Bell Creek Community Church

A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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The Gospel in Six Truths

Wed, 08/01/2018 - 8:00am

The gospel is not just a good idea or good advice. The gospel is the good news about what God has already done through Jesus Christ.

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Three Good Reasons You’re Not Happy

Tue, 07/31/2018 - 8:02pm

We have learned to laugh when our 2-year-old screams.

At this stage, the end of anything good has become a devastating crisis — the bottom of the ice-cream cone, the closing scene of his favorite movie (that he’s seen dozens of times), the last time down the slide, even the end of a good bath. Good no longer goes quietly, but ferociously — not just whining, but roll-on-the-ground screaming.

Some screams deserve fatherly distress and strategic measures, but not these. Not yet. They’re immature, and at this early age, strangely adorable. We laugh because his sorrow is so wildly out of proportion. And because every good he mourns today will, in all likelihood, be just as good again tomorrow (we’ll probably have to give him another bath).

I laugh, but not when I rock him each night before bed. While he sleepily smiles up at me, I bury myself in our rocking chair like it’s a bunker. When I hold him, I secretly hate the brevity of those moments (and these years). The neighbors don’t hear me scream, but I protest deep down. Like a 2-year-old at the park, I refuse to put him down, wanting to keep the good from ever ending — to keep him from ever growing. I can already tell I won’t be able to hold him like this for long. I want my heart to be bigger, and the minutes longer, and the goodnights fewer.

We feel the futility of this world in goodbyes and all-gones.

Pleasures Are Not Accidents

From God’s perspective, my crib-side sorrow is probably even more wildly out of proportion than my son’s — I am not only two. He didn’t give me a serpent or a scorpion; he gave me a son. And if he gave me something as precious as a son, how much more will he give in the days to come?

Pleasure can breed disproportion in us. We chase small pleasures into the trap of thinking that life is really about small pleasures — food, sex, shopping, even friendship, marriage, and parenting. We end up trying to carve a god out of our small pleasures instead of following each one up to the greatest Pleasure.

The other pleasures are not accidents. God filled this world with them. These priceless moments with our 2-year-old are not accidents. They are good gifts from a perfect Father (James 1:17), like items we buy for someone months before Christmas because we found just the right gift for them. Except the perfect Father gives perfect gifts to children with short memories, small hearts, and wandering eyes. And because we are small, weak, and wandering, we’re never as happy as we were made to be.

John Piper writes, “Imagine being able to enjoy what is most enjoyable with unbounded energy and passion forever. This is not now our experience. Three things stand in the way of our complete satisfaction in this world” (The Pleasures of God). There are at least three good reasons why we are not (yet) totally happy, even in our happiest moments.

1. Even the best things here are not good enough.

Piper lists this first: “Nothing has a personal worth great enough to meet the deepest longings of our hearts.” God intentionally gives us longings deeper and wider than his gifts. He means for us to enjoy the gifts, but not to be content with just his gifts. He wants us to taste the good in everything else and want the highest pleasure: him. If I buy the best Christmas gift for my son in July, but then give him little energy and attention, even the best gift comes up far short. He wants Dad.

The apostle Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:8–9). Not some things, but everything — all things. Not as just less, but as loss. Not as small or cheap, but as garbage. As the Preacher of Ecclesiastes says,

Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:10–11)

When compared with the size of our souls and the length of eternity, all the earthly pleasures simply add up to vanity. Together they come up short, even pitiful. Even the best things here are not good enough.

2. Our hearts are not big enough for the good we do have.

Again Piper writes, “We lack the strength to savor the best treasures to their maximum worth.” The angst I feel in our rocking chair is not only about the brevity of childhood. It’s also about the smallness of my heart. My mind knows there is more to enjoy in those moments than my heart can handle in real time, like my son enjoying his books without being able to read yet. The days force us to turn pages in life before we’ve learned how to see and enjoy all that’s there — before we were ready for the pleasures. The good we have is not good enough, and our hearts are not even big enough yet for the good we do have.

Part of why “fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11) is only found in the presence of God is that only then will we have hearts that could be that full. God has already given us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26), but it’s an incomplete heart, one that will only be made whole when we are finally whole (2 Corinthians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 15:42–43; Philippians 1:6).

When we come up against the limits of our minds and hearts while we’re enjoying God’s gifts, he wants us to pray and wait. God wants us to pray that he would open our minds and widen our hearts to take in more of his glory in what he has made. He also wants us to wait with anticipation for the day when we receive new and better equipment — new eyes, new ears, new hands, even a new nose and tongue.

For now, we sample infinite joy with inadequate hearts.

3. Every good gift comes to an end — for now.

Piper’s final reason we will never be completely satisfied in this world: “The third obstacle to complete satisfaction is that our joys here come to an end.” My son won’t always fit in my arms. We won’t always live in our current home. It’s likely I will not be there for him throughout his life. The earthly goods we enjoy now will not last forever. In fact, they will not even last for long. “The world is passing away along with its desires” (1 John 2:17) — and its pleasures, even the very best ones.

Just like the pleasures are not accidents, the expiration dates are not either. They were formed for us, when as yet there was none of them (Psalm 139:16). God wired every good gift with unique measures of pleasure. And he wired them to end. In love. He knew we needed finiteness to appreciate the infinite. If everything here lasted forever, God might seem less glorious, heaven less promising, hell less terrifying, and souls less precious.

Every temporary good — and they are all temporary here on earth — is an appetizer for the eternal. Now “we know in part . . . but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13:9–10). The partial was always meant to prepare us for something perfect — someone who could satisfy us completely, someone who could make us perfectly and invincibly happy.

How to Win the War for Morning Devotions

Tue, 07/31/2018 - 8:00pm

When you wake up more interested in Twitter than God’s word, the battle is not lost. It has just begun. Fight to get into his word.

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Philippians 2:14–18: Grumble-Free for His Glory

Tue, 07/31/2018 - 8:02am

When we set aside grumbling and complaining during hard times and take up joy in the Lord, a watching world sees stars shining in a dark world.

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Every Good Parent Will Have Regrets: Advice to My 30-Year-Old Self

Mon, 07/30/2018 - 8:02pm

What would I tell my younger self about parenting?

Being invited to write on that question is akin to being offered free dental work. The gesture, though appreciated, involves drilling and often some pain. But even as I heard the drill cranking up, several themes came to my mind which seem helpful to share.

1. Parenting will not mainly expose your strengths, but reveal your weaknesses.

Many parents see childrearing as a platform to display their faithfulness and wisdom, even God’s validation of their parenting choices. That’s certainly what I imagined signing up for. I figured parenting, as a brand, was taking a serious hit and could use some fresh blood — some innovative determination from the next generation. In my mind, parenting was a golden opportunity to portray my strengths.

Or so I thought.

Wow, was I deluded. Parenting exposed every spiritual weakness within my soul, my marriage, and my family; it even created some new ones. Parenting acquainted me with desperation, teased me with fear, and awakened me to countless dark nights of the soul.

