Saturday, May 23, 2020

From Faith to Faith

Faith 18

          Paul’s great theme in his greatest book is how to be freed from sin (Romans 6.7). We all of us have loads of it (Romans 3.10, 23). How are we freed from that sin? How do we become righteous? Via belief. That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Romans 10.9-10).
          Romans is not, however, only occupied with the idea of what saves or rescues us from the penalty of our sin – hell – and takes us to Heaven. It is also occupied with what enables us to live above sin in this life right now. It is just as much occupied with freeing us from the doing of sin as it is freeing us from the consequences of the doing of sin. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life (Romans 6.22).
          Succinctly summarized, Paul says, “If you aren’t saved, get saved. If you are saved, get holy.” And in either case the means/method is the same: faith. We are spiritually birthed by faith; we continue on in that new life by faith. We live by faith.
          Paul himself summarized more elegantly than I when he penned Romans 1.16-17. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. It is the gospel, Christ displayed triumphant in His death, burial, and resurrection. That gospel is the power of God unto salvation, the only cure that can overpower sin. That gospel is available to every one that believeth, the means of applying the cure. Therein – in the gospel – is the righteousness of God revealed. How so? God’s righteousness is revealed in Jesus’ holiness and God’s wrath, and it is revealed more directly in my life as the means of my becoming righteous and obtaining righteousness. The means of this two-fold righteousness being applied to my life is faith. It is from faith – we are saved by faith – to faith – living a life of dependence upon the Lord as we grow in likeness to Christ. Ergo, the just shall live by faith. We become alive by faith and we become like Christ by faith.
          It can be accurately said that faith in Christ brings us two things. First, it brings us salvation and, second, it brings us holiness. Initially, we are saved from hell and granted a positional righteousness. Immediately following, we are freed from the dominion of sin in our lives, and gradually we grow in practical righteousness.
          We see, then, an unvarnished truth. The Christian life that must be birthed by faith can also only be well lived by faith. I do not begin in faith and continue in works. Does the Christian life contain good works? Yea, verily, in numberless multiplicity. But they are not done in order to obtain salvation for we already have that salvation. Nor are they done in order to obtain holiness. Good works are a necessary ingredient in a holy life, but those good works must be done while relying upon the Lord. We cannot do them in our own strength. We must depend upon Christ just as much in the doing of our good works, in living out a sanctified life as we did to enter into that life via the new birth to begin with.
          Thus it is we see the magnificent clarity of Paul’s phrasing in Romans 1.17. Those who are justified must live by faith. We must live from faith to faith, faith to get saved, faith to live out the fullness of that salvation.
          For many years, our fireplace in the home in which I grew up was graced by two cane-bottomed chairs. More decorative than functional, nevertheless, they occasionally were pressed into service when hospitality demanded it via a plethora of guests. I sat in them a time or two as a young man, but I would never sit in them now. Why? Because I stepped on the scale this morning and I know better. I will put no weight in them for I do not believe they will hold me up.
          I have given you several definitions for faith in this blog series and we have now stumbled across yet another one. Faith is putting all your weight on something. If you came across me in a grocery store aisle and I was on crutches you would assume something had happened to my legs. Why else would I need some help to support me? Yet if I stood there on my crutches and blithely assured you there was nothing wrong with my legs you would be rightly suspicious. Just so, I am rightly suspicious when a Catholic theologian tells me he is really trusting in Christ alone for salvation. If that is the case, why all the massive institutional demand that people place themselves on the crutches of good works? No, beloved, if you are trusting in Christ alone for salvation all of your weight has to be placed just in Him. You cannot trust Christ and trust your church, your priest, your pastor, or your own good works in order to obtain justification at the very same time. It is only faith and faith in Christ only that accesses the grace of God to save us.
          In the chair illustration we thus see faith for salvation. Let me offer you a second illustration to picture the faith necessary for sanctification. Years ago, in some sermon or other, I heard a preacher waxing eloquent about his mistaken efforts to become like Christ. He pictured himself as an artist whose desperate brush strokes entirely failed at painting the image of Christ onto his life. It dawned on him one day that his mental image was mistaken. He was not the artist; he was the canvas. The Holy Spirit was the artist, and it was His job to paint the picture of Christ on the canvas of his life.
That preacher’s illustration, well helpful, was incomplete. In and of itself, it can lead to quietism and passivity when the truth is God repeatedly calls us to fight, to labor, to work. I do think he was right though that you and I are not the artist. That is most definitely the Holy Spirit. But we are more than just the canvas; we are also the brush. Having been freed from sin, we are now free to choose to whom we will yield the control of that brush – to sin or to righteousness, to God or the devil, to the lust of the Spirit or the lust of the flesh. The brush cannot paint the image of Christ on the canvas of our lives in and of itself. It must yield itself in entire dependence on the Spirit to paint what and when and how He will. And when you and I yield ourselves in dependence upon God He uses us to write His will into our hearts and lives.

