Sola Deo Gloria (our only ambition)

This is the final in a 5-part series commemorating 500 years of the Protestant Reformation.

The sixteenth century Reformers were all fighting for one thing: a recovery of the true gospel, which had been lost and obscured by tradition and man-made religion.  That gospel is summarised in 5 Latin phrases known as the “5 Solas.”   The word “sola” means alone.  The Roman Catholic Church taught that the authority of the church was based on Scripture and tradition and the Bishops and Popes.  The Reformers said no, it is sola Scriptura – Scripture alone.  Rome taught salvation was by faith plus human merit.  The Reformers said no, it’s sola fide – faith alone.  Rome taught forgiveness was mediated by way of the sacraments.  The Reformers said no, it’s sola gratia – grace alone.  Rome taught salvation is in Christ with the help of Mary, the saints and good works.  The Reformers said no, it’s solus Christus – Christ alone.

Now all this leads to a very natural and simple conclusion.  If salvation is by God’s grace alone by faith alone and in Christ alone – then who gets the glory?  God and God alone.  And that brings us to our focus today – Soli Deo Gloria.

Let’s start by looking at one of my favourite Psalms – Psalm 19.

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands. Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge. There is no speech; there are no words; their voice is not heard. Their message has gone out to the whole earth, and their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19:1–4)

Have you ever looked up at a night sky and seen all the stars and planets in dazzling array, and asked yourself,  “All those planets and stars – they all seem rather unnecessary.  There’s no one living on them.  They’re not being used for anything.  So, what are they for?”   I’ll tell you what they’re for: they are there to display God’s glory.  They are there so that we might see how great and glorious and majestic and powerful and AWESOME God is.  And seeing this is meant to evoke some response in us.  God wants us to look at what he has made and say,

“Look at what you have done!  Look at your power and glory on display.  God, you are really, really awesome!”

The Hebrew word for “glory”—kavod—is a fabulous word.  It literally means to be heavy, to carry weight, to be of substance.   The idea is the glory of God gives weight, meaning, and significance to life and creation.  All of life matters.  The universe matters.  The planets and stars – they are not random accidents that exploded out of nothingness.  They matter.  You also matter.  Your life is not a random accident.  You were created by God.  You carry weight (I don’t mean that literally!).  You have substance; you have meaning.  And unlike the planets and stars you are made in God’s image and likeness.  And you have the capability, unlike anything else in creation, to magnify, display, and broadcast to the world the glory of God.

 That’s your God-given purpose for existence – if you would only acknowledge and accept it.  And there-in lies the problem.

Human beings, for the most part, will not accept this purpose for their existence.  Instead of living to glorify God, we live to glorify ourselves.  Remember the story of Babel in Genesis 11.  “Come,” they said, “Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top to the sky.  Let us make a name for ourselves.”  Let us do something great for ourselves.  Let us not make God look great.  Let us not ascribe glory to due his name.  No, let us ascribe glory due our name.

This is the human condition – we are in the name-making business.  We want to accumulate glory.  We don’t want to give glory – to God or anyone else.  But in the end, it never works.  Because we weren’t designed for this.  We just end up looking silly.

Imagine you’re part of the newly elected government in NZ and you have just been given a cabinet position.  You’re pleased as punch.  You’re sitting there in your office and your someone knocks on your door.  Wanting to look important, you pick up the phone and pretend you’re talking to Jacinda Adern.  You say, “Yes, Prime Minister I’ll get right on to it, you can count on me.”  You hang up the phone and say to the person standing in the doorway, “Yes, how can I help you?”  The person has a puzzled look on his face – “I’m here to hook up your phone.”   Seeking glory for ourselves never works.  We just look silly.

Yet people continue to do it.  Politicians do it.  Teachers and taxi-drivers do it.  Salesmen and students do it.  Priests and pastors do it.  We put on a show.  We act all bravado.  We play the act.  Because our souls are hungry for glory.  But we go seeking it in the wrong places for the wrong reasons.  The moon does not provide its own glow; it reflects the light of the sun.  We are designed to be glory reflectors; not manufacturers.

You see, it’s not about us.  The reason you and I exist; the reason Grace church exists, the reason the universe exists is not about us.  It’s about God.  Even our salvation – although we benefit greatly by it, it not about us.  It’s about God.

If you were to read through Ephesians chapter one you would find one long, massive list of blessings that God has given to believers.  We have been chosen, predestined and adopted; we have been redeemed and forgiven and God has lavished us with all wisdom and understanding – for what great purpose?  To what great end?  Three times Paul tells us in that chapter (v.6, 12 and 14) – it’s to the praise of His glorious grace.

You’re not the point of the universe; God is.  God did not create you to glorify you but to glorify himself.  Everything he does is for his glory.  When he saved you, it was for his glory, when he’s forgiving you, it’s to the praise of his glorious grace, when he’s loving and caring for you, it’s so that his goodness and kindness and mercy might be put on display to a watching world.

Soli Deo Gloria – for the glory of God alone.  It’s the battle cry of the Reformation.  It’s what the church is about.  It’s what you are about.  It’s what planet earth and the entire universe is about.  And it all makes sense and is made possible by way of the glorious gospel which tells us we can be redeemed, we can be restored, we can be made whole again by faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone to the glory of God alone.