I didn’t realize that a child’s “seeming” lack of progress was the place where parents truly encounter God. We pray, “God, fix them!” Then God whispers back, “Yes, Dave, they’re on my list. But first let’s talk about you.” Parenting didn’t exhibit my strengths; it exposed my limitations. It revealed the dozens of places where I trusted in myself and my leadership rather than in God. Ultimately, it laid me low and revealed my self-trust. But that weakness drove me to Jesus where, in my desperation, I was able to see he had plans for my kids and power for me (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Parents, consider this: Weakness is so important to God that he’ll take the highest earthly experience — the things that elate us (2 Corinthians 12:7) like marriage and parenting — and use them to impose the kind of weakness that delivers his power.

2. Your biggest battle will be the fight for your own faith.

As your kids grow, their preferences morph, their styles change, and their predilections reverse. Part of growing up is deciding what you don’t like or believe so you can run towards what you do. It’s natural and good, but sometimes it was disorienting for me as a dad.

When one of my kids developed a conviction, it seemed like a referendum on my parenting. It wasn’t always easy to find my ground — to know where to stand. The uncertainty resulted in unexpected pressure within me, and this pressure inevitably ricocheted back on my kids.

My problem was not my kids; it was my faith. Unbelief centers faith in the wrong places — it moves us from God’s grace to our activity. We x-ray our kids, looking for the smallest signs of positive changes. We fret over every questionable choice rather than prayerfully trust God’s promises. This makes us circumstance-centered rather than God-centered. When we find ourselves stuck here, Abraham’s example can help us.

While waiting for Isaac to be born, Abraham “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:20–21). For years this passage utterly captivated me. Abraham believed God long before his circumstances changed. His cultivated habit was to give glory to God even when the parenting situation was barren.

Charles Spurgeon once said, “It is a heroic faith that believes Christ in the face of a thousand contradictions.” I’ve wondered whether he was thinking about raising kids. Faith is essential when our kids’ growth is slow or perhaps indiscernible. Faith keeps planting when the soul’s orchard looks completely barren.

Abraham’s response was to grow strong in faith because “he gave glory to God.” Abraham’s faith was not sparked by circumstances. He believed God’s promises. For twenty-five years, Abraham’s circumstances didn’t change, but tucked somewhere in that trial, his faith did.

3. Enjoying your kids shapes their perception of your parenting as much as anything you say.

This wasn’t clear to me early on. I assumed we had most of the major responsibility areas covered, but we weren’t always enjoying the journey. I’ll never forget the feeling in the pit of my stomach when one of my boys once registered surprise when I said I really loved hanging out with him. My enjoyment didn’t always square with his experience. Not a good moment for Dad.

Ever since, when I’ve had a chance to encourage a younger pastor about loving his children well, I will often tell him to design his time, his life, and his vacations so that his kids would grow up thinking, Dad always enjoyed me. Delight in your kids just the way the Father did when he said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

4. Some Christians can painfully over-scrutinize parents’ and children’s choices.

In John 9, Jesus passed by a man who was blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1–2). Jesus’s followers interpreted the blind son’s suffering with the same diagnostic grid we often use for unbelieving, wayward, or rebellious children within the church. We think these kids reveal parental weakness.

At its worst, this becomes a form of gospel-determinism — a God-absent belief that the behavior and spiritual future of the kids is based exclusively upon the parent’s faithful leadership. If a teen is struggling, parents are just reaping what has been sown.

The flip side of that coin is equally dangerous. It assumes that if our kids are doing well, it’s because of our impressive parenting. Thank God for Christ’s response to the disciples’ question about who was to blame: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).

Christians can be uniquely vulnerable to this way of thinking. I wish I’d known that as a young parent. It would have helped me to set more reasonable expectations for the church, and also to serve parents who are burdened by guilt with more compassion, intercession, and long-suffering. Knowing this need would have helped me understand that a gospel culture is less concerned with code-breaking or undiscovered sin, but rather stands in faith, anticipating Christ’s internal work behind the external, more observable, conditions.

What All Parents Need to Hear

Once, a man told me about a parenting event titled “No Regrets.” I assumed it was an event organized by parents of newborns. The parent with no regrets, after all, probably needs to think a little deeper. If you have no regrets in parenting, just ask your kids.

But the gospel goes there — to that flaw-drenched and condemning place. Jesus chooses as his vessels those who are hounded by regrets and through them displays his glory. Peter denied Christ three times and fled from Christ in the Savior’s moment of greatest need. It’s difficult to imagine, even post-forgiveness and calling (John 21:15–19), that Peter didn’t walk the road of regret as a disciple and as a friend. If we’re going to make sense of the gospel, we must see ourselves in Peter’s failure. Parents who don’t make any mistakes don’t need the good news. As Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

We must own our regrets. But it’s also necessary to see that Christ offers us something far better than merely escaping regret. In the cross, God reminds us that our stumbles are never big enough to interrupt his plan for our lives. For Peter, and for all of us, there’s hope beyond regret. Because our glorious Substitute died and rose again, “No regrets” is scribbled over with “No record.”

Do you see how this might change the way we think about our families? We can live and lead with hope today — not because we will always get it all right, but because we follow a Savior who did. From that cradle of security, we can admit our failure, regrets, and weakness. And from that humble posture, we can lift our eyes to the reality, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).

Get Rich or Die Trying?

Mon, 07/30/2018 - 8:00am

Whether we have plenty of money or barely get by, we should save, spend, and give in a way that honors God and maximizes our joy.

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How to Sabotage a Bible Study

Sun, 07/29/2018 - 8:01pm

My dear Globdrop,

You “regret to inform me” that your patient’s small group has laid down their forks, spoons, and gossip (momentarily) and have begun to read the Enemy’s book more consistently. Before you knew it, they began to trade meal time for “Bible time” and this makes you quiver, does it? Nephew, it was my suggestion.

You seem to forget that we never fear a man just because he reads a Bible. Some of our most useful vermin, having dedicated their lives to it, are snuggly tenured in religious departments across the country. Remember, we do not mind the Bible hobbyist, the hypocrite, and the text-twister. All goes awry, however, when the humans understand the Enemy’s word, treasure it, believe it, obey it, and are led through it to him.

Our war efforts are hindered not only by allowing real soldiers to wield his book but also by keeping the toy soldiers from playing with it. Every week, we get the privilege of witnessing the group as they frolic about with the very blade of our Adversary. And as they slash each other, they do our work for us. No, my dear Globdrop, the solution is not to shut down such Bible studies, but rather, to join them. And after joining them, to lead them.

How to Destroy Any Bible Study

Nephew, as you seek to lead your first study, the greatest mistake you can make is to let them read Scripture unsupervised — we risk losing them every time the book is open. That invites their Ghost to do his dreadful work. Never be lax on this point.

Now although the Enemy’s Son insults us — calling us birds in his parable — we do love to devour his word from their hearts. But this can be quite troublesome as it usually requires some weeks’ labor with only moderate returns. It remains far easier to prevent his word from ever truly being planted in them to begin with. This we can deliciously do in their — excuse me, our — Bible studies.

To this end, I now instruct you.

1. Ask great questions.

Convince them that the proper question for all Bible study is either: “How do you feel about the text? What did you get out of it?” Or, our favorite: “What does the text mean to you?” Oh, I nearly fall from my seat waiting to hear their answers! Joanne feels like the Enemy was a tad harsh with his mother at that wedding. And look, Darrin is getting much out of the text! No doubt he is receiving a wonderful sense of annoyance from our idea that Paul was a bit of a sexist in his letter to young Timothy. And to James, “God is love” means that it is of little consequence whether or not he stops sleeping with his girlfriend.

