Saying no to lust is not enough. We must turn to a superior pleasure — the everlasting pleasure of knowing our God.
“If one more person tells me to drink apple cider vinegar, I’m gonna lose it.”
I chuckled at first, but his hardened expression silenced me. He leaned forward with his tremulous hands against the hospital tray table, his face contorted in frustration.
“I’m serious,” he said. “I think people don’t know what to say, and they’re trying to help. But comments like that make things worse. Apple cider vinegar isn’t going to cure this.” With a sweep of his hand, he gestured to the oxygen tank, the silicone tubing snaking from his nose, and the inhalers piled atop his tray table.
His wheezing worsened. His air passages, inflamed and scarred with disease, seemed to tighten with each breath.
Apple cider vinegar wouldn’t fix this.Ministering to the Sick
Ministering to the ill allows us to love our neighbors during their moments of deep suffering and, in so doing, to reflect God’s mercy (Mark 12:31; James 5:13–15). Despite all its modern trappings, hospital ministry hearkens back to Jesus’s walks among wayward multitudes, when his touch and prayers healed lifelong afflictions (Matthew 8:2–3, 14–15; 9:20–25; 14:35–36; Luke 4:40; 6:18–19). When practiced with grace, such visits offer beautiful opportunities for Christian discipleship.
Unfortunately, too often awkwardness subverts our efforts to help the sick. To see someone we love struggling shakes our composure. Medical gadgetry seems foreign, and glimpses of mortality unnerve us. In our unease, and in desperation to fix the situation, we may fill the silence with advice or platitudes that discourage those whom we seek to uplift.
As both a physician and a friend, I’ve failed miserably in this arena, often saying the wrong thing and witnessing the unhappy effect. Open dialogue with those who bore with me has revealed points to remember. When we lift away the bedside curtain, the following suggestions for what not to say may help to build up those we seek to love, rather than tear them down.1. “Do you know what you should do? You should try . . .”
A visit to a friend in the hospital is not the right time to recommend therapies you’ve learned about on Pinterest, or from your cousin, thrice removed. Hospitalization implies complicated illness and involves a constant barrage of monitoring, invasive tests, and a throng of healthcare professionals. Most people feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and scared in this environment, and to suggest a homegrown or over-the-counter remedy as the answer can be demeaning. Leave the apple cider vinegar at home.2. “Don’t worry. You’re going to be just fine.”
Unless you have in-depth clinical knowledge about your friend’s situation, don’t promise that everything will be fine. The truth is that, despite our fervent prayers, things may not be fine, and insisting otherwise denies people permission to voice their fears. When a friend is dealing with a real threat to life, empty promises of recovery can downplay her concerns, abandoning her to manage her troubling thoughts alone.
Likewise, avoid militaristic euphemisms, like, “Fight the good fight.” Overcoming illness often depends on influences beyond our control, rather than on sheer tenacity. Physiology and rogue cells, not personality traits, determine disease trajectory, and when we misrepresent recovery as a matter of will, we equate worsening disease with personal failure.3. “I know how you feel.”
Even if you’ve suffered from a similar medical condition, don’t presume to know exactly how your friend feels. Illness narratives are not universal. The experience with a given disease differs between individuals, with temperament, values, fears, and past experiences all exerting influence. Instead of assuring a friend of your understanding, ask how he feels. Listen and empathize. Let the focus be on your friend, not on you.4. “Let me know if I can help in any way.”
This seems like a benign, and perhaps even helpful, statement at first glance. But danger lurks in the phrasing. First of all, it rings insincere. Secondly, it demands that an ailing and already overwhelmed friend determine how you can be useful.
Those hospitalized do need help. They need fellowship, and reminders that their disease does not define them. They need people to manage the mundane responsibilities of life that stumble onward while they lie stranded at the hospital — the accumulating bills, the empty pet dishes, the garden wilting in the backyard.
But the burden for delegating help should not fall upon the one suffering in the hospital. Don’t ask a friend to contact you if needed. Think of what she might need, take initiative, and volunteer. Better yet, be the kind of friend for whom barriers to asking don’t exist.5. “You look great/terrible!”
Comments on appearance reflect our own preconceived notions, rather than a sick friend’s progress. In the best-case scenario, they offer little solace, and in the worst, they denigrate. Whatever the angle, talking about physical appearance may dissuade a friend from telling you how he’s actually doing. Looking great and feeling great are separate entities.Six Ways You Can Help
Those struggling with illness desperately need reminders of God’s grace. Listening and hearing, rather than opining and speaking, are more effective tools for witnessing the gospel in the hospital setting. The following lessons have helped guide me beside hospital beds.1. Pray.
Cover your sick friend with prayer. Pray with him. Pray for him. Assure him that you regularly lift him up to our risen Lord, who makes all things new.2. Practice the ministry of presence.
On some days, a friend may need to work out her worries with you. On others, she may simply appreciate a companion to sit beside her as she watches television. In all cases, aim to follow her lead and to support, rather than to fix. Be available, listen to what she says, and offer sympathy. Be with her because you love her for the unique, wonderfully-made image-bearer God fashioned her to be. Treat her as a sister in Christ, rather than as a project.3. Be mindful of his needs above yours.
Struggling with illness is exhausting. Don’t visit unless your friend has confirmed he wants company. Pay attention to nonverbal cues, and make an exit when he appears weary. Ask him what is helpful and what isn’t. Invite him to tell you when to leave. Above all, listen to his needs. Empathize, then listen some more. Let him direct the tenor of the visit.4. Infuse God’s word into visits.
When selected carefully, Scripture can buoy those sinking into despair. Psalms and hymns wield restorative power. This is not the time for lengthy exegesis and Bible study, but short passages that highlight God’s grace and our hope in Christ can uplift a friend in a hospital gown.5. Leave when the doctor arrives.
Unless she explicitly asks you to stay, excuse yourself from the room when your friend’s physician arrives. The daily fodder of medical practice involves sensitive and private questions, and she may feel uncomfortable answering in your presence. Visiting does not grant you privileges of next of kin. Respect her privacy.6. Reaffirm your friend’s identity in Christ.
Don’t let illness subsume your friend’s identity. Treat her as you always did before she fell ill. Joke with her as you always would. Discuss mutual friends, favorite memories — the ordinary stuff of life. Never speak to her as though illness has changed who she is, but rather, reaffirm that through faith in Christ she is renewed. Remind her that she is blameless before, and treasured by, the Great Physician, who heals the world through his wounds.
In the gospel, God offers freedom from wrath and a right standing with him. But the greatest good is God himself.
Some of us stand on the shoulders of men who have stood on the shoulders of John Owen. J.I. Packer, Roger Nicole, and Sinclair Ferguson, for example, are three contemporary pillars in the house of my thinking, and each has testified publicly that John Owen is the most influential Christian writer in his life. That is amazing for a man who has been dead for over three hundred years, and who wrote in a style so difficult to read that even he saw his work as immensely demanding in his own generation.
In the preface to his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Owen does what no good marketing agent would allow today. He begins like this: “READER, . . . If thou art, as many in this pretending age, a sign or title gazer, and comest into books as Cato into the theatre, to go out again — thou hast had thy entertainment; farewell!”
Nevertheless, J.I. Packer and Roger Nicole and Sinclair Ferguson did not bid Owen farewell. They lingered. And they learned. And today all three of them say that no Christian writer has had a greater impact on them than John Owen.Making of a Puritan
Owen was born in England in 1616, the same year Shakespeare died and four years before the Pilgrims set sail for New England. This is virtually in the middle of the great Puritan century (roughly 1560 to 1660). Owen was born in the middle of this movement and became its greatest pastor-theologian, as the movement ended almost simultaneously with his death in 1683.
