Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (chapters 7-8)

sibbesI’ve been blogging my way through The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. It’s only a couple of chapters a week and I’m now halfway through the short book. Books are like movies in that it’s hard not to make your most recent favorite your all-time favorite. The temptation to overstate things notwithstanding, this is quickly becoming one of my favorite books. Sibbes was known as “the sweet dropper” and throughout this book the sweetness of the gospel is thick. He wrote against the Catholic (“popish”) remains in religion such as a reliance upon external behaviors without consideration of the sincerity of the heart and ritualistic forms of penance instead of genuine repentance. Later Puritans outside a heavy Catholic context would write with other issues at the forefront.

In Chapter 7 of The Bruised Reed, Sibbes addresses two main concerns. First, he investigates some things that might hinder comfort, and secondly, he answers the question whether our weaknesses should keep us from our Christian duties. In the first section, he addresses four ways our comfort and assurance might be hindered in the person who is a “smoking flax.” Whither those hindrances come from Satan or from within the answer is the same: fly to Jesus and open up your complaints to him. As he mentions earlier in the book when discussing the bruised reed, Sibbes here mentions that remaining sin and a struggle of comfort can be an opportunity to be honest about our helpless estate and lean harder upon the mercy and supply of Christ. The realization of the weakness of the flesh can lead to a more steadfast watching and purging of the flesh, and a thirst for pardoning grace from God. The bright compassion and grace of Christ can be seen more clearly against the backdrop of our dark hearts. Furthermore, the fact that there is in us a discontent with our weak state of grace and an unhappiness to remain might conflict us in the moment but it gives comfort by its evidence that we are not happy in our sin. Such is a mark of the work of the Spirit in us.

In the second section of chapter 7 he encourages believers to keep performing their duties even when they don’t feel like it. Though their faith might be weak and they struggle to believe anything they do might actually change the situation or be pleasing to God, don’t let feelings trump the truth. Having seen the compassion of Christ to a bruised reed and smoking flax throughout the whole book, “it should encourage us to duty that Christ will not quench the smoking flax, but blow on it till it flames” (50). The image their is striking. Though there is but a spark of grace in us, Christ will stir this spark into flame by gently breathing into it. Sibbes gives the example of prayer. Although our efforts in prayer might be weak and our thoughts unclear and confused as we pray, this should not keep us from praying. Weakness in prayer is always better than not praying, and the same is true in all Christian duties. “Christ looks more at the good in them which he means to cherish than the ill in them which he means to abolish…Christ loves to taste of the good fruits that come from us, even though they will always savour of our old nature” (50). Going back to the example of prayer, Sibbes preached these words to his congregation: “There is never a holy sigh, never a tear we shed, which is lost. And as every grace increases by exercise of itself, so does the grace of prayer. By prayer we learn to pray” (51).

In chapter 8 Sibbes asks where these discouragements come from. From what he’s already said about God he reasons with us that these discouragements cannot come from the Father, the Son, or the Spirit. They cannot come from the Father because he will “pity us as a father pities his children (Psa. 103:13)” (56). They cannot come from Christ. “We see how Christ bestows the best fruits of his love on persons who are mean in condition, weak in abilities, and offensive for infirmities” (56). And finally, they cannot come from the Spirit because he is our comforter (Rom. 8:26; John 14:16). “If he convinces of sin, and so humbles us, it is that he may make way for his office of comforting us” (57). That conviction is quite different from the discouragement the author has in mind. So, if they do not come from God then what is the source? “Discouragements, then, must come from ourselves and from Satan” (57).

The next chapter-“Believe Christ, Not Satan”-will continue on with this line of thought. In his last sentence Sibbes exhorts us to flee from our Accuser and run to our Advocate. “In time of temptation, believe Christ rather than the devil. Believe truth from truth itself. Hearken not to a liar, an enemy and a murderer” (61).

Remember Remember

V
If you’re like me, when you read those two words “remember remember,” your mind runs to the movie V for Vendetta. Referencing Guy Fawkes and the failed Gunpowder Plot on November 5, 1605, the character known only as V quotes the famous poem: “Remember remember, the fifth of November…” As I much enjoy the movie and would recommend reading about the Gunpowder Plot in England, this post has little to do with V for Vendetta or Guy Fawkes.

I bring up the idea of remembering because I came across the word as I read I Corinthians 11. A section in this text deals with the Lord’s Supper—also known as Communion or Eucharist—and verses 23-26 are often quoted by pastors as they administer the bread and the cup. I love participating in Communion and find it to be one of the most spiritually enriching and faith-rebuilding gifts God has given us. Unfortunately, most churches downplay both its significance and its force, which is why so many evangelicals place such little value on it. The combination of its neglect and my appreciation for it tempt me to write more here than I should, which is why I’m restricting myself to writing about the aspect of remembering.

