Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How Does a Doer Think?

[This entry follows a sermon preached by John Tierney. It is titled "Doers of the Word," and the audio is available here.]

James 1:21-25 is clear. The fate of those who only hear God's Word without doing is self-delusion. As I listened to John preach Sunday, I appreciated the picture of a tourist...it is spot on for this passage. The "hearer only" may take marvelous tours through Bible study and see the sights of systematic theology, but they remain tourists. They will leave the glorious truth they observe once study time is over. This is the great delusion...to think oneself spiritual because of exceeding knowledge of the Scripture. This may be even more true in reformed churches...those places where biblical authority and sound doctrine are critically important.

It is absolutely true that these things are critically important, but they are incomplete when only enjoyed as a mental exercise. Biblical authority is not truly understood as biblical authority unless we are in submission to it. Biblical authority is meant to be both understood mentally and experientially. The same is true for sound doctrine. The pursuit of sound doctrine is not to find its end in a system in which there is a place for everything and everything in its place...as if we have finally achieved putting God in a chart where He belongs. No! Sound doctrine is meant to produce sound lives...that's why it is so critical. There is no sound living before the Lord apart from sound doctrine, and there is no truly sound doctrine that is not expressed in sound living.

So, if we want to avoid being a hearer only, then how do we get started in the doing? The 19th-century theologian Tryon Edwards wrote this, "Thoughts lead on to purposes; purposes go forth in action; actions form habits; habits decide character; and character fixes our destiny." Now, whether you want to argue about that exact progression or not, it's hard to deny the importance of the mind. Romans 12:2 warns against being conformed to this world; rather, we should be transformed by the renewing of our minds. One expositor says that the rest of chapters 12-14 are basically an explanation of what it means to live with a renewed mind, and I think there's a lot to that. The bottom line is this...if we are going to be doers in word and deed, then we should begin by being 'doers in thought'. What does that mean? Well, that's what I want to discuss briefly.

The battle for the mind is a strong battle. It is a fierce battle...it is a bloody battle. Our enemy loves to attack our thoughts using secular media outlets, false teaching that masquerades as 'Christian', and even bad thinking within ourselves. Our minds are usually engaged in two different kinds of thought...proactive and reactive. Proactive thinking may be my own attempts to study and understand some area of doctrine...some ethical issue. Reactive thinking is the way I process things as they are thrown at me...when circumstances jump on me unexpectedly.

In both proactive and reactive thinking, we should be doers of the Word. Proactively, as we seek to think about our family finances, ethical decisions at work, how our children will be educated, and many more things like this, we are not reacting to a sudden situation...we are trying to intentionally find what is right and wise. We rightly turn to the Scripture for help and guidance in these areas, and we may hear all that the Scripture says. Too often, however, we come to the Bible with an answer already in our minds, and if we are hearers only, we may think something like, "I know what the Bible says, BUT..." followed by some "logical" reason why it doesn't apply to what you are thinking. The one who is a doer of the Word in proactive thinking will, instead, submit his prior thoughts to Scripture for refining or for rejection.

Reactive thinking seems to reveal more about us than anything else. Events such as getting a negative diagnosis at the doctor, hearing news about potential changes in employment, or being hurt by the words/actions of a friend are mentally processed. We react to these things mentally before we ever do verbally or actively. How will I process unexpected situations? How will I mentally work through life-changing news or events? As I said, the way our minds respond will reveal a great deal about how we think and whether we are doers of the Word.

It would be ridiculous to think that we will have no concern if our child or spouse is diagnosed with "x" or "y". It has to cause us pain when those we love are in pain. However, what will we think about the disease, about the change, about the news as it pertains to God's sovereignty, goodness, justice, truth, mercy, etc.? Doers of the Word must be trained by hearing the Word, so that in these moments, we can think in ways that glorify God. Not neglect real, human emotion and the pain of living in this world...but still thinking in ways that glorify God.

