Monday, October 31, 2011

James 4:2-3 - History Changing Prayer

You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:2-3)
You do not have, because you do not ask

A plain reading of James 4:2 implies that if you had asked God, if you had prayed for what you wanted, you would have it. I want to quickly get past any prosperity gospel charge coming from this line of thinking, because James shuts that down in the next verse. "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions" (James 4:3). So for those who were asking, they were not receiving because they were selfish. They were not praying, "Lord, Thy will be done," they were praying, "Lord, my will be done." Just because a person asks for something from God does not automatically imply they will receive it. Everything asked for according to the will of God will be granted. However, as finite men and women we cannot know the whole will of God (Deuteronomy 29:29).

The Sovereign Lord's Will

Historical or theological exceptions of asking and not receiving do not destroy the logic of the verse. James is saying that there are some things believers fail to ask for that they would have received had they asked for it. This is a staggering thought. God, in his infinite power and wisdom has created a system that includes human response in the outcome of some events. That does not mean that we know what those events always are. But we do know some of them. When we pray to God, and he answers, "Yes," we have seen by the answered prayer that God ordained our ministry of prayer as part of his sovereign purpose. Part of what may bother us is not knowing what was missed because we did not pray.

Another objection to this line of reasoning might come from application of God's character. God is omnipotent, omniscient and immutable. Combining those elements to their full logical conclusion would mean a deterministic, fatalistic universe. If God exercised his omnipotence and immutability according to our simple definitions, we would not have free will. But through those two characteristics he created beings in his own image who contain some kind of free will. In the same way, God has chosen the direction of history in part by the prayers of the saints. This does not sacrifice his immutability. God may set the course of history as conditional outcomes instead of deterministic paths in some circumstances. In other words, God's may ordain an "if-then" branch on the basis of something like human prayer. If a person prays about a circumstance, then God will grant his intercession, otherwise he will not. God's will has not changed (he ordained the condition); what has changed is the prayer's action.

Moses as Example

Reformed Christians (of which I am) are very uncomfortable with this kind of thinking. However, here is a piece of biblical evidence that helps validate this interpretation of James 4:2. Consider the familiar story of Moses coming down off Mount Sinai to find Israel worshiping the golden calves they had made. At this point (not the only one!), God was ready to destroy Israel and start over with Moses, "Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you" (Ex 32:10). But Moses interceded for them, "But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, 'O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people? ... Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people'" (Ex 32:11-12). God relented! (Ex 32:14)

Unless James 4:2 makes sense, the account of Exodus 32 should make someone even more uncomfortable. It reads as though God changed his mind, as if God is not immutable. But if God had chosen to decide the outcome based on Moses' response, then God is still unchanging and Moses' prayer affected the outcome of history. God's immutable choice was a fork in the road, and Moses was permitted to travel either branch. The same is true for our prayer life, even if we don't have the benefit of God's revelation on every choice we make.

Evangelism as Analogy

There is an important parallel to evangelism for those who subscribe to the doctrine of election. Hyper-Calvinists assert that Christians need not engage in evangelism because God will call whom he's predestined. They ignore their God-ordained responsibility in the Great Commission, that God uses us as the means of calling. Even though God knows who will be saved, we don't. It would be blasphemously presumptuous to pretend to know, and it's blatantly disobedient to ignore our call to make disciples.

Just as God uses his people to save those he's predestined, he uses the prayers of his people to accomplish his purposes. An omniscient God knows the outcome of all things--after all, he is God. God's omniscience does not mitigate our responsibility to pray or to evangelize. Do not subscribe to fatalism. Prayer changes things. God has ordained that prayer changes things. Otherwise, prayer would be incredibly superficial.

This does not mean that God is not sovereign over those conditional outcomes, our choices or the results. If you trace back all the conditionals leading to a person's conversion, we'll see a person is chosen in God before the foundation of the world. Perhaps God will grant us the understanding of this interplay as we look back in history from an eternal perspective.