What it means to remember
In I Corinthians 11:24-25 (see also Luke 22:17-20) Paul recounts the instructions Jesus gave the disciples as he shared the inaugural new-covenant meal with them. Jesus says as we swallow the broken bread (his body) and as the wine (his blood) pours down our throats, we are to remember Christ. Verse 26 lets us know that each time we eat and drink from the Lord’s Table we are proclaiming his death. It is the visible gospel. The Word preached is the gospel we hear with our ears, but Communion is the gospel we see with our eyes and taste with our mouth. The Sacraments (Baptism and Communion) are the God-given visual aids for the church.

So then, what does it mean to remember? Does it simply suggest don’t let it slip out of your mind? Does it mean remember the suffering of Jesus so I feel really thankful or really awful—depending on your church’s view? I would guess that when most evangelicals hear the words “remember” or “in remembrance” during Communion we have a limited and rather low understanding of the word. To “remember”, for us, seems like a small mental activity with little force behind it. But, in the Bible, a call to remember—especially when tied to a covenant sign or ceremony—is a vibrant, powerful, and a participatory concept where we reapply and recalibrate our lives according to what’s being remembered.

“In our Western (Greek) intellectual heritage, ‘remembering’ means ‘recollecting’: recalling to mind something that is no longer a present reality. Nothing could be further from a Jewish conception. For example, in the Jewish liturgy, ‘remembering’ means participating here and now in certain defining events in the past and also in the future.”[1]

Here are two brief examples from the OT of how remember is used in an active way of bringing past realities into present living. To read other passages on remembering see the following: Psalms 25:6-7; 105:8; Lev. 36:42, 45; Jer. 14:21; Ezek. 16:60.

After the flood, God tells Noah the rainbow is the covenant sign that he will not cover the whole earth with water again. Each time the sign of the rainbow can be seen the covenant is remembered. “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’” (Gen. 9:16-17)

The preeminent picture of redemption in the OT is the exodus of Israel from Egypt. This event is tied to its celebration in the memorial meal of Passover. Every year on Passover the Israelites would again participate in this meal to remember who—or whose—they were. The remembrance meal isn’t simply a nod of the head to something from generations ago but it is a visible and lively memorial that God rescued Israel out of Egypt and established them as a people of his own possession. They participate in the meal because they are in fact participants in the reality of this redemption as Israelites. “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statue forever, you shall keep it as a feast.” (Exodus 12:14)

In his book on Paul’s theology, theologian Herman Ridderbos gives us some great insight into the term remember (anamnesis).
“The anamnesis [remembering] intended in the Supper is something different from and more than keeping in remembrance one deceased….It is not a question here only of the commemoration of what has once taken place in the past, but no less of its abiding, actual redemptive significance. Christ’s self surrender is now…the new and definitive fact of redemption which in the eating of bread and in the drinking of the wine the church may accept as such again and again from the hand of God.…It is not merely a subjective recalling to mind, but an active manifestation of the continuing and actual significance of the death of Christ.”[2]

The Puritan John Flavel provides a practical distinction in two ways one could remember Christ’s death. The first is speculatively and transiently, but the second is affectingly and permanently. Here’s a clue, the second is much better! “A speculative remembrance, is only to call to mind the history of such a person, and his sufferings: that Christ was once put to death in the flesh. An affectionate remembrance, is when we so call Christ and his death to our minds, as to feel the powerful impressions thereof upon our hearts.”[3] If you want to be enriched in your view of Communion, read some of the sermons by John Calvin or the Puritans. You’ll be delighted by the depth and warmth with which they celebrated it.

Remembering today
Even in our culture we have some parallels to this active concept of remembering. Renewing marital vows is becoming increasingly popular. Basically, people renew their vows with an understanding that they are remembering what they originally vowed to one another, taking in those commitments once again, and realigning their love, commitment, and marriage based upon the vows that are in place but sometimes forgotten. The first time a couple makes those vows they actually make a covenant to one another and enter marriage. I don’t see the renewal of vows as re-establishing a covenant already in place. Instead, they are reminding themselves in a dynamic way what the covenant vows entailed and how that shapes their marriage relationship each time they remember and live in accordance with them.

One of the things that encourages me is the current resurgence in churches of understanding the ongoing application of the gospel. Christians regularly hear from the pulpit and read from the pen that the gospel is believed once for salvation but is reapplied daily as we can confess our sins and receive fresh grace in Christ. This growing awareness of what it means “to preach the gospel to ourselves daily” or to “apply the gospel” might give us some insight as to how we believe in Christ and again receive his grace as we eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord’s Supper. Every time we take Communion the gospel is proclaimed and we believe and embrace it again—in other words, we remember. It is mystical, but not entirely different from the mysticism involved in the reapplication of the gospel daily for a fresh receiving of Christ’s grace and a renewed vigor from gratitude for such grace.

