Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Wrong Side of History? June 30, 2015

The Supreme Court has so ordered that, at least for those of us under the jurisdiction of the United States of America, history has shifted from its underpinnings: marriage now no longer has any meaning derived from God’s created order, but is simply a mutually fulfilling contract for happiness between any two (for now) individuals. This ought not be terribly surprising to cultural observers, as the pivot away from covenant marriage happened a long time ago. The ongoing unraveling of social conventions accompanying that order is simply proceeding apace.

As Christians, we are being told that it’s time to take some sexual immorality “off the sin list” and that we ought to get with the times or be left on “the wrong side of history.” With the celebrations still ongoing, ideas are being floated to roll back tax exemptions for churches and religious nonprofits, and other discussions about stamping out dissent are floating up as well.

Whatever comes, whatever is said, whatever is taken away,  don’t lose heart. The fight is not with flesh and blood (and not with men and women who choose to live in sexual sin), but with the power that has been since the Fall thumbing his nose at God and His creation. His doom is sure, and when the final draft is written, those who resist him and turn to Christ for mercy and life will emphatically be on the right side.

Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.‘ And the twenty-four elders, who sit on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying, ‘We give You thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who are and who were because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. And the nations were enraged and Your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward Your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name. the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth” (Rev. 11:15-18).

In the long haul, we ought not fear those who would marginalize and oppress Christians. We ought to weep for them and bear witness to them, even in faithful suffering. We can be on the wrong side of their idea of history and suffer for a season. Those who are on the wrong side of the Author of History will not be so blessed: “Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.’ For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:3-9). Let us not revile, but pray. Let us not rage against the coming hardships, but joyfully endure as the Lord did. Our strength is in weakness, our life in death.

Remember, as Peter wrote previously, that we shouldn’t be surprised when we are on the outs with the surrounding culture “as though some strange thing were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). There have always been and always will be aspects of the Gospel message that will get you ousted from cultural example. When the disciples first began spreading the message that Jesus had been raised, to claim that He was Messiah brought swift judgment from those who claimed to follow His Father. As the Church grew into the centers of power of the Roman state, to say that Jesus (not Caesar) was Lord was to invite punishment or death. In parts of the world today where nearly 1/4 of her people live, saying that Jesus is God’s Son and that Mohammed is not a prophet will get you into serious trouble with your family, your neighbors, and the authorities. It goes on and on. If, now, we are told that we can proclaim Christ as Lord and the one who saves us from our sins, but not call every sin what it is, we cannot shrink from the whole counsel of God any more than our brothers and sisters across time and space have in their particular contexts.

Take courage. “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them” (Ecc. 9:11-12). The victory is ours, let us treat those who are perishing with love, mercy, and the grace of Christ as taught in Scripture.

It has been so ordered. Ours is but to obey.

Posted by Justin Lonas.

God Breathed out December 28, 2013

After studying, writing on, and teaching through 1 and 2 Timothy this year, the powerful themes of these letters made me want to try my hand at condensing some truths into poetry. Here’s a meditation on God’s Word set as a sonnet.

Theopneustos
But one tale, by a single Author writ
Speaks all, breathes form, life, to the world entire.
Not of man, yet man must comprehend it
To meet Him; saving, purifying fire.
From this fly our peregrine hearts, chasing
Tickles, myths, ashes; vain salve for sin’s throes.
The Tempter’s counterfeits our ears catching,
The self-unbuilding Gospel to depose.
Forged yarns weave ruin, despair. Lust negates love,
Avarice throttles hope, debts crushing joy.
But darkness must retreat. Light, as a dove
Descends, cuts straight, truth itself to deploy.
God’s own Word, own Son, come with us to dwell.
His blood opens Heaven, dooms lies to Hell.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Pleased as Man with Men to Dwell December 18, 2013

As you observe Advent and Christmas in your homes and churches this year, don’t fail to preach the Word. The incarnation of Christ, the Son of God, is an almost unfathomable mystery, yet it is the foundation of our redemption and the capstone of God’s revelation. May we be captured by this and may it be our focus now and through the year.

