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Changed By Glory

"And we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." II Cor. 3:18

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Christian Life

The Mercy in Hunger, Exhaustion, & Loneliness

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that anyone may eat of it and not die.                   — John 6:48-50 (CSB)

In John 6, Jesus performed perhaps his most iconic sign, the feeding of the 5,000. The result of which was predictable if we understand what the Bible says about human nature – the fed crowds wanted to take Jesus and forcibly make him their king, they wanted to follow him around. Why? Because they knew they would get hungry again and they thought that they had finally found the solution to their recurring hunger. Someone who could give them endless bread.

The problem, we find out from Jesus, is that they were missing what their hunger was really telling them. Knowing the people wanted to take him as their endless bread-dispenser and make him into a king, Jesus withdrew to the other side of the lake, but the crowds, now hungry again, found him the next day. And it is there that Jesus tries to get their attention, but in doing so ultimately ends up losing most of them. Jesus tells them, “You are looking for me not because you saw the signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.

Like us all, they were hungry. They toiled to simply satisfy that hunger. But in doing so they missed what that hunger told them about their real need.

They missed the mercy in their hunger. Because what Jesus goes on to show them is that while the perpetual problem of hunger seems to say that what I need to be satisfied is bread, actually the recurring emptiness in our stomach is to show us that life is notfound in bread. This is what Jesus emphasizes when he reminds them that through Moses God gave their fathers bread in the wilderness daily, and yet they all still died![1]Bread could satiate them for awhile but in the end it could not give them life. Hunger was always meant to point beyond bread.

We know this is the case and the point Jesus is trying to make because in Deuteronomy 8:3, Israel is reminded that “God humbled you by letting you go hungry; then he gave you manna to eat, which you and your fathers had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” — Deuteronomy 8:3 (CSB)

God allowed ancient Israel to experience hunger, to know deprivation, the futility of an empty stomach once full so that when he gave them this strange bread from heaven, a bread unfamiliar to them, something that was different than they thought they needed, they would know that at the end of the day it was not bread in of itself that they needed rather what they needed was the creating, sustaining, unfading, word of the Lord.

This immediately brings to mind the book of Ecclesiastes, where the writer has had wealth, wine, and women and found perpetually that the money gets spent, the buzz gets killed, and the lust is unsatiated. He concludes that everything is vapor, striving after wind. We eat, we get hungry again.  Futile.

This is something everyone has experienced and can identify with – futility. It seems cruel. Which would lead us to assume that this is judgment and in a way that is true! Genesis 3 seems to make that clear[2]. The created things we have rebelliously turned to for life will turn out to be incapable of satisfying us. And yet in this judgment we see the creation of a longing – a merciful longing. A gracious futility that Paul picks up on in Romans 8 when he says that “ the creation was subjected to futility​— ​not willingly, but because of him who subjected it ​— ​in the hopethat the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage to decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children.” — Romans 8:20-21 (CSB)

This hopeful futility is shown throughout scripture to be God’s gracious way of creating a longing for redemption, a longing that only he can fill. When Noah is born to Lamech, the day-to-day toil Lamech experienced caused him to hope that his son would be the one to finally bring rest.[3]In Hosea, God tells a rebellious Israel that he is going to cause her to experience deprivation so that he can tenderly remind her that wealth, crops, and military protection is not what she ultimately needed – she needed him.  But the tragedy, as we see in the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, as is that we constantly misinterpret our perpetual longings. We fail to see that our hunger points beyond bread. The fact that we eat and a few hours later we are hungry again is supposed to point us beyond food. The fact that we can eat bread daily and still die is supposed to cause us to not settle for bread. And this merciful deprivation doesn’t end with our need for food.

We sleep and a few hours later we are exhausted again. We spend an evening of fun with friends, but then they all go home and we are lonely again. Our natural inclination is to think this means we just need more sleep or we just need to get to the weekend so we can fellowship with friends again. But the reality is that our hunger, exhaustion, and loneliness points us beyond the simple fix which will wear off again when the food is gone, when the day is done, and when our friends go home. To take the picture Jesus uses we see that we go to bed again, but eventually we will wear down and our bodies will give out. We see our friends again, but one day they will die and so will we.

It seems cruel and depressing, to think that the hunger always returns and then we die. The exhaustion always returns and then we die. The loneliness always returns and then we die. But here is the truth…

There is mercy in these things, because what they show us is that food, sleep, and friends can’t give us life. They are wonderful gifts, good things, even necessary, but they are terrible as ultimate things. They are good gifts but they make cruel masters, impotent gods, and empty goals.

Returning to John 6, this feeding of the 5,000 and the response of the bread-seeking crowds, is really a great picture of humanity. Everyone wants to fill their proverbial belly and they will serve whatever and whoever they think will do that.[4]We will serve, we will give our lives, to whatever we think will give us life – whatever will give us food, rest, and relationships.

But in the end, it was never bread, or sleep, or friends that we needed for life – it was for God to speak, for God to show us himself, because it is there that we would see what alone can satisfy and delight in a way that will never end and never fade. It is there alone we see and know unending life.

It is because of this that Jesus pled with the crowds looking for more bread, “Don’t work for the food that perishes, but for the food that lasts for eternal life.”[5]And what is this food, this bread that lasts forever – always satisfying and never running out? “I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them.“No one who comes to me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty again. — John 6:35 (CSB)

 Jesus, the ultimate Word from the Father[6], the one who reveals the glory of the Father[7], the one who is the eternal life[8], which in its essence is knowing God intimately[9], he stands and says, “I am what your hunger is all about! I am what your weariness and your loneliness is all about. It is all to point you to me! Bread can’t give you eternal life, but I can. Sleep can’t give you eternal rest, but I can. Friends can’t be with you forever, but I can give you eternal fellowship that even death cannot interrupt.”

