“Take heart.” Imagine hearing those two words, as the disciples often did, from the mouth of God himself in the flesh.
And yet how flat these words can fall when we say them to our own hearts. If only we could up and redirect our hearts. None of us wants to be down. Far too often, though, our hearts seem to lie beyond our reach, outside our control.
However discouraged you may feel, your flagging heart never lies beyond the reach of Christ. No matter how troubled, how unsettled, how fickle, how disoriented, how despondent, Jesus can handle your ailing heart. “There are many sorts of broken hearts,” says Charles Spurgeon, “and Christ is good at healing them all.”
Jesus knows the human heart. He made it, and then he took one himself when he became man. He knows, as both God and man, how to furnish courage to a fearful heart. He knows how to parcel joy to a sad heart. He is adept, and proven, at giving strength, in perfect portion, to a weak heart; peace to an anxious heart; forgiveness to a guilty heart; and wholeness to a broken heart.
And how does he choose, over and over again, to do so? He speaks. What would he have us do when our hearts are wilting? Rehear his words.He Knows Your Heart
He made our human hearts and souls to respond to the touch of his words, with the aid of his Spirit. When our strength is low, and our faith is failing, he means for us to receive the grace of his words. We are prone in our pain to underestimate the power of his words — to set his words aside for other comforts, whether entertainment, or food, or drink, or work, or mere human relationships.
When Jesus speaks to us, one of the most common and distinctive words we hear is “Take heart.” He doesn’t say, “Follow your hearts,” but take them — take them from the pit, from the subtle and seemingly inescapable delusion they are under, and remind them of who he is, what he has done, and what he will do. He rolls back the stone and speaks into the tomb of our souls. He creates what he commands, as he says with sovereign sway, “Take heart.”
In particular, the Gospels give us five concrete instances of Jesus saying, “Take heart.” Each comes with a precious, powerful, timeless reason that shows us how the words of Jesus work to bolster weary souls.1. He who says, ‘Take heart,’ says, ‘I AM.’
Matthew 14 and Mark 6 report one of the most stunning events in the ministry of Christ — a peculiar miracle reserved for his disciples. It was not a healing with an accompanying word, but simply a striking revelation of who he is.
He had sent his men along on a boat to the other side of the sea, while he stayed behind to pray. On the water, the disciples were met with fierce winds and were unable to make headway. Then, in the middle of the night, Jesus “came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear” (Matthew 14:25–26).
Their hearts are deeply shaken. They are terrified. They cry out in fear. But Jesus speaks a word to them: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27; Mark 6:50). Literally, his words are “Take heart, I am” — which has a double meaning: “It is I, Jesus, whom you know,” and, “I am the Great I Am.” As when Moses asked for God’s name, and he said, “I Am Who I Am” (Exodus 3:14), so Jesus now declares to his disciples, “I Am.”
When Jesus tells us to take heart, he does so as God himself. I am God, and there is no other, he says. I am your Creator. I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I am God himself, made human, dwelling among you — and I am for you. Do not be afraid. You are under my watch and care, and no storm, however great, can match my power and protection. Take heart; I am.2. You have the attention of God himself.
Not only is he God himself in full humanity, but if you claim Jesus as Lord, you can know he has taken notice of you, and he is calling to you.
Mark 10 tells us of a blind beggar who was sitting along the roadside, having hoped Jesus would pass that way. When he heard Jesus finally had come near, he began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47). The crowd saw it as an annoyance. “Many rebuked him, telling him to be silent” (Mark 10:48). But Jesus took notice. He was not annoyed. Instead of pushing the crowd away, he drew them in and directed them to extend his invitation to the man: “Call him.” And so they turn to the blind man, and say, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you” (Mark 10:49).
Take heart. He sees you. He hears you. He is not inattentive to your pleas. Even though your eyes cannot see him, his are fixed on you. In the midst of the bustling crowd, you have his attention, and you have his invitation. He is calling to you, and moving toward you, to heal, to bless, to extend his grace and compassion and mercy to you. Take heart; he is calling you.3. Your sins are forgiven.
Twice in Matthew 9, Jesus says, “Take heart” — first to a paralyzed man he affectionately calls “my son” (Matthew 9:2), then to an old woman he calls “daughter” (Matthew 9:22).
The paralytic couldn’t get himself to Jesus, but his friends brought him. “And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven’” (Matthew 9:2). To be forgiven, by God himself, is one of the greatest gifts imaginable. How prone are we to take forgiveness lightly, as if God owed it to us — as if his pardon were somehow our right? And how much discontent in our lives might be dispelled if we took more seriously, deep down in our souls, the spectacular grace of his forgiveness?
We are sinners all — by birth and by choice. And in our sin, the omnipotent wrath of God stood justly against us. It is an indescribably terrible doom. And yet God, in sheer, magnificent mercy, did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us, that we might be forgiven our infinitely heinous capital offenses against the most valuable person in the universe.
“Your sins are forgiven” is only trite to those who gravely underestimate their own sin and tragically misunderstand the glory of forgiveness. The more we know ourselves forgiven — and forgiven so much — the more difficult it will be for roots of discontent to grow in the soil of our souls. Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.4. You need not rely on yourself anymore.
Later in Matthew 9, he says take heart to a daughter. As a local ruler rushes Jesus off to raise his 12-year-old daughter, Jesus makes time, in the frantic chaos, to turn to a woman who had suffered a discharge of blood for twelve years. “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly, Matthew reports, “the woman was made well” (Matthew 9:22).
Faith — of all things! Not your goodness. Not your doing. Not your virtue. Not your deserving. Faith — the peculiarly receiving virtue, as Andrew Fuller called it — is a reason to take heart. Jesus’s word, “Take heart,” is not based on our skill set and proven record. Jesus doesn’t bid us to look inward and take heart. Rather, he says to look outward — such is the nature of faith — to see in him, outside ourselves, the ground of courage and reason for truth.
Jesus’s call to faith is not a summons to muster up our own strength, but to lean on his. The call to faith is not a challenge to dig down deep inside, but an invitation to rest in the depths of power outside of us in him. Take heart, my daughter; your faith has made you well.5. Your God has already overcome.
Finally, John 16:33 may be the best known, and most sweeping, of Jesus’s “take heart” statements. In the upper room, the night before he died, he says to his disciples at the end of his farewell discourse,
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.
Many of us have been caught off guard, almost all of a sudden, as we’ve come of age and realized the extent and depths of the fallenness of our world. Tribulation is not the misfortune of some, but a promise to all. It’s just a matter of time. “In the world you will have tribulation” — at least intermittently, if not constantly. Jesus does not want his people to be surprised by the enormous, gut-wrenching pain of this present age.
But, he says — what a glorious contrast. What good news follows the great contrasts in the mouth of God. “You were dead, but . . .” “You were separated, but . . .” And here: “You will have tribulation. But take heart.” Downcast soul, don’t miss this. Weary heart, pay attention to the promise that follows. Rightly heard and understood, this will give you courage. This will be a truth to rehearse again and again. This will be a reality to regularly remind yourself, especially when your heart is weak and your courage is faltering. Take this truth to mind, take it afresh into your soul, and take heart: He has overcome the world.
His promise doesn’t mean the punch of the present won’t land on us horribly. It doesn’t mean the pain will not be real, and awful, and suffocating. It doesn’t mean we won’t feel battered by wave after relentless wave of hardship and frustration and loss. But it does mean the present shadow will pass. Night is already far gone. The day is at hand (Romans 13:12). He has overcome the world — and his triumph will eventually be worked into every nook and cranny of our lives.
In him, not only is the clock ticking on our tribulation, but also right now, in the midst of it, he is pounding it for our everlasting good. The one who has overcome is at work in our affliction, “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). So, take heart; your God has overcome the world.
One day God will set every wrong to right. But until then, he calls his people to stand against every injustice.
Faith kills pride by forcing us to look away from ourselves to God to receive the gift of salvation that we could never earn on our own.
Many of us fail to overcome temptation because we refuse to use our imagination. The dragon of deceitful desires creeps in to kill, and we lay down our sword.
Over and over, God comes alongside us in moments of temptation and invites us to imagine what we are really facing. What is really happening when you walk past a woman and are tempted to look back? Or when you stand in front of a mirror and feel insecurity rising? Or when fantasies of a better life begin to fill your mind?
We are not merely “being tempted” in these moments. Wild beasts are attacking (Genesis 4:7). Idols are bidding us to bow down (Ezekiel 14:3). An adulteress is waving us into her door (Proverbs 9:13–18). A gangrenous disease is threatening to spread (2 Timothy 2:16–17). Why does God soak our imagination with those awful images? Because we react differently to the vague idea of “temptation” than we do to a wolf at our door. The one can be entertained, even coddled; the other needs to die.
In Romans 6:15–23, Paul calls us to look behind today’s temptations and imagine spiritual reality. Behind every temptation is a master, merciless and cruel. He holds out life, honor, and happiness with one hand, and hides death and hell behind his back. Whenever we disobey God, we place ourselves in the service of this master.Two Masters
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Romans 6:16)
To be human is to be a servant — if not to the true God, then to something else. Here, Paul places every alternative under a single banner: sin. Either we swear allegiance to God, our Creator and Redeemer, or to sin, the master of Satan’s miserable army.
On our own, we are prone to see our options differently. We might, like Adam and Eve, think that the alternative to serving God is becoming our own god (Genesis 3:4–5). We reach for the fruit of forbidden desire and imagine we are exercising our freedom. But if spiritual reality were to become visible, we would see ourselves in chains, bound and led at every step.
