Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A testimony of God's grace

This week I will be quoting briefly from JC Ryle, that great English preacher of the 19th century whose few published books are worth more to me than a room full of gold. In his Autobiography, Ryle looks back to the days of his conversion in his early 20's and writes these inspiring words:

"It may interest my children to know what were the points in religion by which my opinions at this period of my life became strongly marked, developed and decided, and what were the principles which came out into strong, clear and distinct relief when this great change came over me … Nothing I can remember to this day appeared to me so clear and distinct as my own sinfulness, Christ's preciousness, the value of the Bible, the absolute necessity of coming out of the world, the need of being born again and the enormous folly of the whole doctrine of baptismal regeneration. All these things … seemed to flash upon me like a sunbeam in the winter of 1837 and have stuck in my mind from that time down to this. People may account for such a change as they like; my own belief is that … it was what the Bible calls "conversion" or "regeneration". Before that time I was dead in sins and on the high road to hell, and from that time I have become alive and had a hope of heaven. And nothing to my mind can account for it, but the free sovereign grace of God."

May it be the same for us.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Facing suicide in God's family

Tragically, one of our brothers in Christ last night took his own life. Trinity Church, and Minot Air Force Base, is in mourning and the Kingdom of God on earth is bereft of a precious friend. Since the information may not yet have been released to his family, I am keeping his name in confidence. Nevertheless, you who knew him likely know of the loss. How are we, as believers, to think through and process the suicide of a fellow believer? It's a situation for which we are rarely prepared. One of the most helpful responses to the suicide of a believer was written more than twenty years ago by John Piper. I reproduce it here in full. For you who grieve today, may it bring you insight, peace and hope.

We need firm biblical ground under our feet at a time like this. And so I want to try to take the Bible, God’s Word, and unfold five truths that I hope will give you a firm place to stand in the coming days.

    1. Saints sometimes feel so bad that they want to die.
    2. It is sin to fulfill that desire by taking your own life.
    3. The only way sin can be forgiven is in our relationship to Jesus Christ by faith.
    4. Saving faith can be so weak that the heart gives way to grievous sin.
    5. Therefore let this death not be in vain: let it make us utterly committed to overcome the weakness of faith that cost him his life.

      1. Saints Sometimes Feel So Bad That They Want to Die

      Moses was under tremendous pressure from the people to take them back to Egypt. They were dissatisfied with his leadership. And God himself had sent fire against the people. Moses says, “I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness” (Numbers 11:14–15).

      Elijah had just endured the incredible strain of single-handedly opposing 400 priests of the idol Baal and the people of Israel and the king. God vindicated his faith, and he ran exuberantly for miles in front of the king’s chariot. Then he heard that the king’s wife, Jezebel, vowed to kill him. In his fear and exhaustion he went into the wilderness, sat down under a broom tree, and said, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4).

      The prophet Jonah displayed one of the most selfish attitudes of all the prophets in being irritated that God had mercy on the pagan city of Nineveh. And God rebuked him with a desert wind. “When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live’” (Jonah 4:8).

      Listen to the account of a young Christian graduate student.

      Although I have always been reasonably healthy, insomnia has plagued me from adolescence until now. Only those who are unable to sleep at night can appreciate the distressing toll this ailment takes on one’s life: the omnipresent sense of fatigue, the susceptibility to irritation, and the grossness of an unrefreshed mind. All through the university I struggled against a never ending torpor, mental and animal. Each night the disquiets of mind prevailed over weariness. And the more the tensions of graduate work mounted, the more I fought off the effects of insufficient sleep. One Friday afternoon, as I prepared for the spring language examinations, I emotionally exploded. Having lost sleep with such regularity, I lacked courage to face the future. My mind was like a mass of live rubber: continually expanding, it threatened to divide down the center. This would leave me powerless to cope with responsibilities in the university . . . Everything I conceived became a burden; every anticipated obligation threatened to impale me. Even so ordinary a responsibility as conversing with others overwhelmed me with consternation. Nor dare I conceal that fact that even suicide took on a certain attractiveness.

      This graduate student went on to become a great professor of theology. He wrote books that are among the most penetrating and moving I have ever read. But in the end he was found dead of an overdose of sleeping pills. The coroner wrote, "I find death undetermined whether Accidental or Suicidal." But those closest to him conceded that there was an addiction to the sleeping pills and that this was connected to his mental condition and "that dependency finally proved his undoing." If this beloved professor intentionally took too many pills, it would not prove he was unregenerate.

      Saints sometimes feel so bad that they want to die.

