Disability is no accident. Inability is no capricious mistake. God shapes and designs every person uniquely for his purposes.
Few things have destroyed more marriages, stolen more joy, or strangled more souls than lust. Do you know how to fight it?
In 1 Corinthians 14:1, the apostle Paul writes, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” This verse is at the heart of a significant debate among evangelical Christians. Some believe that to obey this command today is to deny the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Others believe that to not obey it is to deny the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.
One of the historic hallmarks of evangelicalism is a robust belief in the Holy Spirit-inspired, authoritative, infallible, inerrant, sufficient nature of the revealed word of God contained in the canon of Scripture. We evangelicals believe that when it comes to the Bible, as the old hymn says, “there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey” the whole counsel of God as understood through the lens of Christ’s new covenant.
So, what should we do with the biblical command to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1)? Well, the obvious answer is “trust and obey,” right? But for many evangelicals, this is not the obvious answer.Problem of Prophecy
The two primary groups in the debate over prophecy are cessationists and continuationists. Cessationists believe that the so-called “revelatory” gifts of the Spirit mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12–14 (most pointedly, prophecy and tongues/interpretation, 1 Corinthians 12:10) ceased sometime between the deaths of the apostles and the confirmation of the New Testament canon. Continuationists believe that all the gifts of the Spirit listed in these chapters are meant to continue more or less, according to the sovereign Spirit’s purposes, throughout the church age until Jesus returns. The disagreement exists, ironically, because cessationists and continuationists agree on the inspiration, authority, infallibility, and sufficiency of the Bible.
The debate hinges on what Paul meant by “prophesy” in 1 Corinthians 14:1. Did Paul understand the new-covenant spiritual gift of prophecy as Holy Spirit-inspired, authoritative, infallible, canon-equivalent revelation? Or did he understand it as Holy Spirit-prompted, subordinate revelation that could be fallibly reported and therefore intended to be subject to God’s chosen apostolic and prophetic authoritative teaching contained in the Spirit-determined canonical writings of Scripture? If by “prophesy,” Paul meant the former, then to “earnestly desire” to prophesy is to earnestly desire to speak with scriptural authority — to challenge, in some sense, the sufficiency of Scripture. If he meant the latter, then to not “earnestly desire” to prophesy is to blatantly disobey a clear apostolic imperative — to challenge, in some way, the sufficiency of Scripture.
You see why the debate can get a bit intense.Two Convictions, One Indivisible Church
We at Desiring God are convinced continuationists. We believe the Bible teaches that all the gifts of the Spirit (including prophecy, tongues, and interpretation) continue today, and will until Jesus returns.
However, we have dear friends who are precious colleagues in gospel ministry, and highly esteemed teachers (both past and present) who are convinced cessationists. These are people whose skillful handling of God’s word, personal holiness, and spiritually fruitful lives have profoundly shaped ours. They hold their view of prophecy in good conscience before God, as they (and we) should (Romans 14:5). And we are privileged and humbled to have them as our brothers and sisters in the faith.
Like differing evangelical views regarding the meaning and modes of baptism, how we define New Testament prophecy is not a core issue to the gospel and has no necessary bearing on the validity of a person’s regeneration. And like baptism, while how we define New Testament prophecy may significantly influence what local church fellowship we join or don’t join, it ought never be an unbridgeable rift between members of the global Christian family.
However, also like baptism, New Testament prophecy is not unimportant — particularly in view of 1 Corinthians 14:1. If we don’t especially desire to prophesy, we’d better have a good reason, because not trusting and obeying what the Spirit expressly commands in the authoritative, infallible word of God is, as all true evangelicals would agree, serious business.Why Are There Cessationists?
If you want to read a helpful overview of cessationism by a trustworthy theologian who fairly represents the conviction of many thoughtful evangelicals, read Tom Schreiner’s article “Why I Am a Cessationist.”
Tracing the roots of cessationism is not simple (and beyond the scope of this article). Some assert that most of the most credible theologians since the Reformation have been cessationists. But as Kevin DeYoung and Gavin Ortlund demonstrate, that's not simple either. Prominent Protestant leaders and theologians across the centuries have held a variety of theological convictions regarding the revelatory gifts.
But certainly at the core of cessationism is a desire to preserve the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, the conviction that the written word of God — the sixty-six books that Protestants believe comprise the Christian Scriptures — is the final authority that governs the church of Jesus Christ in this age.
All true evangelicals of the past and present stand in agreement that the Scriptural canon is closed, that the authoritative, infallible revelation recorded in the Bible has ceased.
But given what provoked the Protestant Reformation in the first place — the Roman Catholic distortion of the gospel, its overreaching claims of papal and clerical authority, and the resulting terrible corruption — and given the recurring trouble with various false prophets and faulty prophecy the church has endured throughout its history, some have found it compelling to equate the New Testament spiritual gift of prophecy with how Old Testament prophecy is generally understood: Holy Spirit-inspired, authoritative, infallible, inerrant, canon-equivalent revelation. If this is true, then prophecy necessarily ceased at the end of the apostolic age. For cessationists, a view that allows for continuing prophetic “revelation” only invites further distortion, abuse, and corruption into the church and undermines the Bible’s authority and sufficiency.
However, many, if not most, cessationists concede that “there’s no definitive teaching in the Bible that [the revelatory gifts have] ceased.” It must, for the most part, be inferred. The argument for cessation is built on the unique authority of the “apostles and prophets,” who laid the foundation on which the church was built by delivering to it canon-level revelation (Ephesians 2:19–21).
Paul seemed to know that he was the last (“untimely born”) of these Christ-appointed, authoritative apostles (1 Corinthians 15:8–9). And while most cessationists affirm that the “perfect” Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13:10 — the event he says will bring about the ceasing of prophecy — refers to Jesus’s return (not the formation of the canon), they argue that Paul wrote in the expectation that he might live to see the eschaton and spoke of the gifts with similar expectations. But since neither he nor any of the apostles survived to see the return of Jesus, this unique gift of apostleship ceased in the church — a spiritual gift cessation the vast majority of evangelicals embrace. And when that gift ceased, canon-level prophecy ceased with it. And cessationists would say that while 1 Corinthians 13:8–12 seems to imply the continuation of this gift, it does not necessarily require its continuation.What We Love about Cessationists
We do, of course, have an argument to make that the New Testament gift of prophecy is something different than canon-level revelation and does indeed continue to operate in the church. But that is not our purpose here. Before making our case, we want to stop, carefully ponder the cessationist argument, and appreciate the deep concern that fuels the cessationist conviction — a concern to which we are very sympathetic. The Bible is unspeakably precious, and its authority and sufficiency must be gladly guarded for the sake of Christ’s glory and the church’s joy. Godly cessationists believe this, and we deeply love and respect them for it.
