Sunday, November 19, 2017

Unwrapping Your Identity: Thanks-Givers (1 Thess. 5.18)

In 1996, the elders of our church had the privilege of going to Albania, a small country in the Balkans just north of Greece. It was just five years after Communism fell. Albania was an independent Communist country that was closed off from the rest of the world. The dictator was fiercely anti-Christian: every Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priest and every Muslim Imam was either imprisoned, deported or killed. The local Cathedral was turned into a basketball court. Every Bible was confiscated and destroyed. We met people who had never seen a Bible until the last couple of years. They had life in Christ that was powerful and exuberant, but they had no structure to understand how to live that life.

This is often observed in former Communist countries. The suppression of whatever Christian heritage they once had led to relational chaos and there is a need for clear instruction in basic Christian ethics.

That is just like the first churches we read about in the New Testament. Often, at the end of their letters, the apostles would give a series of simple, concise, rapid-fire applications that were designed to drive home the teaching found in the whole letter. In America, we do have a Christian heritage, which we tend to rely upon. While our culture seldom realizes it, they live on borrowed capital. And as things slide farther away from God, we also need these passages to remind us of the basic implications for life that gospel brings us under.

In this list, I would like to explore briefly verses 16–18. The series of statements are found to focus on several seemingly disconnected themes. These three verses are put together and the stand apart from what precedes and what follows. Let me make a few notes about the three verses.

First, these are all technically impossible commands to fulfill. Just take “Pray without ceasing.” How would that be possible? You can always do more than one thing at a time, but you can’t do them all well. Something will suffer. And prayer, the scripture tells us, requires concentration. There are spiritual limitations as well. Sometimes my heart is cold towards God – I don’t want to rejoice or pray. Some events in my life are so painful that I can’t authentically thank God. These are technically impossible and obviously they aren’t meant to be taken in a slavishly literal sense.

And, second, these all focus on a heart-direction and deal with our attitude toward God and his work in our lives. Like the word ‘maturity,’ these are never quite accomplished, but they point in the right direction. ‘Maturity,’ even in a simply human sense is a multifaceted concept. Physical maturity can be measured. But emotional, relational, vocational maturity, and so forth, is never complete. We all only attain a measure of maturity some more some less. No one is fully mature in every area of life.

These three brief commands are meant to focus our hearts to keep moving in the right direction. Every event, conversation, or situation can only cause us to rejoice if we can see the relationship between that event and the gospel. When we can see that, we can draw the line between the two and rejoice. That’s the direction our heart should be moving.

So, two basic guidelines: These are impossible to literally fulfill and these are designed to direct our hearts in the right direction in our relationship with God.

With that in mind, I’d like to focus our attention on v 18. In this week in which, in America, we celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s appropriate to look at this verse:
1 Thess. 5.18: Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Even with the above two points, I find this to be the hardest one to understand and to put into practice. Like many things in life, this instruction is easy as long as things are going well and hard when they aren’t.

Let’s break the verse down into its three components, and explore each one. First, “Give thanks;” second, “In all circumstances;” third, “For this is the will of God.”

Give thanks”: This means that we should acknowledge with gratitude that God is our good Father and our almighty King.

To give thanks simply means to acknowledge someone with gratitude for something they have done for you. In relationship with God, that call us to acknowledge with gratitude that God is the source of what you receive in life.

This, in the Bible and in the history of Christian faith, has been regarded as a human duty. God, being the creator and Lord of all of life, ought to be acknowledged by his image. In our day, duty is often viewed in a negative light – many seem to think that the only proper motivation for worship is gratitude. While the highest, purest motivation is gratitude, I’m not sure duty and gratitude should be thought of as opposites.

Now, in this case, we are to thank God for two aspects of his character. This will become more plain as we go on but essentially we must thank him for both his greatness and his goodness. That God is our creator means he is all-powerful, he is “great” in the fullest sense of that word. He is far above us, unlike us, frightening in his eternal power. But if we didn’t know that he is also good, we wouldn’t be able to thank him properly. Yet, for those who trust him, God tells us, he is not only the eternal, majestic, all-powerful God who controls all things; he is also our loving spiritual Father. He is good. What is best for us is his purpose and aim. That’s who we are to thank for all that we receive in this life.

Second, “In all circumstances.This is where it becomes more difficult. We should acknowledge with gratitude this great and good God, in everything that comes into our lives. At every point of our experience, in whatever comes into our lives, we are to thank him.

Again, this is easy when good but hard when bad.

I know that everyone responds differently to life’s stresses, but I tend to see every difficulty as being either my own fault or the fault of someone else’s faith; I don’t customarily blame God. When something goes wrong, my first response is to figure out what I or someone else did wrong that brought about the situation. That is not what the scripture teaches that I ought to do.

Scripture tells me that ultimately, God is behind every event of life. Whether it is something that I experience as good, or something that I experience as difficult, even if it is something I experience as tragic, it has come into my life for a purpose to accomplish God’s will for me. In fact, scripture tells me he allows it to come into my life for the purpose of shaping me to be more like Jesus Christ. Now, the event may still have come about as a result of something I did, or something another person did, or a combination of many people’s actions. But behind it, God has a purpose. God is actively using the choices of human beings, weaving them together, and overseeing all, to accomplish his purpose.

Now, this is the most hated teaching of the Christian faith in this generation. I want to hear me acknowledge that up front. The idea of God’s ultimate control as Lord of the universe is despised by modern thought. According to modern thought, all things must be explainable only by mechanic processes that can be observed in the universe. This is called Scientific Materialism. That doesn’t mean all scientists hold to it, thankfully; it means that those who represent modern thought in a philosophic way make this a pillar of their religion: There is not spiritual realm, they say, and even if there were, it has no relevance for the physical universe in which we live. So, any idea that there is a God who is before, behind, and in control of, the natural processes of life must be rejected.

But there is a religious form of this today. It is called “Open Theism.” Such philosophers who want to retain some religious thought but accept this , say that God doesn’t know everything. Because he created free creatures who make their own choices, God cannot know something until the creature creates it by his or her choices. Thus, God cannot know the future; he knows all that has and is happening at every moment, but he cannot know the future. If he could know the future, he could change it. But God, like us, is caught up in the material laws that he has created; he is dependent on our choices to create the reality he can then deal with. This is why things seem to happen by chance, they say. It’s because of the choices of humans. This absolves of any responsibility for evil in the universe. But, it also absolves him of any power to change it.

The biggest problem with this, according to the Bible, is prophecy. If God doesn’t know things until they happen, how could he predict in detail things that would happen hundreds or thousands of years after he predicted them. All that to say that the God of an open theist is not the God of the Bible. You may not like the God of the Bible, but you shouldn’t try to make him into something else, something less that he himself claims.

Just consider two verses. One from the Old Testament, one from the New.
Isaiah 47.8–10: “Remember this and stand firm,      recall it to mind, you transgressors,        remember the former things of old;for I am God, and there is no other;      I am God, and there is none like me,declaring the end from the beginning      and from ancient times things not yet done,saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,      and I will accomplish all my purpose.’
Eph 1.11: In him (Christ) we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.

