3 Evangelical Graces: (3) Hope

Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2018 in Scripture, Sermons

We give thanks to God always… constantly bearing in mind your… steadfastness of hope.” (1 Thessalonians 1:3)

We use the word “hope” rather casually in our culture. Rarely do we ever use it in the biblical sense. When we use the word, it often takes the form of wishful thinking. “I sure hope this tastes OK”; “I hope I do well on this test today”; “I hope the weather is nice today,” etc., etc. But used in this way, “hope” designates uncertainty as to an outcome. There is no firm conviction concerning our future. We just “hope” it turns out all right.

But when Paul, Peter, and others spoke of “hope” they were describing a confident expectation, a joyful anticipation. They had in mind a settled attitude of hope, not one that is somehow determined in the future, but one that is settled already, even from before the foundation of the world. When we approach hope in this way, then the events and circumstances of this world lose their hold on our lives. We do not base our hope on things that are uncertain, but those that are certain. We are not affected inordinately when things or going well or when things are going bad because our hope is not in temporal things but in eternal things.

There are two things this type of hope brings to us. First, it enables us to wait. Paul was thankful for the “patience” or “steadfastness of hope” these at Thessalonica demonstrated. Paul understood this perhaps better than anyone other than Christ.

Philippians 1:20-26 – 20 According to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again.

According to Paul’s own testimony, what was the source of Paul’s patience in regards to his calling – his hope in Christ, a hope he wished to convene to those at Philippi and beyond as long as the Lord left him on this earth.

The same is true for us today. William Jay, the nineteenth century English minister, put it this way, “Christians, you must not be impatient if you desire heaven and are assured of it, but all the days of your appointed time you should wait, till your change come.” [William Jay, Withhold Not Thy Hand, 426] We are to live out our days, if we truly be in Christ, patiently waiting for His return for us or our home going to Him, whichever occurs first. That is our hope. God’s covenant promises are bestowed on those who are patient (Heb. 6:15).

The second thing this “hope” does is prepare us for suffering. Again, Paul wrote elsewhere, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). In light of what awaits, the believer is buoyed up by this hope, resilient to the persecution and suffering because he knows how it will turn out in the end. “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).

The “hope” the believer has in the return of Christ and in receiving His glory is expanded on by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff – “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” He goes on to describe what the Lord’s return will be like. While there are a variety of interpretations of these verses, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Paul wrote these words to comfort them, and us, concerning the fact of the Lord’s return and the glory that awaits those who patiently wait and endure suffering for Him. Peter had a similar admonition. In writing to those who were in the midst of suffering, 1 Peter 1:4-5 reminded them of the hope that was already theirs, 4 “an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, 5 who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

Are you steadfast in “hope” today? is your assurance of what awaits eternally bound up in and with your only hope, which is Christ and Christ alone? Are you uncertain about what tomorrow might bring? Then as you meditate on Christ this Resurrection season, remember this: Because He lives, I can face tomorrow… Because He lives, all fear is gone… Because I know He holds the future, and life is worth the living just because He lives.

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3 Evangelical Graces: (2) Love

Posted: Friday, March 16, 2018 in Scripture, Sermons

“We give thanks to God always… constantly bearing in mind your… labor of love.” (1 Thessalonians 1:3)

The Christian knows that the world has a much different definition and practice of “love” than God has in His Word. The world confuses or conflates love and lust. True love thinks of others before self, while lust always thinks of self before others.

However, there are different types of this other-oriented love in the original New Testament language, which was written in koine Greek. These are: phileo (brotherly love), eros (romantic love), storge (a love for family), and agape (divine love). It is this agape love that Paul commends the Thessalonians, a love for which they labored. Agape love is born from above, given by God with Trinitarian implications in the life of a believer. It is a “willing, self-giving sacrifice” of love (John MacArthur) and this is something that an unbeliever simply cannot have or practice – not even inconsistently – since it is a gift of God only to those who are His children.