The Scripture is clear that trials and tribulation are not only present but purposeful in the believer's life (see Romans 5:1-5; James 1:2-4). What we fail to remember is that we don't get advertisements in the mail letting us know when the trial will come so that we can prepare. The unexpected nature of life reminds us that we must always be prepared because we must assume they are coming. God means to sanctify us...making us more like Christ...and one experiential way He does this is through trials. Will we think of difficulty in terms of glorifying God and being sanctified to reflect the character of Christ? Or will we just want to escape the trial without the benefit God designs in it? The doer of the Word will do the former...not the latter.

Whether proactively thinking about our lives or reactively thinking about those things that come into our lives unexpectedly, we must be doers of the Word in thought. From doing the Word in thought, we will better do the Word in our speech and action. So, let us resolve to submit our thinking to God's Word...let us resolve to conform our thinking to God's Word...let us resolve to be doers of the Word in thought.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How Strong is the Lord?

[This entry follows a sermon titled "My Hope and His Strength." It was preached by Kevin Shingleton, and you can click here to listen to the audio.]

From Isaiah 40:28-31, we see that God "gives power to the faint" and "increases strength" for those who are weak. These are tremendous promises for us, as we are continually faced with situations in which our weakness is revealed. Yet, this is not a bad weakness...it is a necessary weakness. For, if we do not realize our great weakness, we will not avail ourselves of God's strength.

Throughout the Scripture, we see God's strength meet man's weakness. Moses knew his own weakness and confessed it to God as a reason he was unusable, and yet God's power enabled him to be the deliverer of Israel from slavery. The troops in Gideon's army were reduced by God's instruction, so that it would be clear that the strength of God (and not Gideon) was behind the Israelites' victory over the Midianites. The apostle Paul was afflicted by a thorn in the flesh, and yet God graciously left it so that Paul would be continually reminded that God's strength is perfected in weakness. At the cross, we see Jesus weakened by beating and crucifixion, and yet the effect of that cross is the forgiveness of sin for the nations! Over and over again, we see that "the weakness of God is stronger than men...[and]...God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong..." (1 Corinthians 1:25b, 27b).

We know our weakness, but what will give us confidence is to remember the strength of the Lord. If our weakness makes us prime candidates to receive strength from the Lord, then we should know what kind of power we are receiving. It seems that this will empower us to "boast all the more gladly of [our] weaknesses" (2 Corinthians 12:9b). The very chapter where we find God's strength being available to the weak (i.e.- Isaiah 40) is the chapter where we will find the answer to our question: how strong is the Lord?

This strength is sandwiched between two passages expressing what God will do with that strength. We have seen the end of Isaiah 40, but if you look at v. 10-11, you will see that "the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for them...he will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young." The care of the Lord is reflected in these verses, as well as in verses 29-31. Now, let's make a brief list of what lies between, so that we might see just how strong the Lord is.

1. God is bigger than we can imagine (v. 12). It is beyond imagination to think of a God who can hold the waters of the earth in the hollow of His hand. We can't hold more than a few drops in the hollow of our hand. The same thing applies to this image of the span (i.e.- from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the pinky) measuring all the heavens. The great expanse of God's greatness is pictured in magnanimous terms.

2. God knows more than we can imagine (v. 13-14, 27-28). We can never wonder if the God we serve knows about our needs or understands how we feel because He needs no one to inform Him. He has perfect counsel and knowledge, and there is no part of our lives that is hidden from Him. He knows our weakness far better than we even know it.

3. God is more powerful than we can imagine (v. 15, 17, 23-24). Those nations which seem like great powerhouses to us are but a drop in the bucket when compared to God. The world powers are both established and torn down by God. His very breath can remove the most powerful politician, king, or dictator from office.

4. God is worthy of more worship than we can ever give (v. 16). The endless offerings of beasts could never suffice to display the infinite worth of God. There is no earthly power, to which we must submit, that compares with the divine majesty of God on His throne.

5. God is the King of the Universe (v. 22). God's reign and control is not limited by geography, as human authorities are. God's power extends over every portion of the earth. He sits above it all, and He rules over it all.

