Sovereign Means Free- Some Thoughts on 2 Corinthians 9.8

August 4, 2009

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9.8)

Have something unfortunate happen to you or some event arise which causes you anxiety and the sure repose you will receive from your Christian friends is a hearty, “God will provide.”  This sounds good, but in a day of abundant Christian mythology, one must always check: Does the Bible really say this?  The good news is, yes, indeed it does.

Now, let’s be careful how much we read into the text however.  Here we are told, “God is able to make all grace abound to you . . . ”  Able, not constrained or forced or committed.  It may be the case that though he is able, for some reason or another he may not be willing.  Take for instance what Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 12.7-9,

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

No where are we to assume that God was unable to do this thing Paul asked of him, it just so happened that God had a greater purpose in not doing it.  This is God’s prerogative and we as finite thinkers contain no right to judge negatively should God in his sovereignty choose not to do anything.

Similarly, he is “able to make all grace abound to you.”  What is ‘grace’?  We don’t initially know.  Grace may be material.  It may be wealth or possessions.  But it may also be favorable circumstances, fortuitous prohibitions, or any of another among a cadre of options.  Again, God is not under compulsion to provide what we think is appropriate.

God never lacks the ability to provide anything, but his refusal to sometimes exercise that ability or to exercise it in a way other than we expect is part of what it means for God to be sovereign.

Sunday Devotions- Struck by “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”

July 26, 2009

I’ll admit it, there are many times that I simply sing along during worship without focusing very much on the words of substance of what I’m belting out.  This is wrong.  I know.  And I’d even be the first to speak against it, but I confess, I struggle with it to.

That said, this past Sunday I was paying attention to the words of a very familiar hymn that we were singing on Sunday morning and for the first time the words really struck me deep.  The song was “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us” by Stuart Townsend and the lyrics are as follows:

How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

The entire song is solid, drawing from numerous passages of Scripture and painting deep, harrowing pictures of Christ that carry much more emotion than the flamboyent, fuzzy Savior of The Jesus Film.  I especially am drawn by that final stanza however.

Why should I gain from his reward?  I cannot give an answer

How true is this?  Knowing what I do of my own depravity, both from the revelation of Scripture and the Spirit within me, the possibility that I would receive anything more from God than hell is unthinkable.  God had already given me life and look how I had screwed that up.  Yet by his grace– what a pathetically weak word that is– he gave me what I do not and could not deserve.

But this I know with all my heart, his wounds have paid my ransom

With all my heart.  God did not simply forgive me.  A sacrifice was required.  My sins could not just be overlooked.  They have not been merely forgotten.  My sins killed Jesus.  How many of us really dwell on this?  Is the glory of the modern gospel nothing but that God loves me and so turns a blind eye to my transgressions?  In America we often say, “Freedom isn’t free,” but nowhere is this more apparent than in the death of Christ.  Our sins carry a cost, but for those of us who have been freed by the grace of God, that freedom was made possible because the cost of our sins was paid by one who came before us, living the life we couldn’t live, dying the death we should have died, so that we could gain the reward we could never have gained.

Sunday Devotions- Characteristics of Reliance on Grace in 2 Corinthians 1.12

July 12, 2009

For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you.” (2 Corinthians 1.12)

Can I boast that I have done as Paul?  Am I as cautious as he to avoid living “by earthly wisdom”?  At times I know this not to be the case, falling victim to the prophets of this age.  This is not self-reliance he is describing; it is sovereign-reliance!  I must rest upon the sovereign that he will line up everything by grace and that nothing will befall me that is not ultimately for my good in being sanctified into the image of Christ (cf. Romans 8.28-29).