However you celebrate this season, do not let that point be lost on your family or your congregation. Whatever traditions you hold and enjoy, do not let them overshadow the wonder of this truth. Whatever the mood or intellectual bent of your hearers, do not attempt to reduce this truth by illustration or explain it an any way beyond what Scripture teaches–some mysteries of the Word must be extolled and accepted at face value. Therein lies faith.

Merry Christmas.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:1-18).

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Heb. 1:1-4).

While you’re at it, take care that the hymns and carols you attach to your celebration keep and embellish the wonder rather than setting it adrift in a sea of sentimentality. My personal favorite has always been Charles Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”:

“Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’ angelic host proclaim
‘Christ is born in Bethlehem’
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.

Christ by highest heaven adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail, the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King.

Hail, the heaven-born Prince of peace!
Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the suns of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn king”

Posted by Justin Lonas.

Honor Codes and Celebrity Woes December 12, 2013

When is honor dishonorable?

A major subject of discussion in the American evangelical scene over the past several years has been the presence and influence of certain “celebrity pastors”. Much has been written on whether well-known personalities in Christian ministry qualify as “celebrities” or merely “public figures”–whether  they gain notoriety for faithfulness and accomplishments or whether they seek fame and power and use the Church as their platform. A helpful roundup of these thoughts is available here (ironically enough, a panel discussion of well-known pastors in front of a crowd of 7,000).

There are other issues underneath this general discussion, notably the increasing lack of oversight and accountability for famous pastors and speakers. Carl Trueman (who appears on the panel mentioned above) writes incisively about a few recent flare-ups of this phenomenon here and here.

Most of what I hear on the subject focuses on three areas in particular 1) the aforementioned accountability issues, 2) the seeping into the Church of the general celebrity culture of the contemporary West, or 3) the role of mass and social media in “feeding the beast”. What if, perhaps, there was something else operating in the shadows here? Something more primal, more dangerous, because it comes from within?

Honor Codes and Christ
One of our church elders (who also happens to be a professor of English literature) and I were talking about the prevalence of honor codes in world literature. He noted that, despite surface differences, shame/honor cultures typically function by elevating the social standing of men who conform to a given culture’s ideal of manhood and shielding those who rise from dishonor or any damage to their reputation. Christianity, he argued, subverts that model in the person of Christ–that He receives the highest honor (being seated at the right hand of the Father and receiving worship from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation forever) through being subjected to the highest dishonor this life could muster (emptying Himself, betrayal by friends, false accusation, public humiliation, execution as a criminal). That radical perspective shift upends the notions of manhood, leadership, and power in the Church, giving Christians a framework by which humility, tenderness, patience, etc. become markers of strength rather than weakness.

The Code Redeemed in the Church
In a sense, Paul expounds this redeemed code of honor in his description of the character of elders/overseers in the Church: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:2-7). To qualify as a leader in the Church, a man must be recognized as holding to the standards to which all believing men should aspire–pastors and elders are not called to be a breed of theological superman, but rather faithful men who lead others by teaching and example to greater Christ-likeness so that the witness of the Gospel may be upheld and spread. Paul says as much in introducing this list of qualities: ”It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Tim. 3:1).

Double Honor
Even so, this is not an easy calling, and Satan desires the distortion and downfall of God’s good plan for Church leadership. For this reason, Paul shares (later in the same letter), that “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). He suggests that those who labor in the Word for the benefit of the body should be compensated for their work (5:18), and that criticism and accusation against them should be weighed carefully (5:19).

It is right and good that we should honor and, in some measure, elevate those who serve the Church well. Like cream, they rise because of their obedience and perseverance over the long haul. Perhaps they even gain notoriety beyond their local church and community through media transmission of their teaching. Though it is easier to gain a wide audience through today’s technology, this goes all the way back to the beginning of the Church in that its leaders often wrote widely and impacted wide swaths of the population. The Church Fathers, and later the Reformers, were something of “celebrity pastors” in their own day, and their writings continue to wield influence. Again, to be a celebrated teacher of God’s Word is not inherently problematic, and the Church past and present has benefitted through the very public ministries of some men.

