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conversion

February 01, 2010

This morning my devotions took me to the final chapters of John (which, to those who know the reading plan I’m using this year, is an admission that I’m a few days behind). We find such poignant little stories in these chapters, stories like Peter and John running to the empty tomb, Thomas falling on his face before the risen Lord, Jesus restoring Peter after his three denials. There is one story among them, though, that I love most of all.

Mary Magdalene has come to Jesus’ tomb and is distressed to see that his body is gone, the stone rolled away. Convinced that someone has taken away his body, she stands outside the tomb weeping. Two angels appear within and ask simply “Woman, why are you weeping?” She replies, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” The words carry with them the pain of her loss. Not only has she lost her Lord, but even his body has been taken away. She is lost and alone.

Then she turns and sees someone else. She does not recognize Him, though it is the very one she seeks. Somehow her eyes are closed so she cannot see who it is. This man says “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” She supposes he must be the gardener and says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” She wants the body back, needs the body back, and begs that this man might return it to her.

But then, in an instant, her eyes are opened. Jesus, as he had called Lazarus out from the tomb, calls to her. He says but one word. “Mary.” It’s one of the best sentences in all of the Bible. At at that very instant she knows. At that very instant she sees and knows and understands that the One she seeks is standing right there behind her. He is alive! He has risen! She turns and cries out “Rabboni!” (which means teacher). I wonder, does she scream this word, run to him, and throw her arms around his neck? Perhaps she can do little more than call out in a whisper as she falls at his feet. We don’t know. But we do know that she clings to Jesus, overwhelmed with his presence, overwhelmed to know that he is alive. She sees and hears and believes. She knows now that Jesus is alive.

As I read these words, I think of the way Jesus called me and the way he has called countless numbers of men and women to himself. Like Mary I was once unable to see Jesus for who he is. I saw a man who may as well have been a gardener. He was a good man, a moral man, and maybe even a great man. But he was just a man. Only when Jesus called me by name was I able to see that him as the God-man. Only then was I able to see him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Only then did I really and truly know him. And only then were my eyes opened so I could see and my ears unstopped so I could hear and my heart renewed so I could believe. Like Mary, he called me by name.

October 01, 2009

Some time ago, no doubt while I was awake in the middle of the night with one of the children, I saw a documentary about some weird disease that causes a patient’s skin to harden. This disease often sets in during childhood and causes the skin to become hard and shiny. I searched around to find the name of this condition and I think it must be “systemic sclerosis.” “Dermatology Online Journal” describes it this way: “Systemic sclerosis is a clinically heterogeneous, systemic disorder which affects the connective tissue of the skin, internal organs and the walls of blood vessels. It is characterized by alterations of the microvasculature, disturbances of the immune system and by massive deposition of collagen and other matrix substances in the connective tissue.” That doesn’t mean anything to me, but I guess it all adds up to “hard and shiny.” Though most people experience the disease only moderately (these people see hardening of the skin mostly on their hands and forearms) there are some who see the disease progress so that the skin hardens all over their bodies, leaving even their faces set in hard “masks.” Sometimes it will progress to the organs, hardening them and leading to an early death. It is a horrifying illness when it progresses past the point where it can be easily and successfully treated.

I thought of this while reading Gum, Geckos and God by James Spiegel. In this book (to borrow a line or two from Publishers Weekly) “Spiegel, philosophy professor at Indiana’s Taylor University, takes deep issues of the Christian faith and dumps them smack into real life with a little help from his children… Spiegel ponders the great issues of the faith with a light touch, thanks to the innate comedy of kids, but also to his own brand of humor.” In a chapter entitled “How Can God Fix Us” he looks at how God can overcome our sin—how He can fix what we have done to ourselves through our sinful natures. He uses The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to springboard into this conversation, explaining how his son, at only four years of age, was able to draw the connection between the death of Aslan and the death of Jesus Christ. He mentions that, when teaching a faith and culture course at Taylor University, he often asks students to raise their hands if they became Christians at the age of four or younger. Almost invariably at least a few of the hands go up. This is amazing, he says, “considering that comprehension of the gospel demands that one understand such weighty moral concepts as duty, sin, punishment, love, and forgiveness.”

“I am sure,” he says, “there are many parents who are mistaken in thinking that their kids comprehend the gospel. But the point is that many do. And given their stage of cognitive development, this suggests something supernatural is going on.” And truly something supernatural must be going on for children to understand what too often escapes many adults. A child can sometimes grasp deep spiritual truths that are lost on adults who are, in any other wise, far more wise and far more intelligent. Those who hate the Christian faith and who hate religion in general will insist that children believe because they have been indoctrinated. But we know better; we know that God can work his supernatural work of regeneration even in a child.

Here is why it is more difficult for adults than for children to come to know the Lord. “Sin causes cognitive malfunction, and this is especially so when it comes to moral-spiritual matters. The older we grow without being redeemed, the more polluted we are by our sin and the more entrenched we become in our corrupt patterns of thinking. Though by no means pure, children are less corrupted in their thinking and less hardened in faulty thinking patterns simply by virtue of their being younger. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the overwhelming majority of Christians come to faith by the time they are eighteen years old.”