That, in part, is how Communion is a gospel proclamation. It’s not just that we explain the gospel as we give communion or that the elements themselves picture the gospel, though both are true. But, even more, the gospel is proclaimed because when I partake of the bread and blood of Christ it is an act of faith where I’m again believing in Jesus, taking in him and the gospel promises I get with him, remembering the new covenant benefits that are given to me in Christ, and receiving fresh grace from him. My hope in writing this is that we come to the Lord’s table with eagerness and expectancy, believing this is not a dull religious ceremony but a dynamic and Spiritual gospel experience.

Footnotes
[1] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 799.
[2] Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of his Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 421-22.
[3] John Flavel, Sermon XXI in The Fountain of Life (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1968) 1:262.

Stephen Charnock on God’s Eternality & Immutability: It Matters

CharnockI get it. Thinking about the attributes of God can be tough work, but it is work with a payoff. As our minds do the heavy lifting our hearts reap the benefits of bigger affections. We often think of God in small, bland, and largely insignificant terms. We bring God to our level as we construct our view of him by tiny, often misguided thoughts. Thinking biblically—i.e., theologically—quickly leads to our view of God being shattered as we see him getting larger and larger in immensity, glory, and holiness.

Thinking through God’s attributes also helps us know how God relates to us. A firmer grasp on who God is directly relates to who God is for me. Most of God’s self-revelation in Scripture is relational, or covenantal. God explains himself in the context of how he relates to his creation, especially his own people. The fact that God reveals himself not primarily in philosophical or scientific terms but in relational terms should convince us he wants our theology about him to directly influence our relationship with him.[1}

I’ve started slowly reading A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.[2] Is there any other way to read the Puritans than slowly? Chapter 4 concentrates on Stephen Charnock’s (1628-1680) Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God. Charnock, like any good theologian, doesn’t talk about God’s attributes in isolation from each other as if sometimes God is more of one attribute than the other. Instead, God is all of his attributes to their fullest extent at once. Furthermore, these attributes are actually God’s essence. God isn’t simply loving, but he is love. “For though we conceive the essence of God as the subject, and the attributes of God as faculties and qualities in that subject, according to our weak model…yet truly and really there is no distinction between his essence and attributes; one is inseparable from the other. His power and wisdom are is his essence.”[3]

God’s eternity teaches that there never was a time when he was not. There is no beginning or end to God. “His duration is as endless as his essence is boundless.”[4] Here is one description Charnock provides.

“[God] is not in his essence this day what he was not before, or will be the next day and year what he is not now. All his perfections are most perfect in him every moment; before all ages, after all ages. As he hath his whole essence undivided in every place, as well as in an immense space; so he hath all his being in one moment of time, as well as in infinite intervals of time….He is what he always was, and he is what he always will be.” [5]

As the quote indicates, there is a clear synthesis between God’s eternality and God’s immutability. God always has and will exist (eternal) and he always has and will exist in the fullness of his perfections (immutable). There is no change in God because he eternally exists as the whole essence of all his perfections which are “most perfect in him every moment.” Beeke and Jones quote Charnock to explain how these two attributes of God relate. “Immutability in God is a ‘glory belonging to all the attributes of God.’ God has attributes and perfections that are different, but ‘immutability is the center wherein they all unite.’ What God is, He is eternally and unchangeably.”[6]

Doctrine for Life
Let’s briefly consider how God’s eternality and immutability are what the subtitle of the book suggests, doctrine for life. If God is all of his perfections perfectly—all the time—then I never have to pit his attributes against one another. Nor should I worry if at any given moment he is acting out one of his attributes more than the other. Because every person I know is the opposite of this, unless I intentionally remind myself God is not like us I will think of him in finite and false terms. For example, how I treat you might depend on not only the day but the moment you run into me. If I had some great coffee and an easy drive into work, then I’ll probably be in a good mood and so I’ll act with more grace and patience than normal. However, if my morning gets off to a rough start or the day goes south quickly, then you’re more likely to get the impatient and graceless me.

When I’m not thinking rightly about God I start believing his relationship with me and how he treats me must be similar. Maybe God’s had enough of my failings and is tired of me not getting it—and so I imagine I’m in danger of God deciding to give up or lash out on me. When trials or seemingly avoidable pains are placed on my path I can quickly conclude God is not as good or caring as he used to be. Our faith operates from our theology, and unfortunately our theology often starts to err as it’s built upon false thoughts from our own minds instead of truthful thoughts from the mouth of God (Bible). This is why theology is vital for all Christians. We study the Bible so we can know God better and more rightly.

