How do we know if we really love Jesus? The Bible’s answer might surprise you.
We know if we love Jesus by what we consistently (not perfectly) do and don’t do. We know this because Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And the apostle John echoed Jesus when he wrote, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).
At face value, these statements should make any lover uncomfortable. We all know intuitively that the essence of love is not merely its actions. Love cannot be reduced to a mere verb. That’s why everyone laughs at John Piper’s illustration of a husband handing his wife a big bouquet of flowers on their wedding anniversary and then telling her he’s just fulfilling his obligation as a dutiful husband. It’s why everyone understands Edward John Carnell’s illustration of a husband asking, “Must I kiss my wife goodnight?” Because we know the answer is “Yes, but not that kind of must.”Not That Kind of Must
Neither Jesus nor John meant that obeying Jesus’s commandments is the same thing as love. What they meant was that love for God, by its very nature, produces the consistent characteristic of “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5). So, on earth, love for Christ tends to look like obeying Christ.
Now, love, faith, and obedience are not the same things. Love is our cherishing or treasuring Christ, faith is our trusting Christ, and obedience is our doing what Christ says. The essence of each is different. Bad things, like dead orthodoxy and legalism, happen when we make them the same thing. We must keep Christ’s commandments — but not that kind of must.
Though they are distinct, they are inseparable. We cannot love Christ without trusting (exercising faith in) him (1 Peter 1:8). We cannot trust Christ without obeying him (James 2:17). So, naturally, we cannot love Christ if we live in persistent, conscious disobedience to him (1 John 1:6; Luke 6:46).Wearing Our Love on Our Sleeves
This is an elegant, devastatingly simple design. God made us to wear our love on our sleeves. He wired us to serve what we treasure. How we love ourselves is evident by how we serve ourselves, for good (Ephesians 5:29) or for evil (2 Timothy 3:2). How we love our spouse or children or friends or pastors or co-workers or pets is evident by how we serve or neglect them. Whether we love God or money is evident by how we serve or neglect one or the other (Luke 16:13). In the long run, we cannot fake who or what we really serve.
It’s true that we sometimes can hide our sleeves from human view — sometimes even from ourselves — at least for a while. But God has a way of exposing our sleeves eventually.
This is what the parable of the good Samaritan was about, which nearly all of us are granted the opportunity to live out in different ways and at different times. The priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan all outed their sleeves by the ways they responded to the injured man (Luke 10:31–35).
It’s also what the story of the rich young man in Mark 10 was about. He seemed at least partially blind to the love on his own sleeve, because though he thought he had done lots of obedient things (Mark 10:19–20), something was troubling his soul — which is why he came to Jesus. But Jesus saw the man’s sleeve clearly and with one sentence drew everyone’s attention to it: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). Then it was clear: the man could not obey Jesus because he loved and trusted money more than Jesus.
We see this all over the Bible: love for God or love for idols is made visible by obedience or disobedience to God. We see it in Cain with Abel (Genesis 4), Abraham with Isaac (Genesis 22), Reuben with Bilhah (Genesis 35), Joseph with Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39), David with Saul in the cave (1 Samuel 24), David with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), Judas with his silver (Matthew 26), Peter with his denials (John 18), Peter with the Sanhedrin (Acts 4), Ananias and Sapphira with others’ admiration (Acts 5), and Demas with Thessalonica (2 Timothy 4) — just to name a few.By This We Know Love
But the most important place in Scripture (or anywhere else) we see love demonstrated through faith-empowered obedience is in Jesus:
- By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16).
- God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
- Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).
Supreme love was made visible in Jesus’s death on the cross, where “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) pursued his, and our full, eternal joy (John 15:11) through his obedience in the midst of the greatest suffering (Hebrews 5:8). God wore his love on his bloody sleeve. Jesus did not merely “love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). “By this we know love.”
How do we know if we love Jesus? By what we consistently (not perfectly) do and don’t do. All lovers of Jesus keenly know we don’t love him perfectly. “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2), and “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). But “if we say we have fellowship with [Jesus] while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6).
We know what love is by what love does. All lovers of Jesus refuse to walk in persistent, conscious disobedience to him. Our faith-empowered obedience in public and private places is the God-designed evidence of our love for Jesus.
What encouragement does God give to those who are the product of reproductive technology and feel like they were abandoned by a biological parent?
When we look to God’s word to find guidance about how to be the best wife and mother we can be, we simply cannot escape Proverbs 31. Who wouldn’t want to be as talented, productive, strong, caring, and fearless as this woman?
But as normal human beings, many of us are more likely to cringe when this seemingly perfect woman is set before us as the example. Who can find her, indeed! Not everyone has good business sense or opportunities. Many do not have the gifts and creativity to make clothes for the family and household. I don’t know if I’ve met anyone who is both a morning person and a night person like this woman.
If the Proverbs 31 woman only stirs in us guilt that even on our best day we lack the ability to meet the standard for our calling, what help is she to women striving to honor God?What Did She Do?
God never urges us to feel guilty for not having gifts we’ve not been given, or for not doing good we’re physically unable to do. So, if the Proverbs 31 woman only makes us feel guilty or inadequate, we’re likely not understanding her in the way God designed.
Part of the confusion might be the present-tense verbs in our translations. One Old Testament scholar notes that the verbs in Proverbs 31 are past tense. Present tense might suggest that one woman does all of these things in one season of life, but the reading Jason DeRouchie offers indicates that these verses are summarizing a fruitful life of a woman over many productive years, highlighting faithful things she did at various times throughout her life.
If he’s right, it causes me to breathe a huge sigh of relief as I reflect over my past efforts, and as I strive to be a godly woman today.The Woman Behind the Woman
But however we translate the verbs, we miss what the Proverbs 31 woman says to women today if we only look at what she does. She will only inspire guilt and shame if we study the passage for a laundry list of to-dos, rather than for the spirit and motivation that drives her.
We find several clues to what guides her heart of wisdom in this passage, but the most important motivation — the one that guides everything she does — is mentioned at the end. We should read the whole chapter — every verb — in light of one verb in verse 30, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30).
This woman fears the Lord. In fact, the verse says this is the reason she is to be praised. The Proverbs 31 woman fears the Lord — in other words, she sees the wisdom in wanting to obey what God tells her to do and to honor the Lord with her whole life. And what is “the fear of the Lord” in Proverbs? The beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7, 29; 2:5; 9:10; 15:33).
It is her heart for honoring the Lord with her life, and thus living with true wisdom, that God wants women to imitate and follow. When you go back and read through all of what she does in light of verse 30, you begin to feel the spirit of this woman.Trustworthy
A woman who fears the Lord wants to love and honor her husband. Clearly, the Proverbs 31 woman’s husband affirms her efforts, because it says his heart trusts in her (Proverbs 31:11). He trusts her not just generally, but in the deepest places of himself.