Living it out

So how do we apply this great truth in our everyday lives?  The answer lies with this one verse:

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Glorify God in the ordinary – that’s what Paul is saying here.  When you eat, eat to the glory of God. God is present with you, and he has given you food.  You did not earn it.  Eat it.  Savour it.  Don’t just shovel it in.  Don’t cram it down as fast as you can so you can’t remember what it was.  Chew on it and while you are chewing, think about how good God is.  Think about how good God has been to give this food to you.  There are people in the world who don’t have food.  Ask God to give them food, too.  Eat to the glory of God.

While you are driving, do it to the glory of God.  Look out your windscreen, and you see the mountains and hills or the reflection of the sky on the ocean or the estuary think about how good God is to place you in such a beautiful world.  Thank him for it.  Give praise to him for giving you the eyes to see and the heart to know it.

You can do this.  This is what makes a life glorious.  This life is your shot at glory.  Your office can be a place of shekinah glory.  Your car can be a place of glory.  Your kitchen can be a place of glory.  Everyday activities like paying your bills, having coffee with a friend, talking with people in your neighbourhood, reading a book, and sleeping can be glorious moments.

This is what the Reformers fought and died for.  They could not exist if anything else or anyone else in the world should steal God’s glory.

May we be men and women after their own hearts.

Note: this post is based on a series preached at our Church called “The 5 Solas.”  You can listen to it on our website here.

 

 

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Solus Christus (our only mediator)

In the Middle Ages the priest was seen as having a special relationship with God and mediated God’s grace and forgiveness through the sacraments.  If you belonged to the Church of Rome, you would attend mass and work hard at being a good Catholic.  If you died before your soul was fully cleansed, you go to purgatory where you are purified through pain until you are ready to stand before God.  Now if you’re lucky, you might have a caring family who could purchase time off your sentence by making a donation to the Church by purchasing an indulgence.  After the indulgence was paid, the Catholic Church would dip into what is called the Treasury of Merit.

The Treasury of Merit (Latin: Thesaurus Meritorum) was like a bank account made up of all the good deeds of the saints of all time.  Jesus contributed to this considerably and so did Mary.  Being sinless (according to Rome), she gained far more merit than what was needed for heaven, and so the extra merit she acquired was added to the treasury, along with the merits of saints.  The Treasury of Merit is placed under the charge of the Pope, who alone possesses the keys, and he can dispense merit at his discretion.

You say, “So where did they get all this from?”  They made it up.  You won’t find any of this in the Bible.  The point here however is salvation according to Rome is summed up in two words: JESUS PLUS.  It’s Jesus plus the sacraments, Jesus plus good works, Jesus plus Mary and the Saints, and Jesus plus purgatory when all else fails.  It is against this that the Reformers stood up and said – “No, salvation is in Christ and Christ ALONE.”

Three Scriptures to remember

Let’s start with some Scripture.  The first one we are going to look at is Acts 4:12.

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12)

Well, that’s clear.  If you want to be saved, if you want to have your sins forgiven, there is only one person you can call upon and that is Jesus.  Calling upon St Anne won’t save you.  Calling upon Mary won’t save you.  Calling on Allah won’t save you.  Only calling upon Jesus will save you.  Let’s go to another Scripture: 1 Timothy 2:5

“For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5)

There is only One God – the Creator God, the God of the Bible.  And there is only one mediator who can give us access to God – the man Christ Jesus.  He is the perfect mediator because he is both God and man and understands both parties.  And he is the perfect mediator because he alone qualifies for the job.  That takes us to the third key Scripture: Hebrews 10:11-12

“Every priest stands day after day ministering and offering the same sacrifices time after time, which can never take away sins. But this man, after offering one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb 10:11-12)

Under the Old Covenant, the High Priest acted as the mediator.  He would go into the holy of holies and make atonement for sin.  He would intercede for the people.  God would hear his prayer, forgive the Israelites and care for and provide for them.  This was a temporary, provisional system.  As important as this work of the priest was in the OT, no priest and no animal could take away a man’s sins.  It was all pointing to a time in the future when God would send someone to be the perfect mediator.

To qualify for this role, Jesus needed to be two things:

  1. Firstly, he had to be a member of the human race (in order to represent us).
  2. Secondly, he had to be holy and sinless, which he was, because he was conceived without sin and lived a completely sinless life.

Jesus, by dying in our place and bearing the punishment for our sin, mediated for us.  He reconciled us to God.  And having been raised up again from the dead, he now sits at the Father’s right hand, making intercession for us.  His priestly work hasn’t finished; it continues.

Two truths to affirm

Flowing out of those three Scriptures are two truths we can affirm:

 Truth #1: Your salvation is secured by Christ alone.

Christians sometimes say, “Salvation is not earned.  It is free.”  That is not entirely true.  It is earned, just not by us.  Christ, by his perfect life and atoning death, earned our salvation.  He bought it.  He worked for it.   We often say, “I am saved by grace, not by works.”  But we should go further.  We should say, “I am saved by grace through faith in the works of Jesus Christ.”  It’s his work that saves you.  Faith doesn’t save you.  Faith doesn’t justify you.  It is faith in what Christ has done that saves you.