The truth is it takes work on our part to think of God rightly and not piece together a view of God based upon how fallen people act and upon my own thinking and assumptions. Studying God’s eternality and immutability does me good because it reminds me God is not like me or anyone else I’ve come across. He doesn’t relate to me according to up and down moods he’s in but according to his unchanging and perfect character. If he is perfect in all his attributes and is them perfectly all the time, then I can trust he always deals with me according to his goodness, care, and love. In the midst of either frustratingly confusing circumstances or unbearable pain I might not have answers as to the why but I know the Who. During seasons of life where things seem trivial, or where “darkness hides his lovely face,” or even when our hearts are bursting with gratitude, I can know that God has not changed and he is not being anything other than the fullness of God. As James tells us, there is no variation or shifting shadows in God (James 1:17). In you and I, yes; but not in God. That type of theology not only evokes adoration in the moment but it sustains us for a lifetime.

For Christians who tend to shrink because of weak hearts, doubting minds, troubling fears, or soft consciences, we would do well to commit ourselves to studying God’s attributes—especially his love, grace, compassion, and care. As we start to grow in our theology of what God is really like it becomes an immense encouragement to know he is all those attributes all of the time to their fullest extent. God is always all of his perfect perfections.

Footnotes
[1]. This of course isn’t to suggest God’s self-revelation doesn’t involve philosophy or science, and it certainly doesn’t suggest God is not accurate in his revelation. It simply conveys that God’s revelation comes in the context of relationship. He reveals Himself as Maker, Sovereign, and Redeemer.
[2]. Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).
[3]. Stephen Charnock, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God (London: Thomas Tegg, 1840), 242. Found in A Puritan Theology, 65.
[4]. Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 175-76. Found in A Puritan Theology, 63.
[5]. Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 178. Found in A Puritan Theology, 63
[6]. A Puritan Theology, 64. Emphasis mine.

The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes, chapters 5-6

sibbes
The thrust of chapter 5 is that we should reciprocate to others the same mercy we’ve received. Experiencing compassion lends itself to being compassionate, but that requires we understand at the front just how gracious Christ has been to us. Richard Sibbes demonstrates his pastoral heart multiple times in this book. You read him and get the sense he lived and talked among his people in their need and weakness, so much so that he gets people.

Chapter 5 opens with another caution to pastors in particular, but it applies to all of Christ’s body. We should be careful not to make things “necessary evidences of grace which agree not to the experience of many a good Christian” (26). That is not quite the same thing as saying there will be no evidences of grace or fruit whatsoever in the life of a believer. Many have pressed undue weights upon struggling saints and thereby have crushed their spirits. Some need an exhortation and the strong teeth of Scripture but others need encouragement and the gentle touch of Scripture. Be wise in what truths you give because some truths are “unseasonable truths” when given at the wrong time or to the wrong person. Spiritual discernment might not be the easy way but it’s how we know whether to choose affirmation or rebuke. There are certainly those without any fruit who should be warned, but the focus of this book are the many burdened Christians who need encouragement for the evidences of grace they do have not discouragement for the evidences they don’t have. Sibbes says we are in fact “debtors to the weak” and should labor alongside as the crawl towards Christ. “We must supply out of our love and mercy that which we see wanting in them. The church of Christ is a common hospital, wherein all are in some measure sick of some spiritual disease or other, so all have occasion to exercise the spirit of wisdom and meekness” (34). If the church were to read and embrace the heart and content of this chapter, the spirit of unity, peace, and gentleness in the church would surely be multiplied.

In the next chapter, the author begins with a description of the smoking flax. Sibbes tells us we must have two eyes, one to see the sin in us that remains but another to see the good in us from God’s Spirit. Most of us can clearly see the former but often have a closed eye to the latter; and therein lies reason for why so many Christians feel discouraged. This chapter-like the book as a whole-proves to be a wonderful help to Christians lacking assurance. “Those who are given to quarreling with themselves always lack comfort, and through their infirmities they are prone to feed on such things as will most nourish that disease which troubles them…We must not judge of ourselves always according to present feeling” (35). Sibbes encourages us throughout this chapter not to base assurance on our feelings but on truth, and any work of the Spirit-however small-is in truth an evidence of grace. When we dismiss God’s work in us or others we rob God of his glory and assist Satan the Accuser. Instead of joining the Accuser in condemnation we should look to Christ our Advocate and to what his Spirit has in truth done in our lives.

With the remainder of the chapter, Sibbes continues with the thoughts expressed above as he sets out to argue that God doesn’t require grace in a measure, but that “a spark of fire is still fire.” “There is no mere [complete] darkness in the state of grace, but some beam of light whereby the kingdom of darkness does not wholly prevail” (38). He expands upon this with ten points, or rules, to understand why we should see and encourage the smallest spark instead of pouring water on it because it’s not a flame. Just in case this sounds like Sibbes is doing his best to lower the bar for conversion, he’s not. Instead, he’s reminding them not to base their justification on their sanctification while also pointing to the difference between no light and a beam of light. On one side, he cautions us against over analyzing our lives for fruit since we are prone to condemn ourselves and miss what God’s Spirit has done in us. But, at the same time, he does make clear that even though a believer might be in sin there will always be a contrary principle in them making them uneasy with it. God does not give up on his work of sanctifying us because of the sin that remains in us. He is not pleased by sin in us but he is still pleased with us. Our sin doesn’t negate Christ in us and a genuine work of the Spirit, and thus God continues to work in us so we might mature in our faith and experience a greater degree of evidences of grace.