Let them commune with their feelings and opinions while the Enemy’s book lies open on their laps. Make the apostles’ teaching the occasion to tell stories about how tough their week has been or to soapbox about whatever makes them most passionate. Never let them be confronted with the words of Moses, Isaiah, Paul, John, Peter, or, through them all, the Enemy himself.

2. Convince them that there are no wrong thoughts about a verse.

When someone does speak up about what they think the author meant, never let it be questioned. Baptize all interpretations as equal. One of my subjects articulated it well just the other day when, unable to bear the momentary silence, she blurted out, “Guys, this is a safe place to share your thoughts on the passage. There are no wrong answers here.” Precisely.

When all thoughts count, all opinions (however ridiculous) matter, when they are cut off from the accurate interpretations handed down from the past, they become a church unto themselves constituted by that emotional fragility (pride) that will make correcting another’s thoughts higher treason than heresy. Globdrop, when all interpretations are correct, none truly is.

3. Keep the Bible study merely that: a study.

Bring the Enemy’s word out to be dissected, examined, and (if at all possible) critiqued — but make sure to divide the three strands. They must never read devotionally, theologically, and ethically all together. Keep them to one lane. If your man tends towards a theological bent, give him a heavy head, a shriveled heart, and uncalloused hands. Make him the first to debate, the last to worship, and the first to excuse himself from service.

If devotional, make him sentimental but shallow in his understanding and ignorant to any further application. Let him be deeply affected by his personal devotions but never enough to think too hard or to take the Enemy’s commands too seriously.

And finally, if ethically inclined, let him build his social-justice house without any real love for the Enemy. Let him imagine that he does wonders to advance great causes in the world, all while leaving behind the most significant command: love the Enemy with his all. And his highest mission: Make disciples of all nations. “Lord, Lord did we not . . . ” is one of the most satisfying refrains for our Father Below to overhear just before the patients are placed before us for good.

4. Cause them to love the promises while ignoring the commands and warnings.

Let them tell each other indiscriminately: God will never fail you! You are his child! God will always be there for you! God has forgiven you and will continue to do so with every failure, no matter what! (Now, of course, do not let the real children believe this.)

Hand out divine promises to all like free popsicles. While the adulterer licks on his Grace-Grape freezie and the unrepentant drunkard slurps on Strawberry Steadfast-Love, never let them realize the fatal error. Cause them to skip over those terrible themes like repentance, new birth, killing sin, and the Enemy’s wrath when the group inevitably wanders upon them in the text. Let them smile at the warnings and filter every uncomfortable text through “Love,” all the while reserving the conditions for other people. Presumption, dear nephew, presumption.

5. Lead them anywhere but to the Enemy himself.

Never slack on this point. If you recall stories from your great-grandfather, Lord Barkmare, the Pharisees had terrific Bible studies until the Enemy almost spoiled things: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40).

Let the mice free in the labyrinth of theology, current events, or ethics but never let them adore him, follow him, treasure him, go to him and find life. All it takes is one sight and your patient may be lost forever.

So, Globdrop, encourage your prey to bring his Bible this week — we will be reading Philippians 4:13 through the lens of human athletic achievement. But never lose sight of your man. Watch whether yours is the sort who will bleed for it, die for it, storm our gates with it. If he seems to be such a man, tempt him to hit the snooze button in the mornings, fill up his calendar in the evenings, and then continue to gently guide him through our midweek, delightful group Bible study.

Your Expectant Uncle,
Wormwood

The Miracle of Waiting Faithfully

Sun, 07/29/2018 - 8:00pm

Whether we’re hoping for a job, a spouse, or something else, no one likes to patiently wait. But God transforms us in our waiting.

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His Stubborn Joy Brought Slavery Down: William Wilberforce (1759–1833)

Sat, 07/28/2018 - 8:02pm

Against great obstacles, William Wilberforce, an evangelical member of Parliament, fought for the abolition of the African slave trade and against slavery itself until they were both illegal in the British Empire.

The battle consumed almost forty-six years of his life (from 1787 to 1833). The defeats and setbacks along the way would have caused the ordinary politician to embrace a more popular cause. Though he never lost a parliamentary election from age twenty-one to seventy-four, the cause of abolishing the slave trade was defeated eleven times before its passage in 1807. And the battle for abolishing slavery itself did not gain the decisive victory until three days before he died in 1833. What were the roots of this man’s endurance in the cause of public righteousness?

Party-Loving Politician

Wilberforce was born August 24, 1759, in Hull, England. He had admired George Whitefield, John Wesley, and John Newton as a child. But soon he left all the influence of the evangelicals behind. Of his later school years, he said, “I did nothing at all.” That lifestyle continued through his years in St. John’s College at Cambridge. He was able to live off his parents’ wealth and get by with little work. He lost any interest in biblical religion and loved circulating among the social elite.

On a lark, Wilberforce stood for the seat in the House of Commons for his hometown of Hull in 1780 when he was twenty-one. He spent £8,000 on the election. The money and his incredible gift for speaking triumphed over both his opponents. Wilberforce began his fifty-year political career as a late-night, party-loving, upper-class unbeliever.

“The Great Change”

On the long holidays when Parliament was not in session, Wilberforce would sometimes travel with friends or family. In the winter of 1784, when he was twenty-five, on an impulse he invited Isaac Milner, his former schoolmaster and friend from grammar school, who was now a tutor in Queens College, Cambridge, to go with him and his mother and sister to the French Riviera. To his amazement, Milner turned out to be a convinced Christian without any of the stereotypes that Wilberforce had built up against evangelicals. They talked for hours about the Christian faith.

The next summer, Wilberforce traveled again with Milner, and they discussed the Greek New Testament for hours. Slowly his “intellectual assent became profound conviction” (William Wilberforce, 37). One of the first manifestations of what he called “the great change” — the conversion — was the contempt he felt for his wealth and the luxury he lived in, especially on these trips between parliamentary sessions. Seeds were sown almost immediately at the beginning of his Christian life, it seems, of the later passion to help the poor and to turn all his inherited wealth and his naturally high station into a means of blessing the oppressed.

Slavery and Manners

One year after his conversion, God’s apparent calling on his life had become clear to him. On October 28, 1787, he wrote in his diary, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [morals]” (The Life of William Wilberforce, 69).

Soon after Christmas, 1787, a few days before the parliamentary recess, Wilberforce gave notice in the House of Commons that early in the new session he would bring a motion for the abolition of the slave trade. It would be twenty years before he could carry the House of Commons and the House of Lords in putting abolition into law. But the more he studied the matter and the more he heard of the atrocities, the more resolved he became.

In May 1789 he spoke to the House about how he came to his conviction: “I confess to you, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for Abolition. . . . Let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition” (The Life of William Wilberforce, 56).

283 Ayes

Of course, the opposition that raged for twenty years was because of the financial benefits of slavery to the traders and to the British economy. They could not conceive of any way to produce without slave labor. This meant that Wilberforce’s life was threatened more than once. Short of physical harm, there was the painful loss of friends. Some would no longer fight with him, and they were estranged. Then there was the huge political pressure to back down because of the international political ramifications. These kinds of financial and political arguments held Parliament captive for decades.