Hopefully this is an encouragement to pray. We have too much to do to NOT pray. And we have too many impossible tasks, like winning souls, to ignore our call to prayer. Let's seek the face of God as wrestle with our Lord in earnest prayer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Review: Worship Matters

Anyone involved in the music ministry of a church, non-musical pastors included, need to read Bob Kauflin's Worship Matters. Its content is broad, ranging from grand visions like the theology behind worship to nitty-gritty details of music team management and implementation of worship techniques (e.g. useful chord progressions for improvisation). Each topic is covered well, but Kauflin does a good job pointing to other resources for anyone interested in studying these sweeping concepts more deeply. What makes this book so helpful is that it strives to point your heart in the right direction in all worship decisions to make.
Worship matters. It matters to God because he is the one ultimately worthy of all worship. It matters to us because worshiping God is the reason for which we were created. And it matters to every worship leader, because we have no greater privilege than leading others to encounter the greatness of God. That's why it's so important to think carefully about what we do and why we do it. [p 19]
And he does think carefully. Your theology is probably different than Bob Kauflin's, but he doesn't impose his differences on you. Instead, he equips you to make wise decisions out of your theological differences that you may worship God in faith with a clear conscience.

The book is split into a few sections. The first part defines worship. He does very well, but it seems as though he's inconsistent with his definitions and terminology through the book. A person might feel guilty for using the term 'worship leader' after initially thinking it through, but then Kauflin decides to use that term throughout. After bolstering our theological understanding of worship, the second part of the book explores the phrases that defines 'worship leader':
A faithful worship leader magnifies the greatness of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit by skillfully combining God's Word with music, thereby motivating the gathered church to proclaim the gospel, to cherish God's presence, and to live for God's glory. [p 55]
The final portion of the book details the ins and outs of music team management, and it can be beneficial to anyone calling themselves a worship leader, worship planner, music director, music minister (or again, pastor). Even general music team members might benefit from reading this part, because then everyone can be held accountable to having an appropriate heart about music ministry decisions. If a vocalist is asked to step down from the ministry, it doesn't necessarily mean the worship leader feels threatened by the talent of the vocalist (among other potential objections). So if the whole music team has the same understanding of expectations and potential logistical changes, it may mitigate hurt feeling when a hard decision is made. Kauflin says, "being on the music team is an opportunity to serve, not a right to protect."

I highly recommend this book. And if you're a pastor, please take the time to read it. At the very least, read the last chapter, which was written specifically to pastors.

Worship isn't a gig. It's the overflow of a life devoted to the glory of Jesus Christ. [p 230]

Friday, October 21, 2011

Judgment Day

October 21, 2011 marked the end of the world if you happen to believe a singular radio personality, and while the globe may be heating up, it has certainly not been consumed by a fireball. When this man's original prediction failed in May, many throughout the world mocked him for his folly. Sadly, many mocked Christianity as this one person became the straw man for all Christians. While he was predictably wrong about the date, he is not entirely wrong about a coming judgment.
For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all—so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. (Luke 17:24-30 ESV)
Belief in the consummation of God's redemptive plan--the return and judgment of Christ--is an orthodox belief. Many debate the details, but all Bible-believing Christians agree that Christ is coming again. Despite various disagreements, one element all should be unified on is the impossibility of knowing when Christ will return. The Son of God himself that we cannot know the day or the hour.
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. (Matthew 24:36 ESV) [This verse itself probably deserves a blog post some day.]
Anyone choosing, calculating, or prophesying the day or the hour is arrogantly claiming to have wisdom greater than the Son. However, just because we cannot know the day does not mean we should not be prepared. The point of Jesus' message was to ensure his disciples had their affairs in order, "Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (Matt 24:42-44). Be ready! Do you know your Savior? Is Jesus Christ your life, your truth and your hope?

The deceived followers need to read 2 Thessalonians 2, which was part of today's M'Cheyne reading. 2 Peter 3 would be another good passage to read. Believers need not be alarmed about the Day of the Lord (it will not be missed). And we ought to be grateful for the forbearance of our Lord--that we were not and are not swept away in a global judgment as in Noah's day. But our time is short. We must urgently proclaim the gospel, for as sure as the sun sets today, the Day of the Lord will come. The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book Review: Surprised By Joy

In addition to reviewing Surprised By Joy, I wish to take a moment to review Google Books and their e-readers.

Google Books

I have been reading via ebooks since the first Kindle DX was released. Amazon has a fine system set up, and I like that I can buy a book and read it on my Kindle, my phone or my computer. I actually take advantage of this feature quite often. Google released their own ebook store not too long ago, so I've been looking for a good reason to use it. Surprised By Joy was the first ebook that Google sold that Amazon did not, so I read the book on my Android phone and through Google's web reader.