Martin Luther on the Christian Life

luther It’s never too early in October for a Martin Luther plug. I just gulped down my first pumpkin pie slice of the year so Reformation Day can’t be too far away.

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. It’s slightly less dramatic than it sounds, although that’s not to diminish Luther’s boldness. It wasn’t like putting up a flyer at your local Starbucks but it also wasn’t like pinning it on the White House door. Think of it along the lines of an ad in the paper. Since the church remained the center of society, notices were often nailed to the church doors. These theses were meant to call the Church back to living in line with God’s Word instead of the drastically off-course path Rome had taken it on.

Theses number 1 reads as follows:
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”

This idea of the Christian life as daily repentance remained a constant part of Luther’s teaching, and for many people it continues to aid their understanding of the Christian life. Even our best deeds carry hints of corruption. Rather than feeling crushed by this it should free us to pursue sanctification in Christ without the need to be perfect. Repentance isn’t relegated to conversion. No, the Christian life is a life of daily repentance.

Robert Kolb provides the following commentary on Luther’s understanding of repentance.
“Repentance is an earnest attack on the old creature and an entering into new life. In light of the passive righteousness of faith, confession is no longer something that we do for God while trying to render the appropriate recompense to God for our sins (that would be to deny the work of Christ). Instead, by the activity of confessing sins, Christians empty their hands of their sins. It is a way of carrying out the blessed exchange. In confessing their sins, Christians may say, ‘Lord, I don’t want to hang on to my sins anymore. You take them. Get them out of my sight.’ Only when their hands and hearts are empty are they in a position to receive the benefits of Christ” Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 99.

A Follow Up on Sanctification: What It Is and Isn’t

s

The last post attempted to look at three ways being “gospel-centered” might actually affect our understanding of sanctification and how we then live that out in the life of a church, primarily through small groups and discipleship. I thought I would list a few more that could be added. If you have others that you would add leave a comment with your thought and a couple supporting verses.

Gospel-Centered Sanctification includes:
From the last post
1) It is about receiving news not advice.
I Cor. 15:1-8; Eph. 1:13-14; Acts 15:6

2) It is about repentance not resolve.
James 5:16; I John 1:8-9; Ps. 32:5

3) It is about our need not our self-sufficiency.
Rom. 8:9-11, 13; Phil. 2:12-13; Eph. 3:16; Gal. 5:16-17, 25; Col. 2:20-23

At least a few others I might add would be:
4) Sanctification is about heart transformation not behavior modification.
Mt. 15:19-20; Luke 6:43-45; Matt 23:25-28; Heb. 8:10;

5) Sanctification is becoming like Christ not becoming the best me.
2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:28-29; John 3:2; Col. 1:28

6) Sanctification is motivated by freedom in Christ not slavery to law.
Rom. 8:1, 15-16; Gal. 5:1, 14-16;

7) Sanctification is about a striving for progression not arriving at perfection.
Phil. 3:12-14, 20-21; I Thess. 5:23; I Pet. 5:10;

8) Sanctification happens in the church community not in isolation.
Heb. 10:24-25; I Thess. 5:11; Col. 3:16; I Cor. 12:25; Gal. 6:1-3

9) Sanctification involves deliverance to live under the rule of Christ not to be self-ruled.
Rom. 6:6-7, 22; Col. 1:13; I Cor. 6:20; Ex. 20:1-2

Putting the Gospel Back in Gospel-Centered

blog_header_puttingthegospelback

[Editors note: This blog post originally appeared at The College Park Blog and is being recycled here to tie into other posts on sanctification.]

My pastor beats the gospel drum with regularity, not as an afterword to the message, but as the fulcrum. I can hear his passionate voice: “God is holy, we’re not, and that’s a problem.” Sunday to Sunday our church progresses through a sermon series, and our pastor refreshes us not with something new but with something that never gets old. The unconverted must awaken to their biggest problem in life, their sin, and so we hold up before them again and again God’s graciously given solution, Jesus Christ. We the converted presume there must be a different word we need to hear but again we‘re told: “God is holy, we’re not, and that’s a problem.” We are gospel-centered, in practice not merely in theory, because the gospel must guide every area of our lives as Christians.

