Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Asking—Why So Hard?

John 16:24–27: "Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father. In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God" (ESV).

Figures of speech are used to explain concepts otherwise difficult to grasp in plain language. Even with figures, however, there is no guarantee that one fully understands what is con-veyed. The "hour" of which Jesus spoke—when it will be no longer necessary to communicate in figures—has come. On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was sent to indwell each believer in accordance with the New Covenant promise of Ezekiel 36: 26, 27.

The Spirit is now the Interpreter of spiritual truth and the revealer of the unseen Father. On that basis, Jesus promised, "You will ask in my name." The implication is that we will have confidence to ask the Father for what we need. He also argues that the He will not need to convince the Father to hear us because the Father already loves us. What a glorious truth is this! Yet, for all the encouragement, we do not ask. Why?

Sanctification is a life-long process that seems to crawl in its momentum, often pausing and sometimes regressing. We become discouraged when we see so little change. This seeming stagnation of our spiritual progress contributes to our perception of our relationship with the Father. If we are not jumping spiritual hurdles, the Father must not be pleased with us, and, if so, we think that we have no right to ask Him for anything. However, at such times we must learn of the truth that Jesus gave us in John 16:24–27. We need to trust Him because He loves us still.

Another reason for our failure to ask is that we tend to be self-sufficient. We don’t need to ask because we can manage for ourselves. We are independent people and proud to be so. This attitude is at the very heart of our fallen nature. It keeps us from trusting the Lord and seeking to know His will for us in all the choices of life presenting themselves to us.

If my heart craves a thing, my mind justifies it and my will acts on it. However, the Holy Spirit nags at my conscience: "You need to ask the Father about this." But I am stubborn. This is what I want, and I can get it without Him. I do not ask. The Spirit is grieved, and my fellowship is strained. I do not have the joy that He promised. At this point, discipline kicks in if I am truly His, for He will have me to learn that trusting means asking, and asking brings fullness of joy.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Professing or Possessing

Years of experience in the “soul-winning” culture of fundamentalism have caused me to reexamine some things. One thing in particular has to do with the assurance of one’s salvation. The pat answer is something like this: First, one must be able to pinpoint the exact time that he made his decision to trust Jesus for salvation. That date should be clear in his mind. It would also be a good idea to write it in the fly leaf of his Bible. Second, one must arm himself with a verse or two to quote in order to encourage faith, such as Romans 10:13: “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Third, one should publicaly confess his decision in order to get courage to stand for Jesus. Fourth, one needs to connect with other believers and be faithful to the services and activities of a local church.

I have no particular qualms with any of the above advice, per se. However, I would note that I have known many believers who cannot recall an exact time of their “decision” and yet are fully assured of salvation. My beef is that these points miss the mark. It is possible for one to make a decision, publicaly confess Christ, memorize verses, etc., but still not be saved. Salvation is of the Lord, and the ones He saves are changed. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17). In other words, one’s assurance of salvation should not be his own insistence that he made a choice, but rather to question whether Jesus has really saved him. A new creature will take on the characteristics of his Heavenly Father in the same way one takes the characteristics of his earthly father (1 John 3:7-10).

These changes will not necessarily be immediately noticeable. A new believer may falter and doubt at first because assurance needs evidence of change. Growing takes time. Juvenile trees do not bear fruit. However, Jesus made fruit the obvious indicator of one’s condition. “You will recognize them by their fruits . . . A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit . . . You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16-20).

Paul argued that a little doubt is good for the soul. It prods one to look deeper. The Corinthian church’s problems led Paul to write, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?–unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5). What is the test? Is it that one professes faith? Jesus warned (to paraphrase His words), “Not every one who confesses my name shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). It is not enough to be a regular church attender or even faithful to visitation. God’s will is worked into the life of a true believer by His power, and then it is worked out in obedience and fruit (Philippians 2:12, 13). It is that fruit that assures our hearts before God. Are you fruitful?

Making the Impossible a Reality

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-14, ESV).

These verses are among the most difficult verses in the Scripture because of what they require; indeed, the requirements are impossible for the natural man. First, the language of this text is not passive, involving the activity of putting things on. The assumption is that such attire is not very familiar. It is similar to what Paul wrote in Ephesians 4, exhorting his readers to work at changing their lives for the sake of Christlikeness. One cannot make changes without shedding the old “clothes” and putting on new (vv. 20-27).

Second, the issues have to do with bringing into sync the believer’s standing (as positionally holy) with his state (as actually unholy) in order to be truly holy. Believers are filled with the residue of their fallen natures. Therefore, God places on them the responsibility to purge out the Adamic dregs and to fill that void with the character qualities of Christ. This duty is not an option. One cannot argue that, due to the difficulty, God should cut some slack. God does not do so because He expects to enable the impossible. Although the process is not easy, the objective is worth it—to be like Jesus. Oh, to be like Him! True believers have that yearning deep in their souls, although the cry is often drowned out by deaf and distracted ears. However, when hunger for change is strong enough—when the dissatisfaction with one’s old life is intolerable—one will do what it takes to obey God’s directive.