6. God is the Creator and Keeper of the universe (v. 26). Look into the sky tonight, and if you see the stars and moon there, it is because God has brought them out...God put them into place...God knows each one by name. Yet, He did not make stars and moons in His image...He made you in His image. The argument of Jesus in Matthew 6 is pertinent here...if God feeds the birds and clothes the fields, what makes you think that He will forsake your care?

7. God is always God (v. 21, 28). God's rule and reign and power do not come and go, as earthly powers do. God is never removed from office. Besides that, in His eternal reign over all things, God doesn't grow weary...He doesn't get tired...He never gets to the point where we have overburdened Him so that He can't help us anymore. Every night, you and I lay down to close our eyes...we have to sleep...we can't function without it. Yet, God is not like us! Praise God...He is not like us! He does not need to catch a few winks or recharge His batteries...God's power is always available, and it never diminishes in capacity.

Go back and read through those seven things again...just read the bold parts...read them out loud. Now, add this...THIS is the God whose strength is available to me as I wait on Him. This is a tremendous truth...one we must be reminded of continuously. It is as we remember the character of our God and His willingness to grant strength that we can experience what Isaiah proclaims: "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God" (Is. 40:1).

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Be Killing Sin or It Will Be Killing You

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Up from the Grave He Arose". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

The title of this week's entry is a quote from John Owen, who wrote a magnificent work on spiritual growth titled Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. It's included in an edition of Owen's works called Overcoming Sin and Temptation, edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor. Now, John Owen was a Puritan pastor who lived and wrote in the 17th century, so the language can be laborious to read. When I was reading it, I had to move slowly and deliberately, and I made lots of notes in the margin. (A good, modernized version of the teachings in Owen's work can be found in Kris Lundgaard's The Enemy Within.)

I mention this work because in this past Sunday's message, I mentioned the implications of the resurrection on our progressive sanctification. Specifically, Romans 8:11-13 says that if we believe in Christ, the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead dwells in us and gives us life. Based on that fact, we should not live according to the flesh, which only leads to death. Rather, we must seek life by putting to death the deeds of the flesh by the power of the Spirit. Did you catch the connection between the resurrection and our sanctification? The power of the Spirit, displayed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, lives within us and enables us to put to death sin in our lives. It is this last part...the putting to death the deeds of the flesh...that is the basis of Owen's writing.

Owen rightly states that "The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin." In other words, the battle against condemning sin was won on the cross for all who believe, but the battle against the power of indwelling sin rages within us each day. Christ has secured the victory over sin, and Christ calls us to fight against sin. How can this be? We live in a world where sin remains...its influence, its power, and its presence are near to us. Just as with Cain in Genesis 4, sin is crouching at our door, ready to have us. Until we are delivered from these bodies, this will remain true. So, we must take up arms each day against sin and its craftiness.

What is our end game in battling the power of sin? Kill it! "Be killing sin or it will be killing you," as Owen puts it. He writes, "To kill a man, or any living thing, is to take away the principle of all his strength, vigor, and power, so that he cannot act or exert or put forth any proper actings of his own; so it is in this case. Indwelling sin is compared to a person, a living person, called 'the old man,' with his faculties and properties, his wisdom, craft, subtlety, strength; this, says the apostle, must be killed, put to death, mortified - that is, have its power, life, vigor, and strength to produce its effects taken away by the Spirit...The mortification of indwelling sin remaining in our mortal bodies, that it may not have life or power to bring forth the words or deeds of the flesh, is the constant duty of believers?"

How are we to do this? Answer: in the power of the resurrection...in the power of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. We are not meant to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and fight. Rather, we are to fight in complete dependence on the Holy Spirit and His power. To do otherwise is to determine to win a nuclear war in the strength of a bow and arrow. Owen writes, "Mortification [i.e.- putting to death the deeds of the body] from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world."