Think of Jesus Christ as the power station, faith as the power line, and we are the house.  Faith cannot create power; it can only transmit.  Whether your faith is great or small is immaterial.  Jesus said if you have faith of a mustard seed you can say to a mountain “go here” and it will move.  It is not the amount of faith that’s the issue but the object of faith.  Any amount of faith in Christ is sufficient to release from God’s power station cleansing power to save you.

Truth #2: Your salvation is sustained by Christ alone

Salvation is not just something that happens in the past, when you first repented and believed.  It is happening every day.  The bible teaches 3 tenses in salvation:

  • You were saved (Past)
  • You are being saved (Present)
  • You will be fully saved (Future)

Hebrews 10:25 says,

“Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them.” (Heb 7:25)

Did you see that?  Save completely, or as some translations put it – save to the uttermost.  When Christ saves us, he ensures that he will keep us to the very end.  For he who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it until that final day (Philippians 1:6).

So, we’ve had our 3 Scriptures and our 2 affirmations.  Now for the one application.

One application to make

The application is this: Since Christ alone earned your salvation and Christ alone sustains your salvation, He is sufficient for your every need.

  • You don’t need any other saviour
  • You don’t need any other mediator
  • You don’t need any other redeemer or rescuer or liberator.

The mistake the Roman Catholic Church made was not that they didn’t believe that Jesus could save.  They did.  He just wasn’t enough.  You needed something more.  You needed Jesus plus the sacraments, Jesus plus encountering a relic, Jesus plus praying the rosary, Jesus plus prayers to the Saints and on and on it went.  It never ended, which is why no one was actually fully assured they were accepted by God or not.

We can easily fall into the same error today.  Be on your guard.  Because you will have people come and tell you that having Jesus is good, but to be really spiritual you need something more.  You need Jesus plus visions from God, Jesus plus speaking in tongues, Jesus plus social activism, Jesus plus positive thinking, Jesus plus a healthy self-esteem, Jesus plus a special encounter with God.

If you have Jesus, you have all that you need.  He is sufficient.  All the fulness of the Godhead dwells in Him Paul tells us, and in him you are complete (Colossians 2:9-10).  “Christ Alone” is something the Reformers stood for, lived for and even died for.  It was something that William Tyndale was willing to go to the stake for.

 “Understand me well, it is the blood of Christ that opens the gates of heaven and not your works… it is not by what you have done, but by what Christ has done for you.” 

Solus Christus – Christ alone.  Never forget it.  He is all that you ever need.

Note: this post is based on a series preached at our Church called “The 5 Solas.”  You can listen to it on our website here. 

 

Sola Gratia (our only method)

One of the crucial questions of the Middle Ages was how were the benefits of Christ’s death applied to the sinner who needed to be saved.  Over the course of a few centuries, the Catholic Church had appropriated that power to itself, through sacraments that the church administered to its members.  Those sacraments are: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.  The Catholic Church Catechism states that,

“The sacraments of the Catholic Church instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, are efficacious signs of grace perceptible to the senses. Through them divine life is bestowed upon us.”[1]

In other words, the Church becomes the custodian of grace and has the authority to mediate that grace to God’s people through the sacraments.  But even then, a person’s salvation is not secure.  There is additional work to be done.  This is where the real problem lay.

Pelagius, 5th Century AD

In the 5th century AD there was a teacher in Rome called Pelagius who taught that man has the ability to seek God and fulfil the commands of God apart from the grace of God.  In other words, a person is capable by his own free will to choose God or do good without the aid of divine intervention.  He could do that because his nature is basically good.

Well, the Roman Catholic theologians wouldn’t go that far.  They took on what is known as a semi-Pelagius view, saying that man’s will, though injured by the fall, is still free and cooperates with God’s grace in salvation.  It’s like a 50-50 deal.  We make the first move toward God and then He steps in and ‘helps us along.’  They even had a phrase – “God will not deny his grace to those who do their best” (the modern-day equivalent of “God helps those who help themselves”).

Against this the Reformers cried, “No, salvation is entirely by grace and grace alone.”  Luther was very strong on this.  In his book, The Bondage of the Will (which he claimed later in life to be his most important work), he argues that man’s will is bound in sin making him unable to respond to the gospel, and that it requires a special work of God’s grace to bring his salvation about.  This doesn’t mean that the will is inactive.  It means that wherever it is active in faith and obedience, God is the One who causes it to be so.  This is the essence of Sola Gratia – it is God’s grace working alone in our salvation.

This is no small issue here. For Luther, the issue of man’s bondage to sin was the root issue of the Reformation — and the lynchpin of Protestantism.  The Catholic Church agreed.  Irwin Lutzer says, “The Roman Catholic Church regarded he freedom of the will as the central issue in Luther’s split with the church.”

Perhaps you might grasp the difference between the two with this illustration.  Picture a man drowning in the water and God throws him a rope.  Whether he grabs the rope or not is his own choice.  Even after he grabs it, he must, by his own efforts hang on to it.  That’s Rome’s position on God’s grace (and, when it comes down to it, the position of many evangelical churches today).  Luther would say the man is not only drowning; he’s unconscious.  He cannot respond because he is unable to respond.  God must intervene and “awaken” his will so that he believes.