      2. It Is Sin to Fulfill That Desire by Taking Your Own Life

      Committing suicide is sin. For three reasons:

      1. First, it is disobedience to the command of God, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). And disobedience to God’s commands is sin.
      2. Second, it is presumption upon God’s sovereign prerogatives to give and take life. God alone can create a human person, and therefore personhood belongs to God. We have no right to dispose of ourselves or others as we please. The Lord has sole rights over what he has made. Murder and suicide intrude on the sacred ground where God alone is the giver and taker.
      3. Third, it is failure to trust in God for the help needed to survive and cope. And the Bible says that whatever is not from faith is sin (Romans 14:23).

      Therefore, we are on firm biblical ground when we say: it is sin take your own life.

      3. The Only Way Sin Can Be Forgiven Is in Our Relationship to Jesus Christ by Faith

      Every one of us is a sinner. It doesn’t matter how many “good” things we do or have done. We have dishonored God by the meagerness of love to God and the shallowness of our trust in God and the inconsistency of our obedience to God. If we don’t find a way for our sins to be forgiven, we will be cut off from God forever, because God is holy and cannot look with favor on sin.

      Nor can he sweep sin under the rug as though the dishonoring of his holy name by our sin were of no consequence. It is of infinite consequence. And that’s why God sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world to die for sinners.

      The prophet Isaiah foresaw this great sending of the suffering Messiah.

      Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4–6)

      Jesus Christ came into the world and fulfilled this great Jewish prophecy by dying on the cross and becoming a curse for those who trust in him. “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

      His apostle Peter said, “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). So the issue for every one of us is: do we have a relationship of faith with Jesus Christ so that our sins are forgiven? It is the most precious gift in the world. And there is no other way for a sinner to get to God than through the shed blood of God’s Messiah, Jesus Christ—by trusting in his name.

      No amount of good works can earn God’s salvation. And no amount of bad works disqualifies a person from God’s converting grace. A thief hung on a cross next to Jesus as he was dying. His life was one total waste of sin and unbelief. And in that last moment his eyes were opened and he threw himself on the mercy of the King of the universe and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus, with all the sovereignty of one who would not be defeated by death, said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42–43).

      In the eleventh hour a lifetime of sin and unbelief can be forgiven by faith in Jesus Christ.

      4. Saving Faith Can Be So Weak That the Heart Gives Way to Grievous Sin

      Or to put it another way, those who are truly forgiven for their sins and accepted by God forever can give way temporarily to temptation and fall into sin.

      The biblical evidence for this is:

      • The seventh chapter of Romans describes how Christians struggle with the remaining corruption in our lives: Romans 7:15: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
      • Philippians 3:12: “Not that I . . . am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
      • 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive we ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
      • In Matthew 6:12 Jesus says we should not only pray for daily bread but for daily forgiveness too: “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.”

      Saving faith can be so weak at times that the heart gives way to grievous sin.

      But this does not mean that the saving relationship with Christ goes in and out of existence with each of our sins. When a believer yields to temptation, his faith in Christ is weak and the enticements of sin and the power of Satan get the upper hand. But there is a great difference between Satan getting a temporary upper hand and Satan being the Lord of life. There is a great difference between yielding with resistance to an evil that I hate to do, and doing that evil as part of the usual pattern of my life.

      The evidence of the Master’s hand is the warp and woof of the fabric, not the snags in our thread.

      In the years of your friend’s unbelief he was like a captive in a concentration camp far behind the lines of Satan’s territory. Like all of us at one time or another, he had given himself over to the side of the enemy by refusing to trust in Christ. The result was a kind of numbness toward spiritual things.

      Then one day, it appears that Jesus set himself to penetrate the lines of Satan’s territory, break through the fences of the concentration camp, and shock him out of his stupor of unbelief.

      But as they were leaving the concentration camp, the sirens went off, the ensuing combat was fierce. The sword was knocked out of his hand and the shield slipped on his arm. And the deceptive dart of temptation sank so deep into his heart that he fell in the combat.

      And where was Jesus? We believe he caught him when he fell and carried him home.

      And if we say to Jesus, “You should have protected him while he was escaping,” I think he would say, “My ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. You can no more grasp my wartime strategies than a child can read the graphs of the Chief of Staff. And remember, if I hadn’t broken through the prison of his unbelief, you would have never seen him again.”

      5. Therefore Let This Death Not Be in Vain: Let It Make Us Utterly Committed to Overcome the Enemy That Brought Him to the Grave

      • Give his death worth and meaning by letting it make you hate sin and Satan and unbelief.
      • Let it make you blood-earnest about spiritual things.
      • Let it strip you of unbelief.
      • Let it be his last loud cry against the dangers of the powers of darkness.

