Thursday, December 6, 2018

Conversion, Part 3.

What is the evidence that a person has been truly converted?

2 Corinthians 5 tells us that a person who is genuinely converted is spiritually transformed. This person is a new creation, the old has passed -and is continuing to pass- away. One way that we see that is in the new heart: the person begins to have a completely different set of desires than he or she did before. God gives "a new wanter" - the newly converted believer begins to want the things God wants, and begins to hate the things God hates. So there is a strong connection to repentance, as well. When this new believer discovers something within his or her self that is displeasing to the Lord, a real struggle begins to have mastery over that thing. 

So a new convert isn't perfect; not by any means! No Christian is. But no genuinely converted Christian can carry on in a lackadaisical attitude about their sin.
In Romans 6, Paul gives some incredibly helpful teaching on this subject. 
How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore, we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. 
-Romans 6:2-7
So repentance is more than reluctant obedience or religious exercise. It’s a change of nature- the old nature has died and something that is new, something free from the slavery to sin, has taken its place. Galatians 2:20 is similar, and even more personal: Paul says, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”

The change is also lasting and ongoing. The genuine convert continues in repentance. If we keep reading Paul's words in Romans 6, we see:
Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. 
-Romans 6:11-14
So the evidence of conversion is a new person, who is continuing to turn from sin; and continuing  to place their faith in Christ. That leads to all kinds of fruit: peace, hope, victory, confidence. One I’d mention in particular is joy.

Another beautiful work that God does in the heart of the convert is to place Himself above all other things. Higher than any other goal, higher than any other happiness or pleasure. The converted one has a newfound delight in knowing and experiencing God. It is just the beginning of an eternal, indescribable satisfaction that comes from attaining that which is desired above all other things... That is what happens in the heart of a convert! God establishes Himself as the greatest desire- and then allows Himself to be had. Now in part, in fullness later. That kind of fulfillment leaves a mark:
“Delight yourself in the LORD;” says David, “And He will give you the desires of your heart.” -Psalm 37:4
Augustine said of his own conversion: 
How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose . . ! You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure.
Of her conversion, Kirsten Powers wrote, 
Everything had changed. I’ll never forget standing outside that apartment on the Upper East Side and saying to myself, “It’s true. It’s completely true.” The world looked entirely different, like a veil had been lifted off it. I had not an iota of doubt. I was filled with indescribable joy.
Finally, Author and Pastor John Piper describes conversion this way: 
We are converted when Christ becomes a treasure in whom we find so much delight that trusting him, obeying him, and turning from all that belittles him becomes our normal habit.
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 
-Mathew 13:44
Are you converted? Have you placed your faith in Christ alone and repented of your sin? If that’s a difficult question for you to answer- maybe another would help: Has Christ become your joy? If not, seek Him today. Pray and read the Scripture. Turn from your own way and follow Him. Trust in Him alone to save you. Today is the day of salvation!

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Conversion, Part 2.

Last time, we established that conversion is our willing response to the gospel. In conversion, we sincerely repent of our sin and place our trust in Christ for salvation. Today, we'll look at repentance and faith in a little more detail. 

Throughout the New Testament, sinners are urged to respond to the gospel- they are urged to repent and to believe. Some passages only give one of the commands, but it is clear from the whole of scripture that one can never be separated from the other. In other words, there is no saving faith that does not include repentance – and there is no true turning from sin apart from faith in Christ. The two go hand in hand. As Greg Gilbert writes in his book What Is The Gospel?, faith and repentance are two sides of a single coin.

Repentance is turning away from sin. One way to understand or observe repentance is to see a person begin to love what God loves, and hate what God hates. Another description is to be given a new heart - new desires - a new “wanter,” in which a person's desires begin to conform into the desires of God.

The words "belief" and "faith" are sometimes used interchangeably. But faith that can save a person is best understood as trust. What you are trusting is what you are relying on. Some evangelistic tools use an illustration of a person considering sitting down in a chair: A person can believe the chair will hold him or her up from across the room. To truly trust the chair, that person will have to sit on it.