There is not much I can recommend; it is simply a terrible system. The ebook store sells copies of the scans Google has made as part of their effort to organize the information in the world's books. They sell ebooks of their scanned books where they've acquired the license. So instead of marked-up text (which is what Amazon and B&N sell when you purchase an ebook), you are buying an image. This gives you far less flexibility (e.g. in the ability to easily resize), and the quality is often lacking, and important features like a robust Table of Contents are corrupt. Google has a feature that allows you to read the book in flowing text, but their translation is awful. Commas are often periods and periods are often missing. "I" and "1" are interchangeable and many words are just plain wrong (for instance, on page 234 of Surprised By Joy, the word "direction" was translated as the non-word "dkection"). There are no easy ways to indicate problems, not that I ought to be helping Google polish their work after paying good money for a book.

Finally, Google's reader removes practically all of the advantages of electronic reading. It is not possible to highlight or bookmark. No notes can be saved in the text. I would rather find the physical book before paying for another book from Google. This surprises me because Google does so many things well, but not ebooks.

Surprised By Joy

This book surprised me in a pleasant way. I was expecting an autobiography. It was, but it was only biographical as it pertained to C.S. Lewis' conversion. So in reality, it's a book-length testimony. I am thankful for that, however, and my respect for a respectable man has increased tremendously after reading about the means of grace in this man's life.

This book can be good for practically anyone. It glorifies God and will give strength to a believer. It may point an unbeliever in the right philosophical or logical direction toward Christianity. No doubt many critics of Christianity are somewhere on the spectrum Lewis passed through (from the Absolute to "Spirit" and from "Spirit" to "God"). It will humble all as the reader understands how ignorant of literature he or she truly is.

For what the book is, I do not see any downsides, and so my only other recommendation would be to step through the few chapters on which I've written.

Chapter 1
Chapter 7
Chapter 9
Chapter 15

Surprised By Joy: Chapter 15

This is the final chapter in C.S. Lewis' autobiography. To this point he has transitioned from staunch Atheist to devout Theist, and this chapter shows how God brought him to belief in Christ. I would highly recommend reading this chapter if there's no time for the whole book (or the final three chapters if time can be spared). These, in my estimation, are the great parts of the chapter.

God used a great, logical mind to draw Lewis to Himself:
     In my mind ... the perplexing multiplicity of "religions" began to sort itself out. The real clue had been put into my hand by that hard-boiled Atheist when he said, "Rum thing, all that about the Dying God. Seems to have really happened once"; by him and by Barfield's encouragement of a more respectful, if not more delighted, attitude to Pagan myth. The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false. It was rather, "Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?" ...
     There were really only two answers possible: either in Hinduism or in Christianity. Everything else was either a preparation for, or else (in the French sense) a vulgarization of, these. Whatever you could find elsewhere you could find better in one of these. But Hinduism seemed to have two disqualifications. For one thing, it appeared to be not so much a moralized and philosophical maturity of Paganism as a mere oil-and-water coexistence of philosophy side by side with Paganism unpurged ... And secondly, there was no such historical claim as in Christianity.
     I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion—those narrow, unattractive Jews, too blind to the mythical wealth of the Pagan world around them—was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this. Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it.
And finally, genuine conversion:
To accept the Incarnation was a further step in the same direction. It brings God nearer, or near in a new way. And this, I found, was something I had not wanted. But to recognize the ground for my evasion was of course to recognize both its shame and its futility. I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. "Emotional" is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake. And it was, like that moment on top of the bus, ambiguous. Freedom, or necessity? Or do they differ at their maximum?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Proverbs 3 vs. 1 Samuel 2

The sons of Eli were evil men, and when compared to the wisdom of Proverbs 3, it's not hard to see exactly how they missed the mark. The following table lines up a proverb with the negative example in the life of Hophni and Phinehas (or Eli).