Romans 6. 16  Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?
17  But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.
18  Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.
19  I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.
20  For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness.
21  What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.
22  But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.
23  For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Young Painter at His Easel
by Theodore Gericault, c 1820
          In either case – salvation or sanctification – it is by faith. It is from faith to faith. It is being birthed into the Christian life by faith; it is continuing to live out the day to day Christian life of holiness by faith. It is living by faith.
          Have you begun in faith yet? I trust the answer is yes, that you have placed your faith alone in Christ to save you from your sin. Then continue on in faith. Yield yourself to the Lord and let Him do His will through you. Rely upon Him in faith to help you to tell the truth, to live a life of purity, to put down the bottle, to love your wife like Christ loves the church, to give to missions, and to do a thousand other things. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me (Galatians 2.20).
          Live by faith. Live from faith to faith.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

What I Want for My Children

Faith 17

Mother and Child
by Gladiola Sotomayor
At first glance, this title may seem an odd choice as part of a series on faith. But as you will see in a moment, there is a valid tie-in. At the same time, I think this will be a practical/philosophical help to parents of young children. Let us press forward then.
          I Timothy is a book written to pastors. In it, Paul tells Timothy what a pastor ought to do/not do, be/not be, and what a pastor ought to emphasize in his ministry. Paul also gives him instruction regarding different groups of people in the church. In chapter two, Paul does this in relation to women in the church. In verse eight he speaks of the importance of modesty and a certain deferential femininity. In verse nine Paul emphasizes that women ought to be busy serving others. In verse ten, however, he minimizes that service in the area of the church, specifically in the preaching arena. He proceeds in verses thirteen and fourteen to furnish the reason for this proscription, namely that women are more prone to be spiritually deceived while men are more prone to be spiritually rebellious. All of which brings me to the verse I want to emphasize in this post, I Timothy 2.15: Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety. In essence, Paul is telling Timothy that a woman should not focus on leading the church. She should focus on her home, and specifically on her children. I believe the companion passage in Titus 2.3-5 bears out that point of emphasis.
          My purpose in this blog post, though, is not to write about a woman’s place in the home. I want, instead, to focus on the specifics of I Timothy 2.15. In it, Paul is telling Timothy that a woman’s life will have the most meaning and accomplishment if her children grow up to love and serve the Lord. More precisely, Paul is telling a mother what to want for her children.
          It never ceases to amaze me what people want for their children. Naturally, they desire for their children more than they had, but often if not almost those desires are unscriptural at best and dangerous at worst. A book on Amazon entitled “What Do You Really Want for Your Children?” by Wayne Dyer has 79 reviews and a 4.7 rating out of a potential five. Going solely by his chapter titles, Wayne thinks you ought to want your children to value themselves, to be risk-takers, to be self-reliant, to be free from anxiety, to have peaceful lives, to celebrate present moments, to be physically well, to be creative, and to feel a sense of purpose. Many of these sound noble but Dr. Dyer has missed the point by a wide margin. God reveals something simple and higher for us in the Word of God. We should want them to continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.
          The first thing we ought to want for our children is faith. What is faith? It is seeing with your heart. It is not that I want my children to be illogical. It is rather that when my children are forced to choose between what God says and what the logical evidence of their senses show them I want them to choose what God says. I want them to walk by faith and belief in Him, not by sight. Faith is also stepping out on the belief. Faith and doubt are usually mixed together. Rarely is faith present without some doubt being present as well. But the person of faith, while doubting, still steps out on the belief. I want my children to act on their faith in God. I want them to step out and live a life that takes God at His Word.
          The second thing we ought to desire for our children is charity. It is to live a life of love. What do I want them to love? Whatever God tells them they ought to love – God Himself, their neighbor, the Word of God, the lost souls of men, one another, their husband/wife, and their own children. All of these are specifically commanded or at least strongly implied and exemplified in the Scripture.
          The third thing we should want for our children is holiness. What is holiness? I answer this in detail in my book, “Freed From Sin,” but simply put, holiness is being like God. It is having God’s moral character of purity. Holiness is yielding yourself to God rather than yielding to your own fleshly desires. Holiness is walking in the Spirit. Holiness is obeying God from the heart. Holiness is being a partaker of the divine nature, not becoming god but becoming like God. In short, we ought to long for our children to grow up to be like Jesus.
          The fourth thing we should desire for our children is sobriety. As I understand that term in context it means to be serious about life. This does not mean my children cannot laugh, that they must slowly toil, grim-faced, until death closes their eyes in a final rest. No, it means that they ought to live a serious life, carefully, with a purpose, undertaking their responsibilities in a serious, mature manner.
          Having briefly examined these instructions found in the epistle, I come to one final thought. It is not enough for us to wait until our children grow up to expect them to love and serve God. If they are to continue in these spiritual graces when they are older we must begin with them now, at whatever age they may be. Now is when they are moldable. Now is when our influence will have the greatest impact, not in five or ten years, but now.
I do not know who wrote this piece, but it does summarize the urgency involved in such parental tasks:

I took a piece of plastic clay
And idly fashioned it one day,
And as my fingers pressed it still,
It moved and yielded to my will.

I came again when days were past–
The bit of clay was hard at last;
The form I gave it, it still bore,
But I could change that form no more.

I took a piece of living clay
And gently formed it day by day,
And molded with my power and art
A young child’s soft and yielding heart.