This is the teachings that Christians have always called “Providence.” I have found the following statement to be helpful that was written in the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563.
Q27.  What do you understand by the providence of God?
A27.  Providence is the almighty and ever-present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.

That is a good description of what scripture so clearly teaches. It is a difficult fact that you and I must deal with in life. God doesn’t reveal himself to us as the therapeutic god, the god who is supremely good but can’t really change things. He isn’t a god who says, “Let me come down to your level and put my arm around you and comfort you because I have been broken by sin as well. That’s what we do for each other in the midst of pain.

God has been broken by sin; that’s the meaning of the cross. But God in Christ was broken by sin so that he might break the chains of sin and set us free. If you want to have a God you can understand, a God who does nothing that will ever shake you, will never make you question or doubt or struggle, then you have a God who can’t do anything. Listen: A God with whom you never have to struggle, is not a God worth worshiping. Read the psalms! Listen to the struggle! These songs were written to teach you how to bring your heart to the eternal God and ask you to see him as he is and bow to his eternal purpose. But, remember, his purpose is good, because he is not a supernatural tyrant; he is a loving father.

Providence is great when you hear a groom tell a story as I have heard at weddings. He was lonely and wanted to be married. But he wanted to be faithful to God as well. So, he trusted God and waited, because he wasn’t just looking for a woman; he was looking for a wife. And in God’s time, not his, God brought into his life a wonderful woman. And he feels gratitude to God for what he has done and expresses it.

Providence is not so easy to understand or to accept when the story is the loss of a job, or a mental illness, or the death of child.

I’m not pretending this is a simple concept. We should note that the verse doesn’t say, “Give thanks for all circumstances” as though we should be grateful for house fires and car accidents. It says, “Give thanks in all circumstances,” which is something different altogether. But it’s what is behind this verse. How can you “Give thanks in all circumstances,” if you do not believe that the eternal creator-God who rules the universe according to his eternal purpose is not also your loving heavenly Father who seeks your eternal best? 

So, we should acknowledge with gratitude this great and good God, in everything that comes into our lives. But there’s one more part of the sentence we need to consider: “For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 

In reality, this phrase relates to all three of the brief little directions God gives here. To understand it, we need to consider what is meant by the words “will of God.”

“The will of God” of course simply refers to God’s choice or intention about something. In scripture, it can used in one of at least three ways.
  • The most rare but important, is what I’ll call God’s sovereign will, or better, his eternal will. This is God’s eternal purpose and covers all things that actually come to pass in his creation. Scripture refers to this as a single decree by which God, in eternity past, determined all that comes to pass. The eternal plan of salvation is included in this comprehensive plan. Scripture refers to it and it is helpful to us to know that there is such a thing. What God decrees is helpful to us only as we look back on what has unfolded in history; it doesn’t help us to live the Christian life. It is a mystery to which we are not encouraged to seek to pry into.
  • A second way scripture refers to the will of God is what I will call his permissive will. God, in his eternal will, doesn’t unilaterally determine all that happens. Based on his foreknowledge, he weaves human choices, even sinful choices into his purposes. He permits things and weaves them into his eternal purpose without directly willing them, since God cannot choose or think or do evil. That also is helpful so that we know that, while God may have allowed sinful actions and their consequences, he doesn’t directly will them. Yet he uses them.
  • But then, there is what we can call God’s preceptive will. These are the precepts, or instructions, that he gives to us about how to live. The ten commandments, for example, are part of God’s preceptive will. They tell us what God requires of us; they don’t tell us what is going to happen in every case. Obviously, these three verses are a part of God’s preceptive will which is the most helpful aspect of the will of God for our everyday life.

The life God intends for us to live and the life that will result in the greatest blessing is a life of thankfulness to him. A thankfulness that is not a sentimental, Christmas dinner kind of “God’s blessed us this last year, hasn’t he.” Rather a daily reckoning with the reality of life and a free choice to thank God for the way he is actively working to conform us to the character of Christ.

So, let’s finish our sentence that’s we’ve been building from this verse:
We should acknowledge with gratitude that God is our good Father and our almighty King, in everything that comes into our lives, so that God receives the glory and we receive the blessing that he intends.
Why do I say that this kind of thankfulness results in God being glorified and our being blessed? Because it is, “the will of God in Christ Jesus” for us! It is how our choices magnify the eternal purpose of God in Christ. In Christ is found all the riches of God. It is God’s way of blessing us so that life reflects him and his glory.

Oh, that we would see this at Thanksgiving. That we would look beyond ourselves and, regardless of our circumstances, see that God is intimately involved and concerns with everything in our lives. O, that we could rest in the providence of God and rejoice that “all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.”

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Unwrapping Your Identity: Saints (1 Corinthians 1.1-3)

At some point early in our marriage, Laura and I acquired a plate that has become a part of our family lore. It is a gaudy red plate unlike anything else we own that has written on it is large, white letters, “You are Special Today.” It became the birthday plate in our family. At dinner on your birthday, this is the birthday person’s plate. We have never used it for any other purpose – it is in the china cabinet except on birthdays. It is set-apart for one purpose. In fact, it is “holy.”

The basic meaning of the word “holy” is set apart. In the deepest sense possible, God is holy, he is “set apart” from everything else that exists. God’s holiness is “sets him apart” from us. In ourselves, apart from something God can do inside of us, we are not holy, we are unlike him — he is unique, exclusive, matchless in every way. But the most important ways he is “holy” are in his abilities and in his character.

In his abilities, he is complete even in things that we reflect — we can think and act because God made us in his image, but our thinking and our doing are just dim reflections of the complete knowledge and unparalleled power God has. This makes us feel small, weak, submissive.

But God is also complete in his character – his ethical goodness. When people say God is good, what they often mean is that he does good things for them; but people are so easily disappointed when he doesn’t come through in what they expect. God’s goodness permeates all that he is and does, so that he defines goodness. God alone is good in the fullest sense of the term – he is “right” in all his characteristics, motivations, and actions. We fall short of his goodness.

And yet, the Bible calls all those who belong to God “saints.” The word means “holy ones.” In our passage this morning, Paul writes,
1 Cor. 1.2: “…to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…”
This word “saints” is confusing for a number of reasons:
  • There is a church tradition of calling particularly outstanding believers “saints.” Some churches have a practice of officially designating people as saints after they have died, so that they are known as “Saint Peter” or “Saint John.” That is not in the Bible – the word saint is applied to every believer in the fellowship of the church in the same way as the word “Christian” or “disciple.”
  • The Mormons call each other (and are mockingly called by others) “the saints.”
  • There is a football team, the New Orleans “Saints” – does that mean they are holy?
  • All of this confuses people. Perhaps “holy ones” is a better translation than “saints” but even that is confusing.

In what way can we be called “saints” or “holy ones”?

That word is used about 80 times in the Bible referring to the people of God. If the psalmist can say of God, “You alone are holy” (Psalm 15.4), how can we be called “holy ones”?

