Matt. 1:20-21 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,because he will save his people from their sins.”
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.
God holds back nothing in His Great and Precious Promises, giving to us in accordance with the riches of His grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. By clinging to these promises, all of which are fulfilled and merited for us in Christ, He imparts the quality of His character to us making us godly and beautiful (cf. 2 Peter 1:3-4; Eph. 1:7; 2 Cor. 1:19). In fact, one way to explain the Christian Life is as a Life that daily clings to the Promises of God. As I walk through life, I’m faced with difficulties and challenges which always involve some combination of circumstances and relationships. These contexts evoke various emotions in me that the Lord uses as a catalyst to bring me to the place of humble prayer (one more reason to pay attention to your emotions). And it is in this place of prayer that the Lord desires for us to fix our minds and our trust on His Promises.
But what do we mean when we speak of God’s Promises?
God’s Promises are:
-His declarations that He will do something for us or give something to us.
-His express assurance on which our expectations can be based. He tells us what to expect from Him.
-His guarantees of security against loss. What we have in Him, we will not lose.
-His pledge of fulfillment of an obligation. He intends to keep all of His Promises.
-His bond that he has made himself responsible for us. The all-powerful Creator God is in charge of our well-being.
As children of God, we can trust the Promise Maker because this Promise Maker is the ultimate Promise Keeper. While we live in a world where we see promises broken all of the time. Our parents weren’t perfect at keeping their promises, about half or more of marriage promises aren’t kept and we’ve even become cynical about the promises of politicians. A Promise is only as good as the Promise Maker’s track record, the trustworthiness of His character and His true ability to impact the outcome. When we speak about the Majestic King of Kings, our Sovereign Creator and Redeemer, His track record is perfect (He has never forsaken His children), His character is absolutely trustworthy, and His Omnipotence guarantees the end result. This means that we can live in full reliance on Him and live out the words of the old hymn,
Standing on the promises that cannot fail,
When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,
By the living Word of God I shall prevail,
Standing on the promises of God.
As I’ve thought about God’s promises this week, I’ve realized that I spend much of my thought life, clinging to and standing on specific promises that He has given especially when the “howling storms of doubt and fear assail.” In a quick, random brainstorming session, I listed these promises which are in my heart and yours:
- Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass. (1 Thess. 5:24)
- There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1)
- For God demonstrates His own love towards us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8)
- For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that if anyone believes in him he shall not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
- He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus (Php 1:6)
- If anyone is in Christ He is a new creation, behold old things have passed away new things have come (2 Cor. 5:17)
- Do not be anxious in anything but in everything by prayer and petition and with thanksgiving present your requests to God and the peace that passes understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Php. 4:6-7).
- If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (John 1:8-9)
- He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” (Ps. 103)
- For He Himself Has Said, I will never leave you nor will I ever forsake you. so that we confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me.'” (Hebrews 13:5)
- Come to me, all who weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matt. 11:28)
- Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life. no one comes to the Father but through me. (John 14:6)
- And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
- Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.’ (John 6:35)
- Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Prov. 22:6)
- I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread. He is ever lending generously, and his children become a blessing. (Ps. 37:25)
- Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight (Prov. 3:5)
- Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:8-10)
- See ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you. (Matt. 6:33)
- He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Psalms 147:3)
- So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Is. 41:10)
- The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners. (Is. 61)
- He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary. (Is. 40:29-31)
- No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[m] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)
- When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Is. 43)
- We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Cor. 4:8-9)
- For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:17)
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.
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.”
We may call it a crisis, but the Lord calls it an opportunity. From His perspective it is an opportunity to bring a deeper consolation to our souls so that we can find ourselves more satisfied in Him; so we can experience the God who is Enough for us! But we are only transformed to this deeper place of Christ as our sole satisfier if our false rests and pseudo-saviors breakdown. This is at the heart of the disorientation of midlife. Through our 20s and 30s our souls find temporary satisfaction in relationships, roles and results. But as we approach our 40s all the way through to almost our mid- 50s, those relationships, roles and results begin to disintegrate or drain of their power to fulfill. This becomes a catalyst to expose our exaggerated needs for security, control and affirmation creating anxiety, disorientation and anger. And though we search to resolve our new undefined feelings in many places sometimes creating even greater problems, the solution is a spiritual one.