The Code Resurgent
Perhaps this is where we swerve. All it takes for the old pagan code of honor to overtake this righteous double honor is the most natural of human weaknesses–pride. As soon as the man who gains fame from ministry begins to believe that this condition arises from his work rather than the Lord’s, he will chafe against any attempt to counsel or correct him. Other godly leaders pointing out his errors or character flaws is seen not as loving reproof but an affront to his reputation. To save face, he may surround himself with yes-men and go to great lengths to remove himself from those who would correct him. From there, it is a short road to disaster, for the celebrated man, his church, and the witness of the Church of Jesus Christ around the world.

Our enemy is endlessly creative in the ways he can bring this to bear to the ruin of the Gospel. For some, he delights in allowing them to faceplant into sexual or financial sin that anyone who was listening to godly counsel would have fled long before it consumed him. For others, he seeks to have them continue in authority but tempts them through their pride to teach false doctrine and lead many thousands astray from Christ. Most dangerously (and most germane to the issue at hand within the evangelical and Reformed communities), he seeks to get believers to separate the life and doctrine of public teachers, so that we accept many failings so long as their words retain the truth of Scripture. In such cases, the ripple effects of unaccountable leadership trickle down to cripple churches with leaders who answer only to their own egos.

The Corrective: Biblical Authority
The shame/honor dynamic is deeply embedded in our sinful hearts, and it is always ready to creep back into the Church. This is why, almost in the same breath as he urges honor for Gospel ministers, Paul minces no words to ensure that honor is well checked: “[Elders] who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality” (2 Tim. 5:20-21). The Lord knows that men, even His chosen redeemed, are sinful and would abuse the honor given them to make much of themselves at the expense of Christ and His Church. Therefore, He establishes 1) a plurality of elders to keep the whole church in submission to God and prevent any one man from co-opting a local church, and 2) a firm standard to rein in those who go too far.

Public ministry is a privilege, but it can become a precipice without the oversight of faithful elders. Any man given a broad platform to teach and preach ought to be exceedingly careful to submit to the authority within his local church, to men who know him and his proclivities and who will not hesitate to strike loving blows upon his sinful heart when necessary. To step out from under that umbrella is to cross the threshold from public figure to “celebrity”–without authority over you, you are left unprotected from both the enemy’s snares and the destructive capacity of your own heart.

As to those of us in the pews who are in no danger of becoming publicly known pastors, what is our responsibility in this? First, we should be shrewd in accepting teaching from any “celebrity pastor” and “test the spirits,” checking their words and  by the Word and being wary of any who are not fully submissive to the elders of their local church. Second, we should submit ourselves to the Word and elect our  own pastors and elders with great discernment. As Paul warns, “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin” (1 Tim. 5:22). To exercise that level of care and concern for sake of the Gospel and its teachers is honor indeed.

Posted by Justin Lonas.

When a Pastor and His Church Don’t See Eye to Eye April 25, 2012

What happens when a pastor has an awakening in his own relationship with Christ? When he comes to an understanding of the Word that renews his passion for the Gospel and the work of the ministry? He is bound (and responsible) to share his discovery with his congregation as an evidence of the grace of God in His life and the life of the local body.

What happens when he addresses the congregation, however, may not be nearly so joyous as his initial breakthrough. Often, the substance of spiritual growth involves things (conviction of sin, deeper understanding of grace, shift of focus from self to Christ) that will necessarily step on the toes of those who are not interested in the things of God and attend church for merely social or personal reasons. Sometimes, however, even those who share the pastor’s sincere faith and desire for growth will take offense at a challenging teaching from the Word.

I’ve seen far too many pastors get frustrated when they have a clear sense that the Lord is leading them and their churches into greater obedience to His Word but their congregation is either unmoved or even hostile to the changes in practice that obedience might lead to. In recent months, a few pastors I’m acquainted with have been fired or pressured to backpedal in their teaching under threat of dismissal. In those cases I’m familiar with, the pastors in question have been pilloried for being “too Calvinist” for preaching the glory of God’s work in sending His Son to die for our sins in a way that gives God’s power in redeeming us precedence over man’s work in responding.