Breaking Home Ties
by Norman Rockewell
I came again when years were gone–
It was a man I looked upon;
He still that early impress wore,
And I could change him nevermore.

          My eldest son finished high school this year. He set about the task of assembling his life. What will it look like, I wonder? I know not, but I do know what I want for him – faith, charity, holiness, and sobriety. And if that is what we want in our children, beloved, we must set about instilling it early and often.
          There is not greater task. There is no harder job you will ever love so much. Let it be done according to the Word of God, and may He bless it by forming our children in the mold of Paul’s instructions to young Timothy nigh on two thousand years ago.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Mutual Faith

Faith 16

          At the beginning of Paul’s greatest epistle, Romans, Paul introduces both himself and Christ. He chases that with some words of commendation to the Christians in Rome. Following these, he expresses his great desire to come and to see them.

Romans 1.8-12
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.
9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers;
10 Making request, if by any means now at length I might have a prosperous journey by the will of God to come unto you.
11 For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end you may be established;
12 That is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me.

          The purpose of this blog series is to examine the subject of faith in the Word of God, and what we find here in the highlighted phrase at the end of this introductory statement in Romans is highly beneficial. Paul is saying this: 1) You have faith. I know it for your reputation for such has reached all the way to me. 2) I have faith. 3) If and when we can both be together we will gain something by it. Paul then describes the benefits to be gained as a spiritual gift from God, as a comfort, and as something which helps to establish us. Now that I have shown you the bones of this blog post let me actually write it for you.
          I wrote earlier in this series that our faith ought to be placed in God. Everyone has faith. We get to choose where to place it. We ought to put all of our apples into God’s basket. The truth is when we do that, by definition, we do not need other people; we only need and depend upon Him. But having said that, it does not then follow that other people are not beneficial to us. They plainly are, and that is precisely what Paul is communicating to us above. My faith in God does not require anyone else but it is helped by many another brother in Christ.
          God did not design Christianity to be lived in a vacuum. While some of our spiritual expressions are solitary, if all of them are there is a problem. A Lone Ranger religion is problematic. He designed us to help each other, to minister to one another. We see this in the frequent admonitions in the New Testament using the phrase one another. To put it bluntly, your church and your spiritual friends were designed to help you. But they cannot help  you if you choose to live in isolation. God calls us to be a community, to be together, mutually supporting and ministering to one another.
          I do not care how mature you become in Christ you will not grow past this point.
A. W. Pink
One of the well-known commentators of yesteryear failed here, and it is for precisely this reason I refuse to read him. A. W. Pink was an esteemed mid-20th century author. As his renown for biblical insight grew so did his withdrawal from Christian society. The last twenty years of his life he devoted scores of hours a week to finishing his commentaries. With great discipline, his study bore fruit and it shows in that he is still widely read a century later. But not by me. Why? Because for the last twenty years of his life he refused to go to church. He felt he could accomplish more for the cause of Christ by using those hours to write. I do not know all of his thinking, but his actions show me that he felt he was beyond the benefit of mutual faith. And that is a very bad place to be.
          The practical necessity and benefit of mutual faith is why a church must ever be mindful of its shut ins and seniors. It is one thing for a person to willfully choose to absent themselves from the accountability and ministry of assembling with His people. It is an entirely different thing when they desire to come but cannot. Just last week, our church formed up after the morning service into a parade of cars, and slowly drove by some of our seniors here in Dubuque. Why? Because we want them to know they are not forgotten. We want to somehow find a way to grant them the benefit of mutual faith.
          The blessing of mutual faith is dependent, however, on that faith being similar. Make no mistake, with this blog post I am not praising generic togetherness. Every community gathering, indeed, every church is not equal to every other church. The two word phrase found often in Scripture, the faith, is indicative of this. It is the body of doctrine that we are all called to hold in common. And if you do not hold the same body of doctrine that I do then we have no basis for fellowship, no basis for walking together (Amos 3.3). But where such faith is held in common that faith ought to be exercised communally, mutually.
          In my time in Christian work I have met thousands of Christians who do not have a church home, or do not take an active place in that church’s service for the Lord. Oh, they may visit one every once in a while but there is no particular local church where they have plugged themselves in to serve and to be served. They are spiritually homeless. Not coincidentally, their Christianity is almost always a weak, cobwebby type of thing, insubstantial and easily shaken.
          This is why one of the most important things you can do for your marriage and for your family is to root yourself deeply into the life and culture of a biblical local church. From time to time I hear the misleading stat that Christians divorce as often as non-Christians. I suppose that may well be true if you define Christians as including Catholics, Mormons, and all kinds of other professing nonsense. But in my twenty-three years of pastoring, I can say that I have only seen two active church member couples divorce. That is an excellent percentage.
          I do not say this to benefit my church. I do not write for my church, primarily. I have no axe to grind. You do not attend my church. But it is not about your church either. It is about you and about those you love. Your church and your active attachment to it is more important than your children’s school. It is much more important than their participation in sports. It is vital to your family’s long term stability and growth.
          This is why one of the most important things you can do for your marriage and your family is to stop bouncing around from church to church. If I transplanted a sapling every couple of years it would never develop into a mighty tree, and neither will your children. Find a good church. Put your roots down. Build strong relationships with those around you. Let them minister to your need and do you minister to theirs. And you will find your faith and your Christianity gradually yet firmly established.
          Mutual faith brings such great comfort with it. I cast my mind back over the troubles and trials God has brought my way, and I blush to think of how weak I have been. Yet in addition to my own direct relationship with the Lord one constant source of strength and comfort remains – my church. When I buried my daughter my church gathered around me and poured grace into my life. I will never forget that. What comfort God’s people have brought to me in these decades, and what comfort they will bring to me in the decades yet remaining until He calls me home.