Midlife reveals to many of us that we have not allowed our initial introduction to Jesus to deepen into a deep intimate knowing. We talk about having a personal relationship with God, but the reality is that many of us have less knowledge of God than we have of our casual acquaintances. J.I. Packer says, “a little knowledge of God is worth more than a great deal of knowledge about Him.” Too easily we have settled for knowing about God which is not a substitute for deep personal knowing. So midlife becomes the opportunity to step out into vulnerability and uncertainty and be met by the Lord who wants to satisfy your deepest needs and answer your most personal queries. So….
When We Ask: Who am I? “What’s wrong with me?” “Why am I feeling this way?” and “Why am I talking to myself?”
He Answers: “You’re my Child. You belong to me. I have taken away your shame and given you a new identity filled with eternal value and dignity! Talk to me.”
When We ask: “Where am I?” “Will I have to face the future alone?” “Will everyone abandon me?”
He Answers: “I have a plan for you, and I will go with you into a certain future to provide comfort and courage to you. You will never be alone! Just hang onto me and trust me.”
When We ask: How am I doing? Why aren’t my strategies to control working? Why do I feel so angry and resentful?
He Answers: Because I have conquered death and hell, life is no longer a struggle to be won. The battle has been won and the enemy has been defeated! So, do you really have any right to be angry? I’m in control, I’ve got this! Nothing in your life is wasted and all will be redeemed for your benefit.
Why is it that the middle of everything is the most difficult? The beginning is usually filled with excitement, anticipation and expectation and the adrenaline usually carries you for a while. While the end has its own celebration of patience, endurance and perseverance and the satisfaction of a job well done! It is the middle where all of the battles are fought, all of the decisions are made and challenges, obstacles and hurdles are faced. And some of these take us off guard, surprising even the most prepared among us.
The middle presents us with questions we were never forced to entertain before. Questions like “Now what?” and “What does all of this mean?” In the beginning we entered with certainty and confidence, but the middle throws us for a loop and we experience uncertainty, fear, frustration, disappointment anger, shame, and doubt. From the initial perspective in the beginning, the future was always bright, but the middle is ruled by the dankness of the mundane and ordinary. This sometimes produces disorientation in identity and direction and we wonder internally, “Is this all there is?” or “Has my life been a waste?” In the middle, we interact with our own thoughts asking deeper questions about ourselves and our lives while rarely admitting them aloud:
Who am I?
In the beginning, I thought I knew who I was. I was able to define myself based on the job I performed, the important role I played, or the special relationship I had. But in the middle, I don’t feel as valuable and worthwhile as I once did by defining myself as I did. Things have changed. Now I wonder, “What’s wrong with me?” “Why am I feeling this way?” and “Why am I talking to myself?”
Where am I?
In the beginning, the future seemed clear, secure and filled with exciting probabilities. But in the middle, the support system that once provided security hasn’t proven reliable. Now I’m left to find a safe way forward to a uncertain future. As I try to figure things out in my head thinking up strategies to be safe, I’m filled with anxiety and dread. Now I wonder, “Will I have to face the future alone?” “Will everyone abandon me?”
How am I doing?
In the beginning, life felt like a struggle to be won and my efforts to control relationships and circumstances through my own strategies helped me to stay on top. Fixating on my assessment and judgment of things has helped me to prevent being dominated, tainted or upset. But in the middle I’ve exhausted my abilities to be able to control everything and everyone in my life and now I’m just resentful or angry. At who? At everybody!
The Middle is part of a Divine Conspiracy
In the middle, all of our exaggerated needs are exposed, the sinful passions that have always ruled our lives fail us and our shallow heart commitment to the Lord is exposed. But the middle sets us up for a deeper encounter with Christ to have our deeper personal questions of identity, significance and direction answered and to experience God’s goodness and favor at a level never before grasped. The middle is the opportunity for the Lord to impart hope to our souls as we learn to be satisfied in Him. In the middle we learn that God is Enough!