Monday, June 29, 2009

On feeling stuck...

Last night Paul and I came home from Sunday Evening Bible Study and spent the next couple of hours discussing feeling stuck - well, me feeling stuck. Those weren't the words I used exactly, but that's the jist of it. I feel as if in my quest for sanctification and Christlikeness, I've reached a stalemate. I have certain attitudes that cause me no end of trouble. I pray, I read Scripture, I rebuke them, I replace them with proper attitudes. But back they come. It's like that wacky arcade game where the bug heads pop up and you're supposed to wack them with mallets before they duck back down. But this game is not fun, and if I miss the nasty bugs people around me get hurt. This is why I found such great comfort in the quote I posted in my previous blog entry:

“The longer I live the less optimistic I am that I will end without sin and the more grateful I become for the blood of Christ imputed to me. As I grow older I do not feel myself becoming gloriously holy but I find myself feeling great love for the gospel.”

- John Piper
It's good to be reminded you're not alone in your struggles. That even a man as notable in our day as John Piper, struggles just like we do. Sometimes we seem to one another like we've got our acts together, and granted, at any one time or another, one or the other of us will have things more together than someone else - at least in one area of our lives or another. And, of course, we want our acts together. We want to be Christ-like - to be perfect as He is perfect. And that day WILL come. It will come when we see Him face to face. The problem comes, when we get to thinking we've arrived, that we've attained perfection or something close to it in the here and now, or when we leave others with the impression that we have. None of us has reached sinless perfection in any single area of our lives! Not one of us. Not one single area of our lives. We need to remember that and be honest about it, for our own sakes and the sake of those around us.

Now, back to feeling stuck. Perhaps you too are feeling stuck in some area of your walk with Jesus. Don't pretend you're not stuck. Don't plow on as if you were really making progress when you're not. Stop and look to Jesus.

Here are some words of encouragement I found in my reading this morning, once again from Messy Spirituality, by Michael Yaconelli:
"...getting stuck is the prerequisite to getting unstuck.

Getting stuck is a great moment, a summons, a call from within, the glorious music of disaffection and dissatisfaction with our place in life. We get stuck when we want to change but can't, when we want to stop destructive behavior but don't, when the tug-o-war between God's will and ours stands still and we can't move. We're stuck going nowhere, unable to get beyond a particular point.

Getting stuck can be the best thing that could happen to us, because it forces us to stop. It halts the momentum of our lives. We have no choice but to notice what is around us, and we end up searching for Jesus. When we're stuck, we're much more likely to pay attention to our hunger for God and the longings and yearnings we have stifled. Sometimes being stuck is the low point and we say, 'Okay, I give up.' We cannot grow without first giving up and letting go. Getting stuck forces us to see the futility of our situation and to put life in perspective so that we can move on."

My sentiments exactly!

“The longer I live the less optimistic I am that I will end without sin and the more grateful I become for the blood of Christ imputed to me. As I grow older I do not feel myself becoming gloriously holy but I find myself feeling great love for the gospel.”

- John Piper, in a message given at the re:Focus pastors conference

Thoughts on freedom for a Monday morning

"The church, by and large, has had a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes, that she has made us like ill-taught piano students: we play our songs, but we never really hear them because our main concern is not to make music but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch." Robert Capon

I can't tell you how true this has often been of my church life. And by church life I don't only mean when I participate in an official church function. I also include my interaction with other Christians in any forum, including informal get-togethers, my blog and other internet discussions. What starts off as a desire not to offend turns into a prison - with the easily offended standing as guards - the "weaker brother" holding the keys. There's a name for what happens when the weak run the church: Legalism. I feel I can say this, because I've been this person, and felt the curse of legalism, not the least in the loss of hope and joy.
"For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.' Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for 'He who through faith is righteous shall live'; but the law does not rest on faith, for 'He who does them shall live by them.' Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us - for it is written, 'Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree' - that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." Gal. 3:10-14 RSV (emphasis mine)
But there is an even greater reason to take a fierce stance against all legalism:
"You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace." Gal. 5:4
Nor are we saved by faith and then sanctified by legalism. Paul calls those who hold to that view "foolish" :
"Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain? - if it really is in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?" Gal. 3: 2-5
These are strong words. We must not allow ourselves to be enslaved under the yoke of legalism. We must strive for the freedom that is only found in Christ.
"For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of bondage." Gal. 5:1
Whatever yoke of bondage we submit to, is the yoke we will burden others with as well. We will become bound up and lifeless and will come to despise and seek to destroy the freedom we see in others. And, as we succeed in doing this, little by little, soul by soul, the grace and life drains from the church, and we are left with the curse of slavery - awaiting someone to bring us the Gospel.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Good grief! I almost forgot - it's Science Saturday!

Here's some truly fascinating research that has the potential to revolutionize organ replacement. Take a look:

Contentment - Creating light out of darkness

The following is another installment in the series Reading the Classics Together - The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. I'll try to make each post readable on its own, however I highly encourage your own study of this Puritan classic by Jeremiah Burroughs.

In Chapter Two, Point Four, Burroughs states that one of the ways by which a Christian finds contentment is “not so much the removing of the the changing of the affliction, the metamorphosing of the affliction, so that it is quite turned and changed into something else.” He says, “There is a power of grace to turn this affliction into good; it takes away the sting and poison of it....You do not find one godly man who came out of an affliction worse than when he went into it; though for a while he was shaken, yet at last he was better for an affliction. But a great many godly men, you find, have been worse for their prosperity.” These are certainly points we do well to remember during these tough economic times. The selfsame circumstances that may be a curse to the ungodly can be a blessing to the faithful.

My emphasis in this post, however, is taken from another statement, which Burroughs himself learned from Luther. Here's Luther: “A Christian becomes a mighty worker and a wonderful creator, that is... to create out of heaviness joy, out of terror comfort, out of sin righteousness, and out of death life.” And from this Burroughs goes on to say:

“It was God's prerogative and great power, his creating power to command the light to shine out of darkness. Now a Christian is partaker of the divine nature, so the Scripture says; grace is part of the divine nature, and, being part of the divine nature, it has an impression of God's omnipotent power, that is, to create light out of darkness, to bring good out of evil – by this way a Christian comes to be content. God has given a Christian such power that he can turn afflictions into mercies, can turn darkness into light.”

This is quite a statement, one worth stopping and pondering, first to assure that it is in fact true, and then to take it in.

How can a Christian create light out of darkness?