I’m not sure why the congregations of these pastors have rejected their sincere teaching, and I don’t want this post to be a quibble over doctrine or semantics. What I do want is to outline a few helpful principles that churches and pastors should apply when this type of situation (a pastor relaying a doctrinal/obedience awakening to a church that hasn’t experienced the same awakening) arises.

To Churches

  1. Give your pastor the benefit of the doubt. You called your pastor to faithfully study, exposit, and proclaim God’s Word. If he preaches concepts that you find uncomfortable, don’t automatically assume that he is out to get you, but rather assume that he is merely faithfully relaying to you that which God has taught him through Scripture.
  2. Listen closely to what the Spirit may be teaching you. If your toes are stepped on by a faithful exposition of Scripture, perhaps they needed to be squashed. Your impulse to reject the pastor’s teaching and/or attempt to oust him from the pulpit may be your flesh rebelling against changes the Spirit is desperately trying to work in your heart. If the message hurts, don’t reflexively shoot the messenger, but examine the message and “…test the spirits to see whether they are from God…” (1 John 4:1).
  3. Let the pastor know that you don’t understand or are uncomfortable with his message(s). This goes back to the first point–your pastor would be thrilled to know that you as his congregation are engaging with what he is teaching and desiring to understand it better, and he most likely would graciously spend whatever time is necessary to help you understand and bring clarity to the situation. If he rebuffs your honest (and courteous) questions, that might be a sign that he is “off the reservation” in what he has been teaching.
  4. If there are certain leaders in your church who are trying to turn the congregation away from a faithful pastor, ask them to repent or resign. Look at the character qualities required of elders/overseers in Scripture. I’ve highlighted specific qualities that need to be considered in this type of situation: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money” (1 Tim. 3:2-3). When a leader or leaders in your church fail to exhibit these characteristics in how they approach a doctrinal or practical conflict with the pastor, red flags should go up.
  5. Ask the Lord to bring reconciliation to your church. Since we are fallen human beings, discord, frustration, anger, misunderstanding, and partisanship come easily to us. Repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation are hard, and must be worked through the Spirit in us. If your church is embroiled in doctrinal strife, pray for healing and pray for God to be glorified through it.
  6. Be willing to change if you recognize that you are wrong. If you follow the first five recommendations in this list and you find that your pastor is teaching you truth in “love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5), then apologize for assailing him and submit to his preaching as he submits himself to the Word of God.

To Pastors

  1. Be loving in how you present truth. If God is teaching you and you are growing spiritually by leaps and bounds, do not let that become a source of pride to you. Don’t share the things you are learning with your congregation in a way that belittles their spiritual maturity or intellectual capacity. “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters in all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). Your congregation will best take the medicine of hard truth when it is delivered in a spirit of loving concern and encouragement.
  2. Recognize that the Lord is working on people in His time-frame. Just because the Lord has given you fresh appreciation and insight into His Word does not mean He has worked accordingly with your entire congregation at once. If you assume that your epiphany (which may be founded on decades of study, suffering, and prayer) has to be shared by your whole church immediately, you’re setting yourself up for a crash. Be patient, and trust the Lord to use His Word in them as He has in you.
  3. When there is misunderstanding, be a teacher. If your congregation balks at something you’re teaching them, listen sincerely to their concerns, patiently correct their doctrinal errors with truth, and endeavor to be as clear as possible to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks from their understanding of the Word.
  4. Ask the Lord to confirm your ministry and your message. If you are certain of the Lord’s favor in your study and exposition of specific passages of His Word that are troubling your congregation, pray that He will open their eyes to His truth. You are not standing in your own speaking exegetical skills, you are standing before your church in the strength of the Lord proclaiming the truth of His Word. It’s up to Him (not you!) whether they respond.
  5. Be willing to change if you recognize that you are wrong. If you proclaim a new insight from God’s Word, and your congregation (or your elders) reject it, don’t dismiss their criticisms out of hand. It could be that your enthusiasm over a spiritual discovery has led you to conclusions that are not in keeping with the whole of Scripture. If faithful men and women in your body bring correction, further study reveals errors in your thought process, and the Spirit brings conviction, do not hold tightly to your message. Rather repent, thank those who rebuked you, and continue in ministry with newfound humility and appreciation for the gathered Body of Christ.
  6. Be willing to take a stand if you know that you are in the right. If, on the other hand, your teaching is rejected by your congregation or its leaders, they may be reacting to the truth of God’s Word by clinging to their own sins or the “tradition of men” (Col. 2:8). If you have examined your message and your heart in proclaiming it, then speak boldly, resting in the assurance that “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected [the Lord]” (1 Sam. 8:7). If you lose your pastoral position or half your church leaves because of the truth of your message (not because of error or your demeanor in delivering it), then take comfort in Jesus’ words: “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who went before you” (Matt. 5:10-12).