And his trust is well-placed because verse 12 says, “She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.” She doesn’t just do him good on occasion, but every day — implying even and especially when she may feel she has reason to be angry or upset with him. It is important to her that her husband trusts her. She wants him to be able to confide in her and know she will keep his counsel. She wants to guard his honor, and not speak unfavorably of him before others. Clearly, he can depend on her to keep commitments she makes to him. She consistently manages the home in a way that he feels secure entrusting it to her.
Does your husband trust you? Do you try to conduct your life privately and publically to give him every reason to trust you? Do you speak well of him — always? We do not need to have special gifts to be trustworthy; we simply need to value our husbands in a way that honors them and the Lord.Hardworking
There is no arguing that the Proverbs 31 woman works hard. This woman has many gifts and does many things, but the point of this passage is not to admonish every woman to do everything she does. The point is that we need to be willing to work hard at what God is calling us to do, and that it pleases God when we desire to do our labor as excellently as we can.
This woman does not have time to compare herself to others. She is clearly not obsessed with “me time.” She “does not eat the bread of idleness” (Proverbs 31:27). She is not a chronic time-waster. Rather, she fills her time with productive, helpful activity. There is no indication she complains or murmurs about her responsibilities. She is concerned with serving her family and others, and she brings a spirit of openhanded willingness to this work.
With God’s help, we are all able to work hard, resist wasting time, and bring a willing and gracious spirit to the things we do, too.Strong
Verse 17 says, “She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong.” Physical strength — taking care of the temple of her body — is a priority. Her “workout” never involved a gym, but she was up and moving, eating right, and tackling physically demanding tasks.
And physical strength isn’t the only kind of strength mentioned. She’s not afraid of the weather (Proverbs 31:21), or apparently much else. “Strength and dignity are her clothing” (Proverbs 31:25). She is strong in wisdom (Proverbs 31:26). She is not a worrier — in fact, she laughs at the future (Proverbs 31:25)! You do not get the impression she gives much thought to what others think about her at all.
A woman who trusts in the Lord is finally free to be truly strong. She isn’t worrying about things over which she has no control. She trusts God to help and care for her and her family in all the ways that she cannot, then she works to do the things she can. It is a loving God who is sovereign over her family’s future. Her part is to live, work, and love in a way that honors God. He is responsible for the rest — and his Son has covered her many shortcomings with his own blood.Kind and Caring
Verse 26 says, “The teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” We see evidence of the ways she lives this truth when she daily does her husband good (Proverbs 31:12), her children rise up and call her blessed (Proverbs 31:28), and she opens her hand to the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:20). Do those around us delight in our kind and caring spirit? We can all, with God’s help, work to have kind dealings with the people God places in our lives, and we can all make it a point to devote some of our time, talent, and gifts to helping those less fortunate.Fear Her Lord
The woman extolled in Proverbs 31 does not present an impossible standard; she presents a godly standard — what we would call “Christlike” today. These verses should inspire us to desire her fear of the Lord, her dedication to earning the trust of her husband, her work ethic, and her strength and kindness.
Her heart, mind, and body are strengthened by her devotion to the Lord for the family and work he has entrusted to her care. As we follow her example, and the kind of life that flows from her faith, we will be blessed — and be a blessing to others.
Jesus did not die so that we could merely tolerate one another. He died so that we would cherish one another.
We will all run into needy people at some point. What matters most isn’t what we give, but the attitude of our hearts toward the least.
One way to approach the historic division between Roman Catholic and Reformation teaching about justification is to focus on how justification by faith relates to ongoing practical love and righteousness in the Christian life.
Even though the Reformers affirmed that justification by faith alone would always be followed by practical love and righteousness, the leaders of Roman Catholicism saw in the Reformers’ doctrine a threat to the holiness of Christian living and the undermining of Christian love.
One classic text of the Reformation that tried to protect against this misunderstanding of justification by faith was the Westminster Confession of Faith’s statement on justification:
Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love. (11.2)
Or to use the words of James: “Faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). “Faith apart from works is useless” (James 2:20). It does not justify.What the Roman Catholics Warned Against
But sixteenth-century Roman Catholics saw the danger as more serious. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) was convened as a kind of “counter-reformation” to the Protestant Reformation. Here the Catholic views of justification were expressed so as to protect against the errors and dangers perceived in the Reformers’ teaching. You can hear their concern in these excerpts from the Council’s Decree on Justification:
No one, how much soever justified, ought to think himself exempt from the observance of the commandments. (Chapter XI)
If any one saith, that nothing besides faith is commanded in the Gospel; that other things are indifferent, neither commanded nor prohibited, but free; or, that the ten commandments nowise appertain to Christians; let him be anathema. (Canon XIX)
If any one saith, that the man who is justified and how perfect soever, is not bound to observe the commandments of God and of the Church . . . let him be anathema. (Canon XX)
If any one saith, that Christ Jesus was given of God to men, as a redeemer in whom to trust, and not also as a legislator whom to obey; let him be anathema. (Canon XXI)Two Different Ways to Secure the Place of Sanctification
All four of those statements are legitimate warnings against an unbiblical view of justification by faith alone. This is not where the difference lay. Both Reformers and Roman Catholics were zealous to preserve the biblical connection between justification by faith and a life of obedient love and righteousness — that is, both aimed to preserve a necessary connection between justification and sanctification.
The difference lay in how this connection would be conceived and preserved. Roman Catholicism conceived and preserved it by defining justification so that it includes sanctification. The Reformers conceived and preserved the connection by defining justification as the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness through faith — while pointing out that this faith is of such a nature that, by the Holy Spirit, it sanctifies (Acts 26:18).
Or to put it another way, the necessary connection between justification and sanctification was preserved in Roman Catholicism by saying justification is the infusion or the inherence or impartation of Christ’s blood-bought gift of righteousness in the believing soul. And the Reformers preserved the connection by saying that justification was the imputation of Christ’s righteousness by means of a faith that would necessarily lead to sanctification. For the one justification is sanctification. And for the other justification leads to sanctification.Trent’s Definition of Justification
For example, the Council of Trent in the Decree on Justification puts it like this:
Justification . . . is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace. (Chapter VII, emphasis added)
That righteousness which is called ours, because that we are justified from its being inherent in us, that same is (the righteousness) of God, because that it is infused into us of God, through the merit of Christ. (Chapter XVI, emphasis added)
Thus Roman Catholicism speaks of believers as being “made righteous” through justification, as opposed to “counted righteous”:
If they were not born again in Christ, they never would be justified; seeing that, in that new birth, there is bestowed upon them, through the merit of His passion, the grace whereby they are made righteous. (Chapter III)
It follows, then, that our justification, like sanctification, is progressive. It may grow. We may be “further justified” since justification consists in our own measure of goodness brought about by new birth.
They, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that righteousness which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified. (Chapter X)Three Reasons the Reformers Rejected the Roman Catholic View
The Reformers considered this a very serious error. First, it was not what the Bible taught about justification. Second, contrary to its own designs, it did not serve hope or holiness in God’s people. Third, it obscured the full glory of what Christ actually achieved for his people.1. Conflating Justification and Sanctification Is Unbiblical
What the Bible teaches about justification is that it is an act of God experienced by the “ungodly.” In other words, justification is not the infusion of godliness, but the declaration that an ungodly person is counted righteous.
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. (Romans 4:4–5)
This does not mean that “believing” is an ungodly act. It means that when a person is “born of God,” and brought from spiritual death to living faith (1 John 5:1), in that instant God’s justifying act does not treat believing as a meritorious virtue, but as a receiving of Christ, in whom the believer is counted righteous. How we experience faith, which is a good experience, and are in that moment of justification considered “ungodly,” Andrew Fuller explains:
This term [“ungodly” in Romans 4:5], I apprehend, is not designed, in the passage under consideration, to express the actual state of mind which the party at the time possesses, but the character under which God considers him in bestowing the blessing of justification upon him. Whatever be the present state of the sinner’s mind — whether he be a haughty Pharisee or a humble publican — if he possesses nothing which can in any degree balance the curse which stands against him [Galatians 3:10], or at all operate as a ground of acceptance with God, he must be justified, if at all, as unworthy, ungodly, and wholly out of regard to the righteousness of the mediator.” (Andrew Fuller: Holy Faith, Worthy Gospel, World Mission, 51)Righteousness Not Our Own
Paul is at pains in Philippians 3:8–9 to distinguish his own righteousness from the righteousness that we have in union with Christ by faith.
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.
In this text, the righteousness we have “in him” and the righteousness we have “through faith in Christ” are the same. Therefore, we understand that faith is the instrument by which God unites us to Christ, where there is a righteousness not our own.
I infer, therefore, that when Paul says that God “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5), he is implying that justification is not sanctification. It is not a process of developing godliness. It is an instantaneous act of declaring acquittal and vindication. It is an act of instantaneously counting a person perfectly righteous who is not righteous in and of themselves. The ground of this declaration is not in us, but in Christ.
As by the one man’s disobedience the many were appointed sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be appointed righteous. (Romans 5:19)
The perfect obedience of Christ is counted as ours.
David speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works. (Romans 4:6)Imputation and the Perfect Obedience of Christ
This “counting” is what the Reformers meant by “imputation.” The reason we need to be counted or imputed righteous by means of the perfect obedience of Christ is that God’s law does demand perfection, and we are hopeless without it. Of course, the law, understood in its wider sense (the Pentateuch, or even the entire Old Testament), made provision for imperfection by means of the sacrificial system. But that system was necessary because the law demanded perfection.
All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Galatians 3:10)
Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. (James 2:10)
Therefore, God’s way of justification is to direct our attention entirely away from our flawed godliness and totally toward Christ. Here is how Paul says it radically:
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. (Galatians 5:2–3)
In other words, if we put the slightest reliance for justification on an act that we perform, then we will have to rely entirely on our law-keeping. And he has already said that is hopeless (Galatians 2:16; 3:10). This means that justification by faith alone is not synonymous with, nor inclusive of, sanctification. The writer to the Hebrews expresses this reality without using the word “justification”:
By a single offering Christ has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:14)
Here is a sharp distinction between Christ’s act of once-for-all perfecting, that has already happened, and his act of progressive sanctification, which is ongoing. Whom has Christ once-for-all “perfected” in an instant (that is, justified)? Those who are “being sanctified.” Justification and sanctification are not the same. The ongoing process of being sanctified is the evidence of being once-for-all “perfected.”2. Conflating Justification and Sanctification Ruins Both
This leads us to the second reason the Reformers considered the Roman Catholic view a serious error: namely, it does not serve hope or holiness in God’s people. There are other serious problems with the way Roman Catholicism teaches the pursuit of holiness — for example, their view of penance, priestly confession, sacramental impartation of grace (as in the mass), the role of Mary and the saints, the authority of the church, and so on. But their claim that justification includes sanctification is one of the most serious problems.Our Only Hope
In the New Testament, the only hopeful and Christ-exalting pursuit of practical righteousness is based on the confidence that I am already perfectly righteous in Christ. Charles Wesley put it like this: “He breaks the power of canceled sin.” The first thing that has to happen in my warfare with sin is that all my sins must be canceled because of Christ. All of them — forever. This happened at the cross.
God forgave us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13–14)
The entire record of debts that could have damned a believer is canceled at the cross. Therefore, all warfare with sin is against canceled sin.
Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:7)
Dig out the leaven of sin in your life because, in Christ, there is no leaven in your life. You are unleavened. Christ has died for you. This is our only hope of victory. Another way to say it is that the only hopeful, gospel-based, Christ-exalting way to pursue sanctification is to pursue it on the basis of justification. Not as part of justification.The Crux of Sanctification
Here is the crux of the matter: if we pursue sanctification (which we must, Hebrews 12:14) without relying on the completed work of God in justification, then we fall into the trap Paul warned against in Galatians 5:2, and begin to establish our own righteousness — our own justification.
This is hopeless. If we try to defeat an unforgiven sin — that is, if we try to conquer our sin before it is canceled — we become our own saviors; we nullify the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:4–5); and we head straight for despair and suicide.
The good news of the Reformers, contrary to what the Roman Catholics thought, is not that sanctification is optional. There is no final salvation without the confirmation of justification in a life of holiness (2 Peter 1:10; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). Rather, the good news is that the fight for holiness is hopeful because it is based on the completed and final work of justification. “Those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). This is going to happen. The fight for holiness would be hopeless without the assurance of this finished justifying work of God.3. Conflating Justification and Sanctification Obscures the Glory of Christ
Which points to the third and final reason the Reformers thought the Roman Catholic conflation of justification and sanctification was a serious error. It obscures the full glory of what Christ actually achieved for his people.Perfection Is Ours
To be sure, Roman Catholicism emphasizes that there is no sanctification without Christ’s blood and righteousness. But it does not accord Christ the achievement of a justifying righteousness that provides for the complete acquittal and vindication of all God’s people the instant they believe.
This is a glorious achievement of Jesus: namely, that he has so worked, in life and death, that in the twinkling of an eye, at the first occurrence of saving faith, every sin is forgiven (Acts 10:43), and eternal perfection (Hebrews 10:14) is counted as ours. Roman Catholicism attributes to Christ many great and wonderful attributes and achievements, but this is not one of them.Faith Is Not Alone
In our conversations with Roman Catholics, it will always be wise to emphasize how seriously we regard the necessity of sanctification for final salvation. It will not be surprising if they are puzzled. Many evangelicals stumble over the claim that justification is by faith alone (Romans 3:28), and yet final salvation has the prerequisite of holiness (Hebrews 12:14). But this is centuries-long Reformed teaching.