That brings us to do some serious soul-searching. “What is lacking in my conformity to Christ?” Paul saw that natural relationships follow either from rivalry (competition to be better than others) or from conceit (the prideful arrogance that one already is better than others) (Philippians 2:3). Love (the gift/fruit of the Holy Spirit, Galatians 5:22) is the cure for these maladies because love is compassionate and kind. A loving person is humble and meek, like Jesus, counting others more significant than himself.

Jesus lived for the sake of others. So must we, but to do so requires that we do the hard things. We love our comfort zone, and we do not like the mess that others make. We do not like the time or the waiting that is required. We do not like the uncertainty that our sacrifices may not yield the anticipated goal. We hate the misunderstanding, the suspicion, the opposition, and the rejection that might come. We cannot always see the work God is doing through us. However, we must do this work. If we love Jesus, we obey Him (John 14:15).

Friday, August 6, 2010

Of All-Sufficient Worth

There is a tendency to look on the issue of one’s relationship to God in general terms. We know that we are sinners, however defined. After all, nobody is perfect. But such a broad view of sinfulness never permits the sinner to be humbled before the Holy Judge. There are no specific charges, nor is the case fully adjudicated in one’s mind and conscience. The result is that the sinner’s heart is never wholly satisfied that God has been reconciled and the sin forgiven.

Along with an unspecific accounting of one’s sinfulness, there is a similar unspecific view of the work of Christ. We believe that Jesus died to save sinners, however applied, without any focus on His taking the place of definite sinners and paying for their precise sins. A sweeping generalization fails to appreciate the particulars of His satisfaction so necessary to one’s assurance.

Justifying faith sees the worth of God’s plan to settle His salvation on the merits of His Son’s sacrifice as a substitute for the specific sins of specific sinners. Paul, after extensive development God’s purpose to justify guilty souls in Christ, writes: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” (Romans 8:33). All sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). Thus, all transgressors must face the Law-giver. Yet, with all the evidence before him, Paul, without hesitation, declares that “it is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33). Christ answers all claims that might be raised against any for whom He died. Although even the smallest of sins in our estimation are great evils to God, Christ’s righteousness is more than enough for our guilt and shame.

No sin is so great that Christ’s blood cannot atone for it. God “did not spare [hold back on] his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). No one included in verse 30 (those predestined, called, justified, and glorified) has committed sins beyond the scope of verse 32. Therefore, free of all hesitation, Paul makes the blanket assertion that there is no one in God’s universe who can circumvent the results of Christ’s cross work.

Did you sin in a way that makes the intention of your heart a greater offense than the deed itself? There is nothing hidden from His knowledge of you. He sees the deed; He knows the issues of your heart prompting the deed. However, such knowledge did not keep Him from paying the penalty in full. Did you sin in a way aggravated and compounded by your delight and enjoyment of the offense? Know that His delight to do His Father’s will (Psalm 40:8) overrides any revulsion that your pleasure incited. Did you sin deliberately when you could have avoided the crime? Know that His determination to die for you (Luke 9:51) is infinitely greater than your resolve to sin. He said, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50). There is nothing in our sinning that does not have a fit answer in His work on our behalf. He is more than enough.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Object to Faith

We have been discussing the faith that justifies, focusing on Paul’s summary beginning in Romans 8:31: If God is for us, who can be against us?” Paul continues by asking some rhetorical questions such as in verse 34, “Who is to condemn? [No one. Why?] Christ Jesus is the one who died [as condemned].” In fact, there are four particulars which support the negative response to the question. Who will condemn a justified person? No one because Christ Jesus died, was raised from the dead, ascended to the Father’s right hand, and is there to intercede for the justified saint.

Clearly, Jesus Christ is to be the object of our faith. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Paul preached “repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). We repent to God against whom we have sinned; we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ because He is the Savior. However, we must be clear about what we are to believe in Jesus for. How is Christ the object of faith? In what particular are we to believe Him for? We are to believe in Christ who died.

Many fail to make this distinction. Without question, Jesus Christ is such that we ought to be drawn to His person. He is altogether lovely. There is none to match His excellencies and glory. However, as wonderful as He is, none of these qualities which we so admire in Him can justify anyone. These ought to elicit our love, but it is only Christ as dying that answers to the need. We are justified by His death. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9).

