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Reading Classics Together

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.”

August 30, 2012

I have read Jerry Bridges’ books all out of order, undoubtedly not the best way to read an author’s works. However, doing this has shown me something I find interesting: Throughout his writing career, he has remained on a single trajectory and has emphasized and re-emphasized only a few themes. In reading The Discipline of Grace I see the seeds of what would become his later books. What he writes about here in just a few words or a few pages, he would later develop into entire books.

But I digress. This morning I want to share just a couple of thoughts about chapter four of The Discipline of Grace, a chapter that deals with the tricky subject of how the Christian has died to sin.

Before we can talk about dying to sin, we must understand how we came to be sinners. Bridges offers a helpful illustration of the biblical concept of federal headship.

Federal headship or representative capacity is somewhat illustrated by the concept of power of attorney. A friend of mine wanted to refinance the mortgage on his house to take advantage of lower interest rates. When the date for the closing was finally set, he realized that he and his wife would be out of the country at that time. He asked if I would represent them at the closing, and I agreed, so he and his wife executed a power of attorney authorizing me to act on their behalf.

I went to the closing and, as my friends’ legal representative, signed all kinds of papers. When I signed those documents it was just as if they had signed them. When I signed the promissory note to pay a certain amount each month, that act was as legally binding on them as if they had signed the note, because I was acting as their legal representative. In like manner, Adam was our legal representative in the garden, and when he sinned, his action was as binding on us as if we had sinned personally.

We may object that we did not appoint Adam as our representative in the garden. To do so is futile, however, for in our objection we are actually complaining against God. It should be enough for us to know that God, the Sovereign Creator of the universe and the One in whom we live, and move, and have our being, appointed him.

Of course the ultimately good news about federal headship is that Adam is not the only federal representative; God has appointed that Jesus Christ would be the second one and that just as Adam’s sin would bring condemnation to his race, Christ’s atonement would bring reconciliation to all who would trust in him.

August 23, 2012

Jerry Bridges was talking about preaching the gospel to yourself and being gospel-centered long before it was cool to do so. One of the great burdens of his ministry has long been to have Christians understand that “the gospel is not only the most important message in all of history; it is the only essential message in all of history. Yet we allow thousands of professing Christians to live their entire lives without clearly understanding it and experiencing the joy of living by it. … Christians are not instructed in the gospel. And because they do not fully understand the riches and glory of the gospel, they cannot preach it to themselves, not live by it in their daily lives.” In other words, we teach people just enough gospel to get saved, but then move on to other things. Bridges wants us to understand that we never move on from the gospel.

In the third chapter of The Discipline of Grace, Bridges provides a powerful, thorough review of the gospel and does this by looking at Romans 3:19-26. He offers an exposition of that passage and through it leads to this imperative: Preach the gospel to yourself. Let me provide an extended quote that gives some of the how and the why:

To preach the gospel to yourself, then, means that you continually face up to your own sinfulness and then flee to Jesus through faith in His shed blood and righteous life. It means that you appropriate, again by faith, the fact that Jesus fully satisfied the law of God, that He is your propitiation, and that God’s holy wrath is no longer directed toward you. 

To preach the gospel to yourself means that you take at face value the precious words of Romans 4:7-8: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”

It means that you believe on the testimony of God that “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). It means you believe that “Christ redeemed [you] from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for [you], for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’ ” (Galatians 3:13). It means you believe He forgave you all your sins (Colossians 2:13) and now “[presents you] holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (Colossians 1:22).

Turning to the Old Testament, to preach the gospel to yourself means that you appropriate by faith the words of Isaiah 53:6: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

It means that you dwell upon the promise that God has removed your transgressions from you as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12), that He has blotted out your transgressions and remembers your sin no more (Isaiah 43:25). But it means you realize that all these wonderful promises of forgiveness are based upon the atoning death of Jesus Christ.

It is the death of Christ through which He satisfied the justice of God and averted from us the wrath of God that is the basis of all God’s promises of forgiveness. We must be careful that, in preaching the gospel to ourselves, we do not preach a gospel without a cross. We must be careful that we do not rely on the so-called unconditional love of God without realizing that His love can only flow to us as a result of Christ’s atoning death.

