What does it mean to be united to Christ? John Piper shows how we can begin to mine the riches of this doctrine from Scripture.
What does saving faith feel like? Like water to a thirsty soul. Like finding a treasure you cannot live without.
One of Jesus’s most repeated sayings in the Gospels is some version of this: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:23). If we’re wise, we’ll listen carefully to whatever Jesus says, especially what he says repeatedly. And in this case, listening happens to be precisely what he’s telling us to do.
There’s a very, very important reason behind Jesus’s exhortation:
“Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Mark 4:24–25)
Do you understand what Jesus is saying? The fact that this warning itself is somewhat difficult to understand illustrates his point: listen and ponder carefully, for if you don’t, you will not understand, and if you do not understand, you will lose whatever capacity to understand you do have.
Everything hangs on how well you hear what God is saying — what we commonly call the word of God. And hearing God well requires your close attention. Are you paying attention?The Strange Purpose of Parables
Jesus issues this warning in the context of telling a series of parables. Parables were riddle-stories in which Jesus hid profound secrets of God’s kingdom in brief, often mundane-sounding metaphors. In the stories recorded in Mark 4, he uses a farmer’s soils (Mark 4:1–8), an oil lamp (Mark 4:21–25), and seeds (Mark 4:26–32).
Read them. Do you understand them? Of course, Jesus explains the parable of the soils (Mark 4:13–20). But what about the lamp or the seeds? These stories sound simpler than they are. We won’t really get them unless we are paying attention.
And we have Bibles! None of Jesus’s original hearers had ever heard these parables before. They weren’t written down so they could be read over and over, have their grammatical structure examined, and be conveniently cross-referenced with other Scriptures. The first hearers heard these stories once. If they weren’t paying attention, they would miss the kingdom. That’s costly distraction.
When Jesus explained to his disciples why he taught in parables, he said he did so — quoting portions of Isaiah 6:9–10 — that his hearers “may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven” (Mark 4:12). Here again, Jesus’s hard-to-understand explanation illustrates his point: if we’re not listening carefully, we’ll miss what he’s saying.
Is God really telling riddles so that people won’t understand? No and yes. Jesus told the parables to reveal spiritual mysteries of the kingdom, and he really wanted people to understand them. That’s why he said, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” and “Pay attention.” But his revelatory method tested the spiritual wakefulness and earnestness of the hearers. Those who were listening to really hear would hear. But the spiritually dull and distracted would not. Jesus wanted to give the kingdom to the former, not the latter. Those who would not pay attention would reveal their spiritual dullness — dullness that has serious consequences: missing the kingdom of God.God’s Counterintuitive Ways
If Jesus’s words here sound counterintuitive, they are. Jesus spoke and acted in ways consistent with God’s words and ways throughout the Bible, captured in this text:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8–9)
I’ve seen this passage, or some portion of it, quoted on Christian memes, calendars, and greeting cards, often with a beautiful inspirational landscape, seascape, or skyscape in the background. But if we inserted biblical images as backgrounds, they’d be things like a forbidden tree in Eden, the existence of Satan, a horrific flood, Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, Jacob disguised as Esau, Joseph languishing in prison, Israel with a sea before them and the Egyptian army behind them, Rahab the Canaanite prostitute marrying into the messianic bloodline, David hiding in a cave from Saul, Jeremiah weeping over Jewish women boiling their babies, baby Jesus sleeping in a trough, and above all, adult Jesus mutilated and hanging on a Roman cross.
God’s ways truly are not our ways. None of us would have written the story of redemption the way God has. The story itself points to a Personality and intentionality behind it.
And if we’re paying attention, we can detect the same Personality and intentionality in the strange way Jesus communicates the kingdom of God in hard-to-understand parables. None of us would do it that way.Familiar, Affluent, and Distracted
The key qualifier is if we’re paying attention. Because, as Jesus said, if we’re not paying attention to what God says, we will miss what God is doing. That’s a costly distraction.
By God’s grace, we do have an advantage over Jesus’s original hearers: we have God’s authoritative, written word. In fact, never have so many Christians had so much access to God’s word as we do today.
But we must not be lulled into thinking that so much access to and familiarity with Jesus’s teaching means we don’t face the same danger as those first-century listeners. We may have a clearer view of the kingdom than the crowds who heard Jesus’s parables, but we are as endangered by dull hearing as anyone has ever been (Hebrews 5:11).
Never have Christians possessed so much wealth as Western Christians today, which presents many temptations to us and threatens to destroy us (1 Timothy 6:9–10). And never have Christians been barraged with so many and so varied distractions as we are. Overly familiar, overly affluent, and overly distracted is a recipe for the kind of dull hearing that often manifests as being able to explain what Jesus means without actually doing what he says.
It is a false comfort to be able to accurately teach a text if we do not obey it, if functionally our fleshly anxieties and desires govern us, not Jesus’s commands and promises. This can be a more deceptive form of dull hearing than merely not listening or forgetting.Pay Much Closer Attention
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1). If we’re not paying attention, we may not even realize we’re drifting. We can look around and see lots of other distracted, dull Christians who talk Jesus’s talk without walking Jesus’s walk, figure it must be normal, and assume we’re doing just fine. The only way we know if we’re paying close attention to what Jesus says, in the way that he means it, is if we are really doing what he says (John 14:15).
The Christian life is an attentive life (Mark 13:37; Luke 21:36; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Peter 5:8). The Christian life is a hearing life (Mark 4:24; Luke 8:21; John 10:27; Romans 10:17; Hebrews 3:7–8). But attentive listening to Jesus does not come naturally. It must be cultivated and diligently guarded. And there is no formula for how to pay closer attention. It is cultivated by making attentiveness habitual — by practicing the habits of grace. We learn to pay attention by intentionally trying to pay attention. The Spirit will help us if we ask the Father to teach us (Luke 11:9–10; Psalm 25:4).
So whatever it takes, we must pay attention to what we hear. For Jesus’s ways and words are often counterintuitive, and we live in a destructively distracting age. And everything hangs on how well we hear Jesus.
During a particularly stressful period of pastoral ministry, I began to more intentionally seek out joy in God as the dire remedy for my own frayed and threadbare heart.
I had diagnosed myself as markedly joy-deficient when I searched for evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in my life (Galatians 5:22). At age 35, leading a midsize Presbyterian church was already wearing me out. I became stressed at home and frustrated in the office. My coworkers could see it on my face. I needed a deeper source of joy than the world could give, despite its barrage of empty-promise advertisements and panaceas.
So, for nearly three years, I plunged headlong into a deep study on eternal happiness from the theologian of joy, Jonathan Edwards. I surveyed large swaths of his major works and personal writings, mining for gladdening gold.
In my study, I learned at least three methods for maintaining joy in God that Edwards practiced in his own life amid the relentless trials and strains of pastoral ministry. Although most Christians are already familiar with these methods, I discovered that studying the writings of a pastor-theologian from a different historical context opened my eyes for seeing well-worn paths in new ways. The means of grace discussed below are not new or innovative concepts, but rather the ancient paths reinvigorated by considering them afresh through the lens of a joy-absorbed sage.Creation: God’s Beauty on Display
First, Edwards rejoiced in the natural world and the beauty of creation. Edwards saw a strong connection between beauty and joy. Both beauty and joy are to be found in the “excellencies” of God’s nature, by which Edwards meant the praiseworthy attributes of his essential being. These include God’s holiness, love, power, mercy, and righteousness, just to name a few.
