Preparation for Holy Week…

Mid-way through the eighteenth century, Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) wrote his classic work The Rise and Progress of Religion In The Soul, the book which led William Wiberforce to become a Christian. It traces God’s work of salvation from the point of conviction of sin through conversion; from awakening to the life of God, to preparing for death. After a lengthy discourse on the depths of human sin, Doddridge begins his presentation of the good news of the gospel. 

“Look upon our dear Redeemer! Look up to this mournful, dreadful, yet, in one view delightful spectacle, and then ask in thine own heart, do you believe he suffered and died thus? And why did he die? Let me answer in God’s own words, He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, and the chastisement of our peace was upon him, that by his stripes we might be healed; It pleased the Lord to bruise him and to put him to grief, when he made his soul an offering for sin; for, the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. You have indeed been a very great sinner, and your offences have truly been attended with the most heinous aggravations; nevertheless you may rejoice in the assurance, that where sin abounded, there shall grace much more abound…That righteousness, to which on believing on him, thou wilt be entitled, shall not only break those chains by which sin is (as it were) dragging thee at its chariot wheels with a furious pace to eternal ruin, but shall clothe thee with the robes of salvation, shall fix thee on the throne of glory, where thou shalt live and reign forever among the princes of heaven…But I have the authority of God’s Word to tell thee, that if thou this day sincerely believest in the name of the Son of God, thou shalt this day be taken under his care, and be numbered among those of his sheep, to whom he graciously declared, that he will give eternal life; and, that they shall never perish…With this gospel, O sinner, which is my life, and which, if thou dost not reject it, will be thine too.”

My soul confides in your goodness, O God. I adore the patience with which you have carried me for so long, and the grace which now makes me wiling to be yours—on your terms. As I prepare for this Holy Week, have mercy upon me and unite me to yourself, so that none of the allurements of this world may draw me back from you and plunge me into guilt and ruin. May I keep my hold upon you until at length I know more completely how sufficient a Savior you are. Through Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

Note: Here is one of the 400 hymns that Dodderidge wrote. It is titled “Stupendous Grace,” and was set to music by Franz Haydn, 1798.

Stupendous grace! and can it be
Designed for rebels such as we?
O let our ardent praises rise
High as our hopes beyond the skies!
This flesh, by righteous vengeance slain,
Might ever in the dust remain:
There guilty spirits sent to dwell
Midst all the flames and fiends of hell.

But lo! Incarnate Love descends;
Down to the sepulcher it bends;
Rising, it tears the bars away,
And springs to its own native day.
Then was our sepulcher unbarred,
Then was our path to glory cleared;
Then, if that Savior be our own,
Did we ascend a heav’nly throne.

A moment shall our joy complete,
And fix us in that shining seat,
Bought by the pangs our Lord endured,
And by unchanging truth secured.
O may that love, in strains sublime,
Be sung to the last hour of time!
And let eternity confess,
Through all its rounds, the matchless grace.

The Stewardship of Time

I recently did a Men’s Retreat (actually we call it an Advance) for about 100 guys from my previous church in West Chicago—just the weekend before they closed the camp because of COVID-19. The overall theme of the weekend was “Every Square Inch,” based upon a quote from Abraham Kuiper (1837-1920), Dutch Theologian and Prime Minister of the Netherlands (1901-1905), that because of Christ’s resurrection from the dead there is not one square inch of this universe over which he does not cry, “This is mine; this belongs to me!”

In the future, I will also put up the other 2 sessions that I did, but for now you might want to look at this one. Many of us have time on our hands that we’ve not had before and it may be helpful to evaluate our use of it as stewards under the authority of the Lord Jesus. Also, this pandemic may give us some unique opportunities that we may never have again. I pray that you may find this helpful:

Stewardship of Time

Note: If you would like to use a time audit chart that I mention in my talk, try this…

Make Your Calling and Election Sure…

Note: This blog is both self-contained and the 4th in a series exploring the relationship between Justification and Sanctification. If a preacher were to develop this series into a sermon it could be titled “Working Out What God Has Worked In,” based upon Philippians 2:12. The previous 3 blogs are: The Monster of Uncertainty (Feb 22), All We Need for Life and Godliness (March 7), and Add to Your Faith (March 13). And now for the 4th:

Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:10, 11

Just when we are trying to decide whether the people that Peter was describing in 2 Peter 1:9-2:22 were true Christians or not, be brings us back to a self-evaluation. This shows us that Scripture was not given for us to judge others, but to use for our own salvation.