I just ate lunch but in a few hours there will be a pit in my stomach, even now I am tired and prepared to warm up a cup of coffee to get me through the day, and in a few weeks I will get on a plane and experience the pain of loneliness as I jet away from my family for three weeks. But these sensations, if I will but see it, are mercies. They remind me that my soul was made to be satisfied by God, that my being was made to rest in his care, that I was made for uninterrupted friendship with my Creator.

The bread Jesus fed the crowds was never about Jesus’ ability to create bread, it was about Jesus being the bread. Bread is necessary, sleep is essential, friends are good, but all of these things point to greater realities. But we miss this constantly and this is because we have made these things ends in of themselves[10]. That is why we need to experience hunger, exhaustion, and loneliness, so that we can be awakened to hunger for God, restless till we find rest in him[11], to be brought to the place where we are able to stare death in the face and say, “To be with Christ is far better.”[12]

Let us listen to this merciful futility! And let us not live for what cannot satisfy. We must eat, we must sleep, we were made for community – but all of these things point to what is ultimate, to Christ who made God known and opened the way for us to be satisfied with his goodness, to have eternal rest in his Fatherly care, and to experience eternal fellowship in his presence. Without the cross the futility experienced in hunger, exhaustion, and loneliness would have no merciful function. The sane would simply be led to cynicism as they recognize the hamster-wheel of life that ends in death. But the cross changes everything. Because Jesus doesn’t just show us the God we were made for, he brings us to him. Our sin made a separation between us and the One we were made for, but Christ suffered for our sin – our sin of ultimately looking for life in what we crave – so that he could bring us to God. Jesus does not stand far of and cruelly show us what we need only to leave us in our deprivation. No. He uses this futility to awaken us, he shows us what we need -himself- and then he does everything that is necessary to be brought in where our soul’s hunger, exhaustion, and loneliness can be forever overcome.

So maybe when we get hungry today, maybe when we yawn, maybe when we wave good-bye, we will release a  sigh of satisfaction and praise God for the bittersweet mercies that direct us to our forever food, our unending rest, our ever-present Immanuel.

[1]John 6:48

[2]Genesis 3:19

[3]Genesis 5:29

[4]The prosperity preachers capitalize on this reality. Whereas Jesus fled across the lake from his bread-crazed constituency, prosperity preachers and corporations embrace the willingness of the masses to crown the dispensers of what their bellies crave.

 

[5]John 6:27

[6]John 1:1

[7]John 14:9

[8]1 John 1:2

[9]John 17:3

[10]Romans 1:25

[11]“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Confessions, St. Augustine

[12]Philippians 1:21-23

Church Membership & The Death Bed

Have you ever watched a show like America’s Got Talent or American Idol and grimaced when someone gets on stage who has no business being there? You watch as they face the embarrassment of being told on a national stage that they can’t sing and as the news breaks (with the family fuming backstage) the singer’s world comes crashing down in a moment. As you see this unfold time and time again, one is always left asking the question, “Why didn’t someone love them enough to tell them they couldn’t sing before it got to that point?”

I wouldn’t want to be outed as a phony on a national stage. To find out that I was delusional about my abilities. And yet, so many of us live our lives insulating ourselves from the reality about ourselves. Now whether or not you are a good singer is really irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but there are greater realities that we also avoid. Namely, spiritual realities about the standing of our soul before God and it is from these realities that we tend to hide. This is tragic, foolish, and it is dangerous. Because the truth that we see in Scripture is that every single man and woman will one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ – as the writer of Hebrews says, “It is appointed for people to die once ​— ​and after this, judgment” (Heb. 9:27) Therefore, we should not wish to face that day, be it tomorrow or fifty years from now, on the basis of our own subjective assessment of our standing before the Judge

God has not designed for that to be the case – he has not designed for us to be independent of others, he has not designed us to base our sense of justification before him on self-assessment alone. Because we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, we need others and we need others because of at least three realities that we see in Scripture.

 

The heart is deceitful – We all know the familiar words “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable ​— ​who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) The story of the Bible is a case-study of humanity which proves the truth of those words. Our feelings are poor indicators of our standing before God. Our heart can condemn us when the truth is that we are justified. And our heart can justify us when the truth is that we are condemned. 

When pleading with his readers, Paul will make the appeal multiple times  “Do not be deceived”. In the case of the Corinthians, Paul saw their arrogance in relation to the fruit of their lives which was disconnected from their claim of faith in the gospel of Christ. He is concerned for them that they would be deceived and so he warns them and even instructs discipline in at least one case so that a so-called brother will not be deceived.

Satan is on the hunt – We have a real enemy who roams about seeking someone to devour. He is a liar, who loves to say “peace, peace” when there is no reason for peace or to incite fear when there is reason for assurance. Whatever his angle, his aim in all his devices is to “steal, kill, and destroy”. How do you combat this deadly liar? With truth. But when you combine his lies with our propensity toward deception, we understand that we need truth to comes at us from the outside, we need people who are “speaking the truth in love” on a regular basis, combatting the lies that would either cause crippling fear or deadly calm.

