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holiness

May 29, 2011

Holiness
The holiness of God is his glory and crown. It is the blessedness of his nature. It renders him glorious in himself, and glorious to his creatures. “Holy” is more fixed as an epithet to his name than any other. This is his greatest title of honor. He is pure and unmixed light, free from all blemish in his essence, nature, and operations. He cannot be deformed by any evil. The notion of God cannot be entertained without separating from him whatever is impure and staining. Though he is majestic, eternal, almighty, wise, immutable, merciful, and whatsoever other prefections may dignify so sovereign a being, yet if we conceive him destitute of this excellent perfection, and imagine him possessed with the least contagion of evil, we make him but an infinite monster, and sully all those perfections we ascribed to him before.

December 23, 2010

And here we are, at the end of another classic. If you’ve been doing this since the beginning, you’ve now read Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross by A.W. Pink, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, Real Christianity by William Wilberforce, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs, Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray, The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes, Spurgeon by Arnold Dallimore. And, of course, The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. I’ve spoken to a few people recently (in real-life even) who have kept up and who have enjoyed the book. So I’m glad to know that some of you continue to read along.

This week’s chapter was titled “Holy Space and Holy Time” and in wrapping up the book Sproul turns to a discussion of setting apart certain spaces and certain times as holy. He writes about traditional church architecture and its function in drawing people to the holy, something he has emphasized in several of his other books. He writes about what goes missing in churches that are designed to be functional rather than beautiful. “What is often lost in these functional church designs is the profound sense of threshold. A threshold is a place of transition. It signals a change from one realm to another.” If you have ever visited Dr. Sproul’s home church of St. Andrew’s you will see how he and the members of that church have sought to recapture traditional design including the concept of threshold.

He writes as well about sacred times and in particular the Sabbath and the Lord’s Supper.

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper involves sacred time in three distinct ways. First, it looks to the past, instructing believers to remember and to show forth Christ’s death by this observance. Second, it focuses on the present moment of celebration, in which Christ meets with His people to nurture them and strengthen them in their sanctification. Third, it looks to the future, to the certain hope of their reunion with Christ in heaven, where they will participate in the banquet feast of the Lamb and His bride.

December 09, 2010

We have just a few chapters left in our reading of R.C. Sproul’s classic book The Holiness of God. This week we come to chapter 9 which is titled, “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners,” a clear play on the title of Jonathan Edwards’ most famous or notorious sermon.

Summary

I hope no one will accuse me of laziness if I continue posting lists of my favorite quotes from the chapter. I am trying this this time around because a) it may help jog the memories of those who are reading along and b) it gives a sense of the chapter for those who are not reading the book but who are enjoying these posts; it is the way they can most benefit from these articles.

In this chapter Dr. Sproul uses Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” as a jumping-off point to look at an aspect of God’s holiness that we naturally hate: his wrath.

If we despise the justice of God, we are not Christians. If we hate the wrath of God, it is because we hate God Himself. A loving God who has no wrath is no God. He is an idol of our own making as much as if we carved Him out of stone.

If we are unconverted, one thing is absolutely certain: We hate God. The Bible is unambiguous about this point. We are God’s enemies. We are inwardly sworn to His ultimate destruction. It is as natural for us to hate God as it is for rain to moisten the earth when it falls.

By nature, our attitude toward God is not one of mere indifference. It is a posture of malice. We oppose His government and refuse His rule over us. Our natural hearts are devoid of affection for Him; they are cold, frozen to His holiness. By nature, the love of God is not in us.

If God were to expose His life to our hands, He would not be safe for a second. We would not ignore Him; we would destroy Him.

The failure of modern evangelicalism is the failure to understand the holiness of God.

We may dislike giving our attention to God’s wrath and justice, but until we incline our selves to these aspects of Gods’ nature, we will never appreciate what has been wrought for us by grace.

Loving a holy God is beyond our moral power. The only kind of God we can love by our sinful nature is an unholy god, an idol made by our own hands. Unless we are born of the Spirit of God, unless God sheds His holy love in our hearts, unless He stoops in His grace to change our hearts, we will not love Him.

October 21, 2010

This is now week 2 of this project in which we are reading together through R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God. Before we discuss this week’s chapter, I wanted to make you aware of an interesting interview with Sproul on this very subject. It comes from a 1990 issue of Tabletalk magazine and, if you are interested, you can read it here: Striking a Chord in the Heart of of the Believer.