Proverbs 3
1 Samuel 2
1. My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments,
25. If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death.
2. for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you.
32. Then in distress you will look with envious eye on all the prosperity that shall be bestowed on Israel, and there shall not be an old man in your house forever.
3. Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart.
12. Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the LORD.
4. So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man.
33. The only one of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep his eyes out to grieve his heart, and all the descendants of your house shall die by the sword of men.
5. Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.
13. The custom of the priests with the people was that when any man offered sacrifice, the priest's servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand,
6. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
16. And if the man said to him, “Let them burn the fat first, and then take as much as you wish,” he would say, “No, you must give it now, and if not, I will take it by force.”
7. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
29. Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?’
8. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.
34. And this that shall come upon your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you: both of them shall die on the same day.
9. Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce;
15. Moreover, before the fat was burned, the priest's servant would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, “Give meat for the priest to roast, for he will not accept boiled meat from you but only raw.”
10. then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.
36. And everyone who is left in your house shall come to implore him for a piece of silver or a loaf of bread and shall say, “Please put me in one of the priests' places, that I may eat a morsel of bread.”’”
11. My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline or be weary of his reproof,
17. Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the LORD, for the men treated the offering of the LORD with contempt.
12. for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.
30. Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever,’ but now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed.

Monday, October 17, 2011

1 Thessalonians 1: Pauline Triad

One of the things Paul is well known for is his "triad": faith, hope and love. D.A. Carson has a spectacular devotional on the topic in the October 11 entry within his first For the Love of God book. The triad shows up again at the introduction of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians. One lesson I (hope I) have learned this year is to be careful with the beginning and end of each epistle. I too often mentally skip over paragraphs because I have perceived them as mere hellos or goodbyes, but they often contain a treasure of theological truth packed into very small spaces.
In this beginning chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul teaches us to pray, and he ties his prayer to faith, hope and love. Paul prays for the Thessalonians without doubt, but his prayers have a specific object associated with them: remembering the church's action in the triad. What's interesting is that Paul prays for them constantly, remembering their work, implying an ongoing labor in these three elements. So Paul is thankful to God for them, but part of the point of Paul's remembering seems to be intercession--that the Thessalonian believers would continue the work begun in them.

In verse three we gain a little more color on the triad: this is a work of faith, a labor of love and a steadfastness of hope. Possessing these three elements produces effects in our lives. Faith, hope and love aren't theoretical niceties--they move our beings.

"Work of faith" is intriguing because of the distinction Paul often makes between works and faith (Rom 3:20, Gal 2:16, Eph 2:8-9). Our primary work is not of the Law but of Faith. And the work flows from the faith, not the other way around. A "work of faith" implies the faith existed and the work comes because the faith was already there.

"Labor of love," we are to work in love, and we are to work at love. Unlike work of faith, which ties faith as a kind of work, love is a labor, or a continuous toil. We must cultivate the garden of our love, for if we slack for a moment, the weeds of selfishness will grow in our hearts.

"Steadfastness of hope" shows that the work of faith and labor of love we're engaged in will not be smooth sailing. For we meet trials of various kinds, and the testing of our faith produces steadfastness (James 1:2-3). But it is the hope within us that helps us endure the test of faith, "for this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Cor 4:17). Christian have the greatest hope in the world, as "we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor 5:8).

Finally, this opening prayer has a triad of another kind, the Trinity. Verse 1 says, "To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ," and the prayer is sandwiched with verse 4, "because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction."

How do we do a work of faith, a labor of love and have steadfastness of hope?

Friday, October 14, 2011

1 Kings 17: Belief in Suffering

1 Kings 17 ends with the verse, "And the woman said to Elijah, 'Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.'" She confesses this after Elijah raises her son from the dead. Who wouldn't utter such truth after a miraculous display of God's power? What may be surprising, however, is that the widow would begin her exclamation with "now I know," for she is the same woman Elijah had prophesied an unspendable flour and oil supply. Her life was already daily preserved according to the word of this man of God. So why would she say she believes now?

Naturally, I cannot read the mind of this widow. She was clearly enduring life-altering stress. First, she believed that she and her son were on the brink of starving to death. "And she said, 'As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die'" (1 Kings 17:12 ESV). Even after this miracle had sustained her for "many days," her son still died. "After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him" (1 Kings 17:17 ESV). It's hard to blame her for having doubts. I cannot fathom losing a child, or how I might react toward God in that situation (oh how I pray that my faith would grow).