But victory came in 1807. The moral vision and the political momentum for abolition had finally become irresistible. At one point “the House rose almost to a man and turned towards Wilberforce in a burst of parliamentary cheers. Suddenly, above the roar of ‘Hear, hear,’ and quite out of order, three hurrahs echoed and echoed while he sat, head bowed, tears streaming down his face” (The Life of William Wilberforce, 211).

At 4:00am, February 24, 1807, the House divided — Ayes, 283, Noes, 16, Majority for the Abolition 267. And on March 25, 1807, the royal assent was declared. One of Wilberforce’s friends wrote, “[Wilberforce] attributes it to the immediate interposition of Providence.” In that early morning hour Wilberforce turned to his best friend and colleague, Henry Thornton, and said, “Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?” (The Life of William Wilberforce, 212).

Never Silent

Of course, the battle wasn’t over. And Wilberforce fought on until his death 26 years later, in 1833. Not only was the implementation of the abolition law controversial and difficult, but all it did was abolish the slave trade, not slavery itself. That became the next major cause.

In 1821 Wilberforce recruited Thomas Fowell Buxton to carry on the fight, and from the sidelines, aged and fragile, he cheered him on. Three months before his death in 1833, Wilberforce was persuaded to propose a last petition against slavery. “I had never thought to appear in public again, but it shall never be said that William Wilberforce is silent while the slaves require his help” (William Wilberforce, 90).

The decisive vote of victory for that one came on July 26, 1833, only three days before Wilberforce died. Slavery itself was outlawed in the British colonies. “It is a singular fact,” Buxton said, “that on the very night on which we were successfully engaged in the House of Commons, in passing the clause of the Act of Emancipation — one of the most important clauses ever enacted . . . the spirit of our friend left the world. The day which was the termination of his labors was the termination of his life” (William Wilberforce, 91).

Happy as a Child

What made Wilberforce tick? What made him persevere in the cause of public justice through decades of failure, slander, and threats?

Of course, we must pay due respect to the power of camaraderie in the cause of righteousness. Many people associate Wilberforce’s name with the term Clapham Sect. The band that it referred to were “tagged ‘the Saints’ by their contemporaries in Parliament — uttered by some with contempt, while by others with deep admiration” (Character Counts, 72). Together they accomplished more than any could have done on his own. “William Wilberforce is proof that a man can change his times, though he cannot do it alone” (William Wilberforce, 88).

But there is a deeper root of Wilberforce’s endurance than camaraderie. It is the root of childlike, self-forgetting joy in Christ. The testimonies and evidence of this in Wilberforce’s life are many. A certain Miss Sullivan wrote to a friend about Wilberforce around 1815: “By the tones of his voice and expression of his countenance he showed that joy was the prevailing feature of his own mind, joy springing from entireness of trust in the Savior’s merits and from love to God and man. . . . His joy was quite penetrating” (William Wilberforce, 87).

Another of his contemporaries, James Stephen, recalled after Wilberforce’s death, “Being himself amused and interested by everything, whatever he said became amusing or interesting. . . . His presence was as fatal to dullness as to immorality. His mirth was as irresistible as the first laughter of childhood” (William Wilberforce, 185).

Here is a great key to his perseverance and effectiveness. His presence was “fatal to dullness . . . [and] immorality.” In other words, his indomitable joy moved others to be happy and good. He remarked in his book A Practical View of Christianity, “The path of virtue is that also of real interest and of solid enjoyment” (12). In other words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). He sustained himself and swayed others by his joy. If a man can rob you of your joy, he can rob you of your usefulness. Wilberforce’s joy was indomitable, and therefore he was a compelling Christian and politician all his life. This was the strong root of his endurance.

Peculiar Doctrines, Gigantic Truths

If his childlike, self-forgetting, indomitable joy was a life-giving root for his endurance in the lifelong fight for abolition, what, we might ask, is the root of the root? Or what was the solid ground where the root was planted?

The main burden of Wilberforce’s book, A Practical View of Christianity, is to show that true Christianity, which consists in new, indomitable spiritual affections for Christ, is rooted in the great doctrines of the Bible about sin and Christ and faith. “Let him then who would abound and grow in this Christian principle, be much conversant with the great doctrines of the Gospel” (170). “From the neglect of these peculiar doctrines arise the main practical errors of the bulk of professed Christians. These gigantic truths retained in view, would put to shame the littleness of their dwarfish morality. . . . The whole superstructure of Christian morals is grounded on their deep and ample basis” (166–67).

There is a “perfect harmony between the leading doctrines and the practical precepts of Christianity.” And thus it is a “fatal habit” — so common in his day and ours — “to consider Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines” (198).

Christ Our Righteousness

More specifically, it is the achievement of God through the death of Christ that is at the center of “these gigantic truths,” leading to the personal and political reformation of morals. The indomitable joy that carries the day in time of temptation and trial is rooted in the cross of Christ. If we would fight for joy and endure to the end in our struggle with sin, we must know and embrace the full meaning of the cross.

From the beginning of his Christian life in 1785 until he died in 1833, Wilberforce lived off “the great doctrines of the gospel,” especially the doctrine of justification by faith alone based on the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. This is where he fed his joy. Because of these truths, “when all around him is dark and stormy, he can lift up an eye to Heaven, radiant with hope and glistening with gratitude” (A Practical View of Christianity, 173). The joy of the Lord became his strength (Nehemiah 8:10). And in this strength he pressed on in the cause of abolishing the slave trade until he had the victory.

Therefore, in all our zeal today for racial harmony, or the sanctity of human life, or the building of a moral culture, let us not forget these lessons: Never minimize the central place of God-centered, Christ-exalting doctrine. Labor to be indomitably joyful in all that God is for us in Christ by trusting his great finished work. And never be idle in doing good — that men may see our good deeds and give glory to our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Friends You Need Are Buried in the Past: Q&A on Reading Christian Biographies

Sat, 07/28/2018 - 5:02pm

Christian biographies hold vast treasure for anyone willing to hunt. Don’t starve your soul of the riches they offer.

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Philippians 2:14–18: One of the Hardest Sins to Conquer

Sat, 07/28/2018 - 8:02am

If you conquer this sin, James says you’ll be perfect, Paul says blameless, innocent, and without blemish. But it’s one of the hardest to conquer.

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You’ll Never Wish You Did Less

Fri, 07/27/2018 - 8:02pm

The world had never laid eyes on them before. Yet, there they were, in plain sight, for all to see.

As photographers in helicopters took pictures of the previously uncontacted or lost tribes of the Amazon rainforest, the fear, amazement, and uncertainty in their faces was unforgettable. Spears were in hand and fingers were pointed upwards. I stared at the picture and contemplated a people and tribe that had lived in isolation from globalization and technological advancement for much of the last two hundred years.

For the first time in my life, I looked into the eyes of a people that had most likely never heard (or had a chance to hear) of a Savior named Jesus. They were not unbelieving because they had said no to Jesus, but because they had never had an opportunity to do so. I came to understand these peoples were referred to as “unreached.” They were in existence despite my ignorance.