Summary

This week’s chapter is titled “Holy, Holy, Holy” and in it Sproul turns to the pages of Isaiah (Isaiah 6 in particular) and the prophet’s experience with coming into the presence of God. He looks first to those seraphim in God’s presence who continually cry out “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;the whole earth is full of his glory!”

Only once in sacred Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. Only once is a characteristic of God mentioned three times in succession. The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love; or mercy, mercy, mercy; or wrath, wrath, wrath; or justice, justice, justice. It does say that he is holy, holy, holy that the whole earth is full of His glory.

God is not just holy, but holy, holy, holy. Using a rhetorical device of the Hebrew language, the Bible expresses the extent of God’s holiness by emphasizing it through repetition.

Isaiah was a good man, it seems, a noble one. And yet before the presence of God he was completely undone.

If ever there was a man if integrity, it was Isaiah ben Amoz. He was a whole man, a together type of a fellow. He was considered by his contemporaries as the most righteous man in the nation. He was respected as a paragon of virtue. Then he caught one sudden glimpse of a holy God. In that single moment, all of his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second he was exposed, made naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holiness. As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals, he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of his own character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed- morally and spiritually annihilated. He was undone. He came apart. His sense of integrity collapsed.

Called by God in dramatic fashion, Isaiah was set apart for his task despite being a sinful man, a man who had a filthy mouth. And yet God chose to cleanse him and to set him apart to this most difficult, thankless ministry. A seraph pressed a hot coal to Isaiah’s lips. “His was no cruel and unusual punishment. A second of burning flesh on the lips brought a healing that would extend to eternity. In a moment, the disintegrated prophet was whole again. His mouth was purged. He was clean.”

September 23, 2010

Several years ago I introduced a program called Reading Classics Together. The impetus for this project was the simple realization that, though many Christians want to read through the classics of the faith, few of us have the motivation to actually make it happen. I know this was long the case for me. This program allows us to read such classic works together, providing both a level of accountability and the added interest of comparing notes as we read in community. Those who have participated in each of the programs will now have read Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross by A.W. Pink, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, Real Christianity by William Wilberforce, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs, Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray, The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes and, most recently, in trying something a little bit different, Spurgeon by Arnold Dallimore. That is quite a solid collection of classics! I have benefited immensely from reading these books and know that others have, too.

The format is simple: every week we read a chapter or a section of a classic of the Christian faith and then on Thursday we check in at my blog to discuss it. It’s that easy: one chapter per week.

The Holiness of GodIt has been a few weeks now since we finished reading the last classic together and that makes it time to announce the next book we’ll be reading. Ignoring the brief break we took to read a biography, the last classic we read together was from the Puritan era. I thought it would make sense to zoom forward in history to almost the present day. The next book I want to read with you is R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God. I am convinced that this is destined to be a classic in its own right—one that will be read 50 and 100 years from now. James Montgomery Boice agreed saying, “It may be a bit early to call R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God one of the classic theological works of our time. But if it does not have that status yet, it is well on the way to achieving it.”

Now celebrating 25 years of publication, this classic can help you better understand the biblical picture of God’s awesome holiness and why it is so foundational to God-centered, God-honoring theology and Christian living. In The Holiness of God , R.C. Sproul demonstrates that encountering God’s holy presence is a terrifying experience. Dr. Sproul argues that this struggle is nonetheless necessary because it is the only way to cure our propensity to trust in ourselves and our own righteousness for salvation.

This is the kind of book that every Christian should read and the kind that is ideally suited for reading more than once. So if you have read it before, don’t think that means you can’t read it with us again.

Let’s start reading together on October 14. That gives you three weeks to find a copy of the book, something that will not prove difficult since it is very widely available. For October 14 please get ahold of a copy of the book and read the first chapter. And then simply return to the blog on that day and we can compare notes.

Now, you need to get a copy. Westminster Books has it at $13.99. Amazon has it at $10.07 or $9.57 for the Kindle. And if you’d like to go straight to the source, to Ligonier Ministries, you can find it there for $8.40 or in the exclusive pocket-size edition for just $4.00 (It is also avaiable in Spanish, if you prefer).