Endurance is necessary – Perseverance is the most profound mark of genuine faith. And the writer of Hebrews points out that even the most radical, most godly, most genuine of Christians should have a healthy sense of their need for endurance and they should understand the role that the local church plays in that endurance. He writes that we should not neglect to meet together, that we should exercise watchfulness over each other, that we should stir each other up to love and good works, especially in light of the day of judgment. Why? Because we need to endure. Baby Christians need endurance. Seasoned saints need endurance. And we should not expect to endure apart from the means of church membership that God has ordained.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be on my deathbed with only my own subjective, self-assessment of the condition of my soul. Of course I claim faith in Christ, but is there evidence of a faith that works, a love that labors, and a hope in Jesus that endures? Are there others that I have invited into my life who then in my hour of greatest need can say, “Steve, I know you are loved by God because I have seen his grace in your life. There is no condemnation for you.”

Now God has in his wisdom designed a community that provides just that – the local church. And it is membership in the local church that is God’s mechanism by which he guards from deception, strengthens our sense of assurance, and helps us endure.

Obviously, not just any so-called “church membership” will do. It must be meaningful, it must have substance, it must be something that has authority behind it which can provide safety, direction, and assurance. To merely have your name on a list is of no use.

We need…

  • Clear boundary lines – a biblical understanding of conversion. That is, we need to be members of a church where a clear understanding of how someone becomes a Christian is taught and where this is the standard for affirming an individual and bringing them into the church.
  • The expectation of discipleship – a biblical understanding of the Christian’s calling to walk in a manner that makes sense with the gospel and to be conformed into the image of Jesus is essential to avoiding deception. Jesus’ sheep hear his voice and they follow him. We need membership where our commitment to each other is a commitment to provoke each other to love and good works.
  • The practice of discipline – a biblical understanding of congregational authority and responsibility to affirm, and if needed to revoke, a person’s profession of faith must be present. We need a membership that is devoted to loving watchfulness and that is ready to affirm or rebuke/remove a member on the basis of their ongoing response to the gospel and the clear commands of Scripture. Paul could not be more clear, it is not loving or merciful to continue to certify someone as a brother or sister in the faith while they refuse to submit to lordship of Jesus. Why? Because then we become enablers of their deception.

To be at a church that does not have these things could be harmful to your soul. Don’t go to a church where you can be a member in anonymity. You need to approach church membership with the commitment to know and to be known by your fellow members. Furthermore, if you go to a church where you do not know a pastor/elder on a personal level, you need to either pursue one of the elders of that church or find another church.

Life is short, eternity is long, our hearts are weak, and our enemy is real. Therefore, we need church membership, especially as we see “the day approaching”.

One day, when the heart monitor flatlines and the respirations cease and I cross into eternity, I don’t want to walk through that door on the basis of my own subjective sense. Whether in that moment I am tempted with false hope in my goodness or the terror of doubt because of my sin, I want brothers and sisters in my life who reminded me of the gospel, who rebuked my sin, and who encouraged the evidence of God’s grace in my life. People who will hold my hand and hand me off to Jesus.

 

Cruciform Marriage

When an argument is made for God’s design for marriage as the best pattern for married life, perhaps in the vein of Ephesians 5, people are quick to point out that many people who do not follow the Bible enjoy long unions where both people are fulfilled. We need to admit this is true, and even be thankful for it. God has designed marriage to be something that last “until death do us part” and when this happens in a broken world, we should give thanks! But at the same time we need to acknowledge that as Christians we are not pragmatists, not even in marriage. So in other words, just because a marriage works doesn’t mean it is healthy, just because it is happy does not mean it is holy,  just because a marriage last doesn’t mean that it is a reflection of what marriage is supposed to be.

The world most commonly says that a marriage works through compromise. Successful relationships, many will say, is about living with an understanding of “give and take”. This philosophy when held to can indeed make marriages last a long time. And when we hear it, it seems right and fair, like a good formula for a successful marriage. But this is where I think we need to slow down and remember that just because something works doesn’t mean it is how it should be done. We need, rather, to be asking what God has designed for marriage and furthermore, we need to consider how marriage should look in light of the good news of free salvation through Jesus Christ.

So back to the most common pragmatic approach to making marriage work. Compromise. Give and take. When held up in light of Scripture, is this really a biblical philosophy for marriage? I am arguing that it is not. Because think about it. The strategy of “compromise” for an enduring marriage is built on maintaining the union by feeding the individual selfishness of the two parties involved. “Okay, fine. You can go bowling on Thursdays, but that means I get a day at the spa”. Or “Okay, fine. You can buy that dress but I get to buy those new tires I have been wanting”. It is not always that obvious, or even put into words, but you get the picture. Marriages work, or I should say, they happily maintain in this way. But those involved ultimately remained unchanged. And for Christians, this is unacceptable. It is unacceptable for any meaningful relationship – be it the church or marriage or friendship – to be maintained by placating the inner pride and selfishness of the other person involved.

Christian marriage isn’t about maintaining for the sake of keeping the marriage going. Christian marriage is about transformation. If the man and woman were originally created to complement one another in their calling, Christian marriage follows this same design. And what is the calling of the Christian? Ultimately, it is to be conformed into the image of the Son of God. Yes, into the image of Jesus who in love offered up himself as a substitute sacrifice for sinners! So Christian marriage serves the purpose of our calling as Christians – to be conformed into the image of Christ, to reject the status quo, to throw off the tyranny of sin and this through the same means that Christ did. Through death.

Marriage means death. That is how Christian marriage works. Through glad death for the joy set before us. Through the realization that unless a grain falls into the ground and dies it cannot bring forth life. When a marriage is marked, not by the mutual compromise of two individuals, but through the death of two that have become one – God is glorified as the marriage speaks to what God is like.