In a previous post we discussed man’s ultimate purpose, which is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. We were created in His image, which means, at least in part, we are made to image forth His glory, not unlike how a mirror reflects back the glory of what is seen in it. We saw the evil of the fall wherein we ceased to live for the glory of our Creator. And we also saw that to be a Christian is to have the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Those who are in Christ will reflect the glory of God in this world, as Christ does.

"But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; struck down, but not destroyed - always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.... Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For out light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal." 2 Corinthians 4: 3-11, 16-18

What is the treasure referred to in this passage – the one we contain in our “earthy vessels”? What is the light that God has caused to shine in our dark hearts? The treasure and the light refer to the same thing: the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Why does God place this treasure in “earthen vessels”? It is so “that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us”. It is so that the glory is all Gods.

Why is it essential that we carry about the dying of the Lord Jesus in our bodies? So “that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”

Now consider Romans 8:10-18
“And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors – not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with out spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”

(By the way, we hear many things attributed to the leading of the Holy Spirit, but notice here how Scripture tells us we can know we are being led by the Spirit of God – by the desire for holiness - by the putting to death the deeds of the body.)

And now look to Romans 8: 28-38

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written:

‘For Your sake we are killed all the day lone;

We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’

Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

From these passages it is clear that part of what it means to “be conformed to the image of His Son” is to suffer with Him. Do you see the pattern throughout these passages that glory comes from suffering, that life comes from dying, and that God calls forth light from darkness?

Consistently throughout Scripture it is the hope and anticipation of this future glory which comforts, encourages, and enables us to bring God glory in our present hardships, and it is the knowledge that God is glorified as we endure graciously which comforts us even further.

Finally, let's look to Romans 5

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulation, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (v. 1-5)

D.A. Carson has this to say about the Romans 5 passage in his book, How Long O Lord:

“The word ‘hope’ does not here suggest mere possibility, but certain prospect: we rejoice in the prospect of one day seeing the glory of God.

So sweeping a vision changes all our priorities. Maximal comfort in this fallen world is now low on the agenda. The real question is how our current circumstances are tied to our faith in Jesus Christ, our peace with God, and our prospect of seeing him. So Paul insists that we rejoice not only in the hope of the glory of God, but ‘we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope”.

Here, then is a philosophy of suffering, a perspective that ties it both to the salvation we now enjoy and to the consummation of that salvation when the glory of God is fully revealed. Like the discipline of physical training, suffering produces perseverance. This is not a universal rule, for suffering can evoke muttering and unbelief. But when suffering is mingled with the faith of verses 1-2, and with delight in being reconciled to God, it then produces perseverance. The staying power of our faith is neither demonstrated nor developed until it is tested by suffering.

But as perseverance mushrooms, ‘character’ is formed. The word ‘character’ suggests ‘provedness,’ the kind of maturity that is attained by being ‘proved’ or ‘tested,’ like a metal refined by fire. And as character or ‘provedness’ is formed, hope blossoms; our anticipation of the glory of God (v.2) is nurtured and strengthened. This ‘ does not disappoint us’, as if it were illusory. Far from it! The object of this hope is certain, and already the hope is reinforced and proves satisfying ‘because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us’. This mention of the Holy Spirit anticipates the full discussion Paul offers in Romans 8. Here he is alluding to a theme he frequently develops: the Holy Spirit is given to the believer as the down payment and guarantee of the full inheritance that will one day be ours. This Holy Spirit is the agent who pours God’s love into our hearts: this is felt Christianity, and Paul elsewhere shows that this experience of the richness of God’s love is an essential part of Christian maturity, something for which to pray (cf. Eph. 3:14-21). Such experience of the love of God is not yet the perfection of the vision of God; but it is fully satisfying, and strengthens hope, and places our sufferings in a light where they make a certain existential ‘sense.’

“There is a certain kind of maturity that can be attained only through the discipline of suffering. ‘During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him’ (Heb 5:7-9). The idea is not that Jesus was disobedient before he suffered, but that in his incarnate state he too had to learn lessons of obedience, levels of obedience, that could only be attained through suffering. In this sense he grew to ‘perfection’; not that he was morally imperfect before his suffering, but that the fullness, the perfection of his identity with the human race and of his human, temporal obedience to his heavenly Father could be attained only through the fires of suffering. This ‘perfection’ he achieved, not only with the result that ‘he became source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,’ but also with the result that he is able ‘to sympathize with our weaknesses’ since he ‘has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin’ (Heb. 4:15). If even Jesus ‘learned obedience from what he suffered,’ what ghastly misapprehension is it – or arrogance! That assumes we should be exempt?” (emphasis mine.)

Tribulation is not darkness to the Christian. Grace makes it bright as the light of day in the believer. Troubles are our glory. It is through them that we triumph, and through which Christ is glorified in this dark world. The darker the world, the more hopeless all things look, the brighter the faith and hope of the Christian shine, the more the character of Christ is revealed in him, and the more God is glorified in this world.

The Rare Jewel - Chapter Two

"The following is the next installment in the series Reading the Classics Together - The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. I'll try to make each post readable on its own, however I highly encourage your own study of this Puritan classic by Jeremiah Burroughs.

In the next two chapters Burroughs sets about unpacking what he refers to as “The Mystery of Contentment”. As he says, “to be thoroughly sensible of an affliction and to endeavor to remove it by all lawful means, and yet to be content; there is a mystery in that.”

As I read, I was over and over made aware of how impossible this deep contentment would be apart from the grace of God – and also how positively ludicrous most of these concepts would seem to an unbeliever. Some of the ideas will no doubt seem foreign to our post-modern, easy listening, prosperity minded American evangelical minds. Some of the concepts will rub us the wrong way simply because they reveal our sin, and cause conviction, discomfort, defensiveness, and possibly even anger. I also realized, however, that what I was reading was Scriptural truth which God would have me accept as from the hand of a loving Father, which He is. What follows is a brief overview of Chapter 2, comprised mainly of quotes which I hope will help convey Burroughs' main points. (And in-depth discussion of Point 4 will be comprise a separate post.)

The Mystery of Contentment

"...grace...teaches us how to make a mixture of sorrow and a mixture of joy together; and that makes contentment, the mingling of joy and sorrow, of gracious joy and gracious sorrow together. Grace teaches us how to moderate and to order an affliction so that there shall be a sense of it, and yet for all that contentment under it.”

  1. A Christian is content, yet unsatisfied. “It may be said of one who is contented in a Christian way that he is the most contented man in the world, and yet the most unsatisfied man in the world...those things that will satisfy the world, will not satisfy him.