Love is the greatest of all virtues in Scripture. Jonathan Edwards said, “Let a man have what he will, and do what he will, it signifies nothing without charity; which surely implies that charity is the great thing, and that everything which has not charity in some way contained or implied in it, is nothing, and that this charity is the life and soul of all religion, without which all things that wear the name of virtues are empty and vain.” [Charity and Its Fruits, 3-4]

Paul addressed this love in his other letters…

Colossians 3:12-14 – 12 So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved (1 Thess. 1:4 – “Knowing, beloved of God, His choice of you”), put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. 14 Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.

1 Cor. 13:13 – But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

And Peter in 1 Peter 4:8 – Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.

How is this love shown in the life of the believer? Matthew 22:36-39 – 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’”

That is the baseline for the believer, the summum bonum, the supreme good of the Christian life. The “great” commandments reflect two things:

First, a love for God. It is obedience to the first tablet of the Law out of the sheer joy we have in being the child of God. It is the love for God in the heart and mind of one who has the love of God shed abroad in their hearts, who has truly been loved by God. Those who have experienced the love of God then long for communion with Him, they love His Word, they worship and adore Him, they pray Adoring Him, Confessing to Him, Thanking Him, and Supplicating to Him – asking for His good wisdom and provisions. J. C. Ryle spoke to the necessity the love of God that is then marked by a love for God:

The charity of the Bible will never be found except in a heart prepared by the Holy Ghost. It is a tender plant, and will never grow except in one soil. You may as well expect grapes on thorns, or figs on thistles, as look for charity when the heart is not right. The heart in which charity grows is a heart changed, renewed, and transformed by the Holy Ghost… Such a heart is deeply convinced of sin… Such a heart is deeply sensible of its mighty debt to our Lord Jesus Christ. It feels continually that it owes to Him who died for us on the cross, all its present comfort, hope and peace. If it can do nothing else, it strives to be like Him, to drink into His spirit, to walk in His footsteps, and, like Him, to be full of love . . . Love will produce love. [Practical Religion, 174, italics mine]

Second,  there will be a love for others. In Galatians 5:13, Paul proclaimed, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Then in Ephesians 5:2 – “Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” This sacrificial love, love for others first, for their joy and benefit, not your own, is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. This is what Jesus taught in John 13:34-35 – “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love one for another” (foot washing in beginning of John 13).

We also see this from John in 1 John 4:

1 John 4:8 – The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

And especially love for the brethren – 1 John 4:19-21 – 19 We love, because He first loved us. 20 If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.

There are a couple of things this does not mean:

(1) Love does not mean that you must always approve of another’s actions.
(2) Love does not mean that you must always agree with another all of the time.

But when Paul thanked God for the love at Thessalonica it was because their love was evident. They demonstrated love when they did not approve of another’s actions; they knew how to love when they disagreed. He was not referring to something easy or potential but tough and real. It was a “labor of love.” It was hard work, but it was joyful, self-giving work. Notice how he put it in 4:9ff:

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 – 9 Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; 10 for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, 11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, 12 so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.

Inside and outside the church, the Thessalonians were making a determined effort to love the unlovely just as Christ loved us and died for us when we were unlovely. Christ made us lovely, and if we are walking in love by the Spirit then we are both loving and lovable.

3 Evangelical Graces: (1) Faith

Posted: Friday, March 9, 2018 in Scripture

“We give thanks to God always… constantly bearing in mind your work of faith.” (1 Thessalonians 1:3)

In one of the most significant moments in the history of the church, the Reformers concluded from Scripture alone that justification was through faith alone, sola fide. In other words, saving faith or justifying faith is by grace alone through faith in Christ alone apart from our works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Faith is the means or the instrument that God  has provided to bring us to Christ, and faith, in fact all of salvation, is a gift of His grace.

