I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long. He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones. He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship.He has made me dwell in darkness like those long dead.
He has walled me in so I cannot escape; he has weighed me down with chains.Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He has barred my way with blocks of stone; he has made my paths crooked.
Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding, he dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help. He drew his bow and made me the target for his arrows.
He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver. I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long. He has filled me with bitter herbs and sated me with gall.
He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust. I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”
I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him;
OUR GREATEST NEED
“If our greatest need had been information,
God would have sent us an educator.
If our greatest need had been technology,
God would have sent us a scientist.
If our greatest need had been money,
God would have sent us an economist.
If our greatest need had been pleasure,
God would have sent us an entertainer.
But our greatest need was forgiveness,
So God sent us a Savior!
We must be careful not to confuse the righteousness of faith with the righteousness of a Christian life. The former is a gift of grace through the imputed righteousness of Christ making us right before God, the latter is the fruit or results of one who has been born-again, justified and adopted as God’s child. Paul writes to Titus, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” (Titus 2:11-12). While we must avoid the error of legalism, a system of belief that says one is justified (made right with God) by faith plus the merit of our own works which is an obedience-based acceptance, it is equally important that we avoid the error of antinomianism, a system of belief that says one doesn’t need to give any proof of a life of repentance and virtue as evidence of being justified, an obedience-free acceptance. The grace of God does not exclude the Christian from obedience to God’s moral commands. Instead, in the gospel, our new motive is to eagerly desire to live righteously so that obedience becomes the natural expression of our grateful hearts, an acceptance-based obedience. Only in the gospel can we actually give complete loyalty and obedience to Christ and live a life of faith expressing itself through love.
I have recently discovered a theologian who beautifully communicates this careful balance in his classic work, True Christianity. He was often referred to as “the second Luther” by his contemporaries and yet another well-known theologian called him, “the prophet of interior protestantism.” Johann Arndt (1555-1621) was the first Luther scholar to see that “justification by faith alone” does not preclude doing good works but actually unleashes good works in the Christian. He has said,
“Many think that theology is a mere science, or rhetoric, whereas it is a living experience and practice. Everyone now endeavors to be eminent and distinguished in the world, but no one is willing to learn to be devoted. Everyone now seeks out men of great learning, from whom one may learn the arts, languages, and wisdom, but no one is willing to learn, from our only teacher, Jesus Christ, meekness and sincere humility, although his holy, living example is the proper rule and directive for our life…Everyone wishes very much to be a servant of Christ, but no one wishes to be his follower… He who loves Christ will also love the example of his holy life, his humility, meekness, patience, suffering, shame, and contempt, even if the flesh suffers pain…True Christianity consists, not in words or in external show, but in living faith, from which arise righteous fruits, and all manner of Christian virtues, as from Christ himself.”
Arndt is regularly careful to avoid the errors of legalism and antinomianism. Here is an example:
“You must take care that you do not connect your works and the virtues that you have begun, or the gifts of the new life, with your justification before God, for none of man’s works, merit, gifts, or virtue, however lovely these may be, count for anything. Our justification depends on the exalted, perfect merit of Jesus Christ, received by faith…Take great care, therefore, not to confound the righteousness of faith with the righteousness of a Christian life, but make a clear distinction (between them), for here is the whole foundation of our Christian religion.”
The Gospel says that you are deeply loved, completely forgiven, fully pleasing, totally accepted and significant in God‘s eyes through the merit of Jesus Christ. Nothing you ever do will cause Him to love you any more or any less. He loves you strictly by His grace given to you through Jesus. Encountering God‘s free and sovereign grace is supposed to lead us to an overwhelming sense of gratitude and a complete willingness to give everything to God who has given us everything in His Son.
Of course, free love and grace have led some to licentiousness (license to sin) assuming unearned acceptance gives a new freedom to do anything they want. Paul anticipated this question after explaining that we are justified (made right with God) not by our works but by grace through faith:
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:1-2).” He taught Titus, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:11-12).” After 11 chapters of explaining the gratuitous nature of salvation and mercy He explains to the Romans, “Therefore I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship.” Similarly after 3 chapters of describing the work of Christ to call us into God’s family, Paul exhorts the Ephesians, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called (Ephesians 4:1).”