Here’s a brief survey of some of the commands to repent and believe:

When Jesus began his ministry, he went out into Galilee, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mar 1:15)

To the Philippian Jailer, they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Act 16:31)

When Paul addressed the Ephesian Elders, he reminded them of how he taught them in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.  (Act 20:20-21)

As Paul presented his gospel to the Romans, he wrote to them: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
(Rom 10:9)

So conversion is the response to the call of the Gospel. It is the coin. And the two, inseparable sides of the coin are faith and repentance.
It is important to note that in every one of these passages, the hearers are simply charged with the necessity of responding to the call. "Repent!" "Believe!" Of course God has to give the hearer the ability to respond- but the person must engage in the response. No one gets to say, “I’d really love to respond to the gospel, but I’m waiting for God to allow me to believe.” And Paul doesn’t say, “One day God might grant you repentance, and then you’ll be able to be right with Him.” The biblical water isn’t muddy. The burden is left squarely on the hearer. Command imperative: You must repent; You must believe.

That can be such a practical help in evangelism. Urging sinners to repent is thoroughly biblical. Just this week, I got a message from someone who is always seems to be in trouble. He is always away from church, never interested in the things of God. As a believer, I have the responsibility of meeting a person in their point of need. But it is also my responsibility to boldly say, "You know what you really need to do? You need to repent of your sin, and come hear the gospel, and follow hard after Christ- or none of this is ever going to change." I know God has to do a work in him to bring that change about- but the necessity of response is still the same: Repent. Believe. Come. Follow.

We've seen the biblical mandate for responding to the Gospel. We've also defined that response as conversion, which consists of faith and repentance. But is it possible to know whether a person has truly responded to to the gospel in this way? Next time, we will look at the evidence of conversion.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Conversion, Part 1.

Conversion can be defined as our willing response to the gospel call, in which we sincerely repent of sins and place our trust in Christ for salvation. To think about conversion carefully, we’ll look at the necessity, nature, and evidence of conversion over the next few posts.

The Necessity of Conversion
Previously, we observed that regeneration is something that God does. We are passive in that part of salvation, and God alone does the action.

Sometimes, we refer to salvation- as a whole- by referencing one of the parts. In the course of an ordinary conversation, we may say that someone was converted, when what we mean is that he was saved. We may say that someone is regenerate, and we mean that that person is saved. But in this series, we are talking about the specific parts of salvation. So, when I write "chosen" or "called" or "regenerate" or "converted," I mean something about that specific part only. When I say regeneration is something God does, and that man has no part in it- I do not mean that there is no response from man in salvation as a whole. I mean that there is no response from man in God’s work of regenerating: granting new life to a person.

You may say, "Well, wait- isn’t one as good as the other? If God grants new life, isn’t the person saved?"  And here lies the difficulty. We are talking about the Ordo Salutis. It is the logical order of salvation- not the chronological order. Some of these individual parts may happen at the same time, or perhaps even at an unknowable time. Making the distinction between logical and chronological is mentally challenging, but it’s the price of admission to see the components of salvation in greater detail. Believe me, the show is worth the price!

So God must regenerate, and man has no power to participate in that part at all. And yet- regeneration is required in salvation! Do you remember Jesus’ statements from John 3? "You must be born again." Let that sink in. There are requirements for salvation -for entrance into the Kingdom- that you cannot possibly accomplish apart from God. In our way of thinking, that isn’t fair. It seems like a dirty trick. But there are lots of things that work this way. If you don't have the ability to pay your taxes, they are still required. If you can find no food, you have not the ability to eat. But eating is still necessary.

Moreover, when God commands us to do what we cannot do, it doesn’t detract from His goodness. In fact, it magnifies it. What does Jesus say to the paralytic in Mark 2? "Get up, take up your mat, and go home." Or to the invalid at the pool of Bethesda? "Get up, take your bed, and walk." If you and I had told a disabled person to get up and walk, it would be cruel. But when God tells them, they (and everyone around them) are forced to see that it is impossible! Then, God does it for them. There are more examples of this in the Scripture, as well. How about John 11? Jesus commands, “Lazarus, come forth!” How is it that the dead man obeys? He cannot do it on his own, yet the command is given all the same.

Conversion is really a two-part response to the gospel. Like with regeneration, these two parts are also things we cannot do on our own, apart from God. But unlike regeneration, we must willingly participate in conversion once God has enabled us to do so. Those parts are faith and repentance. We must place our trust (or faith) in Christ alone, and we must repent of our sin. These two things together make up the response to the gospel that is called conversion.

In Matthew 18, When the disciples asked Jesus who would be greatest in the Kingdom, he replied: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn (be converted) and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

In Acts 3, When Peter speaks to the people in Solomon’s Portico, he urges the people, “Repent (turn away from sin) therefore, and turn back (return, be converted), that your sins may be blotted out.”
So turning -conversion- is the required response to the gospel. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” The reverse, then, must also be true- if any man is not a new creation, he is not in Christ. If the old is still alive and well, he is not in Christ. There is a spiritual transformation at hand. It does not happen all at once, as the new creation grows and the old begins to die.