    “A soul that is capable of God can be filled with nothing else but God; nothing but God can fill a soul that is capable of God...Therefore you will observe that whatever God may give to a gracious heart, a heart that is godly, unless he gives himself, it will not do. A godly heart will not only have the mercy, but the God of that mercy as well...”

  2. He comes to contentment by subtraction... “not so much by adding to what he would have, or to what he has, not by adding more to his condition; but rather by subtracting from his desires, so as to make his desires and his circumstances even and equal....If the heart of a man is fashioned to his circumstances, he may have as much contentment as if his circumstances were fashioned to his heart.”

  3. He comes to contentment by adding another burden to himself. “...the heavier the burden of your sin is to your heart, the lighter will the burden of your affliction be to your heart, and so you shall come to be content.” (I expound upon this point at greater length in a previous post:

    Now here Burroughs takes a moment to give a bit of, well...unique, marital advice, advice I've never read anywhere else, which I doubt will fail when heeded: “But have you ever tried this way, husband and wife? Have you ever got alone and said, 'Come, Oh let us go and humble our souls before God for our sin, by which we have abused those mercies that God has taken away from us, and we have provoked God against us. Oh let us charge ourselves with our sin, and be humbled before the Lord together.'?” I say, give that one a try next time you find your family grumbling against your circumstances!

  4. He comes to contentment by changing the affliction into something else. “There is a power of grace to turn this affliction into good; it takes away the sting and poison of it...whereas before it was a natural evil to you, it comes now to be turned to a spiritual benefit to you.” (I expound upon this point in a separate post.)

  5. He comes to contentment by doing the work of his circumstances. “What can I think now are those duties that God requires of me in the circumstances that he has now put me into? Let me exert my strength to perform the duties of my present circumstances. Others spend their thoughts on things that disturb and disquiet them, and so they grow more and more discontented. Let me spend my thoughts in thinking what my duty is, what is the duty of my present circumstances which I am in?...You should labour to bring your heart to quiet and contentment by setting your soul to work in the duties of your present condition...taking heed of your thoughts about other conditions as mere temptations.In other words, whatever task that has been assigned to you in life, is your calling for the moment. It it is your ministry and the means by which you are called to glorify God in the here and now. Don't look around wishing a better calling. Be faithful in the one you've been given. Or, as the quaint old saying goes: “Bloom where you are planted.” Remember this, “ is the counsel of God that has brought me into these circumstances that I am in, and I desire to serve the counsel of God in these circumstances.” (Notice how impossible it would be to be content without believing in the sovereignty of God over all circumstances.)Here I also found consideration of Matthew 25:14-30, and Matthew 6:19-34 helpful.

  6. He comes to contentment by melting his will into God’s will. “You all say that you should submit to God's will; a Christian has got beyond this. He can make God's will and his own the same....You must make God's providential will and his operative will, your will as well as God's will, and in this way you must come to contentment. A Christian makes over his will to God, and in making over his will to God, he has no other will but God's...for he says, 'If God has glory, I have glory: God's glory is my glory, and therefore God's will is mine; if God has riches, then I have riches; if God is magnified, then I am magnified; if God is satisfied, then I am satisfied; God's wisdom and holiness is mine, and therefore his will must needs be mine, and my will must needs be his.'”

  7. He comes to contentment by purging out what is within – not by bringing anything from outside to make his condition more comfortable. “The way to contentment is to purge out your lusts and bitter humours.”

Spurgeon echoes Burroughs

“Be content to be nothing, for that is what you are. When your own emptiness is painfully forced upon your consciousness, chide yourself that you ever dreamed of being full, except in the Lord.”

- Charles Spurgeon

Friday, June 26, 2009

Humility - at the heart of worship

I found this in my e-mail this morning. I hope you will take a moment not just to read it, but to meditate upon it.

“Christian exultation in God begins with the shamefaced recognition that we have no claim on him at all, continues with wondering worship that while we were still sinners and enemies Christ died for us, and ends with the humble confidence that he will complete the work he has begun. So to exult in God is to rejoice not in our privileges but in his mercies, not in our possession of him but in his of us.”

John Stott, The Message of Romans (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 147-48

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What do we do about the party crashers?

I've got to leave for work in five minutes, but I found this in my morning reading and wanted to share it before I forgot.
"Nothing makes people in the church more angry than grace. It's ironic: we stumble into a party we weren't invited to and find the uninvited standing at the door making sure no other uninviteds get in. Then a strange phenomenon occurs: as soon as we are included in the party because of Jesus' irresponsible love, we decide to make grace 'more responsible' by becoming self-appointed Kingdom Monitors, guarding the kingdom of God, keeping the riffraff out (which, as I understand it are who the kingdom of God is supposed to include.)"
Michael Yaconelli in Messy Spirituality, God's annoying love for imperfect people

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Holiness and contentment kiss each other

The following is the next installment in the series Reading the Classics Together - The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. I'll try to make each post readable on its own, however I highly encourage your own study of this Puritan classic by Jeremiah Burroughs.

In looking over the last part of Chapter One and the first part of Chapter Two I found there were two concepts that I think are altogether the most difficult. But I also I think they are also among the most important for us to grasp. Indeed they contain the key to gaining that one thing that can truly satisfy the godly person’s heart. And so I've decided to single them out for a post of their own.

Difficult Concept 1: Back in Chapter One we learned that the Christian kind of contentment submits to God’s disposal, but not only that, it takes pleasure in God’s disposal, no matter what that may happen to involve. The hard question is: “How can a person find pleasure in God’s dealings when there’s nothing seemingly pleasurable about them at all, or when they are downright and unthinkably painful?

Difficult Concept 2: Here in Chapter Two we are told something very strange: that “A Christian comes to contentment, not so much by getting rid of the burden that is on him, as by adding another burden to himself.” Talk about a counter-intuitive statement! But he goes on to explain his meaning: that “the heavier the burden of your sin is to your heart, the lighter will the burden of your affliction be to your heart, and so you shall come to be content.”

Earlier in Chapter 2 we are told,

“A soul that is capable of God can be filled with nothing else but God; nothing but God can fill a soul that is capable of God. Though a gracious heart knows that it is capable of God, and is made for God, carnal hearts think without reference to God. But a gracious heart, being enlarged to be capable of God, and enjoying somewhat of him, can be filled by nothing in the world; it must only be God himself. Therefore you will observe, that whatever God may give to a gracious heart, a heart that is godly, unless he gives himself it will not do.”
In other words, for the Christian, only God will do. Nothing else will bring satisfaction. So then, how can we come to the satisfaction of our heart? How do we gain God? How do we obtain sweet fellowship and satisfying communion with Him? I think that in those two difficult concepts we will find the key to that ultimate one. And, to tie these all together I'd like to look to the Scriptures.

