An Early Good Friday Meditation on “Let us…” (not the vegetable)

One of my readings this morning was Hebrews 10:4-39. The main message of this text is that Jesus Christ is both our Priest and the final Sacrifice for our sin, through his suffering and death on the cross. Thus, our salvation is finished —done, and nothing more can be added to it. The writer then makes a call for his readers to persevere in their faith by using three “let us” statements, which are insightful:

10:22 “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” This is an encouragement for us never to hang back in coming before God because of the guilt of our sin. We have in Jesus Christ a great high priest whose sacrifice dealt once and for all with our sin and cleansed even our consciences of guilt (9:9) before God. (The part about our bodies being washed is probably a reference to baptism.) Let the certainty of what Christ has done for you draw you to him everyday. Never stay away from Jesus because of your sin—that is why he died. In this way, you will persevere in your faith.

10:23 “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who has promised is faithful.” The writer is addressing those who were being persecuted for their faith, but the call can also address any situation in which our faith is being tested. It can address you and how you are dealing with the emotional, physical, and economic impact of COVID-19. It can address those of us who are facing another round of chemo today. It can address those who are suffering from the continuing impact of abuse, or grief, or situational confusion. Hold fast to the profession of your faith without being shaken by these trials. Nothing has changed about Jesus, your great and faithful high priest who ever stands making intercession for you. Nothing has changed about God’s faithful love for you or his ability to care for you. Nothing has changed about the faithful promise of eternal life that you will one day inherit. Though circumstances have changed, and will continue to do so, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever! In this way, you will persevere in your faith.

10:24 “Let us consider (brood over, think deeply about) how we may spur (provoke, arouse, excite to action) one another on toward love and good deeds.” In the midst of our own hardship we should also be thinking of how we may encourage other believers to persevere in the midst of theirs. When we suffer, we can become curved in upon ourselves and forget the needs of others. Instead, a call to persevere also includes a call to help those who are facing difficulties that might cause them to lose their grip on faith. In v. 25, the writer indicates that this encouragement can be done through the regular meeting together of the church. While this option has been taken away from us at the moment, we can use other means in order to do this. The lost art of letter writing, as well as phone calls, emails, texts, FaceTime, What’sApp, Zoom, etc., can all be vehicles for such provoking encouragement. Think about who it is among friends and family that might need such an encouraging touch from you. I have and this is why I’m writing this and all my blogs—not to hear my self think out loud, but to encourage you to persevere in your faith and not to swerve from it, just as I’m striving to maintain my own faith. In fact, helping you persevere helps me persevere.

Let me conclude with Hebrews 10:36, 39…”You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised….But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.”

Friday is Good, but Easter is better!

Preparation for Holy Week…

Mid-way through the eighteenth century, Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) wrote his classic work The Rise and Progress of Religion In The Soul, the book which led William Wiberforce to become a Christian. It traces God’s work of salvation from the point of conviction of sin through conversion; from awakening to the life of God, to preparing for death. After a lengthy discourse on the depths of human sin, Doddridge begins his presentation of the good news of the gospel. 

“Look upon our dear Redeemer! Look up to this mournful, dreadful, yet, in one view delightful spectacle, and then ask in thine own heart, do you believe he suffered and died thus? And why did he die? Let me answer in God’s own words, He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, and the chastisement of our peace was upon him, that by his stripes we might be healed; It pleased the Lord to bruise him and to put him to grief, when he made his soul an offering for sin; for, the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. You have indeed been a very great sinner, and your offences have truly been attended with the most heinous aggravations; nevertheless you may rejoice in the assurance, that where sin abounded, there shall grace much more abound…That righteousness, to which on believing on him, thou wilt be entitled, shall not only break those chains by which sin is (as it were) dragging thee at its chariot wheels with a furious pace to eternal ruin, but shall clothe thee with the robes of salvation, shall fix thee on the throne of glory, where thou shalt live and reign forever among the princes of heaven…But I have the authority of God’s Word to tell thee, that if thou this day sincerely believest in the name of the Son of God, thou shalt this day be taken under his care, and be numbered among those of his sheep, to whom he graciously declared, that he will give eternal life; and, that they shall never perish…With this gospel, O sinner, which is my life, and which, if thou dost not reject it, will be thine too.”

My soul confides in your goodness, O God. I adore the patience with which you have carried me for so long, and the grace which now makes me wiling to be yours—on your terms. As I prepare for this Holy Week, have mercy upon me and unite me to yourself, so that none of the allurements of this world may draw me back from you and plunge me into guilt and ruin. May I keep my hold upon you until at length I know more completely how sufficient a Savior you are. Through Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

Note: Here is one of the 400 hymns that Dodderidge wrote. It is titled “Stupendous Grace,” and was set to music by Franz Haydn, 1798.