This is the gospel Bridges wants the Christian to preach to himself day-by-day. “When you set yourself to seriously pursue holiness, you will begin to realize what an awful sinner you are. And if you are not firmly rooted in the gospel and have not learned to preach it to yourself every day, you will soon become discouraged and will slack off in your pursuit of holiness.”

To learn very practically about how Bridges preaches the gospel to himself, click here for a short quote from his book Respectable Sins.

August 16, 2012

I have been reading Jerry Bridges’ The Disciplines of Grace, a wonderful book that takes a deep looking at God’s role and the Christian’s role in the pursuit of holiness. Chapter two, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” is all about the need for a humble realization of our own sinfulness and the need for a grateful acceptance of God’s grace. Bridges says that these are two significant needs among committed Christians. However, Christians tend toward one of two opposite attitudes.

The first is a relentless sense of guilt due to unmet expectations in living the Christian life. People characterized by this mode of thinking frequently dwell on their besetting sins or on their failure to witness to their neighbors or to live up to numerous other challenges of the Christian life that are so often laid upon them.

The other attitude is one of varying degrees of self-satisfaction with one’s Christian life.

We can drift into this attitude because we are convinced we believe the right doctrines, we read the right Christian books, we practice the right disciplines of a committed Christian life, or we are actively involved in some aspect of Christian ministry and are not just “pew sitters” in the church.

I know people who live in each of those camps and, in fact, have bounced back and forth between them too many times.

Bridges turns to Luke 18:9-14 and the well-known story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, a story that compares and contrasts religious hypocrisy and true humility. The Pharisee was outwardly religious, doing and saying all the right things, but the tax collector was truly broken by his sinfulness. It was the tax collector who went home justified.

Bridges gives a bit of an “ouch” moment when he says, “We usually approach this story with the sense of approval that comes from reading about other people instead of ourselves.” He wants us to see that this story applies not only to unbelievers, but also to believers. After all, Jesus told the story to those who were confident in their own righteousness and that is something we are not immune to. “The sin of the Pharisee can become the sin of the most orthodox and committed Christian.”

August 09, 2012

For several years now I have been leading a program called “Reading Classics Together.” The program exists so that we can read classic Christian books in community because, well, just about everything is better in community. Today we begin reading Jerry Bridges’ The Discipline of Grace. What I try to do in these weekly wrap-up posts is share just a couple of the important points that are at the heart of the chapter. If you’d like to read along with the few hundred of us who are going through this book, please do. Simply get a copy of the book and read the first two chapters for next Thursday. For the time being, here is a reflection on the first chapter.

Bridges concern in this book is that so many Christians acknowledge that we are saved by grace through faith—which is to say, that we gain favor with God and are saved because of his grace—but they then begin to believe that what sustains God’s favor is our performance. The more we do what God demands, the more we do what is good, the more of his favor we experience. And so Bridges begins with a simple question: How good is good enough? He poses a scenario we can all identify with.

“You get up promptly when your alarm goes off and have a refreshing and profitable quiet time as you read your Bible and pray. Your plans for the day generally fall into place, and you somehow sense that presence of God with you. To top it off, you unexpectedly have an opportunity to share the gospel with someone who is truly searching. As you talk with the person, you silently pray for the Holy Spirit to help you and to also work in your friend’s heart.” We’ve all had days like that. But we’ve also all had days like this: “You don’t arise at the first ring of your alarm. Instead, you shut it off and go back to sleep. When you awaken, it’s too late to have a quiet time. You hurriedly gulp down some breakfast and rush off to the day’s activities. You feel guilty about oversleeping and missing your quiet time, and things just generally go wrong all day. You become more and more irritable as the day wears on, and you certainly don’t sense God’s presence in your life. That evening, however, you unexpectedly have an opportunity to share the gospel with someone who is really interested in receiving Christ as Savior.” 

Bridges then asks if you would enter into those two witnessing opportunities with a different degree of confidence. Think about it for a moment. If you’re like most Christians, I suspect you would feel less confident about witnessing on a bad day then on a good day. You would feel less confidence that God would speak in and through you and that you would be able to share your faith forcefully and with conviction.

July 26, 2012

Reading Classics Together
In 2007 I had an idea that changed my life. For years I had wanted to read some of the classics of the Christian faith, but I knew that without a measure of accountability I would never have the self-discipline to make my way through them. I realized that this accountability could come by reading books together in community and 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 Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Most recently we read David McIntyre’s The Hidden Life of Prayer. 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.