In 1:10-11, we see the mysterious paradox between a belief that our salvation is the result of God’s initiative in our lives and, at the same time, it engages our action. In other words, while God is sovereign in salvation, he also calls each of us to make sure that our character matches our confession and our behavior matches our beliefs. Most of us will admit that we do not live out our faith to the extent that we should, but that is different than choosing to turn a blind eye to the life we are living.

How do we “add to our faith?” How do we cooperate with God in this sanctifying makeover that produces real change in our lives and makes us productive and useful to God? It results from the choices we make as we respond to the circumstances of life. Either we cooperate with God with our new nature or we adopt attitudes and behavior consistent with our sinful nature. Paul addresses the Corinthians as those who have the Spirit but who do not live by the Spirit. He calls them “worldly” and behaving as if they are “merely human.” (1 Cor 3:3)

Let’s use an example: You are a professing Christian and because of the Covid-19 pandemic you are laid off from work and could possibly lose your job. We might want to expand this example to include retirees whose retirement incomes are being threatened by the wackiness of the stock market and who are at the same time the most vulnerable to the virus. Your life is filled with uncertainty, fear, disappointment, disillusionment, etc. and you may be entertaining doubts as to why your loving God has allowed this to happen to you. I don’t think being a Christian makes us immune to such emotions or thoughts—reading the Psalms will convince you of that.

However, it is what you do with these doubts and fears that shows your true colors. You have a choice either of continuing to build your theology upon your own sinful response to pain and uncertainty (like the rest of the world), or to use the resources that God has already given you by his Spirit to trust Him. This trust does not consist in stifling your emotions, or stoically resigning yourself to the will of Allah, but in allowing those emotions (fear, disappointment, etc.) to drive you to your knees and cry out to your Heavenly Father for comfort, help, provision, and to seek the support of the community of faith—as “virtual” as it is now.

It is recognizing that God is at work in the darkness of difficulty, developing the muscles of faith that are rarely exercised on sunny days. Ultimately, you will grow from this, because God will show you that your life is not defined by your work or by the amount of money you have in the bank, but by your trust in Him. It is a response like this that will help you “to make your calling and election sure” and to give you the certainty of your salvation and of your security in Christ.

I must reiterate that as followers of Christ we will continue to stumble and bumble our way through the struggles of life. But because God has given us all we need for life and godliness, and because we have the Holy Spirit who helps us apply these resources to our character development, we should be able to recognize movement and progress in our pilgrim heart. And such progress should give us the assurance that our faith is real and that eternal life is ours.

So, look for God in your struggle…He is at work. Also, look to God in your struggle…He will never leave you or forsake you!

The Just Shall Live by Faith…(a new book)

This book is a project that I have been working on for the last two decades. It is designed not for the academy but for the church. I believe it will be especially helpful to pastors who are looking for a challenging resource for small group and individual study. The book will introduce Romans to the new believer and take the veteran believer deeper into St Paul’s magnum opus.

If you are looking for books to read during this time of “social distancing,” this might be one to add to your list. It may also give you a greater perspective on why we live in such a toxic world.

May the Lord bless you and keep you…

(I did not set the price of my book- my publisher did. If you wanted to order a number of copies for a small group study, I could try and get a discounted rate.)

Fear not little flock…

So, where is your anxiety level these days; level orange? Our culture of fear has provided lots of munchies to feed our fear monsters: terrorism, angry and unstable people (could be that neighbor who seems normal but keeps to himself) committing acts of violence, an eratic North Korea, a desperate Iran, Russian involvement in US politics, the confusion of our whole political system, the future of health care, the debt-ridden economy of Illinois, West Nile virus, Ebola, SARS, H1N1… do you remember these last ones? Now there is COVID-19.

I will spare you the statistics of this present virus and say that while it is very serious, by taking proper precautions (and listening to people who know what they are talking about) we can mitigate the worst case scenarios that the media is suggesting. Mysterious diseases, political intrigue, acts of violence and terrorism make big stories and media hype tends to report the reality disproportionately.  If you still watch the evening news on tv, you almost need a sedative afterwards.  Such news feeds our fears and diverts our attention from dealing with present issues and concerns, as well as seeing present opportunities for the gospel.