In 1642 the civil war began between Parliament and King Charles. Owen, a chaplain at the time, was sympathetic with Parliament against the king and Bishop Laud, and so he was pushed out of his chaplaincy and moved to London, where several major events happened in the next four years that stamped the rest of his life.1. Conversion
The first is his conversion — or possibly the awakening of the assurance of salvation and the deepening of his personal communion with God. Owen was a convinced Calvinist with large doctrinal knowledge, but he lacked the sense of the reality of his own salvation.
When Owen was 26 years old, he went with his cousin to hear the famous Presbyterian Edmund Calamy at St. Mary’s Church Aldermanbury. But it turned out Calamy could not preach, and a country preacher took his place. Owen’s cousin wanted to leave. But something held Owen to his seat. The simple preacher took as his text Matthew 8:26: “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” It was God’s appointed word and appointed time for Owen’s awakening.
His doubts and fears and worries as to whether he was truly born anew by the Holy Spirit were gone. He felt himself liberated and adopted as a Son of God. When you read the penetrating, practical works of Owen on the work of the Spirit and the nature of true communion with God, it is hard to doubt the reality of what God did on this Sunday in 1642.2. Marriage and Dying Children
The second crucial event in those early years in London was Owen’s marriage to a young woman named Mary Rooke. He was married to her for 31 years, from 1644 to 1675. We know virtually nothing about her. But we do know one absolutely stunning fact that must have colored all of Owen’s ministry for the rest of his life. We know that she bore him eleven children, and all but one died as a child, and the one daughter who survived childhood died as a young adult. That’s one child born and lost on average every three years of Owen’s adult life.
We don’t have one reference to Mary or to the children or to his pain in all his books. But just knowing that the man walked in the valley of the shadow of death most of his life gives me a clue to the depth of dealing with God that we find in his works. God has his strange and painful ways of making his ministers the kind of pastors and theologians he wants them to be.3. Political Beginnings
The third event of these early years in London was the invitation in 1646 to speak to the Parliament. In those days there were fast days during the year when the government asked certain pastors to preach to the House of Commons. It was a great honor. This message catapulted Owen into political affairs for the next fourteen years.
Not only that, Cromwell in 1651 appointed Owen to the deanship at Christ Church College in Oxford, and then the next year also made him the vice chancellor. He was involved with Oxford for nine years until 1660, when Charles II returned and things began to go very badly for the Puritans.Ever Studying, Ever Writing
In spite of all this administrative pressure and even hostility because of his commitment to godliness and to the Puritan cause, he was constantly studying and writing, probably late at night instead of sleeping. That’s how concerned he was with doctrinal faithfulness to Scripture.
During these administrative years, he wrote twenty-two published works, including Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656), Of Communion with God (1657), and Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It (1658). What is so remarkable about these books is that they are what I would call intensely personal and, in many places, very sweet. So he wasn’t just fighting doctrinal battles — he was fighting sin and temptation. And he wasn’t just fighting — he was fostering heartfelt communion with God.Fugitive Pastor to the End
Owen was relieved of his duties of the deanship in 1660 (having laid down the vice chancellorship in 1657). Cromwell had died in 1658. The monarchy with Charles II was back. The Act of Uniformity, which put two thousand Puritans out of their pulpits, was just around the corner (1662). The days ahead for Owen now were not the great political, academic days of the last fourteen years. He was now, from 1660 until his death in 1683, a kind of fugitive pastor in London.
Because of the political situation, he was not always able to stay in one place and be with his people, but he seemed to carry them on his heart even when he was moving around. Near the end of his life he wrote to his flock, “Although I am absent from you in body, I am in mind and affection and spirit present with you, and in your assemblies; for I hope you will be found my crown and rejoicing in the day of the Lord.”His Aim: Holiness
Let’s stand back now and try to get close to the heart of what made this man tick and what made him great. I think the words that come closest to giving us the heart and aim of his life are found in the preface to the little book Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers:
I hope I may own in sincerity that my heart’s desire unto God, and the chief design of my life . . . are, that mortification and universal holiness may be promoted in my own and in the hearts and ways of others, to the glory of God, that so the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things. (9)
Mortification means warfare on our own sin with a view to killing it. He paraphrased this truth in the memorable phrase, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
Owen’s personal holiness and public fruitfulness did not just happen to him. He pursued them. There were strategies of personal discipline and public authenticity that God used to make him what he was. In all our life and ministry, as we care for people and contend for the faith, we can learn much from Owen’s pursuit of holiness in private and public.He Communed with God
It is incredible that Owen was able, under the pressures of his life, to keep writing books that were both weighty and edifying. Andrew Thomson, one of his biographers, wrote,
It is interesting to find the ample evidence which [his work on Mortification] affords, that amid the din of theological controversy, the engrossing and perplexing activities of a high public station, and the chilling damps of a university, he was yet living near God, and like Jacob amid the stones of the wilderness, maintaining secret intercourse with the eternal and invisible. (Works of John Owen, I:lxiv–lxv)
Writing a letter during an illness in 1674, Owen said to a friend, “Christ is our best friend, and ere long will be our only friend. I pray God with all my heart that I may be weary of everything else but converse and communion with Him” (God’s Statesman, 153). God was using illness and all the other pressures of Owen’s life to drive him into communion with God and not away from it.He Believed, Then He Spoke
One great hindrance to holiness in the ministry of the word is that we are prone to preach and write without pressing into the things we say and making them real to our own souls. Over the years words begin to come easy, and we find we can speak of mysteries without standing in awe; we can speak of purity without feeling pure; we can speak of zeal without spiritual passion; we can speak of God’s holiness without trembling; we can speak of sin without sorrow; we can speak of heaven without eagerness. And the result is an increasing hardening of the spiritual life.
The conviction that controlled Owen in this was the following:
A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savory unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us. (Works of John Owen, XVI:76)
It was this conviction that sustained Owen in his immensely busy public life of controversy and conflict. Whenever he undertook to defend a truth, he sought first of all to take that truth deeply into his heart and gain a real spiritual experience of it so that there would be no artificiality in the debate and no mere posturing or gamesmanship.He Prepared to Meet Christ
The last thing Owen was doing, as the end of his life approached, was communing with Christ in a work that was later published as Meditations on the Glory of Christ. His friend William Payne was helping him edit the work. Near the end Owen said, “O, brother Payne, the long-wished for day is come at last, in which I shall see the glory in another manner than I have ever done or was capable of doing in this world” (God’s Statesman, 171).
John Owen contended for the fullness of biblical faith because he wanted generations after him to enjoy that same “long-wished for day” when we will see the glory of Christ “in another manner” than we have ever seen it here. He never made controversy, nor its victory, an end in itself. The end was to see Jesus Christ, be satisfied with him, and be transformed into his likeness.
Hand-lettered verses on Instagram may comfort and encourage us, but they will never suffice. We need more than devotional tidbits to survive.
Will you keep your faith in college? Odds are you won’t, at least according to Barna Research.
Barna estimates that roughly 70% of high school students who enter college as professing Christians will leave with little to no faith. These students usually don’t return to their faith even after graduation, as Barna projects that 80% of those reared in the church will be “disengaged” by the time they are 29.
