Pastoral Faithfulness

Death happens. It happens as a result of the normal aging process. It happens when disease invades the body. And it happens when tragedy strikes. No matter the circumstance, all cause great suffering for those left behind. But it’s hard to imagine any death that challenges our faith, and quite frankly makes us question God’s goodness more than a death that results from especially tragic circumstances. When we suffer, how is it possible to still find satisfaction in God? In an article entitled, Preparing People to Suffer: What Expectations Do Our Sermons Create? John Piper addresses from a pastor’s perspective that very question, not only in the case of suffering due to tragic circumstances but suffering due to any circumstance at all.

            “Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” In this section of Psalm 90, Moses appealed to God to pour out His grace so that people would find satisfaction in Him above everything else. This would enable them to rejoice all their days. Piper suggests that in times of personal suffering, the wise pastor cries the very cry of this passage and then preaches its truth to those he shepherds. This doesn’t mean that the hurt doesn’t hurt. Nor does it mean that tragedy will not bring about questions. But thankfully, through the hurt and the questions, by God’s grace and the Spirit’s help, we can accept the truths taught in Scripture. Thankfully, we have a God who sees where we can’t, whose purposes are perfect, and though it may appear otherwise, who is always working for our ultimate good (Romans 8:28).

Pastors have an awesome responsibility to preach the whole truth of God, including the reality of suffering. It may not be easy to preach, and it may not be what people most want to hear, but it has got to be done. Piper says by teaching the reality of suffering and God’s sovereign goodness in and through it, when tragedy strikes, it leaves you needing only to embrace those in the midst of their pain.

I’m thankful for my pastor for his faithfulness in not dodging the difficult truth of sufferings reality. Even in their pain, I’m sure many in our congregation have been blessed because he didn’t. However, teaching it is not only a pastor’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of all who minister in any manner. So be grateful for your pastor for preaching it and anyone else who teaches it. Because when they do, it not only better prepares you to deal with suffering in your own life, but also minister to others in theirs.

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Fearful, Foolish and Flawed

“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets” (Hebrews 11:32)

The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is often referred to as the “Hall of Fame of Faith”. It is the account of some of the Old Testament saints who demonstrated great faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). They are the “cloud of witnesses” meant to inspire us as we live out our own faith. In this chapter, with varying degrees of detail, you will find the stories of people who were commended for their faith. In verse 32 you will find several people who are mentioned only by name ─ Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel. Naturally, we know more about some of them than we do others. I suspect most of us would be more familiar with Samuel and David as their stories are told more broadly in Scripture. Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah are perhaps a little less familiar. Their stories can be found in the book of Judges. If you were to study the text in which these people’s stories are told you would find that each of these men had their own shortcomings. In a general sense, you would find that they largely fall into one of three categories: Some of them were fearful (Gideon, Barak). Some were foolish (Samson, Jephthah). And some were flawed (David, Samuel). The most likely case is that, at least at some point in their lives, they were each all three.

In God’s Word we find clear examples of people whose stories warn us about the dangers and consequences of sin. Yet at the same time we find teaching that encourages us as to how God uses imperfect people to bring about His will. All these men were sinners. They all had their own “issues”. But in a moment, they exhibited faith that God used to achieve His purpose. Their stories aren’t an endorsement of a sinful lifestyle. Nowhere does Scripture endorse that. Their stories instead teach us that there is no amount of evil that can thwart God’s will, that in the end, all power belongs to Him. The encouragement for us is that as we trust Him, no matter how far short we may fall, no matter what our “issues” may be, as we step forward in faith, there is a sovereign God to guide us. Be encouraged by that. God is the faithful one.

We can all be fearful, foolish and flawed at times, even at the same time, but God can still use you. Let His love, His grace and His mercy be motivation for your faithfulness. We will always be a work in progress. Fortunately for us, our God is, has always been, and will always be, both powerful and perfect. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).  

Nothing But the Blood

“…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22)  

There are people and even some churches that would deny or downplay the necessity of a blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin. Scripture, however, is clear. “…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). Under the old covenant, repeated blood sacrifices were required to atone for sin. These sacrifices were never meant to permanently deal with sin, but only to point forward to the new and everlasting covenant mediated by Christ. “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). The blood of bulls and goats dealt only with external cleansing while the blood of Christ was meant to “purify our conscious from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). So, whereas the old covenant sacrifices were incapable of changing people’s hearts, the sacrifice of Christ could.

            Though the author of Hebrews is not known, the purpose for which he wrote is. A primary purpose of the book of Hebrews is that we might see the supremacy of Jesus above all things, greater than the angels and the Mosaic system; the truly great High Priest whose once for all sacrifice cleanses us from our sin. 