Or to put it in biblical terms from Ephesians 5, the husband dies, the wife submits. In the end it looks like the Gospel – it is cruciform. It requires not that they meet in the middle, not that each becomes weak, but that each dies. Both the leadership of Jesus and the submission of Jesus, both driven by love, led to his being offered up to death. But what is the result? Glory.

And I want to argue that glory is the result in a marriage when a marriage takes the shape of the cross.

Think of it this way.

As the husband goes the way of the cross in his role as head in the marriage and the wife goes the way of the cross in submission to her husband both are honored. When the husband lays down his life for the spiritual flourishing of his bride, she is uplifted, she shines. When the wife dies to herself by submitting to her husband, he is uplifted, he shines. And with each passing moment and year, taking the shape of a cross, their relationship builds through death into in a Gospel-gleaming monument that stands in defiance to a fallen creation that maintains itself ultimately through self-preservation.

In the original creation, marriage that reflected the Maker would have been marked by a self-giving generosity, joy out of seeking the good of the spouse, reflecting the generosity and self-giving that God showed man and woman, which would ultimate redound to the glory of God and the lead to the good of creation. And now marriage in the history of redemption is a reflection of that same divine generosity, that same grace, now taking the shape of a cross.

Seeing this and pursuing this in marriage may actually make your marriage more difficult in some respects than the compromise-based marriages in the world. As you, husband or wife, pursue cruciform marriage, such an approach may not be reciprocated and as you die to self with no acknowledgment from your spouse, you will be tempted in that moment to climb down from the cross and return to a “better”, “easier”, “more realistic” strategy for maintaining your marriage. But I pray, as a married person for other married people, that we will learn to stay there and endure, trusting in the joy that awaits on the other side of the pain. A cruciform marriage will be difficult, it is in the shape of a cross after all! But in the end it will be a marriage that is what marriage was made to be, it will be a marriage that makes sense in light of the gospel, it will be a marriage that glorifies God and is glorified.

 

What Would Compel Me? – A Poem

What would compel me

My mouth to open

Words unwanted

To hearts warped and broken?

 

Why give at great price

What nobody wants

Message of rescue

Answered only with taunts?

 

Give at great price

For at great price it was given

Salvation unwanted

To those by rebellion driven

 

I speak for he spoke

And by a miracle I heard

A voice irresistible

Conviction for the first time occurred

 

Like that Traveller to Damascus

What I did not seek sought me

My eyes were opened

To see one nailed to a tree

 

Dread filled my heart

The fear of the Lord it is called

A new thirst, a fresh hunger

By my state grew appalled

 

Undeserving of love

Love I know knew

Through words unwanted

When I saw him called True

 

Like the beauty of Dachstein

As Everest’s peak

The vision before me

Compelled me to speak

 

What I did not want

To others now proclaim

The glory of love

Christ Jesus his name

 

Wretched beyond belief

Gross beyond description

Hating all good

Yet he brought to me redemption

 

What compelled him was love

This controls me too

“Be reconciled to God!

He took all your due!”

 

If his love you now know

You will have affections bright

Speaking to listless rebels

Him who brought you from darkness to light

 

The Glory of Womanhood

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.                                                                                                                  (Genesis 1:26-27 ESV)

  The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

she shall be called Woman,

because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.            (Genesis 2:15-25 ESV)

It is International Women’s Day – a day when we should ponder with awe on the accomplishments of women across history and a day when we should thank the women in our lives for all they have done. It is also a time when we should praise God for women, created unique and in His image for His glory.

In Genesis chapter 1 we get a very cursory view of the creation of man and woman. We are presented with mankind’s unique position as created in the image of God – given dominion over the creation to tend it and care for it and given a mandate to fill that earth. But in chapter 2, Moses slows down and gives us a more detailed account of how God did this. We see that he creates the man, gives him his command, puts him in his place, but it seems man had been given a task that he was incapable of completing alone. A divine mandate in which something was missing. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t whole, it wasn’t the reflection of divine goodness which would reflect the diversity in unity that God displays in the Trinity, where separate persons of the same nature have distinct roles in perfect unity. Reflection of divine glory, you could say, was impossible without unity in diversity.

It is unlikely that Adam, with the amount of natural revelation he had, could have articulated the above but as he looked at the creation and as God brought the other creatures to him, it became clear that something wasn’t right. It seems that Adam needed to experience the reality that he had been called to do something that he was not capable of. A piece of the picture was missing. And it was. Woman was missing.

God, who is good and does what is good, allowed the man to see that it was not good for him to be alone – that something crucial was missing. So God took from the man and made a creature from his same substance, made in the Divine image, but gloriously unique. Like the man in many ways and yet made to display aspects of the divine glory that man was not equipped to.

By calling her a “helper”, God was not designating the woman as in any way inferior to man, but simply that she was the missing piece to the total goodness of creation. Man and woman, united as one, each fulfilling their distinct role in unity with each other would now be able to be faithful to their created purpose as image bearers of God.

The woman was of the same substance and nature as the man, yet she was gloriously unique. She was more than just the rest of the reproductive system, she was a helper suitable for his calling. Meaning that she fulfilled a role that she was uniquely made to fulfill, a glorious, image-bearing role that man was incapable of. In the Trinity, just as the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit and each operates in their own role in the radiance of one Divine glory, so also the man is not the woman and the woman not the man, their roles cannot be traded and together they reflect the divine glory they were created to reflect.