What then are these characteristics that Paul embraces?  Simplicity and godly sincerity.  Simplicity, or holiness.  This is a sort of transparency and uprightness which avoids lurking in the shadows of sin to protect oneself or to elevate one’s own fame.  And godly sincerity is the earnestness with which he acts, knowing that he possesses the only message which gives life and thus is compelled to make it known.  There is no conjured emotion or cold obedience here.  Paul discharges his call out of love for the Father and love for the Elect (cf. 2 Timothy 2.10).  Would that these were also the traits of my life.  That my actions and heart could be described in such ways.  That through such a frame God’s glory might be praised all the more because, and not in spite of, me.

Sunday Devotion- Psalm 13.1 and Resting on the Lord

June 28, 2009

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from m
e?” -Psalm 13.1

Would it be in us to pray this anymore?  Up against the thought that God had abandoned us forever, would we think to pray anyways?  Our culture celebrates self-sufficiency, autonomy, ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’, but this is not where Scripture takes us.  Our hope is only in the Lord and coming to him in humble request is the only way we are given to overcome whatever ails us– even if it seems like he’s not there.  As James tells us, “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (5.16b).

How should we then take this?  How much is faith and how much is action?  We must not attempt to replace the power of God working through prayer, but we also must not be completely passive.  How do we discern the boundary here?  Where is the line at which we are depending too much upon human strength and not enough upon divine power?  No matter where we decide that it is, and I believe it will be different for different people and different situations, we best not forget that in all circumstances, “[God's] grace is sufficient for [us]” (2 Corinthians 12.9b).

Steps to the Dark Side, part 2- Some Theological Abuses that Lead to Christian Universalism

May 7, 2009

Yesterday we began laying out some of the doctrinal errors that are contributing to evangelical churches moving closer and closer to the idea of Christian Universalism (CU) and today we will continue in this work, covering numbers two and three out of the four I named.

The second error that I believe is putting our churches at risk for turning to CU is a misunderstanding of salvation by grace alone.  Now please, hear me out on this.  Obviously the idea of sola gratia is foundational to Protestant Christianity and this is not at all a claim which I wish to dispute.  Ephesians 2.8 makes it perfectly clear that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith,” and if any question remained, Romans 3.23-24a tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift.”  So, salvation is surely by grace alone.

Then what do I mean in saying that a misunderstanding of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone puts the church on the path to CU?  I mean that we must not confuse the fact that it is by grace alone that we gain our salvation with the fact that it took so much more than grace for our forgiveness to be granted.  We must not ever forget that though we pay nothing to receive adoption as sons that does not mean that no price has been paid.  Indeed the greatest price was paid for our salvation, the cost of Jesus’ life!

What happens when we forget that the sacrifice of Christ was necessary for our forgiveness and for us to have the ability to be justified by grace is that we forget just how offensive our sinfulness is to God.  When we begin to replace the truth of the penal substitutionary death of Christ with lies like Christ died on the cross to identify with our sufferings then we begin to minimize the severity of our rebellion against God.  And the moment our rebellion does not look so bad then any God who would eternally condemn someone over something as inconsequential as sin becomes a cruel despot and must be rejected by our refined sensibilities.  Therefore, it is crucial not to forget that though we play no part in obtaining our salvation, it is purely by grace, there still was a tremendous price paid by Christ as a result of our sin.  As the full context of Romans 3.23-24 tells us, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

The third error which tempts evangelicals towards Christian Universalism is the teaching of Free Grace theology as it pertains to perseverance.  The reasoning behind this is somewhat the mirror of the reasoning for the previous point.  Free Grace theology teaches people that they receive salvation the moment they accept Christ, either through some prayer or verbal declaration or what not, and that no subsequent action of their life following this can jeopardize that standing.  Whereas a misunderstanding of salvation by grace alone views our salvation as not needing any price to be paid for it, the error of Free Grace theology is to believe that our salvation does not need any price to be paid to sustain it.  I have argued elsewhere why I feel this view to be inaccurate (see here and here) and so you may refer to those as to why I call this an error.  