Stupendous grace! and can it be
Designed for rebels such as we?
O let our ardent praises rise
High as our hopes beyond the skies!
This flesh, by righteous vengeance slain,
Might ever in the dust remain:
There guilty spirits sent to dwell
Midst all the flames and fiends of hell.

But lo! Incarnate Love descends;
Down to the sepulcher it bends;
Rising, it tears the bars away,
And springs to its own native day.
Then was our sepulcher unbarred,
Then was our path to glory cleared;
Then, if that Savior be our own,
Did we ascend a heav’nly throne.

A moment shall our joy complete,
And fix us in that shining seat,
Bought by the pangs our Lord endured,
And by unchanging truth secured.
O may that love, in strains sublime,
Be sung to the last hour of time!
And let eternity confess,
Through all its rounds, the matchless grace.

Make Your Calling and Election Sure…

Note: This blog is both self-contained and the 4th in a series exploring the relationship between Justification and Sanctification. If a preacher were to develop this series into a sermon it could be titled “Working Out What God Has Worked In,” based upon Philippians 2:12. The previous 3 blogs are: The Monster of Uncertainty (Feb 22), All We Need for Life and Godliness (March 7), and Add to Your Faith (March 13). And now for the 4th:

Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:10, 11

Just when we are trying to decide whether the people that Peter was describing in 2 Peter 1:9-2:22 were true Christians or not, be brings us back to a self-evaluation. This shows us that Scripture was not given for us to judge others, but to use for our own salvation.

In 1:10-11, we see the mysterious paradox between a belief that our salvation is the result of God’s initiative in our lives and, at the same time, it engages our action. In other words, while God is sovereign in salvation, he also calls each of us to make sure that our character matches our confession and our behavior matches our beliefs. Most of us will admit that we do not live out our faith to the extent that we should, but that is different than choosing to turn a blind eye to the life we are living.

How do we “add to our faith?” How do we cooperate with God in this sanctifying makeover that produces real change in our lives and makes us productive and useful to God? It results from the choices we make as we respond to the circumstances of life. Either we cooperate with God with our new nature or we adopt attitudes and behavior consistent with our sinful nature. Paul addresses the Corinthians as those who have the Spirit but who do not live by the Spirit. He calls them “worldly” and behaving as if they are “merely human.” (1 Cor 3:3)

Let’s use an example: You are a professing Christian and because of the Covid-19 pandemic you are laid off from work and could possibly lose your job. We might want to expand this example to include retirees whose retirement incomes are being threatened by the wackiness of the stock market and who are at the same time the most vulnerable to the virus. Your life is filled with uncertainty, fear, disappointment, disillusionment, etc. and you may be entertaining doubts as to why your loving God has allowed this to happen to you. I don’t think being a Christian makes us immune to such emotions or thoughts—reading the Psalms will convince you of that.

However, it is what you do with these doubts and fears that shows your true colors. You have a choice either of continuing to build your theology upon your own sinful response to pain and uncertainty (like the rest of the world), or to use the resources that God has already given you by his Spirit to trust Him. This trust does not consist in stifling your emotions, or stoically resigning yourself to the will of Allah, but in allowing those emotions (fear, disappointment, etc.) to drive you to your knees and cry out to your Heavenly Father for comfort, help, provision, and to seek the support of the community of faith—as “virtual” as it is now.

It is recognizing that God is at work in the darkness of difficulty, developing the muscles of faith that are rarely exercised on sunny days. Ultimately, you will grow from this, because God will show you that your life is not defined by your work or by the amount of money you have in the bank, but by your trust in Him. It is a response like this that will help you “to make your calling and election sure” and to give you the certainty of your salvation and of your security in Christ.

I must reiterate that as followers of Christ we will continue to stumble and bumble our way through the struggles of life. But because God has given us all we need for life and godliness, and because we have the Holy Spirit who helps us apply these resources to our character development, we should be able to recognize movement and progress in our pilgrim heart. And such progress should give us the assurance that our faith is real and that eternal life is ours.

So, look for God in your struggle…He is at work. Also, look to God in your struggle…He will never leave you or forsake you!

The Just Shall Live by Faith…(a new book)

This book is a project that I have been working on for the last two decades. It is designed not for the academy but for the church. I believe it will be especially helpful to pastors who are looking for a challenging resource for small group and individual study. The book will introduce Romans to the new believer and take the veteran believer deeper into St Paul’s magnum opus.

If you are looking for books to read during this time of “social distancing,” this might be one to add to your list. It may also give you a greater perspective on why we live in such a toxic world.

May the Lord bless you and keep you…

(I did not set the price of my book- my publisher did. If you wanted to order a number of copies for a small group study, I could try and get a discounted rate.)