My own opinion is that the Reformed movement has not, in general, gone as deeply into the dynamics of sanctification as we might in order to explain why justifying faith must produce a life of love. This has probably caused many Roman Catholics to be skeptical about our effort to keep justification and sanctification together.
It is heartening to hear Luther say,
Faith is something very powerful, active, restless, effective, which at once renews a person and again regenerates him, and leads him altogether into a new manner and character of life, so that it is impossible not to do good without ceasing. (Sermon on Luke 16:1–9)
And it is true when the Westminster Confession says,
[Faith is] not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love. (11.2)
These kinds of statements can be multiplied by the hundreds in the Reformed tradition. But far fewer are the explanations why faith has this necessary effect on life. It is not enough to say that faith unleashes the Holy Spirit to do his sanctifying work, though this is true (Galatians 3:5). What needs attention is the actual, experiential processes of thought and feeling and willing that move us from justifying faith to habitual love.Enter Christian Hedonism
Christian Hedonism (whose central tenet is: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him”) pushes into these processes. For example, suppose we say rightly with Andrew Fuller,
Whatever other properties faith may possess, it is as receiving Christ, and bringing us into union with him, that it justifies. (Andrew Fuller, 50)
Christian Hedonism presses in and asks, “What is this experience of receiving Christ really like? Is it like receiving a blow? Is it like receiving a gift you need, but don’t want? Is it like receiving desired help from someone you dislike? Is it like receiving a package from the postman you scarcely know or care to know?
Christian Hedonism presses into the affectional dimension of “receiving” Christ, because it knows from the Bible and from experience there are many ways to “receive” Christ that are not saving ways. The people in John 6 received Jesus as king and Jesus escaped them (John 6:15). The brothers of Jesus received him as a miracle worker and Jesus said they had no saving faith (John 7:5). The people at the feast “believed” on him in one sense, but Jesus would not entrust himself to them (John 2:24). Simon was ready to receive the Holy Spirit, and Peter told him, in essence, to take his money and go to hell (Acts 8:20).Receive Christ as a Treasure
Therefore, Christian Hedonism presses into the actual experience until it discerns what this “receiving of Christ” is. And what it finds is that receiving Christ is saving if he is received not only as a Savior and Lord, but as a supreme Treasure.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44)
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)
I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Philippians 3:8)No Heaven Without Jesus
In other words, receiving Christ in a saving way means preferring Christ over all other persons and things. It means desiring him — not only what he can do. His deeds on our behalf are meant to make it possible to know and enjoy him forever. We do not receive him savingly when we receive him as a ticket out of hell or into heaven. He is not a ticket. He is a treasure — the greatest Treasure. He is what makes heaven heaven. If we want a pain-free heaven without him there, we do not receive him; we use him.
Therefore, in speaking about sanctification and justification, it is helpful to insist that justifying faith means receiving, welcoming, embracing Jesus for all that God is for us in him. This is true even though we cannot now see all that God will be for us in Jesus. We have seen enough of the glory of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6) that we know we would like to spend eternity discovering more and more of the God who gives himself to us in Jesus.Justifying Faith Severs Sin’s Double Power
In this way, Christian Hedonism draws attention to the nature of justifying faith that goes a long way toward explaining why it is true when Luther says that it is impossible for justifying faith not to do good. And why it is true when the Westminster Confession says that faith “is no dead faith, but works by love.”
When we experience justifying faith as being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus, this new spiritual satisfaction in God severs the root of sin’s double power. Sin has power by making threats of what pain we may encounter in the path of obedience, and by making promises of what pleasure we may encounter in the path of disobedience.
But justifying faith has found all that God is for us more satisfying than all sin’s promises, and safer than all sin’s threats. Therefore, the behaviors that flow from this faith will be God-honoring, sacrificial behaviors of love.Keys to Holiness and Love
Perhaps, then, in your conversations with Roman Catholic friends, you will be able to remove one obstacle to their seeing the beauty of justification by faith alone. You will be able to show them that you are not indifferent to holiness or to a life of love. Instead, your doctrine of justification by faith holds the double key to such holiness and love. The first key is that the biblical path to practical holiness in the eyes of man starts with the confidence that we are perfectly holy in the eyes of God. The second key is that justifying faith contains a superior satisfaction in God that severs the root of sin’s threats and promises.
Roman Catholicism does not need to conflate justification and sanctification in order to secure a place for sanctification in the Christian life. Indeed, that conflation cannot secure such a place. A better, more biblical, more hopeful, more Christ-exalting path is to affirm the imputation of Christ’s achievement through faith alone, and to see that faith as a glad receiving of Christ as the supreme Treasure that he is.
In the new heavens and new earth, Christians will sit with Jesus on his throne. Ordinary believers will join God in judging the universe.
If we boil the Christian life down to simply killing sin, we rob ourselves of the deepest hope and highest joys.
Yes, every true Christian will be killing sin. Any other version or distortion of Christianity falls short of what Christ died for. “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22). “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). If we do not kill sin, we will die in our sin. But if we wage war against our sin, in the power of the Spirit, we prove that Christ is alive in us, and that we will never die.
Killing sin is essential to the Christian life, but it’s not the essence of the Christian life. When Christ calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow him — and he does summon us to deny ourselves — he does so that we “may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). What we put on is far greater than anything we put off or leave behind.The New You
God has given us hit lists of sins to kill. For instance, Colossians 3:5, 8–9: “Put to death what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. . . . Put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices.”
We cannot follow Christ without putting off something, but that doesn’t mean following Christ is only about what we put off.
Just keep reading in Colossians 3, next verse: “ . . . and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10). You have not only put off your old self. You have put on a new self. And your new self looks more and more like the one who created and sustains every corner of the universe. As horrible as we looked in our sin where God found us, we are now being rebuilt and refined in his spectacular image.
We find similar language in 2 Corinthians 4:16: “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” We are being made into the image of an infinitely big, perfectly holy God. That process happens painstakingly slow — one day at a time — from one precious degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).The Power of Knowing God
But how are we being changed? “[You] have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” What does it mean to be renewed “in knowledge”?
This is not the first mention of “knowledge” in Colossians,
We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:9–10)
Putting on the new man is not something first we do, but something we know — and in particular, someone we know. Notice how knowledge is the beginning and end of this kind of spiritual growth. Knowledge equips us to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord — “so as to walk . . . ” — and we walk in a manner worthy of the Lord because we want to know him more — “increasing in the knowledge of God.”
Christian maturity is not only marked by sins that have been put to death, but by a deeper personal knowledge of and intimacy with God, and a deeper commitment to his people, the church (Ephesians 4:13). Yes, sexual immorality, anger, and deceit are being put off. But something breathtaking is being put on in their place: love. Again, Paul prays, “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9).Put on What?
