“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

As part of our Thanksgiving service at church each year, we have the opportunity to hear testimonies of God’s work in people’s lives. At some point in the service we are always reminded that whether our current circumstance has on the top of the mountain or in the deepest of valleys, God is the author of both. The theme verse for this service is 1 Thessalonians 5:18.

Let’s face it; it’s easier to give thanks in certain circumstances than others, but God’s Word says we are to give thanks in ALL of them. What Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 has a tendency to strike us the same way as when James writes, “Count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). The call to obey is clear, but obedience to that call is easier said than done. In fact, without the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, it’s impossible.

Over the last couple of years, many of the testimonies in this Thanksgiving service have been from people dealing with difficult and often uncertain circumstances in their lives. But in spite of that, they testify to God’s faithfulness and grace. I always leave this service encouraged yet reminded that the problems I have aren’t really problems at all.

God’s love and faithfulness is threaded throughout the Bible. That love was demonstrated most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul wrote about the importance of joy and contentment not being based on our circumstance, but rather on our relationship with Christ. He also demonstrated it in his life. Paul prayed less about a change in his circumstance, only that he would glorify God through whatever circumstance in which he found himself. He trusted that God could take any circumstance and work it for good. And though he may not have known why what was happening was happening, he knew there was a purpose behind it (Romans 8:28-29). So, when we give thanks during this year, let us remember how much we have to be thankful for. Let us remember that it’s not only on the mountaintop that God is faithful, but also in the valley. Let us remember that the Author of our circumstance has also written its ending. It is in that truth we rest our hope and give our thanks!

To Your Name Alone

“Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory” (Psalm 115:1)

God’s greatest desire is to be glorified. It was also Jesus’ greatest passion. G. Campbell Morgan once wrote, “The deepest passion of the heart of Jesus was not the saving of men, but the glory of God; and then the saving of men, because that is for the glory of God”. In church, we talk a lot about God’s glory, but the truth is it’s hard to define. The most common word for glory in the Old Testament is the Hebrew kabod, which means “heavy in weight”. In the New Testament it is the Greek word doxazo, which means “to magnify, praise or hold in honor”.

As humans, we are incapable of adding to or taking away from God’s inherent glory. However, we are called to respond to it. Matthew 5:16 says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” God has done amazing things for us in Christ. By His grace, He has saved us. If we are to be about God’s glory, we must have as our central goal to make Him look as glorious as He is. We don’t do this privately, but in full view of the world. We also don’t do this in our own strength, but in the strength supplied by the Holy Spirit as we seek God in His Word.

Our God has done great things! Let us live and speak in such a way that honors the reality of who He is and what He has done. He deserves nothing less. Seek Him each day and let His light shine in you, never for your glory or mine, but always and only for His.

Winning Either Way

“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21)

In Romans 6:3-10, Paul uses baptism as a metaphor to teach about the believers union with Christ. He says in verse 4 that we were buried with Christ by baptism into death and raised to walk in newness of life. Fast forward three years where we find Paul sitting in a Roman prison. It was the first of his two imprisonments in Rome and the location from which he wrote four letters, including one to the church at Philippi. It’s always been interesting to me that Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a letter written from prison would be considered his most joyful letter, but it is. Paul found great joy in serving Christ. His was an inward joy that was unaffected by circumstance.

There are certainly implications of having the gospel in our lives. The apostle Paul was completely sold out to Christ. From the time of his conversion, everything he did and everything he incurred was for the sake of advancing the gospel. As a result, he found himself in some difficult situations. Paul knew there would be consequences for his commitment to Christ, but he also knew that ultimately, his was a win-win situation. He would either be released to continue his ministry, or should he die, it would only deepen his union with Christ.

The apostle Paul is great example of many things. He is not only a wonderful example of God’s grace, but also of the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer. As committed as he was to the persecution of Christians before his conversion, he was equally committed to proclaiming Jesus after it. Are you that committed to Jesus? Am I? Is ours a view that there’s much more to look forward to than what we see? Do we really believe that this life is only preparation for the next? God has done amazing things for us in Christ. Let us live in light of that truth with the full understanding that our union and our destiny are secure. And because they are, let it influence our commitments today.