Again, the cessationist/continuationist debate is not central to the gospel. There are wonderful, faithful, and fruitful saints on both sides. But it’s not an unimportant debate. “Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” is an apostolic imperative. How we respond is a matter of fear and trembling. We don’t want to practice or teach others anything false, nor neglect any precious means of grace God himself has given us. So, let each of us weigh God’s own words carefully and prayerfully, and let “each one . . . be fully convinced in his own mind” — for “it is before his own master that he stands or falls” (Romans 14:4–5).
Because the glory of God is at stake in how we trust and obey his authoritative, sufficient word.
Peace and calm are not the only factors in determining what we should do. Pastor John explains what else should govern our decisions.
This short declaration gives hope and joy to millions. We sing it, shout it, preach it, and put it on our bumper stickers and T-shirts. And so we should. “Jesus saves!” is a faithful way to summarize the gospel message. As Paul writes in Romans 10:13, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
But we don’t see many “The Father saves” bumper stickers, or sing many hymns that declare, “The Holy Spirit saves.” I understand why we don’t emphasize the Father and the Spirit as much when we talk about salvation. The work of Christ is truly the way that we are saved. Apart from his death for our sins, we have no good news.
But to be faithful to the whole story of salvation, Christians are eager to say, as well, that apart from the work of the Father and the Holy Spirit, we have no good news. If we separate what Christ accomplishes in salvation from what the Father and the Holy Spirit have done (and are doing), then we will quickly find ourselves on shaky ground.Plot with Three Persons
The moment we lose sight of the work of the Trinity in our salvation, we are drifting away from the whole Bible’s witness to the glory of our salvation.
For example, the plotline of all four Gospel accounts emphasizes the work of all three divine persons. According to his plan throughout history, the Father sent the Son (Matthew 10:40; Luke 10:16; John 4:34). The Son proclaimed the good news of the kingdom and purchased our great salvation through his death and resurrection (Mark 10:45; Luke 19:10; John 19:30). He then ascended to his Father and sent the Holy Spirit to dwell with his people as they take the good news of this salvation to the world (Matthew 28:18–20; John 14:16, 26). Without the work of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, we have no good news.
Throughout church history, faithful Christians have consistently emphasized that each person of the Trinity makes an essential contribution to our salvation. But at times we can lose sight of this reality. And when we de-emphasize divine persons, we lose sight of much of the glory of our redemption.Planned, Purchased, Preserved
If we are looking for a single passage that explains this great work of salvation by the Father, Son, and Spirit, then we’d be hard pressed to find more Trinitarian depth than Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:3–14. Here we see a vivid and glorious description of our triune God’s great work of salvation.
First, the Father planned our salvation. He chose us before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). He predestined us (Ephesians 1:5, 11). In the mysterious working of the Trinity before creation, God the Father chose to save a people through his Son and to make known this great redemption to the universe (Ephesians 1:9–10). He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11), so we can be confident that this great gospel is rooted in the unspeakable wisdom and plan of God.
Next, the Son purchased our salvation. Paul says, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Ephesians 1:7). “In Christ” we are saved and blessed with every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3–4, 7). Jesus saves. Jesus saves gloriously, fully, and freely. And it is not as if the Son is an unwilling participant in this plan, dragged by the Father against his will to the cross, where he reluctantly shed his blood. Later in this letter, Paul reminds us that Christ loved the church and gave himself up for his church to save and sanctify her, because he nourishes and cherishes her (Ephesians 5:25–29). When the Father planned to save a people, the Son set his affection on those people. So we might say that the Son joyfully purchased our salvation.
Finally, the Spirit preserves our salvation. When we put our trust in Jesus, we are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). If you’ve ever had a wooden deck on your house, you know that without some kind of sealer, the weather will do a number to the wood, and it will eventually begin to rot and deteriorate. In a similar way, the Holy Spirit is our “salvation sealer.” But unlike the deck sealer, we don’t need to reapply the Spirit every three years. Once he has been poured out on us, he is our living guarantee of this great salvation (Ephesians 1:14).‘Abba! Father!’
When we recognize and enjoy the part each person of the Trinity plays in this great work of salvation, our confidence and joy in God deepens. Paul explains that in the fullness of time, or at the time of God’s choosing, the Father sent his Son to redeem us so that we are adopted as his sons (Galatians 4:4–5). Because we are his sons, he sends the Spirit into our hearts, so that we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6).
As we learn to love and hope in this great work of the Trinity for our salvation, the result will be a childlike trust in God. We can count on him. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit have conspired since eternity past to save you from your sins and adopt you into the glorious family of the Trinity. If you believe in Jesus as your Savior, the triune God, who created and sustains all things by his mighty power, is entirely committed to your salvation and eternal good. What else could produce more confidence, hope, and awestruck joy?Soli Deo Gloria
Much more could be said about the work of each person of the Trinity in the plan of redemption, but when we begin to understand what the Bible is saying about our salvation, we will realize that in this great plan God gives us nothing less than his own self. The Father purposes to adopt us into his family. The Son gives himself for our redemption. The Spirit is poured out to us as a seal and guarantee of our final salvation. In other words, as Fred Sanders puts it, God “does not give us something that makes us blessed, but he blesses us by giving us himself” (The Deep Things of God, 125). This is the great blessing that Paul meditates on in Ephesians 1: God has given us himself.
Not only does the Trinity’s work in salvation give us great hope, but this stunning plan gives God himself great glory. Ephesians 1:3–14 culminates with Paul saying that this plan of redemption is “to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14). The Father plans it, the Son purchases it, the Spirit preserves it, all to the praise of his glory. What greater wisdom and glory could we see in our great redemption? Soli deo gloria!
The gospel begins with the phrase, “but God,” because we can’t love him on our own.
My family had recently moved to a new city, and we were visiting a new church. The service started well, but moments after the preacher entered the pulpit, my heart stopped. This was going to be the worst sermon I had ever heard.
Quickly, the preacher checked off my pet peeves for poor preaching. Topical message? Check. Mechanically reading his manuscript the entire time? Check. PowerPoint slides? Check, check, and check. I soon dismissed the sermon and decided we would not attend this church ever again. I decided that his lack of theological sophistication, sermon craft, and public presentation disqualified him from being worthy of my attention.
But more troubling than his lack of rhetorical ability was my lack of spiritual maturity. I have had the privilege of sitting under some of the very finest Bible teachers, and yet, by dismissing this preacher, I missed a great opportunity for growth. Poor preachers are gifts from the Lord. That’s what I learned, ironically, from one of the greatest preachers who ever lived.The Idol of Eloquent Preaching
In his Institutes, John Calvin argues that pastors are necessary kingdom workers. Calvin learned this from the apostle Paul, who taught that God is the one who gives the church shepherds and teachers (Ephesians 4:11). Calvin explains that the Lord “uses the ministry of men to declare openly his will to us by mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honor, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work — just as a workman uses a tool to do his work” (4.3.1).