“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

“ For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons:

“My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD,
Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him;
For whom the LORD loves He chastens,
And scourges every son whom He receives.”

“If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

“Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for you feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed.

Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord; looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled…(Heb. 12: 1-15, emphasis mine)

So now, with Hebrews 12 in mind, I’ll address our questions in reverse order, beginning with,“ How can adding to our burdens the burden of our sin ease our load of discontent?”

Think for a moment of the Beattitudes:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:3)

It is the spiritually bereft who gain God’s kingdom.

“Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted.” (Mt. 5:4)

Only when we mourn and grieve over our sin, can we know God’s comfort.

Only when we understand the depth of our depravity, can we really understand and receive the gospel. It is in the darkness of very bad news the light of the gospel shines so gloriously in our hearts. When we recall that we were once objects of God’s righteous fury, and that the only thing which makes us to differ from those who remain under His wrath is His mercy and grace toward us, and that it is only His grace that keeps us from falling and provides for our cleansing day by day, then we are able to face that first difficult question: How do we “submit to, and even take pleasure in, God’s disposal?” Then we are able to see and trust in the goodness of God toward us. We can trust Him as our Father and can begin to not only recognize and accept, but to be thankful for His chastening and correction in our lives.

Notice the emphasis on holiness in Hebrews 12. God's holiness is His highest quality. It is His beauty – and it is the quality that beautifies all His other attributes. His love is holy. His wisdom is holy. His wrath is holy. There is nothing He is or does that is not holy. The beauty of His holiness is what the angels around his throne are captivated by for all eternity. It is the absence of holiness in mankind which has separated us from Him. Yet God has chosen to make foul sinners like us holy! What an amazing gift to want to bestow on us! He wants us to be holy, because He is holy, and we are His. And so it is only right and good that we should “submit to, and even take pleasure in, God's disposal.”

“So we see this great doctrine running right through the Bible. Indeed, all God’s treatment of the Children of Israel under the old dispensation is but an extended commentary on this. It was because they were His people that He did those things unto them. ‘Ye only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities’ (Amos 3:2). It was because they were His children that He so dealt with them.

“The question that obviously faces us therefore is, what is chastisement, what does it mean? It means to train. The fundamental meaning of the word is just that. It is the training through which a child is put, it is the method of training a child. We rather tend to confuse it with the word punishment. It includes correction, but it also includes instruction; it includes rebuke, indeed it may include a good deal of punishment, but the essential thing is, and the essential object of chastisement is, to train and to develop the child so as to produce a grown person. Well, now, if that is the meaning of chastisement let us consider for a moment the ways in which God does chastise.

“How does God chastise His children? He does so very largely through circumstances, all sorts and kinds of circumstances. Nothing is more important in the Christian life than we should realize that everything that happens to us is of significance if we can but see it. Nothing happens to us accidentally – a sparrow ‘shall not fall to the ground without your Father’, says our Lord, and if that is true of the sparrow how much more so of us? Nothing can happen to us apart from our Father. Circumstances are constantly affecting us and their purpose is to produce our sanctification –pleasant circumstances and unpleasant circumstances. We should, therefore be observant and always watching for lessons, seeking and asking questions.”

And he goes on later to say:

“Can you say that you thank God for things that have gone against you? That is a very good test of our whole profession. Can you see why certain things – things which were unpleasant and which made you feel very unhappy at the time they happened to you- can you look back and say ‘It is good for me that I was afflicted’, like the Psalmist in Psalm 119:71.

“I say then that God chastises for these particular reasons. But let me put it all positively. To be sanctified means that we display certain positive qualities. It is to be the kind of person who is exemplifying the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount in his life, it is to be a person who is showing the fruits of the Spirit –love, joy, peace, etc. Now that is what sanctification means, God, in sanctifying us, is bringing us more and more into conformity with that condition. And it is very clear that in order to bring us there it is not enough that we be given the positive teaching of the Word; the element of chastisement is also necessary. The Word exhorts men to ‘look to Jesus’. You notice that it does so in the chapter before it comes to the chastisement. The author’s exhortation is: ‘Let us run with patience the race that is set before us looking unto Jesus …’. If we did that always nothing else would be necessary; if we always kept our gaze upon Him and tried to conform to Him, all would be well. But we do not, and therefore chastisement becomes necessary. And it is necessary in order to produce certain qualities in us. Here they are. Humility – it is in many ways the crowning virtue. Humility, the most priceless of all the gems, one of the most glorious of all the manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit – humility.….It is the last point at which we arrive, and, God knows, we all have to be humbled in order to arrive at humility. Failure can be very good for us there. It is very difficult to be humble if you are always successful, so God chastises us with failure at times in order to humble us, to keep us in a state of humility. Examine your life and see this kind of thing happening.” Martin Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression

So, having addressed these two difficult questions, I mean now to let Scripture show how these are keys to open the door to our true contentment – God Himself.

“For thus says the High and Lofty One

Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:

I dwell in the high and holy place,

and also with him who has a contrite and humble spirit,

To revive the spirit of the humble,

And to revive the heart of the contrite ones.

For I will not contend forever,

Nor will I always be angry;

For the spirit would fail before Me,

And the souls which I have made

For the iniquity of his covetousness

I was angry and struck him;

And he went on backsliding in

The way of his heart.

I have seen his ways, and will heal him;

I will also lead him,

And restore comforts to him

And to his mourners. ( Isaiah 57:15-17)

Notice the contrast between contrite humility and covetousness. It is clear from this that discontent is a symptom of sinful pride and leads to seperation from God. Christian contentment, on the other hand, stems from a contrite and holy spirit.

“Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool.

Where is the house that you will build me?

And where is the place of My rest?

For all those things My hand has made, and all those things exist,”

Says the LORD.

But on this one will I look;

On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit,

And who trembles at My word.” (Isaiah 66: 1-2)

And again:

The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears,

And delivers them out of all their troubles.

The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart.

And saves such as have a contrite spirit.

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,

But the LORD delivers him out of them all.” ( Psalm 34:17-19)

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,

a broken and a contrite heart- these, O God, You will not despise.” (Psalm 51: 17)

Think for a moment about the purpose of sacrifice – to enable us to approach God, to give us access to Him. Access to God is hindered by human pride and discontent, but open, through the sacrifice of Christ to those who are so broken that they see Him as their hope and will be content only in Him.

