Tuesday, December 29, 2009

By Grace, I Am What I Am


[This entry follows a sermon preached by Steve Smith at Gray Road Baptist Church.]

For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God was with me. – 1 Corinthians 15:9-10

In Zechariah 3 we saw the picture of a defiled spiritual leader of the nation Israel. Joshua was the High Priest of God’s chosen nation, yet he was covered in filth and sin. The people of Israel were certainly concerned about the physical obstacles that confronted them as they were rebuilding the temple, but what about the spiritual obstacles that would still remain? God gave Zechariah this vision in chapter 3 to address this very concern. How could Joshua be covered in sin, defiled, with no sacrifice for sin, and still minister as the High Priest of this nation? GRACE. Access to the mercy seat was granted to Joshua by God’s amazing grace.

Paul clearly understands this as he reflects on his ministry as an apostle. He knows that he was a persecutor of the church of God. In 1 Timothy 1:15-16, Paul confesses that he was the “worst of sinners…yet for this reason I found mercy, in order that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience, as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.” His ministry and his calling were clearly undeserved, yet God gave grace. His role in the kingdom of God was a gift of grace.

Christian, I hope that you understand well the role that grace has played in your life. We should all remain aware of our unworthiness before God. God has called us to salvation by His grace, he has given us our ministry by His grace and we will continue in our ministry by His grace. If we believe that we deserve our salvation or our ministry, I can assure you that we are wrong. If we believe that we are undeserving of our salvation and our ministry, I can assure you that we are right. Nevertheless, take heart, because it by grace that we are what we are. As we continue to serve the LORD in our personal unworthiness, take comfort in the fact that our worthiness is found in Christ.

Finally, let us be reminded that the grace of God is not without effect. In Zechariah, as God graciously imputes his righteousness to Joshua, God says to Joshua, “if you will walk in my ways, and if you will perform My service, then you will also govern My house and also have charge of My courts, and I will grant you access among these who are standing here.”(Zech 3:7) Paul says, “... his grace to me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them.” (1 Cor. 15:10). God’s grace empowers his people to faithful service. As a result of grace, we are driven to faithfulness. Paul says again, “the grace of God has appeared…instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age…” (Titus 2:11-12) Our salvation, our ministry, our service, our works, our righteousness is a gift of grace from our God. Praise God for His unfathomable grace!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why Does It Matter If God Keeps His Promises?

[These thoughts follow a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church. If you would like to listen to that message, just click here and listen to "Christmas According to Micah."]

"Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old." - Micah 7:18-20 (ESV)

The forgiveness of God is a wonderful thing. In this text alone, we read of God 'pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression.' We see that He does not stay angry forever, but He is steadfast in love. He treads iniquity under foot and casts our sin into the depths of the sea. These are wonderful words, and we must always remember that this forgiveness comes at a cost.

A cost is always paid by the one who forgives. If a bank chooses to forgive a debt, the debtor may be free but the bank has agreed to pay the price. If I offend you with my words and you forgive me, you are letting me off the hook...accepting the pain of my offense in exchange for a right relationship. God can be just in forgiving sin because He has paid the price for that forgiveness in the death of His son. At the cross, God laid our sin on Jesus (Is. 53:6; 2 Cor. 5:21), and He poured out His wrath on His own Son so that we might be justified(Rom. 3:23-26). The forgiveness of God is a wonderful thing, and it is a worthy theme on which to dwell.

But what about this idea in Micah 7:20 of God keeping His promises? Why is this important? Why does it matter that God will keep His promises? He did make promises, you know. He promised Abram that He would bless all the families of the earth through his seed (Gen. 12). He promised David that one of his descendants would sit on his throne forever (2 Sam. 7). He even promised the serpent in the garden that one would come to crush his head (Gen. 3). Why does it matter if God keeps these promises?

Let's begin by thinking of promises made in human relationships. What do we think of one who always keeps his promise? Do we hold that person in high regard? How is the trust in that relationship affected by the fact that he keeps his promise? Now, what do we think of those who do not keep their promises? How does a marital relationship change when the promises made on a wedding day go broken? I think you see what I'm driving at here.

Those who keep promises are exalted in our minds and hearts, while those who break promises are not...they are shut out of the 'inner circle' of our lives. Why? Because when a promise is laid down, a person's reputation lays with it. If the promise is kept, the reputation is strengthened. If the promise if broken, it is weakened.