I came to find out this ignorance was shared by the majority of Christians worldwide. Surprisingly, almost seven out of every ten Christians are unaware of God’s vision for the evangelization of the world, especially among the world’s unreached peoples.

For almost half of my Christian life, I was one of these seven who was unaware of the approximately 8,000 peoples in existence who have never been evangelized. It was not until a cold day in Minneapolis, during a Perspectives on the World Christian Movement class, that I viewed a picture of one of these 8,000 that spoke a thousand words and confronted me with real faces of faithless peoples in need of forgiveness and freedom.

Unengaged, Unsent, Unreached

That picture showed me a lot about a world I did not know. I had never heard the title “Bibleless peoples” either. I knew people who choose not to read a Bible, but I had never heard of the 210 million who might have a desire to read God’s word, but could not, because one did not exist in their language.

And the “unengaged”? I knew of unbelievers, but I had no awareness of the groups in the world who are silently wasting away, waiting to hear about their sin and Savior. Presently, they have no church, agency, or Christian with a plan to get the gospel of Jesus Christ to them.

I had never thought about the “unsent” either. I knew Christ commissioned his people as “sent ones” (John 17:18), but surely he meant something or someone else. I did not know how starved the world is for missionaries and yet how large, and largely unsent, the evangelical church remains. I did not know my future involved only two choices — send or be sent.

But for those believers who do know of these peoples, we must ask a penetrating question, “Is it that you can’t do something, or that you won’t?” Most are unaware, but heaven forbid that the others are unmoved.

Follow the Sent Savior

Jesus was not unaware. He was not unmoved. And he was certainly not unsent. He died to open eyes, jumpstart hearts, and make ready feet for the world.

Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:35–38)

Jesus knew there were many unknown peoples who were unknowledgeable of a God worth knowing. He knew two things: humanity was harassed spiritually, emotionally, and physically and helpless to do anything about it. But he knew something they did not. He was a saving shepherd who would lay down his life for them (John 10:10–11). He was unknown to them, but they were known by him.

Scour sites like Joshua Project, tear into books like Operation World, and watch Prayercast videos. You don’t have to stay uninformed. If you knew that 141,000 new unbelievers enter the world’s global cities every day but that 80% of them will never meet a Christian, or that for every unreached people group there are 78,000 evangelical believers that will hardly ever reach or even notice them, how would it affect you? As David Bryant said, “God cannot lead you on the basis of facts you do not know.”

Harassed, Helpless, Forgotten

Jesus knew his world and “he had compassion for them” (Matthew 9:36). Jesus’s heart broke for the shepherdless sheep, and all too often ours does not. Instead of focusing on whether the proverbial man on the desert island will go to hell if he has never heard the gospel, Christ’s commissioned church is more concerned with who will go to him. We grieve that many who hear do not go to him, and that many do not go to him because they never had the chance to hear.

Jesus’s compassion came as a result of the people’s lostness coupled with the lack of laborers to find them. When only 1 out of every 5,000 professing Christians goes overseas (a mere 0.02%), when there are over three billion harassed and helpless unreached souls at large, we must constantly “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38). Buy a map. Open it. Pore in prayer over its people and places. Many have done so only to find their hearts opened in the process. Let us pray too, with Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, “Let me be broken with the things that break God’s heart.”

Our self-sent God in Christ is the foremost of all missionaries and mobilizers. He was sent to save, and he sends all he saves. Someway, somehow, and somewhere he commissions you and all the Christians around you. When only $1.66 of every $100,000 of Christian income is given to the unreached and only 0.05% of Christian income goes to international missions at all, it’s not too hard to see why more can’t be sent. In fact, it becomes unclear if we are sending at all given such low numbers.

Jesus Was Not Joyless

Despite all sin, suffering, and the sorrowful state of the world, Jesus was driven by the joy of completed mission (Hebrews 12:2). Despite harassed and helpless sheep, and a desperate shortage of laborers, Jesus promised a plentiful harvest full of the redeemed from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Revelation 5:9). This is the joy Jesus saw. He is not just God, but a God over his people — many of whom are largely unknown and do not know him yet.

If Jesus was joyous against all odds, so shall we his people. Let us fix our eyes on him and pray, give, go, and send in joyful anticipation that there is no greater joy than to have throngs of largely unknown peoples known by our heavenly Father. As John states, there is “no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4). Let us walk in such a way that our heavenly joyfulness will one day include today’s unknown and unreached peoples.

Robert Savage said, “The command has been to ʻgo,ʼ but we have stayed — in body, gifts, prayer, and influence. He has asked us to be witnesses unto the uttermost parts of the earth. But 99% of Christians have kept puttering around in the homeland.” May we not be added to them, but may we boldly risk for the sake of the nations. We can rest assured that no one will ever enter heaven saying, “I wish I had done less for the nations.”

Step into Supernatural Joy

Fri, 07/27/2018 - 8:00am

Jesus invites every one of us to trade in our temporary, worldly pleasures, and enter into his divine stream of unending delight.

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Jesus Understands Your Loneliness

Thu, 07/26/2018 - 8:02pm

Do you ever think of Jesus as lonely? Certainly his moments in Gethsemane and on Calvary were uniquely and terribly lonely, but what about the rest of his life?

In some sense, he may have been the loneliest human in history.

Loneliness is what we feel when we’re isolated from others. Loneliness often has less to do with others’ physical absence and more to do with feeling disconnected or alienated from them. Or misunderstood by them. In fact, these are far more painful species than mere absence, because we feel the isolation of being despised and rejected.

Which is precisely how Isaiah prophetically described Jesus: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Given who Jesus was, this experience would have begun decades before his public ministry even began. Which means Jesus is able to sympathize with your loneliness far more than you might have previously thought (Hebrews 4:15).

Unsurpassed Homesickness

Jesus humbled himself to be “born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). We have little ability to comprehend just how much this cost him. He experienced both the absence of his Father and human rejection at levels we can scarcely begin to imagine.

When I say that Jesus experienced the absence of his Father, I don’t mean that he didn’t enjoy spiritual communion with the Father through the Spirit on earth. He did, and it was sweeter than anything you or I have yet experienced (Matthew 3:17; John 1:32; 5:20).

Yet in order to be incarnated, he left, in some sense, the manifest and holy presence of his Father and the glory he enjoyed there from an eternity before the world existed (John 17:5). He had to endure living in a world under the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19). Think of when you’ve been far away from your dearest ones in a lonely, perhaps even desolate, place. Speaking to them by phone may have been sweet, but it was not the same as being with them. This is a poor analogy, but it makes the point. As the apostle Paul said, there is nothing like being face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12). Jesus would have experienced a “homesickness” for the presence of his Father far more profound and painful than anything we’ve experienced.

Alone in the World

Now, imagine what living in this world was like for him. Jesus was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). We might think this sounds like a pleasant problem to have. I doubt it was only pleasant. I suspect it tormented him. If Lot experienced daily torment while living in Sodom because of the “lawless deeds that he saw and heard” (2 Peter 2:8), how much worse was it for sinless Jesus constantly surrounded by sinners and demonic powers, rarely if ever able to fully escape their defiling presence?