Finally, consider Luke 18: 9-14, the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

So you see, it is only through constant, humble, acknowledgement of our sin, and of our continual need for ongoing mercy and grace, can we accept with willingness, and even a unique kind of pleasure all that God brings to pass in our lives, even the difficult & unpleasant. And as were persevere we find that His chastisement and training lead us to ever deeper humility, through which we find unhindered access to Him, the only One who can ever satisfy hearts He is fashioning for Himself.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

How about some Gospel humility?

“The gospel . . . is the wisdom of God because it doesn’t praise our intellects or advertise our strengths. It causes us to fall on our knees and acknowledge our weakness, our dependence, our terrible need. It causes us to look up to God as the great Savior. ‘It is by his doing that we are in Christ Jesus’ . . .. The gospel teaches us that our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption, and our wisdom are all gifts of God. The message of the gospel scuttles human pride because it reminds us that our life did not start with our choosing God but his choosing us. Therefore, all the glory is God’s.”

- Thomas Schreiner, “The Foolishness of the Cross” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (Fall 2002)

"For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, 'Let the one who boast, boast in the Lord.'" (1 Cor. 1:26-30)

And so, if you are saved today, remember Who it is who saved you, Who it is who keeps you saved, Who it is who intercedes for you, and Who it is who has promised to finish what He started. If you find yourself following Christ today, you have Him to thank, and him to praise. If you are a Christian today, do not boast that you are a Christian - boast in Him who saved you.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Christian contentment described

The following is the next installment in the series Reading the Classics Together - The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment edition. I'll try to make each post readable on its own, however I highly encourage your own study of this Puritan classic by Jeremiah Burroughs.

It is a great thing to think, with all the promises that we may not see fulfilled until we enter eternity, and the understanding that we will not reach sinless perfection until that time, that there are some Christian graces which we really can achieve in this life. Contentment is one of them. The apostle Paul tells us in Phil. 4:11, "I have learned it". As Burroughs expands: "I do not have to learn it now, nor did I have the art at first; I have attained it, though with much ado, and now, by the grace of God, I have become the master of this art."

We can and should take great hope in Paul’s statement that he has learned how to be content. In this we see that this is something possible for us to learn. It’s a skill, that by God’s grace we can truly master! And, I would add that since without it our godliness is not even considered to be gain unless it is accompanied by contentment (1 Tim. 6:6), it should become a very high priority. Or as our author puts it, " be well skilled in the mystery of Christian contentment is the duty, glory, and excellence of a Christian."

Now, Burroughs could hardly hold up his head among the Puritans if he did not define his terms, (The Puritans had learned that many misunderstandings are avoided in this way!) and so I will begin with his definition of Christian contentment.

"Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God's wise and fatherly disposal in every condition."
Notice that contentment doesn’t only apply to money or possessions, but " very comforting and useful for troubled hearts, in troubled times and conditions." Contentment is for all circumstances, conditions, and situations. Burroughs then proceeds to unpack his definition word by carefully chosen word, characteristic by characteristic.

It is inward. As with all true Christian virtues, contentment, too, is a "heart thing" - " is the inward submission of the heart...Not only must the tongue hold its peace, the soul must be silent. Many may sit silently, refraining from discontented expressions, yet inwardly, they are bursting with discontent...God hears the peevish fretful language of their souls...If the attainment of true contentment were as easy as keeping quiet outwardly, it would not need much learning." If we've taken away anything at all from the Sermon on the Mount, it should at least be that God is at least as concerned with the attitudes of our hearts as with our actions. He holds us accountable for both. True contentment, as opposed to false contentment, is from the heart.

It is quiet. In explaining the meaning of “quiet of heart” he lists three things which are NOT symptoms of discontent. These are things that you may do or experience without having an unquiet heart.

  1. "a due sense of affliction": "God gives his people leave to be sensible of what they suffer. Christ does not say, 'Do not count as a cross what is a cross'; he says, 'Take up your cross daily.' In other words, contentment does not mean that your pain does not hurt, or that you take no notice of it. Your discomforts are real. It is not sin to notice your hurts. In fact, hurts would not be hurts if you did not feel the pain. And so contentment is only contentment when experienced in the presence of difficulties.
  2. "It is not opposed to making in an orderly manner our moan and complaint to God, and to our friends. Though a Christian ought to be quiet under God's correcting hand, he may without any breach of Christian contentment complain to God."
  3. It is not opposed to all lawful seeking for help in different circumstances, nor to endeavoring simply to be delivered out of present afflictions by the use of lawful means. Such "lawful means" may be just the way God intends you to change your circumstances. And so taking that aspirin may be just the thing God would have you to do to relieve your pain. Taking that new job may be just what God would have you do to relieve your financial burden.
Having explained what can be present in a quiet heart, Burroughs next lists eight things that have no place whatsoever in a quiet heart. I would call them Eight Symptoms of a Discontented Heart
  1. "Murmuring and repining at the hand of God, as the Israelites often did."
  2. "Vexing and fretting"
  3. "Tumultuousness of spirit, when the thoughts run distractingly and work in a confused manner...'Ye ought to be quiet and to do nothing rashly.'"
  4. "An unsettled and unstable spirit, whereby the heart is distracted from the present duty that God requires in our several relationships, towards God, ourselves and others. We should prize duty more highly than to be distracted by every trivial occasion."
  5. "Distracting, heart-consuming cares. A gracious heart so esteems its union with Christ and the work that God sets it about that it will not willingly suffer anything to come in to choke it or deaden it."
  6. "Sinking discouragements. When things do not fall out according to expectation....God would have us to depend on him though we do not see how the thing may be brought about; otherwise we do not show a quiet spirit."
  7. "Sinful shiftings and shirkings to get relief and help....not content to await God's time and use God's means...not able to trust God and follow him fully in all things and always."
  8. "Desperate risings of the heart against God by way of rebellion...sometimes the very saints of God find the beginnings of this, when an affliction remains for a long time and is very severe and heavy indeed upon them, and strikes them, as it were, in the master vein...their thoughts begin to rise against God himself. Especially is this the case with those who besides their corruptions have a large measure of melancholy." (He is stating with this phrase regarding melancholy, that those prone to depression are especially prone to this kind of disquiet of heart. He, as is common among the Puritans, seems rather ahead of his time in that he views depression as an ailment with a physical cause to which some are predisposed. So he is quite compassionate, and yet he warns that such people have the added burden of watchfulness that their physical infirmity not be allowed to lead to sinful attitudes.)

