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Reading Classics Together

May 23, 2013

Reading Classics Together
It was back in 2007 that I had an idea that genuinely changed my life. I wanted to read some of the classics of the Christian faith, but I knew that without some measure of accountability I would never have the self-discipline to make it happen. I realized that this accountability could come by reading classics together in community. I decided to launch a reading program called Reading Classics Together.

In the years since this program began we’ve read some amazing classics from years gone by and from the present time. These include titles like Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul, and The Cross of Christ by John Stott. These books and others like them have benefited me immensely and I know the same is true of those who have read along with me.

It is time to embark on a new reading project and it only seems right that we should go back to the Puritans. We’ve read Owens, Burroughs, Sibbes and Bunyan. Now it’s time to move to Thomas Brooks and his classic work Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices.

Precious RemediesIn their book Meet the Puritans, Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson say, “This book offers sorely needed lessons on the subtleties of Satan’s devices.”

Brooks describes twelve of Satan’s devices and their remedies, then focuses on eight devices Satan uses to keep believers from using the means of grace. He provides remedies for those devices that keep saints in a sad, doubting condition. Finally, he provides remedies for the abuse of riches, for pride of learning, for divisions among the gody, and for the excuse of ignorance.

They close by saying, “We greatly need the guidance Brooks provides in this book. Though Satan’s tools may change over the centuries, his devices remain constant; hence, this classic will never be outdated.”

That sounds like exactly the kind of book I (and you!) need to read. So here’s the plan:

  • Get a copy of the book ASAP.
  • Start reading it.
  • Visit this site on June 6.

I will share my first article on Thursday, June 6. This will reflect on the introductory matter and the brief section entitled “The Proof of the Point.” (The week after we will begin to look at the devices Brooks draws out.) After June 6 I will share one article each Thursday until the book is complete, something that will likely take about 10 or 12 weeks.

All you need to do in order to participate is get a copy of the book and begin reading.

The book is available in print (Westminster Books, Banner of Truth, Grace & Truth Books; Reformation Heritage), Kindle (Amazon) and HTML (alternate). There are various electronic editions at about a dollar each, and some may be better quality than others.

If you’re going to read along with me, why don’t you just leave a comment below so I can get a gauge on interest.

November 01, 2012

Over the past couple of months, I have been writing a series of reflections on Jerry Bridges’ book The Discipline of Grace. This is such an important book—a true contemporary classic—that teaches the centrality of the gospel in the life of the Christian. Bridges was writing about gospel-centeredness long before gospel-centeredness was all the rage.

All throughout the book Bridges has shared a series of disciplines the Christian must develop as he pursues holiness. “We have seen that we must behold Christ in the gospel, we must learn the proper relationship of dependence and personal discipline, we must make a commitment to holiness, and we must develop Bible-based convictions. In the everyday application of Scripture we must learn to make the right choices, to mortify sin, and to watch against temptation.” These are all things we must do if we are to make progress in the pursuit of holiness. Though we maintain dependence upon the Holy Spirit to grow in holiness, still we must act and still we must discipline ourselves.

But there is one discipline that we do not undertake ourselves. Instead, the Lord imposes it upon us as  a means of spiritual growth. This is the discipline of adversity. In the final chapter Bridges looks to Hebrews 12:4-13, a classic passage on how the Lord disciplines us for our good. It is noteworthy that a passage on the Lord’s discipline begins with an encouragement. The author of the letter to the Hebrews encourages the recipients of the letter by telling them that the Lord disciplines the ones he loves, just as a father lovingly disciplines his own children. Says Bridges, “We should realize that God’s discipline, which comes to us in the form of adversity or hardship, is an indication of His loving care, not a token of His disfavor.”

When we find ourselves under the Lord’s discipline, there are two ways that we may react wrongly—we may make light of it (or, to say it another way, we may despise it), such as when we count it as little value and something that is to be endured rather than something that is for our benefit. Alternatively, we may also lose heart under it, believing that the Lord is disciplining us out of anger rather than out of love. Bridges offers this warning:

In times of adversity Satan will seek to plant the thought in our minds that God is angry with us and is disciplining us out of wrath. Here is another instance when we need to preach the gospel to ourselves. It is the gospel that will reassure us that the penalty for our sins has been paid, that God’s justice has been fully satisfied. It is the gospel that supplies a good part of the armor of God with which we are able to stand against the accusing attacks of the Devil (see Ephesians 6:13-17).