Next time, we will look at the nature of conversion in greater detail. Until then, consider your own conversion carefully. Are you trusting completely in Christ alone to save you? Are you turning from every sin as God gives grace to do so? 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


Regeneration is a secret act of God in which He imparts new spiritual life to us. It is not merited or deserved in any way by those who receive it, and it is completely monergistic- that is, brought about completely by God. In other words, you don’t have any part in your regeneration.
In sanctification, for example, you do get to play a part. It isn't completely your work, but you get to participate in it by making decisions, repenting, using the spiritual disciplines, etc. But regeneration is not like that- it is something only God can accomplish (Titus 3:5-6, Ephesians 2:4-9).

In regeneration, God acts on the inner man, replacing deaf ears that cannot hear and blind eyes that cannot see and a heart of stone that cannot believe with spiritual heart and eyes and ears that hear and see and believe the truth of the gospel.

A great passage that helps us understand regeneration is 1 John 5:1-5.

"Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" 1 John 5:1-5
Here are several important observations about regeneration:

1. Regeneration Precedes Faith. (v1)
John writes, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” In the original language, "believes" is present and active.  The next phrase is "has been born of God." That’s perfect passive indicative. Perfect means it is an accomplished or completed action, and passive means the subject isn’t doing the action but is the recipient of the action. John writes that those who believe now have already been regenerated- born of God.

The alternative view is to say that we place our faith in Christ first and then we are regenerated. Not only does that conflict with what John says here, but also what we read in Ephesians 2. It would mean that one who is spiritually dead can accomplish a spiritual good on his own. The Ephesians 2 passage goes on to say “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” So, God must work on the spiritually dead man before he has the capacity to believe or respond in faith.

2. Regeneration changes our identity. (v1-2)
Regeneration means that we belong to a family of people who are also born again. This family is marked by love that runs two directions: If we love God, we love those who are born of Him. Likewise, we experience love from others who have also been born of God. But don’t think of this ‘fruit of regeneration’ as some kind of spiritualized hippie commune. Verse three defines love as obedience. This love is fierce. It has teeth. It covers a multitude of sins, yes. But it also calls for accountability. It instructs, gives rebuke, and both exerts and submits to authority.
We’ll learn more about this when we get to the topic of adoption, but those who have been regenerated belong to a new, spiritual family. What binds them together is greater than any of their former worldly or fleshly differences.

3. Regeneration changes what we love. (v2-3)
Those who are born of God obey his commandments, and keep his commandments. But notice the change of heart in verse three: His commandments are not burdensome. The unregenerate see God’s commandments as condemning, judgmental, a list of "must-dos" and "can-nots". But the one whose heart has been renewed by the washing of regeneration loves to obey. Listen to David in Psalm 19 “The decrees of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” And again, in Psalm 40:8 “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” The regenerate begin to love what God loves, and hate what God hates.

4. Regeneration gives us assurance. (v4-5)
John says that the one who has bee born of God overcomes the world. Overcome means to conquer or to have victory in conquest. It’s the Greek word nike. Interestingly, it’s present tense. Those who have been regenerated not only will overcome the world… they are overcoming now. Doesn’t that one little detail make an enormous practical difference? The world seems to weigh on us so heavily, we often look only to a future relief. But if you’ve been born again, you’re an overcomer. You are able to have victory now. Not because of something you’ve done, but because of what God has done on your behalf.

5. Regeneration is evidenced by faith. (v5)
John sets up an equivalency here between the one who has been born of God and the one who believes. We've seen that regeneration must come first, but it necessarily brings about faith in Christ.
That’s important for 2 reasons.

First, it’s a reminder that we can’t separate the various facets of salvation completely. We can talk about regeneration and justification and sanctification as separate things. But God doesn’t work them out in such a compartmentalized way. We can say regeneration logically precedes faith, but we can’t say regeneration saves apart from faith in Christ. No one is saved apart from faith in Christ. So here in the text, John reminds us that the two are inseparable.

Second- Since regeneration is a required part of salvation, how does a person know if they are truly "born of God?" I think the best barometer we can use is this: have you responded to the gospel by placing your faith in Christ? Have you seen yourself as dead in sin apart from him- and that your only hope is Him and Him alone? That can’t happen unless God has caused you to be born again. John 1:12-13 reads, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” If you repent and believe- you are born again.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Election, Part 3.