Posted by Justin Lonas

The Cure for Spiritual Arrogance February 20, 2012

Now I exhort you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.

“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider our calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that just as it is written, ‘let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (1 Corinthians 1:10-31).

Posted by Justin Lonas

Lament October 28, 2011

Lamentations 1:12-14, 20.

Is it nothing to all you who pass this way?
Look and see if there is any pain like my pain
Which was severely dealt out to me,
Which the Lord inflicted on the day of His fierce anger.

From on high He sent fire into my bones,
And it prevailed over them.
He has spread a net for my feet;
He has turned me back;
He has made me desolate,
Faint all day long.

The yoke of my transgressions is bound;
By His hand they are knit together.
They have come upon my neck;
He has made my strength fail.
The Lord has given into the hands
Of those agiainst Whom I am not able to Stand.

See, O Lord, for I am in distress;
My spirit is greatly troubled;
My heart is overturned within me,
For I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword slays;
In the house it is like death.

Lamentations is one of my favorite books of the Old Testament. Its intense grief over the destruction of Jerusalem gives way to a profound picture of God’s hand in both good and evil that shows clearly that He is the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. What I sometimes gloss over in reading this book, though, is that the destruction wrought upon Jerusalem that moved Jeremiah’s pen came from within. The blight on Israel was a result of their collective sins, and they recognized it (though only after it was too late).

The implications for daily life are painfully real. I so seldom lament the sin in my own life and the destruction it causes. Even when I do, the tendency is always to lament the consequences and fail to connect them to the sin. We are the child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, regretting our lack of cookies rather than the breach of trust and relationship with our parents our actions caused. We go on this way, stumbling from transgression to transgression without considering the brokenness of our own hearts.

When God allows our sins to bear fruit in pain and suffering, it is really His special grace to call our attention to our eternal destiny through such temopral consequences. The destruction wrought by our sinful actions should move us to consider our sinful hearts and our cardinal sin of rebellion against our Great and gracious Creator. The brokenness that comes when sin “catches up to us” should drive us to the cross, where the consequences of all man’s sin are on full display, heaped on the Son–”once for all, the just for the unjust” (1 Pet. 3:18). As Charles Hodge put it, “It is obvious that no severity of mere human suffering, no destroying deluge, no final conflagration, not hell itself can present such a manifestation of the evil of sin and of the justice of God as the cross of his incarnate Son.”

When we fail to recognize these connections, to lament and mortify our sin, we heap further guilt on our heards. What is lament but to dwell on our own failure in the face of God’s holiness and to consider ourselves as He does? For the believer, lament is a crucial discipline, the result of which is not despair but the joy of Christ’s sacrifice considered anew. It is only through lamenting the sin that stains us that we can see the grace of God in full. This is what allows Jeremiah to say from the depths of sorrow, “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never ceases, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness” (Lam 3:21-23).