Though God’s people have been decisively freed from slavery to sin (Romans 6:17), Paul assumes that Christians must continue to answer the question “Whom will you serve?” every day (Romans 6:19). With every rise of sinful desire, we have a choice: either follow Jesus into newness of life, or revert to our old slave master. One of them commands us to take up our cross now, only to raise us from the dead; the other promises an easy life now, only to kill us in the end.Two Rewards
Just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (Romans 6:19)
Over time, the obedience we give, to God or to sin, changes us. Moments of worry, gossip, cowardice, or laziness, built up through habit, shape us — as do moments of trust, gracious speech, courage, or endurance. Eventually, we become like the one we obey.
For all the liberation sin promises, handing ourselves over to him degrades us, dishonors us, dehumanizes us. He traffics in “dishonorable passions” (Romans 1:26), and leads us to do “things of which [we] are now ashamed” (Romans 6:21). Sin recruits only by deceit (Romans 7:11): he promises to give us whatever we want, and then leaves us with less than we ever had.
Those who give themselves to God, on the other hand, find themselves walking in newness of life (Romans 6:4). They discover the grand secret that holiness is not a stuffy thing, not a grim thing, not a “religious” thing, but rather, as Thomas Watson puts it, “heaven begun in the soul.” God’s servants become more dignified, more ennobled, more of what they were always supposed to be — in a word, more like Christ.
Nor is God content to leave his people as mere servants. All who serve God become sons of God (Romans 8:14), heirs alongside Christ (Romans 8:17), and citizens of the coming world, where they will live in glory (Romans 8:21). Such service is the purest kind of freedom.Two Destinies
The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
Many of us hear this familiar verse and assume that death is the wage that God delivers to sinners. Although sin certainly awakens God’s wrath (Romans 1:18; 5:9), Paul has a different burden here. For death, he tells us, is the wage of sin — the payment sin gives to his most loyal subjects.
Paul would not have us picture sin’s servants enjoying life with their master, until God ends their happiness with death. Rather, sin is the one who sneaks up on his servants and, when they least expect it, sinks a knife into their back. Like Woman Folly in Proverbs, sin lures people into his service with a thousand hooks — pornography and pride, success and self-pity, riches and reputation. But those who enter “[do] not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol” (Proverbs 9:18).
Meanwhile, God gathers up his servants, not to dispense wages (for what could we earn from him?), but to deliver a free gift: eternal life (Romans 6:23). This life stretches back from eternity to enliven us now, if only in part, as God’s Spirit roams through the former wastelands of our souls. Our holiness here is like a flower rising up from the ice, a guarantee of the coming spring when we will stand on God’s new earth, immortal and incorruptible, and breathe in the fragrance of eternal life (Romans 8:22–23).Whom Will You Serve?
Today and every day, temptations will come. You will feel snubbed by your spouse and want to retaliate. Or you will receive criticism and begin rehearsing your defense. Or you will notice someone else’s gifts and begin to grow envious. When temptations like these fill your mind and begin to capture your heart, don’t try to turn off your imagination. Instead, imagine the spiritual and eternal realities you cannot see.
Behind the desire to snap back, to become defensive, to envy (or whatever else) is a master. Sin will ask nothing of you and promise everything. But follow him, and he will strip you, strike you, shame you. He may not be able to steal you from Christ, but he can drag you away and, for a moment, give you a taste of living death.
But in this same moment, another master speaks. This master has received in his body the wages we earned (Romans 8:3), and has broken our slavery to sin (Romans 6:17). He will supply his Spirit for everything he commands (Romans 8:13). Imagine the man with the nail-pierced hands, and then follow him. Come walk in the freedom of the children of God. Come feel the first tremors of eternal life.
“I knew the patient before she died. It was ten years ago. She was very sick at the time, but she did not want to admit it. . . . She never got better. She slowly and painfully deteriorated. And then she died. . . . She, of course, is a church.”
So writes Thom Rainer in Autopsy of a Deceased Church (3–4). One of the defining marks of a dying church is that the people in it don’t realize it’s dying. They don’t know they’re on a one-way journey to the ecclesiastical morgue. There is enough about the church that makes it seem alive and worth showing up to each week, but the symptoms of death pervade.
While the heart of a church is still beating, how can we take its temperature to check if it’s thriving or slowly preparing to gasp its last breaths?Help from a Doctor
I believe the letter of James is here to help us, whatever kind of church fellowship we’re in. If all is well, it can warn us that all can be lost if we think we are beyond failure. If all is broken, it can comfort and care for us if we think our collection of bruised and bewildered believers is beyond the pale.
The reason James can help us so profoundly is that he sees both symptoms and the underlying cause. He is like the physician we visit, convinced our cough is just a cough, only to have him listen carefully to our breathing and then diagnose a much deeper malaise. James goes deep, to the ultimate source of all our problems. He has a sharp scalpel, but he wields it with a gracious, loving hand, because he knows exactly what medicine to prescribe.
He gives us the symptoms, the disease, and the medicine for a dying church.Three Symptoms of a Dying Church
James lays out three symptoms for us to help us self-diagnose our health: The words we speak, the lines we draw, and ignoring good works.1. Churches begin speaking angry words.
We get the first hint of this in James 1:19, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” The issue surfaces again in James 1:26, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” By chapter three, James is giving us a full frontal assault on the damage we can do with our tongues: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).
James tells us “these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10), but he is having to write precisely because these things can be so. We all know what this is like. In my home, it’s usually Thursdays. I don’t know what it is about this day of the week in the particular, but it can be the day when our tongues do their worst. Fuses shorten, tempers fray, words sharpen. Out they come, sibling to sibling, husband to wife, parent to child — and a room is on fire! People get burnt.
And uncontrolled tongues are just a symptom, not the disease.2. Churches begin drawing ugly lines.
In chapter 2, we discover this church loves partiality. It has favorites. The rich over the poor, the haves over the have-nots. It is honoring certain types of people and dishonoring others. There is an in-crowd in this church and an out-crowd; there is an attraction to the people with means, wealth, and status.
Such socio-economic dividing lines might exist in your church. But even if these particular lines aren’t present, we draw lines in plenty of other ways. It’s what makes us feel safe in physical spaces and social groups and what causes us to bond with some and ignore others. We draw lines between men and women, students and old people, married and single, employed and unemployed and no doubt a myriad of other ways too.
We gravitate towards those who can help us and give to us, much more than those who have nothing to offer us. It’s why we are so unlike God when we draw lines. God loves the defenseless, the poor and the weak, the people with nothing to contribute and it’s why religion that is pure before him visits orphans and widows — it cares for the unrewarding of this world (James 2:27).3. Churches begin ignoring good works.
The letter of James is so challenging because it is written to a church that has faith. It is a church that loves the gospel. The theology is orthodox, all the boxes are ticked, this is a church that loves preaching. They love hearing a sermon. They love the Bible.
But although they love hearing the Bible, they don’t do it what it says and so James hits us with his blindside: no good works, no action, means, in fact, no living faith. You might look like you’re alive. But you’re dead. “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26).
Bad words, partial lines, no good deeds. If we went to see the doctor with those symptoms and he said to us, “Ok, go away and speak good words, don’t draw lines, and do good deeds” would that help us? Is that the cure?Where These Sins Come From
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5–8)
Lodged in these verses is a term which describes part of the human make-up, a medical term if you like. It’s the word double-minded — literally, the word is “two-souled.” This teaches that it is possible to have a “two-ness” to me, a two-ness corrupting my one-ness.
We know that living with two of you can land you on the psychiatrist’s couch, as she listens to you describe yourself and eventually you are given the diagnosis of schizophrenia. James is saying our deepest problem, the well from which all the symptoms flow, is spiritual schizophrenia: we are divided on the inside and that is what leads us to cause divisions on the outside. A divided heart leads to divided actions.Living as Two
Just look at how double-ness inside us takes shape outside us:
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). We can be divided between hearing and doing. We love hearing, but we don’t find it so easy to do, we split them off one from the other. We like being in church and we loved the sermon, but by Tuesday we’re struggling (again) to do what God told us to do. Why is that?
“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1). James is probing here a very profound reason why we honor the rich over the poor. It’s because one part of us loves the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, and another part of us loves the glory of wealth, riches, and prestige. James is calling his readers to not be divided in our glory gaze.
“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15–16). We divide faith and good works, thinking we can separate them and safely have one without the presence of the other. Why is that?
“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (James 3:10). Notice the dividing line splits our mouth. Our speech is not united. It is double in form and content.
We can see that this letter is all about the problem of double-ness where God intends there to be one-ness. Its main thesis is that there is no point ever trying to fix the tongue, or change the lines we draw, without changing the heart, the source of it all. We will never change how we relate to a poor person and a rich person in the same room unless we realize the real issue is not money but the evil inside: “Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:4).
Evil thoughts and selfish desires are our real problem, the kind which are willing even to ignore the damage some people are doing to the whole body if I can stand to benefit from them personally. James does more than give us a sterile medical term for our problem. He calls it adultery. Adultery is the ultimate form of double-ness, a twisted two-ness where there is meant to be beautiful one-ness: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4).
Imagine a young couple just back from their honeymoon. They are starting out on life together, a new adventure, and in their new flat the doorbell rings. They open it to find an old flame of the husband from years ago: “Hi, I thought I’d come and live with you for a few years!” Before the bride can express her astonishment, the young husband bounds along, gives the woman at the door a hug, and exclaims, “This is going to be so much fun! One big happy family!”