About Sin

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)

The fact that we are all sinners is clearly taught in Scripture. Speaking to both Jews and Gentiles, Paul spent the first two and a half chapters making the case that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Known as the Apostle Paul’s most theological letter, Romans spells out the whole of the gospel more than any other letter. It’s not an accident that in doing so, he began with sin.

There are two dangerous attitudes toward sin that we need to be cautioned against. The first is the attitude that shrugs off sin with words like, “I’m just a sinner; God knows that”. While we are sinners, and yes, God does know that, our attitude toward sin matters. God has commanded us to “be holy, for I am holy!” (1 Peter 1:16). A casual attitude toward sin never brings glory to God. A second dangerous attitude toward sin is an attitude that believes we are incapable of great sin. It is often manifested by judging someone else by saying something like, “I can’t believe what they did. I would never do that.” Be careful, we all have a sin nature and are capable of great sin. If you believe you’re not, you’ll be less likely to guard against it. The Christian life requires discipline. We must train ourselves for godliness (1 Timothy 4:7).

I once heard a sermon where a pastor in preaching to prospective pastors in seminary training said that if in their preaching they do not confront their congregation about sin, it not only brings into question their love for their congregation, but also their love for God. When your pastor confronts you with your sin, be grateful. He’s preaching the Bible. However, also know that the natural extension of confronting you with your sin is for him to tell you of its cure, Jesus Christ. It has been said that “the first act of faith is to believe what God says about sin”. It’s true. And what brings people to saving faith is what God did about it. He gave His Son to pay sin’s penalty. Have you placed your faith in that truth? Jesus really did pay it all. He paid it willingly, perfectly and for all time. After such a display of love, how could we be so casual about what Christ came to cure?

Point, Reflect and Pray

“…so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God” (Psalm 78:7-8)

I believe most us as parents would love nothing more than for our children to avoid the mistakes of our past. Part of the purpose of Psalm 78 was just that, to help future generations learn from the past in order to avoid mistakes made by previous ones. In spite of all the Lord had done, the Jewish people were quite stubborn. Many took God’s faithfulness for granted, acted in disobedience and suffered harsh consequences as a result. In the early portion of Psalm 78, the psalmist recounts the events of the past in order to instruct the current generation. A main emphasis made in this section was for the current and future generations to trust God and faithfully obey His will in response to His faithfulness toward them (v. 7-8).

As parents, we bear the responsibility for teaching our children Christian values. Admittedly, it is a difficult task given the “values-neutral” culture in which we live. Everywhere we turn, there’s an assault on Christian values, but that does not lessen the needed commitment to teach them to our children. In his commentary, James Boice writes that parents “should struggle to make sure that our children are taught morality grounded in the character of God and supported by the life and power of our Savior Jesus Christ”.

For me, there have been times when I’ve felt I hadn’t done enough to prepare my children to meet their next phase of life, things I didn’t pray about or emphasize enough in my teaching. Right now is one of those times. In less than a week, we will take Logan to Auburn as he begins the next phase of his life. College will bring about a whole host of challenges to a young person’s walk of faith. Their being grounded in the Word of God is critical. I remember the temptations that the newly found freedom of college life brought me. I also remember succumbing to many of those temptations. I guess that’s why it’s so prominent on my mind right now.

Being a Christian doesn’t lessen the temptations we face. Sometimes it increases them. And unfortunately, there are times, no matter how strong our faith may be, that we give in to them. I pray Logan won’t, but if he does, I pray that the Lord will spare him from any lasting consequences as a result. I’m a little uncomfortable saying that because it seems as if I’m saying that giving into sin is okay. It’s not. God is holy. He hates sin, any sin. But thankfully God is also patient, He loves us and His grace is always greater than our sin. At the end of the day, I’m left to trust Logan to walk his own Christian walk. I know the Lord will be walking with him. It’s easy to let times like these make you feel inadequate as a parent, perhaps even questioning whether you have properly fulfilled your role in training your child to live out their faith. I believe the inadequacy we feel in these times is God’s way of growing us, teaching us to trust Him more. Let our hearts be open to learn.