Because of this delegated work, unimpressive preachers provide believers with a unique opportunity. Calvin writes, “When a puny man risen from the dust speaks in God’s name, at this point we best evidence our piety and obedience toward God if we show ourselves teachable toward his minister, although he excels us in nothing” (4.3.1).
That’s right, Calvin argues that believers can demonstrate their love for Christ by paying attention to “puny” preachers.
Mature believers can see beauties that unbelievers and baby Christians miss. Before he was a believer, Augustine dismissed the Scriptures for their lack of eloquence. After his conversion, though, he testified, “Where I understand them, it seems to me that nothing could be wiser, nothing more eloquent than the sacred writers” (On Christian Doctrine, 4.6.9). The gospel of Christ must always rule over the desire for beautiful expression or else posturing and pretence is sure to follow (On Christian Doctrine, 4.28.61).
When Calvin exhorts us to pay attention to puny preachers, he is calling us to recognize the idol of eloquence. The Corinthian church followed this idol when they dismissed Paul because of the ineloquence of his speech (1 Corinthians 2:1; 2 Corinthians 10:10). We can show our ultimate allegiance is to the Lord Jesus and not to any bumbling messenger of his.Good Listening to Poor Sermons
Calvin provides two specifics to help us listen well to a poor sermon. First, he calls us to listen carefully to demonstrate our affection for Christ himself. By giving our attention and listening carefully to a poorly crafted presentation, we recognize and demonstrate that the ultimate message being spoken is not the poorly formed sermon from the preacher but the very word of God that the Spirit is speaking to his church each Sunday morning.
We don’t receive life from the preaching of the preacher, but the written and preached word points us to the living Word, Jesus Christ. Just as a loving husband notices his wife even when she is dressed grubbily, Christians can show their love for the living Word of God when he is proclaimed by inelegant preachers.
Second, Calvin calls us to listen carefully to demonstrate our obedience to Christ. A sermon is not primarily an exercise in rhetorical skill. Instead, it is a proclamation of Christ’s finished work with implications for holy living. Believers can demonstrate that they understand this fundamental distinction by listening to a poorly crafted or poorly executed sermon with the goal of holy living. We are not serving men — including our own pastor. It is the Lord Christ we serve (Colossians 3:22–24). By hearing and obeying his call, we demonstrate our love for him and our affinity with him.Easily Edified
The more spiritually mature we become, the more we are easily edified. May what Justin Taylor said be true of us, “It is so easy to edify him. It doesn’t take much. It doesn’t need to be the best sermon ever preached, or the most excellent song ever composed, or the most powerful book ever written, or the most theologically eloquent statement ever uttered. Just the simplest truth was enough to refresh his heart in Christ.”
And so may the Lord protect us from this worldly temptation. The Lord commanded his preachers to speak “as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). May we recognize that when we hear a sermon, the preacher carries the heavy load of speaking for Christ. This preacher may not have theological sophistication or public eloquence, but if he has the word of God and the Spirit of God, then may God give us ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to our church through him.
Satan plots and terrorizes to cause real harm. But even his evil schemes don’t fall outside God’s good designs to uphold and display the supremacy of Christ.
They got the foldaway crib.
Although not wealthy, they spared no expense for their soon-to-arrive little boy. Anticipation increased with every passing day. Would she be a good mother? Would he be the father he never had? With fixed smiles and sweaty hands, they counted down the days until heaven’s snowflake would fall into their arms.
Days before the due date, they received a call no one expected. She would have to give birth to a lifeless child.
Within 48 hours, we huddled into a chilled funeral home in the middle of a snowstorm. As the small shoebox-sized casket was brought out and placed before the congregation, wails, the kind a non-American might make, threatened to knock down the paper-thin walls. For his wife’s sake, the husband tried his best to keep some semblance of composure. The precipitation inside was more biting than the ice storm without.Miserable Comforter
“From the moment we buried our son that day,” the husband said in an expressionless tone a month later, “some of our friendships went down into the hole with him.” Things had changed. People did not know how to interact with them like before. Some gave them acres of space. Others raided their refrigerator magnets for platitudes to drop as they hurried past the uncomfortable scene. “We have never felt more alone than when we needed our friends the most,” he sighed.
They knew it wasn’t malicious. Many wanted to be helpful, but they also didn’t want to make their suffering worse by doing or saying the wrong thing. Serious injuries are attended by doctors, not civilians. They were not trained to handle such situations.
That is how I thought about it, at least. I struggled to know what to do. Should I bring it up and risk twisting the knife? Would their soul-wound heal better when left to itself? I had suffered, as we all must, but I never experienced this form of pain. What did I have to offer them? I couldn’t say I understood. I didn’t.Lies My Culture Told Me
Meanwhile, they kept grieving. She spiraled into depression. He didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I felt quite often like those “miserable comforters” who came to grieve with Job but left without helping (Job 16:2). I listened. I prayed. But it never felt like it was enough. Many visits seemed to fall flat. I wanted to help but didn’t know what to do.
Years later, I look back at that season with regret. I do so because I believed things about suffering that were harmful. With more cuts sustained, tears shed, and valleys travailed in my own life, coupled with the reading of a dear saint’s honest struggle with his wife’s death (A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis), I see more clearly now how unhelpful I, and many others, had been to those we so longed to uplift. Four lies, among others, maimed our usefulness to our friends in their time of need.1. Grieving Shouldn’t Last Long
Contra many of my assumptions, the grieving process typically doesn’t end with the funeral. Instead, it begins. As the grief prolonged with my friends, many hid their eyes and passed to the other side of the street. The longer they grieved, the more awkward it became. What Gary Collins observes about Western societies can creep into our churches all too easily:
There has tended to be an intolerance of prolonged grieving. [They] value efficiency and pragmatism, so death often is seen as an inconvenience, embarrassment, or interruption. Emotional expressions are not encouraged, and grief is viewed as something that, while inevitable, should end as quickly as possible. (Christian Counseling, 471)
At times, I felt like their grief was an inconvenience. We had the same conversation over and over, each one time-consuming. And to explain their prolonged grieving, I dressed my intolerance in religious garb: “If she were trusting Christ, she wouldn’t be so devastated.” “If they clung more deeply to the promises of God, they would be able to sleep at night.”
I did not know that grief was so impractical. It was less rational, less scheduled, less compliant. And this experience, despite what I assumed, was not abnormal. Job’s friends, when they were doing well, knew this. They did not expect Job to be on the up-and-up when they arrived. Instead, they just sat with their friend on the ground for an entire week, mourning with him in complete silence (Job 2:11–13).2. Recovery Should Be Linear
Grief, I witnessed, is not like recovering from a physical injury.