Of course there is a second barrier to coming to Christ and it is a spiritual one. As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 2:14, without the Spirit’s prior work, no one can grasp the gospel. The spiritual nature of the gospel, that part of the gospel message that transcends natural cognitive abilities, must be overcome by the Holy Spirit. “So there are two major barriers when it comes to grasping and accepting the gospel,” says Spiegel. “One is the spiritual nature of the gospel, which transcends natural reason. The other is our sin, which corrupts cognitive function. The Holy Spirit must graciously overcome both of these obstacles in order to work redemption in any human heart. This implies that all Christian conversions are doubly miraculous and doubly gracious. And given that even after conversion Christians continue to struggle with sin, the Spirit must constantly work to keep us faithful. Job really nailed it when he said that God, ‘performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted’ (Job 5:9).”

And this takes us back to systemic sclerosis. A person’s spiritual condition, it seems, is much like the condition of a patient with systemic sclerosis. While all humans are born sinful, children have less of the pollution and less of the hardening of adults. While the extent of our depravity cannot change, for from the moment of conception it encompasses all that we are, the degree will and must change. Life without God progresses much like the disease. It causes increased hardening. What was once soft becomes hard; what was once supple becomes stiff and stretched. The longer a person denies God and the more his internal pollution increases, the more hardened he becomes against God and against His gracious offer of salvation. No wonder the Bible is filled with commands and exhortations that as parents we dedicate ourselves to teaching our children what God requires of them. And what impetus this should give us to obey Him! “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise…”

August 21, 2008

This morning brings us to our sixth reading in Jonathan Edwards’ The Religious Affections. This week we had a rather long reading of the first sign of authentic affections—the first chapter where we really get to the heart of the book.

Summary

This week’s reading dealt with the first authentic affection. Here is what Edwards sought to prove: “Affections that are truly spiritual and gracious do arise from those influences and operations on the heart which are spiritual, supernatural and divine.” It took him forty pages to do so!

Discussion

This chapter surprised me a little bit. While this was to be the first of the “positive signs” and the first to follow the section dealing with the many “signs of nothing,” the chapter had a clear negative tone to it. It seemed that Edwards proved “something” primarily by disproving “nothing.” That may not make much sense but perhaps you see what I’m getting at. He proved his point by spending page after page disproving other things. It seems that the back story for this chapter involves people in Edwards’ day attempting to prove they were true Christians by stating that God had given them such knowledge, through feelings or through Scripture or through any other means. He responds by showing that such means can be brought about even in unregenerate men. Thus true affections can only be brought about by truly spiritual, supernatural and divine operations.

Edwards distinguishes here between the spiritual man and the natural man. Those who are spiritual are those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit; all other men are natural. The Holy Spirit may influence them in various ways and even work certain things in their hearts and minds, but they are not men who have undergone that supernatural act of regeneration. This is a good distinction to make in our day as we live at a time when anyone who acknowledges some kind of a deity or who has some kind of faith is called spiritual. Oprah Winfrey is as “spiritual” a person as you’ll find, but she utterly rejects Christianity. Edwards reminds us that no one can be spiritual unless he is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Hence we can acknowledge other people as religious, but, when we look to Scripture, must deny that they can be spiritual; there is no Spirit in them.

This is not to say that the Spirit is unable to influence people who are unregenerate. “The Spirit of God, in all His operations upon the minds of natural men, only moves, impresses, assists, improves, or some way acts upon natural principles; but gives no new spiritual principle.” In other words, He can work even in natural men by using natural means. “He only assists natural principles to do the same work to a greater degree which they do of themselves by nature.” This was something I had never really considered in the past and I found it valuable to think about.

Now maybe I missed something in this chapter—maybe my mind was mush by the end, but I found few points of application. Perhaps it is that I have never really encountered people in life whose claim to Christianity is some inward voice or the fact that verses of Scripture have come to their minds. But somehow I struggled with really applying this portion of the book to my own life. I am hoping that someone can leave a comment offering a few points of application.

Next Time

For next week we will read the second distinguishing sign of truly gracious and holy affections. This is quite a bit shorter than this week’s reading, so should not pose quite as much of a challenge. In my book it comes out at only fourteen pages.

Your Turn

As always, I am eager to know what you gained from this part of the book. Feel free to post comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Do not feel that you can only say anything if you are going to say something that will wow us all. Just add a comment with some of the things you gained from the this week’s reading. To this point the discussion has been very helpful and engaging.

July 17, 2008

This morning we kick off the fourth round of Reading Classics Together, an effort in which we read some of the great Christian classics together and convene here once a week to discuss them. In the past we’ve read J.C. Ryle’s Holiness, John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation and A.W. Pink’s The Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross. We’ve had hundreds of people participate by reading the books together and discussing them each week. All along we’ve been reading some of the classics of the Christian faith—books many of us wish to read but books few of us have ever made time for. And now we begin on the fourth classic—The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards. Well over 100 people have agreed to participate in reading this book together…and it all begins today. This is going to be our toughest challenge yet, I’m am sure!