Will you be one of the 80%? Will you abandon your faith when surrounded by peers who don’t know God? Most people assume their early faith will carry them through their lives. King Joash probably did. He began to reign at age 7 (2 Chronicles 24:1), and he “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord all the days of Jehoiada the priest” (2 Chronicles 24:2), King Joash’s mentor and most trusted advisor.
When Jehoiada was alive, Joash faithfully followed God’s laws and made sure others did as well. He even inspired others to give joyfully to God: “All the princes and all the people rejoiced and brought their tax and dropped it into the chest until they had finished” (2 Chronicles 24:10). Joash’s faith certainly seemed genuine.Far Too Easily Swayed
But when Jehoiada died, Joash turned to his peers. When the princes of Judah came to visit Joash soon after Jehoiada’s death, the king listened to them. After the princes “paid homage to the king” (2 Chronicles 24:17), which probably meant they flattered him, Joash abandoned the house of the Lord and turned to serve idols. These “friends” may have convinced him that they were open-minded and in touch with popular culture, and that Jehoiada had been too strict and old-fashioned. Joash listened to them and reversed all the good things he had done earlier, even murdering Jehoiada’s son Zechariah when he was questioned.
This behavior seems like a shocking turnaround, but it shows that King Joash had likely been trusting in Jehoiada and not God. His faith was not his own. Since he lacked personal conviction, he was easily swayed by faithless people around him. God judged him for his wickedness and he was soon murdered by his own servants. Joash shows us that it doesn’t matter how well we start in the Christian life; it matters how we finish.For Freshmen and Seniors
Many of us started strong. We assumed that if we were raised with the right values and involved in church, we would always stay faithful. I believed that. I had a passion for the Lord in high school and college, but as I immersed myself in my career, my church attendance became sporadic and my time with God infrequent and rushed.
I found that the less time I spent with the Lord, the less I wanted to know him. My unbelieving coworkers were my closest friends. Originally, I hoped to share my faith with them, but instead they passed on their spiritual indifference to me. They had a subtle but profound influence on my priorities. As my faith was getting watered down, reading the Bible and going to church felt more legalistic than life-giving. It was only when I faced real suffering that my faith became important again.
Whether you are a freshman or a senior, if you are heading off to college, you’re in a vulnerable place. It’s easy to assume you’ll develop better spiritual disciplines and get involved in Christian community later on. But as you juggle life’s challenges, it’s tempting to put off pursuing God until you feel more settled, unintentionally falling into the habits of lost people around you. The shift is gradual and often unnoticeable.Three Ways Not to Wander
So, what can you do, with God’s help, to be one of the 20% raised in the church who remain faithful through college and into their twenties?
First, don’t assume that you won’t drift away — or that if you do drift away, you will eventually come back. We are all vulnerable. Ask God daily for an enduring passion for him. Ask him to give you joy in him alone. Ask him right now to keep your heart from wandering.
Second, stay closely connected to God. It may sound trite, or even legalistic, but reading the Bible and praying really are the simple keys to the Christian life. As you read, focus and pay attention rather than mindlessly skimming words to “check off the box.” I love using a Bible reading plan because it takes the guesswork out of what to read each morning. I recommend the Discipleship Journal plan. If you’re reading the Bible regularly for the first time, begin by just reading the New Testament sections each day. Try reading with a pen and paper, jotting down insights, questions, and observations, asking God to open your eyes to see truth and to breathe life into his words (Psalm 119:18).
Third, find real Christian fellowship. Plug into a church and a small group or on-campus ministry. Intentionally make Christian friends and spend time with them. Having good Christian friends in college reduces the pressure to conform. The people around us influence us far more than we realize. King Joash is a vivid example of how easy it is to abandon your faith when surrounded by the wrong people.Makeshift Saints
Charles Spurgeon, a London preacher in the 1800s, once said,
Oh, what a sifter the city of London has been to many like Joash! Many do I remember whose story was like this: they had been to the house of God always . . . and everybody reckoned them to be Christians — and then they came to London. At first, they went . . . to some humble place where the gospel was preached.
But after time they thought . . . they worked so hard all the week that they must go out a little into the fresh air on Sunday; and by degrees they found companions who led them, little by little, from the path of integrity and chastity, until the “good young man” was as vile as any on the streets of London; and he who seemed to be a saint, became not only a sinner, but the maker of sinners.
None of us is immune from slowly drifting from God. As we see from King Joash’s life, even when we’ve lived an outwardly Christian life, it’s easy to start living like those around us. Yet those who truly know Christ cannot fall away. As 1 John 2:19 says, “If they had been of us, they would have continued with us.” Those who leave the faith never truly possessed it but, as John Calvin said, merely “had only a light and a transient taste of it.”Will You Fall Away?
Will you fall away in college? You can fight the current, and hold fast to God. First, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5). Ask yourself if Jesus is your treasure or if you are only borrowing the faith of those around you. If you have any doubt, commit yourself now to pursue Christ as hard as you pursue anything.
But if you genuinely know the Lord, and see evidences of transforming grace in your life, don’t be afraid that you’ll fall away. He will hold you fast. He will strengthen you and help you. He will uphold you with his righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10). If you are his, then you can be sure “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
We believe in the Holy Spirit. That reality is more than meets the eye. That God is alive and at work in our world, and in our lives. That an unseen Person prompts, protects, and provides for those who are Christ’s. That an almighty, invisible Spirit powerfully brings the eternal purposes of God and his Son to bear in our realm, one day soon for all to see.
We believe not only in Father and Son, but Father, Son, and Spirit. We baptize in the singular name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). One God in three persons. Three persons in one God — the Father who plans our eternal joy, the Son who purchased it, and the Spirit who preserves it.
For thousands of years, the people of God awaited the full revelation of his nature and work, and with it the full personhood of the Spirit. He is not part of God; he is God. With the coming and ascending of the Son, we now see how God’s eternal Spirit has been at work in our world from the very beginning, hovering over the face of the waters, ready to bring order out of the chaos (Genesis 1:1–2), acting for centuries on behalf of God’s chosen people, speaking to them through Moses and the law (Hebrews 9:8), David and the Psalms (Matthew 22:43; Mark 12:36; Acts 1:16; 4:25; Hebrews 3:7), Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the prophets (Acts 28:25; Hebrews 10:15–16; 2 Peter 1:21), and continuing to do so today through holy Scripture.
By the Holy Spirit, Jesus, the God-man, was conceived in a virgin’s womb (Matthew 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35). By the Spirit, he lived and spoke and healed and endured (Luke 3:22; 4:1, 14, 17–21; 10:21; Acts 10:38). By the Spirit, he gave himself for us at the cross (Hebrews 9:14), was raised from the dead and vindicated (Romans 1:4; 1 Timothy 3:16), and having ascended to his Father’s right hand, he now has immersed his people in his Spirit (Acts 1:5; 11:16), pouring out the Spirit on the church (Acts 2:33; 10:45) — the elusive person of the Godhead whose mission is to glorify the Son (John 16:14). By this Spirit sent from heaven, spokesmen preach the good news (1 Peter 1:12), and he himself descends in power with the speaking of God’s word (Acts 10:44; 11:15; 1 Thessalonians 1:5).
And wonder of all wonders, the same Spirit who empowered Jesus’s earthly life and sacrificial death now has been given to us today. He not only works on us, and through us, but he dwells in us (Romans 8:9, 11; 2 Timothy 1:14). He has been given to us (Luke 11:13; John 7:38–39; Acts 5:32; 15:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:8). We have received him (John 20:22; Acts 2:38; 8:15, 17, 19; 10:47; 19:2; Romans 5:5; 8:15; 1 Corinthians 2:12; 2 Corinthians 5:5; 1 John 3:24). How remarkable that we may be said to even have the Spirit (Romans 8:9, 23; 1 Corinthians 6:19). The very power of God himself has come to make himself at home in some real degree, to increasing effect, in us. We are his temple, both individually and collectively (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19).