So, as Logan leaves, I’m left to do what has been my primary responsibility all along. I am to point, reflect and pray. First, I am to point to Jesus Christ and His perfect work on the cross. Jesus alone changes hearts. Secondly, I am to reflect the work of Christ in my own life. Though we never do this perfectly, we are to do it consistently. Our example matters. And lastly, I am to pray; pray that Logan would avoid some of the same mistakes I made, pray these next years would be some of his greatest, pray that obedience to God’s will would be his heart’s desire and pray that he would find the Lord’s presence to be his greatest need.

A Repeating Theme

2 Cor 5 21

A theme is defined as the main thrust of what is being promoted, discussed or described. Its purpose is to help people remember the key messages or takeaways from whatever is being talked about. We find prominent themes used for many things such as movies, lectures and writings. We find themes in business, in advertising and in politics. We even find themes in the church as there is often a primary theme for each year, for individual sermons or a sermon series.

Of all the verses in Scripture, I’m not sure there’s a single verse that captures the overall theme of the Bible better than 2 Corinthians 5:21. Personally, it’s my favorite verse. I can still remember when I first grasped the meaning of this verse and the freedom that came with it. That Jesus was my substitute—that He would take the penalty for my sin so I wouldn’t have to just blew me away.

Sometimes in my writing, I wonder if I reference 2 Corinthians 5:21 too much. I wonder if because I love this verse so much, I force its use when it doesn’t belong, where perhaps it doesn’t fit the context of what I’m writing about. But the more I think about it, the truth is, this verse belongs everywhere. Its theme can never be repeated enough. That’s because these twenty-four words take us straight to the cross, the center of all that God has done for us.

There is no greater expression of God’s love than what we find at the cross. On the cross, Jesus not only took our sin, but also the guilt and shame that goes with it. There’s freedom in that, not freedom to sin, but freedom to live in response to His grace. I don’t think we can even begin to fully grasp the depth of God’s love, and for what He has done for us in Christ. Christ’s atoning work has saved us from an eternal hell our sin deserves. But more than that, He has saved us to a living hope, a hope we are to enjoy today, but also to look forward to in its fullness for all eternity.

Come and Rest

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Though the Mosaic Law served specific purposes for the Jews, its ultimate purpose was for them to recognize their sin and thus their need of Christ for salvation. The Pharisees, however, taught a sort of self salvation, the thought people had to do something in order to be saved. That’s not what Jesus taught.

A “yoke” is a wooden framework placed over the necks of animals to hold them together in order for them to pull objects. The idea of being under a “yoke” implies being under submission to another. Being bound by the demands of the law was an oppressive burden, a “yoke of slavery” for the Jewish people. In contrast, Jesus’ yoke is easy and His burden light.

It is easy to fall into the false belief that we have to “do something” to earn or keep our salvation. It’s a heavy burden trying to do that. In fact, it’s impossible because salvation can’t be earned. The beauty of the gospel and the words spoken by Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30 is that they make clear the only way of salvation—by grace, through faith, in Christ. Salvation isn’t based on our religious affiliations, a certain set of rituals or our good deeds. It’s based on death, burial and resurrection. Jesus did it all. Honor and glorify Him by resting in His redeeming work.

Self-Determined Apart from God

“…they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Romans 1:25)

When I first heard the quote, my mind immediately went to Romans 1:18-32 and quite frankly the state of our nation. Ravi Zacharias was preaching a series on Saul, Israel’s first king when he said, “When you are determined in going in a certain direction, it’s quite possible that God would step aside and second your motion”. The series was entitled A Life That Lost Its Focus. It seems hard to believe the extent to which our nation is ignoring God’s will. More and more, politicians from both parties support policies contrary to what God desires for our nation. One of our nation’s most polarizing debates is on the issue of same-sex marriage. It’s an issue in which God has spoken clearly.

Romans 1:18-32 confronts the issue of unrighteousness and the consequences that result from it. This passage may be a difficult part of Scripture, but it is a necessary part. In it, Paul spoke of judgment on the unrighteous, judgment that came because the truth about God had been perverted, the people had exchanged the truth about God for a lie. Three times in this section of Romans, Paul wrote that “God gave them up”. In essence, God seconded their motion, removed His restraining hand and allowed the unrighteous to continue in their sin only to suffer the consequences of it. This was God’s judgment.

Scripture repeatedly demonstrates the biblical principle that obedience brings blessing while disobedience brings judgment. Though we try, we can’t divide God in His attributes? We can’t elevate His mercy and grace above His holiness and righteousness. To accept one attribute as true is to accept them all as true. He is perfect in each of them.