So go ahead and get yourself a copy. And then let me know if you intend to read along with us. Just leave a comment…

August 14, 2010

A couple of days ago I sat down and made my way through R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God. This is one of those books that, if I was more organized, I would schedule to read every year or so. Maybe we ought to make it one of the volumes we read in a forthcoming Reading Classics Together. Though Dr. Sproul has written some great books in this life, I do think this is the best of them.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes, just a few of many (many!) I highlighted along the way:

We tend to have mixed feelings about the holy. There is a sense in which we are at the same time attracted to it and repulsed by it. Something draws us toward it, while at the same time we want to run away from it. We can’t seem to decide which way we want it. Part of us yearns for the holy, while part of us despises it. We can’t live with it, and we can’t live without it.

Only once in sacred Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. Only once is a characteristic of God mentioned three times in succession. The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love; or mercy, mercy, mercy; or wrath, wrath, wrath; or justice, justice, justice. It does say that he is holy, holy, holy that the whole earth is full of His glory.

If ever there was a man of integrity, it was Isaiah ben Amoz. He was a whole man, a together type of a fellow.  He was considered by his contemporaries as the most righteous man in the nation. He was respected as a paragon of virtue. Then he caught one sudden glimpse of a holy God. In that single moment, all of his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second he was exposed, made naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holiness. As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals, he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of his own character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed—morally and spiritually annihilated. He was undone. He came apart. His sense of integrity collapsed.

It’s dangerous to assume that because a person is drawn to holiness in his study that he is thereby a holy man. There is irony here. I am sure that the reason I have a deep hunger to learn of the holiness of God is precisely because I am not holy. I am a profane man—a man who spends more time out of the temple than in it. But I have had just enough of a taste of the majesty of God to want more. I know what it means to be a forgiven man and what it means to be sent on a mission. My soul cries for more. My soul needs more.

April 17, 2009

Years ago a Christian band called Hokus Pick used to tour Canada once or twice a year. They were a great bunch of guys who truly loved the Lord. I would often catch them in concert and even promoted a handful of shows for them. Every time they toured, they did so with a different opening band and their tongue-in-cheek boast was that every band who opened for them immediately broke up after the tour. I guess this wasn’t far from the truth, though I’m sure it was mere coincidence. One of the bands that toured with them was called Doulos. I don’t think they survived for long after the tour, but one of their songs continues to be a favorite of mine. It is called, simply. “Again.” The song captures something precious to me.

my mouth is empty
shame surrounds me
I feel what I say can’t be heard or shouldn’t be
again I’m jumping into darkness
not knowing if my feet will land again

again I’m caught and made innocent
as I land in a pool of blood
how many times can the gift of life be given
I stand still and weep again

As we would expect, the song is tied together in the chorus. It is a simple chorus, containing only one line. “How long till I become holy.” But the line is not sung with great joy and excitement, but rather almost as a groan or a cry. “Oh, how long till I become holy?” I assume this song was inspired, at least in part, by Romans 8. And if you look to that passage, you may be struck by the sheer volume of groaning in the verses. It is not just believers who groan, but rather it is Christians, Creation and the Holy Spirit who are said to be groaning.

“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” The world was made perfect and holy, but through the sin of our first parents, Creation fell with us. And now, as if to show that this is an unnatural state, all of Creation cries out to God for the end of such sin and torment. The hills wait for the day when they can sing praise to God and the trees wait to clap their hands in joy and freedom. This personification of nature, as found in Isaiah, shows us that the whole world waits with us for redemption and the end of sin.

“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Christians, those who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, also groan as we wait for the final consummation. We groan inwardly as our spirits cry out to God. We know that sin is foreign to us as beings created in the image of God and our hearts cry out for an end to sin. Some also cry outwardly, eagerly anticipating the end of pain, suffering and physical affliction. It is this cry that is the subject of the song. “Oh, how long till I become holy?” How long must it be, Lord, before you take away this death and this corruption? How long before you make me who I so badly want to be? How long before you take me to the presence of the One I long to see?