As we deepen our knowledge of God, in relationship with him, we discover new aspects and expressions of this new self. What does the new you look like? “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). Forgiveness (Colossians 3:13). Peace and gratitude (Colossians 3:15). “And above all these put on love” (Colossians 3:14).
The new you is not defined mainly by what you have put off — by the sins you have put to death — but by the evidence that Christ is living in you by his Spirit. As Christians, we are not defined by what we say no to, but by whom we finally say yes. People will notice that we abstain from sexual immorality, and may even ask why. But Paul says, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). And Jesus says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
You can avoid pornography completely, refrain from ever boiling in anger, never cheat on your taxes, and still hate Jesus. But you cannot experience the compassion, humility, peace, joy, and love that only comes to those who love him.Sin Is Gone, Joy Has Come
If you hear the summons to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10) and only grumble over what you have to give up or grieve over remaining sin in your life, you haven’t heard the beauty of what Paul is saying. If you have made war against sin, you are now being made into someone new and better. The Spirit is not only empowering you to say “No” where you’ve said “Yes” a thousand times before. He is also empowering you to say “Yes” in ways you’ve never been able to before.
As you put on your new self, walking in a manner worthy of the Lord, you are “being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11). Yes, we deny ourselves when temptation comes. Yes, we grieve whatever sin remains in us. But we deny and grieve, live and endure with joy. People stop committing sins for all kinds of reasons, but no one enjoys Jesus without God’s help — without God making us entirely new.
Put off whatever remains of the old you, but don’t stop just at killing sin. “We are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Put on, by the power of his Spirit, what no one else in the world can have any other way. God gave us new life in Christ not just to say no to sin, but to say yes to a thousand other things, in love.
Let’s imagine, for the sake of illustration, that you’re not very familiar with fish (perhaps you don’t have to imagine). And you’ve agreed to participate in an experiment where you’re asked to identify whatever is placed before you. You don’t know it, but you’re about to view anatomical parts of a largemouth bass.
First comes the translucent green pectoral fin in a petri dish. You look at it and answer, “Is it some kind of leaf?” Next comes the slimy swim bladder. “Gross! I’m guessing it’s some small animal’s intestine or something.” Next comes a red piece of gill tissue. “I have no idea what that is!”
Now, had you viewed these parts in the context of the fish’s body, you’d grasp to some degree their importance in helping the fish function properly. But taken out of the context of the body, the parts make little sense. It takes the fish’s body to understand the function of a part and it takes all the parts to make a fish function.
“So it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). Each of us is a part of the body of Christ and has a particular function. But it takes the body of Christ to understand the function of a part and it takes all the parts to make the body function.Designed to Depend
If you’re struggling to figure out how God wants to use you, one possibility is that you’re examining yourself out of context, isolated in a petri dish, so to speak.
This is essentially the way we in the West (especially in the United States) are trained to see ourselves. Perhaps more than at any other time in history, our culture understands individuals as autonomous units rather than interdependent parts of a larger social organism.
Today, we largely view interdependence on others as optional, not necessary — partly due to our nearly sacred cultural value of individual liberty, and partly due to all the technological advancements that enable us to pursue it in unprecedented ways. We’re free to voluntarily associate, and free to go it alone. Interdependence on others is only really necessary on the meta-scale, where we need large-scale systems to distribute things like food, clothing, and energy, or facilitate things like mass communication, mass transportation, government, and finance.
As a result, when it comes to determining how each of us should use our time, abilities, resources, and relationships, we primarily assess them based on how these things will advance our individual goals and dreams or cater to our individual preferences. In the abstract, we think working toward the common good is a good thing. But in the concrete world of day-to-day life, we see ourselves as independent, autonomous bodies, and so the individual good is the best thing.
But there’s a problem: we aren’t designed to be billions of independent, autonomous bodies primarily doing our own thing. God designed us to be interdependent body parts that contribute to the healthy functioning of a larger social body.
So if we conceive of the purpose of our lives as primarily an individual pursuit of happiness, it’s no wonder we can find discerning where God wants us to invest our lives illusive and perplexing. It’s like a pectoral fin or swim bladder or gill tissue trying to figure out in the petri dish what it should do. Body parts don’t make sense, much less function right, apart from the body.Where Your Life Is Meant to Make Sense
That’s what 1 Corinthians 12 (and 13 and 14) is all about. Paul writes,
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12)
We aren’t each individual bodies of Christ. We collectively “are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Our lives are meant to make sense in the context of the body of Christ because each of us has a God-given function to perform — a function that is interdependent on other functioning parts.
Christ’s body is the primary context in which God intends for our unique gifts and kingdom callings to be revealed, confirmed, and engaged. And what Paul primarily has in mind by “Christ’s body” in 1 Corinthians 12 is our local church.
Millennia before there were tests for profiling our personalities, finding our strengths, or identifying our spiritual gifts, there was the local church, where each member was “given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). That’s what the spiritual gifts — both more supernatural gifts (like miracles and healing) and more constitutional gifts (like administrating and helps) — are for: the common good of the expression of Christ’s body we belong to.
God eventually calls a few of us to serve broader portions of Christ’s body in various ways. And he calls some of us to isolated situations, like remote church planting, frontier missions, and imprisonment — where “body life,” at least for a while, doesn’t look or feel typical. But like Paul and the church in Antioch, such callings are meant to be confirmed in, commissioned by, and accountable to our local church body, if at all possible.
Like every thing else in our defective world, there are exceptions — diseased local churches that aren't facilitating a healthy body made up of interdependent members. Sometimes God calls us to be agents of improved health for such a body, and sometimes he directs us to find a healthier body.
And, of course, no church does "body life" perfectly because they're all comprised of imperfect people, like us. But nonetheless, the local church is God's bodily provision for us, the context where our lives are meant to make sense.Where Do You Look for God’s Direction?
Understanding ourselves and each other as interdependent members of a corporate body is very different from what we’ve learned from our culture. And even though we might be very familiar with 1 Corinthians 12, and abstractly admire Paul’s “body” analogy as a theological concept, it does not mean we’ve internalized it and that it’s shaping and governing us.
We can tell what understanding of ourselves and others shapes and governs us by how we answer this question: Where do we look for God’s direction on how we should use our giftings? Do we see this as primarily an individual quest for self-actualization, or are we looking for it in the context of Christ’s body as we seek to meet the needs of others? Most of us Americans naturally gravitate to the former, and we must relearn to seek for it in the latter.
And there is no neat-and-clean formula. It’s not fast, like a test. It happens in the messiness of the life of the body. But if we fixate less on our particular part and more on the good of others and the common good of the larger body, God will faithfully show us what members we are. That’s God’s design. Pursue love (1 Corinthians 14:1), and we will discover his will for us. Seek first the kingdom, and all we need will be provided (Matthew 6:33).
It takes the body of Christ to understand the function of a part, and it takes all the parts to make the body function.
It is biblically illogical to think we can live a life worthy of the gospel and be indifferent to Christian unity.
