Sunday, January 27, 2013

Seven Reasons For Trials

Recently I have been reading through a very helpful book titled A Puritan Theology: Doctrine For Life, by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones. Part of what motivated me to purchase the book is that God has used the Puritans and their writings to grow me through the years. Their Bible-soaked, God-centered, Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered, practical approach to pastoral ministry has been a breath of fresh air.

One of the chapters in this book addresses “the Puritans on Providence”. In other words, what did these 16th-17th century British pastors and writers believe on God’s most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing his creatures and all their actions?[1]  As they address the topic of trials in life, they list seven reasons for trials that Puritan pastor, Thomas Boston, listed in his book The Crook In The Lot.

Consider Boston’s list as a guide for how you approach the difficult things God brings your way:[2]
1. “To prove your spiritual state as a hypocrite or genuine believer.” (James 1:12)

2. “To stir you to obedience, wean you from this world, and set your eyes on heaven.” Romans 5:3-5; 8:18f.; 2 Cor. 4:17-18; 1 Peter 1:6-8

3. “To convict you of sin.” Ps. 119:67

4. “To correct or punish you for sin.” Ps. 119:67; Prov. 3:11-12; Heb. 12:5-6

5. “To prevent you from committing sin.” 2 Cor. 12:7

6. “To reveal latent sin deep in your heart.” Ps. 119:67

7. “To awaken you from laziness so that you exercise yourself in grace.” 2 Cor. 12:9

[1] Though Puritanism spans beyond these centuries and even into New England, this is the period from which Beeke and Jones primarily draw their material. They do occasionally move out of that period and even into New England (e.g. Jonathan Edwards). The definition of God’s providence given here is from answer #11 in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a 17th century Puritan tool.

[2] I have supplied the scriptural texts myself. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but does start us down the road of thinking about why God allows hard things to come our way. Other purposes would include: To help us help others in hard times (2 Cor. 1:3-7); to grow our faith and teach us that we can trust in God who raises the dead and so he can deal with whatever we face (2 Cor. 1:9; 1 Pt. 1:6-8); and to exalt the glory and power of Christ in us (2 Cor. 12:9).

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Blessed Assurance

In last week’s post I wrote about the importance of stout God-centered theology being taught by theologically-grounded leaders so that all-out division within a church can be prevented. This week I provide an example of how this works from one of America’s most well-known hymn writers, Fanny Crosby. To understand how her biography illustrates the prevention of soured and severed relationships, we must not forget that conflict is often the outworking of our anger and bitterness in response to hurts and disappointments.

The following account of Crosby comes from the Aurora, Nebraska E. Free Church pastor, Vance Christie, in his book Women Of Faith And Courage (Christian Focus, 2011), pages 67-69. Read this and consider just how gloriously Crosby proves the point.

When John and Mercy Crosby’s daughter, Frances Jane, was just six weeks old, she developed an inflammation of the eyes as the result of a cold. The regular doctor of their community of Southeast in Putnam County, New York, was away at the time. Another man, who claimed to be a doctor but apparently was more of a quack, offered to treat the infant’s eyes. He put a hot poultice over her eyes, insisting it would draw out the infection. Instead, it all but destroyed the child’s sight. When the Crosbys accused the man, whose name has not been preserved, of blinding their baby, he fled Southeast, never to be heart from again.
To the end of her long life, which stretched out for some ninety-five years, Fanny Crosby was able to see only bright light and vivid colors, and those but faintly. Other than that she was totally blind, being unable to see distinct details or even indistinct shapes. But this seeming tragedy led to her developing an overcoming spirit, an incredibly retentive mind and an exceptional poetic gift, all of which played into her becoming the world’s foremost hymnwriter of her generation. As result, she wrote toward the end of her life of the accident that took her sight and the individual who was responsible for it: “But I have not for a moment, in more than eighty-five years, felt a spark of resentment against him because I have always believed from my youth to this very moment that the good Lord, in His infinite mercy, by this means consecrated me to the work that I am still permitted to do. When I remember His mercy and lovingkindness; when I have been blessed above the common lot of mortals; and when happiness has touched the deep places of my soul,--how can I [complain]?”

Vance goes on to write one page later of the family’s church during Fanny’s early years:  “Every Sunday the family walked or rode a mile and a half to the Southeast Church, a Presbyterian meetinghouse…. There parishioners were nurtured on the substantive Calvinistic teaching of the Puritans, doctrine to which the Crosbys adhered.”

Is it any wonder that this godly woman found “blessed assurance” (the title of one of her best-known hymns) in the providence of God, even though it meant her life-long blindness? It is this kind of faith that produces love and forgiveness, not bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice—all of which divide one person from another and can eventually split a whole congregation.