Drawing from other parts of the Bible, it's possible to see where this mother may have been coming from. The first lesson is that belief doesn't inherently flow from witnessing miracles. During the exodus, Israel did not believe in God as they should have, perpetually complaining to Moses and building golden calves at their first temptation of doubt. Their unbelief dominated despite seeing miraculous power of unparalleled display, excepting the work of Jesus himself. And even during the life of Jesus, his dominion over the physical world was not enough witness for the hard-hearted pharisees. At one point Jesus even teaches [by parable] that miracles will not convince a person unless they already believe the Law and Prophets: "He said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead'" (Luke 16:31 ESV). Someone has risen from the dead, yet many (most) do not believe. If only they would look on him whom they have pierced!

But it's unlikely that this widow had an entirely rebellious heart of rejection. She was probably struggling with faith the same way most Christians today struggle with their own faith. When encountering suffering, how many people turn to their pastor, or even ask proverbially, "Where is God in all of this?" This widow asked this her own way, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!" (1 Kings 17:18 ESV).

What can a person do when faced with agonizing suffering? Turn to the Lord. This is exactly what Elijah did. He went up to the child and prayed to God. This was not a case of prophetic foreknowledge; Elijah did not already know the child had died and that he would rise. He earnestly sought the Lord in supplication and faith. God answered his prayer with a 'yes', and he may do the same in our hour of suffering. He may also say, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9). Peter and James teach that God will use trials to grow and purify our faith.

We are real people, with real fears, doubts and suffering. God does not expect us to be spiritual superheroes and suck it up. He tells us to call on him and believe. Confess disbelief and cry out, "Now I know, Jesus my Savior, that you are the Man of God."
"But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us." And Jesus said to him, "'If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes." Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, 'I believe; help my unbelief!' (Mark 9:22-24 ESV)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ezekiel 36: A Heart of Stone

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. (Ezekiel 36:26-29 ESV)
The recent chapters of Ezekiel have been a delight to read; they really highlight God's sovereignty and mercy. We see how despite Israel's disobedience and broken covenant God moves to fulfill his plan. Though, it's not as if God had to route around the damage done by Israel to create or discover a better plan, he was actively working through Israel's apostasy and his judgment to bring redemption and consummation. God's covenant was a good one, though his people trashed it pursuing everything except God, and so we see that this covenant was incomplete. There have been some hints to what God might be up to, not the least was a restoration of the nation. But chapter 36 shows that God is going to usher in a different kind of relationship with his people. God will restore Israel, but he will not leave them to abandon the covenant again. The exiles should hear the drumbeat of a new covenant in what Ezekiel has been saying. Perhaps they cannot identify it, but the prophet is certainly speaking of hope greater than Israel had seen to that point. This chapter shows a key ingredient of the new covenant: the new heart and spirit.

The Heart

The first miracle God performs is a heart transplant. When God shows grace to his people, he first gives them a warm-blooded, beating heart. Before implanting that, however, he must remove the cold, dead heart of stone. That is the spiritual default of every person who has ever existed--we are spiritually dead. How can a stony heart be made alive? No amount of CPR, defibrillation (or religion) can give that dead heart life. The harder we try to give ourselves life the more we reveal the deadness of our hearts.

When God gives a heart of flesh, new life is created! The result of God's work is repentance: instead of cold rejection of God's rule, we have a warm, intimate relationship with our creator. The first possibility of loving God with our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbor as our self becomes reality. Instead of selfishly sucking life out of our environment, life can flow from us to those around us.

The Spirit

The gift of a new heart is already grace far more abundant than we can ask or think, but God does not leave that new heart isolated to simply die once more. God protects that heart and gives the assurance of life by putting his Spirit within us. The result of this work is that God will cause us to walk in his statutes and be careful to obey his rules. We do not and cannot walk in his statutes before we are given the heart of flesh and his Spirit, and those things do not give us new life. But once God puts his Spirit within us (what an incredible thought), the seal of salvation is walking under the authority and rules of the Lord.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4 ESV)


The results are staggering. We can be God's people, and he will be our God. We will live in a relationship with the Sovereign of the Universe--he is not an impersonal abstraction or unapproachable monarch. And the good news is that we are saved. God says he will deliver us from our "uncleannesses." God takes a dead, dirty, stony, void heart and makes it fit to be in the presence of pure holiness. What news could possibly trump that?


The fulfillment of the new covenant is in Christ. He is our good news. Through our belief in his death and resurrection, we receive the gift of a new heart and the Holy Spirit, and God delivers us from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of light.