As far as why Free Grace theology tempts towards CU, I base this on the fact that it does not take much of a wiggle to go from believing that on either side of salvation God never requires anything more from a person than faith to believing that in salvation God simply never requires anything of a person.  If the New Testament commands from Christ and the Apostles to Christians are simply the steps recommended for those who want to go deeper, then who’s to say that the command to faith is not also among those things which are nonessential?  To most of you this probably sounds ridiculous, but parse it out.  Why is “take up your cross daily” a suggestion but speaking with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead a requirement?  Not so cut and dry, is it?  Therefore, for those who are totally sold out on Free Grace theology, how much will it take to move them along to Christian Universalism?  From where I stand it doesn’t seem like a lot, which is not acceptable.

You Owe it to Him, Right?- John Piper on the Debtor’s Ethic of Christian Living

April 26, 2009

Talking about stewardship yesterday I mentioned the “debtor’s ethic”, an idea that we should do things out of gratitude to God in order to pay him back for his blessings and/or the gift of salvation.  As I said, this was not a unique creation of my own but is something I read in the writings of Dr. John Piper.  Today I think I would like to expound on this ethic a little further.

The written idea of the debtor’s ethic, at least as I encountered it, occurs in John Piper’s book on pastoral ministry entitled Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.  In the fifth chapter of this book Dr. Piper makes the statement, “Brothers, beware of the debtor’s ethic.”  He then goes on to describe the debtor’s ethic writing that,

[i]t comes packaged as a gratitude ethic and says things like: “God has done so much for you; now what will you do for Him?”  ”He gave you His lfe; now how much will you give to Him?”

[In this] the Christian life is pictured as an effort to pay back the debt we owe to God.  The admission is made that we will never fully pay it off, but the debtor’s ethic demands that we work at it.  Good deeds and religious acts are the installment payments we make on the unending debt we owe God. (p.34)

From just this much I would imagine that many of us know exactly what Piper is talking about.  This mindset is especially prevalent in Catholic homes and communities, where the ideas of penance and works righteousness are widely accepted as biblical truth.  Of course, from this Piper then asks teh question, “Have you ever tried to find a Biblical text where gratitude or thankfulness is the explicit motive for obedience to God?”  He admits that there are passages which elevate the position of gratitude in our service, but states that not a single verse or passage exists which explicitly suggests this philosophy as being commended by Christ.

Why is this so bad though?  Is it not okay simply to serve God and do good things regardless of teh motivation behind it?  No, it’s not.  In fact, a key characteristic of Jesus’ earthly ministry was that he charged people to take the primary focus in obedience off of the observable physical acts and placing it on the intentions of the heart (cf. Matthew 5-7).  Having right motives in serving God is what makes our service acceptable to him, as Hebrews 11.6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”  Clearly, the focus of God is upon faith and our trusting in him.  Paying back an obligation can be a very apathetic action; acting in faith cannot.

I believe that we need to test for this in all aspects of our Christian lives.  The debtor’s ethic is an easy sin to fall into, yet a deadly mindset to overlook.  Even if we as believers have encountered and become aware of the yoke that the debtor’s ethic brings, we still manage to be in danger of succombing to it at any time.  The moment we sour on doing something, be it teaching Sunday School, loving our spouse, witnessing to the lost, or any other point of service in our lives, we find ourselves one step from continuing on sinfully trying to pay back a debt instead of proceeding to act in faith towards the one who has established us.  

Be on the lookout.  Burdening us with a sense of obligation to repay God is one of the more prevalent tricks of the devil today.  This is for sure a yoke we cannot bear; and yet, in light of God’s free gift of forgiveness through the sacrifice of Christ and our faith in this, it is not a yoke we need to bear either.

Calvinism Really is the Gospel- Calvinism Preaches the Sovereignty of God in Dispensing His Grace

March 13, 2009

After yesterday arguing that Spurgeon’s initial evidence was true, that Calvinism’s teaching of justification by faith without works really is part of the gospel, we now want to move on to his second claim:

Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel if we do not preach justification by faith without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace . . .

The second evidence offered in support of Spurgeon’s claim that Calvinism is the gospel is that we are not preaching the gospel unless we are preaching of God’s sovereignty in His dispensation, or giving, of grace.  

Is this the gospel?  Well, first I guess we should dissect a little further what this actually means.  I think as a general rule (and in light of the next part of the quote) we would be going too far in assuming that here Spurgeon is talking about election.  Surely he would argue that God is sovereign in election, but that is a level of structure further into the nature of God than we need to be yet.  Here I believe that Spurgeon is simply speaking in accord with Jonah and the Psalmist when both of them proclaim “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2.9, Psalm 3.8).  Thus, the position is that there is no salvation apart from God’s sovereign allowance of it.  As it stands,  no man has the authority to come up to God and demand salvation; God is sovereign in granting it, and no man may partake of it otherwise (cf. John 6.44).

So, is this the gospel?  We can certainly see that it seems to be captured in the teachings of Scripture.  But is it good news?  How could it not be?  Is it better news to say that God is not in control, that God does not have sovereignty over his grace and that there is some way in which his granting of it is simply out of his hands who receives it?  In what way could this even take place?  Would grace be dispensed at random to people by a cosmic lottery?  Surely this is not good news.  Then maybe it is obtained by a Darwinistic natural selection of the population?  Yet, this also seems to not 0nly not be good news but also in opposition to Scripture  (1 Corinthians 1.26-29).  Maybe it is granted to those who perform mighty works in their own power?  But we have already expelled that idea by saying that we are justified by faith apart from works and by the fact that grace is not grace if somehow it is meritted.

Clearly, there is no good news in grace that is not sovereignly metted out by an omniscient, omnipotent Heavenly Father.  God’s sovereign dispensation is a truly a most glorious truth of the gospel.  It is also a part of Calvinism, and thus, two evidences in, we still have consensous between Calvinism and the gospel.

A Burden Too Much!- Overcoming the Weight of Indwelling Sin

January 5, 2009

For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.” -Psalm 38.4

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” -Matthew 11.29-30

Over the past several months I have found myself in very unusual place spiritually. Since November 2007 God has been doing a mighty work in my life and at every turn he has been changing my perspective, changing my attitude, changing my expectations. And along the way, in seeing these new things, I have become extremely wrapped up in the depravity of man. Not in an experimental way, but simply in that I have been learning afresh the myriad ways in which the human heart is wicked; how even though we view these days as being peculiarly evil, they are, in fact, no more evil than all the days which man has inhabited the earth. And focusing on mankind’s wickedness I started focusing on my own, and every little slip, every misstep, every wrong thought in my head or angry word spoken to my wife or daughter hit me more and more acutely than they ever had before. I began to read and meditate on the penitential psalms like Psalms 6, 38, 51, and 130. My sin, as David says in Psalm 51.3, was ever before me, and it depressed my spirit.

I think this depression was aided by my attitude towards certain ideas. I am always weary of resting on those light and optimistic verses like Philippians 4.12 or Jeremiah 29.11 because I have been jaded at their rampant misuse in the “Church-ianity” of our day. Yet in taking this attitude I also managed to miss out on the optimistic words that were lying at the end of the very psalms I was reading and being brought down by.

Take Psalm 38. It starts out, “O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath! . . . there is no health in my bones because of my sin . . . My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness” (v.1, 3b, 5). So, I would read these words and ruminate on how ugly my wounds are, how deserving I am of God’s discipline and wrath, and it tore down my soul. And in my arrogance I did not spend time in the closing lines, “But for you, O LORD, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer. . . . Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation!” (v.15, 22).

Or what about Psalm 6: “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes” (vv.6-7), and yet, “The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer” (v.9).