So what does Scripture teach?  That is what really matters.  In 2 Timothy 1 Paul reminds Timothy what the heart of the gospel is:

“He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began. This has now been made evident through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Timothy 1:9–10)

Now I want you to look at this closely with me.

  • Who, according to Paul is the one who does the saving in this passage? Do we save ourselves or does God save us?  God save us.
  • Was this based on anything we have done? No, it was based solely on God’s purpose and grace.
  • When was this saving grace given to us?  It was given before time began.
  • How was this grace given to us? Was it bestowed on us when we took sacraments or took steps to obey God?  No, it was given in and through the person of Christ.

Paul is teaching us in this passage that salvation, from start to finish, is all of grace.  It’s grace at the start, grace to the end, and grace in the middle.  The moment we add human works or human effort to the mix, it ceases to be grace.  As Paul puts it in the book of Romans,

“Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace.” (Romans 11:6)

You say, “Well then what do I bring to the table of my salvation?  I must bring something?”  Yes, you do – your sin.  We bring our sin and God brings his grace.  We say, “Lord, nothing in my hands I bring, only to the cross I cling.”  And God says, “That’s all that is required.  You are saved by my grace and my grace alone.”

Do you find that difficult?  I’m sure you do.  Because we don’t like hearing those kinds of things.  It goes against our nature.  We all like to think there is some good in us.  But face to face with God – alone, just you and him, are you not (truly) good.  In fact, according to the Bible there is not one iota of good in you.

“As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become worthless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10–12)

This is God’s assessment of the entire human race.  And unless we truly grasp this, unless we understand our true spiritual condition prior to salvation, we will never understand what grace really is.  Luther said,

“Man must completely despair of himself in order to become fit for the grace of Christ. The proper preparation for the grace and goodness of Christ is the awareness that I need them.”

I think all this is summed up so well in the great hymn from Charles Wesley – “And Can it Be?”  Here are two stanzas I really love:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’ eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

For Wesley, the message of “Grace Alone” was a prison escape.  It’s a message of liberation, not captivity.  It causes people to flourish and thrive.  It’s a message about God reaching down to poor, helpless creatures who have no ability in of themselves to make themselves better – truly better, and saying “Let me work in you.  My grace can not only save you, it can utterly transform you.”  And he does.

God offers you that freedom in His Son.  All that is needed is to surrender yourself completely and utterly to him.  He will cleanse you.  He will renew you.  And he will create the will in you to do what you cannot do yourself.

His grace is sufficient.  His grace, alone.

[1] Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, p.224

Note: this post is based on a series preached at our Church called “The 5 Solas.”  You can listen to it on our website here.

Peace in life’s storms

Shock news.  We’ve all experienced it haven’t we?  Your boss tells you your job is coming to an end and your position will soon be redundant.  Your doctor rings and tells you that the blood tests have come back from the lab.  It doesn’t look good and you need to come in right away.  Your daughter comes into the room with tears streaming down her face – the family cat has just been run over in the middle of the road.

Shock news.  It causes your brain to freeze so can’t think straight.  You open your mouth to say something, but nothing comes out.

It’s about how the disciples felt when Jesus told them he was about to leave them.  They had been with him, nearly every day for the past three years.  They walked the dusty roads with him, ate with him, and prayed with him.  They had given up their livelihoods to follow him.  Now he says he’s leaving.  They are devastated.  They are in shock.  This can’t be happening.  He can’t mean what he just said.  He can’t leave us.

Jesus loves these men.  He knows that leaving them will be for their own good, because then he can send the Holy Spirit to them.  But they can’t deal with any of that now.  They are too overwhelmed with grief.  Jesus knows this and so he provides them with words of assurance.  John records those words for us in John 16:33

“I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33)

These are powerful words.  They are words that will strengthen you when you are weak.   They are words that will get you through the most difficult of circumstances and most pressing trials.

Let’s have a closer look at them and see what they have to say to us today.

When Jesus uses the term “the world” (kosmos), he is not referring to the physical planet we stand on but the system of evil that dominates and governs humanity.  And this system is controlled and ordered by Satan.  Where ever there is evil at work, where ever there is human misery, where ever there is violence and abuse you know that Satan and his demons are at work behind the scenes.

That is the world you and I live in.  Jesus says it is going to cause you suffering.  Some translations have the word “tribulation.”  Others have the word “trouble.”  The word means pressure, affliction, distress – caused either by difficult circumstances or difficult people (or both!).  Jesus say you’re literally going to be squeezed, you’re going to be pressured; you’re going to be crushed living in a sinful, fallen, and satanicly controlled world.

