Wednesday, July 18, 2018

the triumph of faith

"For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?"  

(1 John 5:4-5 ESV)

"Herein consists the triumph of the Christian.  In every step of his walk and warfare he is led from self to Christ, kept humbled in his own eyes, that he may exalt the Savior; emptied of self that he may live upon the fullness of Jesus, and may thereby be taught to rest his heart in Him at all times, and for all things."  

(William Romaine, The Triumph of Faith, 1796) 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

the Lord told me

I hear this often from professing Christians.  "The Lord told me..." or "I received a word from the Lord" or "the Lord said to me _____ [followed by a statement, supposedly from God as speaker in the first person]"  

People saying such things don't realize how confusing this actually can be for others.  In a sense it places the person above others ("the Lord spoke to me") and beyond accountability ("how can you question what God said?").  This also causes people to want to have this experience for themselves and thus to minimize what God (by his Spirit) has already and eternally said in Scripture.  It makes the present more important than the past.      

Can God speak to us apart from the Bible, or independently of it?  He certainly can.  The question is, however, is this what the Lord has promised to be a normal and expected experience for those who follow him?  

Indeed there may be unusual and remarkable things from the Lord that happen in a believer's life.   We may have strong impressions or insights or vivid images that come to us which may relate to our life or the lives of others.  These may be occasions of "illumination", whereby the Holy Spirit is applying a particular biblical truth to our minds and hearts in a particular situation. (1 Cor 2:12; Eph 1:17-18; 1 John 2:27; 4:6; and see Ten Evidences of the Holy Spirit here)  Some remarkable occasions may just remain inexplicable.    

But to try to put this into the Lord's mouth as "words from God" -- which is language equating it with Scripture -- is problematic, to say the least.  And to try to hear God's voice, whether audibly or inaudibly, may lead a person to delusional thinking.  The African pastor Conrad Mbewe -- who sees a lot of this in his country -- says, "There is the view that God still speaks to us independent of the Bible.  Drink this milk, and you will soon be attributing to God the inner voices coming from your fallen self."  

Consider what the following Scripture passages teach.   

"Thus says the LORD of hosts: 'Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of 
their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.'"  (Jeremiah 23:16 ESV)  This chapter deserve careful reading.  In Jeremiah's day there were people relating dreams and prophesying words "from the Lord" to bring comfort and to minimize the word of judgment that Jeremiah was bringing to the people.  The Lord says, "Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the LORD, who steal my words from one another. Behold, I am against the prophets, declares the LORD, who use their tongues and declare, 'declares the LORD.'  Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the LORD, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the LORD." (23:30-32)

In the Great Commission we are told to be "...teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:20)  This statement by Jesus comes at the end of his earthly ministry, as he commissioned his disciples to world evangelization.  It is interesting to note the tenses.  The promise of his presence is present and ongoing, "I am with you to the end of the age."  But the content of our teaching is to be what he commanded, specifically to the apostles, in the past.  A Christian's concern today is not to be trying to hear what he or she thinks God is saying today, but to believe and obey all that the Lord Jesus in his word has revealed through his apostles.  See also John 17:14, "I have given them your word..."

"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."  (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)  The written Scripture exists as the God-breathed word, profitable in every way, and sufficient for every good work.  To say that God needs to speaks independently of his word is to say that the Bible is not sufficient for our every need, as it says here.  

"Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, 'Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness...'"   (Hebrews 3:7-8)  Notice that the Holy Spirit "says" (or "is saying") in the present tense.  The author of Hebrews is telling us that this phrase from Psalm 95, written hundreds of years prior to this letter to the Hebrews, is the present-tense voice of the Holy Spirit to us.  The author goes on to say, "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." (Heb. 4:12)  The Bible is not a dead-letter revelation that needs to be added to, but the living and active word of God.  

"I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book."  (Revelation 22:18-19 ESV)  This passage, like the passage in Jeremiah, warns us not to add to God's words.  We may humbly share our thoughts, our impressions, our opinions, and our insights with one another, but they must never be lifted up to the level of God's inspired and holy Word.  

During the period of revival in America known as the Great Awakening (the 1740s) people were susceptible to taking their personal impressions as examples of God's revelation.  Jonathan Edwards, as a pastor in support of the revival, nonetheless wrote the following about this situation:

"An erroneous principle, than which scarce any has proved more mischievous to the present glorious work of God, is a notion that it is God's manner in these days to guide His saints by inspiration, or immediate revelation. ... As long as a person has a notion that he is guided by immediate direction from heaven, it makes him incorrigible and impregnable in all his misconduct" (Jonathan Edwards, "Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England," Works, 1:404).