   He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
   And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
(Colossians 1:15-23 ESV)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

When You Shouldn't Adopt

When You Shouldn't Adopt

Justin Taylor pulls out the piercing summary of Russel Moore's post Don't Adopt.

Like missions, I believe that everyone should be involved in the ministry. Not all are called to be a missionary, but if you are not sent, you are called to be a sender. In the same way, if you are not called to adopt (a joyful decision which should be weighed carefully), you should be about the business of supporting adoption through other means--financially, organizationally, emotionally.

Moore says, "Children shatter your life-plan. Adoption certainly does." I believe that this is so dramatically true that even couples going into adoption with the wrong mindset have great hope in redeeming their perspective of adoption. Even if parents start an adoption in a manner Moore speaks against, the job encourages repentance--repentance against selfishness, against consumerism, against simple romantic sentimentality. After all, none of us have a perfect understanding of parenting, adoption or the gospel. For those whom God has justified, we're walking the road of sanctification.

And that's where the real hope comes: out of understand God's adoption of his elect. When you see the rebellion of an adopted child against his parents, you have a deeper understanding of the chasm we've created between ourselves and God. Conversely, when we deeply and personally understand the unconditional love and redemption that God has poured out on his children through the cross, we can begin to love our children in the way God created us to. Adoption and the gospel positively reinforce each other, for when you adopt, you must live the gospel on a daily basis.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ezekiel 34: Shepherding

Moving on to chapter 34 of Ezekiel (from the Ezekiel 33 quadilogy), God speaks a devastating judgment against the "shepherds" of Israel.
As I live, declares the Lord GOD, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:8-10 ESV)
Instead of leading and protecting the sheep of Israel, these shepherds were feeding themselves on fat of the flock! Shepherds indeed. These men sound more like the wolves that Paul warns against in Acts 20:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:28-30 ESV)
And so the contemporary lesson can be easily drawn. Paul is speaking to the Ephesian elders, and in verse 28 uses the verb poimainō, which the ESV translates as "care", but more closely matches "shepherd." The real shepherds need to watch for the fake ones, the wolves. Rather than caring for or feeding the flock, they feed themselves on the flock. It happened the same way in Ezekiel's time that it can happen today, and the result is the same: it scatters and kills the flock. This is why Paul has character standards for those who seek the office of elder (see 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1).

The great news from all of this is that God says, "I will rescue my sheep from their mouths" in verse 10 of Ezekiel 34. Read the very next paragraph and listen for the redemptive plan:
“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. (Ezekiel 34:11-16 ESV)
Rather than point out the obvious, I will simply end with Scripture quotes:
  • I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11 ESV)
  • For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10 ESV)
  • 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. (Matthew 11:5 ESV)
  • For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:27 ESV)
  • From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. (Revelation 19:15 ESV)
And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken. (Ezekiel 34:23-24 ESV)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Daniel 6 and 1 Kings 8: Praying Toward Jerusalem

Growing up knowing the story of Daniel and the Lion's Den, I always wondered why Daniel faced Jerusalem while he prayed. It seemed more like a Muslim practice rather than a Jewish law.

When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. (Daniel 6:10 ESV)
In reading through 1 Kings during this year's M'Cheyne reading, Solomon's dedication of the temple in chapter 8 brought Daniel to mind.

“If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’ if they repent with all their mind and with all their heart in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name, then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them (for they are your people, and your heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace). Let your eyes be open to the plea of your servant and to the plea of your people Israel, giving ear to them whenever they call to you. (1 Kings 8:46-52 ESV)
Solomon prescribed one instance when the people of God should pray toward Jerusalem: while in exile with a repentant heart. This is exactly the situation Daniel was in, and this is exactly the heart Daniel had.

Daniel knew his Bible exceedingly well. I'm embarrassed that it took me this long to notice the connection, and I long to have the heart of Daniel some day.

A couple of other things worth pointing out from these passages:

The context of Daniel is one where praying to anyone other than King Darius would result in the death penalty. The men trying to trap Daniel knew this was his practice, and he did not waver in righteousness during this persecution. There is some connection between knowing God's Word and faithfulness to him.