The Discipline of GraceHaving recently finished two older titles I think it is time to look at another contemporary classic—Jerry Bridge’s The Discipline of Grace. This is a book I have read before but one I am anxious to read again. We hear a lot of talk these days about being gospel-centered and about preaching the gospel to yourself. Bridges was telling us all of these things long before it was cool to do so. The publisher does a good job of explaining why this is an important book.

We know we need grace. Without it we’d never come to Christ in the first place, but being a Christian is more than just coming to Christ. It’s about growing and becoming more like Jesus—it’s about pursuing holiness. The pursuit of holiness is hard work, and that’s where we turn from grace to discipline—and often make a big mistake.

Grace is every bit as important for growing as a Christian as it is for becoming a Christian. “The pursuit of holiness,” writes Jerry Bridges, “must be anchored in the grace of God; otherwise it is doomed to failure.” Grace is at the heart of the gospel, and without a clear understanding of the gospel and grace we can easily slip into a performance-based lifestyle that bears little resemblance to what the gospel offers us.

According to Bridges, many Christians don’t have a good grasp of what the gospel message is. In The Discipline of Grace, he offers a clear and thorough explanation of the gospel and what it means to the believer. Bridges discusses how the same grace that brings us to faith in Christ also disciplines us in Christ, and how we learn to discipline ourselves in the areas of commitment, conviction, choices, watchfulness, and adversity.

If you’ve ever struggled with what your role is and what role God takes in your growth as a Christian, this book will comfort and challenge you as you learn to rest in Christ while vigorously pursuing a life of holiness.

Though this book follows two of his other titles, it stands very well on its own.

How does the Reading Classics program work? It’s easy! Simply get yourself a copy of the book and read the first chapter before August 9, two weeks from today. Then visit the blog on the 9th; I will have a reflection on the first chapter which you can read and, if you are so inclined, comment on. We will read a chapter a week until the book is finished. It’s that simple!

Buy It

The book is widely available.

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.

July 05, 2012

Those of us who have been reading David McIntyre’s classic work The Hidden Life of Prayer have now come to the end of the book, and before I leave off, I want to share just a couple of reflections on this week’s reading. This week we read a chapter titled “The Hidden Riches of the Secret Place” (and then followed it with “The Open Recompense”). Having already told us why we ought to pray and having given some direction on the method of prayer, McIntyre now wants to point to the treasures stored up for those who do pray and who pray faithfully. He finds two of them.

The first is holiness. “Through prayer our graces are quickened, and holiness is wrought in us.” Because prayer is a means through which we experience and exercise all of God’s graces, it is a crucial component of the path to holiness. He says, “Communion with God is the condition of spiritual growth. It is the soul in which all the graces of the divine life root themselves. If the virtues were the work of man, we might perfect them one by one, but they are the fruit of the Spirit and grow together in one common life.”

He offers an important encouragement about our growth in holiness, saying

While we abide in Christ, we ought not to allow ourselves to be discouraged by the apparent slowness of our advancement in grace. In nature, growth proceeds with varying speed. Sibbes compares the progressive sanctification of believers to the increase in herbs and trees,” which “grow at the root in winter, in the leaf in summer, and in the seed in autumn.” The first of these forms of increase seems very slow; the second is more rapid; the third rushes on to full maturity. In a few days of early autumn a field of grain will seem to ripen more than in weeks of midsummer.

Do you want to grow in holiness? Then you must pray. Do you pray? Then look to your life and you will see that growth in holiness.

The second hidden treasure in prayer is intimacy with Jesus Christ. This is, of course, directly related to the first. “Communion with God discovers the excellence of His character, and by beholding Him the soul is transformed. Holiness is conformity to Christ, and this is secured by a growing intimacy with Him. It is evident that this consideration opens up a vast field for reflection.”

June 28, 2012

In last week’s reading in David McIntyre’s The Hidden Life of Prayer we looked at praising God in prayer. This week we were to read two chapters, one that looked at supplication and one that looked at confession—two other integral components of prayer.

I found the chapter on supplication—making requests of God in prayer—particularly helpful. Though I shared a few elements of that chapter in a blog post yesterday, I want to share them again today. They have already proven very helpful and practical in my own life and ministry; they have helped sharpen my understanding of why God does not just grant us the things we believe we need, but instead tells us to pray to him. They have helped me see the goodness of God in having us labor in prayer.