However, the Reformers also rightly concluded and proclaimed that though we are justified by faith alone, we are not justified by a faith that remains alone. James was clear, James 2:17 – “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” The problem for many interpreters comes with James 2:24 – “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” However, when we consider James 2:26 – “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead,” we see James in this discussion was looking at works of faith as evidence that one is in fact alive in Christ. By his works of faith he is shown to be righteous. Hence his conclusion, James 2:20 – “Faith without works is useless.” Or as the late songwriter Rich Mullins put it, “Faith without works is like a song you can’t sing, it’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”

It is this sanctifying “work of faith” that Paul says he often remembered about the  Thessalonians in his prayers. What did their “work of faith” look like? What had Paul heard back from Timothy while he was in Athens (see 3:1-2, 6) that spurred him to write these things? There are two things to consider concerning this “work of faith.”

First, the “work of faith” is a trusting work. Faith is taking hold of all that God has done in and through Christ. It is trusting in God and His way of salvation, Christ finished work, rather than in our own works. Christianity alone provides the only hope for a desperate people. All other world religions are based upon the works of man, which are nothing more than filthy rags in God’s sight. The Christian can have hope because his faith is in the merits of another, the righteousness of Christ. If your trust is in anything or anyone other than Christ alone, then you should examine yourselves to see if you are even of the faith. In our pluralistic age, we are led to believe that all roads lead to salvation. As long as you are seeking to do good then everything will be all right in the end. But that is not  what Scripture says, Scripture that proclaims the redemptive history of man in Christ alone from beginning to end.

However, flowing from this initial faith is a real trust in God and unwavering commitment to Him that is evident in the life of one who has totally submitted himself to the righteousness that God has provided in Christ. It is to live as Proverbs 3:5-6, 5 “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.” One writer put it this way: A true church is made up of people who have faith in Jesus Christ. People without such faith are not Christians, and any collection of individuals without it, however religious they might be, is not a church. Faith includes the idea of confidence; it is convinced that Jesus can be trusted. [J. Philip Arthur, Patience of Hope: 1 & 2 Thessalonians simply explained, 25 – italics mine.]

Of course, the works that stifle this faith are born out of doubt. We see this in Matthew 14 in the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water:

Matthew 14:28-31 – 28 Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” 29 And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

So, here Paul commends the Thessalonians for their confidence in Christ. They were  struggling. They were being persecuted by the Jews and others. There were probably times that even we could identify, times where they did not know whether they could make it through the day. The trials and sufferings, their persecutions seemed more than they could bear. But they did not doubt! They trusted God. They walked by faith and not by sight – not a blind faith, not a let go let God faith, but a trusting faith. They believed God!

Second, the “work of faith” is a battling work. One of the titles that Paul used of the early church believers was that of “soldier” (Philippians 2:25; 2 Timothy 2:3,4; Philemon 2). Paul calls the soldier to put on the full armor provided by God (Ephesians 6:10-17). As such, the believer is called to battle, as Paul put it, to “fight the good fight, keeping faith” (1 Timothy 1:18). The work of faith is a battle: a battle against the flesh (Romans 7 & 8); a battle against the devil, who is called our “adversary” (1 Peter 5:8), and a battle against the world, over which the apostle John reminds us that we are “conquerors” or “overcomers,” 1 John 5:4 – “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.” Then in Revelation each of the seven churches is called to “overcome” and the promise of the inheritance is granted to those who do so (Revelation 2:7,11,17,26; 3:5,12,21; 21:7).

This is exactly the faith that Paul had heard from Timothy concerning the saints at  Thessalonica:

1 Thessalonians 3:1-8 – 1 Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it  best to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith, 3 so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. 4 For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know. 5 For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor would be in vain. 6 But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you, 7 for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith; 8 for now we really live, if you stand firm in the Lord.

41qbl4zea4l-_ac_us218_One of the most famous books and oft-used texts on preaching is Between Two Worlds by John Stott. First published in 1982, it contains some thoughts on the future of technology that we might snicker at in 2018. To hear Stott ‘prophesy’ about computers and the Internet is a bit amusing.