          Elijah, battling Jezebel, wanted to die for the simple reason that he thought he was all alone. But he was not. Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him (I Kings 19.18). Everybody needs to see what God showed Elijah that day. Never has that been more true than right now. For many, if not most, of us, we are separated in some very real way from God’s people. Our church attendance is limited at best and legally forbidden at worst. Pastors cannot be with their people. We tune into livestreams and join Zoom prayer meetings but we find at the core that such things are cold comfort. Why? God designed us to be together but we cannot be. Let us not play the Elijah card. Let us remember our mutual faith. Let us be grateful for its past blessings and look forward them again. And when this Covid-19 crisis has passed let us hold more fiercely than ever to our mutual faith.
          You are not alone. We are all still here. And so is He.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Full of Faith

Faith 15

Note: if you are planning to take my free Zoom class on Freed From Sin beginning tomorrow evening you will get an email with the sign in link during the day on Tuesday, April 28, 2020.

Basket of Apples, c 1865
by John Francis
In Acts 6, the Jerusalem Church found itself frustrated by complications of growth. In the preceding few months it had grown from around 120 to at least 8,000 and probably more. Part of the solution to those complications was the installation of the first deacons, including a man name Stephen. (Yes, I realize this passage does not use the word “deacons” but I am quite comfortable associating that here.) And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews… …and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost (Acts 6.1, 5). I love that descriptive identifying phrase – full of faith. It speaks directly to what I want to become and what I want to build in others. So what is it? And how do I get there?
          Those of you who read this blog regularly will recall that last week I used the illustration of apples placed in baskets to reveal what we are to do with our faith – place it in God. With that in mind, I want to tweak that illustration slightly and apply it to today’s blog post. Instead of five people each with an apple let us narrow that down. Let us give one person five apples. Placed in front of him are the same number of baskets. The apples represent faith. The baskets represent what the man places faith in. He places one or two apples in one basket, another in a different basket, and no apples in some of the baskets. Which happens to be a bit more like how life actually operates.
          We are given a measure of faith. We place some of that faith in God, yes, but we also often place some of that faith in institutions, in men, in industries, in investment strategies, etc. In other words, rarely, if ever, do we only trust one thing. We often trust many, to one degree or another.
          What does it mean to be full of faith? There are those who would say that means there is no room for doubt. I am not one of those people, and I already addressed that earlier in this series on faith. No, to be full of faith does not mean that there is no doubt in your life. It means to place all your faith in God alone. No longer do I spread my faith out among the different baskets. I find the basket labeled “God”, and I put all my apples in that one basket.
          Stephen, the man described here as being full of faith, is not a major Bible character. He is, however, mentioned in one other biblical account. Following his election to the office of deacon, he preached with boldness and power and he was soon brough to the attention of the Sanhedrin. Arrested and brought to trial, Acts 7 brings us the speech Stephen gave in his own defence. He begins by reviewing some pertinent points of Jewish history and showing how those pointed toward Jesus. Toward the end, he pulls no punches in what is a basically a sermon to the association of men who had recently murdered Christ. Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers. The Sanhedrin reacted to this broadside with all the grace of a wounded rhinoceros. When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. Following this display of demonic fury, they proceed directly to the sentencing phase – death by stoning. As Stephen slips the surly bonds of Earth in direct likeness to his martyred Master he whispers an immortal prayer: And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
          What grace Stephen brought to his martyrdom! Aye, and more than grace. This is nothing less than being full of faith. How so? Because he committed the entirety of his life, in complete trust, into the hands of His God.
          You do not have a greater possession than your life. Thus, you do not have a greater gift. Our Saviour said as much mere hours before He practiced it when He told the Apostles, Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15.13). Stephen gave his entire life, every single breath of it, willingly and trustingly into the hands of His Heavenly Father. He let the Father choose how to spend that life. And he did not resist or fight or change his mind at the last minute when he realized how God would choose to spend that life – in martyrdom. He put all his apples in one basket.
          The first step in that process is to place your faith in Christ alone for your salvation, but that is just the first step. That done, the story of the rest of your life is written as you learn how to gradually decrease your trust in anyone/anything else and gradually increase your faith in Him.
Someone once described the Christian life as being the polar opposite of the
Stoning of St. Stephen, c 1625
by Rembrandt
physical life. I was born tiny and helpless, entirely dependent for everything on my parents. As I grew, I became less and less dependent on them and more and more dependent upon myself. Finally, as I matured, I ceased to be a dependent at all and became independent. Spiritually speaking, I was born large and in charge, only dependent on God for my Saviour. But as I grow, I become less and less independent in my thinking and living and more and more dependent upon Him. Finally, as I mature, I cease to be independent in any area at all and I become entirely dependent upon Him for everything.
          I am full of faith. I am all in in. All my apples are in one basket. Him.