The glory of womanhood is found in the unique way the woman was created to reflect the image of the triune God.

This International Women’s Day, I hope that men will praise God for his wisdom and glory displayed in women and that women will be humbled by and rise to grasp the lofty purpose for which they were created.

Why I Hate The Term “Once Saved, Always Saved”

Words have meaning.

I know that seems like a “duh” statement, but really, words carry with them ideas. Words strung together into sentences convey ideas – powerful ideas. And sometimes what words are meant to convey becomes unclear in transmission – we call this a “misunderstanding”. Statements that are true when understood in the right context can be dangerous untruths if understood in the wrong context. Take for instance the statement “God is love”. A true statement, but it can be understood wrongly if we insert the wrong definition of “love”.

Sometimes a statement is so likely to be misunderstood that it is better to say that same thing in a different way.

The term “once saved, always saved” is one of those statements.

When understood in the right context it is a true statement, but if out of context it becomes misleading and dangerous.

The problem with understanding the statement “once saved, always saved” lies in what a person understands it means to be be “saved”. Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18 says that the preaching of the cross is the power of God to “us who are being saved”. Not who were saved, but who are being saved. This is crucial to note.

Paul in Romans 8 presents the golden thread of redemption that begins with the predetermination and foreknowledge of God and ends in completion -“glorification”- in God’s presence. It begins when God speaks his creating word and shines the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” into our hearts, which begins a process where we “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another”, this process takes a massive leap forward when we put off this mortal frame with its remaining sin and we see his glory clearly, in that moment “we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is” (II Cor. 4:6; 3:18; 1 Jn. 3:2). This is what we call glorification. This is the end goal of salvation. This is what it means to be saved.

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

(Romans 8:29-30 ESV)

Glorification is that point when we see him and become like him – glorification is when the conformation into the image of the Son is completed. The work we call “sanctification” that we experience in this life – the work of the Holy Spirit – is in fact as sort of guarantee that what God has begun at justification he will complete – it is a foretaste of glorification. This is why someone who is not changing “from one degree of glory to the next” in this life should have little confidence that they are “being saved” (II Cor. 3:18; I Cor. 1:18) The immense amount of remaining sin and work to be done in the lives of Christians at any stage of life is why the preaching of the cross remains always from year one to year ninety, the power of God to “us who are being saved”.

Our assurance of salvation is not found in a white-fisted grip on the statement “once saved, always saved” but is found in the fruit of the golden chain which assures us that what God started he will bring to completion. Progress, however slow it may be, gives hope that the job will get done.

I hate the term “once saved, always saved” because it portrays justification as the end goal of redemption. It wrongly identifies justification, that precious and necessary point where by faith in Christ we are declared righteous, as the sum of salvation.

This statement in question is in one sense true, once justified you are always justified but being saved is about more than justification. All of God’s elect are justified, but that is not all that they are.

The chain cannot be broken, therefore, a person has no reason to believe they are justified if they are not showing evidence of moving toward glorification. This is why we are told to examine ourselves to see if we be in the faith (II Cor. 13:5). Our trust is not in a decision, a prayer, or in a moment we look to when we were “justified” but our trust is in the God who finishes what he started.

I hate the term “once saved, always saved” because it muddies the reality of redemption, which is to conform fallen image bearers of God back into faithful reflections of his glory.

So what should we say instead?

One could say “once elect, always elect”. This would be a true statement, but would not be helpful to us who do not know the hidden counsel of God, because the proof of election is found in endurance (Mk. 13:13).

I prefer the old-fashioned term “perseverance of the saints” also referred sometimes to as the “preservation of the saints”.

What this term means is that all whom God elects he preserves in faith so that they persevere by faith in him, beholding his glory, repenting of sin, trusting in Christ, and thereby being transformed into his image.

From God’s perspective our salvation is as good as done, in this case – “once saved, always saved”. But from our perspective this is deceptive, because we can by our sin and rebellion come to the place where it does not look like we are “being saved”. And this might be because we are not being saved! For John makes clear that “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning”(1 Jn. 3:9). Sin in the life of a believer should lead to creaturely fear and child-like sorrow. Many that thought they were saved “went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 Jn. 2:19)

I hate the term once saved always saved because I fear it has damned many, causing them to rest in their iniquity by leading them to misunderstand the purpose of salvation – what it means to be saved.

Preachers need to proclaim boldly the sovereignty of God in preserving his own while making it clear that he preserves in perseverance to the end. Right preaching of the “perseverance of the saints” should lead those persisting in sin to cry out with proper fear to God for mercy and should lift them from the pit of despair and open their eyes to view the soul-transforming glory of Christ. It should also lead those with only the slightest progress, overwhelmed by their indwelling sin, to be filled with hopeful expectation of the work that will be completed.

I hate the term “once saved, always saved”, but I find great joy in the reality that by the grace and power of God all of his children will reach the end where they will be as the song says,“saved to sin no more” – once saved, always saved.

Stop Sending Them! – Why More is Not Always Better

Stop Sending Them! Why More Is Not Always Better

“Here am I, send me.” Isaiah 6:8

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray for the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into his harvest.” Matt. 9:37-38

These passages of Scripture have been slapped on the prayer card of many a hopeful missionary getting ready to head into the field. These and others verses have burned in the hearts of many churches and people who have recognized that we Christians have been given a task – to make disciples of all nations.

The nations, those groups of people that have yet to hear the Gospel, were sadly neglected by the church for generations, therefore, it is only right as the church reforms and conforms to the authority of Scripture that the church would correct “mission drift” and would pursue the task for which it was born – to be the mechanism for God saving his elect from every corner of the earth.