There is one final thing I would like to consider about election, and our Ephesians passage in particular. Why would God choose to make salvation work in this way?  

Certainly, there is some mystery in God's design. John Piper has said, helpfully, “Not all things are good for us to know, and so God has not revealed them to us; and there are some things that are good for us to know, even when we can't explain them fully.” Can we perfectly explain the relationship between God's sovereignty and man's responsibility? No. But it is good for us to affirm what the Bible teaches, and to understand as much as we are able.

At least part of the reason God chose to design redemption in this way is revealed by Paul at the end of the passage:

“He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”  -  Ephesians 1:5-6

"To the praise of His glorious grace..." In other words, all of this has been done to glorify His own nature. It is to increase the renown of His grace. It might be good for us to remember that simplest of all definitions of grace: God giving us what we don’t deserve. That is precisely what happens in salvation! His grace is demonstrated to be all the greater - because he would save sinners such as you and I.

It should occur to us that God is obligated to save no one! He would still be perfectly righteous and just to leave us all condemned in our sin. But He is not only righteous and just; He is also gracious and kind and merciful … as He Himself says, all the way back in Exodus 33:19  “…I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” So our salvation is a testimony to God's goodness: His unmerited grace and mercy and kindness. 

Is it really possible that God authored salvation in this way because He knew it was the way that would glorify Him the most? Let’s ask Paul:

"What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory..."   -  Romans 9:22-23

So He authored redemption for His own glory, not because He was lonely or needed us in some way. We are the undeserving recipients of His grace, the "vessels of mercy." Salvation is extended to us not because of anything we could do or anything we are, but because of His grace that was put on display for His glory.

What do we take away from these posts on Election? I think three things:

1. Election isn’t an ivory-tower doctrine that is cold and distant. Everyone who has ever been rescued from judgment and death has been saved by "the kind intention of God’s will." Ephesians 1:4's “He Chose us” is heavy with kindness and beauty.  

2. No one is saved apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. If you are wondering about whether you are or are not elect - or whether someone else is or isn’t elect, listen carefully: you’re asking a question the Bible NEVER asks, and never answers. The question you should be asking is “Have I believed the gospel and placed my faith in Christ alone and repented of my sin?” That’s the question the Scripture demands that we all answer.

3. Finally, election should cause us to acknowledge the mystery of God’s purposes, to fear His wrath and power, and to be overcome with joy in light of His mercy and grace. In other words, it should force into our thoughts a bigger and greater God, and a smaller and needier mankind.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Election, Part 2.

In Ephesians 1:4, Paul tells his readers that God chose them before the foundation of the world. Paul then goes on to use another term: predestined. What is the difference between chosen and predestined? And what exactly does predestined mean?

 Ephesians 1:3-6:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, (4) even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love (5) he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, (6) to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”

The word predestined has a slightly different meaning than chosen. We shouldn't run the two words together and miss the beauty of all that God has done for us. The word used for chosen here in Ephesians 1 means "to select out of." Predestined means to determine or define beforehand.

In modern usage, predetermination often has a negative connotation. We think that something which is predetermined isn’t fair. In many cases, that is true: If the NFL already determined that the Patriots were going to win the Super Bowl, that would be bad. If the outcome of March Madness was already decided, that would be bad. If a political election were determined to be fixed beforehand, there would be outrage. Given this negative context, we sometimes fail to think about how predetermined outcomes are good and right in many cases. We predetermine our personal schedules when possible so that there can be order.  A predetermined plan for emergencies is important and helpful. We may tend to use the word negatively, but we must remember that not all predestination is bad or unfair.

Beginning at the end of v4, and carrying on into v5, Paul writes that God predestined us in love. Clearly, this is not a doctrine about some uncaring, mechanical deity that sends people off to eternal joy or damnation on a care-free whim. Unfortunately, that is often how predestination is represented.

One objection to predestination is concerned with so-called “double-predestination.” Double predestination is understood by some to mean that if God chooses to save some, He must also be choosing to send others to hell. Imagine all the people who will ever live passing before God, who waves His scepter this way and that, pointing some people to heaven and some to hell... These poor souls would then live out the rest of their lives in utter futility! Some might long for heaven and never having a chance to get there, while others who care nothing for godliness would be whisked away to heaven. But that is a fairy tale in which God has been made the villain, and nothing could be farther from the meaning of predestination presented in the Bible.