The answer to that requires that we expand our understanding of salvation so that it includes a part of God’s purposes that we usually relegate to the important but not essential. Here’s what I mean: Often Christians think of faith in Christ for salvation as the goal of everything God wants to do. Once we’ve come to faith, the whole point is to stay there. But faith in Christ is the all-important starting point, not the end point of God’s work. Consider this verse:
Lev. 11.45; 1 Pet. 1.16: “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
God’s point in saving us is to shape us to reflect his character. If God is holy, he seeks to mold us to be holy as well, order that our lives might exhibit the power of his grace. This means that part of our identity as Christians, one that should form our self-image, is that we are “holy people.” Saints.
What does this mean for us? How does it display itself in our lives?

First, we must see ourselves as ‘set apart’ for God.

People speak today of “identity politics.” We tend to divide people into categories based on sexual orientation, race, political viewpoint, social status, money (or lack of it), and so forth. We don’t tend to use larger categories like character. The Bible is different.  

The most basic identity the Bible names is found in the confession we make in baptism: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” What that means is that I am called to identify myself as being under the authority of Jesus Christ first and foremost. All other identities are secondary to that “pledge” we make “from a good conscience” in baptism. We must see ourselves as holy = set apart for God’s purposes.

We all face many opportunities, temptations, and choices in life, just like everyone else in the world. The difference is that we are called to face them and to make our choices based on our identity as people who are called to belong to God and reflect his character. Everything falls under that heading. 

So, what television shows we watch or don’t watch, what we do with our time, how we talk to and treat the opposite sex in every setting, how we earn, save, give and spend our money… everything must be seen through the lenses of the baptism pledge, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

This has profound implications for everything we do in life! Today, we are so afraid to be known as Christians. We live within a vocal and strident minority that is accusing Christians of all kinds of crimes against modern thought. The voices are so insistent that Christians are afraid to identify with Christ and his cause. But you already made that decision in baptism, didn’t you? You are “set apart” for God.

We must see ourselves as ‘set apart’ for God. But, secondly, we must see ourselves as responsible to be holy, set apart for God in our character and behavior. We must seek to reflect the character of our Father in our lives.

This means that we are to understand that we are “called to be saints.” Called by God to live as holy people. Not just to identify with Christ but to seek to display Christ’s character to others. If we are set apart for God, we must also be set apart from sin.

Now we all struggle with sin and we will until we’re with him. We will fail. We will become angry, be unkind, make selfish choices, and display the typical failings of human beings. But, we won’t defend it as right; when we become aware of it, we’ll pick ourselves up, and go to God in repentance and reliance on the blood of Christ. Then we’ll go to whoever we have offended and apologize. We won’t pretend that we’re something we’re not. Yet, repentance will be our response to our failings.
We’ll seek to be different – both in our attitudes and in our behavior.

Seek to see the Christian lifestyle as something measured by what you do, not by what you don’t do. This is something you have to cultivate in life, each of us.

My grandfather Lewellen was a very successful businessman. I only knew him, of course, later in life. But I have one distinct memory that shaped the kind of person I want to be. For my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, they wanted the whole family to come to Florida – their three sons with their wives and ten grandchildren. They had a big dinner at which it was only our family. I was sitting near my grandfather. When the waitress came to the table before the meal, he said, “Do you have a family?” She said yes, three children, aged two, four, and six. He said, “Well this is my family” and he introduced each one by name. He said, “Thank for you taking care of us on this special occasion.

After dinner, when the waitress came to take care of the bill. He handed her money and said, “I don’t need any change. I gave you a little extra and I want you to use it to care for those precious children you have at home.”

I never forgot that. I don’t know of my grandfather’s spiritual commitment – he went to church but never talked about God or made the Christian faith a part of his life in any other way. But, later in life, when I grew up and had a family, I have often thought of that event. And, I’ve thought that he displayed the kind of character that Christians ought to display – a generous, encouraging, giving spirit. It’s funny the things that God uses to shape character, isn’t it?

God calls us “saints,” holy people. May this shape our identity in such ways that we live it out before a watching world.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Unwrapping Your Identity: Restored (Matthew 8.14-17)

A number of years ago, a woman visited our church a few times who was from a tradition different from ours. She asked to meet with me and opened with a question: ‘Why don’t you believe in raising the dead?’

I assured that I do believe that the dead can be raised – basic to being a Christian is the affirmation that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and that, because of that, all believers in him will be raised as well at the last day. But, I added, I assume you mean to ask, “Why doesn’t your church engage in seeking by prayer and faith to raise the dead?” That was her real question and we went on to have a vigorous discussion about it.

In our conversation – which of course, was not simply about raising the dead, but also about healing and miracles – she made an interesting point. Quoting the words I just read in Matthew 8, she noted that Matthew quotes Isaiah 53. And in the most famous passage in the Old Testament predicting that the Messiah would die for sinners, it says:
Isaiah 53.4: Surely, he has borne our diseases (physical illnesses) and carried our pains (the emotional suffering caused by sickness).
Note that the two words – ‘borne’ and ‘carried’ are the words used throughout the Bible to describe atonement. ‘Christ bore our sins in his body on the cross’ (1 Peter 2.24). This whole passage is about the atonement, the death of Jesus in the place of sinners, dying in our place. Modern translations often say, “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” but literally this is what it says. “He has borne our sicknesses.” (CSB).

Now, her point was this: If Jesus took on himself our physical diseases when he died on the cross then there is healing in the atonement. So, we can go to him now and expect him to heal those for whom we pray because he died for that illness.

What do you think of that? Is there healing in the atonement? Not only forgiveness. Not only restoration to fellowship with God. Physical healing. On that point, she was right. And I think that has profound implications for our identity and for our behavior. Let’s think together for a few minutes about three things: Jesus’ healing miracles, why he did them, and what that means for us.

When we read about Jesus’ ministry in the gospels, over one quarter of the material describes the last week or so of his life. But the material before that describes the approximately three years of his ministry. Two things stand out: Jesus’ preaching and his miracles. Concerning his miracles, we note that Jesus healed people both spiritually and physically.

This passage, in fact, describes both. First, he heals Peter’s mother-in-law. She has a fever; he touches her and the fever departs. And we know that her healing was instantaneous because she got up and began to serve him. Then, we are told, that evening the townspeople bring many people who were both oppressed by demons and who were physically sick and ‘he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick’ (v. 15). 

Now, what do I mean by spiritual and physical healing? Well this passage displays both.
  • Spiritual healing involves freeing people from the oppression of evil spirits and from the consequences of their oppression.
  • Physical healing involves freeing people from physical illness and restoring them to wholeness.

There are two questions that arise at this point. The first is, ‘What is the relationship of sin to sickness?’ When a person becomes sick, is it because they have sinned in some way and God is punishing them for their behavior?

Scripture frequently connects sin and sickness, sometimes directly but usually indirectly. We know that sinful behavior can bring about sickness – as in drug addicts sharing needles, or immoral behavior that leads to a sexually transmitted disease, or when a drunk driver injures someone in an accident. In those cases, the person’s behavior that is contrary to God’s instructions has, as its natural and logical consequence some related outcome they must then deal with. My experience tells me, however, that if there is no obvious connection between our behavior and some undesirable event in our lives, we shouldn’t try to make one.