            In our day, there is an increasing tendency to deny the necessity of the cross for salvation. I suppose if we could, we might choose another way; a way that didn’t require the cross or a blood sacrifice, but instead a more palatable way, a way good enough for all to enter in. But it’s not our way to choose, only God’s. He is the author of salvation and as such, the manner in which redemption comes belongs only to Him. Salvation is in Christ alone. All of us need forgiveness for sin. If you have received it, it came only by the blood of Christ; if you haven’t, it’s the only way salvation will come. For us to accept anything less is less than Christian, and if it’s less than Christian, it’s not Christian at all. Don’t believe the world. Believe the Bible. Your salvation depends on it.

Old to New

“…seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9-10)

Paul’s letters always contained both theological and practical components to them. After correcting their misplaced theology about Christ, Paul dealt in a very practical manner with those in the church at Colossae. For some, the practices of their lives before they were saved were still present. Paul challenged them to bring these practices in line with their new identity in Christ.

As we prepare for the New Year and look forward to what lies ahead, I guess it’s only natural to think back on the one that’s ending. Doing so may bring joy, perhaps sadness, or maybe a little bit of both. I imagine it also comes with a certain amount of regret. There are always things we wish we had done and said that we didn’t, and things we did and said that we wish we hadn’t. The truth is, we are all sinners and from year to year, sin will be a constant companion. But in His grace and mercy, through Jesus, God has dealt with our sin.

The Christian life is a process, not a process in the sense that we are progressively being saved over time. We are saved the moment we place our faith in Jesus Christ. The Christian life is a process in the sense that over time, we become more and more like Christ. This is known as progressive sanctification.

In this life we will always be less than perfect, but we have a Savior who is perfect. And although our conformity to the image of Christ will not end until we go to be with the Lord, our guilt does. This doesn’t mean we are to make light of sin. Paul didn’t in writing to the Colossians or anyone else. All sin matters to God. He is a holy God and He calls us to be holy as well (1 Peter 1:15). But often is the case that instead of letting our failures of the past instruct us moving forward, we end up consumed with guilt. This is not God’s intention as it denies the perfect sacrifice of Christ on our behalf. Though we live the consequences of our sin, its penalty was paid in full at the cross.

So, when you look to this upcoming year, look to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Thank Him for His forgiveness. Thank Him for His faithfulness. Thank Him for His grace. Thank Him for His mercy. Embrace everything He has for your life. Know that He is more interested in your present and future than He is your past. But most of all, remember, there is no one who loves you like He loves you.

This One Might Sting A Little

“Whoever says ‘I know him’ but fails to keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4)

The other day, a friend of mine shared an interesting quote with me. I’m not sure where it originated, but it read “Your life as a Christian should make non-believers question their disbelief in God.” I’ll admit, the quote was quite convicting as I know there have been many times in my life where my actions have failed to reflect my profession, times when instead of pushing people toward Christ, I perhaps turned them away from Him.

The Bible is quite clear about the appropriate response to God’s grace in salvation. The apostle Paul addressed it. Answering the question as to whether one should remain in sin so grace may abound, he said, “By no means. How can we who died to sin live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2). The apostle Peter addressed it writing, “He [Jesus] bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). And the apostle John addressed it. In 1 John 2:3, he writes, “And by this we know that we have come to know him [Jesus], if we keep his commandments”. He followed that up in the next verse writing that whoever claims to know Christ but doesn’t keep his commandments is a liar and the truth is not in them (1 John 2:4). In 1 John 3:9, he writes “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God”. In his commentary on this text, John MacArthur says “the apostle John presents two external tests that demonstrate salvation: doctrinal and moral. The doctrinal test consists of professing a proper view of Christ and sin, while the moral test consists of obedience and love.” Those genuinely born again, MacArthur says, display the habit of obedience. The apostle John even quoted Jesus who said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Bottom line: The proof that we know and love God is not in our profession, but in our obedience.

Unfortunately, the whole idea of submission and obedience to the will of God has gotten lost in our culture today. There seems to be this thought that because Christ died for sin, we can live any way we please. Nowhere does the Bible teach that. Nowhere does it teach that forgiveness removes the obligation to obey the commands of God. Obedience isn’t what makes us right with God, but a heart transformed by the gospel shows itself in a changed life. The truth is, those touched by God’s grace have as their highest goal to obey Him. Sure, we slip and slide in our Christian walk, and yes, God’s grace is greater than our sin, but the cross isn’t a “permission slip” to sin more. Rather, it’s an act of love that should motivate us to humbly submit to God’s will. This is the heart of the believer. A profession without a pattern of obedience is a hollow testimony of true conversion. Let us never take for granted what Christ did on the cross. Instead, let it motivate us to honor Him in everything we do. Remember, others are watching. What is your life saying to them?