Recently I have been attempting to teach my daughter how to drive a car. I’ve found that one of the more important principles of driving is actually avoiding the ditches and staying on the road. But sometimes, because of our backgrounds, when we encounter the gospel and feel its freedom from rule-keeping, we can ride down the gospel road as if there is only one ditch. The ditch that we are most often aware of is the Legalism Ditch.
Legalism is a system of belief that says one is justified (made right with God) by faith plus the merit of our own works. Legalism is a works-based, conditional acceptance by God which, if fulfilled, places God in the position as the debtor, the one who owes. Legalism is mechanical because it will only do the absolute minimum of what is absolutely required. This leads to a joylessness in life where we perform burdensome duties as a down payment for heaven. But legalism will never get anyone into heaven because it is impossible to be good enough. It is Obedience-based Acceptance.
The other ditch of which we are often not aware is the Antinomianism Ditch.
Antinomianism is system of belief that says one does not need to give any proof of a life of repentance and virtue as evidence of being justified (made right with God). Antinomianism is a perversion of Paul’s teaching on grace and actually mocks the holiness of God and the spiritual law that He gives us as a guide to holy living. Antinomianism teaches that grace means that I am freed from morality and freed from adhering to any moral law leading many back into bondage to sin. Antinomianism rejects the very notion or expectation of obedience as legalistic. It is Obedience-free Acceptance.
But the Gospel Road teaches something different than Legalism and something other than Antinomianism. The Gospel is an Acceptance-based Obedience. This means that if I know that I’m loved apart from how I perform, I will give my all. Now because we are justified by Christ, we are free to fulfill the Law by Loving God, and Loving Others, though we won’t do this perfectly. In the gospel, our new motive is to want eagerly to live righteously so that obedience becomes a natural expression of our grateful hearts.
Martin Luther clarified the gospel road in this way,
“Whoever he be that is assuredly persuaded that Christ is his righteousness, doesn’t only cheerfully and gladly work well in his vocation…but submits to all manner of burdens and dangers in his present life, because he knows that this is the will of God, and that this obedience pleases him… No one should think we reject the importance of good works or of obeying the law. When we receive the Christian righteousness, we consequently can live a good life, naturally, out of gratitude.”
Throughout my years of ministry I have entertained not a few questions from Bible readers about the doctrines of predestination and election. Romans 8:28-30 is one of the several places in the Scriptures where these doctrines are mentioned, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (ESV)”
Predestination and Election are true, biblical and mysterious and refer to God’s ancient choice of His family whom He marked out before hand to eternal life. The Scriptures tell us that:
- God elects according to his eternal purpose which means that He’s a God who plans and does what He wants.
- God elects according to the counsel of His will like a Sovereign King who has every right to develop his own military strategy influenced by no one, receiving no advice or input outside of His Triunity.
- God Elects for His own glory which means that He’s the One who gets all the credit and congratulation and through those whom He elects to salvation everyone will see How Great He really is.
On an experiential level, Christians can rest in the fact that the God of Creation has set His affection on them before the world began. There is no deeper love and affirmation, no greater freedom and courage, than resting in the fact that God loved you before your days on the earth even began, before you had the opportunity to do anything good or bad.
I can comprehend this in small degree as a father who recalls loving my first born child before she was born, even before we saw an ultrasound image of her inside of her mother’ womb. No parent waits to see what the child looks like or how she will behave to decide whether they would choose to love or not. Predestination and election are then God’s Plan of Love; His method to apply His grace.
So those whom God elects, He also calls as calling is the effect of election. Calling not like an invitation to a birthday party where you can choose to say yes or no. It is more like a Royal Command by which we must say “Yes.” Though it never feels authoritarian it is authoritative. In His calling, God’s Spirit convinces of our sin and misery. And yes, we have to be convinced that we’re miserable. There are many happy pagans around who frankly just don’t realize that they are miserable in their sin. God then imparts spiritual light to our minds in the knowledge of Christ, renews our wills, which have not been free but are in bondage and His Spirit irresistibly persuades us to embrace Jesus who is freely offered to us in the gospel.