The reason is because sin is related to all evil in the universe in an indirect way. “Death entered the world through sin” we are told in Romans 5. And because of this, the whole “creation is in bondage to corruption” it says in Romans 8. We live in a world infected with sin and showing the consequences in disasters, disease, crime, relational conflict, and death. Even apart from our own behavior, we can expect to be touched by the consequences of sin. It is not until the fulfillment of the age to come that we will experience freedom from these things.

But this little passage forces us to ask not only, ‘What is the relationship of sin to sickness?’ but also, ‘What is the relationship of Satan to sickness?’ What is this ‘demon oppression’ that Jesus dealt with? Do demons cause disease.

Well, Scripture doesn’t only connect sin to sickness, it also connects evil spiritual powers with sickness. That is not to say that all sickness is caused by the devil. There is no basis for speaking of a demon of depression, or a demon of suicide, that some people speak of. What I mean is that evil spiritual forces have an interest in any state that tends to drive a person away from God. If a Christian becomes sick then they can easily feel depressed and not desire fellowship with God. The spiritual aspect must be considered as one factor.

In sickness, it seems that there are always at least four contributors:
  • biological — say, a virus or bacteria of some sort,
  • developmental — we have unresolved factors from upbringing or exposure to unhealthy ways of handling life that set us on a trajectory of handling life’s pressures in unhealthy ways,
  • relational — perhaps, handing a job conflict or child-rearing problem poorly.

Those are always true, but scripture says we must consider a fourth and that is
  • spiritual — the battle with evil spiritual forces who seek to (in the words of scripture) oppress us. 
After all, the apostle Peter said,
      1 Peter 5.8–9: Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.
      For the Christian person to ignore or deny the reality of Satan and his spirits is to enter life unprepared for the spiritual battle it involves.

Think of it as a pie that is cut into four parts — biological, developmental, relational, and spiritual. How that pie is cut up and what size and shape each of those pieces are is different in every case. At times, the biological factor is the largest piece and the others are in the background. At other times, the spiritual piece is dominant. But there are always at least those four factors.
But what we must see is that evil spiritual powers have an interest in any state of life that is in any way opposed to our experience of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14.17).

Jesus dealt with the ‘whole pie’ in his healing ministry — he cast out the spirits with a word of command and he healed all who were sick. That kind of activity, along with preaching, characterized Jesus’ ministry up until he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
But what we need to understand is why he did this. What was the point of Jesus’ healing ministry? Was it just to show that he was a miracle-worker? Was it just to draw a crowd so he could preach.

What Matthew tells us is, first, that Jesus’ healing ministry was meant to show that he was the Messiah. Look at v. 17:
Matthew 8.17: This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”
We have to note that his healing ministry was the fulfillment of prophecy. Isaiah predicted that the Messiah would heal people and what Jesus was doing that evening in Capernaum was the direct fulfillment of that promise.

John the Baptist, we are told became discouraged with events surrounding his ministry especially as his life became endangered and became more evident that it would not end well. He sent representatives to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Even he, the man appointed by God to introduce the Messiah to Israel, wondered if Jesus really was the Messiah. What did Jesus say?
Matthew 11.5–6: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Jesus himself notes his miracles and his healings are the demonstration that he is the Messiah that John was to introduce.

It’s interesting that this passage emphasizes that Jesus “healed all who were sick.” Of course that doesn’t mean that he healed everyone, everywhere; it means that he healed everyone who was brought to him that evening in Capernaum. It is evident, however, that Jesus didn’t heal indiscriminately. He never entered a town and said, “Gather all the sick and demon-oppressed who are here and I’ll have a healing service.” He never said, “Let’s heal some people to draw a crowd.” In other words, healing people, for Jesus, was not an end in itself. It was a means to a greater end: to show that he really was the Messiah.

Now, you might think, ‘Why wouldn’t God in the flesh heal people as widely as possible? Isn’t it wrong for God himself, who has the power to overcome sickness, disease, and demon-oppression, to NOT heal people? How could he be in the presence of the consequences of sin in human life and not make things right? 

I once walked with a man through the process of dying from cancer. A couple of months before he died, he fell and broke his hip. The doctors put him in a nursing home so that his hip could heal enough for him to go home… and die. It didn’t feel very good; they put the man in a hospital to heal him in order that he could die. I’m not faulting them; that was all they could do.

But apply that to Jesus – if all that he did was heal people and make their lives physically whole again, he would have healed them physically… and left them to remain spiritually dead and hell-bound. Jesus tells us in Matthew 20 why he came. He said,
Matthew 20.28: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The primary purpose of Jesus’ death was to die for sinful people. Healing us but not dealing with our sin problem would have had only temporary effect.

That’s the first reason for his healing ministry: Jesus healed people to show that he was the Messiah. But, this passage shows an underlying reason: Jesus healed people to reveal the kingdom of God.
I have used this little diagram to show how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament promise of the coming of the kingdom of God.

The Old Testament expectation, which is what the prophets wrote about, was that this age in which we live would be followed by the age to come — the Messiah’s kingdom. In the age to come, God would make all that is wrong would be made right. Sickness, disease, and death would be overcome. God would reign and wipe away all sorrow, there would be a new heavens and a new earth. They saw a range of mountains up ahead that would be the age to come.

They saw this age swallowed up by a mountain that would be the age to come. Jesus fulfills that, but not quite in the way they expected. The mountain range is actually two mountains. The first one is his first appearance in humility while the second is his second coming in glory. In the first coming he inaugurates the kingdom; in his return he fulfills it.

During Jesus earthly ministry he inaugurated, or set in motion, the kingdom of God.
  • When he first began to preach, he said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand!” (Mk 1.15).
  • When he spoke to the Pharisees and they asked when the kingdom of God was going to come, he said, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” He was the king and the kingdom is wherever the king is. He was setting it in motion.
  • Why did he do miracles, heal people, cast out demons? To show that where he is present the conditions of the kingdom are already present — to display the presence of the future in his presence on the earth.

From that point forward, according to the New Testament, the age to come is inaugurated and the whole period during which you and I live is called, “the last days.” When Jesus returns, he will consummate the kingdom and fully reveal its power and presence by the eradication of sin and the final judgment.

That means that you and I live during a time when the kingdom is “already, but not yet!” here. The church, the gathering of the people of God, is the present and temporary form of the kingdom. Because Jesus has introduced the kingdom, we who believe in him “share in the Holy Spirit, taste the heavenly gift…[and] the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” in our lives and worship together. But the taste is not the fulfillment, not the full satisfaction.

Well, let’s conclude: Is there healing in the atonement? Well, answer it this way: Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, there will in the end be a multitude “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5.9) gathered at the throne of God. For them, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21.4).

Yes, there is healing in the atonement — the ultimate, final, complete lasting healing from sin and from all of the effects of sin. It is birthright of every believer. And, there is healing now — sometimes. Remember: Already but not yet. That’s tension in which we live in the present age. Taste, not complete satisfaction. Because we live ‘in-between the times,’ in that period between the inauguration of the kingdom and the consummation/ completion of the kingdom, the kingdom (so to speak) reaches back into our time.