McIntyre tells us of four things the Lord accomplishes in us as we labor in prayer:

  • Dependence. “By prayer our continued and humble dependence on the grace of God is secured. If the bestowments of the covenant came to us without solicitation, as the gifts of nature do, we might be tempted to hold ourselves in independence of God, to say, ‘My power, and the might of mine hand, hath gotten me this wealth’ (Deut. 8:17).”
  • Communion. “The Lord desires to have us much in communion with Himself. The reluctance of the carnal heart to dwell in God’s presence is terrible. We will rather speak of Him than to Him. How often He finds occasion to reprove us, saying, ‘The companions hearken to thy voice; cause Me to hear it.’ A father will prize an ill-spelled, blotted-scrawl from his little child, because it is a pledge and seal of love. And precious in the sight of the Lord are the prayers of His saints.”
  • Preparation. “Much, very much, has often to be accomplished in us before we are fitted to employ worthily the gifts we covet. And God effects this preparation of heart largely by delaying to grant our request at once, and so holding us in the truth of His presence until we are brought into a spiritual understanding of the will of Christ for us in this respect. If a friend, out of his way (Luke 11:6), comes to us, hungry, and seeking from us the bread of life, and we have nothing to set before him, we must go to Him who has all store of blessing. And if He should seem to deny our prayer, and say, ‘Trouble Me not,’ it is only that we may understand the nature of the blessing we seek, and be fitted to dispense aright the bounty of God.”
  • Cooperation. “Once more, we are called to be fellow-laborers together with God, in prayer, as in all other ministries. The exalted Saviour ever lives to make intercession; and to His redeemed people He says, ‘Tarry ye here, and watch with Me’ (Matt. 26:38). There is a great work to be done in the hearts of men, there is a fierce battle to be waged with spiritual wickedness in heavenly places. Demons are to be cast out, the power of hell to be restrained, the works of the devil to be destroyed. And in these things it is by prayer above all other means that we shall be able to co-operate with the Captain of the Lord’s host.”

June 21, 2012

The sexual relationship within marriage is powerful and beautiful, but it can only be described to a certain extent; eventually it must be experienced to be understood. The young soon-to-be-married man imagining the sexual relationship with his wife-to-be can really only guess at what it will be like; the bit he understands about it brings about a good and pure longing in his heart to actually experience it. The same is true of so many of the beautiful things in life; beauty calls to be experienced.

Worship is much the same. I love reading about worship, but it is always ultimately dissatisfying because it stirs up the desire to experience worship. This longing to experience beauty is part of the great hope of every Christian—the desire to experience the beauty of worshipping God face-to-face. While we love worship in this world, it is always stained by sin and it is always mediated, and for these reasons we long for the real thing, the fullest thing.

I thought about beauty and the beauty of worship as I read this week’s chapter in The Hidden Life of Prayer. When I was a child I was taught the ACTS acronym to help me distinguish between the different kinds of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. Christians use different terms for these things; some combine them into fewer categories and some add a couple. What is consistent, though, is that there are different ways to pray. At times prayer is full of praise and thanksgiving, at times prayer focuses on confession of sin, while at other times it is full of pleas for the Lord’s help and guidance.

In The Hidden Life of Prayer, David McIntyre speaks of worship, confession and request as the three components of prayer. This week’s Reading Classics Together brought us to his chapter titled “The Engagement: Worship.” Here he gives three ways in which “the tribute of praise which the saints are instructed to render to the Lord may arise,” which is to say, three reasons for which we ought to express worship in prayer: in acknowledgement of daily mercies; in thanksgiving for the great redemption; and in contemplation of the Divine perfection.

Returning to my earlier analogy, I wonder if we are approaching the point in these discussions of prayer where there is really only so much that can be said without simply turning to prayer. As much as I enjoyed this chapter, it felt like something that would be far better experienced than described. I am glad to hear of how a man offers prayers of thanksgiving for his redemption, but I would far rather offer prayer for my own redemption. I suppose that is the ultimate purpose of any book on prayer—to make us pray. Later on in the book McIntyre will quote John Laidlaw who says this: “The main lesson about prayer is just this: Do it! Do it! Do it!” In good Baptist style I’ll add an “amen!” to that.

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