Monday, April 20, 2020

An Invitation

          As most of you know, last year I published my third book, Freed From Sin. It was not an easy book to write. Years of study, of writing, and of God’s working in my life are contained within its 430 pages. One of the things I included in the book was a discussion guide. I know in spots it is a fairly technical work, and I realize that many of the topics take much time and thought to work your way through. In spite of that, because of the value of the subject matter, I wanted the book to be as accessible as possible and I thought a discussion guide at the end of each chapter would contribute to that.
          For many years now Mandy and I have homeschooled our children. Part of my responsibility in relation to that is to teach my older two high school students a Bible class. Through the years I have taught them why we are fundamentalists, what we believe about music and alcohol, how to approach dating, and a biblical view of money. We spent one whole year in Proverbs and another doing systematic theology and hermeneutics. As I approached the spring semester this year, the fact that Jack was about to graduate from high school weighed heavily on me. This would be the last home school Bible class he would take from me. What did I most want to communicate to him?
          With some embarrassment, I tell you that God led me to my own recently published book, Freed From Sin. I want my son to love and serve God for a lifetime. I want him to live a life that resembles his Saviour. What better subject could I teach him in our last class than the meaning and means of sanctification? So taking my own book, we sat down three hours a week for sixteen weeks and studied it out. Reading each paragraph by turns, we read the entire thing front to back. From time to time, I would pause the reading and interject with some explanation or question or answer or illustration. At the end of each chapter, we would review by means of the discussion guide.
          We finished recently. I laid the book on the dining room table, resting in my conscience, knowing I had done a good work to prepare my children to follow on to know the Lord. I confess, I wish I had had a larger class. It is just good stuff, helpful stuff, edifying stuff. But I had done what I could with what I had.
          A few days ago I was contemplating the situation in which we find ourselves. As I mentioned on my Brennan’s Pen Facebook page the other day, I have never been a video guy. I am a word man. I think words allow for precision and thought where video mostly only allows for surface contact and emotion. But this pandemic has forced me to embrace video. We are streaming our church’s services live on YouTube several times a week. Mandy has begun a livestream of her own teaching a ladies’ Bible study. And just a couple of weeks ago I launched a Facebook live reading program via Brennan’s Pen.
          …then an idea hit me upside the head like a boat oar: why not stream a class on Freed From Sin to whomever wants to take it? Everybody is home. God’s people are craving connection and teaching both. I know I have a book chockful to the brim with helpful biblical content. I just watched how teaching it patiently and slowly helped my own children. The technology is available to teach it more widely. Ergo, this blog post is being written.
          Beginning next week, Tuesday, April 28, at 8 PM Central time, I will be offering a free online class on Freed From Sin. I am inviting you to join me, if you would like.  
          There are a couple of parameters I need to mention at this point.
First, you need to have a copy of the book. If you do not already have one, you may purchase print editions in paperback or hardback on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. The digital version is available on Kindle or iTunes. I am not going to put a bunch of links here. You can figure it out.
Second, a potential student needs to be at least 15 years of age, and a relatively mature fifteen. This is not a class for children. Beyond that, I do not care if you are a pastor, a Bible college president, or a nursery worker, you are welcome.
Third, I am choosing to use the Zoom platform. I realize there have been some questions about its security recently, but I will not publish the link to each class online. You will receive it via email on the day of class. In order to ensure you receive the link for each class you will need to subscribe to my blog. Simply navigate to and enter your email and name in the box on the right hand side of the page. The classes will not be archived. You must participate live. Also, I cannot be your tech support. You will have to figure out how to use Zoom on your own. Zoom is free, and if you are a reasonably intelligent individual you ought to be able to handle figuring out how it works.
Fourth, the class size is limited to 100 in attendance each time. You do not have to enroll. I am not going to take attendance or try to police who shows up. I will not and cannot hold a spot. I will open the Zoom meeting 15 minutes early each night and the first 99 people to sign in will be able to take that evening’s class.
Fifth, and most importantly – by taking the class you are agreeing to teach someone else the material when we get done. If we cover one or two chapters a week the class will last for some months. At the end of that time, you will have a solid foundational understanding of the doctrine and practice relating to holiness. And, may I say, you will have an excellent textbook at your fingertips. <grin> I am not interested in just teaching you. I want to teach you so that you will teach someone else. Teach your Sunday School class. Teach your youth department. Teach your small group. Teach your Christian school Bible class. Teach your college. Teach your staff. Teach your church. You can even, like me, teach your older children. Just teach it to somebody else. Do not worry. I will teach you how to teach them. Just watch how I teach. Then sit down with them over a copy of Freed From Sin and work your way through it together.
          So join me on Tuesday nights beginning next week at 8 PM Central. Let us journey into the heart of the purpose for which God saved you and me – forming us into the image of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Have Faith. In God.