Next, contentment is a frame of spirit. That is "it is a grace that spreads itself through the whole soul." As the frame of a house reaches all through it, supporting all it's various parts, so contentment touches every aspect of our lives and every situation and condition. And it comes from the soul..."the disposition of their own hearts causes and brings forth this gracious contentment rather than any external thing...To be content as a result of some external thing is like warming a man's clothes by the fire. But to be content through an inward disposition of the soul is like the warmth that a man's clothes have from the natural heat of his body."

"Contentment is the gracious frame of the heart." When Puritans refer to a gracious individual, or a gracious heart, they are referring to person or heart that has received the grace of God that is in Christ, so they are speaking specifically about a Christian. True Christian contentment is not a personality trait (thought is affects the personality). It is not stoicism. It is not a trait brought about merely by calm rationality. It comes from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers. In it is "a compound of all spiritual graces...where contentment of heart springs from grace, the heart is very quick and lively in the service of and busy in sanctifying God's name in the affliction that befalls him."

Christian contentment freely submits to God’s disposal. It is readily brought to see the hand of God at work and accepts it without constraint. "...for men and women who know better, who know that the condition they are in is an afflicted and sad condition, and still by a sanctified judgment can bring their hearts to contentment - this is freedom."

Christian contentment is "taking pleasure in God's disposal....This is so when I am well pleased in what God does, in so far as I can see God in it..." This does not mean I enjoy my difficult circumstances, per se. It means that I take joy in the knowledge that God has a purpose in them. "He sees the wisdom of God in everything. In his submission he sees his sovereignty, but what makes him take pleasure is God's wisdom. The Lord knows how to order things better than I. The Lord sees further than I do. I only see things at present, but the Lord sees a great while from now. And how do I know but that had it not been for this affliction, I should have been undone."

"The last thing is, This is in every condition".
This means any kind of condition, no matter how long it lasts, or how many afflictions are heaped up one on top of another. "...till God opens the door, we should be willing to stay; God has put us in, and God will bring us out...God requires it at our hands, that we should not be willing to come out till he comes and fetches us out."

And now that all the terms are defined, and we’re all on the same page and most likely feeling terribly inadequate (which we are apart from Christ), and now that we have an idea what that this Rare Jewel looks like, we can set about acquiring it for ourselves, being encouraged because we’re on the path to the kind of godliness that is actually great gain!

Saturday Science

This little bit of science seems apropos to the Saturday before pot-luck Sunday. Anyone at Sovereign Joy have a pressure cooker by any chance?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Foundations for contentment

As part of my participation in an on-line reading of Jeremiah Burroughs' Puritan classic, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, I've been doing a review of my notes from the study I led through that work last year. Some of my introductory information is not directly related to the reading, but foundational and, I think, helpful.

Because Burroughs was one of the Westminster divines, I think it appropriate to begin with a quote from the Westminster Catechism to gain some insight into our understanding of contentment:
“The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever”
Certainly we cannot expect to experience Christian contentment apart from fulfilling the purpose for which we were created. What does it mean to glorify God? And how can we enjoy Him? Well, among other things, it means to show forth His glory - as the moon shines back the reflected light of the sun, or a mirror reflects back the light and image of the one who gazes into it. We glorify God as we image him forth, as we look to Him and reflect back His own character.
“...God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis 1: 26-28
In this passage we learn that we are somehow reflections of God's image, and the instructions He gave us bear that out. As God is a god of dominion, so when He created beings in His image, He gave them a share of dominion. As the being of ultimate authority, He gave them authority and the command to exercise it. As He had just accomplished creating beings in His own likeness, so He commanded mankind also to be fruitful and multiply, creating more beings in their own likeness. As God worked in the creation of our world, so He gave man work to do. And so as a son glorifies his father when he follows him into the family business, or as a little girl images forth her mother when she tries her best to help her in the kitchen, we glorify God and find our enjoyment in Him as we look to Him and His word and His ways to reflect His character in this world where He's placed us.

When Adam sinned mankind abandoned this purpose and all its potential for glorifying God and for enjoying Him. We've left it so far behind as to barely remember it. In fact, man is busy even today doing whatever he can think of to keep from remembering. But no matter what man does, he can not escape the nagging sense of futility in his life. Instead of seeking our joy in the reflection of God's eternal glory, we seek it in glorifying our finite little selves. Is it any wonder that mankind is grasping, dissatisfied and discontent? In this state, true, joyful, contentment is not even possible. Try what he may, if any man allows himself to think for very long, or maybe even if he doesn't, he will eventually arrive at the conclusion, "...all is vanity and striving after wind." Ecc. 2:17

So, you may wonder, why would God create a being with this purpose knowing he would utterly fail to accomplish it? The answer lies in the heart of God, and the Trinity, and His desire to reveal His character, and that of the individual members of the Godhead in a unique way in this creation. He wanted to reveal Himself as not only Almighty God, but as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - and He wanted to reveal His great love which enters into relationships fully aware of the suffering that such love will cause Him. He wanted to reveal His Son as the servant who suffers and sacrifices Himself for the joy of the reward; and even beyond that - as there is only one eternal and begotten Son of God, for some unfathomable reason, God wanted to create more sons in His image, with the character of Christ. He want to not only glorify Christ, but with Him, to bring many sons to share that same glory. (Heb. 2:1-11) THAT is what we are made for. God wants a whole host of children with His self-sacrificing character to elevate to the glory of Christ. That at least partially explains why the fall was part of God's plan. Part of what it is to be made in God's image will only be complete in Christ.

“But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” 2 Cor. 4: 3-6
So man, when he fell ceased live to glorify God (Rom. 3:23). He forfeited his true purpose in life and spends what existence his still possesses trying to justify his now meaningless existence by other means. And so we all go about our lives trying to justify ourselves through any number of behaviors, works, religions. (Romans 1:18...) Yet none of these things can replace what we've abandoned. And this at the heart of our discontent. We cannot justify our existence, no matter how we try. Our justification can only come in Christ in Whose face we can see the glory of God. In Him only is our existence justified. (Read Romans 8:3-8) And so it follows that true contentment can only be found in Him. He is the secret of contentment in all circumstances.

“Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:11-13

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

Last year I led a study through the Puritan Classic, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs. It was one of the most challenging and fruitful endeavors I've ever undertaken. Contentment is a fairly unique aspect of godliness in that we are assured by at least one mere human in Scripture that it is actually achievable in this life. The apostle Paul says, in Philippians 4:11, "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content." He claims to have succeeded in learning it, and I can testify that it is possible. I've learned it as well. I know how to be content.