With this being said, why do you think it's important that God keeps His promises...even when these promises have been made to "our fathers from the days of old" (Micah 7:20)? When God made promises to Abram, He was not just trying to encourage Abram...telling him to 'hang in there' while God led him to a new land. God laid His reputation down with that promise, and if God does not keep every one of them, then His reputation will diminish...He would be less honorable...His glory would not shine as bright.

So, first of all, it's important that God keeps His promise to Abram and David and the other patriarchs because His glory is on the line. He is the only God. In Isaiah 42:8, God says, "I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols." If He fails to keep His promise, then His glory fades, and He is no better than idols made by human hands...who fail those who trust them constantly. However, BE CLEAR ON THIS...God will always be faithful to keep His promise. His glory will never fade...it shines brighter with each passing day. As men and women turn from their sin and trust in Christ, who came from the seed of Abraham, the number of Abram's true, spiritual descendants grows and more families of the earth are blessed. A great nation...a kingdom of priests...is built one soul at a time. In the conversion of sinners, God is glorified as the only Savior of mankind, and God is glorified as the keeper of His promises.

Closely tied to the first reason is the second (in reality, any other reason would flow from this first one). If God does not keep His promise, then we would question whether we could trust God at all. If He would not keep His promise to Abram, then why would we believe that He would keep the promise that 'whosoever believes in him may have eternal life' (John 3:14)? Or that if we come to Him we will find rest for our souls (Mt. 11:28-30)? Not keeping His promise would diminish God's glory and would give us reason to doubt Him...to not trust Him. This would affect whether we pray to Him at all, and if we did, how we prayed. As it is, though, we have EVERY reason to trust Him because He keeps His promises.

Even during this Christmas week...we look into a manger in Bethlehem and see a baby, born of a virgin. We see a baby who was born to save his people from their sins. We see a baby who was born to die, so that we might live. At Christmas, we see Jesus, and we remember just how important it is that God keeps His promises, because Jesus is the Promised One.

Monday, December 14, 2009

If You Are Willing, You Can...

[These thoughts follow a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church called"The Healing Hand of Jesus". If you would like to listen to that message, just click here.]

Almost two years ago, I got on a plane and traveled to Liberia, West Africa, in order to obtain a visa for my newly adopted daughter, Georgia, and bring her home. Before leaving for 3 1/2 weeks, I wrote a prayer/devotional guide for the congregation I was serving in Nashville, TN. That devotional guide found its basis in the book of Mark, and one text of Scripture that came to mind over and over as I wrote that guide and traveled to Liberia was found in Mark 1:40. They are the leper's words to Jesus, "If you will, you can make me clean."

These words are striking to me, and God reminded me of how to pray using the leper's words...He used these words to encourage me as I sought to bring Georgia home. While I was in Liberia, I kept a journal so that Susan would know more about the experience I had. We did not get to talk for long periods of time on the phone, so this journal would be her insight into my heart and my journey while in Africa. Now, I will share some of that with you. (Anything in italics is added to help give clarity.)

On Friday, February 1, 2008, I wrote the following:

"It's Friday, and it's about 2 PM. I just finished preparing to teach tonight, and it has encouraged me greatly. [I was asked by a local church to teach on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday during my last week in Liberia...which included preaching the gospel to Georgia's birth parents on Sunday morning!] It's on Mark 1:40-45, especially focusing on the leper's words, "If you will, you can..." I am praying this with great boldness and confidence as I wait to hear if Georgia's visa will be granted today.

We just heard that another child's visa is packaged and ready, and we are waiting to hear about mine. [This was the last day I could receive my visa and still leave on Sunday because the government would shut down for the weekend.] I felt compelled this morning to fast over lunch and to focus all my energy on calling on God to deliver this visa. Nobody believes I will get it. After listening to the encouragement from other parents who were with me, I had moved my flight up to Sunday from Wednesday. Now, they were apologizing for this counsel. Not even Maria, [the founder of the orphanage], believes I will get the visa. When I asked her what the chances are, she said, 'You're not getting it today.'