We should stand in awe at majestic mountains and billions of shining stars, but they all are nothing compared to God.
“Blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”
It’s one of Jesus’s most enigmatic, controversial, and haunting statements. In the last two millennia, many a tortured soul have wrestled over this warning. Have I committed “the unforgivable sin”? When I addressed my angry profanity to God, when I spoke rebelliously against him, did I commit unforgivable blasphemy? Or, perhaps more often, especially in today’s epidemic of Internet porn, “Could I really be saved if I keep returning to the same sin I have vowed so many times never to return to again?”
Despite the enigma and controversy, we do have a simple pathway to clarity. Jesus’s “blasphemy against the Spirit” statement only appears in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). If we get a concrete sense of what he did (and didn’t) mean there, then we’re positioned to answer what such “unforgivable sin” might (and might not) mean for us today.What Jesus Actually Said
Jesus hadn’t been teaching in public long when his hearers began comparing him to their teachers, called “the scribes,” part of the conservative Jewish group known as the Pharisees. The growing crowds “were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). The scribes heard the comparison and felt the tension, and soon escalated it (Mark 2:6, 16), as these Bible teachers of the day, with their many added traditions, quickly grew in their envy, and then hatred, for Jesus. The threat is so great these conservatives even are willing to cross the aisle to conspire with their liberal rivals, the Herodians (Mark 3:6).
The showdown comes in Mark 3:22–30 (Matthew 12:22–32). Scribes have descended from Jerusalem to set straight the poor, deceived people of backwater Galilee. “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” they say. “By the prince of demons he casts out the demons” (Mark 3:22).
Jesus calmly answers their lie with basic logic (verses 23–26) and turns it to make a statement about his lordship (verse 27). Then he warns these liars, who know better deep down, of the spiritual danger they’re in.
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” (Mark 3:28–30)
It’s one thing to suppose that Jesus is out of his mind (his family fears as much at this early stage, Mark 3:21), but it’s another thing to attribute the work of God’s Spirit to the devil — to observe the power of God unfolding in and through this man Jesus, be haunted by it in a callous heart, and turn to delude others by ascribing the Spirit’s work to Satan. This evidences such a profound hardness of heart in these scribes that they should fear they are on the brink of eternal ruin — if it’s not already too late. Jesus does not necessarily declare that the scribes are already condemned, but he warns them gravely of their precarious position.Who Did the Scribes Blaspheme?
Before we ask about our sin today, let’s gather the pieces in the Gospels. The teachers of God’s covenant people, here at this crucial and unique point in redemptive history, have God himself among them. God’s long-anticipated kingdom is dawning. “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). The very day that their stories and prophets and Scriptures have prepared them for is being unveiled before them, and in their hard and impenitent hearts, they are rejecting it.
And not only are they cold toward how God is doing it, and murmuring about it to each other, but as teachers of God’s people, they now are speaking up to draw others away from the truth. And they do so by declaring that the power at work in Jesus, manifestly from God, is the power of Satan. Here Jesus warns them, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:29). Why so?
Matthew adds a detail we don’t have in Mark. “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32). Attacking Jesus is one thing. He refers to himself as “the Son of Man” — God himself among his people, but not yet fully revealed in his death and resurrection. Attack this enigmatic Son of Man, and the Spirit can overcome that. But it’s another thing to see what God is doing and turn to attack his Spirit. Who is left to help these scribes if they’re settling in against the Spirit of God? Insult, dishonor, and make enemies with the Spirit, and who is left to bring you back?
The reason these scribes are dangerously close to being guilty of “eternal sin” is because they are evidencing such a settled hardness of hard — not just against this mysterious “Son of Man,” but now explicitly against the Spirit — that their hearts may no longer be capable of repentance. It’s not that they may be genuinely repentant but given the stiff arm, but that they will “never have forgiveness” because they will never meet the simple, invaluable, softhearted condition for it: repentance.Is Anyone Unforgivable Today?
When Jesus addresses the scribes in his day, it is on the brink of a seismic redemptive-historical change that comes with his life and ministry. So in what sense might his warning to the scribes about “blasphemy against the Spirit” be uniquely for Jesus’s day, on the cusp of the old covenant being fulfilled and a new covenant being inaugurated? Should these words fall in the same way on our ears twenty centuries later?
When we turn forward in the story to Acts and the Epistles, we don’t find anything called “blasphemy against the Spirit.” Which signals our need for exercising care in applying this precise term today. However, we do find a concept similar to “unforgivable sin,” even if the terms are not exactly the same. The essence of Jesus’s warning to the scribes in his day lands on us in some form, even if not in the precise way it did originally for the scribes.
Ephesians 4:30 speaks of “grieving the Holy Spirit,” but this is not the same as Jesus’s warning to the scribes. Those who “grieve” the Spirit are reminded that by him they are “sealed for the day of redemption.” However, Hebrews 10:29 speaks of “outraging the Spirit of grace,” and Hebrews 12:17 warns professing Christians not to be like Esau who “found no place of repentance.” Like Jesus’s warning to the scribes, we are not told that Esau asked for forgiveness but was denied. Rather, he “found no place of repentance” — his heart had grown so callous, he was no longer able to genuinely repent and thus meet the condition for the free offer of forgiveness.
Throughout his letter, the author of Hebrews warns his audience of this danger. In the past, they have professed faith in Jesus and claimed to embrace him. Now, because of pressure and persecution from unbelieving Jews, they are tempted to abandon Jesus to restore their peace and comfort. They have experienced remarkable measures of grace in association with the new-covenant people of God (Hebrews 6:4–5), but now they are nearing the brink of falling away from Christ — and Hebrews warns them of the peril: having known the truth, and rejected it, are they now coming into a kind of settled hardness of heart from which they no longer will be able to repent and thus be forgiven?
For Christians today, we need not fear a specific moment of sin, but a kind of hardness of heart that would see Jesus as true and yet walk away — with a kind of hardness of heart incapable of repenting. Again, it’s not that forgiveness isn’t granted, but that it’s not sought. The heart has become so recalcitrant, and at such odds with God’s Spirit, that it’s become incapable of true repentance.Hope for Those Feeling “Unforgivable”
If you do fear you’ve committed some “unforgivable sin,” or even that your heart has already reached such a state of hardness, God does offer you hope. If you worry about unforgivable sin, then most likely you are not there. Not yet. Hearts with settled hardness against Jesus and his Spirit don’t go around worrying about it.
It’s easy to get worked up over this enigmatic “unforgivable sin” in the Gospels and miss the remarkable gospel expression of Jesus’s open arms that comes immediately before the warning: “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter” (Mark 3:28). All sins. Whatever blasphemies uttered. Through faith in Jesus. This is where the Gospel accounts all lead: to the cross. This Son of Man, as he progressively demonstrates in the Gospels, is God himself and Lord of the universe. And he became one of us, and died for our sins, and rose to offer full and entire forgiveness for all who repent and embrace him as Lord, Savior, and Treasure.