Now, what does that mean?

Well, first, we should pray for healing – for ourselves and others. We serve the God who is able to heal and we live by faith in the presence of the same Savior who showed his healing power when he was on the earth. We should confidently ask him to extend that same power into the present age. BUT, we should not demand healing because we know that, for Christians, the prayer for healing is always answered with a definitive “Yes!” A yes that we may not see now.

How often I have spoken to people – often young people, but also spouses, siblings, and friends of those who have died. They ask, ‘If God is really good, why did my loved one die? I prayed and others prayed for her. My mother,’ they say, ‘was such a fine Christian. I can’t believe in a god who would let my mother die when he could have healed her!’

But don’t you understand that when a Christian dies, she is restored to wholeness — instantaneously, completely, finally — and in God’s presence rejoicing? The lame can walk, the blind can see, the cancer-ridden is whole and pure. It is a mark of God’s love, not his mean-ness, that he takes them home.

Because of Christ’s death and his victory over sin and death in his resurrection, our resurrection is guaranteed… ultimately. That doesn’t mean we can demand it now. In the same way, the woman was right, there is healing in the atonement… ultimately. But that doesn’t mean that we can demand it now. We should pray for healing and always remember that, for believers, that is a prayer he will always answer in the affirmative – either now or in his kingdom. This should change how we pray — with real confidence that he who healed all who were brought to him that night can and will do the same. Can… now. Will… in the end, if not now.

But note that the healing we often put in first place is, in the biblical way of seeing things, only a by-product, of the real healing of the soul by the covering of sin in the blood of Christ. Why did Isaiah say, “He carried our diseases and bore our pains” while elsewhere in the same chapter, in the next verse, he says, “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities”? Because he died both for our real problem – sin, iniquity, transgression – and for the effects in our lives – diseases and pains. He didn’t just cut off the fruit; he dealt with the root that bore the fruit.
By faith in him we have both – faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Unwrapping Your Identity: Alive in Christ (Romans 6.1-11)

Perhaps you have seen this bumper sticker on a car:

I’d like to suggest this morning that that statement is not an accurate expression of the true Chris­tian faith. As popular as it is, it doesn’t express the message of the New Testament clearly. The first half is most definitely true – Christians aren’t perfect. And that last word is accurate – Chris­tians are those who have been forgiven of their sins. The problem in the sentence is the word ‘just.’ If the only difference between the Christian and others is that he or she is forgiven and that’s it, then there’s something defective about Christianity. The Christian gospel presents Christ’s salvation as dealing with our whole person and affecting not just our standing with God, but also our behavior, and speech, and thoughts. We need the whole package: Salvation from the guilt of sin, the penalty of sin, the power of sin, and ultimately, it’s very presence.

So, this passage begins with a question, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” That is the natural question that follows on the preced­ing chapters of Romans 1–4. Those chapters concentrate on the topic of justification: How can a righteous and holy God pardon people who are guilty of sin? The answer is that God declares guilty sinners NOT guilty on the basis of the death of Jesus Christ in their place. God doesn’t count their behavior – they are guilty of sin. He doesn’t count their good intentions – they aren’t enough. He doesn’t count their sorrow what they have done – it can’t pay. Instead, he credits the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ and the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ to their account and counts the guilty sinner as righteous. Forgiveness is not toleration of sin, it involves substitu­tion for sin. God forgives guilty sinners by grace.

When you begin to grasp the radical nature of that grace, you must ask, ‘If that’s true, then what’s the point of living a good life? If I sin and God forgives, then why shouldn’t I sin more so that I can be forgiven more?’  

And note Paul’s answer to the question of the imaginary objector to his teaching:
Romans 6.1–2: What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
‘By no means!’ May it never be! Or, as the King James Version paraphrases it, God forbid! Paul doesn’t say, ‘Well, that’s a good question: Let me explain why a Christian shouldn’t live in sin;’ or, ‘Well, that could happen but it wouldn’t be logical.’ He says, “By no means!”

And here is the reason this continued living in sin is inconceivable for the Christian: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” The rest of the passage unfolds from verse 3.

But, what does it mean? Paul says something has changed for the believer in Christ. We have ‘died to sin’ and, just as a dead person can no longer sin, we can’t continue in the course of life we once did. Now this requires some careful thought – I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel that I’ve died to sin. All of my normal human appetites and desires are still operative; the same struggles I had before I came to faith in Christ are still with me. They didn’t simply stop when I believed the gospel.

What Paul presents here is not a formula – not a ‘how-to,’ like step-by-step instructions on how to live the Christian life. And before we look at it, there is something I need to say about the Bible’s view of life: There are two powers in the world that scripture does not either dismiss or diminish in any way – they are the power of sin in every human life AND the overcoming power of the Spirit of God in every believer’s life. Those are two powers in the world – unbelieving people do not often reckon on the power of sin… until they see it worked out in an extreme form as in the mass shooting in Las Vegas last week. And even believers fall on one side of the other in reckoning with their power. But because of both the power of sin and the overcoming power of the Spirit, Christian people experience an intense struggle to live for God. Paul takes on this immense subject in this passage and we are only going to look at his starting point, not at the whole of his teaching. But I want you to keep that in the backdrop of everything I’m going to say today.

So, Paul uses an illustration that Christians in his day would have all understood. Since baptism was, for early Christians, the outward sign of now being identified as a Christian and of their incorporation into the Christian church, he uses it to explain this idea of dying to sin:
Romans 6.4: 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.
Baptism is an image that is meant to display visually what the cross and the empty tomb mean for the individual believer: When the Christian confesses his faith before the people of God in a community and is baptized, she is indicating – ‘as Christ died and was buried, I am being lowered under the water to show that I possess the benefits of that death. Christ’s death was for my sins, mine individually; and when he died for sin, I died to sin. And when Christ arose from the grave by the Spirit’s power to an indestructible life, I was made alive with him to live for him.’

So, Paul works out in a series of statements, what that logically means. He expresses surprise that Christians don’t know these facts. So, if we have failed to make these truths clear to you here at Grace Church, let’s take a few minutes and grow now in our understanding of this most basic truth.

There are three foundational truths this passage presents:

1.      When Christ died, the believer in some definitive way, died with him.

And look at verses 5–10 to see him underline this:

·         Romans 5.5:For if we have been united with him in a death like his…”
·         Romans 5.6: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing…”
·         Romans 6.8: “Now if we have died with Christ…”

This is where we get the words ‘union with Christ’ – if we have been united with him. When two people are ‘united’ in marriage, they mingle their assets and liabilities, the believer in Christ is united to Christ. We bring our liabilities (our sin) and he takes them and pays for them; he brings his assets (his perfect life and atoning death) and we receive the benefits of them. And when Christ died, we who believe, in some definitive way, died with him.

2.      When Christ rose from the death, the believer in some definitive way, was made alive.

Note this in the passage:

·         Romans 6.5:For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
·         Romans 6.8: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

As we marry a person, not just their assets and liabilities, so we are united to Jesus Christ to God-man. We receive the benefits of both his death AND his resurrection. In him, we die to sin and in his resurrection, we are made alive to live for God. When Christ rose from the death, the believer in some definitive way, was made alive.