However, I believe that God can. If He is willing, He can. I will willingly submit to His will, but I refuse to believe it cannot be done today. My prayer is that it will come through as a demonstration of His power over governments...as a testimony of hope for the other families...and as an instrument of glory for God...that many might see the power of prayer and fasting and faith...that these are vehicles which God uses to bring amazing things to pass."

At this point, I need to clarify before I share more of my journal. Nobody knew I was fasting. We were all praying for the visas to be delivered, but nobody knew about the fasting. I only share it in this public way to testify to what the Lord did.

After writing this journal entry, I took Georgia to our bedroom and laid her down for a nap. As she napped, I prayed. Then, she woke up, and I had her playing on the bed while I continued to pray. I believe it was Charles Spurgeon who said that when we pray, we should go to God with arguments...that's what I did. This was my next entry:

"After praying for the last hour and a half for the Lord to send me home...to grant Georgia's visa...I finally got an answer. I asked that He would grant the visa for Georgia's sake because He is the One who "settle[s] the solitary in a home" (Ps. 68:6). For Caleb's sake...so he could stop wearing Daddy's hat and could have Daddy home. [Every day I was gone, Caleb wore one of my hats to be close to me.] For Austin's sake...that his excitement over my homecoming being on his birthday wouldn't be met with disappointment. For Emilie, so her heart wouldn't be broken anymore. [Though she talked about Daddy and where Daddy was, she would not talk to me on the phone or even look at my picture...she was mad because I was gone.] For Susan's sake, so she could be relieved of the pressure she feels.

For Alta Loma's sake [the church I was serving at the time]...so they might see the power of prayer and fasting and would become men and women of prayer, and so they would have their pastor home. For all who will hear this story...so they will know God answers prayer. For my sake...because I am His child, and He gives good gifts to His children. Mostly for His sake...because the government rests on His shoulders...because His power is greater than any other...because He is still the God of adoption...because He started this process...because His Son died to teach us of adoption, and His Son should be honored in it.

At 3:25, as I was praying these kinds of things over and over again, there was a knock at my door. I opened it, and there stood Maria. She said, 'Your visa is on its way to the compound.' I could do nothing but hug her and weep. I had fasted, I had prayed, and I had wept in prayer for this. God delivered my answer in His time. Thank you, God, for teaching me how to pray."

As I type these words, I am taken back to that time in my life, and I long to be more consistent in this kind of passionate prayer. It was impossible for that visa to get to that compound before the end of the day...it just wasn't going to happen. But God, in His goodness toward me and my family and especially toward Georgia, granted that visa. Traveling two or three days later probably would have been no big deal, but this pastor's heart and faith were encouraged that day...when God moved the government of Liberia so that He could answer my prayer.

What is it, in your life, that needs this kind of praying and fasting? Is there a loved one who does not believe? Are there situations at work or in relationships that seem impossible to resolve? We must completely submit to God's will, knowing that He will do what is right and good ("If you will"). We also must believe in the power of God to accomplish anything that He so desires ("you can"). So, let us follow the example of this leper and pray, believing, "If you will, you can..."

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Priority of Preaching

[These thoughts follow a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church. If you would like to listen to that message, just click here.]

Today, as I reflect on Mark 1:29-39, I can't help but continue to dwell on the fact that Jesus' priority in His routine ministry was preaching. I must confess...I may be dwelling there because preaching is a big portion of what God has called me to do. While I recognize that bias, I am going to plunge forward with these thoughts. A man approached me after the service just yesterday who said that the teaching about the priority of preaching really resonated in his soul. A church he was attending in another time in his life focused their energies on other things, and he just knew it was wrong. (He's not a pastor, so I may not be alone in focusing here.)

So, let's think about the emphasis to be placed on preaching. Do you think preaching is important in the Bible? Have you ever been tempted to think that a pastor might emphasize preaching so he can be "in the spotlight" more often? Do you think preaching is just a 'necessary evil' within the context of corporate worship? Let's think about what the Bible says.

1. Preaching is important in the Old Testament. Think of Ezra's role in Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-8. He brings the Law of God to the people after the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem, reads it, and then (with the help of others) explains what it means. This celebration of God's work through His people would be incomplete apart from proclaiming Him through preaching. Isaiah's call (6:8-10) is the call to preach, and then the rest of the book is primarily a record of his preaching ministry to God's people. God's call to the prophet Jonah was to go to Nineveh and preach. God's call to Amos was to go and preach to the northern kingdom of Israel. In fact, all the books that we call "major and minor prophets" are books containing the preaching ministries of various men set apart by God. Noah was even called a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5).