We all need to be reminded of this don’t we?  Sometimes we have wrong expectations.  We think that because we belong to Jesus, we should live trouble-free lives.  Everything should go well for us.  That’s just not the case.  Paul had to remind the Thessalonians about this.  He writes to them and says,

“so that no one will be shaken by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. In fact, when we were with you, we told you in advance that we were going to experience affliction, and as you know, it happened.” (1 Thess 3:3–4)

But here’s the good news.  Jesus says to the disciples, “Be courageous! I have conquered the world.”  Some bibles have “Take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Well that, all on its own, has the potential to sound a bit hollow, doesn’t it?  It sounds a lot like the words from well-meaning people who want to give us some encouragement when we are in the midst of difficulty:

“Hang in there – it will all come right”
“I know you have what it takes to get through this”
“You’re strong – you’ll make it”  

But will it really come right?  Do I really have what it takes to get through?  Am I really strong enough to make it?  Can you guarantee these things?  No, they can’t because neither you nor I have any control over our circumstances.

However, when Jesus says, “Be courageous”, it’s a whole different issue.

“Be courageous” or “Take heart” is one word in the Greek and it’s in the imperative – it’s a command.  And get this: every time it is used it is spoken by Jesus.  No one else says this anywhere in the New Testament.  Only Jesus.

 “Have courage” Jesus said to the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof by his friends, “your sins are forgiven” (Matt 9:2).  And then Jesus heals the man on the spot.  He gets up, picks up his mat and walks out.

“Have courage, daughter” Jesus said to the woman who had an issue with blood, “your faith has saved you” (Matt 9:22).  And Matthew tells us that she was made well from that moment.

And then there’s the scene where the disciples are in a boat in the midst of a storm and they are fear for their lives, and Jesus comes to them walking on the water.  The disciples are terrified, thinking it was a ghost and Jesus says to them, “Have courage! It is I.”  And he got into the boat and suddenly the storm ceased (Mark 6:51).

Do you see the pattern here?  In every account whenever Jesus uttered the words “Have courage”, it was followed by divine action.  He did something.  When Jesus utters the words “Take courage” to you, he’s not giving you a pep talk.  He’s not just being nice.  He says it because he has power to change things for you.  He has authority over whatever it is that is causing trouble or distress in your life.

So, what is it that you are going through right now, that you need to hear these words?

  • Are you experiencing distress because of the direction one of your children is taking?  Are you worried about that?  Is that keeping you awake at night?   Jesus says, “Take courage – I have authority over that.  I have that in control.”
  • Is there trouble at work?  Are you under pressure there?  Are the expectations placed on you too much for you to bear?  Jesus says, “Take courage – I have authority over that as well.”
  • Do you have concerns for your health?  Are you waiting on results of a scan?  You are wondering what the future holds.  Jesus says, “Take courage – I have authority over that.  I have authority over life and I have authority over death.  This situation you are concerned about – it’s in my hands.”

A few weeks ago, I shared a story about a friend of mine called Carl (you can read the full story here).  Carl contracted melanoma which spread into other parts of his body.  By the time the doctors found it, it was too late.  It has gone into his kidneys and his spleen.  Carl was told he had only three weeks to live.  That’s when he called me.

Carl had no fear of dying.  He knew where he was going.  He knew he was in the hands of Jesus and the Lord in his timing, had chosen to take him own.  That wasn’t his concern.  His concern was for his friends and family members who weren’t Christians.  So, while his head was still clear and he could think straight he was calling them one by one and pleading with them to believe the gospel and put their trust in Jesus.

Tell me, where does a person get strength like that – to face death with such courage and hope?   I’ll tell you where: from the One who promises to be with us in every trial and every difficulty and even in the valley of the shadow of death.

“Take Courage”, he says, “I have overcome the world.  I have overcome sin and death.  And I have overcome Satan.  I have authority over all things – even your life.  So, don’t fear.  Don’t be anxious.  There is someone who loves you.  There is someone who has come down from heaven in order to redeem you.  And there is some who has conquered sin and death and has your future securely in his hand.”

Knowing these things, believing these things, is what gives the disciple true and lasting peace.

PostScript: On August 30th, Carl went peacefully to his eternal home, surrounded by his family in Auckland, NZ.

Note: this post is based on a message I preached at our Church called “The Disciples Peace.”  You can listen to it on our website here.

 

Abraham – the friend of God

Abraham is the only person in the Old Testament who is called the friend of God[1].  The Lord used to speak to Moses as a man speaks to his friend (Exodus 33:11).  But Moses is never called God’s friend.  So what sets Abraham apart from the rest of God’s servants?

That’s what I wanted to find out.  The answer came from an unsuspecting text in the book of James.

“Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works in offering Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was made complete, and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, and he was called God’s friend.” (James 2:21–23, emphasis added)

James is giving an argument for the case that there is no such thing as a faith that is devoid of works.  True faith – if it is of the saving kind, produces something.  It causes somethingHe then gives the example of Abraham offering up Isaac, quoting Genesis 15:6.  And James adds, “and he was called God’s friend.”

 Now why did James insert that?  What does that have to do with anything?  It is not at all related to his argument about faith and works.

Or is it?

Let’s have a think about this. Where do we find Abraham offering up Isaac?  In Genesis chapter 22.  If you are unfamiliar with the story you might get a little lost so let fill you in.  God calls a man called Abraham from his country and makes a covenant with him and says to him, “Abraham, leave your home and go to the land that I show you.  I’m going to bless you, I’m going to make you a great nation and all the peoples of the world are going to be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3).  And Abraham believed.  He took God at his Word.  And he obeyed.