3.      Therefore, believers are called to live out their new life by obeying God in their everyday lives.
·         Romans 6.4: “…just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
·         Romans 6.6:We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”
·         Romans 6.11:So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
On the basis of dying with Christ and being made alive with Christ, we can live in obedience to God.
Now, these are some difficult concepts. What do they mean? Let’s start with what they do not mean.
  • First, these are very real – death and life – but it is evident that they aren’t automatic. If this were mechanical or automatic, Paul wouldn’t need to call us to do something. He would say, if you died to sin you can’t sin anymore, so, if you sin you’re not a Christian. But instead his command is ‘Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive in Christ Jesus.’
  • Second, this is not some kind of ‘word-of-faith’ teaching, like we have from false teach­ers today. There are some prominent teachers on television who teach what is called ‘word-of-faith’ or ‘positive confession.’ They teach that we create reality by what we say and believe – ‘believe that you possess wealth and say it into existence.’ But Paul is not saying that you’re not really dead to sin but you can believe it into existence. The Bible knows nothing of that idea. There’s only one who can ‘create reality’ and he hasn’t given us the power to do that.
  • This, also, is not a theoretical truth. That would be like saying, ‘Since Christ died in your place for your sins, it is as if you died to sin – of course, you didn’t, but you can make it real in your experience by living as though you did. This is a more ‘Christianized’ ver­sion of word-of-faith: Choose to live as though something were true.
  • And, along with that, it’s not merely positional truth, though it is positional. I mean, this describes how God sees us. He sees us ‘in Christ’ possessing all of his benefits. This pas­sage could simply mean we should seek to make real in our experience by trying to see ourselves as God sees us. That is more commonly taught by Bible teachers. And, it’s not false, but I don’t think it’s adequate to explain the passage.

That’s why I used the word ‘definitive’ in my explanation. Something definitive happened inside of me when Christ died and rose from the dead. Something real changed. Something that wasn’t true the moment before faith changed when I came to faith – I don’t mean I felt it and couldn’t sin any more. But it was just an idea, a concept. Yet as I come to understand it, I am now to build my life around it.
What was the ‘real’ thing that happened? I became united to Christ by faith. I became connected to a living person. And the change I longed for and began to experience prompted me to present myself to the people of God for baptism so that I could openly confess my faith show my union with Christ, even if I didn’t understand all that was meant to show. After all, who gets married and really understands all of the demands, responsibilities, and sorrows and joys of marriage?

Union with Christ is the much-ignored and often-misunderstood truth of the Christian faith – baptism doesn’t make it happen; it is what happens when I come to trust in Christ alone. Baptism is, like the marriage ceremony, the point when I acknowledge it and confess that I’m going to live it out in the context of the Christian community, the people of God in the world in which I live. Baptism doesn’t make it happen, but it’s the point when I confess its reality to the witness­ing church and the watching world.

And it’s on the basis of that foundational truth – I am so united to Christ by faith that his death is my death to sin as a power, and his resurrection is the basis of my life by the Spirit. That uncon­querable life, that unquenchable life by which I can overcome the power of sin still operative in my life.
On that basis, Paul gives a command. The first command in the passage is found in verse 11:
Romans 6.11: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Note what I said: This is the first command in this whole chapter. Everything that has gone before – 218 words! – are all statements of fact. This is instructive and it is the way the scripture usually works. Statements of fact, then commands. The indicative and then the imperative. Truth and then what to do with the truth. And the first part is always longer and more involved than the second.
So many people think the Bible is a list of rules about how to live, and that’s why they don’t like it. But, in reality, God shows how we should treat our children by how he treats us – first, the truth, then the commands. If your daughter doesn’t know what you think of her and what you are willing to do for her, then telling her what to do will only make her mad. She must know that you love her, that out of your love for her you will sacrifice your time, your talents, and your treas­ure, that in everything you seek what it best for her; then, when direction is given, it’s in the proper context.

In the same way, this word ‘consider’ is referring to this distinct teaching about union with Christ and all that it means by what has been taught in preceding paragraphs and chapters. You are to ‘consider’ as true something that God says is true of you, a reality that you have in Christ.

I have been a Christian for 44 years, I’ve been in Christian work for over forty of those years, and I still want the Christian life to be easy. I still want there to be some formula that I can fol­low to get constant victory. The only difference is that now I know there isn’t a formula. This earthly pilgrimage as a believer is meant to be a struggle to work out the reality of what I have in Christ. And sin which remains in my flesh is a constant drag on my desires and intentions. Its power is very real. But, the overcoming power of the Spirit of God is within me. God promises in verse fourteen in this chapter that “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” And on that basis, I keep on struggling.

Do you delight in Jesus Christ? That’s what you do with the person to whom you are united in marriage. Do you delight in Jesus? Do you rejoice in all of his assets that are now yours in life? That is your birthright if you are a believer. You have at your disposal all of his benefits – but they are found in him, not simply in a bank account that he set up for you. They are found in his person, the one to whom God joined you by faith.

That’s the first thing he wants from you – your delight in him! Everything else – service, Bible-reading, prayer – comes second to that. In fact, if you delight in him, everything else will follow.
This is a basic fact of our existence as believers: We are alive to God in Christ Jesus! We possess God’s Holy Spirit inside of us, prompting us with new desires, new impulses, and new directions in life. Before we were incapable of obeying from the heart. Now we are capable of doing that – imperfectly but really. Sin will always pull on us – it is incredibly powerful. But it will no longer dominate us as it once did. A steam may flow slowly but over times it wears away the soil and the rocks over which it runs.

You are not the person you once were if you are ‘in Christ.’ You are ‘alive to God.’

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Unwrapping Your Identity: Children / Sons (Galatians 4.26)

This morning, I would like to explore the Bible’s teaching that, for those who trust in Jesus Christ, God is our Father and we are his children. This is an image, not an illustration. What I mean is that it is that God – after he created the world and peopled it with men and women – didn’t look around at human life as it was developing and say, “What could I find in this world that would best illustrate the kind of relationship I want to have with people?” That would be an illustration. No, what he did was this: Before he created anything, God said, “I will give them a relationship that will reflect or image for them the eternal relationship that I plan for those who come to me in faith and accept my redemption.” Then God created men and women and gave to us the capacity to re-create the race in our image in every generation by bearing children and forming families. In other words, our relationships dimly reflect what God already is and does. 

The parent-child relationship is just a dim reflection of the eternal relationship of the members of the Trinity who have always existed in deep love and of the relationship God enters into with his people. In this relationship, we call him “Father” and he calls us “my beloved children.”

I did a little spadework on gender language this week and was reminded how difficult it is to communicate today. When I preach this morning, I have to carefully evaluate so many of the concepts that the Bible presents. In the past, I could say in a few words things that, today, may bring serious questions to people’s minds. And many of them are found in the Bible’s way of expressing God — Father, he, him; and others in the way of expressing humanity — man, mankind, he, sons, brothers. It’s unfortunate, but it’s necessary because we are meant to be understandable.