However, I give him some credit. His assessment far exceeded that of one of my instructors in college, who said in 1986 that with the 386-processor, technology had reached its max because any further ‘speed’ would cause the processor chip to melt due to the heat it generated, and further, the size of the chip was maxed out, allowing no room for expansion. I am not sure that instructor is still instructing… and that Stott outlasted him in ministry!

But amusement aside, Stott was certainly prophetic with the following statement concerning the importance of the local church in the technological age, an age we now know far exceeded his projections – projections that lacked understanding of the social media age of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.

It is difficult to imagine the world in the year A.D. 2000, by which time versatile micro-processors are likely to be as common as simple calculators are today. We should certainly welcome the fact that the silicon chip will transcend human brain-power, as the machine has transcended human muscle-power. Much less welcome will be the probable reduction of human contact as the new electronic network renders personal relationships ever less necessary. In such a dehumanized society the fellowship of the local church will become increasingly important, whose members meet one another, and talk and listen to one another in person rather than on screen. In this human context of mutual love the speaking and hearing of the Word of God is also likely to become more necessary for the preservation of our humanness, not less. [Between Two Worlds, p. 69]

Meet and speak to one another — real words, not Tweets. Meet and see one another — in person, not on screen. Meet and love one another — in action, not just a Facebook greeting. I am thankful for the opportunity that social media provides us – but it can never replace the importance of community – where we gather together in the name of Christ and fellowship/commune together with Him. Necessary – for our humanness – and for our Christianity.

Cotton Mather on Christian Ministry

Posted: Wednesday, February 21, 2018 in Church History, Puritans

thPUBV7WPFCotton Mather was an American Puritan who authored nearly 400 works — books, pamphlets, published sermons, and scientific tracts. Magnalia Christi Americana was an extended ecclesiastical history of New England. The following is taken from his work for young men who were potential candidates for ministry:

The office of Christian ministry, rightly understood, is the most honourable, and important, that any man in the whole world can ever sustain; and it will be one of the wonders and employments of eternity to consider the reasons why the wisdom and goodness of God assigned this office to imperfect and guilty man! . . . The great design and intention of the office of a Christian preacher are to restore the throne and dominion of God in the souls of men; to display in the most lively colours, and proclaim in the clearest language, the wonderful perfections, offices and grace of the Son of God; and to attract the souls of men and into a state of everlasting friendship with him . . . It is a work which an angel might wish for, as an honour to his character; yea, an office which every angel in heaven might covet to be employed in for a thousand years to come. It is such an honourable, important and useful office, that if a man be put into it by God, and made faithful and successful through life, he may look down with disdain upon a crown, and shed a tear of pity on the brightest monarch on earth. [Student and Preacherpp. iii-v, quoted by John Stott, Between Two Worldsp. 31]

Calvin on the Preacher and Preaching

Posted: Thursday, February 15, 2018 in Pastoral, Preaching

The following is from John Calvin’s commentary on 1 Peter 4:11a, “whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God.”

He who speaks, then, that is, who is rightly appointed by public authority, let him speak as the oracles of God; that is, let him reverently in God’s fear and in sincerity perform the charge committed to him, regarding himself as engaged in God’s work, and as ministering God’s word and not his own. For he still refers to the doctrine, that when we confer any thing on the brethren, we minister to them by God’s command what he has bestowed on us for that purpose. And truly, were all those who profess to be teachers in the Church duly to consider this one thing, there would be in them much more fidelity and devotedness. For how great a thing is this, that in teaching the oracles of God, they are representatives of Christ! Hence then comes so much carelessness and rashness, because the sacred majesty of God’s word is not borne in mind but by a few; and so they indulge themselves as in a worldly stewardship.