I saw the sadness, the brokenness, and cried out with the psalmist about the burden of my own sin. I was broken, beat down by the weight of my own lingering filth, even after God’s transforming work on my heart. I was just so frustrated at the remaining flesh warring, and many times winning, against my spirit. But it wasn’t until the other night when God lifted the veil, removed the temporary blinders I had put on and forgotten about the glory of grace. It was my flaw, my failing, that I had become so upset about my own unrighteousness that I neglected Christ’s righteousness.

This is so difficult and I can’t say as I have fully rectified all that I am thinking. There is such a fine line between the obedience we are called to and the holiness that we cannot on our own attain. There is so much frustration in my bones when I find myself as Paul saying, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7.15). And yet, at the end of the day, the one amazing truth is that “God made [me] alive together with [Christ], having forgiven [me] all [my] trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against [me] with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2.13b-14).

I thank God for opening my eyes to better appreciate his grace, which, though I was unable at first to see it, he so providential wrote about right next to the very words that had fed my depression.

Dear Titus, . . . – An In-Depth Look at Paul’s Epistle, Titus 1.3-4

November 7, 2008

“And at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior.” (Titus 1.3)

God hid his plan from all until the right time in which he sent Christ to the world and nailed him to the Cross. Not the angels not the prophets knew of who or what they foresaw, but now the Gospel truth is present for all to see through the preaching of the word (1 Peter 1.10-12). It is this preaching which has been entrusted to Paul as his calling, specifically among the Gentiles (Romans 15.8-21). Yet again, lest we think Paul took on this task by his own desire, we are reminded that it was the command of our God which led him so. Notice the priority placed upon preaching, ‘kerygma’, the heralding. It is by these means which God’s promise is made manifest to the world. The God who could write the Gospel in the clouds for all to see or send angels to declare him from heaven, instead chose human transmission and testimony as his way of reaching the lost and dying. For this reason we are not absolved of responsibility in sharing the Gospel with others but thus must always be engaged in preaching and evangelism so that all may hear and may have the opportunity to believe (Romans 10.14-17).

“To Titus, my true child in a common faith: . . . ” (1.4)

All who are believers in Christ (i.e. united by a common faith) are related in his family. In this instance we see moreover that Titus is Paul’s child, a disciple who he has raised through the faith into a man ready to handle the capacities of the pastorate.

“Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.” (1.4)

Grace and peace are blessings bestowed upon us by God through the actions of Christ. The presence of grace and peace in our lives assures us of God’s mercy and Christ’s sacrifice. For grace saves us and peace allows us to trust fully in God without the anxious distractions otherwise there.

Not by the Sword- David on the Coming Salvation in 1 Samuel 17.46-47

October 23, 2008

This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give you into our hand.” -1 Samuel 17.46-47

These are the final recorded words spoken between David and the giant Goliath before David laid him flat with a well-placed smooth river stone.  Yet in these words we find more than just biblical trash talk, we see inspired words of prophecy, speaking forth to the final triumph of Christ over Satan the deceiver.

The key passage is verse 47 where David speaks to “this assembly,” or what we now call the church (the word translated today as ‘church’, ekklesia, is the Greek translation provided for the word ‘assembly’, qahal, in Hebrew), informing them that the battle is not to be won through man-centered wars and the skill of warriors in the field, but instead that God controls the battle and he will provide victory for his people apart from these means.

Of course, this prophecy finds its completion in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who destroyed death through his own death (Hebrews 2.14-15), bringing life and immortality through the proclamation of the Gospel (2 Timothy 1.10), and who has all things subjected to his reign through his resurrection and ascension to glory (Ephesians 1.20, 22).  It is by this action that we may find personal victory over death (1 Corinthians 15.54-57), not accomplished by our own struggling against evil (Ephesians 2.8), and it is in his spoils that we may share (Ephesians 2.6).

David knew who was at work when he went into the battle; 1 Samuel 17.37a, “And David said, ‘The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.’“  What a blessing it would be for us if we worked to understand God’s sovereign grace in this way!