One of the ways that Edwards savored the excellencies and beauties of God was through engaging with, and enjoying, his natural creation. For Edwards, being in and among the creatures in the natural realm stirred his affections for God’s creative power and beauty, in turn stoking the fires of joy in his heart.Edwards in the Woods
In his Personal Narrative, Edwards described what may have been the most ecstatic experience of his life, a vision of Jesus that he beheld in the woods when riding his horse:
Once, as I rid out into the woods for my health . . . as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer; I had a view, that for me was quite extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God; as mediator between God and man; and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension . . . which continued, as near as I can judge about an hour; which kept me, the bigger part of the time, in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 16:801)
Although Edwards was constantly in his study and among his books, he also greatly treasured the outdoors and drank in the beauty of God’s created world whenever possible. He drew upon natural themes for his sermon illustrations, and spoke often of the light of the sun, the taste of honey, water from spring fountains, and the like. Just as John Calvin wrote in the Institutes, Edwards saw the universe as the beautiful “theater” of God’s glory (1.6.3).Walk Out of the Study
One of the very practical things that I learned from Edwards is to see vestiges of the gospel in the creation itself. In his notebook on Images (or Shadows) of Divine Things, Edwards constantly peered through creation to see the gospel everywhere around him.
For Edwards, “roses upon briers” are a type of Christ’s glory (the flower) wrought by suffering (thorns). In lightning, he saw a type of the wrath of God, threatening judgment. The rising and setting of the sun he viewed as a type of the death and resurrection of Christ. Even in the lowly silkworm, Edwards saw a type of Christ’s righteousness given to men (the silk) through the suffering and humiliation of Christ (the lowly worm). We too can begin to make these types of observations.
Almost every pastor or Christian leader would do well to spend more time in nature. We could start, for example, by using a day each month to take an intentional prayer walk through a local park, or even by doing some simple gardening in our own yard. I recently listened to the story of another pastor in my city who took a four-week sabbatical, not to study or write in a library, but to spend eight hours a day among the trees in a nearby nature preserve, thinking and praying. He came back refreshed and renewed for his third decade of ministry. At the very least, pastors could make it a regular practice to journal about spiritual insights gleaned from nature and creation in a journal similar to Edwards’s Images of Divine Things notebook.Scripture: Window to Glory
Second, Edwards rejoiced in the study of Scripture. Edwards saw the glory of eternal joy not only in natural revelation (creation) but also in special revelation (the word of God). Edwards is practically famous for his long thirteen-hour days in the study, surrounded by his books and Bible texts.Edwards with His Bible
The Holy Scripture itself was an undeniable and unequaled source of divine joy for Edwards. He writes, “How little do most persons consider how much they enjoy in that they have the possession of that holy Book the Bible which they have in their hearts and which they may converse with as they please” (Edwards on the Christian Life, 104).
Once, Edwards preached to the Mahican Indians that “God gave his Word for the sake of men, for their happiness” (Edwards on the Christian Life, 111). This is true for Edwards, because the Bible contains the message of Christ, the purest source of real joy for the believer. The Bible is the window through which the glory of Christ is perceived. Tellingly, he wrote, “This course of employ in my study . . . [has] been the chief entertainment and delight of my life” (A Jonathan Edwards Reader, 322).Linger in the Book
A couple practices that I have lifted directly from Edwards himself is in beginning my own “Miscellanies” notebooks, as well as my own Blank Bible. In his “Miscellanies” system, Edwards began to categorically compile a large system of general observations on theology and doctrine as well as other pertinent thoughts on human life, philosophy, and ethics, titled and cross-referenced for later recollection and study. Edwards’s system of miscellaneous thoughts grew to over 1,400 in number, all classified and organized by subject heading. Although my own approach is far from perfect, I have begun to formulate a similar notation and observation system, greatly advancing my joy of the study of God’s word.
More than that, I also acquired an interleaved Bible with a blank leaf between each page of text, again directly modeled after Edwards. I use this interleaved Bible to record brief observations on the words and phrases of Scripture, creating what I hope will be a lifelong system of observations and textual analysis. I am convinced that Edwards rejoiced in Scripture study precisely because it was a lifelong obsession with the most gladdening subject matter, the glory of God in the gospel.
As a pastor, these kinds of organized note-taking systems for collecting thoughts on Scripture and theology not only increase my joy in studying God’s word more deeply now, but they also will pay off in the future. Since stress is one of the primary joy-killers in ministry, then reducing the stress of relentless sermon preparation over the long haul is a worthy end. The short time I expend to take notes in my miscellanies journals and interleaved Bible in the present will one day pay me back in dividends of delight in future sermon and lesson planning.Fellowship: Where Earth Is Most Like Heaven
Third, Edwards rejoiced in the body of Christ, the fellowship of the church. We would certainly be mistaking Edwards’s views on joy if we were to think of these pursuits as individualistic. Edwards himself loved the local church and saw it as the matrix of Christian joy, celebrated corporately. He wrote once, “Union is one of the most amiable things, that pertains to human society; yea, ’tis one of the most beautiful and happy things on earth, which indeed makes earth most like heaven” (God’s Grand Design, 170).Edwards with God’s People
Edwards understood the brutal realities of life, that one’s pilgrimage of faith could be difficult and lonely. Therefore, he said,
Let Christians help one another in going this journey. There are many ways that Christians might greatly help and forward one another in their way to heaven: by religious conference and otherwise. . . . This is the way to be more successful in traveling and to have the more joyful meeting at their Father’s house in glory. (God’s Grand Design, 175)
Of particular importance to Edwards was the sacrament of Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. Edwards held a very high view of the Lord’s Table, seeing it as the place where Christians meet their Lord in covenant renewal, and get a glimpse of joy on earth as it is beheld in heaven. Very early on in his career, he preached on the joy to be had at the Lord’s Supper: “In that ordinance, we may have the foretaste of that eternal feast with Christ in glory. That spiritual food is afforded us in the Lord’s Supper and is given to the worthy partakers as a foretaste and earnest of that future happiness” (God’s Grand Design, 157).Prepare for the Table
My study of Edwards makes me concerned that many may approach the Table far too casually today. We saunter into the sanctuary and are almost surprised by the presence of the prepared elements: “Oh yeah, I guess it’s the first Sunday of the month again. Today’s service will be fifteen minutes longer I suppose.” For Edwards and the Puritans, the Lord’s Supper was a banquet to be longed for. The heart was to be prepared in advance. The individual Christian, as well as his family, was to be made ready in advance for an encounter with Christ.
For this reason, I have cultivated the habit of reading question 171 of the Westminster Catechism with my family on the eve of Communion Sunday as part of our family devotions. In addition, the elders and I have been more purposeful about announcing the Communion service a week in advance, suggesting devotional content for our people to consider before coming to the Table.
We remember, of course, the old adage that influencing people is as much about what is caught as what is taught. This is true for pastors, their congregations, and the Lord’s Supper. Our people must sense that this event is special for us as ministers, that we personally long for the delights of the Table, that for us this sacrament (or ordinance) is the very place where we meet with our Lord in covenantal renewal. If I treat this Supper casually, or matter-of-factly, my people will sense that over time. It is not a mere routine. It is an encounter with Christ, and it should be anticipated and rejoiced in every time God’s people gather around his banquet table. The joy of Communion can be seen in the pastor’s eyes by his own people.Resolved: To Be Happy
My stress and exhaustion as a now 42-year-old pastor have not fully gone away since I started studying the works of Edwards. But through a study of his theology of joy, I have acquired more tools by which to pursue holy happiness. For this, I am deeply grateful.
Christian joy, Edwards taught me in his twenty-second resolution, is to be a lifelong pursuit. As a 19-year-old, he wrote, “Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 16:754). Would that we too could make this resolution our own.
Gambling your money — whether at a slot machine or with your fantasy team — is not just unwise. It is sin. Pastor John gives seven reasons why.
Not every Sunday is a mountaintop. Our hearts often feel sluggish when we come to worship. Distractions around us may abound. Shame over sin can make us feel like hypocrites. Our lives in this fallen world are endlessly up and down. Even in corporate worship. Perhaps especially.