But like every corrective in life even the corrective must often be corrected. The pendulum always swings both ways before it settles and in my admittedly short years working among the nations, square in the middle of the 10/40 window, surrounded by UPGs, it has become clear that the missional corrective needs a few nudges itself.

The task that we affectionately call “The Great Commission” is immense. (Matt. 28:19) An immense task that requires vision, dedication, and a lot of manpower. But that being said, there are some times when to the western church I want to say,

“Stop sending them!”

The workers are few and the harvest is great, but that does not mean that more workers is always better. It seems that the impatience that so marks the current generation has infiltrated the missionary movement under the guise of “urgency”. This impatience, rather than being curbed by church leaders, is often fostered and even encouraged.

The result?

A lot of people going to the nations that shouldn’t be going – at least not yet.

The question that has more and more come to my mind that I wish churches would consider is this: Why would you send someone to plant churches that you would not hire as a pastor or nominate as a lay elder? Why does it seem that “passion”rather than proven faithfulness is the main criterion for sending men and women to support those church planters?  Why on earth is the bar – the standard – set lower for the frontlines than it is for the local church?

The stories of the challenges of frontier ministry, the stresses, the temptations, are very real, and time and again people are sent to face those challenges who have zeal but a lack of understanding. And the wise man rightly said by the Holy Spirit:

“Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.” (Proverbs 19:2 ESV)

That proverbs sums up the state of missions in many ways very well. Desire without knowledge. And desire without knowledge in the business of missions is dangerous – even spiritually deadly.

The field white for harvest is filled with laborers destroying the crop and themselves with a misuse or disuse of the tools God has given them for the labor. It seems to this observer, at times, that no one thought to make sure these people can swing the scythe of God’s word before they sent them into the field. Imagine a field full of people swinging a scythe in the wrong direction and sometimes from the wrong end, and too often – if I dare drag out the analogy a bit further – they are not using the scythe at all. Not a pretty picture.

No one thought to spend some time testing this person’s ability to discern between wheat and weeds. Lacking discernment they sheave weeds and write home about how successful they have been.

As a church we have been given a mission, a way we are to walk in, but many feet that set out to proclaim the gospel of peace miss their way – because they have desire without knowledge.

The workers are few, but our impatience is our undoing. When churches have initiatives to send a certain number of people by a certain time, their desire to meet that goal can short circuit discipleship and propel people into the field that will be harmed and cause harm.

Paul is a great example to us of patience. From the moment of his conversion he was told what his purpose was to be, yet it was more than ten years that passed before the beginning of his first missionary journey. In the interim he spent three formative years in Arabia, time in his home city of Tarsus, and then served at the church in Antioch until he was finally sent with Barnabas by the church of Antioch on his first missionary journey. This is Paul, mind you, who already at the point of conversion had immense knowledge of the Scriptures. And even though he had been told by Christ himself what his mission was to be he did not really begin in earnest until he was sent by his “home” church of Antioch at the Holy Spirit’s leading through the elders and congregants.

If you speak to an older generation of missionaries you will find that in by-gone days Bible college was a requirement to be sent. If you read the biographies of guys like Adoniram Judson you will find that ordination was required! These days if a church gives approval, a few evaluations and a two-week bootcamp later people can be approved for the field. Such a convenient and streamlined system is meant to enable more and more people to go to the unreached.

But more is not always better.

The challenges people taking the Gospel to hard places will face require a character that is mature and proven. The questions missionaries will be asked require a theological knowledge that is deep and wide. And the raging enemy that is encountered requires a faith that is dug down deep.

Many missionaries slide into pragmatism in ministry because they do not really know their God. They slide into heresy because they do not really know their message. Many slide into sin because they are immature and unaccountable. Church, stop sending these people who don’t know their God, don’t know their message, and don’t know what it is like to submit to authority. Please, for the sake of God’s glory, stop.

Desire is commendable, but desire comes and goes. Calling is required, calling rooted in truth and affirmed by those in authority – a calling that has as its sole aim the glory of God and has as its bedrock the sure promises of the Gospel revealed in Scripture.

More is not always better, but with the right reformation more can be better. There is a word for when you try to find a midpoint between quantity and quality – it is called mediocrity. Local churches should have the long view in missions, faithfully making many disciples who will be able to go out and persevere in faithful Gospel ministry. Labor for quantity without sacrificing quality by a single degree.

It should be no wonder that the attrition rate among missionaries is so high, that doctrinal ambiguity is so pervasive, and that missionaries falling into gross sin is so common. People are sent that should not be sent because churches are sending people too soon.

If anyone reads this, whether you are a pastor or someone looking to go to the field, I want to leave behind a few suggestions on how to prepare people to go to the nations:

1)Teach them well so that they will be able to teach others well and don’t send them until they have shown they can do the same. (2 Tim. 2:2)

2) Make sure that they are able to articulate sound doctrine and refute false doctrine. An inability to answer objections and correct falsehood is a recipe for disaster when encountering other religions or worse – errant missionaries. (Titus 1:9, Eph. 4:14)

3) Make sure they are able to submit to biblical authority in their lives. Are they mavericks who have never really had the level of accountability that challenged their autonomy? If this is the case they need to spend some time with that kind of accountability before they can be sent with confidence. (Heb. 13:17-18)