2. Preaching is important in Jesus' ministry. You can refer back to the message from yesterday, but in addition to that, think about Matthew's gospel. We see what is often called the "sermon on the mount" from chapters 5-7. Jesus preaches against the scribes and Pharisees in chapter 23, and then He preaches about the end times in chapters 24-25. In Matthew 10, Jesus sends out the twelve to minister. What kind of ministry are they to do? Verse 7 records Jesus' words: "And proclaim as you go, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.'" Jesus sent them out to preach.

3. Preaching is important in the early church (Acts). It was a sermon that would clarify the meaning of the coming of the Holy Spirit (2:14-36). It was a sermon that pointed people away from focusing on miracles and to Jesus Christ (3:12-26). It was preaching that became the focus of the apostolic ministry (6:1-7). Even as the book of Acts closes, we find that it is preaching that marches on: "[Paul] lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance" (28:30-31).

4. Preaching is important in the rest of the New Testament. In Romans, Paul is eager to preach the gospel (1:15), and he says that the only way people will hear and believe the gospel is if it is preached (10:14-17). In 1 Corinthians 9:16, Paul proclaims woe on himself (and anyone else, by implication) is he does not preach the gospel. And what was it Paul wanted to pass on to young Timothy as he saw the sun setting on his own ministry? "I 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, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching" (2 Timothy 4:1-2). Paul wants Timothy to preach the gospel because a time will come when people won't put up with the gospel...won't put up with sound doctrine...they just want to hear what they want to hear but not what God wants them to hear (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

As if this isn't enough, it needs to be stated that the end of preaching is not simply a way to boost Bible knowledge. It is not primary so that we can have thick notebooks and strong minds but empty, anemic hearts. The end of preaching is the exaltation of God and the work He has done in Jesus Christ. It is the gospel we preach, or, as Paul has put it, "For I decided to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). This tempts us to think that preaching is only for those who do not believe, but this can't be true since Paul was always talking to the church in his writings. I was at a conference a few years ago, and a pastor was talking about the real temptation to not preach the gospel because "your people already know these things." His response was simple, "A healthy believer loves to hear the gospel proclaimed." The gospel not only evangelizes the lost...it also strengthens the believers.

Read these words from A.W. Tozer:

"Sound Bible exposition is an imperative must in the Church of the Living God (Side Note: 'Exposition' is an explanation or interpretation of the meaning/purpose of a text.) Without it no church can be a New Testament church in any strict meaning of that term. But exposition may be carried on in such a way as to leave the hearers devoid of any spiritual nourishment whatever...The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God, that they may enter into Him, that they may delight in His Presence, may taste and know the inner sweetness of the very God Himself in the core and center of their hearts."

Now, look at the words of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Dr. Lloyd-Jones was a physician, so he often uses those kinds of images in his preaching):

"So I would sum up by saying that it is preaching alone that can convey the Truth to people, and bring them to the realization of their need, and to the only satisfaction for their need. Ceremonies and ritual, singing and entertainment, and all your interest in political and social affairs, and all else cannot do this. I am not denying that they can produce effects, I have granted that they can, and that this is where the danger sometimes comes in. What men and women need is to be brought to a 'knowledge of the truth'; and if this is not done you are simply palliating symptoms, and patching up the problem for the time being."

We have seen that the Bible places a high priority on preaching, and we have read some thought-provoking words from two godly men in the recent past. The questions that remain are these: what will you do with what you have read? Does your attitude toward preaching need to change, and if so, how? How will you listen to the preaching of the gospel differently this week as a result of these reminders? Do you see real, spiritual benefits for your own soul in hearing the gospel proclaimed week by week...if not, why not? If so, what are those benefits?

These may be helpful questions to think about this week. Maybe you can think of more. Put them with the Bible and notebook or pen you carry to corporate worship. When you are tempted to devalue the preaching of the gospel, pull them out again and ask the Lord to help you see preaching as He does. Let's think on these things together.

That's all for now...I have studying to do so that I can preach the gospel this Sunday.