In the book of Romans, Paul laid out the gospel in its clearest terms. He began with sin (Romans 1:18-3:20). Scripture is clear about sin, not only sexual sin, but all sin. God can’t look upon it. However, sometimes in order to not offend or hurt people’s feelings, sin is either downplayed or all together left out of the gospel presentation. When such is the case, the gospel has not been presented, just a false imitation. This doesn’t mean we should be anything less than gracious as we share the need for forgiveness of sin. We all share equally in that need.

We are at a crisis point in our nation. Our national leaders seem to have lost focus on doing God’s will on matters of public policy. For the most part, they stand for nothing. Equally unfortunate is that much of the electorate is either uninformed of this fact or simply does not care. We should. Our rights are not endowed by a president or legislature intoxicated by power, but by our Creator, and as such, we are to submit to His will. If we persist in going a way that is contrary to the will of God, there comes a point in which He will step aside, allow us to go our own way, pursue our sin and suffer the consequences as a result of it. Are we now at that place in our country? Have we lost our focus? Have you lost yours? As Christians, we believe what we do because the Bible says it. For all the noble arguments that form the basis of support for marriage being between one man and one woman, because the Bible says so is where the argument ends. Though unbelievers couldn’t care less about biblical authority, Christians must hold to it.

Thankfully for us, Paul didn’t stop at Romans 3:20, but under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, continued to write, showing us the magnificence of God’s grace through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. The “giving over” to sin and its judgment Paul spoke of in this passage was not eternal. One day His judgment will be. But today, judgment for sin is meant to drive us to seek God’s grace. And God is ready to give that grace. It comes at the cross. And it comes because of Jesus. He is our only hope! So, if you need to regain your focus, try focusing on Him.

Through the Word of Christ

“Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17)

God’s Word is so vast that our full understanding will always remain elusive. That’s why He is God. Just as He has foreordained salvation, God has also foreordained the means by which it comes. Romans 10:17 tells us the only way to come to faith is to hear the gospel—the good about Jesus Christ. That was Paul’s message to the Jews. Though many rejected the gospel, Paul continued to proclaim that their salvation came the same way everyone else’s did, through Christ alone. He was all about breaking down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles. They were all one in Christ. Salvation was for anyone who called on the name of the Lord. So, Paul continued to preach.

Romans 10:17 answers the question of why the gospel must be preached, but prior to this verse, with a series of rhetorical questions, he considers the chain of events that lead to salvation, writing, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15). Paul went on to make the point that hearing alone wasn’t enough to be saved. They also needed to respond in faith.

We live in a time where fear and discomfort sometimes inhibits our sharing the message of Christ. Let’s face it, when you express the one way of salvation, you risk offending people. But we must be true to the gospel mandate. We must go and tell because the only way for anyone to be saved is to hear and believe. It may be impossible to always know what those we encounter died believing, but we can know if our lives reflected Christ in us, and if we were faithful to share our reason for hope with them. Be faithful to heed the words of Scripture. These are not just words for us to believe, but words to share like there’s no tomorrow. We can never know, for some, there may not be a tomorrow and eternity is at stake.

Draw Near

“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16)

The “Christ alone” message challenges us to let go of what comes most natural to our human nature— control. God appointed Christ to suffer and pay the penalty for our sin. It was a debt we couldn’t pay, but one that Jesus lovingly paid on our behalf. Christ has redeemed us, perfectly and for all time. All of salvation is by God’s grace, and it comes through faith alone in Christ alone. Jesus lived a life we couldn’t and He died a death we wouldn’t. We don’t have to add to what Christ has done because we can’t. Instead, we are to trust in His finished work.

As believer’s, our confidence to “draw near” is not because we’ve worked up enough goodness in and of ourselves to be worthy enough to draw near. No, it’s because Jesus, our Great High Priest has made atonement for sin and thereby opened the doorway to grace. It’s Christ who is worthy! So, let us do as the Hebrew writer says. Let us draw near to the throne of grace, and to the cross, the central symbol of all Christ has done on our behalf. We don’t have a God who is unapproachable, but one who calls us to come boldly and confidently before His throne knowing that it’s there where we will find mercy, ever flowing grace, and help in our time of need.