All of this raises a question: How do we know when the Lord is disciplining us? Bridges looks to Hebrews 12:7-8 and says, “The writer instructed us to ‘endure hardship as discipline.’ There is no qualifying adjective. He did not say, ‘Endure all hardship’; neither did he say, ‘Endure some hardship as discipline.’ In the absence of a qualifying adjective, we must understand him to have meant all hardship. That is, all hardship of whatever kind has a disciplinary purpose for us. There is no such thing as pain without a purpose in the life of a believer.”

October 25, 2012

A wealthy woman wanted to hire a chauffeur. As each applicant came to be interviewed, she had him drive her along a narrow, winding mountain road with a precipice on one side. All of the drivers, in an effort to impress her with their driving skills, drove as close to the edge of the precipice as they dared. Finally one applicant drove differently. He kept as far away from the edge as he could. The widow hired that man. She did not want a daring, albeit highly skilled, driver. She wanted one who would drive as safely as he could.

That story may well be apocryphal, but it helpfully illustrates an important principle in the Christian life: spiritual watchfulness. Jerry Bridges uses this story to say that in the area of Christian liberty—those many activities where the Bible does not give us specific guidance—many Christians operate by “how daring can I be” or “How close can I get to the cliff” rather than by “How safe can I be.” He dedicates a whole chapter of his book The Discipline of Grace to “The Discipline of Watching,” the discipline of remaining alert for temptation.

The Bible makes it clear that this life is one of constant temptation. We face three enemies: the world, the Devil and the flesh. Of these three, Bridges focuses most of his attention on the flesh since it is the greatest source of temptation, dwelling as it does, right inside us. Every Christian can testify to this: “Our flesh is always searching out opportunities to gratify itself according to the particular sinful desires each of us has.” Bridges says it well: “Realize that your ‘temptation antenna’ is constantly scanning your environment looking for those areas of sin.” That is a powerful illustration—that in our sin we are constantly looking for new ways to indulge. Each of us has certain sins to which we are particularly prone and the flesh, the sin that remains within us, is always looking for just the smallest crack, the smallest weakness, the smallest invitation. The first line of defense against temptation is watchfulness—to be aware of the sins that tempt us most often and with the greatest strength and to be proactive in our battle against them.

Bridges quotes Horatius Bonar in his call to avoid even the little sins.

The avoidance of little evils, little sins, little inconsistencies, little weaknesses, little follies, little indiscretions and imprudences, little foibles, little indulgences of self and of the flesh, little acts of indolence or indecision, or slovenliness or cowardice, little equivocations or aberrations from high integrity, little touches of shabbiness or meanness, … little indifferences to the feelings or wishes of others, little outbreaks of temper, or crossness, or selfishness, or vanity—the avoidance of such little things as these goes far to make up at least the negative beauty of a holy life.

As Bridges explains, “we seldom have to say no to an outright temptation to adultery. We often have to say no to the temptation to the lustful look or thought. And as some unknown person has said, ‘He that despises little things shall fall little by little.’”

October 18, 2012

It’s funny where life’s little defining moments can come from. It’s so often through words that are so obvious to other people, but somehow they’ve just never stood out to you. As a young man Jerry Bridges was at a Bible study group and heard this: “The Bible was not given just to increase your knowledge but to guide your conduct.” This was a brand-new thought to him. He headed home and that night prayed a simple prayer: “God, starting tonight I want You to use the Bible to guide my conduct.” Just like that. This transformed his whole approach to the Scriptures and his whole understanding of the Christian life. Any of us who have heard him speak or read his books have benefited from this epiphany.

In chapter eleven of his book The Discipline of Grace, Bridges writes about “The Discipline of Choices” and says, “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. Habits are developed by repetition, and it is in the arena of moral choices that we develop spiritual habit patterns.”

That could easily sound moralistic, like if we just choose the right choice over a period of time, we will eventually train ourselves to do what is right. This has been exactly the approach of many Christian books which, without reference to the gospel or the work of the Holy Spirit, train us to replace old behaviors with new ones (Every Man’s Battle comes to mind). And to some degree it is possible to do that. But Bridges goes to Scripture to show that a retraining of habits is not enough.

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. 

We do not become more holy either by discipline or by dependence. Neither do we become more holy by committing ourselves to God, or by developing Bible-based conviction. 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.

The choices we make, and therefore the habits we develop, are formed by obedience to the Word. “It is only through making the right choice to obey God’s Word that we will break the habits of sin and develop habits of holiness. This is where we desperately need the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to make the right choices. So cry out to God every day for His help for that day, and then cry out again each time you are confronted with the choice to sin or to obey.”