That cheapened version of predestination fails to take into account the conditions under which God exercises His sovereign choice. Namely, that everyone has a sin nature and stands condemned already (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Psalm 51:5; John 3:18; Romans 3:23, 5:12; Ephesians 2:3). The first thing that is predetermined, then, is that everyone with a sin nature deserves eternal punishment in hell. If we go back to our imaginary scenario in which everyone who will ever live passes before God to hear His predetermination- every single one of them is already destined for hell! But in His love God reaches into the hopelessness of sin and death and declares: “not this one- this one is mine. This one will know and display my grace and mercy.”

For those who are inclined to object on the grounds of fairness, I would point you to Romans 9:20-23. The question Paul asks on that occasion is not “is predestination fair?” but, “Who do you think you are - to judge whether anything God does is fair?” How easily we step from created, subservient being, to judge and jury of God Himself!

C. S. Lewis put it this way:
The ancient man approached God as the accused person approaches his judge. But for the modern man, the roles are reversed. Man is the judge: God is in the dock. [Man] is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God's acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.”

So if the doctrine of election makes you angry because you don’t think it’s fair, ask yourself whether it is God or you that gets to decide what is good and right for Him to do with His own creation.

So, He predestined us in love for what?  The answer is in verse 5: adoption. He has predestined us, in love, to be part of His family- His sons, His daughters. Some have argued that God predestined us for something other than salvation- for ministry or good works or something else. But that is not what this text says. Ephesians 1 says we are predestined to be his sons & daughters. Paul makes the argument in Romans 8 that if we are his children, we are also fellow heirs of God in Christ. If that isn't salvation, I don't know what is.

One mistake that is often made when thinking about theology is separating or compartmentalizing things that were meant to be together. We have to do that -to some degree- to understand things with our finite minds. But we shouldn’t leave things disconnected. One of the reasons predestination often comes across as cold or mechanical is that we fail to think of it the way Paul does: as something totally connected to Christ, His work, and the Gospel.

Don’t think of election apart from Christ! Election happens before creation, but it doesn’t happen before Christ. Remember that the Word that became flesh is the Word that was with God in the beginning. Colossians 1:20 says that it was the Father’s good pleasure to reconcile to Himself all things – through Christ. Christ was always God’s plan. Election doesn't make Christ an afterthought.

No one is saved apart from Christ, and no one is saved apart from hearing the gospel and placing their faith in Christ alone. There is no calm, dispassionate entry into heaven for the elect. Rather, the elect are spared from the clutches of death and hell because of Christ who gave His life and shed His blood to win them. This is not a cold, systematic arrangement. This is God’s love, mercy, grace, and goodness on display to all creation. All could have been left to suffer punishment for sin, but in God's wisdom and love, He showed His goodness by saving some.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Election, Part 1.

The first individual “element” of salvation is election. Election can be a controversial topic, one that is often misconstrued. The purpose of exploring election here is to let Scripture speak for itself and have it teach us how salvation begins in the mind and will of God.

The passage we will use as an outline for this multi-part study is Ephesians 1:3-6:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, (4) even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love (5) he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, (6) to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”

In this passage, Paul tells the Ephesians that “He chose us.” There is some choosing for us to do in the Christian life- but it pertains to other things.  When it comes to the question of who initiated this relationship and who made salvation possible for us- that is all God’s choice. He chose us.

The word is ἐκλέγομαι , and it means “to select out of.” When my children press their faces to the glass at the ice cream counter, and one of them says “chocolate chip cookie dough, please” – that is selecting out of. God selected us out.

In verse 4, Paul also says He chose us “before the foundation of the world” That certainly means before we were ever created. So He made His selection before we had ever done anything good or bad, or displayed our character in any way. At the end of v5, Paul says that all of this is done according to the purpose of His will.

This is why Paul wrote in Romans 9:10-13: “When Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac,  (11)  though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—  (12)  she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  (13)  As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Some object to this unconditional election for salvation. They argue that this passage from Romans 9 is talking about the election of Israel. That is certainly true! Paul is arguing that God sovereignly chose which descendant the promises would follow. In this case, they would follow Jacob and not Esau.
But the argument doesn’t end there, with Jacob and Esau. Why would Paul tell the Romans any of this if it didn’t also apply to them? Paul continues his argument (in v23-24), stating that God’s purpose was to prepare a people for His glory, adding the words “even us.” In other words, God selected from among the Jews and the Gentiles to redeem a people for His glory.
Another objection I often hear about election is that God chose us for something other than salvation. Those who raise this objection argue that God chose us for a certain role or a particular ministry. Turning back to Ephesians 1, we see that the end of verse 4 precludes that possibility. God chose us to be “holy and blameless” before Him.