So, pursue rich, God-centered Bible teaching, reading, and theology—not only for your benefit and joy, but also for the health of the body of Christ!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Antidote To Division

While studying the book of James recently I was reminded just how much this book fits tightly together in its thought-flow from beginning to end. The "gossip" on the book is that it is a collection of almost unrelated topics strewn together. It is just not so!

What particularly grabbed my interest was the very logical teaching the half-brother of Jesus provided in chapters 3-4 that forms something of an antidote to all-out church division. This remedy consists of the following eight necessities. As we make our way through these two chapters, I will provide an outline with brief comments made, accompanied by the biblical text.

1. The prevention of all-out church division is advanced by mature, theologically sound leaders. 3:1-2a
James warns his readers that they should not be too quick or careless in their thoughts about putting themselves forward as a teacher in the church. After all, they will undergo a stricter judgment because of their influence and we stumble in so many ways, not the least of which is how we use our mouths. What the apostle is advocating here, in context, is to have leaders who know the Bible, are careful to teach it, are careful to guide the saints in how we should use our mouth and approach conflict, and who seek to practice these principles themselves. James writes:
 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways.

2. The prevention of all-out church division is advanced by acknowledging the destruction that can take place by the careless use of the tongue that expresses the bitterness of the heart. 2b-5
It is so easy to stumble, to sin in how we talk. The words we speak and that come from what is in our heart (see Matthew 15:18) may seem insignificant and small, but they can cause great destruction. Don’t take our words and how we treat others lightly!  Here is how James words it:
And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!

3. The prevention of all-out church division is advanced by admitting the tongue cannot be tamed merely by self-effort. It takes God’s grace. 3:6-12
Since the tongue is an indicator of our heart and since we cannot change our heart by our own effort, we should not be surprised to discover James has little confidence that man can reform his speech apart from the application of the work of Jesus Christ to the man by the Spirit of God. Yet, once such change has taken place, we need also to acknowledge just how inconsistent it is for us to use for harm the same tongue we use to praise God!  James does not mince his words:
And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

4. The prevention of all-out church division is advanced by the awareness that true skill for godliness is marked by a changed life that comes from God, not self. 3:13-18
James drives home the divine source of true change that he introduced in verses 6-12 and adds that the truly wise person will display a much different behavior than the one who is self-dependent. Don’t miss what he teaches:
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

5. The prevention of all-out church division is advanced by not ignoring the cause of our divisions: sinful desires fueled by idolatry. 4:1-4
James understands that when persons have things or people other than the true God that function as their gods, such objects of worship will produce sinful desires that include a willingness to fight and hurt others to protect our gods when we believe they are being attacked. At the heart, then, of preventing all-out church division is to become a people who are very God-centered and focused. Hear what James says:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

6. The prevention of all-out church division is advanced by the conviction that God truly wants to reign over our spirit (the essence of who we are), he thus blesses those who humbly submit to him in faith, and so we must humbly submit to God. 4:5-10
Those who are humbling themselves before God, trusting in him, and carefully listening to him so as to please their savior are less-likely to lash out in anger and bitterness toward others to hurt them. James teaches a very important biblical principle here: Biblical love for others is impossible apart from strong trust in God that gives us the freedom and protection to love in radical ways, even when hard.
Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

7. The prevention of all-out church division is advanced by humble Christians who, in their submission before God, realize how important it is to love their brother and not hurt him. 4:11-12
Apart from the above principles most will want to make exceptions to what James teaches here. Yet, for the person who has strong trust in a strong God and his sovereignty, they know that even when it is hard, what James teaches here is still very important—and is doable by the grace of Christ in them. Don’t ignore these words:
11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

8. The prevention of all-out church division is advanced, therefore, by saints who have a strong faith in the providence of God. 4:13-17
Though this teaching by James also serves as a transition into chapter 5, I also believe it concludes his teaching in chapters 3-4. One of the reasons James introduces the subject of resting upon God’s holy and wise preserving and governing his creatures and all their actions (his works of providence) is that these are the people most likely to trust in God in hard situations and, as a result to submit to him, even when other people are hard to love. What is more, such people are more likely to want the things God wants and so not to be driven by sinful desires that divide and destroy. I know of no other passage of the Bible that so clearly demonstrates why a church needs strong God-centered, gospel-focused theology, taught by teachers who will boldly proclaim it than James 3-4. Christian, delight in how James concludes this teaching and pray that this outlook will be the one you see in this congregation. It is the antidote to division!
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.