October 11, 2012

Morality by consensus. That’s the way so many of us live, avoiding the things we collectively determine are wrong while affirming the things we determine are right and good. By consequence, our morals are in constant flux, constant transition, as they respond and adapt to the spirit of the age. This is true outside of the church and, sadly, true even within Christian culture.

In The Discipline of Grace Jerry Bridges challenges us that “if we are going to make progress in the pursuit of holiness, we must aim to live according to the precepts of Scripture—not according to the culture, even the Christian culture, around us.” But we can’t do this if we don’t know what those precepts are and we can’t know what those precepts are unless we are immersed in the Word of God. Says Bridges,

To pursue holiness, one of the disciplines we must become skilled in is the development of Bible-based convictions. A conviction is a determinative belief: something you believe so strongly that it affects the way you live. Someone has observed that a belief is what  you hold, but a conviction is what holds you. You may live contrary to what you believe, but you cannot live contrary to your convictions.

Thus Bridges wants us to see that there is a difference between your beliefs and your convictions. We can believe all the right things but still have very wrong convictions. He shows that when it comes to convictions, Bible presents us with something like an “influence continuum.” On one side of a line is sinful society and on the other side is the Word of God. We all exist somewhere on this continuum, influenced to lesser or greater extent by each. “Our attitude toward the Word of God and the time we spend thinking about it. Nothing else will determine where you are on that continuum.” As Christians mature, they move to the “God’s Word” side of the continuum, being influenced more by God and less by society.

October 04, 2012

The Apostle Paul was fond of using athletic metaphors in his call for distinctly Christian lives. Romans 12:1 is just one example: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” But there is an important difference between the commitment of an athlete and that of a Christian: An athlete’s commitment is to himself or to his team, while the commitment of the Christian is to God.

Jerry Bridges addresses this in The Discipline of Grace and warns of one way that we can completely miss the mark: “When we commit ourselves to the pursuit of holiness, we need to ensure that our commitment is actually to God, not simply to a holy lifestyle or a set of moral values. The people of my parent’s generation were generally honest, chaste, sober, and thrifty. They were committed to those values, but they were not necessarily committed to God. Many of them were outstanding moralists and even church people, but they were not committed to God.” These people were committed to their values, but not to God. Could the same be true of us? 

“As believers we need to be careful that we do not make a similar mistake. We can be committed to a set of Christian values or to a lifestyle of discipleship without being committed to God Himself. But Paul said, offer yourself to God, and in doing that commit yourselves to the pursuit of holiness in order to please Him.” This is a warning we do well to heed. Bridges continues: “We should not seek holiness in order to feel good about ourselves, or to blend in with our Christian peer group, or to avoid the sense of shame and guilt that follows the committing of persistent sin in our lives. Far too often our concern with sin arises from how it makes us feel. Sinful habits, sometimes called ‘besetting sins,’ cause us to feel defeated, and we don’t like to be defeated in anything, whether it’s a game of Ping-Pong or in our struggle with sin.”

Here’s the important application: As we commit to the disciplines of the Christian life, our first commitment is to pursue a life that is pleasing to God, which is to say, a life of obedience. We commit to obey which means “we must make it our aim not to sin.” That is our base-level, fundamental commitment: We will obey God by not sinning.

Bridges wants us to take a deep look at our intentions in all of this. “It is the intention to please God in all our actions that is the key to commitment of a life of holiness. If we do not make such a commitment to obedience without exception, we will constantly find ourselves making exceptions. We will have a ‘just one more time’ syndrome in our lives. But the truth is, the ‘one more time’ manner of thinking undermines our commitment. Every time we give in to a temptation, even though it may seem small and insignificant to us, we make it easier to give in the next time. Sin has a tendency to exert an ever-increasing power on us if it is not resisted on every occasion.” I think every Christian can attest to this, that sin’s power grows when we allow ourselves to continue to give in to it. When we allow ourselves to sin just that one time, it is just that much easier to sin the next time.

September 27, 2012

Preach the gospel to yourself! Preach the gospel to yourself every day! I think we are all growing accustomed to being told that Christians need to center their lives upon the gospel and that one of the keys to doing this is to be continually reminded of what is true by preaching the gospel to ourselves every day. I’ve been hearing this for years now and to varying degrees have been practicing it. However, just last week I had a bit of a breakthrough in my thinking about it. (Though this is a breakthrough for me, it is may well be one of those things you have understood for years.)