This is what makes our weekly gathering so important. We lift our voices together and turn from that week’s “fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25) to the superior pleasures to be had in Christ. We help each other move higher up the mountain. And in that process of being renewed, and gaining strength for the daily and weekly demands of life, we find our coming together in worship to be the single most important means of deep and enduring joy in God, even as coming to enjoy him can be an extended process.
But up or down, high or low, with what frame of mind and heart do we come to worship together?
Our God is the all-satisfying fountain of living waters (Jeremiah 2:13). When we seek to quench our deep soul-thirst in him, corporate worship becomes the stunning opportunity to gather together not just with fellow believers, but with fellow enjoyers of God.Come to the Fountain
The prophet Isaiah raised his voice to summon God’s people not simply as believers but enjoyers:
“Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1–2)
In worship, we enjoy Jesus together as water for our thirsty souls, as milk to nourish our spirits, and as wine to gladden our hearts. God offers a banquet to the human soul — not mainly for individual snacking but for corporate feasting.
We do find encouragement in gathering consciously with fellow believers. In a world that suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18) — and lies to us subtly and overtly at every turn that self, not God, is in control — finding ourselves in the assembly, in the congregation, of believers can have a powerful effect on reinforcing our faith. God exists. He made our world. He rules over its every detail, even our sin. And he sent his own Son to rescue us from our sins, and the punishment we justly deserve, by faith in him.
And yet, when we gather in corporate worship, we are more deeply knit together than simply the truths we affirm. A stronger tie that binds us is whom we enjoy. We share in a common joy with uncommon worth: the greatest treasure in the universe.Come to the Faith
Is it assuming too much to think of your fellow worshipers as fellow enjoyers of Jesus? Not at all. Saving faith is not indifferent to its Savior.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says, “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Note the parallels in what Jesus says. Not hungering pairs with never thirsting. And coming to Jesus pairs with believing in him. What, then, according to John 6:35, is Christian faith? It is “coming to Jesus” — not bodily or geographically but in the soul — to have our soul-hunger satisfied and our soul-thirst quenched.
There is an irreducible aspect of enjoyment in such faith, whether the believer is conscious of it yet or not. There is a kind of “joy” that is not only the fruit of faith (Galatians 5:22) but an essential aspect of faith (Philippians 1:25; 2 Corinthians 1:24). Fellow believers in Jesus are fellow enjoyers, with us, of him. Our corporate worship truly is an enjoying Jesus together.Come to the Father
Whether or not we come in worship as enjoyers, not just believers, may reflect how deeply we see God as our Father — a true Father who we know fundamentally as a giver, not taker.
Hebrews 11:6 defines faith as not merely believing that God exists but also that he rewards those who seek him: “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Faith does not come to God begrudgingly. Faith does not expect the worst from our Father. Genuine faith not only believes God exists but comes to him as a rewarder.
In corporate worship, we gather together expectantly, reminding ourselves that God is our giving Father. This is who he is. This is what he loves. God delights in cheerful givers because he himself is one. This is what he produces in the hearts of his people. Not dutiful, reluctant, obligatory worship, but willing, eager, cheerful praise. The kind of worship that comes to him as a rewarder, not a killjoy. As a treasure, not a troll. As the great satisfier of our souls, not as a slavemaster conscripting our service.Come to the Feast
How might it change corporate worship for you to scan the room and think, “These men and women around me, of all ages, not only believe in the truth of Christianity but they enjoy the God of Christianity”?
As we sing, we are enjoying Jesus together. As we pray, we are enjoying him together. As we hear his word read and preached, we are uniting our hearts together in the God who himself, in the person of his Son, became one of us, and lived among us, and suffered with us, and died for us, and rose triumphantly from the grave, and now sits in power — with all authority in heaven and on earth — at his Father’s right hand bringing to pass, in his perfect patience and perfect timing, all his purposes in our world. For our everlasting joy. Together.
Together we not only find this God believable; we find him enjoyable. And not marginally enjoyable. But supremely so. Our souls — not just as individuals but as the church — were made to feast on him, to have him, to enjoy him. And not just in this moment, and not just for a season, and not just for a lifetime, but forever.
Even though we are not saved by works, none of us will make it to heaven without actively killing our sin. Either we kill our sin or it will kill us.
God does not stop revealing to us the glory of Christ in his word. He starts at new birth, and he keeps on revealing the glory of Christ. Our new life started with a miracle — and it continues with a miracle.
The ongoing miracle that God works by his Spirit is that we become increasingly like the one we admire and enjoy — him. The apostle Paul writes,
We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
The words “beholding” and “being transformed” are present tense, which means ongoing action — not once for all, but continual. “Beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed.” This is what God does daily as we look to him in his word. It is what he does weekly in the preaching of his word in gathered worship. And it is what, I pray, he is doing right now as you read.Beware of Growth Schemes
Many Christians, especially newer Christians, long for a method of discipleship that will change them quickly by just following a few clear and doable steps. I would caution you from pressing too hard for such a foolproof method. Such approaches to growth and change often lead to disillusionment, and sometimes to a crisis of faith — why is this not working for me?
God’s way toward growth is more like the watering of a plant, or feeding a baby, than the building of a wall brick by brick with a manual in our hand. When you build a wall that way, you can see every brick put in place, and measure the progress. We hold the brick; we apply the mortar to hold it in place; we place the brick. Voila! Growth! Christian growth is not like that. It’s more organic, less in our control, and usually slower.
Beware of schemes that put things in your control, and promise more than they can deliver.Long for Spiritual Milk
Consider this picture from 1 Peter 2:2–3: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” The picture is of a child growing. At the end of the day, can you see the growth? No. At the end of a week? Not really. But after a year? Yes! Did you control the growth by adding inches and pounds? No. You fed the child. You cleaned the child. You protected the child from harm. And God gave the growth.
Peter tells us to “long for the pure spiritual milk” in the way a baby desires food when he is hungry. In other words, really desire it! Cry out for it. Don’t be quiet till you have it. What is the milk? Two clues. First, Peter had just described the new birth of a baby Christian in 1 Peter 1:22–25. He said that “you have been born again . . . through the living and abiding word of God . . . And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” The life-giving means that God used to create a new creature in Christ — the way he caused the new birth — is the word of God, especially the sweetness of the gospel.
So, when he says two verses later that this Christian should desire the spiritual milk for growth, it is natural to think he is still referring to the word that gave the life in the first place.How to Read the Bible
The second clue that Peter is thinking about the word when he refers to the milk is in the next verse (1 Peter 2:3): “if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” The word “tasted” signals to us that Peter is still thinking about desiring drink. And here the taste of the drink is “that the Lord is good.” The milk that we are to desire for growth is the goodness and kindness of the Lord revealed in his word. Or to put it another way, reading the word with a specific intention to taste the goodness of the Lord as we read.
Peter says the effect of this regular feeding on the spiritual milk of God’s goodness in his word will be to “grow up into salvation.” Our growth will be toward the climax of our total transformation when Christ returns. And in the meantime, there will be real, but incremental, and sometimes slow, growth.
This growth is a miracle and not entirely manageable by us. To be sure, we are not to be passive. But the decisive spiritual work belongs to God.God Gives the Growth
Jesus told a parable to emphasize this divine work in growth:
“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26–29)
This parable is about the kingdom of God in the world. But the principle applies to the kingdom of God bringing about growth in the believer. The point of the parable is that, even though we sow seed (as we drink the spiritual milk of God’s kindness in his word), nevertheless, the blade and ear and grain come into being “he knows not how.” It is not in our control. God gives the growth.
Or as Paul said about the growth of faith among the Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6–7).
A dear friend of mine is walking through a heartbreaking illness.
When I heard the news, I was shaken. I, who write about suffering, had no words to offer. What could I say anyway? Words seemed inadequate. Trite. Even condescending. How do you encourage someone who is beginning a devastating journey into the unknown?