In “Break Open the Sky” Stephan Bauman (former president of World Relief) says, Fear is popular today because it’s profitable. Producers of media in all its forms have become merchants of fear, stoking fires of controversy, threat, or anger in search of larger audiences. Politicians, both conservative and progressive, traffic in fear to secure support and shore up votes. Corporations employ fear to make us buy more of their products. Friends warn us of the latest health scare, food allergy, or crime epidemic. Even religion, as an enterprise, makes use of fear. 

We Americans are experts at trying to control our own lives. We are self-sufficient and we tend to provide for ourselves quite well, thank you! We reduce our risks to the minimum, fix all our own problems, and anticipate all eventualities- well, at least we try. When something comes along like a new virus for which no antedote yet exist and which threatens our economy , we feel helpless, frustrated, and out of control—a feeling that Americans hate.  We also start to connect our present fear to all the rest in our anxiety-arsenal and overwhelm ourselves with worry and precaution and a bit of paranoia.

Earlier Christians (and many in the third world today*) lived in unsafe and hostile societies which were vulnerable to constant war, natural disasters without warning, and real incurable diseases. They had little control over their lives and had little sense of a bright earthly future. However, they did have faith in a God who never forgets the cross and would never forget them.  Their antidote to fear was not an inoculation, but trust in a sovereign and loving God who has all things under control.

When the prophet Habakkuk looked at his uncertain future he was overcome with fear. However, he did not allow this fear to paralyze him and he chose to do two things: focus on the character of God who never changes (1:12); listen to God’s counsel to quell his fear.  “The just shall live by his faith” (2:4). The antidote for fear is not courage but faith.

So if we really want to listen to a Sovereign God who never changes then we must begin by hearing the consistent message spoken to the people under the old covenant and to those of us under the new… DO NOT BE AFRAID!

I won’t list all these passages but will mention one found in Luke 12:32 where Jesus told his disciples, “Fear not little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” I wish I had a visual of Jesus speaking to this insigificant little band of wide-eyed men who were ready to be sent out into a violent world to spread the gospel, with little provisions and seemingly little hope of success. And yet Jesus said My little flock- those who are my special ones under my care whom I love- FEAR NOT! The reason not to fear is becuase your Father is absolutely delighted to give you a future, the very Kingdom that you are being sent out to share with others will be your eternal inheritance. And since he will bestow upon you a future glory that you cannot imagine, you do not need to worry that He will provide everything you need in this life as you risk it for His Kingdom.

Apparently, I am included in the most vulnerable-to-the-virus category because I have been on chemo and have diabetes. Yet, I am convinced that there is nothing that will come to me or you which has not first pass through the hand of our heavenly Father and is designed to make us more like Jesus. FEAR NOT…

*In an essay “The Epidemic of Worry,” David Brooks wrote, According to the World Health Organization, 18.2% of Americans report chronic anxiety while only 3.3% of Nigerians,

Add to your faith…

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 2:3, 4)

The call of God unto salvation not only carries with it the justification of the sinner before God because of the (imputed) righteousness of Christ, but also the divine nature which enables that forgiven sinner to live a holy life. In other words, the same grace that saves us is the same grace that empowers us to grow in our life of faith. While we are saved by faith alone (without any merit of our own), it is not a faith that remains alone, but one that blossoms with the fruit of obedience. (1 John 2:3)

And so, Peter continues (2 Peter 2:5-9), For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.

Peter sounds very much like James when he says we cannot be content with sitting back and resting on the laurels of a faith that is not being diligently worked out in our attitudes and behavior. However, it makes us a little nervous when Peter says “add to your faith” because it sound like faith in Christ is not enough. The context will reveal that Peter is not talking about salvation, but productivity and usefulness in the Christian’s life.

William Barclay points out that the word translated “add” is epichoregein and comes from the Greek theater where a wealthy benefactor (choregos) paid for all the expenses of a particular play. Thus the actors, the chorus, and all who produced the play by using their own skills and talents were seen as doing so out of the rich resources provided them by the benefactor. It was seen as an act of cooperation rather than a contribution or donation to the show. And so, Peter says that we are to diligently cooperate with God who as our Benefactor has provided everything we need in order to produce these virtues or characteristics in us.