And imagine what Jesus’s childhood must have been like. Do you remember what it felt like to want friends? Jesus was truly human and would have longed for human friendship too. But lacking the sin nature everyone else had, and having a divine nature no one else had, he would have been a very odd person. Holiness makes sinners want to flee. Jesus would have stuck out morally like a sore thumb, never quite being understood, frequently despised and rejected, even within his own family.

White Sheep of the Family

His parents knew who he was and loved him deeply. But they wouldn’t have fully understood him. How could they? Nor would they have been able to protect him from others’ stinging remarks or cruel mocking over his strangeness.

I wonder how much of that came from his siblings. His brothers and sisters (Matthew 13:55–56) would have grown increasingly self-conscious around him as they aged, aware of their own sinful, self-obsessed motives and behavior, while noting that Jesus didn’t seem to exhibit any himself. And they couldn’t have helped notice the unique way their parents deferred to him. What kind of sibling resentments grew? We know that all was not harmonious because Jesus’s own brothers didn’t believe in him (John 7:5), possibly not until after his resurrection (Acts 1:14).

Jesus was a sinless person living with sinful parents, sinful siblings, sinful extended relatives, sinful neighbors, sinful countrymen, sinful foreigners, and sinful disciples, not to mention the sinful spiritual entities he would have had an unprecedented awareness of and sensitivity to. No one on earth could identify totally with him. No human being could put an arm around him as he sat in tears and say, “I know exactly what you’re going through.” Jesus’s experience of rejection, sorrow, and grief would have begun as soon as he was old enough to comprehend and communicate.

And we think we feel weary. How did he bear it? What did it mean for him to sing psalms like, “My soul is greatly troubled. But you, O Lord — how long?” (Psalm 6:3)?

Most Lonely Moment in History

But that was all a precursor. There was a supreme moment of loneliness, so dark and deep that only Jesus has ever experienced. It was on the cross the moment he became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). In that unfathomably horrible, incomprehensibly lonely moment, he felt forsaken by his Father (Matthew 27:46) and all those he loved. He was ravaged physically and spiritually “beyond human semblance” (Isaiah 52:14). Having spent his earthly life estranged by his sinlessness, now Jesus was estranged by the sin he willingly bore — our sin.

No one has experienced or understands the depths of loneliness like Jesus.

End of All Loneliness

But he can and does understand your loneliness. He can sympathize with this weakness more than you know (Hebrews 4:15).

Jesus doesn’t merely understand your loneliness; he’s destroying it. Because he bore the sin that estranged and alienated you from God and died on your behalf, you are no longer truly a stranger or alien, but you are a fellow citizen with all the saints and a member of God’s family (Ephesians 2:19).

Loneliness, like every form of suffering, is passing away for those who love him. Ahead of you is the full family fellowship of God and all of his redeemed saints forever. The day is nearing when you will know him as you have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).

So “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that [you] may receive mercy and find grace to help” with every lonely need (Hebrews 4:16). And be a saint who helps others experience a foretaste of heaven by extending to them the loneliness-destroying love of Jesus.

How Do I Cling to God — When Life Feels Easy?

Thu, 07/26/2018 - 8:00pm

We’re needy people. But when life�’s going well, we often forgot just how needy we really are.

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FEATURE: The Most Scandalous Verdict: How James Prepares Us for Justification by Faith

Wed, 07/25/2018 - 8:02pm

The late R.C. Sproul preached a memorable message on Luke 13:1–5 and the misplaced “locus of astonishment.” Those who approached Jesus to ask about the Galileans whom Pilate slaughtered should have been less amazed that their countrymen were dead, and more amazed that they themselves, equally sinful, had been spared.

Perhaps we might say something similar with the common questions about James on justification. Are we wrongly amazed (and concerned) by what James says, when we really should marvel (with profound gratitude) at the peculiar claims of Paul?

The real scandal over justification in the New Testament is not what James teaches, but Paul.

Taking two thousand years of Christian truth for granted, we might assume, for good reason, that what Paul teaches is typical and obvious enough, and James is the oddball who needs special treatment and careful explanation. For five hundred years, Protestants have been providing helpful, persuasive treatments of the doctrine of justification that begin with Paul, and then move to James as a possible objection. It’s understandable. We have much more content from Paul in the New Testament, and (fittingly) our theological categories have taken their cues from Paul’s language, not James.

But we may be missing something precious when we always work from Paul to James, and never James to Paul. We may miss how normal and unsurprising it is that James says what he does about justification — and how wonderfully shocking, then, is the grace God extends us in the gospel of his Son through the words of Paul.

What Is Justification?

Come with me into the courtroom. Here is where we get the ancient and enduring concept and language of “justification,” and where we can understand the normalcy of James (and Matthew), and then the special project and vision of Paul.

The word justify pairs with condemn as the legal pronouncement or definitive declaration in a court of law (Proverbs 17:15; Romans 5:16, 18; 8:33–34). The judge renders a verdict about a defendant’s actions (or inaction) based on the expressed standard of the law. First, the law exists. Then someone acts contrary to, or questionably regarding, the law and is accused formally by a plaintiff. In court, the plaintiff and defendant present and refute arguments and evidence. Finally, a judge (or jury) declares a verdict — guilty or innocent, condemned or justified — by comparing his sense of the person’s conduct, based on the evidence, to the expressed law.

We might call this “ordinary justification.” This is how we normally use the language of justification in the world today, as humans have for millennia. The verdict is based on the defendant’s action (or inaction) related to established law. This ordinary use, then, appears in the Bible in reference to God’s coming judgment. He is the Judge of the universe, and at the end of the age, he will render his verdicts based on evidence, not make-believe (Acts 17:31; Romans 3:6).

We see this ordinary sense of justification in Matthew 11:19: “wisdom is justified by her deeds.” And Matthew 12:37: “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Also in Luke (7:29, 35; 10:29; 16:14–15). And in Romans 2:13, Paul himself expresses this principle of normal or ordinary justification: “the doers of the law . . . will be justified.”

James 2:20–26, of course, memorably expresses this normal sense of justification. James writes that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), and he makes clear in his two preceding statements that he has the final judgment in view:

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:12–13)

Simply put, James uses the word justify in the ordinary way, like Matthew, and like Romans 2:13. And though his word-choice is different from what we will find in Paul, James teaches a vital truth well-represented in Paul: those whom God declares righteous in the end will have more to their name than just faith (for instance, Galatians 5:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; Romans 3:31; 8:4). True faith in Christ will be accompanied by acts of love for others because true faith (produced by God’s Spirit, who “gives life,” John 6:63) produces love in us for others.

When talking about final judgment, as we’ll see, Paul indeed agrees with James that “faith apart from works is useless” (James 2:20), that “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). At the final judgment, “the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed,” Paul writes, God will “render to each one according to his works” (Romans 2:5–6). (The apostle John also uses the language of “according to works” for the final judgment, Revelation 2:23.)

The human courtroom, in all its pomp and circumstance, anticipates the great final judgment, with God himself as Judge, coming at the end of the age. That much is clear and simple: justification, then, will be according to (not contrary to) words spoken and deeds performed in the world. But what will be the “basis” or ground of God’s final declaration?