Abraham’s faith is then tested in progressive stages.  Each time he is tested, his faith grows.  But now here comes the biggest test: God asks him to offer up his son Isaac.  You can imagine Abraham’s response: “What – you want me to offer up Isaac – my only son?  You want me to sacrifice him?”

Isaac is the son of promise.  That means Isaac is the only means by which the promises God made to Abraham (and by extension to us) can be fulfilled.  If Isaac dies without children, there is no hope for the rest of humanity because it is through Isaac that the Messiah would come.

But that’s not James’ focus.  Why was he called God’s friend?  Because of what his faith accomplished.  Because of what his faith proved.  God had already pronounced Abraham righteous by his faith (Genesis 15:6).  But now, under the severest test, how will that faith stand?  God is asking,

“Is your faith real Abraham? Do you really trust me?  Are you willing to obey me, even when it makes no sense?  Do you believe I will keep my word that Isaac is the one through whom the promises will come?” 

And Abraham says, “Yes God, I do”

Hebrews chapter 11 fills in the gaps for it says, “He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead.” (Hebrews 11:19).  And so there he is with knife upraised, his love for God driving him to surrender even that which is most precious to him; God intervenes and says, “Stop, you don’t have to.”  This is why, based on this supreme act of love and obedience, Abraham is called God’s friend.

Proving we are God’s friends

So what does all that have to do with us?  Much indeed!  For in John 15 Jesus said this to his disciples:

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:14–15)

Just as Abraham proved his trust in God was real by obeying God’s command in the most difficult of tasks, namely sacrificing his only son (which, by the way, he didn’t have to do but God later would with his own son), so we too prove our trust in Jesus when obey his commands.

  • Jesus commands us to forgive those that sin against us.  Someone does something that hurts you; they sin against you.  You say, “Jesus, this person has wounded me and deeply hurt me.  I don’t want to forgive them.  But because you showed how much you love me by laying down your life for me, then I’ll do it Jesus – I will forgive.”
  •  The Bible commands us to abstain from sexual sin.  You are attracted to someone of the opposite sex (or for that matter, someone of the same sex).  Maybe you’re already in a relationship – one that might not be pleasing to God.  You’re doing stuff you know you shouldn’t.  If Jesus was telling you to stop, would you?  This is where it gets real doesn’t it?  This is when our faith gets tested.  So, what do you do?  You say, “Lord Jesus, I’m having difficulty here.  I’m finding this hard.  I have desires which I’m finding difficult to control.  But because you’re asking me to do this, I will.  Because you Jesus, mean more to me than anything.”
  •  Jesus commands you to take the good news to the lost.  You say, “I’m no good at that. I find that too hard.”  Well guess what?  I find it hard also.  But my response is, “Because of my love for you Jesus; because you’re my friend, and because you did the hard thing for me, the least I can do is do this for you.  I’ll go and I’ll tell people about you.”

 So let me ask you now in closing, would Jesus call you his friend?  Do you demonstrate self-sacrificial love toward others, not just those closest to you – not just your friends, but those different from you?  Does he see you obeying his commands – willingly, gladly out of love for him?  Does he see fruit in your life – things that give evidence that you truly do belong to him and his Spirit lives in you?

You may able to say without hesitation, “Yes, I know I am a friend of Jesus.  I don’t obey him perfectly, but I do obey.  I know he died for me on that cross.  His love for me has changed me.  So yes, I can say he is my friend.”

Perhaps you aren’t able to say that.  You’re not there yet.  Or you thought you were there, but after reading this, you know you’re not.  Your life does not give evidence that you are Jesus’ friend.  There are too many inconsistencies.

Do you want to change that?  You can.  But you’ve first got to come clean with him.  You need to get honest with him.  And you need to be willing to turn from things you know are wrong and allow him to come into your life as Saviour and King and change your heart so that you can do what is right.

Then you, like Abraham, could be called a friend of God.

[1] 2 Chronicles 20:7, Isaiah 41:8

The Friends of Jesus

During High School friends were very important to me.  I formed a tight friendship with five other guys.  We did everything together.  They were my family – my life.  Then we started going our separate ways.  Some left for jobs.  Others moved in with their girl-friends.  The tight five were a tight four, then three, then two and then only one.  One individual – after all those years, that I could still call my friend.

People can be fickle, can’t they.  They call you a friend.  They give you the impression that they value you – that you really matter to them.  But over time you find out that is not really the case.  You’re just a commodity.  You just happened to useful to them for a time, until a better option turns up.

Friendship with Jesus isn’t anything like that (thankfully!)  It is far deeper, more meaningful and more binding.  In John 15 Jesus says this:

“I do not call you servants anymore, because a servant doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15)

I do not call you servants anymore…. I have called you my friends.  Those are the stunning statements that every believer in Jesus needs to hear.  The One who is Lord over the entire universe is calling his disciples, and by extension, all believers everywhere, HIS FRIENDS.  He gives to them intimate knowledge of his Father’s will – his plans and purposes behind what he does – things that mere servants would never have access to.