Why is the bride weeping? It’s because of jealousy. Righteous jealousy. It’s because of real love, true love. “Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’?” (James 4:5) Can we hear what God is saying? You like someone else in bed. You like being married to the world as well. The world likes the rich over the poor, the world quarrels and fights and murders and has bitter jealousy and selfish ambition, and when you live like that it shows you are double in your loves.What Do You Really Believe?
Here is where I find the message of James so penetrating. He is saying to us: the quarreling, the unbridled tongue, the discrimination in our midst — and there are many other symptoms of sickness in this letter — reveal that we’re happy to cheat on God. “Yes Lord, I’m all for you” — then out comes the words, the actions, the decisions, that show I am also all for me.
This is a most painful letter. As my friend Andy Gemmill has put it, James is the kind of physician who can look at our speech and our living and the way we relate to each other, and he can read off those actions what we really believe about God.
Just like a doctor can look at the rash, the cough, listen to the erratic breathing, and say, “I’m afraid there’s actually a very big problem here,” so James is saying, “Give me a few months among you as a church family, let me observe you and listen to you, let me watch the air you breathe, and I will tell you who you love.” James says, “Let me just watch how you treat your friends, and speak to your church family, and your children and I will tell you where your heart is and who you love. Let me watch you welcome the outsider and I will tell you what you believe about God.”
If those are the symptoms, and they point to a deadly disease, then what help can there be for us?Grace, the Heavenly Remedy
Do you know what actually kills this church? Do you know how they actually die? They die by saying, “That’s just the way it is.”
If you want to kill the gospel in your home, with your kids, in your marriage, you kill it by saying, “Oh well, that’s just Thursdays. We’re all a bit tired, just the way it goes, I suppose.” The person whose manner is brusque and whose tongue is like a knife needs to change. We should never, as gospel people, say that’s just the way it is. No, the point of all of this is that James is saying the symptoms are a sign that something is terribly wrong. The tongue can do immense damage. The lack of good works can show your faith to be dead. So, what do we do with the double-mind, the divided heart, the fractured self?
The answer is here: there is medicine we can take, called God’s grace. “But he gives more grace. Therefore, it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (James 4:6). The medicine for this disease is repentance: regular, daily, heartfelt repentance. The medicine is learning a new language. We stop saying “It’s just Thursdays,” and we start saying “It’s just sin.”
Isn’t that what James is doing here? “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). James speaks plainly. He doesn’t use all the tidy euphemisms we use to justify ourselves. It’s sin. That’s why we honor the rich over the poor; that’s why we speak the way we do; that’s why we can ask someone how they are with no intention of meeting the needs they go on to tell us about.Healing for Fractured Hearts
James teaches us in this letter: learn to dig deeper with God. The words you’re speaking, the way you’re relating, learn to ask: what’s going on in the heart? If the language of sin and grace and forgiveness is not the regular currency of your dinner table and your pillow talk at night and your coffee time, if there are brothers and sisters in your church who have wronged you or you have wronged and you are not keeping short accounts with each other, let James help you. It’s certainly a letter to help me, and I pray it helps you too.
You heal the divided heart with the gospel. With grace. When was the last time you asked someone to forgive you? When was the last time you repented out loud to God for your specific thoughts, spoken words, or named actions? That’s how we measure if we’re taking the medicine. You can start now, here, at your computer screen, with these words in front of you. God is so tender with us, so merciful, so patient.
Think how jilted lovers act. When someone discovers adultery, what happens? There’s always anger, and then there’s the cold shoulder and the exclusion, and the days of welcome and warmth are over. But what does God do? “You adulterous people . . . draw near to God!” (James 4:4, 8) The grace of God is sweet, sweet medicine, it can make the wounded whole and begin to heal the divided heart.
It can take a dying church and make it live again.
The Christian’s life on earth will always be walking along the narrow path. Living for sin is easy. Following Christ requires carrying a cross daily.
“Why did you not go with me, Mephibosheth?” (2 Samuel 19:25). The weary king stood looking sternly at the disheveled disabled man sitting in front of him.
David had just been through the most terrible experience of his life. He was grieving deeply the recent death of his son, Absalom, who had died trying to kill his father and seize the throne for himself (2 Samuel 15–18). The coup had failed and the rebels were dead or scattered.
For many who had stayed loyal to David, this was a time of celebration. David, however, had to force every smile. His grief went deeper than witnessing a tragic end to a prodigal child. He knew just how responsible he was for his son’s death.The Complexity of Life
God’s words through the prophet Nathan still burned in David’s ears as they were unfolding before him:
“Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.” Thus says the Lord, “Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.” (2 Samuel 12:9–12)
He could hardly bear it: his beloved son had been that neighbor. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you” (2 Samuel 18:33). David had stopped saying this out loud, so he wouldn’t keep demoralizing his people (2 Samuel 19:5–7), but he was still saying it in the deep places of his soul.
This tragedy, not only of his son, but all who were swayed by him — some of whom now lay in fresh graves with wailing mothers and wives beside them — was shot through with complexity. Real evil was inscrutably woven together with God’s righteous judgment. This was one of the reasons David was so merciful to those who had abandoned and even cursed him as he fled Absalom’s ascendant forces. He knew they had been swept up in this raging, complex current that he, to one degree or another, had brought upon them all.Whom Could He Trust Now?
The complexity also made returning to Jerusalem confusing for the great, sad king. Whom could he trust now? Were the unfaithful words of those who had not joined him mere words for the wind, spoken in the fear and confusing tumult of war? Were these people, who were now singing a different song as he returned, showing their true colors — or simply trying to save their skin? “All mankind are liars” (Psalm 116:11). David included himself in that “all.”
And now here was Mephibosheth. His betrayal, in particular, had hurt.
Mephibosheth was Jonathan’s son. He had become disabled as a child in the fear and confusing tumult of another grievous, inscrutable weave of evil and righteous judgment (2 Samuel 4:4). David, out of his profound love for and covenant with his closest friend (1 Samuel 20:42), had sought out Mephibosheth, and given him back his royal grandfather’s land, along with a crew of paid employees — Ziba, his fifteen sons, and his twenty servants. David also gave Mephibosheth an honored spot at the king’s table, treating him as if he were one of his own sons (2 Samuel 9:7–8, 11).
But it was Ziba, not Mephibosheth, who had joined David as the king escaped Jerusalem just as the munity moved in. And from what Ziba had reported to David, Mephibosheth appeared to be just another treacherous “son” gunning for his throne (2 Samuel 16:3–4). David had immediately rewarded Ziba’s loyalty by granting him all of Mephibosheth’s property.Ambiguity Emerges
But as the now-victorious David was reentering Jerusalem, Mephibosheth was there to greet him — and he was a scraggly, smelly mess. An aide had informed David that Mephibosheth claimed to have not shaved or bathed or cared for his lame limbs the entire time David was in exile (2 Samuel 19:24). And there were tears in Mephibosheth’s eyes. This cast some serious shade on Ziba’s story. More ambiguity.
“Why did you not go with me, Mephibosheth?” David asked. The disheveled disabled man replied,
My lord, O king, my servant deceived me, for your servant said to him, “I will saddle a donkey for myself, that I may ride on it and go with the king.” For your servant is lame. He has slandered your servant to my lord the king. But my lord the king is like the angel of God; do therefore what seems good to you. For all my father’s house were but men doomed to death before my lord the king, but you set your servant among those who eat at your table. What further right have I, then, to cry to the king? (2 Samuel 19:26–28)
Mephibosheth’s earnestness was convincing. He certainly looked like he was telling the truth. But then again, that’s how the Gibeonites pulled one over on Joshua (Joshua 9:3–6). And Ziba had showed loyalty by risking his neck to align with David at the king’s weakest moment. But then again, David himself had instructed Hushai to risk his neck to feign loyalty to Absalom (2 Samuel 15:32–37). Ziba’s risking his neck might have been nothing more than betting on an experienced king rather than an overconfident prince. Who was telling the truth?The Best He Could Do
So, David issued a new ruling: Saul’s former property would be divided between Mephibosheth and Ziba (2 Samuel 19:29). One of them would receive less than he deserved, the other more, because someone was obviously lying. David, however, could not peer into the hearts of these two men. Nor, given the urgent circumstances, could he prioritize an investigation into this. He had a kingdom, a family, and a heart to try to piece back together. Besides, this was no time to make new enemies.
Both men had apparently demonstrated loyalty to him, and David could think of no other way to communicate to both of them that he was choosing to assume the best of each of them. He would have to leave full justice to God.The Best We Can Do — Sometimes
Sometimes, that’s the best we can do too in complex situations. Sometimes — in families, in friendships, in pastoral and employment situations — sufficient evidence is lacking, or circumstances are too ambiguous, or time is too limited to ensure that full justice, as we understand it, is done. Sometimes the best decision, all things considered, is to be as generous as we can with all parties concerned and trust God to bring about full justice in time — which he will.
God knows. And “all his ways are justice” (Deuteronomy 32:4). He has ways of working out justice that are simply inscrutable to us. He can, like no one else, weave what people and devils mean for evil into his perfectly just and righteous ways, and end up working them all to bring about good beyond our wildest dreams (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28). And he will use our imperfect judgments — and the injustices we receive in this age — to bring his good to pass.
On our part, we are called to make our imperfect judgments in good — and real — faith, to the best of our limited abilities. But let us never hide behind “limited abilities” because secretly it’s easier to appease evil than to “do justice” (Micah 6:8).
Jesus said we should love our neighbors as ourselves. How is this kind of self-love different from the mantra we hear in advertising and social media?