I have always understood that when I have sinned there is value in preaching the gospel to myself. When I sin I am prone to wallow in feelings of guilt and despair, as if negative feelings are in some way redemptive or as if they accomplish something. How could I fall into this sin again? Would a real Christian ever do something like this? In those moments I can summon the truth of the gospel to reassure myself that because of what Christ has done I am not condemned and cannot be condemned. In those moments I simply recount the gospel—that I am a sinner, that Christ died to take away the guilt of my sin and to give me his righteousness, that Christ has defeated sin and death, that I am a new creation, that my sin is no longer counted against me. There is freedom in apprehending and applying the gospel as a response to my sin.

What I haven’t understood to the same degree is the value of preemptively preaching the gospel to myself. I have heard many people say that there is value in preaching the gospel to myself every day, whether or not I find myself carrying the guilt and shame of sin. I’ve always thought of preaching the gospel to myself as a reactive thing, but Jerry Bridges has helped me to see it as proactive. Here’s why: The gospel does not merely correct bad thinking in the past and present, but also prevents bad thinking in the future. The gospel does not just speak to forgiveness of sins, but convicts me of the value of avoiding sin and reminds me that I now have the power to overcome it.

As I’ve read The Discipline of Grace Bridges has called me to see that I can only love God if I believe that God loves me first. “We cannot love God if we think we are under His judgment and condemnation.” Of course this is why I must be continually preaching the gospel to myself. I cannot truly and freely love God as long as I remain unconvinced of his love for me. For me to love him, I must believe that I am uncondemned and that I relate to him by grace instead of by law. “The extent to which we realize and acknowledge our own sinfulness, and the extent to which we realize the total forgiveness and cleansing from those sins, will determine the measure of our love to God.”

September 20, 2012

Loving God is not as simple as we sometimes think. Christians are fond of reminding one another that in a biblical sense love is a verb, not just feeling but action. This is true, but there is far more to it than that. Jerry Bridges came to this realization and began to reflect on the command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” In The Discipline of Grace he describes how he came to see that love is rooted in obedience to God’s commands. “Whatever else might be involved in loving God with all my heart, obedience to His law was certainly a major part of it.” (Note that when he speaks of God’s law as it applies to us today, he refers to the permanent moral law, not the Old Testament ceremonial law). To put it another way, “Our love to God will always manifest itself in obedience to Him.”

Bridges sketches out a helpful illustration of the way so many Christians love God. This was very nearly painful for me to read.

If we are to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, and if obedience is a major part of such love, then it follows that we are to obey Him with all our heart, soul, and mind. We are to put everything we have into obedience to Him.

My observation is that most of us who are believers practice what I call a “cruise-control” approach to obedience. Many cars today have a convenient feature called cruise control. When you are driving on the highway you can accelerate to your desired speed, push the cruise-control button, and take your foot from the accelerator pedal. Some mechanism attached to the engine will then maintain your desired speed, and you can ease back and relax a little. You don’t have to watch your speedometer to make sure you’re not going to get a ticket for speeding, and you no longer have to experience the fatigue that comes with constant foot pressure on the accelerator. It’s very convenient and relatively relaxing. It’s a great feature on cars.

However, we tend to obey God in the same way. To continue the driving analogy, we press the accelerator pedal of obedience until we have brought our behavior up to a certain level or “speed.” The level of obedience is most often determined by the behavior standard of other Christians around us. We don’t want to lag behind them because we want to be as spiritual as they are. At the same time, we’re not eager to forge ahead of them because we wouldn’t want to be different. We want to just comfortably blend in with the level of obedience of those around us.

Once we have arrived at this comfortable level of obedience, we push the “cruise-control” button in our hearts, ease back, and relax. Our particular Christian culture then takes over and keeps us going at the accepted level of conduct. We don’t have to watch the speed-limit signs in God’s Word, and we certainly don’t have to experience the fatigue that comes with seeking to obey Him with all our heart, soul, and mind.

He contrasts this with “Race-Car Obedience,” stating that compared to cruise-control drivers, race car drivers are driving with all their heart, soul, and mind, never dreaming of coasting along. And here is a crucial application: “God is not impressed with our worship on Sunday morning at church if we are practicing ‘cruise-control’ obedience the rest of the week. You may sing with reverent zest or great emotional fervor, but your worship is only as pleasing to God as the obedience that accompanies it.”