He is no mere force. He is not a thing but a Person. He can be lied to (Acts 5:3), resisted (Acts 7:51), grieved (Isaiah 63:10–11; Ephesians 4:30), blasphemed (Matthew 12:32; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10). He comforts us (Acts 9:31), guides and directs (Acts 13:2, 4; 15:28; 16:6; 20:23; 21:11), transforms us into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:17–18), and empowers the everyday Christian life (Romans 14:17; 15:13; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Jude 20). He appoints leaders in the church (Acts 20:28), confirms God’s word with miraculous gifts (Hebrews 2:4), sanctifies our imperfect efforts (Romans 15:16), knits us together as a fellowship (2 Corinthians 13:14; Hebrews 6:4), and fills us with praise (Acts 2:4) and with boldness for ministry (Acts 1:8; 4:8, 31; 6:5; 7:55; 9:17; 11:24; 13:9, 52). He communicates the Father’s love to us (Romans 5:5; Ephesians 3:14–19) and infuses the Christian life with joy (Acts 13:52; Romans 14:17; 15:13; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). In him we are sealed, kept, and secured by God till the end (Ephesians 1:13–14).
We believe that when we’re alone with God’s word, we’re not alone. That when we pray, someone intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26–27). That a divine Person in us empowers us for personal sacrifice for the needs of others. That when they drag us before rulers and authorities on account of Christ, he will give us, in that moment, something to say (Mark 13:11; Luke 12:12). That we can have courage in conflict and joy in affliction (1 Thessalonians 1:6; Titus 3:5). That if we, being evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will our Father give us the greatest gift of all — himself in the person of his Spirit (Luke 11:13)?
We believe that the Christian life is not natural. That there is more to reality than meets the eye — oh, so much more. That what counts most, and is most ultimate, is unseen. That the Spirit is alive and well today, and that he makes all the difference.
We believe in the Holy Spirit.
The world isn’t about us. But even as Christians, we can be slow to love the truth that everything exists for God. But when we do, nothing stays the same.
Contentment is not simply about settling for what we have, but trusting in what God has said. Both anxiety and greed rise in our hearts as God’s words fall.
When the author of Hebrews wanted to teach his readers about contentment, he told them an old story with a familiar refrain. He quieted their fears and quenched their greed by reminding them what God had said. “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5). Which prompted Charles Spurgeon to ask,
Will not the distresses of life and the pangs of death, will not the internal corruptions and the external snares, will not the trials from above and the temptations from beneath all seem but light afflictions when we can hide ourselves beneath the bulwark of “he has said”?
The seed of unnecessary fear in the heart of a Christian is forgetfulness — an inability to remember and trust what the God of the universe has said and done. No one has ever had any grounds to accuse God of not following through on his word. Not even one phrase in any sentence in any statement he has ever made has failed (Joshua 21:45).
We will only be truly content with what we have when we know that we have him. And we will remember that we have him when we hear and believe his voice.God Has Said
When God said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” he was speaking to Joshua before little Israel went up to take the whole land of Canaan by force. A nation of nomads was about to invade a land filled with enemies bigger and stronger than themselves. Not one army, but many (Joshua 3:10) — and not our turf, but theirs. Israel’s only confidence was that God had told them to go. He had said.
What did he say? The foreign land you are about to enter is already yours (Joshua 1:3). No enemy, no matter how many or how strong, will be able to defeat you (Joshua 1:5). And most promising of all: “I will not leave you or forsake you.”‘I Will Never Leave You’
This great promise will fall flat if we think mainly in terms of geography and not fidelity. Of course God will never leave us because he’s everywhere all the time. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalms 139:8). But we see God’s fidelity in the very next verse, “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalms 139:9–10). If you are his, he will not leave you; he will lead and protect you.
When Joshua stared out into impossible circumstances and enormous opposition, God said,
“I will not leave you or forsake you. . . . Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:5, 9)
When the author of Hebrews saw what followers of Jesus would face, and how they would be tempted to wander, he went back to those same words (the only time this promise is quoted in the New Testament), “He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).
You will never be alone. No matter how desperate and alone you feel, no matter how much opposition you face, no matter how precarious your circumstances become, he has said, I will be with you. His presence can calm any fear — if we don’t forget that he’s there, he’s near, and he’s attentive.What You Don’t Have
The author of Hebrews, however, wasn’t warning about Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites. His readers, who were Jewish converts, were facing intense persecution, but from within their own nation — from their own communities, even their own families. And as the scorching friendly fire fell, an even more threatening enemy emerged within their hearts: their own cravings and desires.
He says, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5). When Western Christians today read, “Be content with what you have,” we might assume the Christian has enough. We may hear, “Don’t long for more than you need.” But many of these young converts were being thrown out of their families, cut off from all provision and protection. To follow Jesus was to embrace abandonment and accept poverty. So, many of them were being called to be content with what they did not have.
Discontentment suddenly doesn’t seem so unreasonable. Some of them went without food — for Christ. Some of them had only the clothes on their back — for Christ. Some of them lost their homes — for Christ. Some of them “joyfully accepted the plundering of [their] property, since [they] knew that [they themselves] had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34).
If they could be content with what they had, and didn’t have, how can we not learn to be content with what we have?Grace Enough
Be content with what you have. Are there six more terrifying words in a culture like ours? They certainly land on me like six sharp cannon blasts. Don’t let your heart endlessly pine for what you might have one day, but cultivate satisfaction in what God has given you for today.
The word for content is the same word in 2 Corinthians 12:9, when Jesus says to the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responds, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
Paul’s message is not like so many contentment gospels: If the Lord gives you less, make lemonade. Rather, he says, If Christ gives you less, boast in your less, because you get to see more of him in your less. His grace is sufficient to cover any deficiency in us. If God is that big, and grace that sweet, then we are able to say what the vast majority cannot say: “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:8).
We will not be simply appeased, but pleased, because our deepest joy does not rise and fall with what we have (Philippians 4:11).How Silver Kills a Man
If we want to be content with what we have, however, we have to be free from the love of money. As Paul warns, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10). And through this craving, many have forfeited contentment and forgotten what God has said. Intimacy with God loses its value as we fall deeper in love with our currency (and all it buys for us).
If we keep flirting with money, we will make ourselves sons of Judas, who traded God himself for thirty pitiful pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15). But even before he died, Judas knew he had been had (Matthew 27:3). He had grossly overestimated money and misjudged the love that no amount of silver could buy: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Could he not see how murderously unhappy the Pharisees were (Luke 16:14)? Still he couldn’t shake his cravings for more, even if they cost him everything. If we could feel the horrible realization he felt after trading Jesus away for money, would we not race to give away every possession necessary to have God? Would we not gladly have however little in this life to gain him in the next and forever?Content and Courageous
What does contentment sound like? True contentment does not sound cheap, shy, or docile because it often requires profound strength and lionhearted courage. Hebrews continues, “He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5–6). As he looks out on this small army of Jesus-followers, facing want and need and worse, he turns from Joshua 1 to Psalm 118, which goes on to say,
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in princes. (Psalm 118:8–9)
Courage ties Psalm 118 to the promise from Joshua 1 because God says to Joshua three times, “Be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1:6–7, 9). And before Joshua heard those four words, Moses had said to him, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).