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” But we do not groan alone. No, for we have Divine aid. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us in our cries to God. When I feel weak in prayer, the Holy Spirit is there, helping me. Even when I do not know how or what to pray, the Spirit knows, and stands between myself and the Father, presenting to him prayers that express what is best. Where I am limited by limited knowledge, the Spirit is not. He takes my prayers and conforms them to the Father’s will before bringing them before the Throne of Grace. When I pray in Jesus’ name, humbling myself before His sovereignty, I offer my will and desires to him, and truly seek “the good” that Paul speaks of in Romans 8:28. I acknowledge that in my humanness I would make a mess of even the most trivial decisions; I trust that God knows best.

And so until that great day when the world is finally perfected, the Holy Spirit groans with the Creation and with believers, as together we cry out for the new heaven and the new earth. And with the songwriter and with Christians through the ages, I groan at the burden of my own sin. But despite my hatred of sin I do the very thing I least want to do and jump once again into the darkness only to find myself caught again in a pool of blood. I am forgiven again and wonder within myself just how many times God can forgive me and just how long His patience can last. Often I pause to weep, either at the depth of my own depravity or at the height of God’s grace. And all the while I cry out, “Oh, how long? How long, oh Lord, before you make me fully, truly, purely, finally holy?”

Here’s one I dug out of the archives and tidied up some.

August 25, 2008

We, as human beings, love underdog stories. Yesterday I watched a couple of episodes of Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, a six-part series that aired as part of the “American Experience” program. As with any bio of Lincoln, it contrasts his early years with those of his wife. Where Mary Todd was raised in a huge home filled with servants and slaves, Abraham Lincoln was raised in a one-room cabin far from civilization; where Mary was given many years of formal education, Abraham studied what he could when he could and had less than a single year of formal education from only the lowest of teachers; where Mary was cultured and proper, Abraham was rough around the edges. They are in so many ways a study in opposites which makes their romance and their love for one another all the more interesting. Where many would have seen in Mary the kind of person who would some day become the wife of a President, few would have predicted Abraham’s rise to the highest office. When he ran for office, he was the rail splitter President, the one who came from the backwoods to make a bid for the highest office. Lincoln stands as proof, even today, that in America people can rise beyond their circumstances and play formative roles in the nation. America is the land of opportunity for the Lincoln’s of the world.

After watching the episodes of “American Experience” I wandered into my office and noticed a little piece of paper, a Post-It Note. Occasionally I have a thought that I figure I should record for one reason or another. Sometimes these get jotted down on little bits of paper and eventually thrown away. I don’t remember when I wrote this one, but in light of what I had just watched, it seemed appropriate. I had written two lines, the first of which was the following: “Christ found it tough to lay aside his glory.” That seemed appropriate in light of what I had just watched. Here is the reverse of the Lincoln story—the reverse of the underdog story. Though Jesus Christ was “in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6,7). Jesus had been exalted far beyond the office of President. He was in the form of God; He was God. And yet he humbled Himself far lower than a rail splitter living in a squalid little cabin miles from nowhere. “[B]eing found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Lincoln worked hard—extremely hard—to rise above his circumstances. In fact, once he left his home, he returned only many years later, as if just being near his father would somehow interfere with his desire to become more than his father was. He was driven by a desire to succeed and to make more of himself than anyone could hope to expect for a man with such humble origins. As a young adult he may not have known what he wanted to be, but there is no doubt that he knew what he did not want to be. And with hard work and incredible drive, he become a lawyer and politician and President. With the benefit of historical hindsight we can see that he became exactly the President America needed in her greatest hour of need.

Which of these is the greatest story? Which of these strikes deepest? Here is where the second line of my little note comes in. After writing “Christ found it tough to lay aside his glory” I had written “Why do I find it hard to put on?” It’s a fair question, I think. Imagine what it must have been like for Abraham Lincoln to rise from rail splitter to President. There would have been difficulties, for sure, but such a rise is the stuff of dreams. Who hasn’t, at one time or another, dreamed of rising from obscurity to fame? Who hasn’t cheered on an underdog as he claims a political office or a gold medal?

But now imagine what it must have been like for Jesus Christ to put aside such glory in order to become merely human. This is the stuff of scandal. Who cheers when a famous person falls into obscurity or when a politician leaves office to sweep the hallways of a local primary school. We feel pity, not honor, for such a man. How can we even begin to understand the infinite difference between God and man? The Bible turns to superlatives, saying that Christ made that step, putting aside everything to become nothing. He came not as a king or a President, but as a servant. And this was only the beginning. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). He died under the verse curse of God.