Really, Wormwood, I would have thought that a young and ambitious tempter would pay attention to the annual updates posted by the Infernal Philological Society. The fact that you had never heard the idea that empathy was a sin is enough to turn me into a centipede.
Your confusion in this case, however, is somewhat understandable. I’ve always said you were a gullible devil. It seems the Department of Propaganda has been too successful. Even our tempters have been taken in. As a result, it falls to me to explain again some of the elementary doctrines of our Father Below.
When humans are suffering, they tend to make two demands that are impossible to fulfill simultaneously. On the one hand, they want people to notice the depth of their pain and sorrow — how deep they are in the pit, how unique and tragic their circumstances. At the same time, they don’t want to be made to feel that they really need the assistance of others. In one breath, they say, “Help me! Can’t you see I’m suffering?” and in the next they say, “How dare you act as though I needed you and your help?” The sufferer doesn’t want to be alone, and demands not to be pitied. This makes their emotional turmoil in suffering not only delicious to our taste, but also highly combustible and unpredictable.
Now, sufferers have been placing such impossible demands on others from time immemorial. In response, our armies have fought for decades to twist the Enemy’s virtue of compassion into its counterfeit, empathy. Since we introduced the term a century ago, we’ve steadily taught the humans to regard empathy as an improvement upon compassion or sympathy.
Compassion only suffers with another person; empathy suffers in them. It’s a total immersion into the pain, sorrow, and suffering of the afflicted. Under our influence, we’ve taught the humans to think, “Only a heartless and unfeeling beast could oppose such a total immersion, such a generous act of ‘love.’” Our recent success in this conceptual migration has given us ample opportunity for mayhem.Separate Truth and Feeling
Think of it this way: the Enemy’s virtue of compassion attempts to suffer with the hurting while maintaining an allegiance to the Enemy. In fact, it suffers with the hurting precisely because of this allegiance. In doing so, the Christians are to follow the example of their pathetic and repulsive Master. Just as the Enemy joined the humans in their misery in that detestable act of incarnation, so also his followers are to join those who are hurting in their misery.
However, just as the Enemy became like them in every way but sin, so also his followers are not permitted to sin in their attempts to comfort the afflicted. Thus, his compassion always reserves the right not to blaspheme. It seeks the sufferer’s good and subordinates itself to the Enemy’s abominable standard of Truth.
Our alternative, empathy, shifts the focus from the sufferer’s good to the sufferer’s feelings, making them the measure of whether a person is truly “loved.” We teach the humans that unless they subordinate their feelings entirely to the misery, pain, sorrow, and even sin and unbelief of the afflicted, they are not loving them.Love’s Ransom Demands
This begins, of course, with the sufferers themselves. Our policy has been to teach sufferers to resent all resistance to their feelings. Any holding back, any perceived emotional distance — especially a distance that is driven by a desire to discover what would actually be good for them — must be regarded as a direct assault on their dignity and an affront to the depth of their suffering. As I said before, this is not difficult. A human in pain is practically primed to say, “You don’t love me if . . .” and then to place entirely unreasonable demands on others.
Our task is to give this impulse a little push. We want their unreasonable demands to become ungodly demands. Not only must comforters refuse to actually offer words of comfort (which even their sniveling shepherds suggest is sometimes a prudent policy in the immediate aftermath of some calamity), but we want sufferers to subtly but forcefully demand that their comforters not even feel hope or joy or faith themselves. Total immersion must be granted, or “You don’t love me.” Anyone who refuses to jump through the hoops isn’t being empathetic.
But our efforts don’t end with the sufferer. We must also work on the comforter, the one who feels and acts with compassion. Picture the sufferer as someone being slowly overcome by quicksand. The compassionate person, desiring to help and comfort them, knows that he must enter into the pit with them.
However, he also knows that he’ll only be able to help if he’s tethered to something strong and sturdy outside of the pit. And so he enters the pit with one foot, while keeping the other on the solid ground. He reaches for the hurting with one hand, while holding onto a firmly rooted tree with the other. This is where your patient is now, looking at the various instances of suffering and affliction around him and desiring to help, comfort, and encourage those in the pit.Make Them Steerable
Your task is to compel him to jump in with both feet. As I’ve said, the sufferer will naturally be demanding it. You must increase the pressure by fostering in him a sensitivity to accusations of heartlessness. This is where our philological efforts have made your job much easier than you deserve.
By elevating empathy over compassion as the superior virtue, there is now an entire culture devoted to the total immersion of empathy. Books, articles, and social media all trumpet the importance of checking one’s own beliefs, values, judgments, and reason at the door of empathy.
To refuse to fully endorse the feelings of the hurting, however blasphemous and false, is to revictimize them. Maintaining the emotional independence necessary to rationally consider someone’s good is “unhelpful,” “heartless,” “contrary to the spirit of Jesus.” These terms can be used to browbeat your man into submission so that he never pauses to consider the true and lasting good of the one in pain, or the truthfulness and accuracy of their felt reality.
Once untethered from the truth, you’ll find that your man is eminently steerable. Things that he would have regarded as foolish, sinful, and ungodly under normal circumstances will sail right along under the banner of empathy. Rightly used, empathy is a power tool in the hands of the weak and suffering. By it, we can so weaponize victims that they (and those who hide behind them) are indulged at every turn, without regard for whether such indulgence is wise or prudent or good for them.
When you can move your man from the bland but true belief that “feelings are important” to the false but potent impression that “feelings are all that’s important,” then you know that you have him. Properly conditioned and trained in this way, you will be able to steer him in any direction you choose.Tyranny of Fusion
As in many things, we must always keep in mind the Enemy’s goals and ours. The Enemy aims to produce a fellowship of sufferings, with his Accursed Son at the center of it. But fellowship requires fellows; that is, it requires distinctness. Fellows say, “We are together, and yet I am still I and you are still you.” This is a kind of union, where one thing is united to another thing while still being itself.
In fact, if the Enemy is to be believed, creatures become more themselves when thus united. Of course, it is all lies, and in stoking empathy we are simply cutting with the grain of reality. Empathy goes beyond union to the more potent and dynamic truth of fusion, the melting together of persons so that one personality is lost in the other. Empathy demands, “Feel what I feel. In fact, lose yourself in my feelings.”
In my last letter, I told you that compassion, when untethered from patience and wisdom, becomes tyrannical and attempts to force the sufferer out of their sorrow against their will. Such impatient compassion attempts to seize the wheel of the sufferer’s emotional vehicle.
In the present case, the seizing happens the other way. The sufferer demands to steer the emotional car of the one trying to help them. We are happy with either. It matters not which person is exercising the tyranny, so long as there is, in the end, only one car. What we want to avoid at all costs is a caravan, that fellowship of sufferings in which the hurting, the suffering, and the afflicted are all permanently tethered to the Enemy, and therefore drawn inexorably toward each other and toward the blazing and damnable light that marks his comforting presence.
Excuse me, Wormwood. That last image has left me feeling ill. I think I’d better lie down.
Your affectionate uncle,
Christians care about all injustice in our fallen world. But our outrage against wrongdoing will fizzle out unless we root our concern in God himself. We care especially about injustice against God. John Piper preached this message at the 2019 Bethlehem College & Seminary commencement.
ABSTRACT: After Jesus died and rose again, he ascended into heaven, there to sit at his Father’s right hand. Without the ascension of Christ, the work of redemption would be incomplete, and Christians would have no way to the Father. But since Christ lives and reigns in heaven, all of his people have a pledge that where he is, there they will be also. Jesus has joined our humanity to himself forever, and all the redeemed will travel to God’s presence as passengers in Christ.
For our ongoing series of feature articles by scholars for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Gerrit Scott Dawson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to explain why the ascension of Jesus matters. You can also download and print a PDF of the article.
“You’re not going to heaven.” That captured their attention. “Even if you believe in Jesus, you are not going to heaven.” It was the mischievous pastor in me, desperate to show how much the ascension matters. “You’re not going to heaven on your own, in yourself, as an independent, free-agent choice-maker. Even if you made the right choices.”
While that hung ominously in the air, we read John 3:13: “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” There’s only one guy who goes up. The guy who first came down. The man whose origin is not earth but heaven itself. That’s Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who alone among men is a native of God’s realm. In the fullness of time, he became the Son of Man in Mary’s womb. Then after his sinless, faithful life and atoning death, Jesus rose and ascended — in the same body in which he was crucified! The Redeemer returned to his Father, yet he remained one of us as he took our humanity with him.
Only Jesus could ascend. So our future, embodied life in the presence of God, along with all the saints, depends, so to speak, on our hitching a ride with him. For us to go up to heaven, Jesus had to make a way. He had to reconnect heaven and earth. And we have to be passengers in Christ. We have to be made one with him by the Holy Spirit. We have to be united to Jesus as members of his body. Because only one guy goes up. I have to be included in that man if I want to go. I’m ever only a passenger. Christ is the vessel which alone can make the passage from earth to heaven.The New and Living Way to God
All this, of course, is just another way of saying that we ever live from a dependent, vibrant relationship with Jesus. We live only in him. We live only out of him and unto him. Jesus doesn’t help us find the way; he himself is the new and living way to God (Hebrews 10:20). I can go where he has gone — into intimate communion with his Father — only when I go in him by the uniting work of the Spirit. And that’s why his ascension matters so much to us. It is the event basis in Jesus’s history among us for our continuing union with him.