Holy means set apart or peculiar. God chose Israel to be holy in Deuteronomy 7:6 and 14:2. Their call to holiness made them different. And just as He chose Israel to be made holy, set apart, and peculiar… He has chosen us to be made holy, peculiar, set apart. While not its only purpose, holiness is a distinctive of those in relationship with God. It is an outward marker that we belong to Him. So election is tied to our sanctification.

We are also chosen by God to be blameless. The word used here means “without blemish.” While all have sinned, and no one could claim to be blameless on their own, we are made blameless by God in salvation. So election is also tied to our justification- the part of salvation in which we are declared righteous or blameless before God in Christ.

If you are a Christian, you did not become one simply because you chose God. Rather, He chose you to be an instrument of His glory and grace. What a mystery! Election raises a lot of questions, but the answers offered by the scripture are remarkably beautiful. We will see more of them next time, as we continue with verse 5 and predestination.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Saved! A Look at Our Salvation

This week, we begin a series which will take a good look at what it means to be saved. Along the way, we'll examine the various parts of salvation and the Ordo Salutis (the logical order of salvation). Today, we’re going to ask some important questions about salvation: What are we saved from? Who does the saving? How does salvation actually take place? For what purpose are we saved?

One scripture passage that gives some insight on our topic is Titus 3:

He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Titus 3:5-7

Saved from What?

The Greek word for saved means to deliver or to protect. So what are we being delivered from? Often, we say that we are saved from our sin. That is certainly true- Matthew's  Gospel tells us that the Savior would be named “Jesus” because he would save His people from their sins. Of course, that is true, but there is also a deeper implication:

We have to be saved from sin because we serve a holy, pure, perfect God. If He were not totally set apart from sin, our sin would be no problem- and we would not need salvation. But the scripture tells us that we face a coming judgment because our sin has offended Him.

Some people struggle with the idea that a "small infraction" could result in an eternal punishment.
But there is a huge error in that way of thinking. It's not that the sin is so big on its own- its that the holiness of God is so great. That's because the measurement of an offense is not only determined by the infraction, but by the greatness of the offended party. So, the “little problems” that we count as insignificant reveal the error of our thinking: We underestimate God's holiness, and subsequently, the size of our problem.

Saved by Whom? 

Titus 3:5 tells us, “He saved us.” Which "He?" Verse 4 names Him, “God our savior.” Verse 5 then goes on to say: God saved us, and he did so according to his mercy. “...not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” So our salvation is not just something that He does, but is totally bound up in His character.

The judgment is coming because of His character.
Redemption is necessary because of His character.
Salvation is possible because of His character.

Saved, How?

Are there... mechanics of salvation? How exactly does salvation work and apply to individuals? These are good questions with complex answers!

There are indeed different "elements" of salvation. Paul mentions several of them here, in Titus 3: Regeneration in verse 5, and justification and adoption (since he names us heirs) in verse 7. The Bible also points to more elements of salvation:

Election – God’s sovereignty in salvation
Calling – The summoning offer of the gospel
Regeneration – New life given by God
Conversion – The willing response to the offer of the gospel
Justification – God's declaration of righteousness
Adoption – Made sons (and heirs!) of God
Sanctification – The Ongoing process of growing holiness
Perseverance – Preserved by God for eternity
Glorification – Receiving a new body

All of these so-called elements are different- but interrelated. Some are instantaneous. Some are progressive. Some are God’s work alone while others include our effort, as well. Personally, I like to envision these elements as a rainbow. One bow -one thing of breathtaking beauty- made up of individual bands of color… and if you look closely enough… billions of individual droplets of water. I think salvation is somewhat like that. When God saves us, he does countless thousands of distinct works in our lives that make up a beautiful whole.

Saved, for What Purpose?

In verse 7, Paul writes that all of this happens so that “we might become heirs.” Heirs means "to inherit" or "possess by lot." Why would God want to make us heirs? Why would He want to show us "the immeasurable riches of his grace (Eph 2:7)?" Why demonstrate His philanthropy to sinners like us?