When you are tempted to worry about how much you have, set your mind on what he has said. If the true God is your God, he goes with you. He knows what you need (Matthew 6:32). And knowing all you need, and all you will face, he will never leave you nor forsake you. Therefore, we can be courageous wherever his hand leads us, flee the shiny promises of silver, and rejoice in what we have. Most of all, we can rejoice that we have him.
Comprehension, interpretation, and application — these three steps from Jen Wilkin have helped thousands of women dive deep into God’s word.
As I write this, my youngest daughter is turning thirty-seven. It seems my daughters’ birthdays, more than my own, have a way of making me feel my age: how is it possible that the youngest of my three girls is now in her late thirties?
But these fleeting thoughts on aging give way to reflections on the past, and how much simpler it felt to raise daughters three decades ago. (Funny thing is, I remember my mom saying the same thing to me when my girls were little.) I sought to raise my daughters to withstand the tidal wave of feminism that threatened their femininity. My daughters are, to this day, skilled and dedicated mothers. But the world seems a scarier place than it was then, and mothering a more daunting task. How will my granddaughters, so happy and carefree in their girlhood, resist the lies and insults the world is sure to hurl at them?
With all the cultural confusion over gender-related issues, we may be tempted to panic and throw out the biblical playbook. But we must not flinch as we follow the gospel plan for raising our daughters. Neither can we be apathetic, assuming that a Christian home or a good church will inoculate our daughters against toxic feminist messages. We need to be alert and shrewd — preparing our daughters to discern and reject the false teaching about womanhood from our culture (1 Peter 5:8, Matthew 10:16). We should stick close to Scripture as we walk the same path of faithfulness as godly mothers before us.Training Daughters to Be Women
Faithful mothering, now as always, requires faithful sowing. When we plant a garden, we don’t throw seeds haphazardly into the ground and expect neat rows of our favorite vegetables. Instead, we select our seeds and plant straight rows in order to reap a good harvest. In the same way, we must be intentional to sow seeds of biblical womanhood into our daughters’ lives.
Put simply, biblical womanhood is God’s delightful design for women as revealed in the Bible. In fact, when Paul tells Titus how to build a church that lights up a dark and evil age with the gospel, he tells him to make sure the older women pass along the heart and habits of godly womanhood to the younger women (Titus 2:3–5).
As Christian mothers, we must not neglect to include the fundamentals of biblical womanhood in our daughters’ education. Consider: Am I preparing my daughter to be the kind of woman who is strong enough to submit to her husband? Determined enough to complete the difficult task of raising children? Creative enough to build a home that is both a greenhouse and a lighthouse, cultivating the gospel message and beaming it out into a dark world? Intelligent enough to see how studying history, hermeneutics, and horticulture can be put to use in her gospel mission?A Different Kind of Woman
“The fact that I am a woman does not make me a different kind of Christian, but the fact that I am a Christian does make me a different kind of woman,” Elisabeth Elliot once wrote. If we want to raise our daughters to be different kind of women — nonconformists in a world run amok, insurgents for the gospel — we must be sure to give them strategic and specialized training. We must teach them both the beauty and the basics of biblical womanhood through our faithful (though flawed) example and our gracious teaching.
We must also pluck the weeds of feminism that our culture sows and which can take root in our daughters’ hearts. When my girls were still in their early teen years, I noticed that, despite my best efforts to cultivate the heart and habits of biblical womanhood, certain feminist ideas had slipped into their thinking. I decided to take them through Elisabeth Elliot’s Let Me Be a Woman, which helped demystify feminist propaganda and proved to be a defining season of learning to delight in God’s design for women.Faithful and Faith-filled
Most importantly, faithful mothering requires faith. We put the seeds in the ground, but at first, we don’t see how or even if they are growing. We simply watch, water, and repeat. The seeds won’t sprout if we don’t plant. They won’t survive if we don’t pull the weeds. They won’t thrive if we don’t water. But ultimately, we have to trust God to bring the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6). He promises that we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Galatians 6:9).
How do we keep from giving up? We remind ourselves that no matter how our culture heaves and shifts, Scripture’s truth, relevance, and power will remain. God is still in charge. From age to age he sits enthroned. He rules over seasons, stars, and tidal waves of feminism (Psalm 29:10). He is the God who daily bears us up through every evil day (Psalm 68:19). Because of the steadfast love of Christ, the mother who sows with tears will reap with joy (Psalm 126:5).
Lust will kill you unless you deal it a death blow first. You usually have five seconds to act.
I taught biblical studies for six years at Bethel College before becoming pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1980. In virtually every class, students brought up the issue of the sovereignty of God. The question was unavoidable, no matter what the class was about.
If you’re embarking on a new year of study, I hope this question — this reality of God’s utter sovereignty — will follow you all the way through your studies in every class. It is an all-comprehending, all-influencing, Bible-pervading reality.
James 4:13–17 shows just how relevant the meaning of the sovereignty of God is for the life of students who are beginning an academic year of rigorous study.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.Four Species of Pride
James has just confronted men and women who are spiritual adulteresses (James 4:1–10). They claim that God is the love of their lives, their husband, but they keep a prostitute on the side for what really satisfies them. This prostitute is called “the world” (James 4:4). James sees this as a form of pride and says in verse 6, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” and in verse 10, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
Then in verses 11 and 12, he deals with another form of pride, namely, standing in judgment over your neighbor and over the very law of God, and he says in verse 12, “But who are you to judge your neighbor?” In other words, again it is arrogance that is behind this sin of self-exalting judgment.
Then after James 4:13–17, he excoriates the rich landowners (James 5:1–6) who hold back the wages of their workers (verse 4) and even murder the weak who offer them no resistance (verse 6). In other words, their wealth has gone to their heads and made them feel above the law like petty tyrants.
Now in James 4:13–17 we have another form of arrogance. Alongside the arrogance that extorts money from a naïve divine husband to pay for a prostitute, and arrogance that stands in judgment over the law of God, and arrogance that exploits the poor, there is now in 4:13–17 the arrogance that lives in the dreamworld of ordinary life that denies the sovereignty of God. You can see the point in James 4:16: “As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” Indeed, as verse 17 shows, since you know what’s true about your life as a mist, and God’s governance of the world, your God-ignoring presumption is sin.Ordinary Arrogance
So, what does this sin, this arrogance and boasting, look like? It looks pretty ordinary, pretty common, pretty innocent — pretty much like 98 percent of the people in the world. Verse 13: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.’”
- “Today or tomorrow” — We’ll decide on this one, or that one. When we go is our choice.
- “Today or tomorrow we will go” — Or stay. Our choice. This or that, stay or go.
- “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town” — This town or that one. We’ll choose.
- “And spend a year” — Or two. Or six months. Our choice. This duration, that duration. We’ll decide.
- “We’ll spend a year there” — Or move around from town to town. Different business strategies. This kind or that kind. We’ll choose.
- “We’ll spend a year there and trade” — Or take some time off. We’ll decide how much we work. This amount or that.
- “We’ll spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — We know how to turn a profit. This much or that much. We’ll make it happen.
What’s the problem here? Verse 13 seems like a pretty ordinary way of talking. Doesn’t everybody talk like this? Here is James’s response, first in verse 14: “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” The first thing James does is focus on the fact that they are utterly ignorant about everything they just asserted. “You do not know what tomorrow will bring.”