Even though Daniel prayed toward Jerusalem, toward the temple (which God filled with his glory during Solomon's dedication), he knew that God was not limited to the temple or Israel. Someone who knew God's Word as well as Daniel would have also remembered Solomon saying, "Then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause" (1 Kings 8:49). No temple, nor universe, can contain the infinite God (1 Kings 8:27).

But God dwelled bodily, died on a cross, became sin for us that he might live within us and intercede for us. What is man that God is mindful of us?

Ezekiel 33: No Pleasure In the Death of the Wicked

In the fourth installment of this Ezekiel 33 trilogy*, it's worth looking at one verse used as an appeal at the end of the first post on this chapter.
    Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11 ESV)
Universalists look at this verse (and others, like John 3:16, 1 John 4:7-19) and set up a dichotomy for those who aren't. They say that God is all loving and wants no one to perish, and God is all powerful, and so will save everyone. The universalist makes the following arguments for those that claim God would send people to hell:

  • God is all loving but does not have the power to save everyone, so then he must not be all powerful
  • God has the power to save everybody, but he doesn't, so he must not be all loving
Either argument destroys the God of the Bible. So, simple logic leads them to universalism. For if God is not all powerful, then he is not God. We may as well be desist or atheists, for God has been emasculated. But if God does have the power and consigns some to hell, then he must be a treacherous tyrant, and such a spiteful, hateful God is not worth worshiping, right?

The problem is, their logic truly is simple. Reducing the character and attributes of God to trite conceptualizations will lead to absurd conclusions like universalism. God is deep, and our finite minds must wrestle through his revelation to have any hope of comprehending the glory of God. 

The first bad assumption in the universalist's logic is that all love from God is exactly the same. But personal experience alone should remove such notions. Every person loves their spouse differently than their children and friends and co-workers and complete strangers. The concept of love is not contained in one four-letter word. Aside from that, it is not hard to discover a particular love of God in the Bible (Matthew 5:45, Romans 9:13, Deut 9:6-7, John 21:20). Fully developing that theology would take a book, but at the surface it is easy to see that while God does have one kind of love for all, he has not chosen to have a redeeming love toward all.

That leads to the second bad assumption, that only a mean-spirited God would choose to punish people for eternity if it's within his power to save them. This is a delicate subject that would probably require a book of its own to think through. But a little can be thought through in this limited space. Romans 3:12 teaches that nobody deserves God's salvation. We really all deserve the eternal punishment of God (Romans 6:23), so that any are saved is a staggering miracle. But if some, why not all? Rather than spend too much space here, read Romans 9. It could be part of a great discussion, which could be started through the comments below.

Finally, it's not hard to see what Ezekiel 33:11 really means when understanding it in the context of God's character. It's not as if God is a masochist who laughs maniacally as he throws people into the lake of fire. No, there is no pleasure in punishment, but God is glorified as his justice is poured out in wrath.

We know. We have no excuse. We must turn back from our wickedness and live. Knowing what we know, why will anyone choose death?

* [Part 1- Part 2 - Part 3]

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Ezekiel 33: Word of the Watchman

In what's turning into an Ezekiel 33 mini-series, this post examines an idea a theological point from the beginning of the chapter.
    The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them, and make him their watchman, and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people, then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But if he had taken warning, he would have saved his life. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman's hand. (Ezekiel 33:1-6 ESV)
The Lord speaks a parable to Ezekiel, proclaiming the responsibility of the watchman to proclaim what he knows. When the watchman blows the trumpet, people in the land can take warning and have a possibility of salvation. If they ignore the warning, or if they hear no trumpet because the watchman forsakes his job, then they are surely lost. God then takes this parable and applies it to Ezekiel.
    “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul. (Ezekiel 33:7-9 ESV)
God's prophet is the watchman. The message is a warning from God to repent, and Israel must respond for deliverance. The parable and application in its context is straightforward, but the implications for our day are huge.

First, God uses watchmen to deliver his message. He used Ezekiel and other prophets to speak the word of the Lord. Now he speaks through his Son, His Word, and the church who proclaims the message of good news: salvation by the blood of the Lamb. The church must speak the Word of God, the gospel, for the world to have any hope of salvation.

Second, God does not say that those ignorant of the watchman's word cannot be held accountable. "That person is taken away in his iniquity." All are guilty, and each person stands on their own merit. We are guilty for our iniquity, not because we have not heard God's Word.