Faith 14

          God gives every person some faith. (Romans 12.3) There is not an entirely cynical person on the planet. There are people who have become cynical in certain areas, but everybody trusts somebody or something in some way. It is part and parcel of how we are made, of how God created us. We are each of us born with the capacity to believe.
          Though God gifts us with this capacity, what He does not do is forcibly direct that faith. The capacity to believe is present in all of us. We get to choose where we place it.
Imagine for a moment that there are five people present, each possessing an apple. In front of those five people, I place a number of baskets. I then invite each person to place their apple in the basket of their choice. Walking slowly up and down the line of baskets, the first individual chooses the basket that looks the best to them. It may be because they like the way that basket looks. It may be because others have told them that is the best basket. It may be that his experience tells him this is a better basket. It may be that there are lots of other apples in that basket, or none at all. But he picks a basket for what seems to him a good reason.
This is precisely what the average person of your acquaintance does with their God-given capacity to believe. They place it in one or more of a number of different baskets. Some, for instance, place their faith in themselves. They back themselves. They bet on themselves. In their own mind, they are the smartest, the strongest, the best, the greatest. They believe in themselves. Others place their faith in the government. Given enough power and money, the government will eliminate crime, solve immigration issues, fix the income inequality gap, and provide healthcare to all. Often this type of individual is highly invested in whichever politician is campaigning for office next. Still other people place their faith in money. They reach for it, grasping it, acquiring it with might and main. After all, it is called the Almighty Dollar for a reason. If I can just get enough of it everything will be all right. Some choose to place their faith in the media, believing this trusted source or that one, molding their actions and reactions in life around what some influencer or journalist or broadcaster says or writes. Numerous other examples could be furnished.

What is the problem with this scenario? Not its accuracy, for ‘tis highly accurate. This is exactly what people do. The problem is in the baskets they choose. You can back yourself, but you will soon find you are dumber, weaker, and more fallible than you think. Government has a God-ordained role, without question, but it is not as a basket for faith. The only people who have ever been let down by government are all the people who have ever lived under one. Money? Ha! It gets lost, stolen, inflated away, not to mention what it purchases is only temporary at best. The media? Both the accepted wisdom and the countercultural wisdom of the day are often wrong. Science? The military? Name it and it has been proven to be a perpetual failure in some way.
The average person of an experienced age has come to admit this. The next problem is that they often simply choose a different basket. My employer let me down so now I will trust the government. My health failed me so now I will trust science and medicine. I am just taking my apple from one bad basket to a different yet equally flawed basket. Nothing ultimately gets better this way.
What am I supposed to do then? Let us turn to Jesus for the answer, shall we? Walking into Jerusalem during the Passion week, He cursed a fig tree. For the context and the meaning of it, you can see this blog post here from my series on the life of Christ. My point today is Jesus’ reaction to the Apostles shock at finding it withered the very next day. And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God (Mark 11.22). The wise man places faith in God.
This is not blind faith. It is not walking up to the basket labeled “God”, closing our eyes, and dropping our apple into it. It is a conscious decision, understanding Who and what God is. It is the application of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. God is simply the best basket. He is the best receptacle for faith.
Why? Well, He is eternal. The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33.27). That means He sees the end from the beginning. That means He is already in the future. That means His guidance of and preparation in my life will be done with perfect knowledge.
God is all-powerful. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth (Matthew 28.18). That’s substantially more power than the amount of power available to any other basket, is it not?
God is all-knowing. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do (Hebrews 4.13). I do not know about you, but I would prefer to trust Someone who is never surprised about anything or anyone. Nor ever will be.
God has never tried and failed. So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it (Isaiah 55.11). There is nothing God has ever decided to do that was beyond Him.
God binds Himself to His own Word. God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good? (Numbers 23.19). See if any other basket can make the same claim with a straight face. Go ahead. I dare you.
Why have I chosen to extend my writing on faith? Because in the situation in which we find ourselves, the calls for us to trust in the wrong thing are clamoring, frantic, panicked, and wrong. I do not want to let the media or society or medicine or history or my own feelings drive my life. I want to live a God-driven life. I want to close the eyes and ears of my life, and in the stillness of my heart hear His still small voice. And I want to place everything in that basket.
Join me. Together, let us place our faith in the only basket that really makes any sense. Let us have faith in God.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

It Only Works if You Mix in Faith

Faith 13

Note: This was the last post I had planned in this blog series about faith. Due to the situation in which we find ourselves I am going to extend my writing on faith for some time yet. I hope that you will find it a help in times like these.

Hebrews 3. 17  But with whom was he grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness?
18  And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not?
19  So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.
4.1 ¶  Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it.
2  For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.
3  For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.