- You don’t know when you will leave for such and such a town.
- And if you leave, you don’t know if you will get there.
- And if you get there, you don’t know if you will spend a year or a minute.
- And if you spend a year, you don’t know if you will trade, or be flat on your back paralyzed from a fall.
- And if you do trade, you don’t know if you will make a profit or fail completely.
“You do not know what tomorrow will bring.”
And then James zeros in on one of the reasons they don’t know what tomorrow may bring. “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (verse 14). They are as tenuous and as temporary as the vapor that comes out of your mouth on a cold morning. They can’t control it. And they can’t make it stay. It’s not in their power, and before they can try to shape it or guide it, it’s gone.
So behind the words of verse 13 (“Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”), there is an operating belief that life is controllable and durable, and future action is predictable. James says: all three of those beliefs are false. Life is a vapor. Tomorrow is unknown. And you don’t have decisive control over anything.‘If the Lord Wills’
Is James saying, then, that the world and all this human action is simply random, the product of blind materialistic processes — call it fate or chance? No. He’s not. Verse 15 takes us to the heart of what he believes and what is missing from the minds and mouths of these ordinary folks.
Verse 15: “Instead [that is, instead of what you said in verse 13] you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” “If the Lord wills, we will live.” So what is your life — this fragile, ephemeral vapor? It is as solid, and unshakable, and durable as God wills it to be. If he wills it, your heart keeps on beating. If he wills it, your heart stops. You do not live one second beyond the time God wills for you to live. And you do not die one second before God’s will for you to die.
Make sure you see this in verse 15: “You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live.’” This profound, conscious awareness of our absolute dependence on the sovereign will of God was not part of the mindset of those who spoke in verse 13. And it is not part of the mindset of most of the people in the world. Is it part of your mindset? I hope so.God Will Decide
Then James reveals the absolute sovereignty of God not only over how long we live, but in everything we do. Verse 15: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” If the Lord wills, we will do this, or that.
- “Today or tomorrow” — God decides whether you leave today or tomorrow.
- “Today or tomorrow we will go” — Or not. And God decides.
- “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town” — This one or that one. God decides.
- “And spend a year” — Or two, or none. God decides.
- “We’ll spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— Maybe there. Maybe somewhere else. Maybe trade. Maybe lie paralyzed from a fall. Maybe turn a profit. Maybe fail. At every turn. God will decide.
So we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that,” because God is absolutely sovereign over all the causes of life and death, and over everything everyone does. Not to live with this conviction and this mindset, James says, is arrogant. Verse 16: “As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”Four Glimpses of God’s Sovereignty over Your Studies
As you go back to school this fall, I encourage you to press into this reality of God’s utter sovereignty with all your heart and all your mind. Believing that God decides ultimately whether you live, and whether you do this or that, is as practical as your plans for tomorrow, this semester, and the rest of your life.
And to help you embrace God’s sovereignty, I want to give you four glimpses of how relevant this is for your life as you begin an academic year of rigorous study.1. Gospel Joy
As you launch into the new academic year, you will need the gospel every day. You will need continual reassurance that your sins are forgiven for Jesus’s sake, and that God is for you and not against you because of Christ. You are not destined for wrath, but for everlasting joy, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In other words, you will need deep and ever-renewed confidence that the crucifixion of Jesus under Pontius Pilate was not a random fluke, but the sovereign plan and work of Almighty God to save your soul. And that is exactly what Luke reports in Acts 4:27–28.
Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
In other words, God planned and predestined — he was in absolute sovereign control of — everything that Pilate and Herod and the Jews and the soldiers did to bring about the death of Jesus. Therefore, we ought to say, “Since the Lord willed, they lived and did this or that.” The death of my Jesus was not random. It was a sovereign plan to save your soul. You will need that this year. Your survival and your joy will depend on the gospel, which depends on the sovereignty of God.2. Sacrificial Love
You will be called on this year at some point to love someone — some family member, some classmate, some unbeliever — and the love will be costly. It will require sacrifice. Time. Inconvenience. Effort. Money. Risk of reputation, or your very life. And it may be for someone you don’t even like, and who has treated you badly.
Over and over in the New Testament, especially in 1 Peter, we are told to do good to people who have not been good to us — to love people even if it requires suffering. How are we to do this? Peter’s answer — and he says it twice — is that we must remember God’s sovereignty over our suffering as we do good. Whatever suffering love may require, we accept as the sovereign will of our faithful Creator.
Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. (1 Peter 4:19)
It is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:17)
Suffering will come, especially for those committed to doing good — to loving their enemies. But take heart because God is sovereign over your suffering. No suffering befalls you apart from the will of God. He is your Father (1 Peter 1:17) and your Maker (1 Peter 4:19). He is faithful. This school year, entrust your soul to a sovereign, faithful Creator in doing good.3. Fearless Witness
As you enter this year of studies, things are going to happen that make you afraid. Some of those fears may be small, like looking foolish in class. Others may be huge — a malignant tumor, a city blown to pieces with racial hatred, being kidnapped by terrorists.
In all of this, Jesus calls you not to shrink back into security, but to step forward in fearless witness. How does he support and motivate that?
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. . . . Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. . . . Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:28–29, 31)
The absolute sovereignty of God apart from which no bird falls dead to the forest floor is the foundation of your fearlessness. You are precious to him, and he is sovereign over you. Whatever happens in the world, whatever happens in your family, fear not.4. Confident Planning
One of the implications of being a student is that you are planning something. Your plan may not be clear, but you did not come to study so that you could waste the rest of your life. You have come because you believe that these studies will make you more fruitful. And as your plan for a life of fruitfulness takes shape, which would you rather say, “If I’m lucky, I will live and do this or that. By chance, I may live and do this or that. As fate may have it, I will live and do this or that”? Or would you rather say, “If the Lord wills, I will live and do this or that” (James 4:15)?
Luck and chance and fate are nothing. They are not a foundation for any plans. They can do nothing because they are nothing. They are simply words that describe emptiness and meaninglessness. But when you make a plan and say, “I plan to do this, not that, if the Lord wills,” you build your life on an unshakable foundation: the sovereign will of God.
The wise man says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21). It is right to plan. Little of enduring value is accomplished without a plan. But the Christian plan, the humble plan, always includes, “If the Lord wills.” That’s part of the plan.God Gives Confidence and Peace
If you rest in the wise and good sovereignty of God in all your plans, you will be a confident person and a peaceful person. You will know that whatever details of your plans don’t happen, God’s will happens. And that was part of your plan. In fact, that was the most important part of any of your plans.
As you continue in your studies, may God make you joyful in his gospel, sacrificial in your love, fearless in your witness, and confident and peaceful in your planning, because you love his sovereignty, and say, “If the Lord wills, I will live and do this or that.”
What would John Piper say to those with most of their adult life ahead of them? Here are six rules he would live by.
You can’t hide anything from Jesus. Unlike your closest friends or family, he knows every secret, every sin. And if you are his, he loves you to the uttermost.
“In my experience,” the cynic began, “I have found most Christians to be hypocrites who do not live up to their professions.”
“But certainly,” the pastor replied, “being a Christian does not mean we’re any better than unbelievers. We are still just as sick as anyone — we just have found the doctor. Remember, Christianity is not about morality. It’s about grace.”
And so it goes.