4) Connected to #3 is the need for proven godly character. This is something that can only be ascertained over an extended period of close interaction and persistent discipleship – not a session with a counselor and a personality profile. Unchecked sins get worse on the frontlines, not better. (Heb. 12:1)

5) If you would not make a man an elder in your church, then don’t send him to plant churches in a pioneer situation. If you are sending someone who isn’t elder material or isn’t quite there yet, or sending unmarried women, then I would suggest sending them someplace with an established church where you know their spiritual development and ministry could continue under the watchful eye of faithful shepherds. (Heb. 10:24-25)

6) The aim of every pioneer worker you send should be to join an existing church or to gather believers and start a church ASAP. If there is no church then I would suggest moving with a core of people to plant a church or do outreach into new areas from a place where there are enough expat believers to have a church. No Christians were meant to be alone and Paul set an example to seek out believers when he entered a new city. Ecclesiology and missiology should be inseparably intertwined. Churches plant churches, yet many churches contract out the mission that God has given them to para-church organizations that don’t have the authority that a church does. An occasional email, a questionnaire, and a field visit every half-decade hardly applies as Biblical oversight. Para-chruch organizations should serve the valuable and specialized role of helping churches do their job, while not taking over their job. Provide active, authoritative oversight until a church is planted or those you send are plugged into a relatively healthy, existing fellowship. (Acts 20:28, 16:13)

7) Finally (for now) let there be consensus in the sending church that these people being sent are called and ready before you send them. This will safeguard the ones being sent and give them an amazing boost of encouragement that they are part of something bigger than their own ambition – which can fade or redirect quickly. (Acts 13:3)

I write this not out of a desire to dampen a church’s missional drive, but to encourage a long view with faithfulness as the aim in that missional drive. John Piper says that the Christian walk is coronary, not adrenal. We run a marathon, not a sprint. Ministry is the same way. Godly urgency embraces careful preparation for ministry. This truth becomes unclear if our main aim in missions is converts. The main aim of our sending must be the glory of God and it is for that we must prepare and be prepared.

So if necessary, for now, stop sending them. The glory of God is at stake.

If You Love God & Love Your Neighbor, You Should Care About Theology

“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. I am a sojourner on the earth; hide not your commandments from me! My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times. (Psalm 119:18-20 ESV)

There are few things that are considered to be more romantic than a man serenading the love of his life with a song. Most wives and girlfriends would probably be thrilled by such a romantic gesture. But what if the man sang songs to his girl, but then never listened to her? What if he gushed about his love and amazement but never got to know her? The girl might rightly begin to wonder, “Does he really love me?”

If he takes no time to get to know her, to listen to her, then it will become clear over time that he doesn’t really sing because he loves her, but because he loves the idea of her. If he never listens to her fears, her dreams, her frustrations, finding out what she loves and hates, then the serenading man is singing to a symbol instead of a person.

Imagine if a man saw a photograph of a woman and he proclaimed that he loved that woman, but his knowledge of her never went beyond what could be known by the picture. Maybe she has a kind smile. Radiant eyes. Nice hair. But he can’t know whether she likes film noir, or Chinese food, or the smell of lavender, or cats or dogs. He can know true things from the picture but can he really know enough to know love?

Many Christians, perhaps most, are content with a snapshot of God. They sing songs to him, but they have little time for listening to what he has to say about himself. They have pieces of truth about him with which they are content. Maybe they fill in the blanks with things they imagine about him. For those of you that have seen Dumb & Dumber just think of Lloyd Christmas’ daydreams about Mary “Samsonite”. He had seen her, he had some interaction with her, and based on that he made up fantasies about what she was like and decided that he was in love with her when he really was in love with the idea of her.

It is absurd for a person to declare love for a spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend and then never spend any time getting to know who they are.

This is the logical premise of this post. If you love God, you should care about theology.

Theology is the study of God, namely what God has made known about himself through the Scriptures. It is very possible to do theology in an unemotional, disconnected, academic environment, much like the CIA might study the minute details of the life of a person-of-interest. But that does not then negate the value and even necessity of spending time getting to know God as one who loves God.

Theology for the Christian is a labor of love. It is driven by a heart and mind that has been captivated. By the power of the Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel our eyes are opened to catch a glimpse of the glory and worth of God, the loveliness of Christ, and this sets in motion an insatiable desire to know this love. You get to know him not only as a desire of the heart, but also as a labor of the mind.

And you want to know true things about him. Imagine if I was to buy my wife a gift and I decided to get her a DVD for us to watch, Dumb and Dumber 2. If I knew my wife I would know that she can’t stand the movie. But because of my disregard for what can be known about her, I actually give her a gift that more suits my desires.

Growing in love, quite simply, requires growing in relationship according to knowledge. If people thing “I am not big into theology, I am just into a relationship with God” then they don’t understand that it is a deepening knowledge which makes their relationship meaningful and not mere illusion.

Bottom line. If you love God you should care about theology. Because it is through the study of God, through the means he has given us (the Scriptures), that we come to know God, and it is in knowing that we have genuine relationship, and it is that genuine relationship that overflows in true love… not mere fancy.

Now. What is one of the main ways we know that someone is in love? Usually we see them spending a lot of time with the person and we hear them talking about them a lot. We do this with more than just people, but with things as well. Our love is put on display.

Therefore, I would argue that if you love your neighbor, those in your sphere of influence, then you should care about theology.

Imagine that someone has a wrong impression of what your husband or wife is like. Maybe they have a negative image. Wouldn’t you want to set the record straight if you know otherwise?