Justification by Faith

Then Paul — especially in his letters to the Romans and Galatians — turns over the bench to teach a shocking and wonderful truth about those who are in Christ: by virtue of being in Christ, we already have God’s final verdict. Already now, in Christ, we are vindicated in the courtroom of heaven. We are justified by faith. This in no way unseats the coming final judgment according to works — and does not make for two justifications (present and final) but two vantage points of our one justification in Christ. And it does not undermine what James, or Matthew, or Paul himself in Romans 2:13, teaches — but it surprises and delights those of us who are in Christ with the glory of what is already true of us by faith.

Joined to Jesus now, by faith, we already share in his verdict: Righteous. Justified. As surely as we are in Christ, we not only will receive his verdict before his Father, but we already now have it. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

This, then, is what we might call “extraordinary justification,” or “special justification,” based not on what we did or didn’t do, but on the actions of Jesus. (Stephen Westerholm refers to “ordinary” and “extraordinary” righteousness and notes, “Paul undoubtedly employed [this] terminology in ways that went beyond the limits of normal Greek usage.”) Though righteous, Jesus stood condemned in our place. He took the curse we deserved and settled it in his body at the cross (Galatians 3:13), and we, being joined to him by faith, are justified in him and share in the blessing for his righteousness (Romans 5:19; Philippians 3:9). What’s “special” about this justification is not mainly its timing (already now) but its basis (in Christ and his righteousness). Proverbs 17:15 is the ordinary sense: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” Romans 4:5 is extraordinary: In Christ, God “justifies the ungodly.”

Note well, this “great exchange” happens only in true and ongoing union with him — not between two separate parties, but two distinct parties united as one — as when a rich man marries a woman in debt. As husband and wife are formally and legally united, his great provisions cover her debt, and she comes to enjoy the bounty of his resources.

Why We Need It

Perhaps our need is clear enough already, but we should make it explicit. The reason we need this “special justification” in Jesus is because we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In our sin, we have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). Our instinct may be to try to make it up to God, to try to cover our unrighteousness with our own righteousness. But in a human court, the amount of good we’ve done is no defense against compelling evidence of particular wrongdoing. And besides, from God’s perspective, we’re actually unable to do genuine righteousness, despite what we may think (Romans 8:7–8).

We might suspect, Well, if there is any good I could do that would count with God, it would be abiding by his own law. The best works in all the world would be “works of the law,” obedience to the standards God himself has revealed. However, as Paul repeats over and over, this special justification is “apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). “By works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). God saves us “not because of works done by us in righteousness” (Titus 3:5). “By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20).

God’s law is righteous (Romans 7:12; 8:4), but he never intended his law to provide our righteousness. The law is a standard, not a supplier. Righteousness, Paul makes plain again and again, does not come through the law (Romans 3:21; 4:13; 10:5; Galatians 2:21; 3:11; 3:21; Philippians 3:9). James and Matthew would not disagree.

How It Happens

How, then, is a sinful, undeserving human, destined for coming condemnation and divine curse, able to hear the Judge of the universe declare some of the sweetest possible words, “You are righteous”?

In Romans and Galatians, as Paul lays out his case for this hope-giving, life-changing, extraordinary justification, he makes it abundantly clear that such justification before God comes through Christ by faith. In Christ all who believe are justified (Acts 13:39). “The righteousness of God” for our justification comes “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:22). We are “justified . . . through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . . to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24–25). Time and again, it’s two realities: Christ and faith. Theologians have come to call these the ground and the instrument of justification.

Christ Alone, Faith Alone

The ground of justification is Christ. And not Christ plus anything else. Nowhere does Paul hint that Christ has any company as ground or basis. So, it is fitting to say Christ alone is the ground of our justification. He sacrificed his own life, and so we are “justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9). His righteousness is the ground of God declaring us, in him, to be righteous (Romans 5:16–19; Philippians 3:9). We are “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 6:11). In no way do our own efforts serve as the ground of our justification. But we are justified in Christ “as a gift” (Romans 3:24; 4:4; 5:15–17; 6:23), “justified by his grace” (Romans 3:24; 5:2, 15, 17, 20–21; 11:6).

What instrument, then, corresponds to Christ alone as the ground of justification? Faith. Justification “depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace” (Romans 4:16). We receive his grace, from outside us, and the channel of this reception is what we call “belief” or “trust” or “faith.” Christ, for justification, is “to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25). This already-now justification in Christ is for “the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

The instrument of justification is faith. And not faith plus anything else. Nowhere does Paul hint that faith has any company as the instrument. So, it is fitting to say faith alone is the means that connects us to Christ for justification. And even though Paul teaches something extraordinary, different than the typical concept of justification in the world, don’t think the Old Testament didn’t anticipate this.

As far back as Genesis 15, in one of the foundational stories of the Jewish people, Father Abraham is said, in essence, to have been justified by faith. “He believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Here God embeds in holy Scripture a remarkable placeholder for, and pointer to, the full-orbed reality of justification by faith that he would unveil in the gospel for his church primarily through Paul. How was Abraham counted righteous? Not in the ordinary way. Not on the basis of his actions. Rather, “he believed the Lord” (Genesis 15:6) — and anticipated all those who, like him, because of Christ, would be “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1).

Our Works: Evidential and Essential

Paul labors to make plain that God offers us this special, already-now justification on the sole grounds of Christ and his work, through the sole instrument of faith. What, then, comes of our doing, our works, our efforts and actions, our living? Does it matter what we do, and don’t do, if our ultimate standing with God isn’t based on our doing?

As we’ve seen, a final judgment is coming. In that courtroom, as James makes plain, “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). And on that final day, those whom God has declared righteous in his Son by faith will have more to their name than just faith. True faith in Christ will be accompanied by love for others because true faith (supplied by God’s Spirit) produces love in us for others.

Actions matter in the Christian life. Good works matter. Before the Judge of the universe, in his public courtroom, Spirit-produced good deeds will serve as precious evidence to the world that God united us to his Son, and in him (alone) we have been justified by faith (alone). Evidence is not optional in a righteous courtroom. And that includes the courtroom of heaven.

What Kind of Faith?

But before we assume that the role of our works at the final judgment spoils the gift of grace that is already-now justification in Christ by faith, we should keep two vital realities in view: the kind of faith that justifies and the power of the Person who produces it.

Justifying faith is not mere mental assent. The kind of faith that justifies is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Love for others is not the instrument of justification; rather, the kind of faith that is real, and therefore justifies, is the kind of faith that inevitably produces love.

But what can we say about how justifying faith produces good works? Romans 10:9–10 clarifies that true faith is not mere belief in the head that leaves the heart and life untouched, but belief in the heart. “With the heart one believes.” Such belief in the heart requires a new heart, with new desires, and new delights. As John Piper asks, and answers,

What is this experience of receiving Christ really like? Is it like receiving a blow? Is it like receiving a gift you need, but don’t want? Is it like receiving desired help from someone you dislike? Is it like receiving a package from the postman you scarcely know or care to know? . . .

Receiving Christ in a saving way means preferring Christ over all other persons and things. It means desiring him — not only what he can do. His deeds on our behalf are meant to make it possible to know and enjoy him forever. We do not receive him savingly when we receive him as a ticket out of hell or into heaven. He is not a ticket. He is a treasure — the greatest Treasure. He is what makes heaven heaven. If we want a pain-free heaven without him there, we do not receive him; we use him.