In the meantime, we learn from these words of Peter, that it is not lawful for those who are engaged in teaching to do anything else, but faithfully to deliver to others, as from hand to hand, the doctrine received from God; for he forbids any one to go forth, except he who is instructed in God’s word, and who proclaims infallible oracles as it were from his mouth. He, therefore, leaves no room for human inventions; for he briefly defines the doctrine which ought to be taught in the Church. Nor is the particle of similitude introduced here for the purpose of modifying the sentence, as though it were sufficient to profess that it is God’s word that is taught. This was, indeed, commonly the case formerly with false prophets; and we see at this day how arrogantly the Pope and his followers cover with this pretense all their impious traditions. But Peter did not intend to teach pastors such hypocrisy as this, to pretend that they had from God whatever doctrine it pleased them to announce, but, he took an argument from the subject itself, that he might exhort them to sobriety and meekness, to a reverence for God, and to an earnest attention to their work.

If any man minister This second clause extends wider, it includes the office of teaching. But as it would have been too long to enumerate each of the ministerial works, he preferred summarily to speak of them all together, as though he had said, “Whatever part of the burden thou bearest in the Church, know that thou canst do nothing but what has been given time by the Lord, and that thou art nothing else but an instrument of God: take heed, then, not to abuse the grace of God by exalting thyself; take heed not to suppress the power of God, which puts forth and manifests itself in the ministry for the salvation of the brethren.” Let him then minister as by God’s power, that is, let him regard nothing as his own, but let him humbly render service to God and his Church.

In this we see both preaching and teaching, kerusso and didasko, heat and light, that is necessary for a man to “speak the oracles of God.” Pastor, as you prepare for Sunday, may you heed the words of Calvin.

Knowing God – Knowing Self

Posted: Wednesday, February 14, 2018 in Church History, Counseling, Pastoral

I read this today from The Letters of John Newton and fell under no small conviction:

I know not that I ever had those solemn views of sin which you speak of;
and though I believe I should be better for them, I dare not seriously wish
for them. There is a petition which I have heard in public prayer—Lord,
show us the evil of our hearts. To this petition I cannot venture to set my
Amen; at least not without a qualification: Show me enough of yourself to
balance the view, and then show me what you please. I think I have a very
clear and strong conviction in my judgment—that I am vile and
worthless; that my heart is full of evil, only evil, and that continually. I
know something of it too experimentally; and therefore, judging of the
whole by the sample, though I am not suitably affected with what I do
see, I tremble at the thought of seeing more. [The Letters of John Newton, Kindle ed., pp. 543-544, italics mine]

In the opening chapter of The Institutes of the Christian ReligionJohn Calvin wrote masterfully on the necessity of knowing God in order to know ourselves:

1.2 – It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation
to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also —He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself. And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure just as an eye, to which nothing but black had been previously presented, deems an object of a whitish, or even of a brownish hue, to be perfectly white. Nay, the bodily sense may furnish a still stronger illustration
of the extent to which we are deluded in estimating the powers of the mind. If, at
mid-day, we either look down to the ground, or on the surrounding objects which lie open to our view, we think ourselves endued with a very strong and piercing eyesight; but when we look up to the sun, and gaze at it unveiled, the sight which did excellently well for the earth is instantly so dazzled and confounded by the refulgence, as to oblige us to confess that our acuteness in discerning terrestrial objects is mere dimness when applied to the sun. Thus too, it happens in estimating our spiritual qualities. So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods. But should we once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and reflect what kind of Being he is, and how absolute the perfection of that righteousness, and wisdom, and virtue, to which, as a standard, we are bound to be conformed, what formerly delighted us by its false show of righteousness will become polluted with the greatest iniquity; what strangely imposed upon us under the name of wisdom will disgust by its extreme folly; and what presented the appearance of virtuous energy will be condemned as the most miserable impotence. So far are those qualities in us, which seem most perfect, from corresponding to the divine purity. [pp. 44-45]

Both of these men were pastors – pastors that were pastoral in their ministries, men who faithfully shepherded the flocks that God had given them (Newton at Olney, Calvin at Geneva and Strasbourg). This is due in no small part to their desire to know and to see God as He is in order to know and to see themselves as they were. We should follow their example of faith and piety.