Virtues such as goodness (lit. excellence- a Christ likeness), knowledge (greater experiential knowledge of Christ), self-control (submission to the indwelling Christ), perseverance (patient endurance knowing that Christ can be trusted), godliness (a practical awareness of Christ in everyday life), brotherly kindness (a patient acceptance of one another in Christ), and love (a loving commitment to one another, as Christ has loved us). These are very similar to Paul’s fruit of the Spirit in Galatian 5:22, 23 which are the characteristics produced in the believer by the Holy Spirit.

Peter goes on to explain that this character formation is a progressive thing, ever-increasing in its measure. And such a process will ensure that we will not become barren or unfruitful in our discipleship. He further warns that if a Christian does not manifest these qualities, s/he is blind (tuphios) and nearsighted (muopazon). This latter term can also be translated “to blink or shut one’s eyes,” which makes more sense. If a person is blind why would they be called nearsighted? But if one blinks or shuts his eyes to something, they become blind to it. And so the Christian who fails to “add to their faith,” out of the rich resources that God has provided, closes their eyes to the transforming nature of God’s grace and deliberately forgets the reality of their own forgiveness from sin. All you need to do is read the rest of 2 Peter and you will see examples of how some of these “blind” Christians were engaged in behaviors unbecoming of the gospel and leading others astray.

Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:10, 11)

Tune in next week as we look at these two verses.

All we need for life and godliness

In my last blog, The Monster of Uncertainty, we saw that Martin Luther came to the place of certainty in his faith by acknowledging that his salvation was based upon the completed work of Jesus Christ and not upon any meritorious good works of his own. The Roman Catholic Church called Luther’s position on justification by faith alone “a legal fiction.”

RC Sproul once explained the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification as “analytical.” It is a position that believes God will only declare a person just when, under God’s perfect analysis, there is found an inherent or infused righteousness within that person. This righteousness is present in the soul by the grace of Jesus Christ through baptism.

In contrast, Sproul defined Luther’s understanding as “synthetic” justification. By this he meant that something new has been added. When God declares a person justified, it is not because God sees righteousness within that person, but that God adds something new—the righteousness of Christ. This is why Luther called it extra nos (alien, outside of us) righteousness not something inherent.

Sproul summarized his thought: . . . the Roman Catholic idea is that grace is infused into the soul of a person at baptism, making the person inherently righteous . . . . But the Reformers insisted that we are justified when God imputes someone else’s righteousness to our account, namely, the righteousness of Christ.

Thus the Roman Catholic Church called Luther’s view a legal fiction because it seemed to undermine the integrity of God by calling a person righteous when they, in themselves, are unrighteous. Luther’s responded that just as Abraham was counted righteous because of faith (Rom 4:3), so God imputes (counts) a person righteous because of the real righteousness of Jesus Christ appropriated by faith. There is nothing fictional about Christ’s righteousness, and there is nothing fictional about God’s gracious imputation of that righteousness. (quotes and ideas taken from RC Sproul’s article “The Very Heart of the Reformation,”

Given the Reformation understanding of justification based upon an imputed righteousness, we are still left with the question of how to understand the obvious emphasis of the New Testament on transformation and the necessity for righteousness and good works to be demonstrated in the Christian life. Is justification by faith merely a “bar code system” where God scans us to see if the “appropriate amount of righteousness has shifted from Christ’s account to our own in the bank of heaven and then we are saved? . . . . where transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message.” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p 37-41)

In other words, why are so many Christians ineffective and unproductive? Is it really due to a problem with our understanding of justification by faith as some kind of legal fiction or heavenly bar code? Perhaps, but I would agree with Paul David Tripp that the real culprit here is “a Gospel Gap.” It is a failure to recognize that the same Gospel that saves us is the same Gospel that sanctifies us. It is failure to articulate that the Gospel includes a new nature placed within us by the Holy Spirit that enables us not only to believe in Jesus but also to grow to be like Jesus. “And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).

Thus faith in Christ justifies (in a moment) and sanctifies (over our life-time) and glorifies (in heaven, when we will be transformed into his likeness). In short, there should be no Gospel gap between our understanding of justification by faith and our being made holy, ultimately into the very likeness of Christ.

If any doubt remains whether the Gospel includes this kind of transformation, one only need look at 2 Peter 1:3, 4 – “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption of the world caused by evil desires.”

In my next blog I would like to look more closely at these verses and the stunning verses that follow to gain a clearer picture on what the Christian life should look like. Stay tuned, and be sure to check out my daily devotions for Lent.