that he seeks their forgiveness. Yes, he can complain about having to do his job, but if he allows himself to sin for a time, he later repents and asks the Lord to give him a cheerful heart the next time. He is my son; I love him and I am proud of him.

Do you see the difference it makes when we look from the perspective of a father instead of the perspective of a son? It makes all the difference in the world.

December 13, 2011

Yesterday I wrote about Christians and money and tried to give an answer to 2 questions: Do I have to give some of my money away? and What should my attitude be as I give my money away? You can find that article here. Today I want to continue this little 2-part series by asking and answering 2 more questions: Where am I to give? and How much am I to give?

Where Am I to Give?

If what I said yesterday is correct, then we have established that we have to give some of our money away. This leads to the question of where we are to give that money. We have a near-endless number of great options available to us—we can give to the church, to individuals, to parachurch organizations or to charities and non-profits. If you have money to give, you will never have trouble finding worthy causes eager and willing to accept it. But what does the Bible say?

I find that question more difficult to answer than I might have thought. The New Testament presupposition seems to be that your primary form of giving is to the local church. At least, this is what appears to be modeled, even if it is not explicitly stated. Certainly this was the Old Testament pattern; the tithe was not given to individuals, but was given to the Lord through his appointed people.

What I find in the New Testament is that our responsibility for caring for others, whether that is in sharing the gospel or in sharing our wealth, begins closest to us and then moves out from there. A man is considered worse than an unbeliever if he does not care for his own family, not if he does not care for a family on the other side of the planet. After that, his responsibility is to his own local church—the brothers and sisters in Christ with whom he has covenanted. This is very practical; it would not make a lot of sense for him to assume primary care for a family in Asia while his primary care comes from someone in Australia.

So first we need to care for family, then church, and after that it goes out to other Christians. The New Testament seems to place a higher priority on caring for other believers than caring for unbelievers. Both may be important, but we are to care for other Christians before we care for non-Christians. And then of course there are times in which we can and ought to care for everyone, as a way to tend to needs and as a way to open up doors for the gospel. 

This is what we see modeled in the New Testament. After caring for their own families, people were giving through the church. While there is no doubt that Christians were at times giving directly to other Christians, the early church model is to give to the church so the church can distribute to those in need. We see this in the stories of Barnabas and Ananias and Saphira, those people who brought their gifts to the church for distribution (though out of very different motives). The church was the collection point and the distribution point.

This idea of giving primarily to the church makes sense for quite a few reasons.

December 12, 2011

Last week I wrote a little bit about money, trying to point out 4 of the ways that we, as Christians, tend to think about money and possessions in worldly ways. Today I want to follow that up with what the Bible says about giving and tithing. God gives us money and tells us to be careful, faithful stewards of it. Is one component of our stewardship giving at least a part of that money away? Let me answer this question by asking a series of four more: First, Do I have to give? Second, How am I to give? Third, Where am I to give? And fourth, How much should I give?

Let’s acknowledge from the outset that this is an always-difficult subject and one which generates quite a lot of discussion and disagreement. I plan to share the way I have worked it out in my own mind.

Do I Have to Give?

Money is a good gift of God. Even though it can be used for great evil and even though it always threatens to become an idol, money is good. Money is not the root of all evil; rather, the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. This means that there is nothing wrong with earning it; there is nothing wrong with bringing home a paycheck. And, in fact, quite the opposite is true. The Lord expects that we will work hard, earn a fair wage and use our money responsibly.

With this in place, and assuming that you will earn money, does God now require you to give at least some of it away? My understanding is that he certainly does. I have come to this conclusion in a couple of different ways.

First, we see this modeled in the Old Testament. Of course we need to be careful with drawing from the Old Testament since we now live after Christ rather than before him. But having said that, many principles of the Old Testament are instructive. One thing God made clear to his people, from the earliest days, is that he required them to give back to him. He asked for the firstfruits of their labor; he wanted the first and the best. These firstfruits were symbolic of God’s claim to all of it. By giving away the first and best, God’s people were acknowledging that all of it was truly his. If they had given the last and worst, it would have been an indication that it truly and actually belonged to them. God asked for the best and that is what the people were to give him as their joyful duty.