This insight was developed famously by Augustine in the late fourth century:
Cleave unto Christ, who by descending and ascending has made Himself the Way. Do you wish to ascend? Hold fast to Him that ascends. For by your own self you cannot rise. . . . Do you wish to ascend also? Be then a member of Him who only has ascended. For He the Head, with all the members, is but One Man. And . . . no one can ascend, but he who in His Body is made a member of Him.1
The ascension of Jesus Christ is vital to us personally. We all have an eternal stake in what happened as Jesus returned to his Father. In these brief reflections, let’s consider five key implications of the ascension related to our union and communion with Christ.1. The Continuing Incarnation
In the person of Jesus, the Son of God united himself to our humanity. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). But when his days among us concluded, the Word did not cease to be flesh. The ascending Son did not discontinue being the human Jesus when his redemptive work was finished. Jesus did not unzip his skin suit as he rose from sight. He did not discard the clothing of our humanity. The ascension of Jesus in the same body in which he was crucified and resurrected establishes his continuing union with our humanity.
The angels assured the disciples who stared into the sky as Jesus ascended, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). This has always been hard to believe. We know this was never about space travel. Jesus did not go somewhere in outer space. He went into another state, another kind of dimension where he “is at the right hand of God” (1 Peter 3:22). But earthbound as we are, we cannot understand how “body” can enter the realm of the spiritual. Indeed, one of Augustine’s arguments for the truth of the gospel is just how incredible it is “that Jesus Christ should have risen in the flesh and ascended with flesh into heaven.”2 Though it staggers the mind, people do indeed come to believe this news, and thereby experience right now the spiritual power of “that one grand and health-giving miracle of Christ’s ascension to heaven with the flesh in which He rose.”3
The ascension affirms that the incarnation continues. Jesus retained the body in which he lived, died, and rose as he ascended to his Father. That flesh, of course, has been transformed and glorified. Jesus need never die again. For his body has been outfitted for an eternal heavenly life. He has a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:44). But spiritual means enlivened by the Spirit; it is more a body than ours, not less. So even now, “He is not ashamed to call them brothers” (Hebrews 2:11). The triune God wants what we are. He wants us with him, in communion, as embodied humans, restored to what we were made to be. So from heaven he fulfills his threefold offices as the exalted Lord.2. The Kingly Gift
In ascending, Jesus was exalted by his Father. He was crowned with the name above all names (Philippians 2:9). Jesus is “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15). In ancient days, the greatness of a king would be shown by the quality of gifts he bestowed upon his loyal subjects. More than any earthly ruler, our reigning King showers signs of his favor on his people. The bounteous gift our Lord pours upon us is nothing less than his own Spirit!
On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit shook the house with the sound as of a mighty wind. He rested on the disciples in the form of tongues of fire above their heads and enabled them to glorify God in languages they had not known, adapted to the speech of the many ethnic groups gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1–4; cf. 4:31). When Peter stood up to explain to the gathered crowd what happened, he gave a brief history of the ministry and death of Jesus, concluding, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:32–33).
The blessed Spirit of Jesus is the royal gift beyond compare. For starters, the Spirit regenerates us (Titus 3:5), creates faith in us (Ephesians 2:8), makes us members of Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:13), teaches us the things of Jesus (John 15:26), lives and prays in us (Galatians 4:6), prays for us (Romans 8:26), grows the qualities of Jesus in and through us (Galatians 5:22), and empowers us for ministry (Acts 1:8). In short, Jesus pours his Spirit upon us in order that we might (1) be taken into the triune life of God and be given all that Jesus is and has (John 14:20; 16:15) and (2) be sent into the world to bring others to Christ (John 20:21–22).
The ascension was necessary to the sending of the Spirit. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). How can this be? Think of it: If Jesus had stayed on earth after his resurrection, the number of people who could speak and be with him at any one time would be restricted to the limits of human voices and ears. The ones who could intimately speak with him or be embraced by him would be even fewer. In ascending, Jesus did not lose his human body. But he is able to relate to an unlimited number of people through the uniting work of the Holy Spirit.
In fact, because the Spirit of Jesus dwells within the hearts of believers (Romans 5:5), we are actually closer in intimacy and union with Jesus than even his first disciples who had physical proximity to him! The royal gift of our ascended King is perpetual access and deepening closeness to him.3. The Priestly Intercession
The ascended Jesus serves even now as our Great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14). He offered on the cross a perfect atonement for sins. Then he entered “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24). His sacrificial offering was once for all. His application of that offering, the pleading of the merits of his blood on our behalf, continues. Jesus makes a constant connection for us as our brother in skin with his Father in heaven. Joined forever to our humanity, he brings to us, his adopted brothers and sisters, the eternal favor he has always enjoyed from his Father as beloved Son. And he brings us into the presence of the Father who sent him to save us in the first place. Jesus offers us in himself as a love-gift to his Father. He presents us cleansed and recreated in himself.
The ascension has a key role in this adopting, redeeming activity. For it is the hinge in the work of Jesus as our perfect priest. The ascension links Jesus’s once-for-all atonement completed on the cross with his continuing ministry for us in heaven. So, Jesus told Mary, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17). Jesus is about to go back to heaven. But he will do so joined to his disciples by the Spirit. And more: joined to all who have faith in him in the future through the disciples’ proclamation of this gospel. Jesus may have been going back, but he went bringing us with him. Even now, he’s bringing us into his Father’s presence by offering his good word on our behalf. He shows up before us, speaks on our behalf, and opens the way for us to draw near to the Father in him (Hebrews 10:21–22). And, of course, his “word” is more than just speech — Jesus offers his whole being, and us in him, to the Father as part of the everlasting love between them.
In his ascension, Jesus our High Priest has gone into the true Holy of Holies, the very presence of his Father, as himself the offering for sin (Hebrews 9:24). That atonement has been accepted. We are reconciled to God in Christ. But he remains, as our ascended brother in flesh, at his Father’s side to maintain and deepen this relationship. “He always lives to make intercession for [us]” (Hebrews 7:25). Once and for all upon the cross, Jesus our priest offered the perfect sacrifice: he offered himself, the Lamb without blemish, to take away our sins. The act of atonement is complete. But in ascending, he appears now on our behalf in a continuing intercession. Why? So that what he has secured for us may be worked out in practice in our daily lives of relating to the Father through the Son and bearing forth such love in the Spirit’s power into the world, until he returns to take us home.4. The Prophetic Meeting Place
The ascension establishes how we are to know Jesus right now. As we noted, the ascension of the physical, historical Jesus removes him from our immediate grasp. We cannot simply go and find Jesus somewhere. And yet, it is the same Jesus who was here who has gone to heaven; he is still himself, still enfleshed as God and man. Paradoxically, this withdrawal of Christ from immediate contact with us on earth actually makes his history among us crucial to our present relating. His ascension directs us to the Jesus of Scripture as the way we meet him right now! Thomas Torrance asserts that
by withdrawing himself from our sight, Christ sends us back to the historical Jesus Christ as the covenanted place on earth and in time which God has appointed for meeting between man and himself. The ascension means that our relation to the Saviour is only possible through the historical Jesus, . . . the Jesus whom we meet and hear through the witness of the Gospels.4
That means there is not some other, new Christ to know. There is not more information to be given in this age. Only reflection on what has been revealed. So, we can have confidence that when we seek Jesus in the New Testament, we are drawing near to Jesus as he really is, and as he wants to be known.
So Jesus is not somewhere on earth where only those with enough pull can get an appointment with him. Yet the record of his words and deeds on earth long ago can, by his Spirit, bring us into present, vibrant contact with him. We can be assured that anyone, anywhere, relying on the word and the Spirit, can truly know Jesus in transformative intimacy. We all become present witnesses to the historical Jesus of the Gospels as our active Lord and Savior right now. John said, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). John bore witness to the Jesus he had physically touched. Though his audience could no longer experience Jesus in that tactile way, yet they could enter communion with Christ, and be taken into the very triune exchange of love.
We rely on the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, the rule of truth that is the apostolic witness, and the faithful community of believers as we quest into the word for the ascended Christ. The one whom we meet in study and worship is Jesus himself! We quest back to the place where he was when people could see him, back to the words he spoke when people could hear his voice. The kingly gift of the Spirit right now brings Jesus to us from heaven through the Scriptures. Through means of word and sacrament, prayer and praise, the Holy Spirit presents the historical, ascended, and still coming Jesus to us freshly in every present moment. So, far from separating us from Jesus, the ascension makes the historical, yet living, Jesus, the man in whose face the light of the glory of God shone (2 Corinthians 4:6), our perennial meeting place with God.5. The Pledge of Glory
The ascension of Jesus provides the pledge of our future. It offers a guarantee of what will become of us who are joined to Jesus. In his magnificent chapter on the resurrection body, Paul offers this assurance: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49). What Adam had after the fall, we also have: a body that decays back to the ground. But what the second Adam has after his resurrection, we also will have: an imperishable spiritual body. This is our great hope in a broken world of dust and swiftly passing time. Jesus’s ascension in the flesh is God’s earnest money that this future of resurrection life will come to pass.
In the third century, Tertullian described this pledge:
Designated, as He is, “the Mediator between God and man,” He keeps in His own self the deposit of the flesh which has been committed to Him by both parties — the pledge and security of its entire perfection. For as “He has given to us the earnest of the Spirit,” so has He received from us the earnest of the flesh, and has carried it with Him into heaven as a pledge of that complete entirety which is one day to be restored to it. Be not disquieted, O flesh and blood, with any care; in Christ you have acquired both heaven and the kingdom of God.5
The ascension inaugurates a double pledge of our future in the person of Jesus. The first we recognize easily as the deposit in our flesh of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13–14). But Tertullian discerns that as Jesus went up still wearing our flesh, he now holds in himself the pledge of the resurrection bodies and eternal life in which we will partake. Ascending in the glorified skin and bones of our nature, Jesus guarantees in his very person what we will become.