      What could honor him more than to let his death be a covenant between you and him, sealed with his own blood,

      • that you, from this day forth, will fight with all your might the enemy that brought him to his grave;
      • that you will wear the whole armor of God; and
      • that you will take the sword of the Spirit, the Bible, and practice with that sword so regularly, so diligently, so earnestly that you become valiant for the Savior who did not leave him blind, broke the prison walls of his unbelief . . . and caught him when he fell.

      Friday, November 11, 2011

      Eve's pain

      We're all familiar with the curse God placed upon Eve and all women who followed in her path. Genesis 3:16 says, "I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children." Almost exclusively, we think about Eve's curse in terms of physical pain. Indeed, every mother will testify to the reality of that. Still, could there be more in this curse? I think so.

      One doesn't have to read far beyond Genesis 3 to discover more feminine pain bound up with Eve's curse. Chapter four showcases her eldest son's jealous heart inflicting its vengeance on his brother in fratricide. A mother's pain in childbirth may be great, but it is minimal compared to the agony of witnessing her children's sins - sometimes chronic sins that go on for decades and rip the family apart. How ironic: the sin which tasted so delicious (the forbidden fruit) came back to bite Eve - and all mothers ever since - perhaps most of all.

      Praise God, therefore, for the promise found in Genesis 3:15 implicit in God's curse upon the serpent, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between her offspring and your offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." Eve received the just desserts of her punishment in motherly pain, but in grace Christ (the ultimate Child) came to reverse the curse. One day every tear will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4) and every redeemed woman (we trust Eve included) will say 'good-bye' to her motherly pain to the glory of God.

      Wednesday, November 9, 2011

      The key to vibrant prayer

      We are not desperate to pray because we are self-deceived. We are blind to our depravity. We don't see ourselves as we really are. Do you want to learn to pray more? Learn of your sin. Ask God to show it to you, to give you a glimpse of your need. Ask him to show you what your sin cost him. Look at the cross again and again until you can say, "Lord, I'm so sinful, so weak, so deceived. Please, God, don't let a day go by without reminding me of this. Make me dependent."

      Then, in faith, draw near knowing that you have needed cleansing but have been cleansed. Know that you have deserved wrath but have been fully loved. Sit down with your Beloved and hear him speak to you. Unburden your heart before him. Have fellowship with your heavenly husband. Be fully assured; he loves you when you pray, and he loves you when you don't. You're his bride when you hide from him, when you ignore him, when you think he doesn't really care. Run, now, to the lover of your soul.

      - Elyse Fitzpatrick, Comforts from the Cross, pp. 129-130

      Saturday, November 5, 2011

      Goodbye self-improvement

      The desire to change [is good] but it isn't exclusively Christian. Everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, wants to change. That's why bookstores are filled with self-help books and meeting halls are filled with people trying to overcome addictions to everything from gambling to pornography to shopping....But there's a problem here for us: self-improvement isn't a Christian construct; death and resurrection are.
      Paul wrote, 'For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.' (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
      God isn't interested in [our] self-improvement regimens. He isn't impressed by our resolutions to do better, to get those devotions in, pass out tracts, cut down on our online time by fifteen minutes every day, or fast from the shopping channels during Lent. In fact, he isn't impressed with us at all. He's impressed by his Son. He's impressed with the perfect life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ, his beloved Son.
      Here's the crux of the matter: you shouldn't hope to be impressed with yourself. Dead people don't worry about impressing others. They don't worry about anything. We need death and resurrection. We should be utterly and entirely impressed with only this: Christ died and was raised. His love was so powerful that he bent under the cruel tree, rested himself upon it, submitted to the hammer and spikes, swallowed his Father's bitter wrath, relinquished his life, and then by the power of the Spirit was raised again. All this for us! Now there's something to be impressed with!...We will not be able to fight victoriously against our sins unless we fight under the banner of the gospel and thereby detach ourselves from our hedonistic plans for self-improvement.
      - Elyse Fitzpatrick, Comforts from the Cross, pp. 120-1221.

      Thursday, November 3, 2011

      'Engaging' pornography

      Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, occasionally receives searching questions on Christianity and ethics from his students and parishioners. The following question by a distressed bride-to-be caught my attention. What biblically/theologically-informed advice would you give a woman in such a situation?

      Dear Dr. Moore,

      In the middle of my premarital counseling with our pastor, I found out that my fiance has had, what he calls, ongoing struggles with pornography. I was kind of floored by this because I hadn’t known anything about it until now. One of the things that drew me to this man was his call to gospel ministry....Can you help me know what to do? Should I just go forward, or what? How will I know that this is sufficiently addressed? And I don’t have much time because the wedding is right around the corner.

      Engaged and Confused