Posted by Justin Lonas

Reforming Humility August 3, 2011

“…and all of you clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for ‘God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Pet. 5:5, quoting Prov. 3:34).

I tend to spend a lot of time writing about theology, but I’d like to take a moment to write about how we write (and talk) about theology. When we discuss theological issues, particularly those surrounding core tenets of the faith, there is often a subtle strain underpinning the approach of both sides of every debate–pride.

On the side of liberalism lies the temptation to  the pride of discovering the “hidden truths” of Christianity & the sense of enlightenment that accompanies that assumption. On the side of orthodoxy lurks the pride of the elder brother, delighting more in besting the prodigal than in the purity of loving the father. This is not to say that debates of this nature are unimportant–they are often critically so–but that the attitudes and actions toward one another to which Christ and the apostles call us in general apply equally strongly here. Those of us who want to contend for the faith (particularly those of us in the Reformed tradition of robust assurance of doctrine) must be painstakingly cautious to avoid placing our pride above the truth we love, lest we tempt our detractors to abandon it altogether. Let’s look at a few passages of Scripture that lay this out for us.

In the first place, we need to be very careful where we draw divisions over theology in the first place. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in truth; Your word is truth. As you sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves may also be sanctified in truth. I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those who believer in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17: 17-21).

Clearly, the unity of the Body is of primary concern–it distorts the very image of God when His people are divided. Notice, though, that the unity Christ prayed for is grounded on the sanctification that comes from the truth of God’s Word. Unity where there should be separation brings dishonor to the Lord (like when Paul admonished the Corinthians for keeping fellowship with brazen fornicators in 1 Corinthians 5:2, “you have become arrogant and have not mourned, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.“). Watering down the Gospel in the name of keeping fellowship with those who disbelieve ultimately leads to faithlessness and greater schisms down the road. By the same token, however, making a federal case of every little issue that should be the subject of a talk over a cup of coffee unnecessarily disrupts the unity that we should have together against our common foes.

Secondly, we should consider the ways in which we pursue the unity Christ calls us to. Paul elaborates at length on the specific ways Christians ought to treat one another, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:9-18).

This list has a lot of active verbs, reminding us that the love of the Body does not come passively but must be pursued and cultivated to bear fruit. Paul urges a sincere love, one that unites us both in opposition to sin and falsehood (”abhor what is evil“) and in commitment to the person and work of Christ (”cling to what is good“). He goes farther, though, exhorting believers to love their enemies as well, blessing them and returning good for evil. If Christ’s high priestly prayer urges us to zealously guard our unity, Paul’s list urges us to treat the opposition with all the courtesy and grace they deny to us. Neither leaves any room for arrogance, spite, or violence (physical or verbal).

The bottom line is humility. If we want to hold fiercely to the truths of Scripture, we have to trust God to defend His Word. This does not mean that we should hide the truth or back away from biblical stances that are unpopular with the world, but it does mean that the Word does not rise or fall on our defense of it. When we place our whole faith in Him, He will give us the grace to speak the truth in love (cf. Eph. 4:15) in every situation. If you are in the right on a given issue, be right, but do so standing in the manifold grace of God revealed in His Word by His Spirit rather than on the strength of your conviction.

Finally, Peter tells us, “all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Pet. 3:8-9). If the message of the Gospel is distorted by the shrillness of its delivery or the conduct of the messenger, then we are blessing no one and failing our calling. Our Gospel proclamation should leave no room for anyone but Christ to be the featured player in the story.

Posted by Justin Lonas

But He Died!: The Cross and God’s Sovereignty April 13, 2011

My dad used to say all the time that the older he got, the more convinced he was of God’s absolute sovereignty and the less sure he was of his own free choice in the developments of his life and faith. As a child (and later a brash teenager), I was disinclined to see things that way–something about our human nature always chafes against any notion that we aren’t in control of our daily lives–but now I couldn’t agree more.