It takes me a few days to process what’s happening. Our friends are all struggling to process it too. As we pray, we try to remind ourselves of the truths we know. Bedrock truths that have carried us through our own grief. Truths that every Christian can hold onto. Truths that will bear the weight of our sorrow.He Controls the World
First and foremost, God is sovereign. Nothing that happens to us is a surprise to him. Not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from the Father’s will (Matthew 10:29). On the contrary, everything that we face has been put there with a purpose. We can trust that it is the best for us. And hard as it is to understand, the struggles that land on our doorstep are also for the good of our family, for our friends, for everyone we love, if they love God.
Yet even as I write this, thinking that our suffering ultimately will be best for our loved ones sounds crazy. Guaranteeing it sounds impossible. But the God of the universe, who keeps the earth spinning on its axis, who tells the ocean to come this far and no farther (Job 38:11), who commands the wind and the waves (Mark 4:41), who clothes the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:28–30), and who has numbered the hairs on our head (Luke 12:7) can ensure that all things work together for good for those who love him (Romans 8:28).
God loves us. He watched his Son die a horrible death, separated from him in his last hours, so that we would never be separated from him. He wants to be with us, to take care of us, and to give us good gifts. How could he, who did not spare his own Son, not give us all things (Romans 8:32)?He Walks with Us
God has numbered our days. All the days ordained for us were written in his book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:16). Nothing can cut short our lives. No one will live one second less than God determined before the foundation of the world.
God walks with us every minute of our lives. Jesus says, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). God says to Joshua, “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5). When we walk through the rivers, they will not overwhelm us, because the Lord walks through them with us (Isaiah 43:2).
We never drink the bitter cup or endure any pain without him.He Will Come Through
Christ is with us and will give us the comfort and strength we need each day. As Deuteronomy 33:25 assures us, “As your days, so shall your strength be.”
Octavius Winslow, a preacher in England in the 1800’s, reminds us that God gives us more than we need in our hour of suffering. He says, “Has not the Lord always been better than all your troubling anticipations, quelling your fears, reassuring your doubting mind, and hearing you gently and safely through the hour of suffering which you dreaded? Then trust him now! Never, never will he forsake you!”
Yet despite God’s past faithfulness, one of our biggest concerns is whether the Lord will be with us in future trials. John Ross MacDuff, a Scottish contemporary of Winslow, understands this fear. He says,
God does not give grace till the hour of trial comes. But when it does come, the amount of grace and the nature of the special grace required is vouchsafed. My soul, do not dwell with painful apprehension on the future. Do not anticipate coming sorrows; perplexing thyself with the grace needed for future emergencies; tomorrow will bring its promised grace along with tomorrow’s trials . . . and the strength which the hour of trial brings often makes the Christian a wonder to himself!No Matter What Happens
We don’t need to understand now how we will face the future. God will give us all we need every day we have breath. And when we breathe our last on earth, the Lord will bring us safely to heaven so that we can enjoy him forever.
One day our eyes will close in death and open to the breathtaking reality that we are in the presence of our Savior. We will feel more alive, more vibrant, more energetic, and more joyful than we ever have on earth. The God whom we have known but never seen will be before us. We will behold his glory with our own eyes, with no distortion or filter. Our souls will be completely at rest and at peace, filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. It will be glorious. That is our hope. Our promise. Our anchor.
These are the truths we as Christians base our lives on. They are sure and unchanging promises, guaranteed by the One who holds the universe. No matter what happens, we will never walk alone.
When the teenage years come, we get to teach our kids how to move from reading the Bible to studying it. Here are seven places to start.
I prayed to God every day to heal my little brother.
Like Jacob, I planned to take hold and not let him go until he blessed my brother with freedom from the captivity of autism. My knees sored. My back ached. Accidental sleep ended my prayer sessions. Days grew to weeks, and weeks to years. I pled daily, and as a result, I nearly lost faith.
Never before had I questioned whether God heard me or not. Never before had I prayed with enough detail to know how he replied. I would ask to hate my sin more vehemently. I would ask for his kingdom to come. I would ask to know more of his love. To see his glory. To serve his people. I prayed appropriate prayers, God-inspired prayers, but safer prayers. Prayers with no expiration date and no final clarity as to whether God had said no.
Until the diagnosis came. Necessity, not courage, brought me to ask specifically that my brother be healed. My request had a name, a laugh, a confused expression as we talked. God’s answer to my prayers would be observable, testable, public. God’s yes or no would be seen by more than just the eyes of faith. He would heal my brother, or he would not.
And after eighteen years, he has not.Taking It Personally
After countless prayers, what I never anticipated happened: I started to take God’s “no” personally. Not only was he not healing a loved one — a pain that is harder to bear than enduring one’s own afflictions — but he also was not answering me. My prayers had begun with excitement, but as the rains fell and the winds blew, as my legs started shaking from exhaustion and my hands bruised from knocking, the voice of a desperate man echoing upon the doorframe was the only one heard.
My thoughts spiraled. I wasn’t doubting, mistreating a spouse, asking from impure motives — why did he prolong his refusal? Surely his sanctifying work had been accomplished in years of asking. Surely the stage had been set for him to glorify his name with a miracle. Surely he hated autism too. Somewhere along the way, I began to cringe a little as I began my prayers with “Father.” Somewhere along the way, my petitions for my brother’s healing became comingled with a cry to know that my Father heard me, wept with me, cared. What started with a childlike request soon matured into an orphan’s resentment.
And I was not alone with my thoughts. Satan sat with me. As you know, the prayer of the righteous man has great power to heal (James 5:16). You’ve prayed for years now. Are you really a righteous man? Or, Your “Father” seems to answer his other children’s prayers. Why do you think he isn’t answering you? Since “he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3), do you think your brother’s healing might not please him after all?Answers in the Silence
“But as I was wallowing in the pit, at the proper time, God healed my brother” — the sentence I wish I could end this article with. I would love to fast-forward through the struggle, doubt, and confusion to a hard-fought happily ever after. My prayers still linger in a quiet place. I still fight whispered doubts. I still am tempted to succumb to what Jesus encouraged against: losing heart and ceasing to pray (Luke 18:1–8).
But as I ask God for the hope needed to endure pleading over what he might be pleased to withhold, he has been teaching me to cling to two truths from Matthew 7 that have made all the difference. I hope they might encourage all who wander in the valleys of unanswered prayer.1. God Answers with Good
While Satan whispers that God has failed both my brother and me — as he may whisper to you that God is indifferent to your angst for a spouse, ceaseless pleas for your son, endless cries for him to save your friend — Jesus promises that his Father is not inattentive to us, and he will give us “good things” when we ask.
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7–11)
Prayer, fired from the needy hearts of his children, is an arrow shot into the air that God always returns to us with fresh blessing, somewhere. Our asking, knocking, seeking is not in vain. It is doing something — for my brother and for me. He may not have opened the front door of healing, but how many other doors and windows of grace has he opened as a result of prayer? Only heaven will tell. Our God never gives his children worse than we ask, and rarely exactly what we ask, but always, somehow, better than we ask.2. God Answers as Father
This is crucial to hold by faith: Our God gives (and withholds) as Father.
I imagine that we could endure lifetimes of unanswered prayer if God should sustain our felt experience of his love. If he remained “Our Father, who is in heaven,” as we waited for his kingdom to fully come (Matthew 6:9–10). All disappointment would be eased (if not swallowed) by his smile and embrace.