Before the foundation of the world, by His Grace He made a covenant of Redemption with the Son and Spirit. The Father was the architect of the plan who set His decree which included the elect on whom He had set His affection. The Son, the builder, would take the plans and do the work of redemption then by His Grace would send the Holy Spirit, the real estate agent, to call the elect by chasing them down in time and space to seal the deal. Apart from such a plan of grace and love, Heaven would be empty and Hell would be bursting at the seams because men and women are not righteous and do not seek God without the gift of the seed of God in a regenerated heart and the gift of faith. People on their own are therefore unable to make the most righteous decision man could ever make: to choose to follow the Righteous One.
Though still these doctrines are hard to understand and maybe even harder to accept. We raise questions like:
- “Why not them?” – by which we charge God with unfairness because He doesn’t choose some others or demand that He choose everyone.
- “Why not me?” – by which we somehow wrongly feel that we are worthy in ourselves of being among the elect. But really the only question we are allowed to ask is…
- “Why me?” – by which we rightly look at ourselves and see not only an undeserving sinner who is not entitled to heaven but an ill-deserving sinner who has fairly earned hell. In this we marvel at God’s grace and mercy.
Ultimately the first question “Why not them?” is often compassionately motivated as we don’t want to see anyone enter into an eternity apart from God. But taking that question too far puts us in a position far above our pay grade. We can take it too far and by the implcation, “God, I would do a better job at being God than you are doing.” In the movie Rudy, which is based on a true story of a young man whose lifelong dream was to play football at Notre Dame but lacked the size, speed and ability. As he wrestled with the lack of fulfillment of his dream he confided in Father Cavanaugh who shared these immortal words,
“Son, in 35 years of religious study, I have only come up with two hard incontrovertible facts: there is a God, and I’m not Him.”
The words are so simple they are profound. When it comes to life and difficult doctrines we just simply need to trust God with His Godness.
Should a Church focus exclusively on the Ministry of the Word or on a Ministry of Deeds? As the news of Jesus’ authority over nature and disease spread, soon there were overwhelming crowds gathering in wonder of what Jesus would do next. As the crowds impeded His ability to preach and their needs consumed His time, He would move to another town or even into the wilderness so that He could continue to freely preach the Good News about the Kingdom. Jesus sought and found a beautiful equilibrium of word and deed in ministry. His Deed ministry was always about compassionately giving relief to people and families from their suffering, grief, misery, and distress. While His Word ministry was always about compassionately calling people and families to Faith and Repentance dealing with their deepest suffering, grief. misery and distress: their sin. In the ministry of Christ there was a synergy and integration of Deeds and Words working together so people would believe the message of the gospel. He saw ALL people as sick, all people as sinners and it was only those who admitted their need for the Doctor of their Souls who qualified for a place in his kingdom.
Do you ever wonder if God has forgotten you? Do you know what it’s like to feel worthless, broken and defective? Deep down do you question whether God is punishing you for a past mistake? Well, that’s how the paralyzed man in Mark 2:1-12 felt. He was paralyzed by something in his past that hindered him from coming into the presence of Jesus. There are lots of things that paralyze us so that we feel that we can’t move forward; many things that prevent us from entering into the presence of Jesus. Sometimes we find ourselves paralyzed by the guilt of the past. The problem is that our guilt has never been touched by the forgiveness that Jesus offers us in the gospel.