“Read Religious Affections, at all costs read Religious Affections! And anything else you can get your hands on by this great saint.”
—John Piper
I generally follow a certain format in posting about the chapters we are reading, but will deviate from that today. The assigned reading for this morning was simply the book’s Preface. The Preface is short and contains little of real substance, but I guess we need to begin somewhere! Edwards uses it to state the purpose for which he has written this book. He will seek to answer this question: What are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favor with God, and entitled to His eternal rewards?

Sam Storms summarizes the book’s purpose by saying, “He endeavored to identify what constitutes true and authentic spirituality. Or, to put it in the form of a question: Are there certain features or characteristics in human thought and behavior that serve as ‘signs’ of the saving activity and presence of the Spirit of God? Again, is it possible for us to know with any degree of certainty whether or not a person who claims to have experienced the saving grace of God is truly born again?” This is essentially the same question said in many ways and it is the question we expect Edwards to answer in the text of this book. We will do well to keep this question in mind each week as we give ourselves to reading The Religious Affections. And it is an important one to answer for, as Edwards says, “it is by the mixture of counterfeit religion with true, not discerned and distinguished, that the devil has had his greatest advantage against the cause and kingdom of Christ.” From the earliest days of the church until today, the devil has done much damage to the cause of Christ in the world by men and women deluded into thinking that they are Christians when they are not.

It is my hope and expectation that this book will arm us to better discern the state of our own hearts and to see and understand the defining characteristics of those who belong to Christ. To quote Edwards, “It greatly concerns us to use our utmost endeavors clearly to discern, and have it well settled and established, wherein true religion does consist.”

Next Week

Next week we will begin to discuss the heart of the book and I’d suggest we read all of Part I. In my book this comes to 32 pages—a rather long reading, but I think it makes sense to attempt to read it as a unit rather than dividing it rather artificially. I’ll try to keep future readings shorter since I know that 32 pages of Edwards may prove a challenge (or a chore!) but please bear with me. Just read five pages per day through the week and you’ll have no trouble keeping up.

Would You Like to Participate?

If this is the first you’ve heard of Reading Classics Together and it sounds like something you’d like to participate in, we’d be glad to have you along. I will be reading from the Banner of Truth edition of the work, but you can follow along in any of the unabridged editions (of which there are many available). For technophiles, there is a Kindle edition available for only a couple of dollars. For those who are not interested in spending money, CCEL has the complete text available in HTML, PDF and other formats right here.

If you wish to purchase a printed copy of the book, you can do so from Amazon, Westminster Books, Monergism Books or just about anywhere else good Christian books are sold.

We are only a few pages into the book so it’s definitely not too late for you to begin reading with us.

June 26, 2008

To this point the “Reading Classics Together” effort has gone very well, at least by my assessment. We’ve read J.C. Ryle’s Holiness, John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation and A.W. Pink’s The Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross. We’ve had hundreds of people participate by reading the books together and discussing them each week. All along we’ve been reading some of the classics of the Christian faith—books many of us wish to read but books few of us have ever made time for. And now it is time to decide on the next classic we’ll read together.

There are two names that were continually in my mind as I pondered where we should go next: John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. The potential trouble with both of these men is that their seminal works are, in a word, long. If we are to read a long work I wonder if I may just be reading alone by the end. Regardless, I have decided that works of this quality will be worth it. And so I am proposing that our next book be The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards (all 350+ pages of it).

Here is what the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University says about the work:

A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections stands as Edwards’s most penetrating interpretation of the awakenings of his time, not to mention one of the most penetrating of any time. As in Some Thoughts, he argued against the extremes of emotionalism on the one hand and intellectualism on the other. Affections were essential to true religion, but they had to be tested. First, Edwards lays out his religious psychology of affections, which encompassed both understanding and will and involved the total range of human faculties. Answering critics of the revival, Edwards then discusses at length a series of “negative” signs, or unreliable criteria for judging the graciousness of affections. Finally, and most famously, he provided twelve “positive” signs for self-examination. The twelfth sign, which Edwards gave the fullest treatment, was the importance of Christian practice as evidence of the state of the heart. Here, for Edwards, was the ultimate standard for visible sainthood.

It is going to be a demanding read, and something of a long one, but I know the payoff will be worth every second spent in the book.

I will be reading from the Banner of Truth edition of the work, but you can follow along in any of the unabridged editions (of which there are many available). For technophiles, there is a Kindle edition available for only a couple of dollars. For those who are not interested in spending money, CCEL has the complete text available in HTML, PDF and other formats right here.

If you wish to purchase a printed copy of the book, you can do so from Amazon, Westminster Books, Monergism Books or just about anywhere else good Christian books are sold.

We will target July 17 as our start date. That gives you three full weeks to secure a copy and to read the Introduction and Preface. Then, every Thursday following, we’ll read a portion of the text and discuss it together.

It would be a helpful gauge of participation if you’d post a comment on this post indicating that you’d like to read this book with us. So if you are going to read along, let me know, either with a comment or a quick email. I’m looking forward to reading this next classic with you!