But unanswered prayer often robs us at this very point. Hope deferred can abduct us from our Father’s house. It can persuade us that God is a stingy employer, our blessing’s warden, a puppeteer who marionettes us for sport. But with one word, Jesus fortifies his waiting people:
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)
Retaining the sense that God is Father, when all other good is withheld, is one of the greatest blessings we can receive as we travail in unanswered prayer. God does not answer unanswered prayer as an annoyed waitress or unfeeling judge. God answers his people’s unanswered prayer as Father.We Will Not Pray Much Longer
You and I are traveling — more quickly than it often seems — to the coming kingdom of answered prayer. To our Father’s kingdom, which he has been pleased to give to his Son and other sons and daughters. We are but days from home. We may not remember all that we prayed for along the way, but God does, and rest assured, he will prove his faithfulness. He will show the unseen blessing of every well-disguised answer to prayer that, while squinting in this world, we only saw as unanswered. And his wisdom, as he peels back his dealings with us layer by layer, will satisfy our questions and arouse in us a love that unbelief tells us now cannot be.
And we will sing what we could sometimes only stammer on earth: “He works all things for good for those who love him, who have been called according to his purposes” (see Romans 8:28). All things includes unanswered prayers. No prayer, like none of his lost sheep, will go unaccounted for or overlooked. For now, sore knees and aching backs cry, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Soon enough death will end our prayer sessions, and we will wake to see our Lord face-to-face and find our prayers answered better than we could have asked.
God delights in strong women. We in the church should, too.
Our celebration of strong women in the body of Christ should be heard loud and clear. What needs to be heard as well is a joyful embracing of what the Bible celebrates as a strong woman. There’s no biblical formula for a strong, godly woman. But as the Spirit opens our eyes, we can dig relentlessly into God’s revelation, to get a clearer and clearer view.
I’ve been doing some digging lately into the story of Deborah in Judges 4–5. This strong woman stands out: one of a few mentioned prophetesses, and the only mentioned female judge of Israel — arguably the godliest one.
I love the picture of Deborah, wife of Lappidoth, sitting at work under that palm tree in the hill country of Ephraim, “and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:4–5). Here is a strong woman used by God to exercise strategic leadership among God’s people; this is beautiful and important for us to see. The more we see just how the Bible shows us Deborah’s strength, the better we see its beauty and importance. To this end, let’s make four observations about this story of a strong woman.1. Deborah’s story lifts our eyes to God.
Deborah is part of a bigger story.
When we meet Deborah, we meet part of the seed of Abraham that God promised to grow and bless. The people of Israel have God’s word and are settled in the land he promised, on the way to becoming a great kingdom through which God will bless the nations of this fallen world. But in the book of Judges they disobey him again and again, growing from bad to worse.
Each time they turn from the Lord, he allows enemy nations to oppress them. But each time they cry out to him for help, he rescues them. Deborah takes part in one of these rescues. She did not know it, but all these rescues pointed to the one great rescue God would accomplish finally through that promised seed, his own Son.
Deborah was part of a people who were part of God’s redemptive plan for humanity, and she faithfully played her part. I start here in celebrating this strong woman, because human strength as Scripture shows it is only a derived strength. There is no strength but that given by the Creator God in whom is life and strength eternal. He is the only source. Out of a fallen world of sinners, he chooses a people to save and to use for his saving purposes. Deborah is first of all a part of that chosen people. Let’s not even begin to talk about strong women — or men — apart from this bigger story of what God is doing.
The story of Deborah isn’t mainly about Deborah. The primary and sovereign actor in this story is God. It’s a great exercise: read Judges 4–5, marking all the references to God. From the introduction (Judges 4:1–2) to the climax (Judges 4:14–15) to the conclusion (Judges 4:23–24), this story is about what God is doing.
When we celebrate the strength of Deborah, we celebrate first the all-powerful God in whose story Deborah takes part.2. Deborah speaks God’s word.
Deborah not only comes in the flow of God’s word, but she herself speaks God’s word. Of course, that was what true prophets did: they spoke the word of the Lord as he gave it to them. And that’s what we see Deborah doing throughout this story. Calling Barak to battle against Sisera, she calls, “Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you?” (Judges 4:6). In commands (Judges 4:6, 14), judgments (Judges 4:9), and promises (Judges 4:7, 14), Deborah’s mouth overflows with God’s word.
When we celebrate the strength of Deborah, we celebrate a woman on whose tongue laid God’s word. Of course, in Deborah’s time, the written word was not yet complete, and God spoke at many times and in many ways by his prophets — whereas now, in these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:1–2). The Scriptures revealing that Son are complete. On the tongue of today’s strong women — or men — is the word of God in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.3. Deborah obeys God’s word.
Deborah not only speaks God’s word; she obeys it. Along with her words is evident a heart of submission to God’s revealed plan — specifically God’s revealed leaders. God has commanded Barak to lead out Israel’s army as deliverer of Israel; Deborah herself has communicated that command.
She clearly respects and embraces Barak’s God-ordained role. Even when Barak is afraid to obey, Deborah does not belittle or replace him; rather, she helps him. She immediately agrees to go with him, as he asks. Now, she does give God’s judgment on Barak’s weakness: Sisera himself will die not by Barak’s hand, but by the hand of another strong woman, Jael. The two strong women bookend the narrative like pillars holding up the house.
It might not seem fair that, in the Hebrews 11 “hall of faith,” it’s fearful Barak who gets the callout in the roll of the faithful (Hebrews 11:32). I don’t think Deborah would have minded; in fact, this is what Deborah was after: to lift up Israel’s leaders — to encourage them and help them act like leaders.4. Deborah sings God’s word.
We know this about Deborah not only from her interaction with Barak, but also from her song. Deborah speaks God’s word; she obeys it; and, finally, she sings it! As we move from the narrative of chapter 4 to the poetry of chapter 5, Deborah first praises God for Israel’s leaders who faithfully came out to battle:
“That the leaders took the lead in Israel,
that the people offered themselves willingly,
bless the Lord!” (Judges 5:2)
Deborah not only praises God for the men who did lead; in verses 16–17, she also names and reproaches the ones who did not. Verse 9 reveals her heart for God’s ordained leaders:
“My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel
who offered themselves willingly among the people.
Bless the Lord.” (Judges 5:9)
Most basically, this Spirit-inspired poetry shows a heart turned toward the Lord God and his purposes. Using imagery that recalls the exodus, Deborah sings glory to God for his deliverance of his people, including the destruction of their enemies. She praises him for accomplishing those purposes through willing male leaders; through Jael, “most blessed of women”; and through herself, a “mother in Israel” (Judges 5:4–7; 24–31). Deborah revels in the blessing of both women and men offering themselves willingly to the Lord, to do the distinct jobs he calls them to do.
When we celebrate the strength of Deborah, we celebrate a woman who speaks and obeys God’s word — and who sings it with all her heart! Through her song Deborah bears witness to the ways God uses men and women to serve him — and every kind of serving requires great strength. Read those verses Deborah sings about Jael: talk about expertise, not only with a workman’s mallet and a tent peg, but with an inspired poet’s power to craft words that pierce the heart.The Encouragement of Deborah
Judges 4–5 remind me to look first to my all-powerful Creator and Redeemer, whose word ordains my days. I am living in his story. As a woman specifically, I am encouraged to see how God distinctly prepares, calls, and uses men and women. I pray to serve faithfully as a word-filled woman. I pray for my heart to go out to the men God calls as spiritual leaders of the church, according to the apostle Paul’s teaching. They are imperfect and sometimes weak, and so am I. Sometimes I am strong when they are weak.
May I bless God for his saving purposes in calling his people to serve our perfect Deliverer together — and may I be prepared to wage spiritual battle along with and in every way possible, helping the overseers chosen to lead the body of Christ.
Like Deborah, may more and more strong, godly women speak the word, obey it, and sing it with all our hearts, for the glory of Christ our Lord.
God has grace for every sinner who turns to Jesus in faith. But if we continue in faithlessness, will he remain faithful to save us?
When I began sharing my story, I had no idea how many people like me would come running for help. I am a married man, and a pastor, who experiences same-sex attraction.