I broke my arm playing football in the seventh grade. It was grizzly. I didn’t notice I broke it at first, but everyone’s openmouthed stare made me look down. My arm was in the shape of a “Z.” Like this injury, and all others I sustained playing sports, I figured that you sustain the initial setback only to improve with every following day. Break it one day. Put it in a cast the next. And have a stronger arm a few months later.
Grief’s rehab is not as linear as a broken arm. To expect it to be suffocates the grieving process. My friends experienced grief that was cyclical. The initial pain sent new planes to raid them. Months later, at random times throughout the week, they would weep like it happened yesterday. After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis described it this way:
Tonight all the hells of young grief have opened again. . . . In grief nothing “stays put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. . . . How often . . . will vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realized my loss till this moment”? The same leg is cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again. (A Grief Observed, 56)
The same leg cut off afresh. The same arm broken continuously. Grief, a greedy, unpredictable guest, returns without knocking.3. They Always Want to Get Better
I couldn’t imagine a world in which my friends did not want to feel better. Why wouldn’t they try to do everything they could to end their pain?
Grief, I found out only later, can be a paradox. The grieving, like my friends, can both desire to be well and unwell simultaneously. The agony of staying in the grief is, in some cases, more preferable than the guilt experienced when leaving. Lewis called it shame.
There’s no denying that in some sense I “feel better,” and with that comes at once a sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one’s unhappiness. (53)
Many months later, when days were not as heavy as they once had been, the couple admitted feeling this remorse. Did you ever really love him? it questioned. Then how are you able to surmount the sorrow so quickly? Healing brought a paradox: guilt if you do, grieved if you don’t. Whether the knife stayed in or was pulled out, they sustained damage either way.4. The Bereft Have Plenty of Help
While this may be true in some cases, it is not in others. I assumed that since my friends had many others commenting condolences on their Facebook wall, a good portion of them would step up and help. This did not happen. Each, it seemed, assumed that another would go to their aid. When I would return two weeks later and hear that no one stopped by within that time, I realized different. Grief had grown, alone, in an empty home with the foldaway crib.
Lewis said he felt like a social leper when he lost his loved one.
I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll “say something about it” or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t. . . . I like best the well brought-up young men, almost boys, who walk up to me as if I were a dentist, turn very red, get it over, and then edge away to the bar as quickly as they decently can. Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers. (A Grief Observed, 10)
I wish I had been more consistent in my care and encouraged others who loved them to do the same.What We Can Offer the Grieving
I am not an expert on various forms of grief, and do not pretend to be. I am no certified biblical counselor. Much of what I know, I’ve learned from doing it wrong. But from my experience of trying to help the grieving that I cannot readily identify with, my only consistent thought is: Do not turn away from those who are grieving.
The non-neighbor looks at the wounded and bereaved, and crosses the street (Luke 10:29–37). He may reason to himself that he cannot identify with what it is like to be robbed and beaten, and besides, he is no professional doctor. He may even tell himself he is doing the man a favor by leaving him to the care of a more competent passerby.
Jesus calls more than the trained counselors to show compassion. And as we learn, that compassion might be costly (Luke 10:34–35). But as a recipient of God’s grace, we are all called, and equipped, to steward the comfort that we have received (2 Corinthians 1:3–7). The pastor should meet with his injured sheep, but so should the other sheep (Ephesians 4:11–12). I did things I wish I could change, but I do not regret prayerfully trying to help. And my grieving friends were gracious to receive my imperfect presence with encouragement, not disdain.
If you have nothing to say, sit in silence for seven days. You may not have answers, but you do have tears (Romans 12:15). You may not know the perfect verse to share, but you have the Author of the verses dwelling in you. Do not look away, or send away the bereft with mere words to be warmed and filled (James 2:16). Listen. Pray. Fast. Weep.
How do Christians know which Old Testament laws apply to them? Pastor John explains five ways Jesus shapes our approach to the Old Testament.
A child’s young life is filled with new experiences. There are those firsts, like the first taste of ice cream or the first sight of an ocean. There are special memories, like a fifth birthday or skating on a frozen lake. There are many new discoveries, like visiting the zoo or learning how to read.
This fleeting season is like a passing breeze in the evening compared to the rest of a child’s life, but it is precious to form their young spirits. These weeks and months are rich with the potential for spiritual formation.
As a pastor for family discipleship and children’s ministries, I see how open children’s hearts often are, with a kind of eagerness to learn that is distinct to childhood. Our part as parents is to nurture their hearts toward Christ through prayer, God’s word, and patient love, while trusting the Spirit to minister to them as only he can. We cannot change our children’s hearts. But we can welcome the Spirit’s work as we join him in exalting the name of Jesus Christ in our homes.How God Moves Before Conversion
Picture five draft horses harnessed together, steadily pulling a plow. Those five strong horses represent five graces that I have seen the Spirit often use to draw souls to Jesus. When applied to children, these graces can patiently nurture and till the soil of a child’s heart, even before regeneration. I have given these five graces names: drawing grace, leading grace, understanding grace, displaying grace, and paying-attention grace. Each grace has a distinct theme, with some overlap, and each is filled with extraordinary potential.Drawing Grace
Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. . . . It is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:44, 63). The theme of drawing grace is life in Jesus. What are the various ways the Spirit may draw, one step at a time, a young soul closer to Christ?
Every moment of a child’s life, every situation and relationship, can become a place where the Spirit is moving. He does not wait to tend to a heart at the point of regeneration. Consider the following as examples of the countless ways he uses “the normal” in our children’s lives:
- A mother’s song overheard by a child in the womb
- A warm embrace by dad as he prays a blessing on a second birthday
- Overheard confession and forgiveness between a mom and a dad
- The winsome heralding of a preacher on Sunday morning
- Simple prayers offered by grandparents over their grandchildren
- A kind word from a Sunday school teacher
The Spirit is often on the move in the normal routines of a child’s life, even before regeneration. We have the privilege of being alert to this daily Spirit-wrought work, which will lead us to join Paul in learning to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Drawing grace calls us to live and pray by the Spirit in the familiar and mundane.Leading Grace
Paul says, “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).
The theme of leading grace is the kindness of God — kindness that is intended to bring the gift of repentance (2 Timothy 2:25). Let us ask the Father in Jesus’s name for such a gift, and then with his help guide our children in a way that is in step with his leading.
As we lead our children with kindness, especially during moments of merciful correction, we can cultivate the spiritual formation of our children before regeneration. May we see discipline through this lens and foster a home environment of kindness, patience, and love.Understanding Grace
Again, Paul writes,
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. . . . The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:12, 14)
The theme of understanding grace is teaching our children the Bible and praying for the Spirit to press down God’s word into their hearts and minds — especially the great truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We can get children to speak and repeat truth, which is good, but only the Spirit can transform our children to trust truth and love truth — to trust and love Truth himself. So, we teach children the Bible patiently and prayerfully.Displaying Grace
Displaying grace revels in beholding the patience of Christ toward sinners. Paul writes, “I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).