As we prepare our hearts to come to the Table and worship the Lord in the breaking of bread, I would like us to think for a few minutes about the idea of being “children of God.” What does the Bible communicate with this image? What does it tell us about God’s feelings for us? What does it tell us about our response to God?

I’d like to use two aspects of the father/child image – the idea of being a child and the idea of being sons.

Now these are difficult to use today without explanation. The reason is that, in the past, and in all languages that I am aware of, the male gender has been traditionally used to express the concept of corporate humanity. This is called the ‘generic use of language.’

For example – man or mankind could be used to refer to all people, today’s humankind. If you needed to be clear that you meant ‘men’ not ‘women’ you had the words male and female to differentiate them. Therefore, the word man could be used to mean ‘person’ – congressman, postman, milkman.

      Today, there is a move against using the male words in a gender-neutral way. Now man means male so you must say people or men and women. All languages change over time; ours is changing to avoid using male pronouns in a generic way.

The same is true of the word son or sons. In the past, this word was used freely as a shorthand for sons and daughters. Psalm 127.3, “Behold, sons are an inheritance from the Lord,” referred to both sons and daughters – offspring who will inherit the parent’s goods. Today, we translate that “children are an inheritance from the Lord.”

Enough about grammar – the fact is, the changes to our language make the Bible seem antiquated and male-dominated to people who don’t know anything about grammar.

In the Bible, those who are believers in Christ and belong to God are called both children’ and ‘sons.’ These are rich and meaningful images. We need to rejoice in them.

What do we gain from the word “children of God”?

We gain an image of being loved, cared for, deeply valued, cherished. There’s a verse in Ephesians that says this:
Eph. 5.1–2: Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us….
Imitate God, in the same way that a little boy looks at his father and what he is doing and sees in him and example of what he wants to be. A little girl sees what her mother is doing and wants to do the same things. In this case, we are to look at God and want to love like God does.

There’s a title of Jesus used a number of times – of those is at his baptism. It’s first used when the Father looks on the obedient Jesus as he comes to be identified with sinners in baptism in order to formally undertake the work of redemption. He says, “This is my Son, the beloved One.” In Ephesians 1 it says that he has blessed us with his grace “in the beloved.”

Even the most manly of men, who has spent his thirty years or so paying no attention to little children, when his wife has a baby suddenly understand what all the hype was about – his whole perspective changes, and now he frames his life around being a father.

And children are not only deeply loved and cherished and lived for. Children are also provided for. And the family table is perhaps the clearest image of that need and provision. When a man and woman become parents their whole understanding of what their money is for changes. It is not just for them – it is first for those little children who are so incomparably weak and needy and cannot provide for themselves. And they don’t want their little children to come wondering if there will be food, or to come to be lectured on how lucky they are to have food. They want them to be secure in the abundant provision they will receive.

The Lord’s table is meant to evoke within us the same sense of childhood – being cared for by the Lord; being nourished, provided for abundantly. For us as people, childhood ends and we move on. In Christ, childhood continues all of life. At the Table this morning, we are visually reminded that
But then, there’s another image in the New Testament – we are called ‘sons.’
Galatians 3.26: “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith.”
Now this is where translation gets hard. Today, as Bible versions want to adapt to contemporary language, they want to get away from the word ‘sons’ because that generally means ‘male children’ and that doesn’t seem to be the focus of the passage. It could be translated ‘sons and daughters’ but no one seems to use that. The common way to get around it is to translate it ‘children’ – ‘you are all children of God through faith.’ But that misses something. The emphasis of the passage is on an adult child as opposed to a little child and ‘children’ doesn’t make that clear.

How do I know that? Look at 4.1:
Galatians 4.1: “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father.”
The writer is contrasting childhood with adulthood. Even though the child is to be the heir of a vast estate, in childhood he’s treated like a slave – do this, do that, don’t do this; go to bed, get up, eat this…. He’s contrasting life under the Old Covenant (in what we can the Old Testament) with life under the new covenant, now that Christ has come.

The passage also is emphasizing the ‘inheritance’ aspect of the Christian life – we are the people of God now come into our inheritance in Christ. It picks up on a Roman custom of ‘adoption as sons’ in which a man or woman is adopted by a wealthy person and made his heir. So even ‘sons and daughters’ doesn’t quite make the point even though that would be the most appropriate translation today.

This doesn’t deny that we are still children. It adds to it another image – we are more like adult children than little children. What is characteristic of an adult child.

And adult child is mature and expected to live as a mature person – the lessons of childhood have been learned. The lessons of self-care is now inside – in a sense matters of personal hygiene in life are like practices of spiritual hygiene to the Christians. Bible reading and prayer are not things we need to be told to do; we internally know we need to do them. Treating others with love and respect are not always easy but we don’t need to be reminded of that as a child does.

And along with maturity, we are responsible. The characteristic of the adult shows in life when we have children – in a sense, we leave our own childhood behind and we become those who love and care for others.

In other words, in Christ, the Christian life becomes our responsibility not someone else’s. Other’s participate in the body of Christ. We each contribute according to our gifts and abilities; We are not expected to be able to live the Christian life on our own without others. But we are expected to contribute to the growth of others.

This is also what we are reminded at the Table of the Lord. We are part of a ‘grown up’ family. We retain the image of little children around the Table but we add the image of grown up children at the Table – there are no fathers and mothers there. We all have one Parent – God. We are just brothers and sisters at various stages, some older and some younger. We are all responsible.

This means we aren’t just consumers who come to church and say, ‘What’s in it for me?’ We come to seek help from others according to their gifts and responsibilities and to add our gifts and responsibilities to theirs before our God and Father.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Unwrapping Your Identity: "Called" (Romans 8.28-30)

We are thinking together these weeks about the identity of those who are Christians. What ought to shape our sense of who we are? What should distinguish our character and behavior if we are believers? This morning, I want to focus most of our time on one word in this text: Called. Christians are those who have been called by God — a simple idea, but one that is often not reflected on and applied by those who read the Bible.
Romans 8.28: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
What does it mean to be called? Why is it significant.

Sometimes in life, we describe things by how they appear, not by how they actually happen. One of those is the sunrise. We might say, “This morning, I woke up and watched the sunrise.” But, in fact, we know that the sun does not literally rise or set – even though we can watch it come up over the horizon in the morning, move across the sky during the day, and disappear behind the horizon at night. Yet we all know that what is actually happening is that our star, the sun, is in a fixed position relative to the earth. It is our planet that is moving: it is both orbiting around the sun every year and, at the same time, it is revolving on its axis every 24-hours. As our earth turns, it appears to us that it rises in the morning and sets at night. In fact, so compelling is our personal experience that our meteorologists still call it sunrise and sunset.

In the same way, we experience the event of a person becoming a Christian from our perspective, on the basis of our experience. The Bible doesn’t say our experience is wrong or untrue, but it clearly tells us that it is incomplete. If we only think of it from our experience, we will misunderstand the significance of grandeur of what happens.