From Bible studies to personal evangelism to explaining the moral failures of our leaders, the indistinctness of the Christian is trending these days. How many of us have comforted our neighbor (or one another) with a reminder that the sinner in the church is little different than the sinner outside? “We are all broken,” it is assured. “We are all miserable failures,” is the refrain. To hear it from some, a mere profession of faith is the only real difference between the church and the world.‘All About Grace’
In an effort to protect the grace of God from works righteousness, some tend to minimize talk of good works altogether. Christianity isn’t about morality. It’s about grace. Now, the gospel — and specifically justification by faith alone — is most certainly about grace and not works, lest grace no longer be grace (Romans 11:6). We love that we are saved by God’s grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Every saint in glory will sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
But this “it’s all about grace” talk goes wrong when we say that the amazing grace that saves the Christian doesn’t also make him distinct from the unbeliever in love, action, and speech. When we go out of our way to discount the grace of good works in the Christian life, we betray how little we really know of grace.
Nothing on this planet is like it. It is the most precious jewel we can receive. The sweetest thing our souls can taste. The loveliest lyric our mouths can sing. But it is never a powerless thing.
God does not have a type of saving grace that, once given, leaves its recipient unchanged. Saving grace not only justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5) but trains us “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11–12). God himself is at work in us by his Spirit (Philippians 2:13). And this grace is a more effective teacher than Dr. Phil or Dr. Seuss or any other teacher in the world.Same-as-the-World Christianity
But the doctrine of same-as-the-world Christianity tells us something different: that those who have found the doctor are no healthier than those who have not. Or, in the other rendition, that those beggars who have found the bread stay just as malnourished as the starving world. But patients who tell us that they have seen the medic, while also confessing they are still no different from those miserable souls in the waiting room, let us all in on the secret that they are either lying or need to find a new doctor.
The watching world makes this connection all the time. Our critics regularly tell us that they turn away because such and such professor is a hypocrite. What they mean cannot be missed: the Christian, who, like other acquaintances they have met, is a liar, a cheat, a drunk, a grouch, or a gossip, sullies their profession to have found the heavenly Doctor.
To even many skeptics, following Jesus entails honesty, integrity, love, goodness, kindness — which is more than our pastor was willing to confess. It is no wonder then, why, after trying to woo the sick man into the hospital wing by showing him patients just as infirmed as he, the onlooker passed without interest. The great Physician is blasphemed among unbelievers because of such hypocrisy (Romans 2:23–24).Christians Will Be Different
“We are the same as the world” is not the Christian motto. We do not champion a powerless grace. To do so excuses the idle in the church to ignore holiness. It belittles the power of the gospel to save sinners from their sin. And it dismisses the work and power of the Holy Spirit to make us holy. It tempts us to take our lamps down from atop the hill, normalizes the loss of our saltiness, and removes shining stars from a morally vacuous sky. We do not need more wicked-as-the-world trophies of his pardon. We need men, women, and children who were wicked as the world but are now trophies of his power.
And why can we expect Christians to behave better than our seemingly upright neighbors?
1. We are born again.
“Born again” is not a brand name for Christians who take their faith a little more seriously than the mainstream; it is a God-wrought miracle in every true believer. In real time and space, God creates a new creature from the old (2 Corinthians 5:17), transfers us from the demonic realm to his Son’s kingdom of light (Colossians 1:13), and raises the spiritually dead to life (Romans 6:4). He gives new affections, new loves, new joys. Sin becomes odious. Holiness becomes attractive. We become servants of joy with a new mission and a new King.
No longer are we imprisoned in the line of Adam. No longer do we live according to the flesh and its desires. No longer are we bad trees bearing rotten fruit. We have traded sin’s harsh slavery for the freedom of bondage to Christ and righteousness (Romans 6:20–23). We are heirs of life, heirs of glory, heirs of the world to come.
2. We have the very power of God in us.
With new birth comes almighty power. Peter lets us in on one of the most scandalous truths for Christian living: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).
Christians have all we need, in every circumstance, at every moment, to live a godly life. God himself dwells in us (Romans 8:9–11) and is at work in us (Philippians 2:13). In Christ, we are powerful. We are finally free to conquer pornography. Finally free to say, “No!” to lying, stealing, and laziness (Titus 2:11–13). We are not left helpless to lie around and booze all day — we have the might to renounce every and any temptation through the Spirit that dwells in us (Romans 8:13).
We have the very weapon of God in hand: his word. The very presence of God in us: his Spirit. And the very army of God to war with us: his church.
3. We gladly live for Another’s glory.
It is wrong to assume that only our failures can be the proper backdrop to highlight his grace. I struggle; he forgives. I screw up; his grace is exalted. I morally vomit on the floor; he cleans it up. Christ is glorified as the janitor.
To this, Paul asks, and answers, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1–2). And Peter confronts it by saying, “The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3). In other words, we have already sinned enough. Our backdrop is already plenty dark enough to showcase the diamond of his grace. Now we pay no more debts to our former lives but pick up our mats and walk in newness of life. Our fruit, not our failures, proves that we are his (John 15:8).Saints on the Mend
Sickly saints that are on the mend give glory to the Doctor and instruct others to go to him. To profess to have found him, and bear no change, is to cast a shadow on the name of Christ and the power of his Spirit.
Christians should be distinct from the world in how we live. Yes, should is different than always are. We all have cause to sing, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” Sanctification can be painfully slow. What we speak of is not perfection but a new power, a new purpose, and a new direction.
But even when the Christian stumbles, as we all do this side of glory, we are not content to make peace with belittling God. We do not settle at home in our sin. “We’re all human” is not our excuse. We are not satisfied to wander from our Savior. When we fall, we will roll to our knees, plead for grace’s pardon and power, get up, and continue on our way.
We have a mantle to carry. Our Savior has worked a mighty change in us. We are to be his hands and feet. We are to march together on the enemy’s gates. We are to bear witness to a watching world. We are a city on a hill to live as citizens of the world to come. Let’s embrace this, not explain it away. Celebrate this. Be jealous for it. Ask God to help us live more boldly, taste more salty, and shine more brightly.
Long hair may be acceptable for men today, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore what Paul was saying to the Corinthians. Pastor John explains why.
To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. –Philippians 1:21
If police officers arrested you tomorrow and threw you in prison because you went to church last Sunday, what would your first letter to your friends and family sound like? Sitting on a concrete bench, staring at thick steel bars, wondering how long you will be held, you’ve been given a piece of paper and a pencil. How would you tell your family what happened? What would you say about the law, and your rights, and the officers who arrested you? How would you describe what you were feeling?
What you or I would write in that letter — from the bottom of our hearts — reveals something about how much (or little) we really trust Jesus. In one sense, we would have every right to protest and complain — it would be wrong for them to throw us in jail. But if Jesus is real, we never have a good reason to grumble or despair. If being falsely accused and wrongly incarcerated ruins our hope and joy and confidence, we have not yet discovered real hope and joy and confidence.
Never settle for a God who cannot satisfy you in a prison cell.Paul’s Storm: Prison
When the apostle Paul said, “To me to live is Christ,” he was sitting in jail. Many of us sing and recite lines like that from the comfort and security of freedom — freedom to believe, freedom to worship, freedom even to share our faith with others. We could walk our neighborhoods rehearsing our hope in Jesus at the top of our lungs, and perhaps never receive worse than a curious stare or awkward conversation. Not Paul — and not Christians in many places around the world today.
When Paul said, “To me to live is Christ,” he wrote it from incarceration. He didn’t harm anyone or commit any crime. He simply refused to remain quiet about his greatest love. And sitting there lonely, uncomfortable, abandoned, and humiliated, he still refused to remain quiet about his greatest love. He worshiped. He didn’t write to the other believers to complain about how he had been treated, or to plead with them to petition for his release, or to wallow in self-pity as a prisoner. No, he wrote to tell them to rejoice in Jesus — to remember and proclaim his name.