Paul’s use of the word were emphasizes the pre-regenerating work of the Spirit. Paul received mercy so that future believers would see that mercy and then go on to receive mercy. How we as parents, grandparents, and fruit-bearing servants among children should love this special grace!
As Paul personally recounts God’s mercy upon him in Christ, his heart overflows: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17). Displaying grace especially works through parents who are being recaptured by the wonder of this good news by rehearsing it and calling it to mind. As they do, they will sing not only with their voices but with the countenance of their hearts while young ears listen in and young eyes watch. As our children see God’s mercy displayed in us, the Spirit can stir up in them a yearning to receive the same mercy.Paying-Attention Grace
Luke writes, “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14).
This is the climactic grace, the grace which all the previous heart-cultivating graces have been striving for. In a moment, the Spirit finally opens the hearts of our children to pay attention to the gospel in a different way than they have previously — and there is life.
Some moments create a special opportunity for God to give this paying-attention grace. We don’t put all of our hope in these specific moments, and with God’s help we will not despair when these do not turn out as we hoped, but it seems fitting to consider them from time to time. Times that may stir up this kind of conversation include:
- A Good Friday or Resurrection Sunday service
- A funeral or memorial service
- Christmas morning
- An unexpected moment of fear or suffering, such as an accident or the diagnosis of cancer
- A memorable sermon on a normal Sunday
- A family worship time that is particularly moving
Consider how to make the most of whatever special markers God by his providence has provided you. They truly are gifts.Show Them Christ
We can ask God for help to be alert to what the Spirit is doing in our children’s lives, and be on the lookout for those five horses tilling the soil of the hearts of our children and grandchildren.
Maybe you’re thinking, “I haven’t seen any of these graces in my son or daughter,” and your heart is heavy. Perhaps you have a child who is already 10, or 25. What would I say to you?
First, I would remind you that Jesus is moved by your hurting heart, and your Father knows your cries even before you pray them (Matthew 6:8). Consider Psalm 94:19: “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.”
Second, remember that the best of parents cannot make one soul live. This is not a responsibility designed for us. It is easier for parents of the 10-year-old to fall into this trap, so let us learn from the parents of the 25-year-old. It is likely that these parents have learned their inability to give spiritual life. We will find freedom when we yield to the Spirit the work that he alone can do.
Third, keep praying to the Father in Jesus’s name, and hope through tears. Whether it’s a 10-year-old or a 25-year-old, love them during this season in obvious ways, and patiently keep pointing them to Christ, who is supreme in love.
Point on, dear friends, with a loving tone in your parenting and a hopeful heart in your God.
Did you love the Lord your God with all your heart yesterday?
Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). All. Those simple three letters are both haunting and inspiring. They are haunting because the standard is so impossibly high. We haven’t loved anything with all our hearts before, at least not for long. We know our sin so well, remembering the moments we were selfish or impatient or lazy or indifferent. This side of heaven, could any of us ever love God with all our heart?
But all is not only a standard for those who truly love him. All is a promise. If we truly love God, we already have received the decisive heart transplant we need (Ezekiel 36:26) — our dead, loveless heart exchanged for a living heart wholly open to God, a heart in love with God. And any real love that God has begun in us, God himself will bring to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).
Soon enough, we will love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength — no wandering desires to deny, no lingering limitations to overcome, no recurring temptations to refuse, no weight of weaknesses to carry anymore. When we see him, we will love him like we’ve never been able to love him before.
And yet we already are able to love him with a wholeness of heart even today. Our love for him is imperfect and incomplete, but it is real. We’re not left here to follow him with half a heart.Unite My Heart for You
Our love for God, however full and strong, amounts to only a faint shadow of God’s love for us. If he says to his people Israel, “I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul” (Jeremiah 32:41), how much more, then, does he rejoice to love us in Christ. And not just with a generous portion of his heart. No, he loves all he loves with all his heart.
None of us loves God with all our hearts now, no not one. So, we pray. We know our own love enough to feel the impossibility of loving with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths. If we think we have or do, we deceive ourselves (1 John 1:8). Sin will surface again and again, fractioning off pieces of our hearts to be confessed, healed, and restored. We know we need to give God more of our hearts.
Whole-hearted love for God on this side of heaven does not mean perfection, but singular and dependent devotion. We experience it now with God’s help and our new hearts, and we wait for the day when our love becomes all once for all. Until then we pray, “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name” (Psalms 86:11). If you have felt half-hearted at times in your pursuit of God, consider praying these six prayers with me.1. Help me pray with all my heart.
With my whole heart I cry; answer me, O Lord! (Psalms 119:145)
Many of us feel our half-heartedness in prayer more than anywhere else. When we sit alone with God, our heart comes out of the shadows into fuller light. We see more clearly where we are prone to reach for rest and comfort and happiness. As our thoughts wander, we witness how divided our hearts really are. We are speaking with the one who formed our mouths, and yet we often treat him like an operator — a forgotten someone on our path to someone else.
As God completes our love for him, he focuses our attention on him, especially in prayer. Our joys, sorrows, and anxieties in life are less likely to draw our eyes away from him, and instead drive us to him (Philippians 4:6).
Lord, when we pray, let us not be like the wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. Blow away the distractions, and help us pray with all our hearts.2. Help me seek you with all my heart.
“You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13)
Without blatantly avoiding, ignoring, or despising God, even our seeking can be half-hearted. We exchange his words of truth for images on our screens. We pray the same rut-prayers. We hold off pursuing him until next Sunday morning.
When we truly love God, however, all of our lives are flavored and increasingly purified by one passion: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Psalms 27:4). David asks God for a hundred different things in the psalms, but he is able to say he’s only asked for one thing — the thing above all things — to see and enjoy God and his glory.
Lord, our passion for you too often flags, leaving us complacent and lethargic in our walk with you. Light a relentless fire in us for you. Let us pursue you morning, noon, and night with all our hearts.3. Help me repent with all my heart.
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” (Joel 2:12)
If we are sheepish when we confess our sins and ask God for forgiveness, we have failed to grasp the love of God held out in the gospel. He doesn’t leave us wondering how he will deal with our sin: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Therefore, his word says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy” (Hebrews 4:16).
Prayers of repentance are war cries against evil: “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light” (Micah 7:8–9). True contrition is not shy or weak. We have seen enough of God’s grace to come confidently, confessing our failures with undivided hearts.
Lord, when we realize we have offended you, let us come boldly before you — not hiding, or making excuses, but throwing ourselves into your light with all our hearts.4. Help me obey with all my heart.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. (Psalms 119:34)
We can learn to do what is right because we know it’s right, or because we know there will be consequences — relational, financial, even spiritual consequences. King Amaziah, for example, “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, yet not with a whole heart” (2 Chronicles 25:2). But reluctant or fearful obedience is half-hearted obedience (at best). God does not want us to obey simply because he says so, or because we’re afraid of what might happen if we don’t. He wants us to obey because we want to obey — from the heart.