          In Hebrews, we often find the writer comparing the events of the New Testament era to the events of the Old Testament era. He does so here. He mentions the Jews fleeing Egypt could not enter into the Promised Land due to their unbelief. He goes on to explain that, just so, if we would enter into the rest of Jesus/Heaven it must be by belief. Along the way, almost as an aside, the writer discusses the concept of preaching and why it seems to help some people but not help others. Why did some Jews find preaching beneficial while others did not? For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.
          Did you ever wonder why a sermon you hear can impact you so deeply while someone sitting right next to you snoozes through the entire thing? While we cannot see another’s heart, it is patently true the reception of the sermon itself is key to the amount of spiritual profit we would take away from it.
          Just the other day I happened to be watching a cooking competition. It was a team exercise. One of the courses the Blue Team was preparing happened to be polenta, and it was not going well. In fact, it was an utter disaster. At one point, five different chefs stood around the pot trying to come up with a plan to rescue the dish. One of the guys hit upon the idea of adding milk. He stirred it in and, voila!, everything turned out splendidly. So it with preaching. As a pastor, I can preach the pure Word of God diligently until I am blue in the face, but if that preaching is not mixed with faith in a receptive heart the preaching will be unprofitable.
          With that by way of introduction, let me give you three corollaries to this idea. First, let me say that the hearer must have absolute faith in the Word of God. Faith in God must include faith in His Word. Do not tell me you trust me if you do not trust what I say. There must be, driven deep into the heart of each hearer, an absolute embrace of the inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency of God’s Word. It is never wrong. About anything. It says so repeatedly, and I must believe that if I claim to be a believer in God.

Psalm 12:6 The words of the Lord are pure words: As silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.
Psalm 19:8 The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
Psalm 119:140 Thy word is very pure: Therefore thy servant loveth it.
Proverbs 30:5 Every word of God is pure: He is a shield unto them that put their trust in him.
Romans 7:12 Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.

          This unshakeable faith is a necessity for preaching to minister to you.
          Second, in addition to an absolute faith in the Scriptures, the hearer must have some level of faith in the preacher. I write this cautiously. Obviously, I believe our faith must be placed in the Lord. But there is a sense in which I must have some measure of trust in the preacher to whom I am listening if I am going to get anything out of the message.
          Many years ago, I was out door-to-door soul winning in Niles, Ohio, with my father. At one particular door, a distinguished looking gentleman answered our knock, and in answer to our queries explained that he was a born again Christian. He went on to say that he was active in his church, teaching the young married couples class. In the course of our conversation, the fact that he was divorced happened to come up for some reason or other. As we walked away, my father quietly said to me, “Would you put a divorced man in charge of a married couples class?” I have never forgotten the wisdom of that quiet statement. Why? For the same reason I do not give weight loss advice. Quite plainly, it is not my area of expertise. The sad truth is if you do not have some level of confidence in a preacher you will respond to his preaching with suspicion at best and/or criticism and bitterness at worst as you reject everything he says.
          Paul understood this. He often cites his own experiences in order to help people understand that he knows what he is talking about. Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first. And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus (Galatians 4.13-14).

          Along this line, let me offer two appropriate suggestions. First, cultivate a balanced faith in the preacher, with the key word of this sentence being “balanced”. Yes, he is God’s man but he is still just a man. The authority is in God’s Words, not his. By the same token, he just a man, but he is a good man. He is a genuine man. He is a tested man. He loves you, loves his family, loves his neighbor, and loves God. Grant him a measure of trust and esteem. It will open your heart to the truths of God’s Word he is holding before you.
          Additionally, I might suggest that you be wary of the tendency all of us to allow our spiritual discernment to morph into fleshly criticism. Do not check your brain at the door. Do not swallow anything whole that anybody says. If a preacher is wrong you ought to know your Bible well enough to spot it. By the same token, when you see a critical spirit developing in your heart, fight it. The preacher you are listening probably is not on par with Jim Jones. He is human, yes, but not evil. It is highly doubtful he spent all week in his office plotting how to manipulate you into something spiritually dubious. Have a – important word here next – little faith in him.
          Thus far, in looking at the importance of mixing faith with preaching, we have looked at the necessity for faith in the Word of God and the help there is in having some level of faith in the preacher. Third, then, I would counsel that the hearer should mix in this specific mental approach to every sermon: “Lord, you show me and I’ll do it.” Seven times in James 2 we find some form of the phrase faith without works is dead. If I am going to mix faith in with the message I hear that faith, if it is a genuine faith, will result in some work or action on my part. In other words, if the sermons I listen to do not cause my life to change at all then I must not be mixing them with faith. Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves (James 1.22).
          I realize that some sermons do not call on me to do anything differently. This is the case if I am already practicing what is being preached. If the message is about forgiving my enemies and I already have then nothing needs to change there. If it is addressing bitterness and I am not bitter then I not need to take action. Other messages I hear from time to time do not apply to me. If I take my teenagers to a Youth Conference, and the preacher waxes eloquent on choosing the right spouse carefully I can sit back and pitch in with a hearty Amen, but I do not need to do anything about the message necessarily. But many, if not most, sermons do have an application that I should personally incorporate. And my default approach must be that if there is a personal application that applies to me in a sermon then I will seek to apply it. This approach should be foundational. It should be part of who we are at our core. We should think this way with every message we hear.
          I love to preach, but I am neverendingly frustrated with some people who sit in my church. Week after week, month after month, year after year there is no change. Meanwhile, Bro. So-and-so who sits one row over is growing like gangbusters. Why? Bro. So-and-so had the wisdom to mix in faith.
          You will hear some preaching this week. Do not sit there like a bump on a log, challenging God and the preacher to move you. No, beloved. Bring to it an absolute faith in God’s Word. Throw in some trust in the preacher. Add in a dash of “Lord, you show me and I’ll do it”. And it will taste so much better.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