If your worries about “unforgivable sin” relate to a pattern of sin and unrepentance in your life, your very concerns may be God’s Spirit working to keep you from continuing to harden your heart beyond his softening. Don’t despair. And don’t treat it lightly. As the Holy Spirit encourages his hearers on the edge of such danger, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Psalm 95:7–8; Hebrews 3:7–8). You are not guaranteed tomorrow. But you do have today. It’s not too late, if you still have it in you to repent.More Good News
However, we should be careful that the enigma and controversy over “unforgivable sin” doesn’t keep us from missing the main reality underneath this episode in Mark 3 and Matthew 12. Jesus’s main point isn’t that there is such a sin as “blasphemy against the Spirit,” but that there is such a person as the Holy Spirit! How remarkable that God has not left us to ourselves in the ups and downs of this life. As he did with his own Son in his full humanity, he makes available to us supernatural power by his Spirit.
How did Jesus, as man, perform his miracles? By the power of the Spirit. “It is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons” (Matthew 12:28). When Jesus hears the scribes say, “By the prince of demons he casts out the demons,” he hears an outrageous attack, not on himself, but on the Spirit. The last word in the story explains it all: “for they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit’” (Mark 3:30).
How amazing that the same Spirit who empowered Jesus in his earthly life, and on the path to his sacrificial death, has been given to us today. We “have the Spirit” (Romans 8:9, 15, 23; 1 Corinthians 6:19). What a gift we’ve received (Romans 5:5; 1 Corinthians 2:12; 2 Corinthians 5:5; 1 John 3:24). How much do we underappreciate what power is available to us (and through us) by the Spirit?
God calls us to pursue our fullest joy in him. Will we fall short if we don’t pursue the extraordinary supernatural gifts like tongues and prophecy?
In this special episode, Pastor John reflects on the life and legacy of Billy Graham.
In this special episode, Pastor John reflects on the life and legacy of Billy Graham.
I recalled this morning (with more emotion than I expected) that one of the fears of my life as a boy growing up in Greenville, South Carolina was that Billy Graham would die. I know there was a good deal of immature failure in that fear to trust the God who is quite able to run the world without Billy Graham. But it does give you a glimpse of the role he played as a kind of sun holding the planets in place in the solar system of my religious world in the late 1950s.
Now I am 72 in Minneapolis (remember “Box 123”?!), not a teenager in South Carolina. And Billy died today at the age of 99. This morning I have been singing his songs (“Just as I Am” and “How Great Thou Art”). The flood of emotion they awaken, after a lifetime of profound associations, is a sweet sorrow. Thank you, Lord, that you answered my boyish prayers and preserved his life as long as you did. And not just his life, but his faith and his witness.‘I Surrender All’
Billy Graham was born on November 7, 1918 in North Carolina. In 1934, under the preaching of evangelist Mordecai Ham, Billy was converted to Christ. He attended Bob Jones University in Cleveland, Tennessee for one year and spent three and a half years at Florida Bible Institute in Tampa. In March of 1938, he first sensed God’s calling to preach.
One night in March, 1938, Billy Graham returned from his walk and reached the 18th green immediately before the school’s front door. “The trees were loaded with Spanish moss, and in the moonlight it was like a fairyland.” He sat on the edge of the green, looking up at the moon and stars, aware of a warm breeze from the south. The tension snapped. “I remember getting on my knees and saying, ‘God, if you want me to preach, I will do it.’ Tears streamed down my cheeks as I made this great surrender to become an ambassador for Jesus Christ.” (John Pollock, Billy Graham, 17)
In the summer vacation of 1937, he had asked Emily Cavanaugh to marry him. In May of 1938, she said no.
Billy was ordained in 1939. The first time he gave his own “altar call” he was at a little church on the Gulf Coast, with 100 people present. Thirty-two young men and women came forward (Pollock, 22).
In the fall of 1940, he entered Wheaton College. He met Ruth Bell in the lobby of Williston Hall — the same dormitory where my wife Noël lived as we were dating at Wheaton.
Ruth told Billy that she was unsure after all. She feared that her desire to be his wife denied a clear missionary call, unless he were bound for Tibet. “He went and prayed about the mission field, and he just had no leading whatsoever. Finally he said, ‘Well, do you think God brought us together?’ — and I had to admit I felt God had.” Billy pointed out that the husband is head of the wife: “The Lord leads me and you follow.” Ruth agreed, in faith. (Pollock, 26)
They were married August 13, 1943.His Crisis of Faith
In August, 1949, his faith in the Bible was put to the test. It came to a climax at a student conference in the San Bernardino mountains of California. Charles Templeton had asked questions about the Bible’s truthfulness that Billy could not answer.
Billy went out in the forest and wandered up the mountain, praying as he walked, “Lord, what shall I do? What shall be the direction of my life?”
He had reached what he believed to be a crisis.
He saw that intellect alone could not resolve the question of authority. You must go beyond intellect. He thought of the faith used constantly in daily life: he did not know how a train or plane or car worked, but he rode them. . . . Was it only in things of the spirit that such faith was wrong?
“So I went back and I got my Bible, and I went out in the moonlight. And I got to a stump and put the Bible on the stump, and I knelt down, and I said, ‘Oh, God; I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Chuck is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God.’” (Pollock, 53)
That next month came the decisive turning point in Billy’s global evangelism, the Los Angeles Crusade. Overnight he became a nationally known figure. One year later, Newsweek called him “America’s greatest living evangelist” (May 1, 1950).‘Sheer Sovereignty Chose Me’
He never lost the unshakable conviction that God had called him sovereignly to the work of evangelism and that he owed everything to God’s initiative.
“With all my heart as I look back on my life, [I believe] I was chosen to do this particular work [of evangelizing] as a man might have been chosen to go into East Harlem and work there, or to the slums of London like General Booth was. I believe that God in his sovereignty — I have no other answer for this — sheer sovereignty, chose me to do this work and prepared me in his own way.” (Christopher Catherwood, Five Evangelical Leaders, 234)
For all the technology he employed, he relied profoundly on the Holy Spirit in the work of evangelism.
He told students in 1964 at Harvard Divinity School . . . “I used to think that in evangelism I had to do it all, but now I approach evangelism with a totally different attitude. I approach it with complete relaxation. First of all, I don’t believe that any man can come to Christ unless the Holy Spirit has prepared his heart. Secondly, I don’t believe any man can come to Christ unless God drives him. My job is to proclaim the message. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to do the work, period.” (Catherwood, 230)
When it was not yet the politically correct thing to do, he was an advocate for racial integration and respect.
In 1972, Graham accepted an invitation to speak in Durban and Johannesburg provided that the audiences were racially integrated. The South African government disliked this and only reluctantly agreed. . . . Howard Jones recalls [Martin Luther] King telling Graham, “Your crusades have done more to help race relations than anything else I know.” (Catherwood, 209)Two Roots of His Message
He is famous for saying that he preached too much and studied too little.