Third, the watchman bears responsibility for the message. Not only do they need to speak the Word of the Lord, but they will be judged on the basis of their faithfulness to that proclamation, "His blood I will require at the watchman's hand."

This has staggering implications for evangelism. God has prescribed gospel proclamation as the means for kingdom growth. We have the responsibility to preach the good news. That is the world's only hope. And we will be judged on whether or not we opened our mouths. God does not judge on the effectiveness of the message--the conversion rate or any such corporate nonsense--but pure faithfulness to say what God has given us to say. And even though the lost are lost because of their own iniquity, we have blood on our hands too if we do not warn them of the coming sword. We must be faithful watchmen.
    What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building.
    According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:5-15 ESV)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ezekiel 33: The Righteous and Wicked

Yesterday's post looked at one aspect of God's message to Israel in Ezekiel 33. But this chapter is deep enough that it's worth spending more time in it.
And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness, and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins. Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die. (Ezekiel 33:12-13 ESV)
The primary message from these verses is that God does not judge on the basis of a moral scale. "The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses." The sum of good deeds compared to the transgression does not cover up or clear away the deserved punishment. We cannot say to God, "But look at all the good things I've done!" For when we have a heart of sin, all of our righteous deeds are like a "polluted garment" (Isa 64:6). We have nothing to offer except used maxi-pads.

That leaves each person in a Romans 3:23 and Romans 6:23 state. But the fall is not the end of the story; God does not simply abandon us to our transgression. "As for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness." This is a most incredible and surprising sentence to come immediately after condemning the "righteous". If a wicked person repents, their wickedness will not be counted against them.

How can a person know if they are righteous or wicked, especially in God's eyes? Even these two verses in Ezekiel give clues. The problem with the "righteous" person is that he trusts in his righteousness. He considers himself good enough and reveals that his trust is not in God but his own works. Examining the other side of this, two things can be said about the wicked person. First, he's called a wicked person. There is an acknowledgement or confession of shortcoming and unrighteousness. After that, the wicked man finds justification in repentance, and the implication is that his trust is not in his good works, but something outside of himself. So it can be seen that it's a matter of the heart: what's the understanding and direction a person stands in? Does he believe himself to be a righteous man doing good for God and man (but is in reality walking in transgression), or is there a understanding of base wickedness followed by a turning away from self (and toward God)?

God's gospel message has always been the same. The gospel is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, but the Israelites who trusted in God as their Redeemer found salvation in the Savior.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ezekiel 33: The Way of the Lord Is Not Just

This chapter of Ezekiel has so many gems to mine, but today the focus will be on one idea.
    “Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when it is their own way that is not just. (Ezekiel 33:17 ESV)
The first thought that crosses the twenty-first century mind is how contemporary the message sounds. "The way of the Lord is not just" is a 2,700 year old way of saying, "How can I believe in a God who allows so much evil and suffering?" Though, the modern message is no more eloquent nor insightful.


The source of the problem is personal injustice. Because we're wicked, we cannot properly judge the way of the Lord. Israel had a choice to follow God, but they rejected him. In his judgment he punishes Israel for their disobedience. Instead of repentance, their response is to accuse the Lord of injustice. But they cannot see what true justice is precisely because they've forsaken it. Perhaps our own culture could learn a few things from this prophet of old.


“And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’ (Ezekiel 33:10). God calls for repentance, and that message remains timeless. We find repentance in turning to Jesus, who bears the full wrath of God on the cross for those who believe in him. It is the justice of the Lord that saves us. So the wicked cry out against the justice of the Lord and miss that we can live because God is just.

Evil and Suffering

Nobody will be able to entirely answer the problem of evil and pain in this world. But this verse gives a hint. If man's way is not just, then it's plain to see that we are the source of evil and suffering. Our sin is the source of evil, but then we have the audacity to blame God for the pain that ensues.

But everything is reconciled in the cross of Christ, and one day he will return to judge the living and the dead. God has not made his final judgment, but he promises to make all wrongs right at the end. This delay in justice is a great act of mercy in itself, for if God were to bring final judgment at this moment, who could stand, who would survive?

God is calling for repentance. He says, "Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11 ESV)

Even today, God is calling for repentance. Look on the Lord Jesus Christ and live. For why will you die?