Surely it must have been exceedingly difficult for Jesus Christ to lay aside all that He was in order to become one of His created beings. But He did it and in this way was able to offer the gift of salvation to all men. And to those who believe, He offers the holiness that is His. He offers us far more than the difference between rail splitter and President. He offers us the privilege of being remade more and more in His image. And yet so often we accept this gift hesitantly. Or, at least, I know that I do. I look at the Bible, the guide to living a holy life, and accept it with great reluctance. I turn to it with hesitation and wrestle with its words, hoping it is not demanding of me what I know it is demanding of me. The glory that Christ found so hard to put aside is the very holiness I find so hard to accept. As it must have torn Jesus apart to take off that garment, there is a part of me that is torn apart at having to put it on.

And yet Christ died for even this sin, this sin of reluctantly accepting His free gift of grace—His free gift of sanctification. Despite my sin, I know that Christ has been working in me a desire for holiness. Being God, His power is far greater than mine and He is able to overcome even my ungodly reluctance. He is able to erase my nothing and to give me everything. And, by His grace, He will.

December 26, 2007

Jerry Bridges’ The Discipline of Grace is one of those books that is worth reading slowly and meditatively, pausing often to reflect and, in my case, to write. I rarely dwell too long on a single book, but because of the sheer quantity and quality of Bible-based teaching within this book, I felt compelled to read it slowly and meditatively. It was well worth the effort and the time spent.

One of the areas of that book that has impacted in my life came when I read about the importance of disciplining myself to make choices that glorify God. Bridges says that “the practice of putting off sinful attitudes and actions and putting on Christlike character involves a constant series of choices. We choose in every situation which direction we will go. It is through these choices that we develop Christlike habits of living.” I was intrigued by this. I soon thought back to a time a couple of years ago when I discovered, much to my surprise, that I excelled in the not-too-spiritual gift of discouragement. I realized, through God’s work in my heart, that I was often being a discouragement to other people. I tended towards the pessimistic and sarcastic and seldom sought to bring encouragement. And so I put some effort into cultivating a spirit of encouragement. I initially found this to be a difficult task. One would not think it difficult to be an encourager, but I found that it truly was difficult to reverse course. I would be encouraging for a short time but would soon slip back into old patterns. I continued to be a discourager.

One day it occurred to me that I was going to have to discipline myself to encourage others. And so I took the strange and seemingly-artificial step of calendaring time to encourage others. It sounds strange, I know, but I opened up my Outlook calendar and created a 5-minute appointment recurring every three days. The appointment simply said “Encourage!” And so, every third day, while I was hard at work, a little reminder would flash up on my screen. “Encourage!,” it said. And I would. I would take the opportunity to quickly phone a friend or dash off an email to someone I felt was in need of encouragement. This felt very artificial. I felt like a fraud as I, with a heart of discouragement, attempted to be an encouragement to others. But as time went on, it began to become quite natural. I soon found that I no longer felt the same spirit of discouragement within me. Encouragement slowly became more natural. What had begun as a discipline that felt artificial, soon became a habit that felt natural.

There was a lesson in there for me. I agree with Bridges who often says “discipline without direction is drudgery.” Had I disciplined myself to be encouraging without first being convicted by the Spirit of my sin, and I had I attempted to be an encourager without first setting a direction that honored God, I doubt that He would have blessed my efforts. But I believe that He did bless them. I can still be as discouraging as anyone I know, but I also think that discouragement is no longer as quick to arise as it was before. More and more I find that I tend towards encouragement rather that discouragement. After a couple of months I was able to remove the recurring appointment from my Outlook calendar, for encouragement began to come naturally. Since then I’ve sometimes had to add the appointment back to my calendar just to encourage me to once again encourage others, but it never takes all that much effort anymore to get myself back into the mindset of being an encourager.