This is great news for all Jesus followers, if it wasn’t for the verses that precede this:

“No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends IF you do whatever I command you” (John 15:13-14, emphasis added)

The problem is that little word “if.”  It’s a problem because it looks like Jesus is saying, “If you do what I command, then you will be my friend and the laying down of my life will count for you.”  Is that what Jesus means?  Do what Jesus commands and you qualify to be his friend and then his death on the cross will be true for you?  If that is what Jesus means, then I’m in trouble. Because I don’t do what he commands – at least consistently.  I don’t love my wife as I should, I don’t love my kids as I should, nor do I love the people in my church as I should.  I’m often anxious (when Jesus says I shouldn’t be) and I get angry and frustrated with people when they don’t do what I want and on and on it goes.  Clearly, I do not qualify to be Jesus’ friend.  So what are we going to do here?

What we need to understand is there is more than one kind of “if” in the bible.

  1. There is a kind of “if” or condition that is a CAUSE that precedes and brings about an effect.  Let me give you an example.  When I say, “If you come to come to my house tonight, then I will serve you coffee.”  My serving you coffee is dependent on you first coming to my house.  If you don’t come, I won’t serve you coffee.
  2. There is however, another kind of “if” or condition that is an EFFECT or RESULT that follows and confirms the cause.  I’ll give you an example of that: “If, as a result of reading this you understand this passage, then I have explained it to you clearly.”  So, your understanding of this text is the result of my clear explanation.

Now let’s apply this second meaning to our text.  If would read like this – “If you do what Jesus commands, then you confirm that you are his friend and the laying down of his life is true for you.  It has bought you; it has changed you.”  You say, “Well it has to be the second one.”  Why do you say that?  You say that because you know that is what the gospel teaches.  Being in a right relationship with God (or being Jesus’ friend) is not caused by my obedience (that would be heresy), but rather his laying down of his life reveals his love for me in such a way that it changes me so that I want to obey. And we could go to many other texts in the New Testament that would confirm this.

But we need to remember that the disciples didn’t have a New Testament.  All they had were these words of Jesus.  So, my question is: what do we find here in this text that might confirm the “if” clause in verse 14 – “you are my friends if you do what I command you,” has the second meaning and not the first.  Have a look at verse 9.

“As the Father has loved me, I have also loved you. Remain in my love.” (John 15:9)

As the Father has loved me, I have also loved youHave loved – what tense is that in?  That’s in the past tense.  And then Jesus says, “Remain in my love.”  You can’t remain in something unless you are already there.  Jesus loved them prior to any acts of obedience.  We see it also in verse 12:

“This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12, emphasis added)

So we know now that the first “if” condition above cannot work.  Obeying Jesus cannot be the cause of our friendship with Jesus because Jesus tells us in verse 9 and verse 12 we are to love one another, “as I have loved you.”  Jesus is saying, “I loved you with a great love – I laid down my life for you, and this has produced a change in you so you want to obey my commands and this obedience confirms that you are in fact my friend.”

Do you see now how important that we read the bible carefully?  Do you see how important every single word is and what is meant by those words?  It can be the difference between a false gospel (salvation by my efforts) and the true gospel (salvation by God’s empowering grace).

I’m so glad my friendship with Jesus is not dependent on my obedience.  I’m so glad that he loved me before I ever loved him.  I’m so glad that this love drove him to lay down his life for me so that I could be forgiven of my sin and be reconciled to God.  Such love has affected me deeply – so deep in fact, that I am more than willing to offer my life in service and obedience to him.

Note: I am indebted to John Piper for helping me understand this more clearly.  While preparing to preach on this passage I came across his “Look by the Book” blackboard study on this text.  It was truly a revelation from heaven.  You can view the video here.

http://www.desiringgod.org/labs/are-you-a-friend-of-jesus

If you would like to hear the message I preached on this text, you can find it on the Grace Church sermon audio page here

 

 

 

 

 

 

A branch on the vine

John 15 is one of those chapters I come back to again and again.  Each time I read it something fresh and new appears that I hadn’t noticed before.  Most of us are familiar with the passage.  Jesus takes an example of everyday life: a vine with its branches, leaves and fruit and uses it to teach his disciples the importance of remaining or abiding in him.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me.” (John 15:1–5, CSB)

We need to stay closely connected to Jesus.  That’s the point.  We need the life of Jesus, pulsating in and through us, just as the life of the vine pulsates through the branches, to enable us to bear fruit and be the people God intended us to be.  If we don’t, we will fail again and again.

The Christian life is not me doing my best for Jesus.  It is Jesus doing his best in and through me.  Apart from him I can do nothing.

So far so good.  I get that.  Then comes the next part.  The Father, says Jesus, is the gardener (or vinedresser).  His role is to prune the vine.  Notice however, which branches he prunes.  It’s not the barren ones.  It’s the ones that are producing fruit.

That was something I hadn’t really noticed before.  And it got me thinking… hard.  If I’m on the vine – if I truly belong to Jesus, then I’m going to be pruned – regularly.  And if I’m not pruned regularly, something is wrong.