Now, I'd like to think after all that study and practice that I'll never fail to be content, but as with any other virtue, the world around me and the sin within me seeks to snuff it out. The habit of contentment, like any good habit once it is established, is maintained by nurture and reinforcement. Years ago I was a driving instructor by trade (yes, the kind that taught your teen to drive and pass his DMV tests). In order to qualify for this position I had to master all the rules of the road, and defensive driving, and practice them perfectly. This I did, and not only when I was working. I obeyed all the rules all the time, otherwise I would lose my sensitivity to the errors of my students and not only fail to teach them properly, but also endanger lives. I knew how to drive perfectly and practiced doing it perfectly in order to prevent sloppiness from creeping in. It has been some years since I gave up that particular profession. It took a while, but I now have some very sloppy driving habits. Lately I've gotten to thinking about how my sloppiness could end up causing an accident some day. I still know how to drive just right, but I've not practiced what I know and have lost the habit.

And so it is with contentment. I've noticed recently that I've been less peaceful in my life. I've begun preferring my time sitting at home to my time when I'm busy with the tasks God has assigned to me. I've begun to wish I was doing something different than the necessary things. I've found myself complaining sometimes. I've lost much of the joy of glorifying God with my labors. In short, I've become discontent. I know how to be content. I spent many, many months learning it, but I've let it slide and little by little gotten sloppier until the awareness finally dawned that I'm not as happy as I used to be. It's crept up quietly and little by little begun to manifest itself in various aspects of my life. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit has prodded me to take notice, and the timing couldn't be more perfect. A few weeks ago a friend mentioned that Tim Challies is starting a "new" book in his series Reading the Classics Together, and guess what it is - yep - The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment! Now, I've read this book many times, and don't really want to do a full reading of it at this time; but I thought this would be a great opportunity to both review my notes from the class and to make them available to others who might be reading along.

The reading officially begins today and so I thought I would provide some basic information that corresponds to the biographical introduction in the Banner of Truth Trust edition.

Before reading this work I had never heard of Jeremiah Burroughs, but was very interested to learn that he played a pivotal role in a great transition in Protestant Christendom. As the introduction informs us, after the Long Parliament was established, exiled Puritans, Burroughs among them, were able to return to England from their time of exile in Holland. And Burroughs himself was "summoned to take his place as a member of the Westminster Assembly". As a congregationalist he was regarded as an "independent", one of the men who came to be known as "The Five Dissenting Brethren". Aside from their view of what constitutes biblical church government, these brothers were "in full doctrinal agreement with the other Puritans". I was a bit startled to think of the division that resulted from just one different perspective about one aspect of doctrine. Yet, it was just such a difference that brought about, in the end, a profound change in the way the body of Christ - his church - came to be viewed. It was from these "Dissenting Brethren" that our modern idea of denominationalism originated.

From Church History In Plain Language, by B. Shelley:

“Denominationalism, as originally designed, is the opposite of sectarianism. A sect claims the authority of Christ for itself alone. It believes that it is the true body of Christ; all truth belongs to it and to no other religion. So by definition a sect is exclusive. The word denomination by contrast was an inclusive term. It implied that the Christian group called or denominated by a particular name was but one member of a larger group – the church- to which all denominations belong. The denominational theory of the church, then, insists that the true church cannot be identified with any single ecclesiastical structure. No denomination claims to represent the whole church of Christ. Each simply constitutes a different form – in worship and organization – of the larger life of the church.

The Reformers had planted the seeds of the denominational theory of the church when they insisted that the true church can never be identified in any exclusive sense with a particular institution. The true succession is not of bishops but of believers….

The real architects of the denominational theory of the church were the seventeenth-century Independents (Congregationalists) who represented the minority voice at the Westminster Assembly (1642-1649). The majority at the Assembly held to Presbyterian principles and expressed these convictions classically in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

The Independents, however, who held to congregational principles, were keenly aware of the dangers of ‘dividing the godly Protestant party’ in England so they looked for some way to express Christian unity even when Christians did not agree. These Dissenting Brethren of Westminster articulated the denominational theory of the church in several fundamental truths:

First, considering man’s inability to always see the truth clearly, differences of opinion about the outward form of the church are inevitable.

Second, even though these differences do not involve fundamentals of the faith, they are not matters of indifference. Every Christian is obligated to practice what he believes the Bible teaches.

Third, since no church has a final and full grasp of divine truth, the true Church of Christ can never be fully represented by any single ecclesiastical structure.

Finally, the mere fact of separation does not of itself constitute schism. It is possible to be divided at many points and still be united in Christ”

(All emphasis is mine.)
This is a phenomenal shift in the mindset of the church, and this Jeremiah Burroughs was at the heart of it. That this man, of this influence, devoted himself in this way to the study of such a humble virtue as contentment, for some reason made all he had to say seem even richer. It was also helpful to know that in all other areas of doctrine he promoted and held fast to the teachings contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith. And I've no doubt that his firm belief in the great biblical doctrines spelled out in Westminster are the foundation for true Christian contentment.

From the Westminster Confession of Faith:

“God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass. Yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin or is violence offered to the will of the creatures…”

I will go so far as to assert that true Christian contentment is not possible apart from firm belief in the sovereignty of God over "all things whatsoever that comes to pass". And so I've listed below a few Scriptures that lay the foundation for this doctrine.

“[He] works all things according to the counsel of His will.” Eph. 1:11

“I know that Thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted.” Job 42:2

“There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord.” Prov. 21:30

"I say: ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please'.” Isaiah 46:10

“In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.” Prov. 16:9

“Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the LORD, it will stand.” Prov. 19:21

“Man’s steps are ordained by the LORD, how then can man understand his way.” Prov. 20:24

“The LORD foils the plans of the nations;

He thwarts the purposes of the peoples.

But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever,

The purposes of His heart through all generations.” Ps. 33: 10-11

“Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases.” Ps. 115: 3

“His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; no one can stay his hand or say to hm, ‘What have you done?’” Dan. 4: 34-35

“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He will.” Prov. 21:1

And, there are more:

Lamentations 3: 37-38; Job 23: 13-14; Amos 3:6; Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2: 6-7; Ex. 4: 11; Isaiah 45:7; Prov. 16:33; Jer. 10:23; Job 1:21-22

Trust in God's control is the basis for our trust in his ability to keep his promises. This in turn is the only solid basis for contentment.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Keep on being converted!