Since the first time I wrote about my journey and struggle, I have received hundreds of emails from men and women from all over the world asking essentially the same question: How? How do I practically live — as a follower of Jesus Christ — who experiences homosexual longings for intimacy? How do I deal with the nearly crippling loneliness and hopelessness I feel every day surrounding my sexuality?
As I considered whether to say more, afraid of another wave of messages, my wife, seeing the fear on my face, looked over at me from across the living room, and in a beautiful moment of togetherness, we rehearsed a verse we had remembered for moments like these,
“I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24)
So, if you are a Christian experiencing same-sex attractions, here are four truths I believe will help you fight well and flourish in your faith in Jesus.1. The Earth Is Flat
When it comes to sexuality, everyone has fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Or you could say, none are truly “straight,” no not one (Romans 3:10). The Enemy loves to tell Christians who experience SSA that they are uniquely depraved. That God, being cruel, has placed you in a sin struggle that is more difficult than those around you.
As hard as your predicament may seem, you must know that Christ is not calling you to give up or sacrifice any more than anyone else. Sam Allberry reminds us,
Ever since I have been open about my own experiences with homosexuality, a number of Christians have said something like this: “The gospel must be harder for you than it is for me,” as though I have more to give up than they do. But the fact is that the gospel demands everything out of all of us. If someone thinks the gospel has somehow slotted into their life quite easily, without causing any major adjustments to their lifestyle or aspirations, it is likely that they have not really started following Jesus at all. (Is God Anti-Gay?, 10)
As a pastor, I have a front-row view into the sexual brokenness of everyone. Daily, I am reminded that loneliness is not solved by marriage, intimacy is not fulfilled by intercourse, and desire is not satisfied in the arms of another.
Whether gay or straight, married or unmarried, single or dating, everyone lives in some state of sexual and emotional dissatisfaction and unfulfillment. We all are sexually broken. When it comes to sexuality, the earth is flat.2. It Takes a Village
If you are going to put your SSA to death (Colossians 3:5), then you must know it’s going to take a life-giving, truth-speaking, Christ-seeking community. As Paul Tripp says, “Your walk with God is a community project.”
God has made no lasting provision for your fight against homosexual desires outside of, or apart from, the local church. We reorient our lives around the gospel by gathering regularly with Christian brothers and sisters (Hebrews 10:23–25). The bullets of grace you need to put same-sex attractions to death will come to you through Christ-centered community.
One of the primary ways God will provide the grace you need will be through exercising your gifts (1 Peter 4:10). Personally, I am most prone to fall into sin when I’m bored and have too much energy to pursue lesser things. My temptations are most powerless when I am enlisted and energetically engaged in what God has called me to do.
As you lay your head on the pillow every night as one who has been wrung out in service to Christ, your affections will begin to be transformed until you find life, peace, and identity apart from SSA (Romans 8:5–6). When it comes to putting to death the deeds of the flesh (Romans 8:13), it takes a village.3. Call in the Cavalry
If you really want to launch an all-out assault on your SSA, call in the cavalry. God’s most potent weapons are harbored in the hearts of those around you. Confess your sins to trusted believers (James 5:16). Confession is like picking up the radio and telling those around you the precise location that needs to be bombed with grace.
Sure, some people may not respond well to your vulnerable confession, but as Spurgeon said, “If any man think low of you, take heart; he does not think low enough.” It’s better to reveal yourself to some, and not be fully embraced by everyone, than to never reveal yourself fully to anyone, and thus never be truly embraced at all.
I suggest you begin by telling a trusted, gospel-soaked friend. If you are too afraid to do it in person, then write a letter. But loved one, we often are much weaker than we suspect. You may be only five minutes away from falling. It’s time to call in the cavalry.4. Finally Fulfill Your Desires
Fighting your SSA desires is only the beginning. The true work of the Christian is fulfilling them, ultimately and completely.
Our longings, by nature, will not give us peace until after they are fulfilled, and so it’s our duty and delight to see them fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Psalm 107:9). Give yourself completely to satisfying your longings for intimacy, but not in mortal men (for any practicing homosexual can testify their relationship is not ultimately satisfying), but in the immortal man: Christ himself.
John Piper has said, “Theology can conquer biology.” Therefore, roll out of bed for one main purpose: to fall madly in love with Jesus Christ. Read such bright, beautiful, brilliant books on God that your same-sex attractions fade into a shadow of boring irrelevance. Listen to sermons that open your eyes to such grace and gravity that you see God (Matthew 5:8) and the thought of looking anywhere else would be like staring at your shoelaces when you’re at the summit of Everest. Be a grace hound, always hot on a fresh scent of God.
If you are a Christian experiencing same-sex attractions, continually remind yourself that loneliness is solved only in God (Psalm 63:1–2), intimacy is fulfilled only in God (Psalm 63:3–5), and desire is, indeed, satisfied only in the arms of Another (Psalm 63:6–8).Step Out and Share
Still, you may be thinking, I can never share my struggles with anyone. I am far too familiar with that feeling. It took me twenty years to finally begin sharing my struggle with other believers.
Jesus told us to count the cost before following him (Luke 14:28–33), and opening up about your same-sex attractions may come at a significant cost to you. Bringing your SSA to light will affect you in a thousand different ways, and some of those will be incredibly painful.
But it’s worth it. Christ will be most powerfully displayed in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). The Christian walk hits its stride when we actively seek to be seen as less in order that Christ may be seen as more (John 3:30).
To the Christian who experiences same-sex attractions, it is my eager expectation and hope that, as you invite others into this struggle, you will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in your body, whether by life or by death (Philippians 1:20).
How do we approach the deathbeds of professing Christians whose faith we are not sure is real? Pastor John offers four ways to love them.
Much is at stake in our fight against unbelief. Without love, holiness, and sin-killing, no one will see the kingdom of God.
Some words penetrate so deeply into your soul that they change the way you think about everything — and the change is full of hope. That is what I would say the apostle Paul did for me when I was awakened to the all-encompassing logic of heaven in Romans 8:32. I was 23 years old.
When I saw this verse, as I had never seen it before, God implanted it so firmly in my soul that it became a lifelong, living agent of practical, hope-giving, life-altering power.
Of all the places in the Bible that provide a solid place to stand when all around you is shaking, this has been my foundation stone more than any other.
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all,
how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
Romans 8:32 is a quintessential summary of the argument (and argument is the right word!) of the first eight chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans. There is a logic to this greatest-of-all letters. I call it the logic of heaven.
This kind of logic has a technical name. You may or may not know the name of the logic, but you definitely know how to use it. You can call it an argument, or a logic, from the greater to the lesser. The technical name is a fortiori, which is Latin for from the stronger. The idea is this: if you have exerted your strength to accomplish something hard, then surely you can exert your strength to accomplish something easier. That’s an a fortiori argument.
So, suppose you say to your child, “Please run next door and ask Mr. Smith if we can borrow his pliers.” But your child says, “But what if Mr. Smith doesn’t want us to borrow his pliers?” How can you persuade your child that Mr. Smith will surely loan you his pliers? By using an a fortiori argument!
It goes like this: you say to your child, “Yesterday, Mr. Smith was happy to let us borrow his car all day long. If he was happy for me to borrow his car, he’ll be very willing for us to borrow his pliers.” Even children grasp a fortiori arguments. Loaning his car was a greater sacrifice than loaning his pliers. Therefore, it was harder to loan his car than it will be to loan his pliers. If he was inclined to do the harder thing, then he will be willing to do the easier thing. That’s the way we use a fortiori arguments.Paul’s Fabulous a Fortiori
Now watch Paul use this kind of argument for the greatest event in the history of the world. He says, God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. That’s the harder thing. Therefore, he will most certainly give us all things with him. That’s the easier thing. When this argument penetrates through the callouses of familiarity, it becomes gloriously hope-filled and all-encompassing.