What if your neighbor says, “God killing his own Son for the sins of others? That doesn’t seem fair.” Would you be able to give a truthful defense? How about this one “With all the evil in the world if there is a God then he is a monster.” How would you respond? If someone says, “I think all religions to lead to God.” Would you be able to confidently speak on the matter? Shouldn’t you desire to?

The hypothetical questions could go on and on, but these are real questions. Questions that many Christians in trying to answer them misrepresent the one they claim to love because they don’t take the time to get to know him!

If you love your neighbor you will care about theology.

King David cared about theology. Theology was not stuffy or impractical or even optional for him. In regards to his fellow man he proclaimed:

“One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds, and I will declare your greatness. They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.” (Psalm 145:4-7 ESV)

But what are those things? What is the majesty of God? What are his wondrous works? How will we declare his greatness if we don’t know what it consists of? How do we know these things? Theology. The study of God through the means he has provided!

Imagine again if my friend is looking to buy a car and I say he should get an Audi. Why? Because it is a good car. What do I mean it is a good car? I could talk about it being German made, they have cool commercials, but unless I have really searched it out and studied it, I am not speaking on any objective authority but out of hearsay. Therefore, I can only show that it is my opinion that an Audi would be a better option. When we are loving out neighbor we need to be prepared to offer them more than our opinions about God. They need truth.

I could go on, but I will stop here. Just consider these things. Before you sing or speak of God in grand generalities, consider this, “Do I know what I mean by what I sing? Do I know what I am saying about God? Is it true? Do I love my neighbor enough to give them truths over opinions? Do I love God, or just an idea about God?”

We get to know what we love and we make known what we love. Therefore, love God and love your neighbor and care about theology.

(Another Reason) Why We Practice Communion Every Week

We hear it every week here. The bread represents the broken body and the cup represents the shed blood of Jesus the Christ. Bound up in the significance of body and blood is the source of our unity as a church. Throughout the week we are tempted, like every family, to allow selfishness and pride to create schism. Pursuit of unity is one of the things we are called to as a church[i], but it is probably one of the most difficult things to maintain. We practice communion every week at Immanuel Fujairah because we believe, in part, that these symbols represent the basis of our perseverance in unity.

The bread that is broken is a reminder of the body of the Lord Jesus which was broken for his church[ii]. There is a significance here beyond the breaking, it is the fact that there was anything broken at all! Jesus Christ, God himself, stepped into time, the Word made flesh was not an apparition.[iii] He took on a body. Corruptible. Susceptible to decay. Prone to suffering. The fact that there is a body and there is God in one glorious, mysterious union shows us an important aspect of the body of Christ we visualize in the sacrament of communion. That is that “Since therefore the children [of God] share in flesh and blood, he likewise partook of the same things… he had to be made like his brothers in every respect….”[iv] Indeed his body was broken on this cross, but that body already bore the exhaustion and the scars of life. He became one of us so that he could not only suffer for us in crucifixion, but so that he could suffer for us in temptation.[v]  So that he could be a man, the only sinless man, sinless because that is what all of us should be and it is what all of us have failed to be.[vi] When we see the bread we are reminded of the totality of his righteous life for us. Our souls, starved of righteousness, depleted of virtue, weakened by impurity, look to the bread – substance of righteousness, justice, and holiness. It is extended to us to be received by faith. The bread is only significant in the breaking if we see the glory of the bread itself – the incarnation – the thirty years of perfection in the flesh for us.[vii]

We come to the table each week then, often times either feeling depressed by our failures and inability to measure up to God’s standard or we come proud with a sense that we have done well, quick therefore to be critical of others. The bread reminds both groups of people of their common source of righteousness. It reminds us of the one who became like us so that he could become sin for us and give us the very righteousness of God.[viii] This lifts the heart of the downcast and it humbles the self-righteous.

This reminder of our common righteousness reveals anew our lack of it and it highlights our sinful actions, thoughts, and motives. And it is here that we see the unifying significance of the cup. There is no sliding-scale of penance when we come each week with our various sins, there is only the blood. And in communion we are reminded of its sufficiency for sin in all of its disturbing variety. The cup is a reminder of the gory price that our sin required – small or great in our eyes.[ix] It is at the same time disturbing and comforting. Beautiful and macabre. It reminds each of us with our unique transgressions each week that all of our sin demanded the same brutal penalty before God’s tribunal. We want to think that a lesser price was paid for our pride or gossip than was paid for someone’s adultery or murder, but the cup testifies that the cleansing is the same. The cup will not allow us to tear our gaze from the bloody cross where Christ secured the cleansing of your murder and my “harmless” deceit. The cup reminds all of us as a church that there is no hierarchy of sins before the transcendent holiness of God. This unifies us. It “puts us in our place”. A place of honesty, humility, and therefore mutual understanding.

One of the reasons we take communion every week is because it reminds us that as diverse as we are we have two things in common – we need an alien righteousness that is perfect and we need a cleansing from sin that is of infinite worth. Only the unique God-Man, Jesus Christ, can provide these. Every time we gather we will be tempted to divide. We are quick to forget. Communion points us afresh to what we all have in common – common guilt, common hope. Through a common righteousness and a shared cleansing we are united to Christ and therefore we are united to each other. We need to be reminded of that every week.

[i] Eph. 4:3

[ii] i.e. 1 Cor. 11:24

[iii] 1 John 1:1-2

[iv] Heb. 2:14,17

[v] Heb. 2:18

[vi] Rom. 3:23

[vii] Phil. 2:6-11

[viii] 2 Cor. 5:21

[ix] Heb. 9:22

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