An Open Letter to My Son, Jack

Thirty-nine years ago, I fell in love with reading. I was in first grade, and by October I had read all my assigned literature books for the entire year, and started in on my sister’s books that were several grades in advance of my own. Before I turned ten, I had begun collecting books, lining them up along the edge of the floor in my room as I had no bookshelf. By the time I was twelve, I had begun serious reading, including Edward Gibbon’s massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I had found haunting the stacks of the Girard Free Library. As a teenager, I discovered the classics of English, Russian, and American fiction, rummaging around in Dickens and Hugo and Scott. In high school, I discovered L’Amour and Asimov, and entirely out of step with those devoured John R. Rice’s academic tome on inspiration. College and the first five years of a bi-vocational pastorate left little time for reading, but when my church grew enough to support me on a full-time basis I happily rediscovered the joy of books. Now, for almost two decades, I have delighted again in study and, not surprisingly, become an author myself.
          Throughout these four decades, I have slowly gathered a library one book at a time. I hoarded books like other men hoard tools or collect baseball cards. For years they traveled with me from place to place in boxes. I would store them anywhere I could, and dream of the day I could unpack them all, and put them into a permanent home. Yet as the years passed, and my boxes of books multiplied, the spaces of my life proved too small to contain them. I crammed them into this spare corner and that one. I stowed them precariously along the stairs, banished others to the basement, and stacked still more double-deep on the shelves lining every square inch of my tiny church office.
         Last Fall I accepted the pastorate here in Dubuque. The first load that got moved was my books, this time housed in brand new plastic totes, an entire truckload of them. They got piled up on every available surface, including the floor, of my new office. One by one, my new church members would wander back to my office to see if the rumors were true. Did I really have that many books? Where was I going to put them all? Good question, I thought.
          Across the hall from my new office was another empty office. It would make a fine conference room, I thought, somewhere to hold deacon’s meetings and disciple new converts during the Sunday School hour. Then it dawned on me – why not line the walls with bookshelves and kill two or three birds with one stone? I could have space to breathe in my office, my books could finally have a permanent home, and the church could have a very usable mentoring/meeting space all at the same time.
          Eighteen years ago, God blessed our home with a fiery red-headed boy. He has challenged me and delighted me more than anything else in my life for the past almost twenty years. Three years ago, he began to develop an aptitude for working with his hands. At first, he built benches and boxes, carefully laboring over the tiny details. He spent hours on Youtube studying cabinet making and applying what he watched. Every bench he sold he plowed right back into buying more tools. Over time, he acquired machines and skill both unusual to find in a self-taught home-schooled high-school kid. He moved on from benches to tables and from tables to massive crosses and finely detailed pulpits. He was building a business right there in my garage. Then we moved.
          I stood in the empty room across the hall from my office that day and decided that I would risk my unproven capital at my new church. I did not understand how they functioned, financially, nor did they understand how I lead. But the father and the pastor in me both knew this was a good idea. Instead of just throwing up some shelving and calling it a day I would go to bat for the money necessary for the right materials. I would enlist Jack. And I would build a conference room and a permanent home for my books.
          The next day, I dragged Jack into the empty office. For two hours, we laid out a library. Oak. Built-in. More shelving space than I needed for once in my life since I have yet more books to acquire in future years. Different sizes of shelves. Decorative elements. Hand-made panels and pillars. Crown molding. The only thing I turned him down on was a coffered ceiling. We used every available inch of wall, including a closet that needed to be accessed but at the same time covered in shelves. Jack was delighted at the thought of building a secret door. Neither the father in me nor the pastor in me wanted to ask him to donate all of his time. His skills were beyond that. This was going to take hundreds of hours. He deserved to be compensated. But he would not be. He knew it, and I knew it. And he agreed to it without hesitation.
          For the last six months he has lived in that room, practically. Each day, after finishing his school work, he would head to the church. With his own money, he bought yet more equipment, the portable kind necessary for on location construction. All through the winter he worked. Everything but the finish work had to be done outside. He shoveled snow off of his work area, and learned to ignore the cold of an Iowa winter. He set up tents tied down with bricks and chairs to keep the rain off his equipment. He battled a room where every wall and the ceiling and the floor was out of square. He crafted each bookcase as a unit, and we carried them in together and set them in place. He moved outlets and heating vents. He fought the secret door tooth and nail for a couple of months. Along the way, he celebrated his eighteenth birthday. Last week, I helped him with the homestretch, and together we spent hour upon hour hand-rubbing Danish oil into the wood, watching the grain come alive.
          Many men are proud of their sons. They sit in the stands and watch them hunker down over the line of scrimmage. They schlep them from game to game, from tournament to tournament. At every chance, they brag to their friends of how smart or talented or dedicated or athletic or clever their sons are. That is natural. I am all for it. But – and forgive me for this – I do not know another father of my acquaintance whose teenage son has given him such a princely gift as Jack has given me. Because he loves me. Because he loves the Lord. And because he loves to do fine work. I do not know what he will do with his life but I have told him again and again that I cannot wait to see. Whatever he does, he will do it with excellence. The proof is right across the hall from my office.

          It is not enough, but this blog post is all I can offer by way of repayment.
          Thank you, Jack.
          I am proud of you.
          And I love you.