Therefore . . . it is helpful to insist that justifying faith means receiving, welcoming, embracing Jesus for all that God is for us in him.

Such faith in Jesus not only justifies but also will make us progressively holy in him (what we call “sanctification”) as it severs the root of sin in sinful desires.

And beyond the nature of justifying faith as the glad receiving of Christ, we’re also not left with our faith hanging on its own. A divine Person always stands behind it and works in and through it. God himself, by his Spirit, not only creates justifying faith in us, but sustains it. He who began a good work in us will complete it (Philippians 1:6). Already-now justification always happens “by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11), and never apart from “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom [God] poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5–6).

We will do well to ask about our “locus of astonishment,” in Sproul’s words, when we come to ponder and teach and herald our doctrine of justification. When we see that James 2 (and Matthew 11–12) says what we should expect to hear from any century about the final judgment, then we may see with greater clarity, and experience an even greater joy over, what Paul so plainly and shockingly teaches: in Christ, through faith, not our deeds, we sinners are received as fully righteous before the infinitely glorious God. This is the real scandal of justification.

Perfect Peace for Anxious Souls

Wed, 07/25/2018 - 8:00am

This world tries to offer peace, but nothing on this earth will give you rest like Jesus offers. Come, all you who are weary.

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The Morning Before a Sexual Fall: How the Battle for Purity Is Lost

Tue, 07/24/2018 - 8:02pm

Two voices vie for your sexual purity. If you think the battle is just about images and videos, you won’t be ready to fight. This is a war of words.

According to Proverbs 2, whom we listen to — each morning, throughout the day, late at night — will determine whether we give in to temptation or resist with the strength of God. The first voice is the voice of God written in Scripture:

My son, if you receive my words
     and treasure up my commandments with you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
     and inclining your heart to understanding;
yes, if you call out for insight
     and raise your voice for understanding,
if you seek it like silver
     and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
     and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:1–5)

While some counselors simply say, “Run away from her,” true wisdom says, “Run even harder after God.” How will you be delivered from “the forbidden woman . . . with her smooth words” (Proverbs 2:16)? By surer words. It’s not the only strategy we need for sexual purity, but without this ruthless habit of mind and heart, every other strategy is bound to fail.

The First Voice We Hear

Notice that the wise man doesn’t simply encourage his son to read the Bible, but to listen, search, cry out, and dig.

Listen carefully with your ears (2:2).
Search persistently with your eyes (2:4).
Cry out desperately with your mouth (2:3).
Dig tirelessly with your hands (2:4).
Wrap your heart around these words (2:1–2).

Hearing God’s voice in the Bible requires more from us than other kinds of reading. It requires all of us. Reading the Bible well means engaging every part of you — meditating and praying until God’s words are pleasant to you (Proverbs 2:10). No one is saved from sin and temptation simply by information. We need surgery — words sharp enough to pierce through our dullness, wielded by one wise enough and strong enough to never harm us.

Receive. Treasure. Make your ear attentive. Incline your heart. Seek it like silver. Does engaging God’s word feel that active to you? Reading the Bible is good, but reading alone is not enough to feed and purify our souls. When we give more, expect more, pray more, invest more in our reading, God’s words begin to have their full effect in our hearts and lives by his Spirit.

No Shortcuts to Life Change

If you seek God’s wisdom like silver, “then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:5).

The thens in Scripture are terribly frustrating for fools who want the conclusion without the exertion. The fool wants God to ship him purity because he asked for it. We’re prone to chafe and protest when God promises to give us what we asked for through persistent struggle. It doesn’t feel like a gift if we have to work.

Until we realize our effort is a miracle — something that would have never happened apart from divine intervention. It is supernatural to strive to enjoy God’s word — to listen, search, cry out, dig. And if you seek understanding like silver, “Then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:5). Not simply knowledge of him like you know driving laws or American history, but knowledge filled with fear and affection — a kind of spiritual, emotional, and relational knowledge. You know him. And you are a different person for having known him.

The Second Voice

If you treasure God’s word, then you will fear and understand, and “so you will be delivered from the forbidden woman” (Proverbs 2:5, 16). There are three distinct steps in Proverbs 2. Don’t miss the sequence: If. Then. So. Bible meditation becomes fearful and affectionate knowledge of God himself, and that kind of knowledge delivers us from sexual sin and temptation.

Bible reading alone will not keep you from sexual sin. You will not know the Lord without really hearing his voice. And you will not find satisfying and durable sexual purity without knowing fearful and joyful communion with God through Scripture. If we try to check the boxes of obedience without trying to know him, we quickly forfeit our ability to consistently and joyfully say no to temptation.

And that temptation is the second most important voice in Proverbs 2.

War of Words

When Proverbs describes the forbidden woman, it calls her “the adulteress with her smooth words” (Proverbs 2:16; see also 7:5). Later it says, “The lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil” (Proverbs 5:3). And then again in Proverbs 22:14: “The mouth of forbidden women is a deep pit; he with whom the Lord is angry will fall into it.” Proverbs mentions the forbidden woman five times, and four times it says explicitly how she destroys a man: with words.

No wonder God’s plan for sexual purity begins with listening to what he says. When we delight in his words and meditate on them, we wage war against sweet, smooth, and lethal words. Even in a society dominated by images and video, words remain the battleground for sexual purity. Every illicit image whispers a lie and makes a promise it cannot keep. By listening to the words of God and knowing him with fear and affection, we are prepared to prove that sexual sin’s promises are untrustworthy and therefore unenticing.

God, on the other hand, fulfills every promise and every warning, and he warns us that the forbidden woman’s “house sinks down to death, and her paths to the departed; none who go to her come back, nor do they regain the paths of life” (Proverbs 2:18–19). With the same mouth, he promises through King David, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalms 16:11).

Whose mouth fills your head? In the moments of temptation, two voices vie for your heart. One is smooth, seductive, and destructive; the other is sovereign, reliable, and rewarding. One lures you into bed with death; the other places you firmly and mercifully on the path to life. Let his voice have the ears of your heart — not just in the moment, but in the many moments before temptation comes.

When to Start Reading

Many of us think to open our Bibles the day after falling into sin — almost as a kind of Protestant penance. Having not fought the temptation to sin, we at least try to mitigate the guilt. But Proverbs 2 teaches us to open our Bibles days, weeks, months, even years before temptation comes.

The fight for sexual purity begins with drawing battle lines in God’s word each morning. Proverbs 2 lays out the spiritual map and sequence for our war:

Read the Bible until you love to read and obey the Bible.
Then, you will know and fear God deep in your heart.
So, you will be delivered from “the forbidden woman” — from sexual sin and temptation.

If you give yourself to God’s word before you give into sin, “wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you, delivering you from the way of evil” (Proverbs 2:10–12). Sexual sin is most enticing when God’s word has lost its sweetness in our ears. How can we treasure what God says and let our eyes wander?

And unless we listen to it attentively, search it persistently, cry out over it desperately, dig into it tenaciously, and read it relentlessly, the word of God will not be sweet enough to our ears to deliver us from evil. Unless we seek it like silver, we’re bound to fall again.

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