"Many godly persons have undoubtedly in this and other ages, exposed themselves to woeful delusions, by an aptness to lay too much weight on 
impulses and impressions, as if they were immediate revelations from God, to signify something future, or to direct them where to go, and what to do. ...  I would therefore entreat the people of God to be very cautious how they give heed to such things. I have seen them fail in very many instances, and know by experience that impressions being made with great power, and upon the mind...are no sure sign of their being revelations from heaven" (Jonathan Edwards, "The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God," Works, 1:536, 606).

Two books that I have found helpful on this issue are as follows:
-- Hearing the Spirit: Knowing the Father through the Son, by Christopher Ash (Christian Focus, 2015)
-- Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God, by Timothy Ward (IVP Academic, 2009)

Related to this is the remarkable popularity of the book, Jesus Calling, by Sarah Young.  She attributes many things she feels and hears as being words from Jesus.  See Randy Alcorn's recent blog post hereAnd see also Tim Challies review here. 

There are a multitude of sermons and seminars out there on "how to hear God's voice," which often use mechanical imagery, such as "tuning in to the right frequency," and using techniques, such as being quiet, being spontaneous, listening in prayer, etc.  All of this has more in common with Eastern mindfulness than it does with Christian discipleship.  

If we humbly seek the Lord in his inspired Word, the Holy Spirit will give us what we need -- when we need it -- to live for God's glory. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

marvelous light

We should proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. This is our calling! (1 Peter 2:9)

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

every star has a name -- a psalm for the brokenhearted

Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; 
for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting.  (Psalm 147:1) 

Downcast?  Brokenhearted?  Feeling crushed and helpless?  This psalm is for all of us.  By faith, we must begin with praise and worship.  Not by sight, by feeling, by happy circumstance, but by faith in God's word and his power and his goodness.  Our faith may be feeble, but he delights in it and we must come in faith and give thanks for all that he is and has done for us.  

The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel.  
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.  (147:2-3)

Here is the promise.  Our God is the covenant Lord (YHWH, or Yahweh, translated most often in smaller all-caps, LORD) who has come to us in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus.  He said, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."  (Matt. 11:28)  It is by his wounds that we are healed (Isa. 53:5; 1 Pet. 2:24).  It is the Lord who builds up, restores community, gathers outcasts, heals the brokenhearted, and dresses our wounds.   He himself was a wounded outcast.  We must remember that this is the God we are dealing with.   

He determines the number of the stars; 
he gives to all of them their names.   (147:4)

Now this is just mind-boggling.  Abraham in 2000 BC was not able to count the stars (Gen. 15:5), and today, even with our amazing telescopes, we still do not know the number of stars in this universe!  And yet, God has a name for each one.  So, why would God have a name for each star if he didn't know about each one and care about each one?  F. B. Meyer wrote this beautiful explanation of God's care for the stars...

"The myriad stars of heaven seem to make up one huge flock.  Their Shepherd is God, who is driving them through space; or who watches them, as it were, resting on the heavenly slopes as a flock of sheep on the downs at night.  And He has a name for each of them.  Is it therefore to be supposed that He will not be as minute in His care of each one of us?  Will He not have a name for each of us?  Will He not number us when He tells the tale of His sheep, even as He numbers the hairs of our heads?  This very morn He touched you with His staff and counted you.  You are the destined object of His care."  (F. B. Meyer, The Shepherd Psalm)

Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; 
his understanding is beyond measure.  (147:5)

His power, and his understanding, is "without measure".  His knowledge and wisdom are simply -- and infinitely -- beyond us and above us.  This should help us be more patient and steadfast in times when we ourselves feel confused and powerless.  Which leads to the subject of humility...

The LORD lifts up the humble; 
he casts the wicked to the ground.  (147:6) 

Humility is good, really.  Being humbled is the prelude to being lifted up.  Not so the wicked who oppose God and his people.  Those who lift themselves up will be cast down.  Keep your head (and attitude) down low; stay on your knees.  That's a principle all through Scripture:  "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.  Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you." (1 Peter 5:5-7)

Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; 
make melody to our God on the lyre!   (147:7)

Again, here is a call to give thanks and to praise God, this time with a musical instrument.  Good music, especially with God-honoring lyrics, can lift our spirits as we wait upon the Lord. 