One of my great regrets is that I have not studied enough. I wish I had studied more and preached less. People have pressured me into speaking to groups when I should have been studying and preparing. Donald Barnhouse said that if he knew the Lord was coming in three years, he would spend two of them studying and one preaching. I’m trying to make it up. (Christianity Today, September 23, 1977)
This is especially ironic in view of Pollock’s 1966 description of Billy’s habits of study:
Beyond all else Billy Graham studies the Bible, the supreme authority for his belief and action. Every day he reads five Psalms, covering the psalter in a month, and one chapter of Proverbs, the book that “shows us how to relate our own lives to our fellow men.” He reads through a Gospel each week, using commentaries and modern translations, and constantly returns to the Acts of the Apostles. He annotates throughout the Bible. “Sometimes His word makes such an impact on me that I have to put the Bible down and walk around for a few moments to catch my breath.” (Pollock, 248)
All of this was saturated with prayer. “I have so many decisions to make each day, and so many problems, that I have to pray all the time” (Pollock, 248).
Surely John Pollock is right that “prayer and Bible reading, inextricably intertwined, are the tap roots of Billy Graham’s character and of his message” (248).Into Everlasting Joy
There are different ways to measure the greatness of a man’s impact. One would be the institutions that were created in the wake of his influence. Another would be the shaping power of his ideas in the culture at large. Another would be the methodological and stylistic impact of his way of doing things on the religious life of America.
Another would be the incalculable eternal difference in being the human instrument in God’s hands, bringing hundreds of thousands of people out of darkness into light, and out of Satan’s authority into God’s family, and out of condemnation into forgiveness, and out of sin into holiness, and out of hell into everlasting joy with God. Not to mention the billions of practical effects for good in the way these people’s lives were changed in this world.
While only God can rightly assess the ripple effect of a person’s life in all the ways it has influence, my own judgment would be that Billy Graham’s greatest impact is the eternal difference he made in leading countless persons, from all over the world, out of destruction into everlasting joy and love. This was his primary mission. “Because God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Every believer has the Holy Spirit, but our experience of him is always fragmented. Only those who seek him will know his fullness.
If you’re a Christian, you know war. War with your pride, war with your lust, war with your anger. War at home, war at work, war when you’re alone. War in your head, war in your heart, war in your mouth.
Kill one enemy, and another takes its place. Fight your way up one hill, and ten more rise up behind it. Let up your vigilance for one hour, and you’ve lost ground. Day after day, week after week, month after month, with no end in sight.
Perhaps in the pitch of battle, when the enemies inside you feel unrelenting, you’ve wondered, “Is this normal? Is this really the Christian life — this endless trudging, this constant watchfulness, this ruthless denial of so much within me?”
In these moments, Christ our commander comes alongside us with three reminders: the war is normal, the war is winnable, and the war will end.The War Is Normal
Consider the condition of your heart before God rescued you: dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), captive to ungodly passions and pleasures (Titus 3:3), blind to the beauty of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4), walking in ruin and misery (Romans 3:16). Your heart was Sauron’s Mount Doom, the White Witch’s winter, Babylon’s stronghold. You may have known peace, but it was peace with enemies of God.
But then the Holy Spirit beat down the gates of your heart and expelled sin from the throne. Now, he’s taking his army through all the corners of your life. Until he annihilates every enemy outpost, you will be a man or woman at war (Galatians 5:17).
So don’t be surprised if you wake up to war. Don’t be surprised if you sometimes feel like death inside, as if everything you’ve loved needs to be laid in the grave. Don’t be surprised if you discover lairs of darkness in your flesh you never dreamed possible.
Instead, take heart. The war is normal. More than that, the war is essential. Battle is an indispensable mark of all who have declared open rebellion against sin and Satan. As J.C. Ryle writes, “We are evidently no friends of Satan. Like the kings of this world, he wars not against his own subjects. The very fact that he assaults us, should fill our minds with hope” (Holiness, 76).The War Is Winnable
In the agony of battle, you may feel utterly burdened beyond your strength, like defeat is all you will ever know. You may feel like giving up altogether.
We would have every reason to surrender to these feelings if the war belonged to us. In our own strength, we are infants fighting dragons. But the battle does not ultimately belong to us — it belongs to Christ, our captain. And that makes the war winnable.
When God saved you, he did not send a radio communication into your prison cell, commanding you to stand up and fight. No, Jesus himself broke into your prison, placed a sword in your hand, and said, “Follow me. Stay near me. I’ll lead you out.” Therefore, as Richard Sibbes writes, “Let us look not so much at who our enemies are as at who our judge and captain is, nor at what they threaten, but at what he promises” (The Bruised Reed, 122). And what does he promise?
- He will be with you in every battle (Matthew 28:20).
- He will uphold you with his righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10).
- He will sanctify you completely (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
Stick near Christ’s side, and sin will have no dominion over you. Pride withers under his majesty. Lust cowers beneath his beauty. Anger trembles at his sight. You may gain ground only by inches, and the battle may last a lifetime, but Jesus’s presence and promises guarantee your progress. He will lead you home.
So don’t despair, no matter how shaky you feel today. The war is winnable. With God’s help, you can resist. You can reclaim ground from the enemy and turn thorny fields into gardens. Jesus has pledged his help for every fight you face today. Will you trust him?The War Will End
God did not save you so you could wage eternal warfare. The streets of the New Jerusalem will not be lined with ranks of soldiers. This war, entrenched as it is right now, is merely the prologue to your eternal peace.
One day soon, the tumult of battle will give way to hallelujah choruses. The civil war within you will end in cease-fire under God’s reign. No wayward thoughts will disquiet you; no rogue desires will distress you; no nagging temptations will torment you.
“After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). This war of fifty, sixty, or seventy years, as endless as it feels, is just “a little while” from the standpoint of eternity. Fight a little while, resist a little while, deny yourself a little while, and you will rejoice forever.
So don’t give up. The war will end. Jesus has already won the decisive victory (Colossians 2:15). The enemy knows his time is short (Revelation 12:12). The outcome of this battle is not uncertain. God will soon crush every enemy of yours under his feet (Micah 7:19; Romans 16:20).Day by Day
If a lifetime of war feels overwhelming, focus on today’s fight. Labor to put to death today’s discontentment, today’s envy, today’s self-pity. And do it by grabbing hold of today’s weapons — today’s promises from God, today’s opportunities for prayer, today’s co-soldiers in the battle.
Day by day, your commander will supply the strength you need to overcome your enemies, and the forgiveness you need for every defeat. Just don’t stop fighting. “None is here overcome but he that will not fight,” Sibbes writes (The Bruised Reed, 122).
The war is normal, the war is winnable, and the war will end. And then, exceeding and ever-increasing joy.
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