The ascension is the very essence of our assurance. Paul writes, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20–21). Christ is given to us. All that he has accomplished is pledged to us now and will be gloriously fulfilled, including the transformation to have a glorious resurrection body like his. These are the promises to those who are passengers in Christ — that is, united to the saving events of his history among us by the Spirit through faith.
We who are passengers in Christ receive passports from our new homeland. We are not natives of heaven, but taken into Christ, we share citizenship with him. Adopted into Christ Jesus, we share his sonship. The ascension of Jesus means his continuing incarnation, which, in turn, guarantees our eternal union and communion with him in the triune life.He Cannot Fail or Fall
To conclude, we realize that these very great and precious promises reveal that God still so loves the world that he made. He loves us enough to keep what we are joined to himself forever. And until such time as Christ returns, he sends us with that same seeking, gathering love to the lost world. He has staked his life on humanity and asks us now to do the same in his continuing mission to the ends of the earth until the end of time. We go with love’s abandon, knowing that the ascension assures us that nothing that really matters can ever be lost. As George Herbert wrote,
What Adam had, and forfeited for all,
Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.6
Augustine of Hippo, “Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament,” in Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. R. G. MacMullen, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1888), 41.7–8 (spelling modernized). ↩
Augustine of Hippo, “St. Augustin’s City of God,” in City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Marcus Dods, vol. 2, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1886), 22.5. ↩
Augustine of Hippo, “St. Augustin’s City of God,” 22.8. ↩
Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 133. ↩
Tertullian, “On the Resurrection of the Flesh,” in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, trans. and eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1885), 51 (emphasis mine). ↩
George Herbert, “The Holdfast,” The Temple, lines 14–15. ↩
All Satan’s power is by permission. He has no authority to do anything God does not permit for infinitely wise purposes.
If I could have known somehow that the Lord would call my wife, Kyra, home to be with him, I would have begged him to take me instead. Our girls were only six, four, and two. What hope did I have of raising them alone? The thought was unthinkable. It simply didn’t make sense.
But, as we know all too well, the Lord’s ways are often not our ways. So, on August 14, 2015, I woke up to a new reality and a new, previously unthinkable world, one which did not include my precious wife to live and walk and parent alongside.The Day We Lost Kyra
The day prior, Kyra and I were packing up and preparing to return to Rome, Italy, where we had been living, working, and serving the evangelical church for six years. We had been in Georgia visiting family and were excited to get back home, returning to our friends and the work the Lord had called us to.
Since it was our last evening together with family, we went out to dinner and then elsewhere for dessert. While we enjoyed each other’s company, no one could have imagined the events that were about to unfold, how that evening would conclude. No one dared to think that those would be the final words we would exchange with Kyra, at least here on this earth.
The ride home was pensive and quiet. I was driving, Kyra was in the passenger seat, and our two youngest daughters were in car seats behind us. Our oldest daughter rode home with her grandparents. Unbeknownst to us, up ahead on the road we were traveling, a truck driver was checking his cargo and preparing to depart for West Virginia.
Before leaving, he exited his truck to inspect his vehicle. In doing so, he failed to set the parking brake. Immediately the truck began to roll down the ramp that led to the highway we were traveling.
The timing was such that the fully loaded semi entered the highway the exact moment we were passing the truck ramp and collided with our vehicle. The impact was tremendous. Our vehicle was pushed across the northbound lanes of traffic, the median, then the southbound lanes of traffic before crashing against the guardrails on the far side of the road. Kyra took the brunt of the impact and was killed immediately.Our Unexpected New Journey
Passing motorists stopped and helped the best they could by pulling one of our daughters from the car to safety. Her leg was broken and head cut badly. Myself and our youngest daughter remained trapped for approximately two hours before rescue workers could free us from the wreckage. Miraculously we both suffered only minor injuries. Kyra was trapped in the vehicle with us, but I was aware the Lord had taken her.
We were taken to different hospitals, and family slowly began to arrive. Our oldest daughter came to visit me where I had been taken, but was not yet aware of what had happened. I remember, like it was yesterday, having to tell her that Mommy wouldn’t be coming home. I can still see the tears she cried in sadness and confusion.
I was released that evening and travelled to the hospital where our other two daughters had been taken, and passed a long night by their sides. The next several days would be a whirlwind of emotions swept up in planning and attending a funeral and learning to face an utterly different reality. It was also the beginning of a new journey.Extra Measures of Grace
This new journey would teach me and my family about new measures of God’s amazing grace that we had previously known nothing about.
These extra measures of grace are deeply rooted in the gospel of the Bible. This good news is that those who place their faith in Jesus Christ are forgiven their sins and receive a new life. They are no longer slaves to sin, but are now slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:18). This new life in Christ is radically different than the previous one, in which we were enslaved to fear, worry, uncertainty, and sin. Faith in Christ frees the believer and radically transforms his perspective on life. The fear, worry, and uncertainty of the old life is replaced by peace, hope, and the certainty of salvation.
By no means, however, does faith in Christ guarantee a life free of hardship and suffering. It is, in fact, the opposite. Suffering is not an exception for the believer, but the norm. the apostle Paul warns his disciple that all who desire to live a godly life in Christ will experience suffering (2 Timothy 3:12). Trials are to be expected.
The hope of the gospel, however, is that life in Christ frees us from the fear that suffering and trials produce. Whereas sin enslaves us to fear, the gospel frees us from fear and enslaves us to grace. The apostle Peter states clearly, “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10).Suffering Imprisons Us to Grace
Loss and suffering, then, imprison us to the grace of God and teach us that apart from him there is no lasting hope and peace. Grace radically transforms our perspective on facing grief and hurt, and teaches us that we can even have joy in our suffering. Through faith in Christ, we are no longer slaves to fear and hopelessness, but slaves to grace — the grace God pours out on us through his Son’s perfect obedience and sacrifice.
Thanks to the extra measures of grace he poured out on me and my family, the unthinkable task of being a single father to three little girls, while living in a foreign country, became possible. Were it not for his abundant grace, I would have remained a slave to fear and hopelessness. Instead, I am a slave to his grace, and I am slowly but continuously being restored, strengthened, and established.
In the days, months, and years since Kyra’s passing, it is God’s grace alone that has given my girls and me (and the rest of our family) the ability to endure the trials placed before us. Because of his amazing grace, we have even had great joy and peace, as the Lord has worked and continues to work through his calling Kyra to be with him.
By God’s grace alone, evidenced through the love and care of the church, the girls and I returned to our lives and ministry in Rome three months after Kyra passed, something I thought would have been impossible. By his grace, we are still here today.Amazing Grace in Abundance
Having three young daughters to raise, and considering the realities that come along with them growing and getting older, I naturally began to wonder if the Lord would ever provide another wife and helpmate for me. My daughters wondered aloud whether they would ever have another mother in their lives.
We hoped that would be the Lord’s plan, but we knew that his grace was sufficient, and that he would continue to provide for us as he had all along. Dependent on God’s grace was where we landed, and it was (and still is) a good place to be.
Late last year, God’s grace was once again revealed in a very tangible way as the Lord brought my wife, Steppie, into our lives. Once again, we are a family of five, and almost every day someone tells me how happy the girls are since Steppie came into their lives. The difference she has made is evident to all.
With the two simple words “I do,” Steppie became a wife and the mother of three young girls. Like us, she is learning what it means to be a slave to God’s grace, while she lives a life she had never considered or imagined. Dependent on God’s grace, she too is finding great joy and pleasure in this story, despite the challenges her new reality constantly presents.No Better Place to Be
This story could be written by any number of people who have faced similar and devastating trials. Just this week, news arrived of friends of our family that lost their second daughter in just two years to an illness. Neither of their daughters had yet reached the age of eight. What devastation and heartache!
One might wonder how it is even possible to have hope and peace amidst such brokenness. Thankfully this family knows Christ as their Savior, and despite the inevitable hurt and pain, God’s grace will be shown to them in ways they never could have imagined.
God will bring extra measures of grace, wave upon wave, that will bring a deep and real hope and peace — hope and peace that only faith in the living Christ can provide. His grace will be sufficient, just as it has been for us. Along with this family and many others, we are slaves to God’s grace, and there is no better place to be.
When we read commands and obligations, we are being summoned to become in experience what we are in Christ.
“So what does your heaven offer me?” the man asked with a grin. Recently having heard about the promises of Allah’s heaven, and being an avid admirer of women’s company, he thought a heaven containing virgins a pretty appealing incentive. Knowing I was a Christian, he continued, “Will there be physical intimacy every several thousand years when you pause from the eternal church service?”
He seemed to know few pleasures, if any, higher than perpetual fornication. So, my response must have been unintelligible: “There won’t be any sex in heaven.”
“How could heaven not have sex?” he blurted out louder than even he anticipated. He wracked his brain for the logic. Should the ocean not have raindrops? The banquet, no food? The body, its chief delight? Next, I was to tell him that no one smiled or laughed in heaven either. He could not imagine a heaven with less pleasure than earth.
“How can you believe in such a heaven?”Secret Sigh
I admit that I too have scratched my head at Jesus’s teaching, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:34–35). In the resurrection, God’s people will be like the angels in heaven — without spouse or sex (Matthew 22:30).
With this man, I too have wondered at this omission. Not because I could not imagine something more satisfying to live for than sex, but because lifelong commitment to a spouse in marriage is also one of the greatest joys to be had in this world. Why would it not endure into the next?