Think through how quickly we move past the middle part of that message: “we’re not [holy].” When we gather together in small groups or in one-to-one relationships we often speak and act as if the problem is no longer our sinfulness, but rather our lack of discipline, effort, or commitment. When we first believed the gospel it was clear our performance couldn’t overcome the impasse that God is terribly holy and we’re tragically sinful. We used to be the problem and only God could provide the solution, but now we tend to jettison faith and think we’re capable of fixing our problems. Stuart Smalley’s classic quip soon describes how we live: “We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” When we ignore indwelling sin and see ourselves as basically good, our performance becomes central because we figure the answer must be somewhere within.

Here’s where being “gospel-centered” reorients us. We must recognize that our default mode is to turn back to good works we do to make things right instead of trusting in the truly good work Jesus accomplished that made us right. How can you tell if you’ve fallen into this thinking? Consider how often, in small groups and discipleship, we give advice instead of the gospel, turn to effort instead of repentance, and live out of self-sufficiency instead of need. We must be vigilant, therefore, lest the tide of self-reliance pulls us away from the safe shores of the gospel.

News, Not Advice
Since you’re an acute reader with a disdain for obscurity, you’re likely asking what I mean by “gospel.” Most simply, it means good news. The gospel in its full-length version unpacks many important details and implications. But, for a truncated summary, it is the news that the God-man Jesus redeemed sinful men and women back to God through his redemptive death on the cross and victorious resurrection from the tomb.[1] The good part of the news asserts anyone can receive this redemption through free grace from God.

I know, your reading pace picked up because you’ve heard this song a hundred times. But don’t miss out on this subtle truth: news isn’t advice, opinion, or motivational speech. News reports—whether on TV, your mobile device, or that ancient script called a newspaper—spread the word about what already occurred in history, not what I think should happen.

So where might our actions betray a gospel-centered perspective? Trouble arises when we resort to offering sage advice to one another, giving opinions, or dispensing the latest spiritual maxims. For the gospel (and no shabby replacements) to remain the center we must regularly remind one another of the good news of Jesus Christ. We retell this accomplished, objective, historical news and unpack the never-ending applications gushing from it.

In Transformational Discipleship, the authors draw a clear line in the sand between advice and news. “Advice often masquerades as the gospel. Messages filled with advice to help people improve their lives or turn over a new leaf are in contradiction to the nature of the gospel—news we respond to, not insight we should consider heeding.”[2] If the majority of our conversations sound like “you should try doing this or that” instead of “Jesus has already done this for you” then we’re quickly heading out to the stormy sea of advice and opinion.

I sense the nervousness in you heating up, so yes, almost every situation we come up against does lead to some next steps with legs on them. However, that happens after firmly rooting ourselves in the news of the fully sufficient work Jesus already accomplished for us.

Repentance, Not Resolve
Unlike a lot of other news, however, the gospel is dynamic; it does something to us. It grabs us and shakes us back into the reality we quickly forget: sin is a big deal and our hearts reek of it.

I avoid thinking of myself or my sin in these stark terms. Instead of confessing my sin, I pray that I would “do better.” Instead of seeing my cutting tongue as sin requiring humble repentance I might piously say, “I’ve not done a good job in my speech this week and I need to make that a higher priority.” Talk about a weak and surface-level disclosure! How much more freeing would it be if I would simply admit that my hurtful words are sins and they come out of my rotten heart? Through my language of “doing better”, “trying harder”, or “being more disciplined” I create the mirage of being a good person. All I need, I tell myself, is to dig deeper into my inner reservoirs of strength and goodness. In reality, I need more God-dependent and self-humbling repentance and less self-sufficient and God-ignoring resolution.

Repentance allows us to move beneath the surface and deal with our need for true heart change. When we don’t identify sin as sin, but merely call it a weakness we fail to adequately deal with it. The Bible paints sin as rebellion against God and choosing our own way, whereas our culture tells us we simply struggle with flaws needing improved upon. Repentance of sin to one another must replace recounting our struggles and the self-will behind resolving to try harder. Confessed sin calls upon our community of faith to both lead us back to the gospel for forgiveness while walking with us in a life of righteousness holding out the greater joy.

Need, Not Self-Sufficiency
Once we choose repentance from sin instead of improvement of our weaknesses, it becomes clear we can’t dig out of the problem we got ourselves into. And yet again, we have to intentionally avoid speaking and acting as if our maturity in Christ simply makes or breaks itself depending on my strength. I don’t just need more discipline. The problem isn’t primarily that I’m not trying with enough vigor. The performance foundation teeters because we make our growth self-centered instead of gospel-centered.