We are born into this world thinking ourselves the masters of our domain, seeking every opportunity to manipulate our situation to our advantage. Paradoxically, we learn to expect that our demands will be met whenever we make them precisely because we are utterly helpless. A parent doesn’t meet the needs of a child because the child’s cries obligate action, rather they do it out of love and concern for their child. A parent, not their child, creates and sustains the proper environment necessary.  We grow up predisposed to believe that our parents exist to serve us, and  we drag that image into our understanding of God.

Immature prayer  often sounds  like a more polished and polite version of a  young child’s  begging: “Lord, please give me (insert desire here);” “Lord, please take away (insert bad situation, illness, or difficulty here).” Is there anything wrong with that? Certainly not, as we are exhorted to ask God for His good gifts–even self-centered prayer acknowledges God as the source of the blessing. When the content of all our prayers is centered around such supplication, however, we are clearly missing something. A God powerful enough to give us these blessings and good enough to answer when we ask is deserving of so much more in our relationship to Him.

Theologically, this teases itself out in debates about the nature of salvation, righteousness, and responsibility. Who is the actor when we pass from death to life? How can we do right and cease from sin? Why do bad things happen in the world if God could stop them? Most of us at least at some point struggle with the interplay between personal autonomy and God’s absolute authority, and the Scriptures give precious little on which to build a sound case for the unilateral triumph of either position. I’ve broken it down before into a too-simplistic set of statements: Those who see God’s authority rigidly (to the point of denying man’s responsibility for anything) view God’s sovereignty correctly (He is either sovereign over all or not at all), but they impute to Him man’s motives and attitudes in the application of that authority in such a way that misses the the vastness of His love and mercy. Those who see man’s autonomy rigidly (to the point of diminishing God’s power) correctly see that we are responsible for our choices, but they impute God-like motives to us that undercut the depth, darkness, and totality of our sinfulness.

 I know a lot of people who grew into  belief in God’s sovereignty and then have had that confidence shattered by personal experiences or simply an overwhelming awareness of the trauma of life in a fallen world. When we witness a horrific crime or natural disaster, we can’t  help but wonder how and why God would allow such things. To some, the assurance that “God is in control” is no comfort and seems a hollow brush-off of visceral suffering.

God is in control, however, just as He was in control the day His beloved, holy, innocent  Son Jesus Christ was brutally beaten and crucified in Jerusalem. The cross of Christ (vis-a-vis God’s sovereignty) is not simply a lesson in how God’s plan through what appears to be abject evil  is  in reality  an unimaginable good (a la Gen. 50:20), though it is the ultimate example of that. The cross is not just a lesson in the ways in which God’s plan is beyond our understanding, though it is that too.  Though a  display of His grace and power and authority to  erase our sins, it is still more.  Perhaps the way the cross most boldly proclaims God’s sovereignty is through showcasing His willingness to suffer.

Christ was God, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), not another created being.  Christ, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself…humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death…” (Phil. 2:6-8). He came from a position of equality with God and yet became a man, “so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). He came down to know the full measure of temptation (Heb. 4;15), pain, and separation from the Father: “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:7-8).

When Satan tempts us to believe that God is somehow out of touch or incapacitated by the scope of natural and moral evil in the world, we have to cling to the cross. When he tells us that God could not know our pain, could not feel our inner turmoil, and is not interested in the details of life in this world, we have to throw the battered, bloody body of Jesus in his face and shout, “But He died!”

When we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness and compassion, when we read of divinely-ordered genocide (as in 1 Sam. 15) in the same book as we discover His everlasting lovingkindness and are told to see this as a contradiction that undermines our faith, we have to fall on the cross. The justice and love of God are predicated on the finished work of Christ: He knows “everyone whos name has…been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Rev. 13:8). Everything about our understanding of and relationship with God has to hold up under the power of the cross; otherwise, it is incomplete and is “no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:7).

As I said, the older I get, the more I understand my dad’s statement. The driving factor in this shift isn’t so much that I’ve learned more about God’s sovereignty from growing in His Word (though I have), but that I am daily confronted with magnitude of my sin. The more I recognize my own rottenness, the more I recognize that any standing I have before God is His doing alone. The less sound my case seems  in the face of  God’s holy justice, the more His love breaks through in all its glory. If I though I deserved even a snippet of it, it would be cheapened to me beyond recognition. I’ve got no right whatsoever to live with God, but He died!