“Don’t slack off seeking, striving, and praying for the very same things that we exhort unconverted people to strive for, and a degree of which you have had in conversion. Thus pray that your eyes may be opened, that you may receive sight, that you may know your self and be brought to God’s feet, and that you may see the glory of God and Christ, may be raised from the dead, and have the love of Christ shed abroad in your heart. Those that have most of these things still need to pray for them; for there so much blindness and hardness and pride and death remaining that they still need to have that work of God upon them, further to enlighten and enliven them. This will be a further bringing out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, and a kind of new conversion..."

Jonathan Edwards, Advice to Young Converts.
Ht to

"But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." 2Corinthians 3:16-18

We are ever dependent upon the grace of God, not only at the moment of our new birth, but for our continued growth and sanctification. It is by grace that our faith was authored; and it is by grace that our faith will be perfected.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A legacy of prayer

I've just finished Bainton's biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand, a Life of Martin Luther. It was an excellent, entertaining, and devotional read, not only informative but thought-provoking and faith-inspiring. But before I move on to another project I'd like to linger here a bit longer and let the lessons I've learned from Luther settle in a bit. For today I'd like to dwell on his legacy of prayer.

Luther was much better known in his day as a man of prayer than he is remembered now. The fact that we have very little record of his prayers is not testimony to a lack of prayer but to the sacredness with which he held the prayer closet. He did not permit his students, who would have recorded him, access to his "secret chamber". We can get an idea, however, of the nature of his prayers from his own teaching on the Lord's Prayer. I suggest that as you read these excerpts from his exposition you ponder them and take them for your own. See if you can pray this way from your heart and not know that the Spirit of God is at work:

"O heavenly Father, dear God, I am not worthy that I should lift up mine eyes or my hands to thee in prayer, but since thou hast commanded us to pray and has taught us how through Jesus Christ our Lord, I will say, 'Give us this day our daily bread.' O dear Lord Father, give us thy blessing in this earthly life. Give us graciously thy peace and spare us from war. Grant to our Kaiser [president] wisdom and understanding that he may govern his earthly kingdom in peace and blessedness. Give to all kings, princes, and lords good counsel that they may direct their lands in quietness and justice, and especially guard the ruler of our dear land. Protect him from malignant tongues, and instill into all subjects grace to serve in fidelity and obedience. Bestow on us good weather and the fruits of the earth. We commend unto thee house, grounds, wife, and child. Help that we may govern, nourish, and rear. Ward off the Corrupter and the evil angels who impede these things. Amen

'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.' Dear Lord and Father, enter not into judgment with us, since before thee is no man living justified. Reckon not unto us our transgressions and that we are so ungrateful of all thy unspeakable mercies of the spirit and of the body, and that we daily fail more than we know or are aware. Mark not how good or evil we be, but vouchsafe to us thy unmerited mercy through Jesus Christ, thy dear Son. Forgive also all our enemies and all who have hurt and done us wrong as we also forgive them from our hearts, for they do themselves the greatest wrong in that they kindle thee against them. But we are not helped by their loss and would much rather that they be blessed. Amen. (And if anyone here feels that he cannot forgive, let him pray for grace that he may...)"

Friday, June 12, 2009

Saturday Science

This June has brought us Californians an unaccustomed number of intense and dramatic lightning storms. Thankfully this season they've been accompanied by enough rainfall to prevent the catastrophic fires we had this time last year. And so we've been able to enjoy them, amazed, sitting right on our front porch.

Lightning is an awe inspiring thing, and has been for as long as we humans have been around to witness it. It has long been viewed as the finger of God, or the gods, depending on the culture. It even indirectly led to the Protestant Reformation - terrifying one Martin Luther into a monk's habit. What I didn't realize is that in our modern scientific times we can decipher mysteries of distant galaxies and stars, but we still don't understand the lightning which occurs right over our heads.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A legacy of song

I'm a bit sad to find that I'm nearing the end of Roland Bainton's biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand; a life of Martin Luther. I would say I will miss him; but I have another biographical work on Luther yet unread to turn to later. For now I'm reflecting on his legacy in various spheres of ecclesiastical life - music for one.

With Luther, music took a more prominent place in the church. While some in the Reformation, Zwingli for instance, would have it relegated to strictly to secular life, Luther felt it should remain an integral part of the liturgy and even took it beyond its common use which was "almost entirely restricted to the celebrant and the choir." In Bainton's opinion, Luther "may be considered the father of congregational song. This was the point at which his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers received its most concrete realization. This was the point and the only point at which Lutheranism was thoroughly democratic. All the people sang."

Beyond doctrine, this practice is also rooted in Luther's own experience of the power that music wields over the heart of man. In his own words:
"Music is to be praised as second only to the Word of God, because by her are all the emotions swayed. Nothing on earth is more mighty to make the sad gay and the gay sad, to hearten the down cast, mellow the overweening, temper the exhuberant, or mollify the vengeful. The Holy Spirit himself pays tribute to music when he records that the evil spirit of Saul was exorcised as David played upon his harp...This precious gift has been bestowed on men alone to remind them that they are created to praise and magnify the Lord...He who does not find this an expressible miracle of the Lord is truly a clod and is not worthy to be considered a man."
And again:
"Music is a fair and lovely gift of God which has often wakened and moved me to the joy of preaching...I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchasitiy, arrogance, and the like. After theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor. I would not exchange what little I know of music for something great. Experience proves that next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart."
And so Luther set about writing hymns and teaching the congregants how to sing, arranging that practices be held for the congregation mid-week and that home worship include practice in the singing of hymns. And his trust in this gift from God was proven not to be unfounded, as one of his enemies, a Jesuit, testified: "the hymns of Luther killed more souls than his sermons". And how could that be, you may wonder? Well, listen to just one of the hymns penned by Luther:

I cry to thee in direst need.
O God, I beg thee hear me.
To my distress I pray give heed.
If thou shouldst wish to look upon
The wrong and wickedness I've done,
How could I stand before thee?

With thee is naught but untold grace
Evermore forgiving.
We cannot stand before thy face,
Not by the best of living.
No man boasting may draw near.
All the living stand in fear.
Thy grace alone can save them.

Therefore in God I place my trust,
My own claim denying.
Believe in him alone I must,
On his sole grace relying.
He pledged to me his plighted word.
My comfort is in what I heard.
There will I hold forever.
How sweet these words of free grace and unmerited favor must have tasted to those beaten down by law and pennance. How sweet they sound to me today!