Then I married, and the nagging question increased. The thought of going from oneness with her to a more general relationship with all the saints felt like a move from tailor-made to assembly line; unique to generic. To take my spouse from me and place her in the crowd felt like unweaving a rainbow, separating me from my choicest companion, indeed, from a part of myself. Removing the rib of man a second time.Sex and Chocolate
I stumbled upon a quote in Lewis that has helped the tension. I was troubled, as Lewis memorably puts it, not because the future reality is wanting, but because my imagination and faith are weak. He writes,
I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer “No,” he might regard [the] absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in heaven, will leave no room for it.
Those of us who know (or at least can imagine) marital bliss and sexual pleasure may be tempted to think heaven the duller for excluding them. The perpetual sexual fast, the augment of relational depth with your spouse — “How can a world of bliss forbid such chocolates?” What does God have against chocolate? Nothing, he reminds us. He invented them.
Instead of thinking heaven the less interesting, we wonder, as the boy in Lewis’s analogy, what kind of happiness does God have in store for those who love God when the highest pleasures on earth stand as a distant and forgotten memory? What light renders the flickering candle irrelevant? This heaven, the man couldn’t understand, is the only one worthy of the name. We do not have earth’s joys 2.0 with the absence of pain. The God who joyfully invented such ecstasies, eclipses them to make room for something more.Brilliant Shadows
To sigh at heaven because we lose something of earth, to cling to earth’s most brilliant shadows with trembling grip as they give way to the substance, is to forget what is coming. Even now, we can remind ourselves: heaven’s pleasures threaten to overwhelm earth’s best delights — delights so intoxicating that the passing of them seems an irreplaceable loss, a dimming of heaven. We need not stuff our pockets with Butterfingers and Hershey bars as we step into the marriage supper of the Lamb. God’s proclamation at the end of the story, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5), contains a “new” that we on earth can’t quite comprehend.
The Bible tells us plainly that fullness of joy is in the presence of the Lord (Psalm 16:11). Eternal life is to know him (John 17:3). The new heaven and new earth descend with Christ when he returns, not before. Already God’s kingdom spreads over the face of the earth; already the gates of hell bend at the barrage of the church (Matthew 16:18); already, with every passing day, God transfers new sinners from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son (Colossians 1:13); yet our lives arrive fully only with the second advent (Colossians 3:4). Heaven gallops towards earth — with fullness of joy, the end of death, the vanquishing of sin, and the glory of God — seated on a white horse.
Faith unhesitatingly holds that God alone can architect the best heaven. Faith reminds us that God does not bury his best joys in a fallen world. Faith is assured that the country still ahead is best (Hebrews 11:16). We groan, not because we go to rule in that city of everlasting day without a few of earth’s favorite candy bars; we groan inwardly and wait eagerly because we long for the fullness of our adoption as sons (Romans 8:23). We enjoy chocolate, but hunger for steak. Faith teaches us to enjoy the things of earth mindful of God during the day, and to pray at night, with childlike anticipation, “One day nearer, my Lord. One day nearer!”What Heaven Offers
When Christ returns, faith will not say, as I once heard a comedian crudely joke, “Just give me twenty more minutes.” When I heard it, I cringed because I’ve said the equivalent.
- Jesus, give me some time to make my mark on the world — and then return!
- Jesus, let me get married and grow old and gray — and then return!
- Jesus, feel free to take your time — I know there won’t be my favorite chocolate bars in heaven!
I have need to remind myself: All that is sweet in human marriage to my coheir on this earth will not be ultimately lost but transformed. The new depth of intimacy I will have with my Lord — and every other saint, including my spouse — will look back on the caterpillar of earthly joys with fondness but not longing. And this makes marriage, and the intoxication of sexual intimacy, all the sweeter now.
My life with my spouse, no matter how precious, will be a shadow of what I, and the rest of God’s children, will have in perfect communion with our Lord and each other. Marriage with a believer can be one of the greatest relationships of earth — but the least relationship in heaven will be greater than it.
Jesus’s return in his glory — the climax of all human history — will not be an intrusion. We cannot allow unbelief to put up a “Do not disturb” sign above even the most excellent gifts from our heavenly Father. We enjoy our candy now, and as we do, we grow in our trust in the Father who knows how to give good — the best gifts — to his children. Our heaven does not offer sexual pleasure, but it offers that which makes sexual pleasure obsolete. It offers fullness of joy. It offers us God himself.
Jesus poured out his blood for people from every bloodline on this planet. At the cross, he breaks the back of every ethnic pride.
Are Christians righteous or unrighteous? Pastor John explains two forms of righteousness in Scripture that get to the core of the gospel.
Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, said, “There is on earth no greater comfort than baptism.” Luther was famous for fighting against sin and Satan by preaching to himself, “I am baptized! I am baptized!”
Luther was not claiming to be saved simply because he was baptized. Rather, he rightly perceived the wonder and glory of baptism. He saw the visible, external act of baptism as an objective reminder of the invisible, internal reality of new birth and the faith through which we are saved on the basis of Christ alone. Luther was, after all, the great champion of justification by faith — as well as one captivated by the power and grace of baptism.
Yet, as a baptist, I can’t help but observe that something was missing in Luther’s reminder to himself about his baptism. Luther was what we call a paedobaptist (or infant-baptist). He himself was baptized as an infant, not in response to a profession of his own faith, but because of the faith of his parents — the faith they prayed would be manifest someday in their newborn son. Luther himself supported and practiced infant-baptism not only of adult converts, but also of the infants of Christian parents.
How much more powerful would recalling his baptism be if he could actually recall it? What if his baptism would have been an expression of saving faith already plainly present in his soul, rather than just a hope and prayer of his parents?Repent, Believe, Be Baptized
Luther is not alone in leaving something to be desired in his vision of baptism. God has embedded his sacraments with more than meets the eye. For all of us, the “visible words” of the ordinances teem with depths of wonder and power into which we grow and mature. Christians of all stripes can anticipate shades and textures of meaning in Christian baptism we have yet to realize.
Before I lay out what I think are the six most important New Testament texts to consider, let me acknowledge at the outset that godly evangelical pastors, scholars, churches, and seminaries stand on both sides of this question. The issues are many, and the arguments often complex, and I have great respect for many dear infant-baptist brothers and sisters.
Nevertheless, we credobaptists (or believer-baptists) — who baptize, typically by immersion, only those who give a credible profession of faith — have a deeper case than only what’s on the surface of the biblical text. For instance, as you often hear from believer-baptists, if you go looking in the New Testament for an example of an infant being baptized, you won’t find one. We don’t overlook the obvious, but we do go further and deeper.Mark 1:5
All the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to [John] and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Without exception in the New Testament, baptism is tied to repentance and faith in the baptizee. John’s baptism, the precursor to Christian baptism, was explicitly, repeatedly, and irreducibly tied to repentance. “They were baptized by [John] in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:6). John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance” (Matthew 3:11). In the Gospels and Acts, John’s baptism is summarized as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; also Acts 13:24; 19:4). Then, in telling the story of the early church, Acts repeatedly ties Christian baptism to repentance and faith:
- “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
- “Those who received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:41).
- “When they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip” (Acts 8:12–13).
Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.
Infant-baptists often point to the “household baptisms” mentioned in Acts 16:33, 18:8, and 1 Corinthians 1:16 and argue that any infants in these households would have been baptized. However, as John Piper writes,
Nowhere in Scripture is there any instance of an infant’s being baptized. The “household baptisms” (mentioned in Acts 16:15, 33 and 1 Corinthians 1:16) are exceptions to this only if one assumes that the household included infants. But, in fact, Luke steers us away from this assumption, for example in the case of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:32), by saying that Paul first “spoke the word of the Lord . . . to all who were in [the jailer’s] house,” and then baptized them. (Brothers, 156–157)
In Acts 18:8, Luke clarifies immediately, in the ensuing sentence, that simply being in the newly Christian household was not enough for baptism. Belief in Jesus was prerequisite: “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).
The believer-baptist argument goes deeper than such instances in the Gospels and Acts, but we often begin here. And not just in the early-church narratives, which can be thorny in terms of prescription, but also in the Epistles. Four anchor texts in the apostolic letters bind baptism and faith with a clarity and simplicity that is unmatched in the infant-baptist argument.Galatians 3:26–27
In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
Paul assumes that those who have been baptized and those who have saving faith are the same group (with no sanctioned outliers). Faith and baptism belong together in the church’s practice and in the individual Christian’s experience. Those who evidence saving faith should be baptized. And those who have been baptized have given expression to saving faith.
No allowance or provision is made here, or elsewhere, for some who would have been baptized apart from a profession of faith, in anticipation of faith to come.Colossians 2:11–12
In [Christ] you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
The mention of circumcision is important because one of the main arguments for infant-baptists is that as circumcision was administered to every male born into God’s first-covenant people, so baptism should be applied to every child (male and female) born into believing families of God’s new-covenant people, the church. However, this is not what Colossians 2, or any other New Testament text, says about circumcision.
Here “the circumcision of Christ” refers to his being cut off, at the cross, for our sins, and the “circumcision made without hands,” which Paul applies to every believer, is spiritual circumcision, that is, new birth (as commentator Doug Moo notes, “the connections . . . are between spiritual circumcision and baptism,” Colossians, 269, n18).