So, let’s think about how this works.  I’m no expert in the area of viticulture, in fact, the joke in our house is I’m a real nog when it comes to anything to do with gardening.  I have two gardening instruments in my tool-shed, a chainsaw and a big pair of loppers and I’m dangerous whenever I get hold of either of them.  My wife tells people we make a great gardening team – I destroy things and she rebuilds.

OK, so I’m no gardener but I did some reading on this.  There are actually several stages when it comes to pruning a grapevine:

  • There is what’s called pinching – that’s when you remove the little tips at the end of the branch so it won’t grow too rapidly
  • Then there’s topping, when a foot or two of new growth is removed to prevent the loss of an entire shoot
  • Then there is thinning where you remove entire grape clusters so the rest of the branch can bear more fruit as well as better quality fruit
  • And then there is cutting away of suckers to give more nourishment to the whole plant

And all of this pruning doesn’t happen all at once, but in stages.  Now I’ve watched someone prune a grapevine we had once, and I tell you, I got a real shock.  It was brutal.  He didn’t just snip off a little leaf here and there.  He chopped off entire branches.  But he knew what he was doing.  He knew what was necessary in order for my plant to grow healthy, juicy fruit.

The same is true for the Christian life.  God knows what is best for us.  He knows what to cut away.  Sometimes God prunes because there is sin in our lives.  Sometimes there is a relationship that needs restoring that we have been ignoring.  Sometimes it might be because there is fruit in our lives, but God wants us to bear more.  So, he picks up the knife and he begins cutting.

Now I think I can speak personally here.  I don’t mind sharing something of God’s work in this area in my life.  The most recent “pruning” I have experienced would be my son’s motorcycle accident.  But that’s still going on.  I have no idea of what God wanted to accomplish with all that.  I know I have a lot more understanding of what it’s like for people to go through trauma or loss.  I don’t know what the Father is up to, but he does.

Sometimes it’s only by looking back, years afterwards that we see what he was doing – like my first year of marriage.  When Francelle and I got engaged, we were the postcard couple.  The day we announced it at church a bunch of our friends made this huge placard and held it up and hooted and whistled and made a huge scene.  How I passed any papers at Seminary that semester I have no idea; I walked around half the time in a daze.  We were both utterly smitten.  We got back from the honeymoon and the whole thing crashed.  It was like, this is not the same person I married?  Someone has done a dirty and made a swap.  I was expecting lovely evenings gazing at each other across the table and instead I got plates thrown at me.  NOBODY told me about that in the premarital counselling!

What we had there was two very determined, headstrong, independent people trying to forge out a new life together.  There was pride and stubbornness and pig-headedness (more on my side than hers) that needed to be named, exposed and repented of.  Fruits of love and patience and kindness needed to grow in its place.  

 Snip, snip, snip.  The Father was very carefully, wisely and lovingly tending to his vine.

Perhaps you are experiencing a season of pruning in your life right now.  It might be relational conflict like it was with me in my first year of marriage.  Or you’re experiencing financial difficulty – you’re finding it hard to make ends meet week to week.  Or you are having to watch someone you love suffer.  That is almost as hard as going through it yourself.  It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong.  It doesn’t mean you’re being punished or that you’re not performing in your Christian life to the extent God wants you to.  You’re being pruned – that’s all.  You’re part of the vine and God’s vine gets regularly pruned.

During a very difficult season in my life I was handed a little hard-covered book called Streams in the Desert, by L.B. Cowman.  Inspired by her experience as a missionary to Japan and China, it is filled with spiritual riches of God’s provision and purpose for our lives, particularly during seasons of suffering.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from February 19:

A CHILD of God was dazed by the variety of afflictions which seemed to make her their target. Walking past a vineyard in the rich autumnal glow she noticed the untrimmed appearance and the luxuriant wealth of leaves on the vines, that the ground was given over to a tangle of weeds and grass, and that the whole place looked utterly uncared for; and as she pondered, the Heavenly Gardener whispered so precious a message that she would fain pass it on:

“My dear child, are you wondering at the sequence of trials in your life? Behold that vineyard and learn of it. The gardener ceases to prune, to trim, to harrow, or to pluck the ripe fruit only when he expects nothing more from the vine during that season. It is left to itself, because the season of fruit is past and further effort for the present would yield no profit. Comparative uselessness is the condition of freedom from suffering. Do you then wish me to cease pruning your life? Shall I leave you alone?”

The comforted heart cried, “No!”

It is the branch that bears the fruit,
That feels the knife,
To prune it for a larger growth,
A fuller life.

Though every budding twig be lopped,
And every grace
Of swaying tendril, springing leaf,
Be lost a space.

O thou whose life of joy seems reft,
Of beauty shorn;
Whose aspirations lie in dust,
All bruised and torn,

Rejoice, tho’ each desire, each dream,
Each hope of thine
Shall fall and fade; it is the hand
Of Love Divine

That holds the knife, that cuts and breaks
With tenderest touch,
That thou, whose life has borne some fruit
May’st now bear much.

—Annie Johnson Flint.[1]

[1] Cowman, L. B. (1925). Streams in the Desert (pp. 56–57). Los Angeles, CA: The Oriental Missionary Society.

Note: this post is based on a message I preached at our Church called “The True Vine.”  You can listen to it on our website here.