He says later in his letter, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4) — from prison. Do not waste your heart worrying about me or pitying me. Enjoy Jesus with me.To Live Is Christ
What does it mean when Paul says, “To live is Christ”? When we look at the verses before and after, we see that it means at least two things. In the verse before, he says, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20). “To live is Christ” means to live for Christ — to honor him with the life he has given us.
In the following verses, he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith” (Philippians 1:23–25). “To live is Christ” means to spend yourself for others’ faith in Christ — to work and sacrifice and plead for them to believe and enjoy him.
As we live, and rejoice in Christ even when the worst happens, striving to honor him in what he has called us to do while we are here, we are doing whatever we can to bring others to him.To Die Is Gain
But up until now we’ve only sung half of Philippians 1:21: “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Christ will never be truly sweet to us while we’re alive here on earth unless we believe that life will get better with him after we die. Again, Paul says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” If we try to live for Christ now without wanting to be with Christ, we’re probably not really living for Christ. We’re probably living for ourselves.
The key to living for Jesus, even alone behind bars, is to anchor our brief life here in our joy in him. If we can begin now, by faith, to taste the better waiting for us in eternity, we will be better equipped and motivated to make the most of our circumstances today — whether they are good or bad, hard or happy, expected or unexpected, whether we are free or in prison.Abandoned or Acclaimed
Some of you don’t need to be told to run to Jesus if you get thrown in prison. In fact, you only cry out to him when you’re in trouble. But this is a name for trials and victories, for abandonment and acclaim, for the lowest moments and the highest ones. Paul says in the same letter from prison, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12).
What is the secret of joy and contentment in the face of whatever life brings? It’s centering and anchoring our joy and contentment in Christ, rather than in our circumstances. John Piper says, “When we have little and have lost much, Christ comes and reveals himself as more valuable than what we have lost. And when we have much and are overflowing in abundance, Christ comes and he shows that he is far superior to everything we have.”
The first step to fighting lust is one too many are unwilling to make — avoid it.
“Just a little more” is a longtime friend of mine.
He takes a seat next to me after dinner. My stomach may be full to the point of protest, but no matter. He points at my empty plate and asks, “How about just a little more?”
He rests on the edge of my bed in the morning as my alarm clock beeps. I may need to be at work in an hour, but he tucks the sheets under my chin and assures me, “Just a little more.”
He follows behind me as I walk my fiancée home. Sure, we’ve established physical boundaries, and we may have already reached the edge of them. But he promises me, “Just a little more won’t hurt.”Kind, Foolish Friend
Every day, we find some pleasure, enjoy it to the full, and then itch for just a little more: a little more chocolate, a little more wine, a little more sleep, a little more shower time, a little more YouTube, a little more Netflix. We take in some delight that gives our senses a standing ovation, and they won’t sit back down again until they get an encore.
In the moment of gratification, “just a little more” sounds like the voice of a kind friend — so pleasing, so innocent, so reasonable.
And often so foolish. The voice of this pleasant companion frequently keeps us from hearing the words of the wise man: “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it” (Proverbs 25:16).Land of Nausea
Solomon’s proverb reminds us that God has put fences around our bodies — boundaries to keep us from crossing the line between innocent pleasure and excess, between enjoying God’s gifts and abusing them.
Although the fence line between enough and too much might not always be obvious, we often know when we’ve begun to wander outside the bounds. Sometimes, our bodies themselves revolt: if not with literal vomit, then perhaps with a sickly lethargy, as if someone just added two pounds to each limb.
Other times, our bodies may be begging for more, but our Spirit-trained conscience tells us that we have just exchanged self-control for self-indulgence. We have gratified our flesh’s yearning for comfort and silenced the voice of reason. We have found honey, and then we’ve eaten enough for two.
In the moment, of course, the promise of immediate pleasure can make self-control seem silly, stiff, and against all reason. I have often brushed up against the fence line, fully aware that “just a little more” is about to lead me outside God’s yard, and I have kept on walking anyway. I gazed over God’s fences and saw an amusement park. Only afterward did I notice all the sick people lying beside the roller coaster.
“Since Eden,” Derek Kidner writes, “man has wanted the last ounce out of life, as though beyond God’s ‘enough’ lay ecstasy, not nausea” (Proverbs, 159). Every time I break through God’s fences, and think I’m headed toward ecstasy, I am entering the Land of Nausea.Sluggard Within
But nausea — whether physical or spiritual — is just the short-term consequence of breaking God’s boundaries. If we make a habit of heeding “just a little more”; if we regularly follow our bodies’ urges, not because we have carefully chosen to do so, but because we have fallen under their sway; if we constantly find ourselves flirting with the fence line, and crossing over anyway, Proverbs paints a picture of our future self: the sluggard.
The sluggard’s course begins quite harmlessly. “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,” he says (Proverbs 6:10). But over time, he finds himself increasingly shackled to his own cravings: increasingly unable to rise from bed (Proverbs 6:9), increasingly dissatisfied (Proverbs 13:4), increasingly numb to the pleasures he once enjoyed (Proverbs 19:24; 26:15), and increasingly reluctant to tame his bodily impulses with hard work (Proverbs 21:25).
When we habitually give in to “just a little more,” we feed the sluggard within: We dull our senses. We refine our selfishness. We wring and squeeze God’s gifts until they break. And we train our bodies to find self-denial offensive.
Ironically, giving in to “just a little more” leaves us with a whole lot less: less pleasure, less dignity, less self-control. Satan robs God’s children one indulgence at a time.God’s “Enough”
How, then, do we silence the smooth suggestion of “just a little more”? We begin where wisdom always begins: the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7).
And how does the fear of the Lord fill us with self-control? It inclines us to listen to our Father’s voice (Proverbs 1:8). The fear of the Lord inclines us to hear our Father’s “just enough” as stronger, sounder, and altogether sweeter than “just a little more.”
We hear our Father remind us that the boundaries around our senses are not obstacles to ecstasy, but his infinitely wise engineering applied on a bodily scale (Psalm 139:13–14).
We hear our Father warn us that our bodies are not our own but have been bought with the blood of Jesus and indwelt by the Spirit of God, who yearns for our holiness (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
We hear our Father promise us that he keeps his best pleasures in his own backyard, and that he will withhold no good thing from those who prize self-control over self-indulgence (Psalm 84:11).
If we would stop at the fence line long enough to hear our Father’s voice instead of rushing heedlessly forward, we would find ourselves turning around more often. We would put down the glass, rise from bed, clean the dishes, shut down the computer, and gladly refuse even a little more.Where Good Things Run Wild
G.K. Chesterton writes, “The more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild” (Orthodoxy, 9).
Our Father’s backyard is not stiff and solemn, filled with pursed-lipped saints who have scraped up enough self-control to stay within God’s fences. Our Father’s backyard is where good things run wild. Here, our Father delights us with a feast of rich food (Isaiah 55:1–2). Here, the Spirit trains God’s people to walk in self-control and godliness — to enjoy God’s gifts instead of abuse them (Titus 2:11–12).
And here, Jesus walks. Here walks the man who always heard his Father’s voice, who walked in flawless self-control, and who never indulged a sluggish moment. And this same Jesus promises that, if we will abide with him within his Father’s fences, he will fill us with more joy than “just a little more” can ever give (John 15:11).