Bridges writes, “Habits are developed by repetition, and it is in the arena of moral choices that we develop spiritual habit patterns.” I believe this was proven true in my experience. “It is through righteous actions that we develop holy character. Holiness of character, then, is developed one choice at a time as we choose to act righteously in each and every situation and circumstance we encounter during the day.” I think there are some who feel that discipline brings about holiness. These are men and women who are unbelievably disciplined. They get out of bed at the same time each day, spent 22 minutes praying and 17 minutes reading the Bible. They feel that this discipline leads them closer to God. But I disagree. It is not discipline or commitment or conviction that makes us holy. Rather, “we become more holy by obedience to the Word of God, by choosing to obey His will as revealed in the Scriptures in all the various circumstances of our lives.” Conviction, commitment and discipline are necessary to making the right choices, but true spiritual growth can come only when we choose to obey God’s commandments, one at a time.

Discipline, commitment, conviction and Godly habits are closely related. It is important that we are disciplined, but only after we have been convicted and have set a direction towards godliness. At this time discipline and commitment can be used by God to work in us His holiness. Discipline is but a means to a much higher, more Christ-like end. It is a cruel master but a wonderful servant.

November 05, 2007

It was near the end of the book of Hebrews that I found some verses that have been bouncing around in my head for some time now. With the epistle drawing to a close, the pastor who authored this letter exhorts the believers to remember the men who had once led the church, to consider how these men lived, and to imitate their faith. “Remember your leaders,” he says, “those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

That verse has given me a lot to think about. God, working through the written words of an anonymous pastor who lived 2,000 years ago, challenged me to consider men who once spoke the word of God—men whose lives I should consider that I might imitate their faith. Unlike the recipients of this letter, I do not have a long legacy of being in a church where leaders have served for decades and have finished well. I have been more of a church pilgrim, often moving from one town to the next through my childhood and early years of my marriage. At long last we’ve settled in a town and in a church where we hope to remain for the long haul. But as I considered these verses I thought of a church like Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, a church that has prospered under the long ministries of men like Donald Barnhouse (33 years), James Montgomery Boice (32 years) and Phillip Ryken (12 years and counting). People who attend churches like that and who have been members of such churches for many years will be able to look to the past and to consider how these men lived. From there they can learn about the faith that sustained these pastors and then imitate that faith.

Not all of us have been so privileged. But we have the ability to find heroes in history by reading good biographies. And this is, I think, one of the reasons I am so often drawn to biographies of great Christians. Through these books we are able to read about the faith of Christians who served God through their lives and then finished strong. John Piper says, “This is why dead heroes are more important than living heroes. Living heroes are important, but they might cease to be heroes before they die. They might let you down. Rather, he says, ‘remember’ - that’s a word that reaches into the past. Remember those whose conduct you can survey from beginning to end, and consider all of it - especially how it ended.” It is really only when the final chapter has closed in death that we may know how a man has lived. Dead heroes harbor few surprises.

It is important to note that the exhortation is not to imitate these men—it is not to ponder their lives and then to imitate their conduct. Rather, the author exhorts people to ponder the outcome of these lives, to see how these men finished their races, and, having found worthy examples, to imitate their faith. John Piper sounds an important warning about imitating the conduct of others. “If you try to imitate their conduct, you become a religious fake, a spiritual counterfeit. This is a frightening reality when you see it - people who have learned the forms of godliness and know nothing of the power that comes from genuine faith. Instead he says: look at the whole course of their conduct and how they finished their course, and get the same motor that made them what they were: their faith.”

Verse seven cannot be separated from the verse that follows. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Jesus Christ is the same today as He was when these men led the church and when they encouraged your faith. Jesus was worth serving then and He is worth serving now; Jesus sustained these men even through times of hardship and He can and will sustain you in the same way. Though months and seasons and years come and go, Jesus remains the same—still available, still powerful, still in control. Richard Phillips writes, “The writer’s confidence is not in men of God; it is in the God of men.” Though we are to imitate the faith of these men, we are to see this faith as a gift of God and to place our confidence in God who gives faith, not in men who express it.

By way of conclusion, Richard Phillips says, “This is the greatest legacy any of us can impart from the pattern of our lives, and it is by providing such examples that Christian leaders most powerfully serve the Lord and his church.” The questions I had to ask myself were these: First, whose faith am I imitating? Who are the Christians of days gone by whose faith serves as an example to me. And second, what will my legacy be? Will I leave behind a pattern of trust and faithful service that another person may find worthy of imitation, or will I be fearful and faithless, leaving behind a legacy I’d want no one to imitate?

Perhaps your faith would also be served by pondering those same questions in light of Hebrews 13.