God delights in men and women whose delight is his law (Psalm 1:1–2). Obedience is often hard, but he wants us to obey, not against our will, but because our will is increasingly conformed to his (2 Corinthians 3:18). We plead for grace “to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all [our heart] and with all [our soul]” (Joshua 22:5).
Lord, there are many good reasons to obey you, but only one that ultimately matters: our passion for your glory. Inflame a burning in us for obedience, so that we follow your word with all our hearts.5. Help me trust you with all my heart.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5)
As formidable challenges rise, crippling trials fall, and daunting decisions come, our trust in God often wavers. We may begin to wonder, deep down, whether he is trustworthy — whether he will do what he says. When we stare into our trouble, we can be tempted to turn to ourselves. Tragically, we often trust ourselves more than God precisely in the moments we need him most.
“Some trust in chariots and some in horses,” — and some trust in themselves — “but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalms 20:7). Like King David, we will cling to God, his word, and his will for us. He said, “I hear the whispering of many — terror on every side! — as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life. But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand” (Psalms 31:13–15).
Lord, our temptation will be to trust you with only half our hearts. Let us leap with both feet into your hands of mercy. When we don’t know what to do or what might come, help us set our eyes on you with all our hearts.6. Help me enjoy you with all my heart.
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! (Zephaniah 3:14)
When God opened all of our hearts to himself, he opened all of our hearts to real and lasting happiness. He didn’t merely open our hearts to pray, or repent, or obey, but to enjoy him with all our hearts. When we’re experiencing less than fullness of joy, it’s not because God is holding back. It’s because we are.
Jesus did say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Matthew 22:37) — not merely allegiance or obedience, but affection and devotion and joy. Love. If we find that we’re half-hearted in our walk with Jesus, the most likely diagnosis is that we’ve surrendered the joy we once had in him. We’ve allowed some other good to dilute and divide our hearts. At some point, he became one of many loves instead of our “one thing.” If so, he calls again, even today, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart” — in me.
Lord, our love for you will falter whenever we seek our joy elsewhere apart from you. Cause our love to grow stronger and fuller by sending our joy in you soaring ever higher — by helping us enjoy you with all our hearts.
God’s main concern isn’t that you do things for him, but that you delight in him. Delight should fuel our doing, not doing our delight.
Has there ever been greater pressure not to pray?
Not just in private but even in church life, the pressure not to pray is approaching fever pitch. We’re all watching the clock. Our overbusy, overcommitted lives pressure us to get down to business in our Sunday services and gatherings, in our leadership meetings and small groups. When do we linger together in God’s presence? Do we ever wait together for him to work?What Do We Do Next?
Inauspiciously, a prayer meeting in Antioch in Acts 13:1–3 became one of the most important moments in the history of the world. With their prayers and fasting, the church leaders said, God, we want your provision, not our small plans. We want your abundance, not our small-mindedness. We want more than we know how to ask, more than we can think, more than we could expect, more than we can dream. We want you, God. We’re not satisfied with abilities and experience and what we can plan on our own and do apart from you. We want you and your leading. We don’t want to lean on our own understanding.
The church had been founded by nameless Christians who ventured to share the gospel with Greek speakers (Acts 11:20). Mass conversions followed (Acts 11:21, 24), the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to help with the pandemonium, and soon he needed help from Paul (Acts 11:25–26). “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people” (Acts 11:26). The movement became so vibrant that others took notice and gave it a name. Here in Antioch “the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26).
In fact, fed by Paul’s and Barnabas’s teaching, these Christians soon become healthy enough to think beyond their own locale. They hear a famine is coming and “send relief to the brothers living in Judea . . . sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:29–30). Not only are they healthy enough to care for others, but they have become secure enough to release their grip on Barnabas and Saul. Once Barnabas and Saul return after completing their journey (Acts 12:25), the leaders begin to ask, “Now what?” Antioch is thriving as a light to the Gentiles. Antioch now has an embarrassment of riches in its leaders, and then two great leaders return. They wonder, “What do we do now?”Why Did They Fast?
What might we do today at a juncture like this? Perhaps form a planning committee or bring in a consultant. Get our best minds in a room and come up with a plan. But what do we find them doing in Antioch? “They were worshiping the Lord and fasting” (Acts 13:2).
The Holy Spirit is about to speak to them, and when he does, it’s not because they were carrying out their normal routine. They were fasting for a particular reason. Godly fasting always has a purpose. They were seeking God in special measure. Fasting is an unusual measure, expressing special need for God. You don’t “fast” by accident or without purpose. That’s just called going hunger. Fasting has a purpose.
What was the reason in Acts 13? What we know from verse 1 is that this church has a wealth of leaders, in general (“prophets and teachers”) and by name (“Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul”). And they already have a record of leaving home to help other cities (Acts 11:29–30). Perhaps these leaders sense the imbalance between the riches of the teaching they enjoy in Antioch and the paucity of able leadership elsewhere. They want to share the wealth.
So, they worship and fast, to seek God’s direction at this critical moment. They say, in effect, we will not be content with our own planning and what we can dream up on our own. We want more than we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). We want direction from God almighty, who makes foolish the wisdom of the world (1 Corinthians 1:20). We want guidance from the God who guides heaven’s armies. We want counsel from the one whom none can counsel (Romans 11:34).
Instead of simply strategizing with their own common sense and doing the next thing in their own strength, they worship and fast and wait for God to direct them. They embrace the glorious inefficiency of prayer in pursuit of heavenly effectiveness.Earthly Inefficient, Heavenly Effective
From an earthly perspective, and especially through modern eyes, this seems like such an inefficient way to lead. Instead of consulting conventional wisdom, crafting plans, and acting on them, the teachers in Antioch wait on God. Waiting with worship. Waiting with fasting. Waiting with prayer. Wasting time from a human standpoint. How inefficient to linger in prayer when there’s so much planning and work to do!
Unless God is on his throne. Unless he hears. Unless he cares. Unless he stands ready to lead and guide and empower his church by his Spirit through the glorious inefficiency of prayer. They sought God’s leading in Antioch, and he answered. “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the (missionary) work to which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2). And the glorious inefficiency of prayer again proved gloriously effective. God changed the course of history as he directed them.Why Teachers Lead the Church
The call to embrace the glorious inefficiency of prayer lands especially on the leaders of the church, as it did at Antioch. Christ calls his undershepherds to lead his church not in the most efficient manner possible, but with heavenly effectiveness — which makes teaching (hearing from God) and prayer (waiting on him) not just wise but essential, however inefficient they may feel.