The gospel frees me by taking the yoke off my back as I live in the truth that Jesus atoned for my sin and gave me his righteousness. It also liberates by putting God in charge of my sanctification instead of me (deep exhale). When I stop relying on myself and my resources and collapse into trust in God, I see He possesses the power I needed all along. Not only does He supply the power for change, but when we shift our focus from what I should do to what Jesus has done, it changes our motivation and fuels a genuine longing for God. “What I needed is what all of us need—continual belief in the depth of God’s forgiveness and the resilience of his genuine approval in Christ. In brief, what I needed was more Jesus, not more discipline.”[3]

In our small groups and discipleship we must cease speaking as if we only need to grit our teeth, be more disciplined, and fight harder to overcome where we’re falling short. To be gospel-centered in practice and not just in name requires us to honestly tell one another that you’ll never be able to look like Jesus by your performance and energy. Jesus has already redeemed us so as we ask the Holy Spirit to take over and change our heart, to convince us of our identity in Christ, and to help us live as a new creation—one who rests in God’s power, not our own. And we do it for God’s glory, not our own.

The Center HoldsGospel-centered isn’t a label we claim to feel like we’re in the right camp. It’s something we live by to enjoy and experience Jesus in our lives. The first thing we need to hear isn’t a pile of “do’s and don’ts” or “should have’s and next time’s.” Instead, our greatest need is to go back to the well of the gospel to discover fresh life in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Being gospel-centered means we turn to the news of the gospel instead of advice and we meditate on what Jesus has already done before thinking about what I need to do.

Footnotes:
[1] Several recent books deal with the wide ranging scope of the gospel, including: Jared Wilson, Gospel Deeps (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012); Daniel Montgomery and Mike Cosper, Faithmapping (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013); Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians (Minneapolis: Focus Publishing, 2008).
[2] Eric Geiger, Michael Kelley, and Philip Nation, Transformational Discipleship (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2012), 72.
[3] Jonathan Dodson, Gospel-Centered Discipleship (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 39.

Have Some Sam Adams This Weekend

adamsSamuel Adams penned the following in a letter to Joseph Warren on November 4, 1775. The notion of separation between one’s public and private life, especially for leaders, was completely foreign to Adams. Doubtless, it would have been just as curious an idea for other founding fathers. Samuel Adams helped found our country, and he was one of many who discerned the importance of the government assisting in the promotion and protection of Virtue for both the improvement of our private and public spheres of life. [I have left the original spelling.]

“The Eyes of Mankind will be upon you to see whether the Government, which is now more popular than it has been for many years past, will be productive of more Virtue moral and political. We may look up to Armies for our Defence, but Virtue is our best Security. It is not possible that any State shd [should] remain free, where Virture is not supremely honord.
…Since private and publick Vices, are in Reality, thought not always apparently, so nearly connected, of how much Importance, how necessary is it, that the utmost Pains be taken by the Publick, to have the Principles of Virtue early inculcated on the Minds even of children, and the moral Sense kept alive, and that the wise institutions of our Ancestors for these great Purposes be encouraged by the Government. For no people will tamely surrender their Liberties, nor can any be easily subdued, when knowledge is diffusd and Virtue is preserved. On the Contrary, when People are universally ignorant, and debauchd in their Manners, they will sink under their own weight without the Aid of foreign Invaders.”

Taken from ed. William J. Bennett, The Spirit of America (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 261.

For more on the importance of virtue (across the board) to our founding fathers, see Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founding Fathers Different.

Europe Vacation Travel Summary: The Whirlwind

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I’ve had a few people ask about the recent trip my wife and I took to Europe so I thought I’d give a brief rundown of the itinerary. If you’re not interested, and you probably aren’t, feel free to just scan the pics. I’ll limit myself to a couple of pictures for each day, with just a highlight or two mentioned. The trip was a great experience and hopefully Melissa and I will cherish the memories for years. One of the things I liked about the trip was how it encompassed so many things you might want to see on a vacation. No need to decide between mountains, beaches, rolling hills, country sides, or metropolitan cities because Nice and Italy had them all. Not to mention it allowed for most things you’d want to do on a vacation all in one: seeing historical sites, paintings, architecture, nature hikes, museums, gardens, enjoying the best food and wine, UNESCO sites, world-renowned cities, and even boat rides on the sea. The daunting task for me here is how you scale down nearly a thousand pictures to just a handful, and how you summarize the countless memories and breathtaking sights in one blog post. I’ll skip the two full days of traveling on planes, since that largely consisted of being crammed and eating things I wouldn’t buy in a gas station.

Continue reading Europe Vacation Travel Summary: The Whirlwind

John Murray on Active Roles in Sanctification

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One of the reasons why I appreciate reading John Murray is because how succinct he writes. He’s not like the Puritans in that he doesn’t add extra paragraphs answering every objection or to fill in multiple applications. But he’s also unlike present day authors who use three pages to explain something where one substantive paragraph would have been sufficient. He simply states precisely and in matter of fact manner one logical sentence upon another without the compulsion to defend or expand. It’s not perfect and maybe at times there’s a loss because of the things I mentioned he doesn’t do, but overall it’s great to read deep theology that doesn’t have to be long winded.