The disciples did not understand that He came primarily to die—that “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). He spoke of His impending death, but they argued about who should be greatest and who should sit on His right and left hand in His kingdom (Luke 9). They were taken by His person, His miracles, His wisdom, and His glory, but they could not imagine Him going to the cross to die for their sins. “And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This [to be killed, (v. 21)] shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Not until after the resurrection do the disciples finally get it that Jesus can save them only as He died a sinless sacrifice in their stead. Thus Paul argues, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

We are justified by faith, but that faith is to be in Christ’s dying, bearing our sin as He suf-fered the full force of God’s wrath in our place. God did not spare His Son, but delivered Him up to death in order that we might be justified.

Justifying Faith

“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised” (Romans 8:32-34).

Last week we considered Christ’s faith in His Father’s plan to justify the elect through faith in the work of Christ. In the text above, Paul uses language taken from Isaiah 5:8, 9, where Christ is speaking of His work as an obedient servant. It is the third of the “servant songs.” The first (42:1-9) speaks of His patient gentleness. The second song (49:4-13) deals with His acceptance of a frustrating work.

In the third (50:4-9), the Servant faces spite and the fury of evil flung against Him. However, there is no hint of discouragement. The Servant is there to learn (v. 4) and to give (v. 6). He has, as it were, enrolled in the school of our common discipline (Hebrews 5:8). “Morning by morning” suggests that He is set for the lifelong attention to God’s unfolding will (1 Kings 8:59). His schooling includes suffering, making Him the suffering Servant, although it will not be until Isaiah 53 that His suffering will be explained.

Nevertheless, the fruit of His yet unexplained suffering is demonstrated. First, He of-fers to God His unrestrained obedience (v. 5). Second, He gives Himself as a voluntary offering without resentment for His people. Third, in His suffering, He places His trust and confidence in God. These themes are taken by Paul and turned into his song of rejoicing (Romans 8:32-34). Christ faced the accuser, accepting his charges in the place of those whom He sought to justify by His obedience and sacrifice.

Now Paul asks, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” None can successfully bring any accusation against any for who Christ died because Christ Himself answers any indictment that could be brought against us. There are four things that the apostle names as matters of triumph for believers. Christ (1) died; (2) rose again; (3) ascended to God’s right hand; and (4) continually intercedes in behalf of them. With such an arsenal none need fear the accuser. Christ Himself stands in our stead. All that He suffered as the obedient Servant is put to our account. Whatever He did, we did in Him.

In the second part of Paul’s song (Romans 8:35-39), we celebrate the love of God in Christ for us. It is true that we will suffer (Romans 8:35); however, no earthy peril can pull us away, for God, because of Christ’s obedience, has brought us near. We are justified from all things. No one can charge us. Nothing can separate us for His great love. Now, this is good news and a matter of triumph for faith. “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

Who Will Justify Me?

Paul concludes his arguments on salvation by grace in Romans 8 in a very triumphant language: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised” (Romans 8:32-34).

What is important to understand here is that our salvation rests on the Father’s wil-lingness to “not spare” His own Son. From what did He not spare Him? This desire is linked to His gracious giving “all things” to His elect. Then Paul asks, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” This and the question following are rhetorical, that is, they expect “no one” for an answer. The one qualified to accuse is the very one who vindicates. The elect are free from condemnation although they are guilty. They are spared, but God’s Son is not spared.

Here is the judicial scenario: the elect of God cannot be vindicated as innocent. They are sinners, violating God’s commandments and heaping sacrilege on His good name. They are to be charged with their heinous, God-belittling crimes and punished to the full extent of the law. The accusation must stand and appropriate punishment meted out. So why is no charge leveled? It is because the Judge has justified them. How?

There are only two ways in which one can be justified or vindicated. Either the ac-cused is actually innocent of all charges, or the penalty of the crime has been fully and adequately paid. We know that the elect cannot plead innocence; neither could they satisfy infinite justice. A finite being would suffer the full fury of God’s wrath for eternity. So it is important to resolve the question. This is where the willingness of the just Judge comes into play. He did not spare—He did not withhold a molecule of His terrible wrath flung with omnipotent force of Holy indignation against any of the sins of the elect because a suitable substitute suffered in their place. God’s own Son stood in the stead of the elect and endured their penalty to the full.

However, Jesus did not go it alone. He trusted in His heavenly Father to stand by Him and vindicate Him in the place of His people. In Romans 8:32-34 Paul takes his language from Isaiah 50:8, 9, where Christ is speaking of His own justification (v. 8). When He says, “‘I will put my trust in Him’ (Hebrews 11:13a), He refers to His part in God’s plan to justify “the children God had given [Him]” (Hebrews 11:13b). Jesus knew no sin, but He is vindi-cated because He took on human nature in order to identify with His “brethren,” bearing the punishment of their guilt in their place. By this He satisfied justice to the full and so could cry from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). God made our iniquities to fall on Him (Isaiah 53:6), and He trusted God to accept the punishment for the charges against them. Thus, we read in Hebrews 2:11 that “He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one origin.”