Of these new-covenant people who are born again, circumcised in heart, Paul expects the new-covenant inaugural rite of water baptism to have been applied. As we’ll explore more below, the new-covenant recipients of baptism, as the counterpart to old-covenant circumcision, are those who have new birth (not mere natural birth), a spiritual circumcision which does not happen apart from faith. Colossians 2:11–12, like Galatians 3:26–27, presumes active and professed faith in all baptized, not just their parents.Romans 6:3–4
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
As in Colossians 2, the baptized are those who have been buried into Jesus’s death and raised to new life in him. Not only does the image suggest immersion, rather than sprinkling or pouring, but more importantly, “newness of life” testifies to new birth and its effects, not mere first birth.
An “old self,” into which we were born (Ephesians 2:1–3), has been crucified (Romans 6:6) or put off (Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:9). And Paul says such is true of “all of us,” all the baptized. We all now “walk in newness of life,” not in the oldness of our first birth. The infant-baptist argument that presumes faith in the newborn does not do justice to the litany of New Testament texts about conversion, putting off an old man, and walking in newness of life.1 Peter 3:21
This text is often avoided, by believer- and infant-baptists alike, because it raises the question about what it meant by “baptism . . . now saves you.” However, if we understand the verse aright, we both clear up that confusion and see further confirmation that baptism is nothing less than an objective expression of subjective repentance and faith (new birth) already present (not simply hoped for) in the baptizee.
Baptism . . . now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Peter anticipates we will be surprised to hear “baptism . . . saves you,” so he immediately explains. He does not mean that the external act of baptism, “as a removal of dirt from the body,” has salvific power on its own. Rather, the instrument connecting the believer to Christ for salvation is the invisible condition of the heart (faith) that is being externally expressed in baptism.
Baptism demonstrates objectively and externally the subjective and internal “appeal to God for a good conscience.” Baptism saves not as an outward act but through the inward faith it expresses. Peter’s statement hangs together on baptism expressing a saving, spiritually newborn condition of heart in the believer.Plausible or Biblical?
Beyond the instances in the narratives, and the didactive words of the apostles tying baptism to faith, we also make our argument on theological and covenantal grounds. I’ll leave that for the next article, but there is something fitting about not moving on to those arguments too quickly. Essential to the credobaptist position is doing justice to the demonstrable teaching of the New Testament.
The best infant-baptist voices typically provide admirably plausible, reasonable, and consistent arguments. The key issue for us as Christians, however, should not be whether the argument is plausible and consistent, but whether it is taught by the actual text of Scripture.
While we must move on, in due course, to the more theological and covenantal arguments, we dare not pass too quickly over the plain, stubborn, obvious readings of the New Testaments texts. Whatever the tradition, a good argument for the nature and application of Christian baptism cannot ignore or minimize what the Bible actually says, including these six important texts.
If you are his, God will most certainly finish the work he has started in you, but you may not finish what he’s given you to do. If you do finish, it likely will not be when you thought you would.
In our ministry to lost loved ones, in our marriage or parenting, in our job or career, in our battle against sin, we may look back and groan over how little progress we’ve made. We may wonder why God has held us here for so long. If God is for us, who can stand against us? has slowly faded to If God if for us, why does everything seem to stand against us?
We can relate to the remnant of Israel who were brought back from exile.
God had promised to restore them, and then he stirred the God-forsaken heart of Persia’s king (Ezra 1:1). After fifty long years — the longest years in their nation’s history — they were coming home. Children that were only five when Babylon seized their families now had grandchildren. With tears in their eyes, they prepared to show their grandsons and granddaughters, for the very first time, the land Almighty God had given them.
Now, their dreams lay on the ground with their tools, and they were forbidden to pick them up again. They didn’t know it then, but they would wait there — oppressed and unfinished — for fifteen years. How many who had sang over the foundation died before the temple was rebuilt?
The set their dreams down that day, and were not allowed to pick them up again for fifteen years.
The thrill of beginning only intensified the pain of stopping again.
50,000 had finally wandered home, and began rebuilding what had been lost.
The king had spoken. “Make a decree that these men be made to cease, and that this city be not rebuilt, until a decree is made by me” (Ezra 4:21). Just as soon as they had laid the foundation, God sent a paralyzing interruption. Their work, for now, had ended.
The work did not stop for week or even months, but for fifteen years. After fifty years of suffering and waiting in Babylon, God ordered fifteen more. For many, I’m sure they were the longest, because they had tasted home again.
Fifty years had passed since the last Jews were driven from their homes into exile.
“In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing” (Ezra 1:1).
After decades of ministry, what is one piece of advice I wish I had received as a young woman? Study the book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes has shown me the secret of enjoying life, even in the midst of trouble. It has rescued me from disillusionment when labors I thought were fruitful appeared to be for naught. When friends have turned their backs, Ecclesiastes has helped me guard against bitterness. It has cured me of setting my hope on a particular outcome, and protected me from becoming bewildered and disheartened by bad news.
In short, Ecclesiastes made me a realist, and yet I’m happier than ever before. This collection of wisdom has become (as it is for J.I. Packer, whose writings introduced me to Ecclesiastes) my favorite book of the Bible, and one I regret not studying sooner.
If you get the wisdom here while you are still young, it will prepare you for real life. It clears away false assumptions with which we sometimes read the rest of Scripture. Even if you find Ecclesiastes when you are older, it sure explains a lot. You learn that life didn’t go sideways; it was already crooked (Ecclesiastes 1:15). Ecclesiastes paints an unvarnished picture of real life, but its heavy shadows help you see the light of real joy.Bad Days Are Normal
To begin with, Ecclesiastes tells us what life is really like. “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” (Ecclesiastes 1:13). This is the way life really is, for all of us.
Because of that first fatal sin, God cursed the ground and imposed hardship on Adam’s offspring (Genesis 3:16–19). The curse has affected all of us who live “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). Christians are not exempt. The curse has also infected all of man’s work, “the toil at which he toils” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). Life is a burdensome task, a frustrating occupation, a grueling grind. It is an unhappy business. And God made it this way.
Our problem is that we don’t really believe life is an unhappy business. We think if we work hard, we’ll eventually succeed. We imagine suffering is short-term, pain is the exception to the rule, and failure merely the prelude to victory. These illusions leave us blindsided by setbacks, devastated by failure and loss, bewildered by trials, confused by pain. This isn’t the way things were supposed to go! We talk about having “a bad day” as if it should be one in a thousand, but Ecclesiastes (and really the rest of Scripture, when you read it right side up) tells us that they are all bad. Daily work under the sun is an unhappy business.
The sooner we face the fact that we live and work in a sin-cursed world, the more realistic and stable we will be. We will stop expecting things to always get better. We won’t be so surprised when they sometimes get worse. We no longer fear bad news: not because we hope it’s not coming, but because we know it is coming (Psalm 112:7; Ecclesiastes 12:1).
Get Ecclesiastes, and we can learn to meet life’s unhappy business with pluck and humor. We won’t be so quick to doubt God, and we will finally have a settled peace in our heart. As my family reminds each other (with a smile) when faced with some new unhappy business, “That’s Ecclesiastes!” In other words, God can be trusted; he told us this was going to happen.Blessings You Cannot Count
Ecclesiastes teaches us how to enjoy life, in the midst of our unhappy business. For while all humankind labors under the effects of the fall, to those God has called according to his purpose, he gives joy. “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God. . . . For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy” (Ecclesiastes 2:24, 26).
God’s gifts of enjoyment aren’t random; they are from his hand. As it says in James, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). God blesses the Christian’s toil with enjoyment. Every feeling of satisfaction in a made bed, a mopped floor, and an organized closet is from the hand of God. Happiness in a deadline met, a budget balanced, or a report filed comes down from the Father of lights. Pleasure in a delicious meal, and in the dishes all cleaned and put away? You guessed it: from the hand of God.
How about the relief of solving a problem, the delight of reading a book to your children, the blessing of easing your husband’s troubles? The fresh breeze through the open windows on carpool morning, the delightful lunch with friends, the sweet feeling of a comfortable bed at night — all of these moments of enjoyment in our work are gifts from the gracious hand of God.
When you start to look for God’s gifts of joy, the ratio of troubles to joys becomes astonishingly unbalanced, leaning heavily in favor of joy. As my husband likes to say, good gifts are raining down upon us from the hand of God, every day, all day long. We can find enjoyment in our toil if only we would take the time to see, and give thanks to God. Consider: what is one way you can remind yourself to enjoy the gifts from God’s hand today? You will find that it is a happy unhappy business that God has given to those who please him.The Final Commendation
Finally, Ecclesiastes helps us to see beyond our unhappy business. Even if your friends walk away, your business fails, or you are forced to move to a smaller home, you can persevere, because the final value of your work is not found in this life. “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14).
In other words, it is not left to us, here and now, to determine the ultimate value of our work. As Jeremiah Burroughs says, we are simply called to “perform the duties of [our] present circumstances,” trusting God who will ultimately judge the fruitfulness of our work and give us our heavenly reward.
This means that no matter how much heart you poured into a failed friendship, how much creativity you invested in a business you have to close, or how much effort you put into the home you have to leave, your work for the Lord is never a net loss. Which is why Paul can exhort us to “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Life under the sun is brutal, and it shows no signs of getting any easier. Our work is cursed and will often, more likely than not, fail on some human level. But the godly woman can face the future with peace and confidence; she even “laughs at the time to come” (Proverbs 31:25). For the same God who told us that life is hard has told us that he is near (Psalm 34:18).
Through faith in Christ we can enjoy God’s fatherly gifts, abound in the work he has called us to, and look forward to the day when — oh, amazing grace! — we receive our commendation from God (1 Corinthians 4:5).