I had read that verse all my life. But here I was at twenty-three, and for the first time, this logic — this God-inspired logic, this holy, heavenly, glorious, inexhaustible logic — penetrated into my soul and implanted itself so that it became an unshakable foundation and living root of hope and power. I’ll explain why in a moment. But first, focus with me for a moment on the content of the two halves of this verse.Greatest Obstacle to Everlasting Happiness
First, think with me about the first half of Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all . . .”
What are the great obstacles between us and everlasting happiness? One obstacle is our sin. We are all sinners (Romans 3:23), and the wages of that sin is eternal death (Romans 6:23). Another obstacle is the wrath of God. If God is justly wrathful toward us in our sinful guilt, then we have no hope of everlasting happiness. And Paul leaves no doubt that we are under God’s wrath. We are in fact “children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3).
Those seem to be the biggest obstacles between us and everlasting happiness. But are they? I think there is a bigger obstacle, one that will be much harder to overcome — the one Paul points to in this first half of Romans 8:32. This obstacle is God’s infinite love and joy toward the beauty and honor of his own Son.
See if you don’t hear this obstacle in the first half of Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all . . .” Paul expects us to feel the massive tension between the phrase his own Son and the phrase did not spare. This is supposed to sound like the hardest thing that was ever done — God’s sacrifice of the Son of God. “His own Son.”Could God Hand Over His Own Son?
When Paul calls Jesus God’s own Son, the point is that there are no others like him, and he is infinitely precious to the Father. Twice while Jesus was on earth, God said, “This is my loved Son” (Matthew 3:17; 17:5, author’s translation). In Colossians 1:13, Paul calls him “the Son of his love” (author’s translation).
Jesus himself told the parable of the tenants, in which a master’s servants were beaten and killed by the wicked tenants when the servants came to collect the harvest that belonged to the master. The master, amazingly, decides to send his own son to try one more time to collect what was rightly his. Jesus describes this picture of God with these words: “He had still one other, a beloved son” (Mark 12:6). One son is all God the Father had. And he loved him infinitely.
The point of Romans 8:32 is that this love of God for his one and only Son was like a massive, Mount Everest obstacle standing between God and our salvation. Here was an obstacle almost insurmountable. Could God — would God — overcome his cherishing, admiring, treasuring, white-hot, infinite, affectionate bond with his Son and hand him over to be lied about and betrayed and denied and abandoned and mocked and flogged and beaten and spit on and nailed to a cross and pierced with a sword, like an animal being butchered and hung up on a rack?God Did Not Spare Him
Would he really do that? If he would, then we could know with full certainty that whatever goal he was pursuing on the other side of that obstacle could never fail. There could be no greater obstacle. So whatever he was pursuing is as good as done.
The unthinkable reality that Romans 8:32 affirms is that God did it. He did hand him over. God did not spare him. You might say, Didn’t Judas hand him over (Mark 3:19)? Didn’t Pilate hand him over (Mark 15:15)? Didn’t Herod and the mobs of people hand him over (Acts 4:27–28)? Worst of all, didn’t we hand him over (1 Corinthians 15:3; Galatians 1:4; 1 Peter 2:24)? And perhaps most surprisingly, didn’t Jesus hand himself over (John 10:17; 19:30)? The answer to all those questions is yes.
But in Romans 8:32, Paul is penetrating through all these agents, all these instruments, of death. He is saying the most unthinkable thing: in and behind and beneath and through all these human agents, God was handing over his Son to death. “This Jesus [was] delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). In Judas and Pilate and Herod and the crowds and the Gentile soldiers and our sin and Jesus’s lamb-like submission, God himself handed over his Son. Nothing greater or harder has ever happened. Or ever will.Easy Half of the Argument
Therefore, in Paul’s a fortiori argument, God has done the hardest thing to give us everlasting happiness. He did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. What does this guarantee? Paul puts it in the form of a rhetorical question (that means a question he expects us to immediately answer correctly): “How will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
Paul expects us to turn this into a strong, certain statement. Namely: “He most certainly will also with him graciously give us all things.”
Since God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all,
therefore, he will most certainly give us all things with him.
All things! This is not a promise of a trouble-free life. Four verses later, Paul says, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (Romans 8:36).
“He will give us all things” means all things we need to do his will. All things we need to glorify him. All things we need to move from predestined to called to justified to glorified — that is, to everlasting happiness (Romans 8:30).
Since God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, therefore:
- All things will work together for our good (v. 28).
- We will be conformed to the image of his Son (v. 29).
- We will be glorified (v. 30).
- No one can successfully be against us (v. 31).
- No charge shall stick against us (v. 33).
- Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (v. 35).
- In tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger and sword, we are more than conquerors (vv. 35–37).
- Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (vv. 38–39).
Now we circle back to the beginning. I said that when I was 23, this logic of heaven penetrated so deeply into my soul that it changed the way I think about everything — and that the change was full of hope. What I meant was this. This logic of heaven teaches that the Father’s not sparing the Son secures every promise I have ever trusted in, or ever will.
I live my life every day by the promises of God. I owe every one of them to the logic of Romans 8:32. Do you see how sweeping and all-encompassing this is for me? All my hope hangs on God’s promises. And all the promises (all things) are guaranteed by the logic of Romans 8:32.
Paul said, “All the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus]” (2 Corinthians 1:20). That is because the Father did not spare his Son. He did it so that all things — all these promises — would be absolutely certain for those who trust him. I have fought all the battles of my life with the promises of God — battles against fear and lust and greed and pride and anger. Battles for courage and purity and contentment and humility and peace and love. All of them by the word of God — the promises of God.
Behind every one of those battles is the logic of heaven: “I did not spare my own Son; therefore, my promise to you cannot fail. I will help you. Go. Do what I have called you to do.”
Many of us walk through a world of sepia.
Maybe life was more vivid once. You went to bed and couldn’t wait to wake up. You loved your job, or were engaged to be married, or just had your first child. But life changed, and slowly, the colors drained from your days. Now you wake up, walk through another bland day, and lie down, simply to do it all over again tomorrow. The calendar has become 365 shades of brown.
We need God to awaken us to today. We need him to remind us again that “this is the day that the Lord has made” (Psalm 118:24) — a unique day, a meaningful day, a day that comes to us from the hands of divine love. We need God to help us resolve, as Clyde Kilby writes, that we will “not fall into the falsehood that this day, or any day, is merely another ambiguous and plodding twenty-four hours, but rather a unique event, filled, if I so wish, with worthy potentialities.”
In order to come awake to today, we probably don’t need to do something spectacular. We probably just need to meditate on the ordinary glories we so often forget. We probably need to look up, around, and ahead again.Look Up
Look up to God today.
God is. The most basic fact about today is also the most wild and wonderful: God is. Behind all that we see and feel today is an eternal dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: never changing, ever happy, a constant volcano of goodness and joy.
He is the Love beneath all love (1 John 4:8), the Beauty behind all beauty (Psalm 27:4), the Truth below all truth (John 14:6). He is the Creator, the Lord, and the King; the Shepherd, the Word, and the Savior; the Comforter, the Guide, and the Teacher. He is the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ (John 1:18) — and he is.
God is here. “We can’t talk about God behind his back,” John Webster said. Nor can we think, breathe, sleep, or eat there. There is no such place as “behind his back” — not on Icarus, nine billion light years away, nor in our living rooms. God is here, in this moment, holding us together by the power of his word (Hebrews 1:3). Breathe in, breathe out, and feel his speech expand your lungs. He hems you in, behind and before — seeing you, searching you, knowing you (Psalm 139:5).