Guilt comes to us in two ways: 1) a legal guilt before the Holy Judge that comes from the violation of His law and 2) the guilty feelings of remorse that result from what we’ve done. The legal guilt is the real problem but the heavy burden of carrying guilt or the feelings of being dirty, unwashed and defective is often the experience. Thankfully, the Cross takes care of the legal guilt and the guilty feelings. Jesus invites you on a journey back into the ruins of your past to pronounce over you, “Not Guilty” before the Judgment Seat. Hear His strong voice say with authority to you, “There is now no condemnation for you because you are MINE.” After His declaration, He takes off the Judge’s robe to reveal the clothing of a servant grasping a basin and a towel. As He washes you, hear His tender voice say to you, “I wash you with my blood and you shall be whiter than snow. You will have a clean heart and your sins I will see no more. You can now live in joy and gladness in my presence. I will never leave you or turn my back on you. Let the joy of My Salvation be restored to you and may you walk with confident support into future obedience through the power of my Spirit” (Cf. Romans 8:1-4; Hebrews 13:5; Psalm 51:7-12) Our only hope to walk again is to encounter the Savior who gives us Grace to Live Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow.
If I make the claim that my wife is prominent in my earthly affections, that’s not saying very much. All I would be saying is that within my heart’s desires, she is noticeable and easy to see among all of the other competing passions in my life. In my earthly affections, my wife should reign as preeminent, surpassing all others and without peer or rival. As Christ should be preeminent over all in my heart! Jesus comes to us passionately and jealously because His Father’s Preeminence consumed Him (Cf. Psalm 69:9, 119:139; John 2:17) Christ was so zealous that His Father would have First Place in our hearts that during at least one scene He became an Army of One driving the idolaters from His Father’s house. He was so jealous for the honor of His Heavenly Father and His Temple that it ate Him up. Paul reminds us of the Majestic Supremacy of Christ who is entitled to have First Place in our hearts,
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. (Colossians 1:17-20)
So just as a newly married bride is given a new name and an accompanying identity, the new identity is the only incentive she needs to live a life which her affections are set exclusively on her husband. Before she may have felt some affection for others but now her husband is the preeminent affection of her heart so that anything which would distort or destroy that affection must be insistently refused. So with us who are united to Christ.
Do you find it easy for your heart to lose its focus on Christ and doing His Will? I think there is natural drift in all of our hearts especially when our little worlds feel chaotic and our eyes attend to circumstances rather than remembering the generosity and grace of our Lord. And sometimes we forget that Christ’s design in coming into the world was to reform the world and in doing so, He expects that His followers would be radically identified with Him. As we identify with Him and follow Him, we seek to cooperate with the work of His Spirit in the reforming of our hearts and lives. Thankfully even as we make a mess of things, He still remembers His gratuitous covenant which He has made with us through His Son.
The prophet Malachi writes, “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. He will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness.” Take a moment with the following prayer:
Grant, Almighty God, that as Satan strives to draw me away from my full attention in serving You through the circumstances of disorder and confusion in my world; — O grant, that I may know that You still have a tender affection for me; and if I perceive that you don’t by what I find in my world, may I rely on Your Word, and not doubt that You always watch over my safety; and being supported by this confidence, may I always continue in the path of my calling: and as You have designed to make me a partaker of the greatest evidence of Your favor in being reconciled to You through Your only-begotten Son; and being made one with Him, may I never hesitate to cheerfully offer my services to You, however defective they may be, since You have once promised to be a generous Father to us, so as not to rigidly test what I offer to You, but so graciously to accept it, that we may know that not only my sins, which justly deserve condemnation, are forgiven and laid aside, but that You also bear with my infirmities and my defects in my imperfect works, that I shall at length receive the reward which You have promised, and which I cannot attain through personal merits, but through the sanctification of Your Spirit, and through the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. — Amen.
(paraphrased from Calvin’s prayer at the end of his commentary on Malachi)
Remember all the patterns of grace that are in heaven. You think, oh, what a monument of grace you would like to be! There are many thousands as rich monuments as you can be. The greatest sinner did never pass the grace of Christ. Do not despair. Hope still. When the clouds are blackest, even then look towards Christ, the standing pillar of the Father’s love and grace, set up in heaven for all sinners to gaze upon continually. Whatever Satan or conscience say, do not conclude against yourself, Christ shall have the last word.
by Thomas Wilcox (1621-1687)
“But I would feed you with the best of foods.
I would satisfy you with honey from the rock.”