This commission, among others, makes the church fundamentally different than most other organizations in society. God puts a plurality of teachers in charge of his church. Not administrators. Not sergeants. Not polished executives. He chooses teachers — often idealistic, often impractical, often inefficient by corporate standards. They are called “elders” at times (Acts 20:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1), “overseers” at others (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:1; Titus 1:7), and even “pastor-teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). And God also gave a second office called “deacon” (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8–13), for qualified men to help the often inefficient pastor-teachers get things done. The leading office in the church, however, is the gloriously inefficient teachers, not the practically savvy administrators.God Gives Breakthroughs
This is God’s design for his church. His calling on his “prophets and teachers” (Acts 13:1), and every breathing member of his body, to prioritize heavenly effectiveness over earthly efficiency. And heavenly effectiveness often makes the world’s organizational wisdom look foolish (1 Corinthians 1:18–31). But God gives his church pastor-teachers to remember, and congregants to remind them, that God can do more in five seconds than we could have done in five years. As one veteran pastor says so well,
Life has many dungeon cells, and stone walls, to hinder our joy and fruitfulness. Some of them are meant to fall down in five years. Others in five seconds. Whether it is the patient endurance to press on with joy, or the breakthrough in the twinkling of an eye, God has appointed prayer as the key. (John Piper, “What God Can Do in Five Seconds”)
Which doesn’t excuse the failure to plan with diligence, wrack our brains for ideas and strategies, give ourselves to vigorous discussion and argument, and labor faithfully. But it does mean that the church proceeds differently than the world. We worship and fast and pray. We plead, like Moses, to God, “Unless your presence goes with us, do not bring us up from here” (see Exodus 33:15). We do indeed get up off our knees and work in the strength God supplies (1 Peter 4:11). But first we make sure we have been to our knees.
When God consistently answers prayers with “no,” many of us wonder if our faith is the problem. So what role does faith play in unanswered prayers?
When John Piper needed to capture a generation of joy in one final sermon series, he turned to ten trademark truths to leave ringing in his people’s ears.
At the heart of saving faith is a love for God. But how can you know if you truly love him?
When I was sixty-four years old, I took a ten-month leave of absence from my pastoral ministry. The primary reason that I gave to the leaders and to the congregation was that I wanted to step back and do a soul check.
I wondered if the pressures of ministry might be blinding me to the state of my own soul as it related to worship and family and marriage and personal holiness. There was no great marriage crisis. I was not walking in any ministry-disqualifying sin, as far as I knew myself. But the stresses of family and marriage and ministry were enough to make me think that I should temporarily remove the pressure (and rewards) of preaching, and leading the staff, and all writing and social media.
During those ten months, part of my goal was to have the time and emotional energy and relational engagement with my wife so as to be as penetrating and as specific as I could be in identifying and addressing my most besetting sins, especially as they related to our relationship. What follows is a very abbreviated summary of what happened.Putting Crosshairs on Besetting Sins
As I tried to be very specific in identifying my characteristic sins, it became evident what they were — namely, an ugly cluster of selfishness, anger, self-pity, quickness to blame, and sullenness.
Under the Bible’s Spirit-given searchlight — especially Paul’s — I was led not only to identify these five sins, but also to be ruthlessly specific in describing them. Here’s a description of my understanding and experience of selfishness.
Selfishness is virtually the same as pride and is at the heart of what Paul calls indwelling sin (Romans 7:23) — sin that remains in me as a believer. It is the corruption of my heart that is at the bottom of all my sinning. I see my selfishness function as a reflex in these five ways:
- I expect to be served (Philippians 2:2–3).
- I feel that I am owed (Ephesians 4:32).
- I want praise (Romans 2:29).
- I expect that things will go my way (1 Corinthians 4:12–13).
- I feel that I have the right to react negatively to being crossed (Romans 12:19–21).
The reason I use the word reflex to describe these traits of selfishness is that there is zero premeditation before they happen. When these responses happen, they are coming from my fallen nature, not from reflection and resolution. I don’t sin out of duty. I sin spontaneously. They are the reflexes of my original, unmortified sinfulness.Children of Selfishness
Now, what happens inside of me when this selfishness is crossed? Can I name these effects and describe them specifically and explicitly? Vague generalizations are usually evasions. Paul was teaching me that I must be specific. Here are the four effects of my selfishness being crossed:
- Anger: the strong emotional opposition to the obstacle in my way. I tighten up and want to strike out verbally or physically.
- Self-pity: a desire that others feel my woundedness, and admire me for my being mistreated, and move to show me some sympathy.
- Quickness to blame: a reflex to attribute to others the cause of my frustrating situation. Others can feel it in a tone of voice, a look on the face, a sideways query, or an outright accusation.
- Sullenness: the sinking discouragement, moodiness, hopelessness, unresponsiveness, withdrawn deadness of emotion.
And of course, the effect on marriage is that my wife feels blamed and disapproved of, rather than cherished and cared for. Tender emotions shrivel. Hope is depleted. Strength to carry on in the hardships of ministry wanes. And worst of all, these sins, as Paul makes clear, are “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14) — not “worthy of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).Canceled, Then Killed
During these months of self-assessment, Paul made crystal clear for me the connection between Christ’s cancelation of my sins on the cross and my conscious, willed conquering of my sins through blood-bought, Spirit-empowered effort. In other words, he blasted the pattern of passivity that I had developed in relation to these sins. He forced into my face the biblical reality that canceled sins must be killed, not coddled.
He showed me, for example, an important inconsistency I was living in. On the one hand, I believed in, and acted on, the necessity of my conscious effort in killing sexual lust. But I was more passive when it came to these ugly effects of selfishness. I had the unspoken assumption that lust must be attacked directly and consciously, since Jesus said to tear out your eye if you have to (Matthew 5:29). But for some reason, I assumed that I could not attack these besetting sins in the same way. They had to somehow dry up and disappear by an inner, unconscious work of the Spirit, without my effort.
It became increasingly clear during these ten months that the link between the cancelation of my sin on the cross and the conquering of my sin was sanctified effort. To be sure, the only effort that avails is blood-bought, Spirit-wrought effort. But it is, nevertheless, a conscious effort of my will. Passivity in the pursuit of holiness is not what Paul teaches. Paul piles up illustrations of how this works. I look back now and wonder: How had I become so passive?Three of Paul’s Pictures
Here are three of Paul’s pictures of how the death of Christ cancels my sin and leads to effort.
1. In the death of Christ, we died to sin. Therefore, actively put sin to death.
We have been united with him in a death like his. (Romans 6:5)
You also must consider yourselves dead to sin. (Romans 6:11)
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body. (Romans 6:12)
2. In the death of Christ, we were bought. Therefore, actively glorify your new owner.
You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. (1 Corinthians 6:19–20)
Glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:20)
3. In the death of Christ, we were forgiven. Therefore, forgive.
God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another. (Ephesians 4:32)My Empowered Will
In every case, the decisive impulse for my active effort in pursuing holiness — my active sin-killing — is the death of Christ. This means that the decisive power for conquering my besetting sins is the reality that Christ already canceled them. The only sins that I can defeat are forgiven sins.