And now he circles back to love.

September 13, 2012

I have been enjoyed a re-reading of Jerry Bridges’ The Discipline of Grace, a true modern-day classic work. I have come to the sixth chapter which discusses sanctification, or being transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Bridges looks at two different texts and two different ways the Bible speaks the goal of the Christian life. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says that “we are being transformed into [Christ’s] likeness” while Romans 8:29 states that God “predestined [all believers] to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.” Bridges says, “Christlkeness is God’s goal for all who trust in Christ, and that should be our goal also.”

Both words, transformed and conformed, have a common root, form, meaning a pattern or a mold. “Being transformed” refers to the process; conformed refers to the finished product. Jesus is our pattern or mold. We are being transformed so that we will eventually be conformed to the likeness of Jesus. Sanctification or holiness (the words are somewhat interchangeable), then, is conformity to the likeness of Jesus Christ.

He then asks, “How can we know whether we are being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ?” He encourages Christians to begin with studying the character of Jesus, saying

One of my favorite descriptions of Christ is that He “loved righteousness and hated wickedness” (Hebrews 1:9). Jesus did not just act righteously, He loved righteousness. In His humanity He loved equity, fairness, justice, and upright dealings with others. At the same time He hated wickedness. Jesus hated sin as sin. We often hate the consequences of sin (even if it seems to be no more than guilt feelings that follow sin) but I suspect we seldom hate sin as sin.

I can certainly testify to this in my own life. In fact, one of my regular prayers is that the Lord would let me see sin as he sees it and, therefore, to hate it as he hates it. Bridges looks also to John 6:38 and says, “To be like Jesus is not just to stop committing a few obvious sins such as lying, cheating, gossiping, and thinking impure thoughts. To be like Jesus is to always seek to do the will of the Father. [It is] to come to the place where we delight to do the will of God, however sacrificial or unpleasant that may seem to us at the time, simply because it is His will.

September 06, 2012

Jerry Bridges says that God disciplines Christians by grace. It may strike us as an oxymoronic statement that discipline is grace, that it may be done out of grace. After all, “Discipline suggests restraint and legalism, rules and regulations, and a God who frowns on anyone who has fun. Grace, on the other hand, seems to mean freedom from any rules, spontaneous and unstructured living, and most of all, a God who loves us unconditionally regardless of our sinful behavior.” But Bridges wants to push back. “Such thinking reflects a misunderstanding of both grace and discipline. In fact, … the same grace that brings salvation also disciplines us as believers.”

This is the heart of one of the chapters of The Discipline of Grace, that God disciplines us in grace and by grace. Now this is not necessarily discipline as punishment, but discipline as “all instruction, all reproof and correction, and all providentially directed hardships in our lives that are aimed at cultivating spiritual growth and godly character.” Discipline is simply whatever God chooses to use to help us grow in godliness. God disciplines us much as a parent disciplines his children, but with one important difference: “Though in the physical realm children eventually reach adulthood and are no longer under the discipline of their parents, in the spiritual realm we remain under God’s parental discipline as long as we live.”

The fact is that salvation and grace are inseparable. “The grace that brings salvation to us also disciplines us. It does not do the one without the other. That is, God never saved people and leaves them alone to continue in their immaturity and sinful lifestyle. Those whom he saves he disciplines.” The beauty of this is that we see that it is God who superintends our spiritual growth; he is actively involved and guiding not only in salvation but also and equally in sanctification.

Sadly, many Christians have an improper understanding of God’s discipline. What Bridges wants the Christian to understand is this: “All of God’s disciplinary processes are grounded in His grace—His unmerited and unconditional favor toward us. We tend to equate discipline with rules and performance standards; God equates it with firm but loving care for our souls.” God’s discipline is a kind and loving discipline that is meant for our good and our godliness. However, while this is true, many Christians come to believe that God’s discipline is far more about law than grace.

Bridges illustrates by saying that when he first became a Christian he was given a list of seven spiritual disciplines that he should practice every day—things like reading the Bible and praying—and before long he came to believe that God’s favor toward him depended upon him performing these disciplines well. When he was faithful to have a quiet time, God was then inclined toward him; when he skipped his quiet time, God was opposed to him. He quickly slipped into thinking that God disciplines through law rather than grace. Here’s the remedy to that all-too-common thinking: “All our effort to teach godly living and spiritual maturity to others must be grounded in grace. If we fail to teach that discipline is by grace, people will assume, as I did, that it is by performance.”

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