God is for you. In Christ, this God is for you today — with all of his infinite heart and soul (Jeremiah 32:41). Look out at the sunrise, and feel his new mercies (Lamentations 3:22–23). Look behind you, and see his goodness on your heels (Psalm 23:6). Open his book, and hear him rehearse the story of his love (Romans 5:8). Open your mouth, and pour your heart into his hands (Psalm 62:8).
Then, go out into your day, and know that he is with you — inside of you (John 14:17). He will help you. He will strengthen you. He will uphold you with his righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10). And he will weave whatever happens today, no matter how humdrum or heartbreaking, into a tapestry of goodness and mercy and love (Romans 8:28).Look Around
Now, look around at the world today.
The heavens sing of his beauty. Why did the sun come up again this morning? Not out of clockwork necessity, but because “God,” as Chesterton puts it, “says every morning, ‘Do it again’” (Orthodoxy, 29). And of course, the sun doesn’t mind: How could he stop telling us of God’s glory (Psalm 19:1)? When the sun steps over the horizon like a bridegroom coming for his bride, can you hear him shout for joy (Psalm 65:8)?
The earth is full of his love. The sun is just one member of creation’s choir — the bass, perhaps. Look down from the sky, and see God’s steadfast love spilling from every corner (Psalm 33:5). Yes, creation groans for the day when it will finally shed this cocoon of corruption and walk in the glorious freedom of God’s children (Romans 8:19–21), but creation is also shouting, chanting, dancing, singing to the tune of the triune love song (Psalm 104:24).
Can you hear every gift whisper God’s goodness (James 1:17)? Can you feel his kindness in an autumn breeze? Can you hear his might in the midnight thunder? Can you feel his warmth in your wool sweater? Can you taste his sweetness in an apple cobbler?
Tonight, when God draws the darkness over our continent like a comforter, look up at the stars. They come out because he calls them — by name (Isaiah 40:26). All one hundred billion of them. While we set our alarm clocks, brush our teeth, and kneel beside our beds, his voice will rush through galaxies we haven’t discovered yet, bringing out their host like a hunter calling his dogs.
This is our Father’s world. Don’t walk through the world asleep today, like a tourist who misses the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because he’s staring at his phone. Lift up your eyes. Stop on the sidewalk. Roll down the window. Sit on the ground. And hear creation’s song.Look Ahead
Finally, look ahead to your life today.
You are a soldier in the King’s army. On this ordinary, typical, predictable day, you walk through a war zone. Can you feel the battle for your soul today, as you face temptations toward anger, or lust, or envy, or worry (Romans 6:12–13)? Can you see the kingdoms clashing? Can you hear the serpent hissing? Can you feel his fiery arrows flying through the air (Ephesians 6:16)? And can you hear your Captain say, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20)?
You have people to love. Look again at the people you’re with today, especially the troublesome ones. Who is that man who just cut you off in traffic? Who is this cashier looking distracted? Who are these roommates who irritate you?
They are image bearers of the living God (Genesis 1:27), crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8:5), but marred by our common curse (Romans 3:23) and rushing toward eternity either with Jesus or without him. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors” (The Weight of Glory, 46). How will we treat these people today? As obstacles to our comfort? As mere annoyances? Or as people to listen to, serve, and forgive (Colossians 3:12–13)?
You have good works to walk in. Many of the good works in front of you today will not feel magnificent. But they are your birthright in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:10), and not one will go unnoticed or unrewarded — from the biggest sacrifice of your comfort to the smallest deed done in faith (Ephesians 6:8).
So call a depressed friend, and remind her of God’s character. Meet up with your dad, and look for ways to share Jesus with him — again. Go to work in dependence on God, and then fill out the spreadsheet, peel the potatoes, schedule the appointments, change the diapers, or write the lesson plan. And know that, in it all, the God of the universe sees and smiles (Matthew 6:4).Come Awake
As you consider your life, maybe it feels mundane. Maybe it feels like you’re walking through a forest of boredom, monotony, or stress. To be sure, we will not be able to escape all of life’s tedium. We will walk through some days so bent over by this world’s futility that we can barely lift our eyes up to God, around to the world, or ahead to our life.
But can you believe, as you walk through this forest of routine, that God is able to lead you out into clearings where the sun is shining, the air is tingling, and life is pulsing with wonder? He can. So look up to God today. Look around to his world today. Look ahead to your life today. And ask God to awaken you.
Treasuring Christ is a key ingredient to saving faith. But what if you don’t remember treasuring him when you were converted?
We certainly have come to trust him. In simple faith, we have plunged ourselves beneath Calvary’s cleansing flood. We have looked away from our works and trusted Jesus alone. We have tasted and seen that he is sweet and his promises true. We have journals full of stories that prove his faithfulness over and over. We believe in his goodness, truthfulness, promises, love. We trust him.
But at times we waver. We wonder if God really hears our prayers. In the morning, we drowse at his word. Suffering tempts us to become suspicious of his governance. Unanswered prayer makes us unsure of his care. Chronic pain makes us skeptical whether he is really with us in time of need. We are tempted, as Lot’s wife, to look back.
And this distrust comes upon us subtly, rarely introducing itself properly. We start to sleep in a little more, pray a little less, and schedule fewer times of fellowship with believers. We get lost in our schedules and scroll through our lives to quiet the still, small voice, “Come back to me.” We know we have strayed. We know, ultimately, that God has done nothing to merit distrust. We sing, “Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus, Oh for grace to trust you more.”The Hardest Thing to Trust
But what are we trusting? Of the litany of things that we trust God for, I believe the hardest to believe day to day — not in the sense of answering on a quiz, but in the sense of felt experience — is God’s love for us in Christ. On days when the flesh attempts mutiny, when I feel cold towards the consuming fire of heaven, when I see the pain I put in the eyes of a loved one, I even struggle to like myself — why wouldn’t God?
God says he loves me; I struggle to believe — emotionally — that he likes me. With Moses, I and too many saints live (and die) outside of this Promised Land, never truly enjoying the milk and honey that is theirs just beyond the Jordan. While it is the simplest lyric to sing, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” it is the hardest to trust.
Satan makes sure of this. While he delights to convince the merely polite church-attender, the worshiper of foreign gods, and the secular humanitarian that God unconditionally loves them, he seeks to steal this heavenly bread from the mouths of his true children. He doesn’t want us to sing from our souls that his steadfast love is better than life (Psalm 63:3). He delights to see Christians with heads bowed in shame, mumbling to themselves as they struggle with sin, “He loves me; he loves me not.” He desires to make sons and daughters practical orphans.
He tried this with Jesus. No sooner had the words washed over him at his baptism, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22), Satan tempted him in the wilderness twice concerning his sonship, “If you are the Son of God . . .” (Luke 4:3, 9). So he strategizes against us today,
If you are a son of God, why was your child born disabled? . . . If you are a daughter of God, why are you still unmarried? . . . If you really are his children, why did he hand you the serpents of miscarriage? . . . If he is so well pleased with you, why don’t you feel it more often?
God pours out his love into our hearts through his Spirit; Satan tries to dam the life-giving floods through lies about our circumstances.’Tis So Sweet
But God’s love stands beyond our circumstances as far as the stars stand beyond the anthill.
God’s love is beyond comprehension (Ephesians 3:17–19). It spans from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 103:11–18). Because of the cross, it does not deflate due to sin (Psalm 103:10). God will stop loving his people only when the moons overthrow their Maker’s command, or when the sun can depart from the course he has set for it, or when the heavens can be measured, or the molten core of the earth explored. Then — and only then — will he cast out his people from before him (Jeremiah 31:35–37).
Doubt affects experience but not reality. If we are truly in Christ, our fluctuating experience, our muttering sentiments of unworthiness, are no match for the evidence he has provided for us: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
God wrote in permanent marker at Calvary. There, he crucified all reason to distrust him. There, from sin and self we cease. There, from Jesus we simply take, joy and life and rest and peace.
Oh, for grace to trust him more.