But here’s what I had been missing: in each of these three cases, the link between the cross and my conquered sin is my empowered will. I say that because, in each of these three cases, Paul makes the statement of my death, my purchase, and my forgiveness the cause of a command addressed to my will. “Let not sin . . . reign in your mortal body.” “Glorify God in your body.” “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” Those commands are addressed to me. They engage my will.
In other words, God intends that part of my experience of sanctification be conscious, willed opposition to specific sins in my life. I had applied that to lust. But for some reason, I had failed to apply the same brutal intentionality of sin-killing to my selfishness, anger, self-pity, quickness to blame, and sullenness.War on a Winter Night
The overall effect of these discoveries was a new and focused attack on specific sins, with a kind of intentionality I had never exercised before, except in fighting sexual lust. When I came back to the church from this ten-month leave, I spoke about all this in a chapel message at Bethlehem College & Seminary and used the following illustration to help them understand what I was learning.
On a recent Sunday evening, it was cozy and snowy, and my wife and daughter and I were home alone. I was looking forward to something we would all do together. But my fourteen-year-old daughter came in from the dining room and said, “Mommy and I are going to watch Supernanny on the computer.” They set it up and started watching — without me.
Now, as insignificant as this incident seems, in that moment the temptation for selfishness, anger, self-pity, blaming, and sullenness was as dangerous to my soul as any sexual temptation. So, with new intentionality and ruthlessness, I immediately said to those rising sinful feelings, No! — not out loud, but to my sinful soul. Then I quietly went upstairs, consciously renouncing any body language of woundedness (though I was feeling it).
In my study, I waged war. Effort! I turned my mind and heart toward the promises of God, and the surety of the cross, and the love of the Father, and the wealth of my inheritance in Christ, and the blessings of that Lord’s Day, and the patience of Jesus. And I held them there in my mind where I could see them.
I cried to the Lord for blood-bought help, and I consciously, intentionally (not passively!) beat down the anger and self-pity and blaming and sullenness, as utterly out of character with who I am in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 5:7). And I kept beating until they were effectively dead.Better Days Ahead
I freely admit that it would be far better — a sign of greater maturity and sanctification — if there did not have to be any war at all, if I had never felt these sinful feelings rising in my heart. That will come.
But until then, I thank God that he cancels sin at the cross, that he breaks the power of canceled sin, and that he does it sometimes through my Spirit-empowered will that fights with all its might.
The idea was so simple it almost doesn’t count as one. Let’s eat God’s word. Together. At a fast but reasonable pace. Let’s encourage one another to get over whatever obstacles stopped us in the past. We want to become women of his word, not women who dabble in it occasionally.
Last fall, we settled on a pace of six chapters a day — some Old Testament and some New Testament, pairing books like Leviticus and Hebrews together, and matching psalms we could to the historic context in which they were written. We wrote catch-up days into the plan (because we have regular lives with regular interruptions). We would get through the whole Bible in the academic year with around 20–30 minutes of reading each day and none on Sundays.
We prayed that God would use our plan to ignite a love of his word in other women too. The project has grown beyond all of our ideas — spreading quickly far beyond our own community and even into other languages. Thousands of women have joined in over the last year. We like to say we are a theologically diverse group, but literally on the same page.Time to Eat
We need God’s word more than we need food. We are strengthened by it. We are equipped for every good work through it. We can trust that where God sends out his word in our lives, it will not return to him void. It will accomplish the thing for which he sent it.
We’ve simply come to feast. We have all been invited. There is a place prepared by a loving Father for each of us. The food is abundant, endless, nourishing, restoring, perfect, and occasionally confusing. The task is simple. Eat it. Be filled. Do it again. Do it forever. Enjoy the bounty before you — enjoy what your Father has done for you and said to you. Trust the Master of this feast, and enjoy the table fellowship.
But many of us are not in our chairs. We’re under the tables, scavenging for crumbs dropped by the “good eaters” at the table — famous bloggers, Christian teachers, great preachers. We can find enough crumbs at their feet to survive, maybe even live well, but we wouldn’t be obeying God. There is a place with your name on it, a book for you to eat. Get up and eat. Do not be satisfied with crumbs, because your Father is not satisfied with that for you.Why We Don’t Read
Many Christians are not eating at all. They are busy. They don’t have a quiet life. Often they are not eating simply because they are on a streak of not eating and breaking it seems hypocritical. I cannot eat dinner when I did not have breakfast or lunch! Many Christians quit reading their Bible when they feel like they have failed in some way.
Lost track, fell behind in a plan, didn’t understand, not good enough, forgot. Better wait for a new year, and try to be a better person then. Whatever reason you have, it isn’t good enough. Lay down your pride, and take up your fork. This is the continuing feast. The feast you should never leave, and that is yours to enjoy forever. You are never behind if you are eating today.
Others think you have not taken a bite unless you understand everything about it. As though the word of God is only powerful when we have weighed and measured it, attempted to label all the ingredients, taken voluminous notes, and gone to several lectures about it. We don’t approach this meal that way. There is a time for food science, but it is not at the dinner party. This is our time to simply eat.
Still others have been persuaded that the only way to eat is first thing in the morning in silence. They will not eat unless conditions are perfect, and conditions in this life are rarely perfect. But we always need to eat. We need to learn to take bites with crazy background noise, a squirming baby on our lap, and raucous laughter at the table.Learn to Eat
It isn’t complicated, but it can be hard. We all face resistance from three directions. The world distracts, the flesh is weak, and the devil accuses. “Do anything but eat!” says the world. “Do something easier! Try Netflix!” says the flesh. “You aren’t good enough anyways and will never succeed! Just remember last time you tried,” says the devil.
Your answer to all three should simply be, “Watch me eat.” We are a scrappy group. We listen on our phones, jump in on the current day’s reading when we get behind, read while standing at the stove making dinner or while nursing babies. We encourage one another to confess sin but despise lingering guilt. When we don’t understand what we read, we do not worry about — we will be back soon.
The Bible Reading Challenge is a movement of thousands of hungry women enjoying God’s word together. The challenge begins tomorrow, September 11, and runs through the school year. If you are ready to eat, you can learn more information or download the reading plan.
What we are becoming through the grace of God is an enormous party. Women laughing together, eating together, rejoicing in our God together. Cheering when our favorite courses come in again, and rejoicing with one another as we see the results of this perfect food in our lives. This past year we celebrated with many women as they read their whole Bible for the first time, some of them thirty or forty years into their Christian walk. It was time to learn to eat.
Is it your time to learn? Whatever strategy or plan you choose, find a couple women and decide together that you will refuse not to read the Bible this year.
Jesus isn’t just a ticket out of hell and into heaven. He is heaven.