That Song Will Preach

“but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)

One of the things I’ve always loved about Dan, our music minister at Hunter Street Baptist Church, is that as he prepares us to lead worship on Sunday mornings, I sense he’s more interested in our internalizing the truth of a song we’re singing than he is about how well we sing it. That’s not to say he’s not interested in us leading well and sounding good because he is. In fact, he’s taught us that how we prepare and lead brings glory to God. Sometimes at choir practice, Dan will take the lyrics of a song we’re working on and exposit its meaning and application for our lives. I love when he does that. At other times, perhaps pondering the lyrics of a song himself, you might hear him say, “Now that song will preach”. On this particular night he did the latter. Not that every song doesn’t or shouldn’t “preach”, but on this night and with this song it was especially so.

We had begun working on a song called And Can It Be. Though the song’s lyrics touch on many doctrines found in Scripture, more broadly, it’s about Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin that guarantees the eternal security of the believer. In his book Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem defines the atonement as the work Christ did in His life and death to earn our salvation. Scripture points to two causes for the atonement: God’s love (John 3:16) and God’s justice (Romans 3:25). That God would sacrifice His Son for our sin, and that Christ would willingly be that sacrifice is an amazing truth. Grudem expresses well its application for believers, writing, “The New Testament emphasis on the completion and the finality of Christ’s sacrifice of himself for us assures us that there is no penalty for sin left for us to pay. The penalty has entirely been paid by Christ, and we should have no remaining fear of condemnation or punishment”.

I’m thankful for the emphasis Hunter Street puts on having a correct theology and for the many opportunities we as members have to grow in our knowledge of God and the doctrines found in Scripture. One of those ways has been to study through books such as Systematic Theology. Granted this book is deep and covers a lot of topics that’ll make your head spin, but God uses studies like these to help us grow in our faith. He used it to help me grow in mine. I still remember studying through this book with a group of men. I especially remember the night we studied through the chapter on the atonement and the impact it had on me. I don’t know about you, but there’s a lot in my past, and my present as well that makes me cringe. It’s easy to get trapped by our sin, believing that God can’t or won’t forgive us. Understanding the implications of the atonement helped to free me from that trap. God’s grace truly is greater than our sin. Knowing that Jesus hung on the cross as my substitute, that He willingly paid the penalty for my sin, that He bore the wrath of the Father, that His blood purchased my freedom, and that I will spend eternity with Him, blows my mind. If you’ve trusted in Christ, He’s done that for you as well. Praise God!

Correct theology helps us to live a life that brings glory to God, glory that He alone deserves. Let me encourage you to find a church that is committed to the truth of Scripture. I’m sure thankful for my church’s unwavering commitment to biblical truth. And I’m thankful for a music minister who also teaches and helps reinforce that truth in songs such as And Can It Be. What a great song. You should listen to it sometime, because let me just tell you, “That song will preach”.

When You’re Down, Look Up-Our God Is Faithful

“…for I know whom I have believed” (2 Timothy 1:12)

How are we to “count it all joy” (James 1:2) when we’re going through trials, “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) even when those circumstances are bad, and how are we to believe that just because we love God “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28)? I believe those are pretty good questions, but I also believe God has even better answers.

It is in the context of some sort of suffering that each of the passages above exist. Suffering is always a potential barrier to worship and to living out one’s faith. Ultimately, as Christians, we manage through these times by drawing strength from the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The reality of our lives lived in the flesh makes it easy see all that happens, whether good or bad, from only a human perspective. God’s perspective must be our goal. It’s easy to thank God for the good times just to turn around and blame Him for the bad times. Our perspective must be centered on His promises. God never promised difficult times wouldn’t come, but He absolutely promised to be with us when they do. We must trust and seek to know Him more each day.

In his devotion Morning and Evening, Charles Spurgeon likens the knowledge of Christ to climbing a mountain. He says at its base, because we can see only a little bit, the mountain appears to be only half as high as it really is. However, as we move up the mountain, we are able see more and more. Spurgeon concludes by talking about how at the end of his life, the Apostle Paul was able to say, “for I know whom I have believed” (2 Timothy 1:12) and that “each experience had been like climbing a hill, each trial had been like ascending another summit, and his death seemed like gaining the top of the mountain from which he could see the whole panorama of the faithfulness and love of Him to whom he had committed his soul”.

We live in a fallen world and our view is sometimes cloudy. This makes it easy for the circumstances of life to bring us down. But when they do, look up and keep climbing, because our God is faithful.