Here are some of his thoughts on God’s role and our role in sanctification. I think he provides good perspective. He doesn’t steer into a ditch of passivity nor does he overcorrect in the opposite way by making sanctification a moralistic, self-driven pursuit. In an evangelical culture filled with rampant legalism and maturity by spiritual disciplines on one hand and grace without obedience on the other, Murray’s chapter on Sanctification from Redemption Accomplished and Applied upholds God’s role and our role.

I think the last few sentences from the chapter frame a healthy understanding of sanctification. “Sanctification involves the concentration of thought, of interest, of heart, mind, will, and purpose upon the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus and the engagement of our whole being with those means which God has instituted for the attainment of that destination. Sanctification is the sanctification of persons, and persons are not machines; it is the sanctification of persons renewed after the image of God in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. The prospect it offers is to know even as we are known and to be holy as God is holy. Every one who ahs this hope in God purifies himself even as he is pure (I John 3:3)” (150).

God’s role and our role together
“It is imperative that we realize our complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit. We must not forget, of course, that our activity is enlisted to the fullest extent in the process of sanctification. But we must not rely upon our own strength of resolution or purpose. It is when we are weak that we are strong. It is by grace that we are being saved as surely as by grace we have been saved. If we are not keenly sensitive to our own helplessness, then we can make the means of sanctification the minister of self-righteousness and pride and thus defeat the end of sanctification. We must rely not upon the means of sanctification but upon the God of all grace. Self-confident moralism promotes pride, and sanctification promotes humility and contrition” (147).

There are several things worth mentioning in that quote but here’s one. After reading this I’m reminded how often I begin with spiritual disciplines as a means or grace that are avenues between God and I (or the corporate body). Over time I shift from these disciplines as an avenue to thinking they are sufficient in themselves, as if the Bible reading or prayer itself sanctifies me rather than them being God appointed means of God speaking and acting in my life. Yes, the Word itself is inspired by God but Word and Spirit must come together for me to hear what God has to say to me in His Word. I must at one and the same time increase my commitment to God’s graciously provided means of grace and also be cautious not to become prideful in my exercise of them or shortsighted in relying upon them as ends instead of means. We are, as Murray writes, completely dependent on the Holy Spirit and yet our activity is enlisted to the fullest extent.

“While we are constantly dependent upon the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit, we must also take account of the fact that sanctification is a process that draws within its scope the conscious life of the believer. The sanctified are not passive or quiescent in this process…And no text [Phil. 2:12-13] sets forth more succinctly and clearly the relation of God’s working to our working. God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relations is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us, not the willing to the exclusion of the doing and not the doing to the exclusion of the willing, but both the willing and the doing. And this working of God is directed to the end of enabling us to will and to do that which is well pleasing to him…The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God” (148-49).

Whether or not you agree with his dislike of the word cooperation, I think his point is valid. Cooperation might get across to others what you mean, that both God and the person are involved. But the point he makes should be noted, that we should not suggest it’s a 50/50 work where both sides do the same thing. God works in us and we work with his help. It’s both the order, the relationship of cause and effect, and the right motivation.

I started to put a list together of verses emphasizing God’s role and our role. Hopefully this leads us back to God as the source and help in our sanctification, but also jolts us into renewed energy towards pressing on after Christ. Here are just a few of those verses.

God’s activity
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly.” (I Thess. 5:23)
“God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13)
“Mow may the God of peace…equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever.” (Heb. 13:20-21)
“…the God of all grace…will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (I Pet. 5:10)

Our activity
“so now yield your members to righteousness.” (Rom 6:19)
lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely.” (Heb. 12:1)
strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb. 12:4)
abstain from immorality.” (I Thess. 4:3)
“Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.” (2 Cor. 7:1)
make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue…” (2 Pet. 1:5)

The Corporate Dimension of Our Sanctification
John Murray doesn’t deal with this in his short chapter (so maybe that’s a weakness) but I thought I would mention it. It’s talked about more often today but we must intentionally remind ourselves that our maturity in Christ isn’t solely a “me and God” thing. The NT provides numerous verses that paint a picture of the corporate role, or the role of the church, actively involved in our sanctification. Just the “one another” verses themselves would give ample evidence of how important the community of faith is for my individual growth. Here’s a sampling of verses on this aspect of being sanctified that we won’t want to miss.

“let us stir one another up to love and good deeds.” (Heb. 10:24-25)
“encourage one another and build one another up.” (I Thess. 5:11)
“teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” (Col. 3:16)
“care for one another.” (I Cor. 12:25)
“Bear one another’s burdens” and “you who are spiritual should restore him [others].” (Gal. 6:1-3)