He covers the heavens with clouds; 
he prepares rain for the earth; 
he makes grass grow on the hills.  
He gives to the beasts their food, 
and to the young ravens that cry.   (147:8-9)

God not only names the stars, he feeds the young ravens.  He brings rain, he causes grass to grow, he feeds the beasts and the young birds.
Does he use natural means?  Yes.  Do some places have drought and some creatures die?  Yes, actually, we all will die.  The point here is that behind the processes of nature (which we might think are mechanical) is the personal, good providence of God.  He didn't just set things in motion and then abandon the world.  He oversees and cares for all of creation, from the stars to the baby birds.   Jesus said, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God."  (Luke 12:6)

His delight is not in the strength of the horse, 
nor his pleasure in the legs of a man,  
but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, 
in those who hope in his steadfast love.   (147:10-11)

This does not mean that God doesn't delight in the health and strength of horses or men.  The strength of the horse and the strong legs of man most likely here connote an army arrayed in battle.  (See Psalm 33:16-17.)   God is not impressed with the brute physical strength of those who come against his people.  We ourselves tend to want to respond with the same kind of force that comes against us, and here we are told that what truly pleases God is revering him (and not fearing others) and having confidence in his future working for our good, which is hope.

Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion!  
For he strengthens the bars of your gates; 
he blesses your children within you.  
He makes peace in your borders; 
he fills you with the finest of the wheat.  
He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly.  
He gives snow like wool; he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.  
He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; 
who can stand before his cold?  
He sends out his word, and melts them; 
he makes his wind blow and the waters flow.   (147:12-18)

Let's give thanks for all those good things he has given us... security, family, peace, food, and mainly, his sovereign control over all of creation.   But let's also give thanks for what he will yet do in the future!  Note that each couplet begins with "He".  That is, God himself will lift up and bring healing.  And note, these are action verbs... He will "strengthen..., bless..., make peace..., fill..., send out..., etc."   God himself will come through for those who wait upon him.  

He declares his word to Jacob, 
his statutes and rules to Israel.  
He has not dealt thus with any other nation; 
they do not know his rules. Praise the LORD!  (147:19-20)

The most wonderful thing that we can thank and praise God for is his holy Word.  He has revealed his mind, and his will, and his promises to us.  This is something that those outside of a covenant relationship with God do not have.  So as God's covenant people we are to read his word, memorize his word, recall and meditate on his word, sing his word, believe his word, and share his word.  To have God's verbally-inspired revelation is one of the greatest privileges we have in this life. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

a surety

Surety.  This is a word we don't hear often today, except perhaps in legal matters.  There it means a pledge, guarantee, or bond.  And a "surety" can be in the form of a person who has pledged or made himself responsible for another.  In the gospel we learn that Jesus Christ is the surety for the believer.  He stands in our place, our substitute, who represents us before God, bears our sin, gives us his righteousness, and becomes the guarantor of the work of God in us.  And this truth gives us the freedom to live before the Lord in security and with assurance of final salvation.   

"In the law of works there was no provision made for a surety; but it did not absolutely exclude one: therefore it left room for the covenant of grace, in which a provision was made in the person of Jesus Christ, for securing the divine honor of this holy law. He undertook to stand up in man’s place and stead, to magnify the precepts of the law in his life, and to glorify the penalties of the law in his death, that not one jot or tittle of it might fail till all was fulfilled. And as he was God over all, blessed for ever, his life and death put everlasting honor upon the divine law. His obedience was of inestimable value, and his sufferings were infinitely sufficient to take away sin. Christ is now the end of the law for righteousness. He answered the end of the law for his people, by obeying and suffering for them. And every one of them can now plead by faith a perfect fulfilling of all the precepts, a perfect suffering of all the penalties in the person of their divine Surety." 

~ William Romaine, The Walk of Faith (London, 1771) 

faith looks to Christ

This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. (1 John 5:6) 

"How does faith grow? When we don’t have an assurance of God’s love, we don’t want to be in his presence because of our sin. We think of God as a tyrant or harsh judge who has never really forgiven us; or maybe he’s forgiven some of our sins but not all of them, especially not the habitual ones. Faith can’t flourish when you see God this way because all you see is your guilt rather than Christ’s loving forgiveness through his blood. Faith looks at least ten times more at Christ than at your sin. Then you can face sin honestly and say, 'Yes, it’s really there, and I want to get rid of it.' But you do so out of the strength of knowing you are loved. Jesus went to the cross and shed real blood. It was a real salvation that guarantees real forgiveness, a real resurrection, and a real flow of life to us. Because of this, we have the growing assurance that we have life. Part of our growth is to say that my sinful self has been crucified with Christ. The blood of Christ has taken away my sin and guilt, and the dominant rule in my life is now the cross. Faith looks to Christ and finds life."

From Saving Grace: Daily Devotions from Jack Miller, by C. John Miller (New Growth Press, 2014)

Photo above by Hillie Chan on Unsplash