From Ashes to Fire

The two great seasons of the Church year are from Lent (Ashes) to Good Friday and from Easter to Pentecost (Fire). The first emphasizes repentance and the sharing in the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus. The second portrays the dynamic impact of the resurrection upon the disciples and the fire of the Holy Spirit that birthed the Church and sent it on a global mission. 

The first daily devotional guide that will be published weekly (beginning today) focuses on repentance, and the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus. It is my hope that as you use this devotional guide you will, by God’s grace, experience the spiritual impact of this solemn season, and that it will help strengthen your faith and renew your worship of our great God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You will find these daily devotions on the menu portion (see above) of my blog.

The Monster of Uncertainty…

Is it true that the only things that are certain are death and taxes? It would seem true in every age, but especially in the Middle Ages. It was a time where traditional values and certainties were being questioned. Where wars, plagues, famine and economic issues also contributed to the instability of the times—not unlike our own era.

Then there was the Church whose teachings did little to give certainty, in fact, they only added to people’s insecurity and fear. Many believed that this was deliberate so that people would become more dependent upon the Church and what it offered in order to gain salvation. Thus attendance at mass, confession and penance, the buying of indulgences, the adoration of relics, and the joining of monastic orders offered ways by which someone could increase devotion and gain sufficient merit for obtaining eternal life. But how much was enough?Where was the certainty?

Dr. Richard Bucher, in a message titled “Joyful Certainty in an Age of Uncertainty,” mentioned a popular catechism of the day first printed in 1470. Derek Kolde’s “Mirror of the Christian Man” went through 19 editions before the Protestant Reformation and was probably the most popular catechism of its time. Kolde said, “There are three things I know to be true that frequently make my heart heavy. The first troubles my spirit, because I will have to die. The second troubles my heart more, because I do not know when. The third troubles me above all; I do not know where I will go.” In a nutshell, these three things exemplified the uncertainty of the age and the struggle that confronted Martin Luther and everyone else who desired to obtain a gracious God.

Luther was a type-A personality who could not be satisfied with just doing the best he could. Whether it was the Holy Spirit or a rocky relationship with a demanding father (or both), he always questioned whether his best was good enough. He certainly did not feel righteous and the more he evaluated himself, the more sinful he felt and the more terrified he became of the wrath of God. Luther’s monastical superiors saw that while he exceeded all the requirements and became a priest in record time, yet this terrible uncertainty about whether he was truly acceptable to God was not normal. He was repulsed by himself; even his confession and penance were self-centered, designed to save his own skin from hell. So his superiors suggested he begin to study theology, which took him to the Scripture.

His study of the Psalms, Galatians, and Romans ultimately brought him to a place summarized by Romans 1:17: “The righteous one (the justified one) shall live by faith.” Luther began to grasp that St. Paul used a legal term “to justify” in order to describe what happens when a sinner exercises faith in Jesus Christ. The sinner receives a righteousness that is not his own, but is the very righteousness of Christ accepted by God as a substitute for the sinner’s unrighteousness. While the Church called this a legal fiction, Luther called it a sweet exchange; “Thou Lord Jesus art my righteousness and I am thy sin. Thou has taken on thyself what thou wast not, and given to me what I am not.”

Herein lies Luther’s certainty, and mine as well. When I believe my salvation comes as the result of what Christ has done for me, then I have the complete assurance of knowing that it is enough. The more my relationship with God depends on my own efforts, the less certainty I have of my acceptance by God. Have I done enough? How can I be certain?

Listen to Luther: I am saying this in order to refute the dangerous doctrine of the sophists and the monks, who taught and believed that no one can know for certain whether he is in a state grace, even if he does good works according to his ability and lives a blameless life. This statement, widely accepted and believed, was a principle and practically an article of faith throughout the papacy. With this wicked idea of theirs they utterly ruined the doctrine of faith, overthrew faith, disturbed consciences, abolished Christ from the church . . . If everything else were sound there [in the papacy] still this monster of uncertainty is worse than all the other monsters. (Luther’s Works, 26:377, 386)

And this is our foundation: the Gospel commands us to look, not to our good deeds or perfection but at God himself as he promises, and at Christ himself, the Mediator . . . And this is the reason why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves, so that we do not depend on our strength, conscience, experience, person, works, but depend on that which is outside of ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God which cannot deceive. (LW, 26:387)

If [a person] senses that he is in doubt, let him exercise his faith, struggle against the doubt, and strive for certainty, so that he can say: “I know that I have been accepted and that I have the Holy Spirit, not on account of my worthiness or virtue but on account of Christ, who subjected himself to the Law on our account and took away the sins of the world. If I am a sinner, and if I err, He is righteous and cannot err.” (LW, 26, 379)

Thus I believe that the Christian can be certain of salvation when that certainty is founded on the promise of God and the work of Jesus Christ! I hope you believe that.

Next week we want to look at where good works fit into the life of the Christian. It may surprise you what we find!