Here’s how we often think of our conversion:

From our human perspective, what happens is this: We hear the gospel and understand it – through a friend, or a speaker, or a book, or listening to a podcast. We come to understand that we have sinned, that the penalty for our sin is death, and that Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins. We are told that we must personally apply this by repenting for our sins and trusting in Christ. As we hear this, faith arises in our hearts and we believe it for ourselves. We appropriate or receive salvation. That’s what happens from our side.

There is nothing untrue about that – unlike the sunrise, which is only an appearance, what we experience is what actually happens. But that’s not all that happens. The Bible tells us that, on God’s side, he is doing things: While we appropriate salvation, we are told that God is applying salvation to us. The application of salvation looks like this:
God does not simply offer salvation and then leave us to choose. He takes the salvation he has purchased for us and applies it to us, bringing us effectively to himself.

Both sides are presented in the Bible, but it might surprise you to know that this second – God’s work of applying salvation to us – is covered in great depth in the New Testament, it appears in many places. If this subject were left a mystery, we wouldn’t want to speculate on what is behind our experience; but it isn’t hidden. It’s revealed clearly. One of those places is in these verses.
These few verses present a golden chain in the application of redemption. An unbroken chain of actions that God undertakes to bring a person to himself. Verses 29–30 reads:
Romans 8.29–30: For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
See the chain?
Foreknow(ledge) — Predestination — Calling — Justification — Glorification.

People who read and reflect deeply on the Bible note that there are other actions besides these. What about regeneration, where does that come in? Or adoption? Or sanctification? Where do those fit in? No, these verses are just a skeletal outline of the most relevant things the passage requires to make its point.

Let’s just note a couple of things about this chain of redemption from God’s perspective.
First, note that God is the author of each of these things – these are not thing that have to do with us and what we feel inside. He foreknows, he calls, he justifies, and so forth. These are God’s actions, not ours.

And now, a word must be said about ‘foreknowledge.’ That’s where is starts: “Those whom he foreknew…”.

People often assume that foreknowledge simply means to know something beforehand. Most people assume that God looked forward and saw that you would respond to the gospel in faith; so, on the basis of your foreseen faith, he chose you. If that’s true, you can understand it — there was something in you that God used as a basis for his choice.

But that is not the meaning of the word. That’s foresight, not foreknowledge. Surely God sees everything in advance. But, foreknowledge, the way the word is used in the Bible, means to choose in advance. Now, why would I say that? Let me give you three reasons:

First, it is based on the way the word know or knowledge is used in the Old Testament. To know someone refers to a deep friendship or companionship: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore a son” (Gen. 4.1). And not just of the intimate relationship of marriage, how about this: “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” (Gal. 4.9). So, God’s foreknowledge in this verse, refers to person, not something about a person (“those whom he foreknew…”). God, in eternity past, thought of you, in a saving relationship with himself and in that way, he determined that it would be so. 

Secondly, and along with that, the Bible never assigns the reason you are a Christian to anything inside of you; in fact, it denies it over and over. It is always assigns your salvation to something inside of God, that is, grace. It is according to his purpose.

And third, the Bible teaches us this over and over:
2 Thess. 2.13–14: But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There he puts God’s choice and his calling together. To ‘foreknow’ means ‘to choose.’ Those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son – that’s the second step in God’s application of redemption. He determined that the purpose of his choice was to make you like Jesus Christ in your character and conduct – this removes our salvation from all ideas that he saves us from eternal judgment and then leaves us there.

And those whom he predestined he also called. There is is, right in the middle is ‘calling.’ This is the first step we experience. Now what does it meant to be called?

Well, there’s a difference between the gospel call and the effective call. The gospel call happens whenever the message of the gospel is communicated – whether it is by one person to another, or by a leader to a small group, or someone speaking to an auditorium full of people.

The gospel call is what happens whenever the truth of the gospel, along with the call to accept it in faith, is communicated. It goes out to everyone who listens to it. The message of the gospel is,
  • First, we have sinned;
  • Second, the penalty for our sin is death;
  • Third, Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins.

That’s the gospel. Then, the call of the gospel is that
  • we must personally apply this by repenting for our sins and trusting in Christ.

It might interest you to know that, even though the Bible speaks of that message over and over, only in one or two places does it use the word ‘call’ to refer to it – the general, gospel call. Rather, over fifty times, the New Testament uses the word ‘call’ to answer the question, ‘Why do some people respond to the message and some not? Fifty times refer to those who respond as the ‘called.’ This is God’s summons to the individual to believe in Christ. This is the ‘effective call.’ Along with the word of the outward call, God’s Holy Spirit accompanies the word with his power to effectively bring the person to faith. Consider these verses:
  • 1 Peter 2.9: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
  • 1 Corinthians 1.9: God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
  • Acts 2.39: For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
  • 1 Peter 5.10: And 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.

And, how do we know it is effective? 

Well, look back at Romans 8 once more:
  • Romans 8.30: And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

It’s an unbroken chain in which each link unfallibly introduces the next leading from eternity past to eternity future.
Foreknown — Predestined — Called — Justified — Glorified.

There’s a famous passage in the New Testament where Jesus himself describes this. John 10, where Jesus refers to himself as ‘the good shepherd.’
John 10.1-6, 14-16: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Believers, over fifty times you are referred to as the ‘called’ – those whom God has effectively summoned out of darkness into light. How should this shape your self-perception? What does it say about who you are especially who you are in this world as you make your way through life? How does it shape your character and the way you act?

Well, first, it keeps you from any sense of pride or in your salvation. You can never say, “I guess I just wanted to know God and from childhood, I was interested in spiritual things and that’s why God saved me.” That may be true; it was for me. My father once told me that, when he was twelve, his father dropped him off at church while he went to play golf. He sat in the service and he listened to preacher and thought, ‘I don’t believe a word this man is saying.’ And he never did.

I was the opposite. From when I first heard about God, I believed he existed. I wanted to go to church, even though it was many years before I came to know him. But these verses tell me that I can’t say, ‘Well, I was just different, better, more spiritual.’

The truth is: God set his love on me long before I ever knew him. He thought of me in eternity past as one of his own, one in personal friendship with him.

And, as I moved through life, I did many things – good and bad. But these verses tell me that God graciously arranged my free choices as I moved through life, to bring me to point of hearing and understanding the gospel. In his free grace, he opened my heart to understand the things I was studying with others in college in his word. He showed me my need and his provision for it in Christ. And God effectively wooed me to himself, he persuaded me to come to Jesus Christ. The Bible says that, left to myself, I wouldn’t have done that – it tells me that “No one seeks for God.” But he awakened me.

In fact, these verses say that God will arrange everything in my life to lead to my final salvation. Look again at verse 28:
  • Romans 8.28: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

This is true of all who love God, believers, who are “those who are called according to his purpose.” And what is the good that he calls me to? Is it simply that I will have a good life, an enjoyable life, a life with few problems? No, the chain tells me what the good is: Foreknown — Predestined — Called — Justified — Glorified. He will so work that ultimately I will be in his presence free from sin and rejoicing in his salvation, singing with all his people, “Worthy is the lamb that was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5.12).

So, as I move through this life, I want to live out of gratitude – I want to listen to his voice and do his will.