God also asked for a tithe. He first announced this law in Leviticus 27 where he says, “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord.” This means that one tenth, ten percent, of the harvest was to be given to the Lord. In that day the people did not deal in currency as much as in produce and goods, so that is what the Lord required them to give. No matter what line of work you were in, you were required to bring a tenth of it to the Lord—the first and best tenth. God did not get the leftovers but the best of the best.

December 09, 2011

Throughout this fall I have been able to spend some time teaching my church about money. One of the first challenges I faced was in distinguishing between what the Bible teaches about money and what we, as Christians living in this time and this place, tend to believe. What I found is that there are many ways that we think about money that owes more to the world than to the Bible. Let me share 4 of them.

Debt

We live in a debt-based economy. A strange fact about this economy is that it begins to fall apart when people stop living in debt or when people are no longer allowed to borrow. We’ve seen this all across the world today, from the U.S. to Europe and beyond. Many countries are heavily in debt and governments have to borrow money from other countries in order to stay afloat. The scary thing is that many countries now borrow money not to fund projects or services, but to pay the interest on their existing debt; they are borrowing money to pay the interest on money they’ve already borrowed. It goes without saying that this cannot continue indefinitely.

It’s not just nations that fall into that trap, though. Many consumers—people like you and me—have borrowed far beyond our means. Many of us have borrowed so much money that we have very little hope of ever paying it back. The recent and ongoing economic downturn was triggered at least in part by debt. Many people bought homes that they could not afford and they did it by borrowing money. When the interest rates went up, which means their cost of borrowing got higher, they couldn’t afford those houses anymore. Because they couldn’t afford their homes, they stopped paying their mortgages and that led to a collapse of the banking system and the economy with it. Ironically, it was only borrowed government money that kept the problem from being far worse (another debt that will be called in at some point).

These are just 2 broad examples of debt in society—borrowing that leads to negative consequences. Lest we become proud, we must admit that almost all of us have at least one credit card and more than half of us have more than one. Some of us use credit responsibly but many of us have accumulated a lot of debt by spending more than we should have. Every store we go to is very eager to extend credit to us—to allow us to borrow money from them. The credit card companies are always trying to hook young people when they are in high school or college. Everywhere we go we are offered stuff for borrowed money. Too often we take the deal. We somehow keep believing that we’ll have money tomorrow to pay for the stuff we can’t really afford today.

December 08, 2011

This is my once-monthly Puritan post. I know that I’ve lost 50% of you with the word Puritan, but don’t be too hasty to run away; if you take the time to read this post, I am convinced you’ll benefit from it. I can say that on good authority because the essence of the post comes from John Owen.

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 and seen that It Is the Holy Spirit Who Puts Sin to Death. And that brings us to chapter 4.

The theme of the chapter is this: A God-honoring life is one in which we are putting sin to death. Owen summarizes like this: “The life, vigor and comfort of our spiritual life depend much upon our mortification of sin.” I take life to be the existence of the spiritual life, vigor to be the extent of it, and comfort to be the Holy Spirit’s assurance of its existence. He approaches this topic under several headings.

Life, Vigor, and Comfort Are Not Necessarily Connected to Mortification

This is a very important from a pastoral perspective. “I do not say they proceed from it, as though they were necessarily tied to it. A man may be carried on in a constant course of mortification all his days; and yet perhaps never enjoy a good day of peace and consolation. … The use of means for the obtaining of peace is ours; the bestowing of it is God’s prerogative.” In other words, God does not owe you life, vigor and comfort in exchange for putting sin to death. But under most circumstances these are the outcome.

Mortification Is Not the Immediate Cause of Life, Vigor and Comfort

Owen next wants to ensure that what he says about the importance of putting sin to death does not infringe upon the gospel. “In the ways instituted by God to give us life, vigor, courage, and consolation, mortification is not one of the immediate causes of it. … Adoption and justification … are the immediate causes.” So do not allow yourself to think that putting sin to death is what saves you; these benefits are the result of your salvation, not the cause of it.

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