Now, we are right to think this way...(1) I must put to death the deeds of the body, and (2) I must do this by the power of the Spirit. But, how does that work? All this is wonderful, but how does one kill sin by the power of the spirit? How does Joe Christian take up arms against the power of sin in the power of the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead? That sounds impractical! Well, let me make four suggestions at this point. In order to fight the power of sin in the power of the Spirit...

1. I must listen to what the Spirit says. If we are going to fight in the power of the Spirit, then we must listen to what the Spirit says. In one of the Star Wars movies, Luke Skywalker is learning how to use the force. So, he takes up his light saber, puts on a blinding helmet, and gets ready. A floating robotic ball takes shots at him, and his goal is to deflect these shots with his saber. The better he gets at this intuitive defense against attacks, the more in tune with the force he is.

This is not what I mean when I say, "I must listen to what the Spirit says." It is not that mystical...it's actually quite practical. The Spirit has spoken a great deal on how we are to think, how we are to feel, how we are to speak, and how we are to act. He has spoken through the authors of Scripture, who "spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21). There is no fighting in the power of the Spirit unless we heed the Word of the Spirit. As Jesus dictated to the apostle John, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev. 2:29).

2. I must want what the Spirit wants. As we take the Scripture in, study it, meditate on it, and memorize it, the Spirit shapes what we want. This is absolutely an act of the Spirit! We can read a sentence and do what it says, but if we do it against our will, it is only hypocrisy...it is not powerful. For example, I may know that I should forgive others as Christ has forgiven me (Eph. 4:32). However, simply telling someone "I forgive you" has no real power...there must be a real desire to release that person from the debt of pain that owe you. The words "I forgive you" are not powerful in and of themselves...but the longing to forgive and reconcile amongst believers radiates with Spirit power. So, we must want what the Spirit wants.

What if I don't want what the Spirit wants? Well, it's time to evaluate our own soul at this point. If we come across the clear teaching of the Scripture and find that we don't want to do it, then we know the power of sin and rebellion is at work in us. If we are content to leave the power of sin at work in us unchallenged, then our hearts are hardening, and we must repent and call on the Lord for grace and mercy in our time of need.

3. I must act on what the Spirit says. This may go without saying, but it should not go unsaid. Wanting what the Spirit wants is not enough...we must act on what the Spirit says. We do what we want to do, so any desire to obey that does not find its way into our behavior is an incomplete desire. It is only a wish and not a real driving passion. This must not be said of us. Fighting the power of sin will have effects on our decisions, actions, and words...not just effects on our thoughts and desires.

4. I must seek the Spirit's help. Prayer is an expression of dependence on God. In the battle against sin's power is when we ought to feel our deepest need of God's Spirit. In Ephesians 6, the great weapon for the believer's stand against the devil is the Word, and the way in which we are to wield that sword of the Spirit is in the power of prayer. To paraphrase Samuel Gordon, we must do more than pray after we have prayed, but we cannot do more than pray until we have prayed.

In addition to prayer, the Spirit uses other believers to aid us in the fight...these other believers have the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. They can join us in praying, they encourage our forward progress, and they confront us in the attempts to retreat or surrender. When you think about it, God's use of men like John Owen is a great example of this kind of Spirit help. He's not infallible, and his words are not inerrant...yet, throughout history, God has delighted to use men like him to empower believers in future generations. So, both prayer and the church are ways by which God's Spirit helps us in the fight against the power of sin.

Hear what the Spirit says, want what the Spirit wants, act on what the Spirit says, and seek the Spirit's help. As we do this, we can fight the power of sin by the power of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. Finally, this battle is continual. Let me finish with one last quote from Owen: "...sin is always acting, always conceiving, always seducing and tempting...If, then, sin will be always acting, if we be not always mortifying, we are lost creatures. He that stands still and [allows] his enemies to double blows upon him without resistance will undoubtedly be conquered in the issue. If sin be subtle, watchful, strong, and always at work in the business of killing our souls, and we be slothful, negligent, foolish, in proceeding to the ruin thereof, can we expect a [good outcome]? There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on; and it will be so while we live in this world."