Charles Wesley’s words ring true: “And can it be, that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain, for me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

A blessed Holy Week and Easter to you all.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Why Study Scripture? October 26, 2010

“œAll Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work“ (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

We quote these two verses all the time””they’re succinct, unambiguous defenses of the inerrancy of Scripture and its authority in our lives. We pull them out whenever we’re admonishing church members to get into the Word or sharing with nonbelievers our reasons for relying on the Bible.  While those are good and right uses of this passage, the context of 2 Timothy 3:1-4:5 gives it  a deeper and more  powerful meaning than it  has in isolation.

In  the first 13 verses of  chapter 3  Paul paints a picture of the hearts of men in the last days (that is, the time after Christ’s work of redemption was fully accomplished). His list in verses 2-5  grimly reflects our present reality; “œBut realize this, that in the last days, difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self control, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; avoid such men as these.” These are those who prey on those “weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, always learning and never able to come to knowledge of the truth”(vv. 6-7). In the end, however, they will not be allowed to continue deceiving, just as the Egyptian magicians who used trickery and satanic power to oppose Moses before Pharaoh were exposed  (vv. 8-9).

In contrast, Paul describes how Timothy has rejected the world’s way and followed Paul’s commitment to Christ, in spite of tremendous persecution that comes from shining Christ’s light among those who deceive themselves (vv.10-13). This culminates in his description of Timothy as standing firm on the Word, in opposition to the world’s way: “œYou, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”

It is here that we find that famous and familiar passage about Scripture. It is anything but an off-the-cuff statement about inerrancy. Rather, Paul brings out the God-breathed Scripture as the ultimate counterpoint to every sin and evil the world has to offer. This Word is pure, proceeding directly from God the Father, and its effects on mankind are powerful. The Scripture brings “teaching,” “reproof,” “correction,” and “training in righteousness;” the breath of life to sin-filled men. These “sacred writings” that give “wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” are an inseparable part of Christ’s work–He is the Word (John 1), and the gift of salvation is through Him alone. Without the revelation of the Word, we would have no hope but to continue as those Paul wants us to avoid.

What does it mean to be “equipped for every good work,” as verse 17 says?  Perhaps a reversal of Paul’s list of sinful excesses from earlier in the chapter: “Through the work of Christ, and the teaching of the Scriptures, men will be  selfless, generous, humble, respectful, godly, obedient to authority, grateful, holy & decent, loving, agents of reconciliation, speakers of truth, self-controlled, lovers of all that is  good, loyal, prudent, modest, lovers of God rather than lovers of pleasure, holding to true Godliness and embracing the power of the One who is Truth.   Imitate such men as these.”

In the first   five verses of chapter 4, Paul lays out this “good work” in a charge to Timothy: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” The work of righteousness is always inextricably the ministry of the Gospel–the Word of God on the lips and in the actions of His children.

So, why study Scripture? This passage makes it plain that faithful study is never an end in itself; as A.W. Tozer wrote, “What is generally overlooked is that truth as set forth in the Christian Scriptures is a moral thing; it is not addressed to the intellect only, but to the will also. It addresses itself to the total man, and its obligations cannot be discharged by grasping it mentally.” By the same token, however, the Living Word empowers us through God’s written Word to follow His example and do the work of righteousness. This is never accomplished without faithful reading, study, and meditation in the Scriptures.

Studying the Word is both more important and less important than most of us think. You can never, ever under any circumstances learn too much of and about the Bible, and you should never stop thirsting for the knowledge of God that He reveals therein, but you have a moral obligation to take the truths He teaches to the streets.

Posted by Justin Lonas

© 2017 Disciple Magazine. All rights reserved.
6815 Shallowford Rd | Chattanooga, TN 37421 | 800.251.7206 | 423.894.6060 | fax 423.894.1055

Sponsors: