Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Means of Change: The Mind

Continued from previous post . . .
 
But how exactly does the Holy Spirit impress God’s “excellencies” upon us? The Puritans affirm that the Holy Spirit uses means. God is the source of all knowledge, but He imparts knowledge to us through means. We study, meaning we inquire into the meaning of God’s Word. We observe, meaning we compare God’s curses and promises with His works of providence. We consider, meaning we seek to reflect the light of truth into our souls. This approach to Scripture is the means by which the Holy Spirit illuminates our spiritual eyes (Eph. 1:18).
 
According to Richard Sibbes, there is a “power of the soul” between our senses and understanding, which makes our thoughts real and vivid. If it is not occupied with God’s Word, we quickly lose sight of God’s greatness, God’s righteousness, and God’s lovingkindness; the majesty of Christ, the beauty of grace, and the reality of eternity. These truths become mere abstractions. As a result, our affections lose order, our mind loses focus, and our will chooses sin. That is why, for the Puritans, Scripture meditation is of upmost importance.
 
When they speak of meditation, the Puritans are not referring to the mere reading and studying of Scripture, but the purposeful reading and studying of Scripture. Its goal is the internalization of God’s Word. It involves musing and mulling over the biblical text, whereby the truth of God’s Word grips the mind, will, and affections. Swinnock defines it as “a serious applying of the mind to some sacred subject until the affections are warmed and quickened, and the resolution heightened and strengthened against what is evil and for what is good.”
 
Swinnock encourages us to “retire out of the world’s company, to converse with the Word of God.” He believes this “conversing” (or meditation) is essential, because it functions like fire to water. Water is naturally cold, but fire makes it hot, causing it to boil. Likewise, our hearts are naturally cold, but meditation makes them hot, causing them to “boil with love” for God and His Word. For Swinnock, therefore, Scripture meditation is the means by which what is known in the head seeps down into the heart. He declares, “The spring of this knowledge may be in the head, and its rise in the understanding, but it slides down into the heart, breaks out into the life, and so flows along in the channel of grace and holiness until at last it loses itself in the ocean of glory.”
 
“Above all,” writes Swinnock, “meditate on the infinite majesty, purity, and mercy of that God against whom thou hast sinned.” Similarly, Richard Baxter directs us to “dwell on the meditations of the Almighty,” adding, “one would think if I should set you no further task, and tell you of no other matters for meditation, this one should be enough, for this one is in a manner all.” As we apply our minds to “what an excellent incomparable majesty God is,” the Holy Spirit impresses the truth upon us, warming our affections, thereby producing awe, love, trust, humility, and obedience.
 
Scripture meditation, therefore, begins in the mind, which esteems God “above all.” From there, it extends to the affections, which desire Him and delight in Him “more than all.” From there, it extends to the will, which chooses Him “before all.” As a result, the “whole man” seeks, serves, honors, and praises God “beyond all in heaven and earth.”

Paul writes, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). Elsewhere, he exhorts, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). Scripture meditation opens the door between the head and the heart, whereby the Holy Spirit makes deep impressions upon our affections. In so doing, He makes sin unattractive to us, and compels us to mortify sin. And that is how we change.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Impetus for Change: The Gospel

Continued from previous post . . .
 
How does the Holy Spirit enable us to mortify sin? According to the Puritans, He does so by fanning the flames of our love for God to such a degree that sin becomes the object of our hate. The Holy Spirit heightens our love for God by revealing His “excellencies” to us. “The more the blessed God is known,” says George Swinnock, “the more He is prized, desired, and obeyed.”
 
God’s Greatness
 
For starters, the Holy Spirit impresses God’s greatness upon us. “Can you by searching find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than the heaven – what can you do? Deeper than Sheol – what can you know? Its measure is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea” (Job 11:7–9). We have a greater chance of holding the stars in the palm of our hand, measuring the mountains on a scale, gathering the oceans in a thimble, and balancing the world’s skyscrapers on a needle, than we do of finding out “the limit of the Almighty.” He is higher than heaven, deeper than Sheol, longer than the earth, and broader than the sea. Heaven is high but limited; Sheol is deep but restricted; the earth is long but contained; and the sea is broad but bounded. God alone is unlimited, unrestricted, uncontained, and unbounded.
 
This great God “looks on the earth and it trembles; [he] touches the mountains and they smoke” (Ps. 104:32). A mere glance produces earthquakes, and a mere touch produces volcanoes. If these slight impulses from God cause such devastation, what is the full effect of His power? This great God “determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names” (Ps. 147:4). Apparently, in the time it takes me to snap my fingers, light circles the earth seven times. Traveling at that speed, if the sun were the size of a pea, it would take ten billion years to reach the edge of the universe. How long would it take travelling at a realistic speed? How long would it take given the sun’s actual size? We cannot get our mind around the computation. Some astronomers estimate that there are as many stars in the universe as there are grains of sand on the earth’s beaches. Here are two wonders: God can compute that number, and God can invent that number of names.
 
God’s Righteousness
 
The Holy Spirit also impresses God’s righteousness upon us. Does God need us? Does He gain anything from us? “Can a man be profitable to God?” (Job 22:2). God is a perfect being, meaning He is incapable of increase or decrease. Nothing can be added to Him or subtracted from Him. He does not require anything outside of Himself, nor does He benefit from anything outside of Himself. Our effect upon God is that of a snowball hurled at the blazing sun. What are we to God? “Sheol and Abaddon are before the LORD; how much more then the hearts of the children of men!” (Prov. 15:11).
 
God peers into our heart – weighing its desires, motives, impulses, and inclinations. He sees our heart riddled with self-love. This sin is an affront to Him – a transgression of His law, rejection of His rule, desecration of His goodness, and violation of His glory. He has power to avenge Himself. With a mere look He can cast us into hell. Hell is a place where the worm never dies and the fire never extinguishes (Mk. 9:48). The first speaks of the internal torment by conscience, whereas the second speaks of the external torment by God. In hell, the sinner falls into the hands of God who is a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). A day is coming when He will deal definitively with sin. He “will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:14). He is a perfect judge, whose knowledge of the evidence is unsearchable and whose power to execute sentence is unrivalled.
 
God’s Loving-kindness
 
The Holy Spirit also impresses God’s loving-kindness upon us. The Son of God draws near to us in the incarnation. He experiences life in a fallen world. He bears our sin and shame, and tastes death for us (Heb. 2:9). We placed ourselves where He deserves to be – on the throne. He places Himself where we deserve to be – on the cross. In His death, He bore God’s judgment in our place. John Flavel describes His sacrifice as follows:
 
“Lord, the condemnation was Yours, that the justification might be mine. The agony was Yours, that the victory might be mine. The pain was Yours, and the ease mine. The stripes were Yours, and healing balm issuing from them mine. The vinegar and gall were Yours, that the honey and sweet might be mine. The curse was Yours, that the blessing might be mine. The crown of thorns was Yours, that the crown of glory might be mine. The death was Yours, but the life purchased by it mine. You paid the price that I might enjoy the inheritance.”
 
All the blessings of salvation (all that Christ purchased for us) flow to us through our union with Him. Christ takes hold of us by the Holy Spirit, and we take hold of Him by faith. As a result of this union, we live upon His merit. We commune with Him in His names and titles, His righteousness and holiness, His death, burial, and resurrection. As a result, we enjoy a new status. God owns us as His people. He owns us by creation – He made us in His image. He owns us by election – He chose us before we were born. He owns us by redemption – He paid an infinite price for us. He owns us by regeneration – He caused us to be born again. He owns us by adoption – He made us part of His family. In Christ, God’s forgiveness supersedes our sinfulness, His merit eclipses our guilt, and His righteousness hides our vileness.
 
Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ (Rom. 8:31–39). Separation means division (or divorce). But Christ never divorces His bride. It is an eternal union, based upon an eternal love. We can rest assured that His love for us does not depend on anything in us. As a matter of fact, we spoil His love when we think it is induced by anything in us. R. C. Sproul explains, “God does not love us because we are lovely. He loves us because Christ is lovely. He loves us in Christ.” He loves us, because we are one with His Beloved.
 
In Christ, God is our God. We find in Him all we could ever want. We find an eternal and spiritual good, suitable to our every need. We rest in Him as the dearest Father, wisest Guide, strongest Shield, greatest Good, closest Friend, richest Grace, highest Honor, kindest Comfort, finest Beauty, deepest Truth, and sweetest Love. Our knowledge of Him diffuses into our soul a satisfying peace in this life and a ravishing foretaste of what awaits us in glory.
 
As the Holy Spirit impresses these wonderful truths upon us, our love for God grows, and correspondingly, our hatred of sin. “Be confident of this,” says Swinnock, “the more you know of the excellencies of God, the more you will prize His Son, submit to His Spirit, crucify the flesh, condemn the world, fear to offend Him, study to please Him, the more holy you will be in all manner of conversation.”
 
To be continued . . .

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Agent of Change: The Spirit

Continued from previous post . . .
 
We come to the second truth the Puritans affirm concerning the biblical dynamics of change – namely, the agent of change is the Holy Spirit.
 
How does He change us? The answer is regeneration (Jn. 3:3; Eph. 2:4–5; Col. 2:13; Ti. 3:4–6). Simply put, regeneration is the restoration of God’s image in us, whereby the faculties of the soul (mind, will, and affections) are renewed in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). That is to say, the Holy Spirit illuminates our darkened mind, liberates our enslaved will, and directs our disordered affections. In so doing, He renews our love for God. This love is expressed in two ways.
 
The first expression of love is desire. “When God has once effectually touched the heart with converting grace,” writes Richard Baxter, “it leaves a secret thirsting after Him in the soul.” We long for God, crying with the Psalmist: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1).
 
The second expression of our love is delight. It arises from the fact that we find in God all that is good, right, and true. We cry with the Psalmist: “I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High” (Ps. 9:1–2).
 
We embrace God as incomparable. His incomparable power draws forth faith from our hearts. His incomparable wisdom draws forth fear from our hearts. His incomparable goodness draws forth love from our hearts. These three graces cause our hearts to close with God as our center and rest. That is to say, we take God as our happiness, we take God’s Son as our Savior, we take God’s Spirit as our guide, we take God’s Word as our rule, we take God’s holiness as our desire, and we take God’s promises as our hope.
 
Having embraced God as the greatest good, we now hate what God hates. As Swinnock observes, “They who know the holiness of God […] know that sin is loathsome to Him, because contrary to His holy nature, and therefore they hate it.” This hate is expressed in two ways. First, we fear sin. Why? We fear it will “disturb the peace and violate the purity of what we love.” In other words, we fear it will rob us of our enjoyment of God. Second, we grieve over sin. According to Swinnock, this sorrow “springs from the consideration that we have sinned against so good, so pure, so perfect a God, in conformity to whom, and communion with whom, all our happiness consists.”
 
Now, it is extremely important to note that this renewal of the image of God in us does not make us perfect. While it is true that regeneration breaks sin’s dominion over us, it does not eradicate sin in us. Future glorification alone will mark the termination of our sin. For its part, regeneration ushers in a great conflict between the flesh (our love of self) and the Spirit (our love of God). That is why Paul writes, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:12–13). The verb – “put to death” – is in the present tense, implying a continuous action. This is significant, because it means that our killing of sin (love of self) is not a dramatic one-time experience, but a continuous battle. To put it another way, it involves a daily weakening of sin at the motivational level. That truth is aptly expressed in the following illustration:
 
“I once read of a missionary, who had in his garden a shrub that bore poisonous leaves. He also had a child who was prone to put anything within reach into his mouth. Naturally, the father dug the shrub out and threw it away. The shrub’s roots, however, went very deep. Soon the shrub sprouted again. Repeatedly, the missionary had to dig it out. There was no solution but to inspect the ground every day and to dig up the shrub every time it surfaced. Indwelling sin is like that shrub. It needs constant uprooting. Our hearts need continual mortification.”
 
John Owen observes two very important details concerning Paul’s words in Rom. 8:12–13. The first is that mortification is the Holy Spirit’s work: “by the Spirit.” The second is that mortification is our work: “you put to death.” At first glance, Paul seems to contradict himself. Which is it? Is mortification the Holy Spirit’s work or our work? The answer is both. As Owen explains:
 
“The Holy Spirit does not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act of our obedience. The Holy Spirit works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures. He works in us and with us, not against us or without us, so that His assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.”
 
To put it another way, the Holy Spirit is the author of mortification in us, because we mortify sin by His enabling grace and power. He alone is the agent of change, because He alone is the source of quickening and enabling grace.
 
To be continued . . .

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Object of Change: The Heart

How do we change? How do we alter our behavior? How do we break sinful habits and patterns? How do we address sin in our thoughts, desires, and motives? These are significant questions, which have perplexed countless Christians over the centuries. Our struggle to change is related to the fact that we face a constant dilemma, arising from our knowledge of two simple truths: we know sin feels good, and we know sin displeases God. Whenever we face temptation, these two truths collide in our experience, and we necessarily act upon one of them. Which one? The answer is determined by which of the two truths is most attractive to us at any given moment. This means that – to a large extent – the key to change lies in making sin unattractive. But how is this done?
 
To answer that question, I am going to turn to a group of men, from the seventeenth century, known as the Puritans. In the opinion of some, we have come such a long way since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. So what could the Puritans possibly teach us? According to J. I. Packer, “The answer, in one word, is maturity. Maturity is a compound of wisdom, goodwill, resilience, and creativity. The Puritans exemplified maturity; we do not. We are spiritual dwarfs […]. The Puritans, by contrast, as a body were giants. They were great souls serving a great God.” To put it simply, we need the Puritans because they were strongest where perhaps we are weakest. They were experimental (or, experiential) theologians steeped in the Scriptures. The Latin verb experior means to know by experience. Experimental theology, therefore, is that which aims to apply the Bible to the whole range of personal experience. In the next four posts, I am going to share with you what these experimental theologians have to say concerning the biblical dynamics of change.
 
The Object of Change: The Heart
 
To begin with, the Puritans affirm that the object of change is the human heart. Admittedly, this is a very difficult concept for people in our day to grasp. Why? For the most part, they do not think anything is wrong with their heart. When it comes to explaining human behavior, the vast majority of people fall into one of two schools of thought. Some adopt the nurture argument: they think we behave as we do because of our social environment; and if we want to change our behavior, we must alter our social environment through education. Others adopt the nature argument: they think we behave as we do because of our genetic makeup; and if we want to change our behavior, we must alter our genetic makeup through science. Both schools of thought attribute the cause of human behavior to external factors, thereby absolving the individual of responsibility.
 
But the Bible paints a very different portrait of the human condition. Christ declares, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mk. 7:21–23). In other words, our problem is not external, but internal. It is true that nurture and nature might exasperate our problem, but they do not cause it. Our problem resides in our corrupt heart. George Swinnock describes this predicament as follows: “Original sin has debauched the mind, and made it think crooked things straight, and straight things crooked; loathsome things lovely, and lovely things loathsome. It has perverted the will, and made it, as a diseased stomach, to eat unwholesome food against reason. It has enthralled the affections to sensuality and brutishness. It has chained the whole man, and delivered it up to the law of sin.”
 
Here, Swinnock affirms that original sin has “debauched” the mind, “perverted” the will, and “enthralled” the affections. In short, original sin has “chained the whole man.” What does he mean? According to the Puritans, the image of God in humanity consists of the three principal faculties of the soul (mind, will, and affections), characterized by knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). When Adam sinned in the Garden, the image of God was corrupted, meaning Adam lost knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. This deprivation had a negative impact upon Adam’s faculties, in that his mind was “debauched,” his will was “perverted,” and his affections were “enthralled.” What exactly does Swinnock mean when he speaks of “enthralled” affections?
 
Simply put, the affections are the soul’s dispositional drives – its inclination or disinclination to any given object. If our soul perceives an object as good, we set our love upon it. Love expresses itself in two ways: desire and delight. When the object of our love is absent from us, we desire it. When the object of our love is present with us, we delight in it. Let’s think, for example, of the relationship between a husband and wife. The husband travels out of the country; hence, he is absent from the object of his love – his wife. The result is desire. But what happens when the husband returns home? He is again present with the object of his love – his wife. The result is delight.
 
If, however, our soul perceives an object as evil, we set our hate upon it. Hate expresses itself in two ways: fear and sorrow. When the object of our hate is absent from us, we fear it. When the object of our hate is present with us, we sorrow over it. And so, I hate the dentist – not him personally, but what he does to my teeth. When I realize my next scheduled visit is a week away, I experience a measure of anxiety and fear. When I actually sit in the chair at his office, I experience discomfort and sorrow (depending on how much work he has to do on my teeth).
 
That is how the affections function. Now, how does this relate to the image of God in humanity? Prior to his fall in the Garden, Adam’s love was set on God and, consequently, his affections (desire delight, hate, fear, and sorrow) were well-directed. That is to say, they functioned properly. When Adam sinned, however, the object of his love changed. In his fallen condition, his love was no longer set on God, but self. As a result, his affections became “enthralled’ (or disordered). And that has been the predicament of Adam’s descendants ever since. We love what we should hate, and hate what we should love.
 
Because of our “enthralled” affections, sin has dominion over us. At times, this dominion is obvious, meaning we live with its visible effects and consequences. At times, however, sin’s dominion is not so obvious. It is secret and hidden. But it is just as real, just as powerful, and just as wicked. Self-love corrupts our every thought, word, and deed.
 
Because of sin’s dominion over us, we are helpless – unable to change ourselves. In the Garden, Adam possessed the freedom to choose what he wanted. We still possess this freedom. The problem, however, is that our mind and will are governed by affections that prefer evil to good. We are self-seeking rather than God-seeking (Rom. 2:6–8). As a result, our freewill is in bondage to sin (Eph. 2:1–2; 4:17–18). To put it another way, we are so captivated by sin that we have no power to escape from it. For this reason, we need help from outside ourselves.
 
To be continued . . .

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Active Spirituality: Grace and Effort in the Christian Life



This review was first published at Books at a Glance: www.booksataglance.com

Last month, Shepherd Press sent me Brian Hedges’ Active Spirituality: Grace and Effort in the Christian Life. I read it in one sitting (while waiting for a flight—yes, delayed). The book made an immediate impression on me—an impression that was confirmed several weeks later when I perused it at a slower pace. Let me explain why.

For starters, the book is timely. Over the past few months, there has been a great deal of discussion (even debate) within Reformed circles concerning the relationship between justification and sanctification, faith and works, grace and effort, the indicative and the imperative. Hedges speaks to the entire discussion with clarity and accuracy, noting that “the church veers north when she loses her wonder of the freedom of grace [… and] south when she loses her wonder of the power of grace” (p. 10). But when we maintain our wonder of both, and remember that the gospel is about what Christ does for us and in us, we stay on course and avoid the pitfalls of legalism and antinomianism.

Second, the book is experimental. The Latin verb experior means to know by experience. Experimental theology, therefore, is that which aims to apply divine truth to the whole range of personal experience. That’s precisely what Hedges seeks to do in this book. He explains, “I’ve not written this book simply because Christians need balanced theology (as important as that is) but because there are real threats and dangers to my life and faith, and to yours. I want to be standing in Christ ten years from now. And I won’t be unless (by God’s grace) my spirituality is active” (p. 13).

I really appreciate this experimental emphasis, as I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the common notion of “pure” theology—that is, the idea that we can study theology as an academic discipline without any reference to its situational application. I’m reminded of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ observation regarding the Puritans (which might come as a surprise to those who’ve never read the Puritans): “There is nothing that they more deplored than a mere academic, intellectual, theoretical view of the truth.” Hedges’ writing most certainly isn’t anti-intellectual—not by any means. My point is simply this: he doesn’t handle theological motifs in the abstract, but demonstrates how integral they are to our spiritual journey.

Third, the book is balanced. The concurrence of the divine and human in the realm of spiritual activity perplexes many of us, but Hedges proves a safe guide. He writes, “The Christian life is called a walk, a race, a contest, and a fight. We are told to run, to wrestle, to watch, and to stand. And the victors—those who conquer and overcome—receive great promises whereas terrible warnings go to those who grow sluggish and neglect the great salvation secured for us by Jesus” (p. 13). Despite this emphasis on human activity, Hedges is careful to stress that our efforts are ineffectual apart from the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. As he repeatedly makes clear, active spirituality involves working “out” what the Holy Spirit has worked “in” (Phil. 2:12–13).

Finally, the book is unique. How so? It consists of thirty-one letters between two believers: Chris and Brian. Hedges gives two reasons for choosing to teach theology through letters. First, he views it as “a fun and creative approach” (p. 14). Second, he believes it reflects the reality of “our faith journeys,” which “are not linear or direct from infancy to maturity,” but “are circuitous and roundabout, with lots of detours and obstacles, punctuated by backtracking, rest stops, and significant delays on the side of the road” (p. 14).

What particular issues do the letters address? Here’s a sampling. What does it mean to walk with God, turn to God, and hope in God? How do we deal with the spiritual blahs? What leads to spiritual neglect, backsliding, and apostasy? What role do works play in salvation? What is intervening grace? How do we fight the good fight? What does it mean to enjoy God in everything? How do we obtain and maintain assurance? How do we overcome weariness? Why is the church important to spiritual growth? What is gospel humility? What does it mean to rest in Jesus and look to Jesus? What is so dangerous about self-trust?

Hedges’ handling of these issues is very helpful, and serves as a modern-day example of Puritan casuistry—the art of dealing with “cases of conscience” through self-examination and scriptural application.

For the above reasons, I recommend Active Spirituality to you. In addition to edifying and encouraging all readers, it will prove a useful resource for pastors, as it provides valuable insight into how to minister to God’s people as they struggle with common spiritual ailments.

As already mentioned, I read the book in one sitting, but I don’t recommend you do the same. An ideal approach would be to read one chapter per day, allowing ample time for reflection and application.

J. Stephen Yuille

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Depths



“Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD” (Ps. 130:1). What are the depths? We find a similar expression in Ps. 88:6–7, “You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.” Here, the depths speak of the waves of God’s displeasure toward the psalmist’s sin. As these waves encompass him, he feels as though he’s drowning. That is to say, he’s struggling with a disturbed conscience, tormented mind, and troubled heart.
 
Now, this graphic description of spiritual turmoil poses a problem for some Christians. Does God really put His people in the depths of the pit? Does God really overwhelm His people with the waves of His displeasure? For many, these things are unimaginable. They’re adamant that God never treats His people like this. I disagree. I admit this is a tricky truth, so let me ease into it slowly by asking a few questions. Does God love you? Does God love you even when you sin? Is God ever angry or displeased with you? Do you have your answers? Good.
 
A while back, I sat with a man—a professing Christian, and an acknowledged adulterer. I told him God was displeased with him—even angry with him. The man was shocked and offended. He proceeded to quote Rom. 8:39, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” and insisted that God loved him, and was never displeased with him. Is that true? Possibly. It depends on what we mean by love. Here’s the tricky truth: God loves His people in two ways.

First, God loves His people unconditionally. This is God’s delight in His people as we stand in Christ. This love doesn’t change. It can’t increase or decrease. And that’s what Paul has in mind in Rom. 8:39. One day Charles Spurgeon was walking through the English countryside with a friend. As they strolled along, the famous evangelist noticed a barn with a weather vane on its roof. At the top of the vane were these words: “God is love.” Spurgeon remarked to his companion that he thought this was a rather inappropriate place for such a message. “Weather vanes are changeable,” he said, “but God’s love is constant.” “I don’t agree with you about those words, Charles,” replied his friend. “You misunderstood the meaning. That sign is indicating a wonderful truth: Regardless of which way the wind blows, God is love.”

Second, God loves His people conditionally. This is God’s delight in the holiness that’s in His people as a result of His grace. This love does change. It can increase or decrease. Christ declares, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jn. 14:23). Again, He declares, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (Jn. 15:10). Clearly, the love—of which Christ here speaks—is conditional upon obedience.

And so, God loves His people in two ways. When we disobey God, what happens? On the one hand, God’s love for us doesn’t change. That’s His unconditional love—His delight in us in Christ. On the other hand, His love for us does change. That’s His conditional love—His delight in holiness in us. For the Christian, there is what John Owen calls “a dwelling sense of God’s love upon the heart.” But it’s conditional, meaning we can lose it on account of our sin. When we do, the result is trouble, anxiety, and restlessness. That’s the psalmist’s experience. He feels as though he’s drowning in the waves of God’s displeasure. As a result, he cries from the depths.

Have you ever experienced anything like this? Restless nights, frayed nerves, mood swings? What about a fallen countenance, a lack of joy and peace, disinterest in prayer and study, avoidance of deeper things, or an unwillingness to get close to others for fear of discovery? Have you ever found yourself withdrawing from Christian fellowship, or dismissing godliness as legalism and extremism? What about harshness in censuring others? Do you know what these things are? They’re marks of a troubled conscience, arising from a refusal to deal with past sins, to mortify present lusts, to release future worries, or to obey what God commands. Your sin has dampened your enjoyment of that “dwelling sense of God’s love upon the heart.” Straight to the point, you’re in the depths!

When we’re in the depths, we cry to God. Why? There’s forgiveness with God (Ps. 130:4). God forgives us on the basis of what Christ has accomplished upon the cross. Forgiveness doesn’t mean God acts like nothing happened, nor does it mean He lessens the merit of our sins. It means that He dissolves the obligation to punishment on the basis of Christ’s redeeming work.

My sin, not in part but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Marks of Ministry: Lessons from C. H. Spurgeon

On February 8, 1892, tens of thousands of Londoners participated in a funeral procession, which extended over two miles, for a man without any official title, academic degree, military post, or political position: Charles Haddon Spurgeon—a Baptist preacher. Over the years, I have read multiple sermons by Spurgeon and several biographies on Spurgeon. Certain aspects of his ministry have really stood out to me.

A Commitment to the Gospel

In a sermon to pastors, Spurgeon remarks, “Be sure whatever you leave out, that you tell them of the three Rs: Ruin, Regeneration, and Redemption.” These three Rs encapsulate the main thrust of Spurgeon’s preaching. There was no doubt in his mind that the gospel is the good news that God saves sinners from his wrath for his glory through Christ’s substitutionary death. And there was no question in his mind that God had appointed him to proclaim this gospel—to plead with sinners to accept Christ’s terms of peace. This was Spurgeon’s greatest desire. It compelled him and consumed him. For Spurgeon, mercy experienced is mercy proclaimed, mercy received is mercy dispensed, mercy enjoyed is mercy shared. That is to say, the mercy of God stirred in him a sense of eagerness and earnestness in the proclamation of the gospel.

A Commitment to the Bible

Regarding John Bunyan (the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress), Spurgeon writes, “Read anything of his; and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself. Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God.” What Spurgeon said of Bunyan, we can say of Spurgeon: “his soul is full of the Word of God.” He believed that, as the Word of God, the Bible is the means by which God reveals himself. It’s the means by which God imparts his grace. Moreover, it’s the way by which Christ comes to us. Fully convinced of this, Spurgeon believed that Scripture stands at the center of the life of the Christian and the church.

A Commitment to the Truth

Related to his conviction that the Bible is the Word of God, Spurgeon ascribed fully to the absolute authority and complete sufficiency of Scripture. He viewed any departure from the teaching of Scripture as a direct attack upon the faith. This conviction became visibly apparent in the 1880s when he faced the rising tide of liberal theology within the Baptist Union. He was concerned about challenges to the plenary inspiration of Scripture, the vicarious atonement of Christ, and the eternal punishment of unbelievers. Rightly perceiving these truths to be at the heart of the gospel, he took an uncompromising stand: “The crisis becomes every day more acute: delays are dangerous; hesitation is ruinous. Whosoever is on the Lord’s side must now show it at once, and without fail.” For the most part, his warnings went unheeded and, as a result, he decided to lead the London Metropolitan Tabernacle out of the Baptist Union. At the root of Spurgeon’s actions were pastoral concerns: “Every man who keeps aloof from the struggle for the sake of peace will have the blood of souls upon his head.” Spurgeon understood that his people were susceptible to doctrinal subterfuge. And, as a pastor, he embraced his calling to instruct in sound doctrine, and refute those who contradict the truth (Titus 1:9).

A Commitment to Justice

In 1860, Spurgeon launched a scathing attack on American slavery, declaring, “America is in many respects a glorious country, but it may be necessary to teach her some wholesome lessons at the point of the bayonet—to carve freedom into her with the bowie-knife or send it home to heart with revolvers. Better far should it come to this issue, that North and South should be rent asunder, and the States of the Union shivered into a thousand fragments, than that slavery should be suffered to continue.” Unsurprisingly, Spurgeon’s fiery criticism of slavery won him little support in the South. As a matter of fact, many people boycotted his books and some even burned his effigy. Despite the open hostility, Spurgeon was undeterred in affirming his position. Believing the gospel to be God’s instrument for change, he denounced sin in its innumerable forms and expressions—whether personal or societal.

A Commitment to Christ

When the London Metropolitan Tabernacle opened in 1861, Spurgeon declared: “I would propose that the subject of the ministry in this house, as long as this platform shall stand, and as long as this house shall be frequented by worshippers, shall be the person of Jesus Christ [...] who is the sum and substance of the gospel, who is in himself all theology, the incarnation of every precious truth, the all-glorious personal embodiment of the way, the truth, and the life.” For Spurgeon, the heart of Christianity isn’t Reformed doctrines or Baptist distinctives (however important they might be), but the person and work of Christ. He was convinced that there was nothing more soul-satisfying than contemplating Christ and our interest in him. For this reason, he proclaimed Christ, setting forth the beauty of his person, the sufficiency of his work, and the excellence of his offices. “Where there is nothing of Christ,” says Spurgeon, “there is nothing of unction, nothing of savor […]. Leave Christ out of your preaching, and you have taken the milk from the children, you have taken the strong meat from the men; but if your object as a teacher or preacher is to glorify Christ, and to lead men to love him and trust him, why, that is the very work upon which the heart of God himself is set.”