He has done so for the only reason I can ever give for anything He does: For His glory; That His Name would be made great. That we would spend eternity celebrating Him. He doesn’t save us to make us look great. He saves us because He is so great. So we are the happy children of a God who is holy and just, while at the same time gracious and merciful. In the coming weeks, we'll look at how that grace and mercy is applied in each element of salvation.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Every. Single. Sermon. Part 4.

Most would agree that churches should have skilled preachers who prepare and deliver sermons with excellence. But far too few of us give much thought to training skilled listeners. Last week, I appealed that two main things help us become excellent sermon listeners.  We need to change our expectations for the sermon time, and we need to engage our minds to understand, discern, and apply what we hear.

What are your expectations for the sermons you hear? How do you judge a sermon to be good or bad? What things do you value? Someone once told me that a good sermon is a short sermon. That person obviously valued sermons that didn't take up a lot of their time. Others value any sermon that doesn't bore them. As long as it is sufficiently entertaining or interesting, it's a good sermon. Some people value their own preference of preaching style: the preacher's voice, cadence, movements - even the visuals or media used (or lack thereof) are all indicators of whether the sermon was good or bad.

These expectations or values aren't without merit. It is good for sermons to be concise. And, good preachers develop skills for sermon preparation and delivery that help to make the sermon interesting. Stylistic elements like volume, cadence, and physical movement are important considerations. But they aren't the main consideration. Believers should have higher expectations than whether their stylistic preferences are met - or whether the sermon ends early enough for them to be first in line at their favorite lunch spot.

Think again of the instruction that Timothy received from Paul about preaching: "Preach the Word." Don't expect to be entertained or amused. Expect to hear God speak through the timeless truth of His Word. "Reprove, rebuke, exhort..." Don't expect only positive messages or things that are easy to hear. Expect to be corrected when your understanding is lacking, rebuked when your thinking or actions are contrary to the Word, and encouraged when you have been faithful. "For... they will not endure sound doctrine." Expect to have the rock-solid, objective doctrines of God held out for you. You have all these ideas about who God is and what He is like and what He does... but how do you know any of it is right? And how high is the price for error? Expect to have your subjective ideas reined in by the objective truth of the Bible. In short, expect to hear from God Himself!  

In addition to setting your expectations, you need to put your mind into overdrive... there's a lot of work to be done while you listen!

For too many believers, the sermon is the time they spend least engaged in the worship service. That shouldn't be so! Imagine what our worship services would be like if we sat passively through the greeting, singing, praying, and giving segments! What would you think if you visited a church where the worship service looked like that? Very likely, you would think something was wrong with the way people were responding (or not responding) to what was going on around them. Why should we treat the sermon any differently than those other parts of the worship service?  Many Christians wrongly assume that because the preacher has to do the actual talking, our role as listeners is passive. It isn't! When we listen to a sermon, our hearts and minds should be all abuzz with the activity of comprehending, discerning, and applying what is being said.

Taking steps to ensure you understand could include several things:  If the reference has been made available, you could read and study the scripture that is going to be exposited beforehand. Take good notes or obtain a copy of the sermon audio so you can study the material afterward. Consult trusted resources, and use bible study tools if needed. If you heard the sermon in your own church, discuss it with mature believers who will also benefit from thinking over the sermon. If you still have questions, you may even be able to consult with your pastor about the message.

Discernment means being able to perceive or recognize distinctions. A skilled sermon listener is able to recognize the difference between the accurate use of God's Word and (intentional or unintentional) misuse. One of the greatest ways to grow in discernment is to grow in experience with the Scripture! Believers should be hearing, reading, studying, and memorizing the Bible on a regular basis. There's no better way to recognize falsehood than to be intimately familiar with the truth. Another way to practice discernment is to ask good questions. Desiring God has an excellent post on three questions to ask before hearing any sermon, here.

Finally, remember that no one is more able to apply the truth to your life than you! Resist the temptation to hear and apply sermons on behalf of others. It's good that we want everyone to hear good teaching and instruction, but if our first thought during the sermon is wishing someone else were there to hear it... then we've missed what God is trying to say to us in this moment. Think of how the sermon applies to your own life first, and respond in faith.

I hope you've been encouraged to take a fresh look at both the preaching and listening perspectives of preaching. Both preacher and listener have important work to do. May we do that work faithfully, for God's glory and our good.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Every. Single. Sermon. Part 3.

For the past two weeks, we've been thinking together about the "sermon moment," and our attention has been particularly directed toward the preacher. This week, we turn our attention to the listeners. What must they do in the sermon moment? Are there right and wrong ways to listen to a sermon being preached?

When I wrote about "What the Preacher Must Do," I made the argument that the sermon should be expository. That means that it should expose the truth of God's Word for people to hear and respond. I also wrote that the sermon should not be the preacher's ideas, with some "biblical backup" sprinkled in. The term for that is exegesis: the idea that the meaning is born from within the text of the Bible. The opposite of exegesis is eisegesis, the idea that the meaning is born somewhere else, and brought to the text of the Bible. Do you see the difference? Exegesis wants to know what the truth of the text meant to its writer and its original readers, and ultimately, to God Himself. Eisegesis wants to know if some other meaning or idea can be made to fit into the biblical text.

But why am I writing all this now, when we're supposed to be thinking about the listener rather than the preacher? I like to say that Christians must be exegetical and expository listeners. Or more accurately, the hearers must expect and listen for exegesis and exposition. What does that mean? Let's go back to 2 Timothy 4 and see why Paul gave Timothy such a weighty charge:

"Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths."
(2 Timothy 4:2-4, ESV)
Paul warns Timothy that people have a natural tendency to listen to what they like. That's pretty harmless if we're only thinking about what kind of music we enjoy, or what kind of topics we talk about with friends. But what about issues of great importance? Would we stop listening to a doctor because we don't like the test result he reported? That would be incredibly foolish. So our tendency to only listen to what we like to hear -coupled with our sin nature- becomes a recipe for disaster. 2 Timothy 4 asserts that we refuse to hear sound teaching: either because we disagree with it, are offended by it, or just find it too boring to give it our attention. Instead, if left to our own devices, we will accumulate teachers who tell us what we want to hear. The Greek for accumulate could be literally interpreted as piling up or heaping together. The idea is to get more and more. Paul's powerful imagery of "itching ears" that need to be tickled gives us even more insight: We have a need to keep on hearing what we like or want to believe is true. In an attempt to verify our wayward thoughts, we get more and more teachers to tell us what we already love to hear.

What is the solution? Being an exegetical, expositional listener.

First, change the way you listen to the sermons you hear by engaging your discernment. Godly men who preach and teach the Word will want you to do this. Have a Berean mindset (Acts 17:11). The Bereans were eager to hear Paul's message, but their eagerness didn't stop with "taking in a sermon." Instead, their eagerness lead them to verify what was being said against the Scriptures. They were exegetical listeners: if what was being preached was an idea foreign to the scriptures, they would have rejected it! Just think: the Bereans were verifying and checking up on the preaching of the Apostle Paul! They aren't rebuked for that. Instead, the praise of their attitude is forever memorialized in the Bible Itself! We would do well to imitate them. Just remember that Berean is not Bohemian. I'm not talking about an anti-authoritarian spirit, or playing "stump-the-preacher" with endless, unhelpful questioning. Engaging your discernment means rejecting what is false or misleading. It also means receiving, clinging to, and cherishing what is good and true and right:
"Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (Romans 12:9)
Second, change the way you listen to sermons by reforming your expectations. When you hear a sermon, you have the incredible opportunity to hear the truth of God's Word. Don't settle for something else!  Expect to hear the truth of a Biblical text put on display for all to hear, receive, and respond to in faith. Expect that the main point of the sermon should be the main point of the text. Don't seek to be entertained, or even just to hear something new. That desire is often cleverly masked in Christian circles by using the word "fresh." After Paul left the Bereans, he preached for the Athenians, even being brought up to the Areopagus. But most of the Athenians only wanted to hear Paul because they "spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new (Acts 17:19-21). In contrast to the Bereans, this behavior was not praised, and isn't to be imitated. Think of it this way: when you change what you value, what interests you -and how much it interests you- will change. 

I hope this week's topic has been a welcome challenge. I encourage you to join me in praying that the Lord would show us how to be the sermon listeners He wants us to be. Next time, we will think about some practical ways we can carry out that ambition.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Every. Single. Sermon. Part 2.

Last week, we began a series on the "sermon moment" - the time of preaching in our worship service. The first installment covered what the preacher must do. Today, we'll look at how the preacher goes about his task. 

Anyone who has ever read from the bible knows that there is lot you could say about any passage of scripture. There are contexts to consider, grammatical features to examine, historical backgrounds to understand, the biography of the bible book's author, the over-arching theme of the whole bible, the main idea of the text itself, and all the imaginable ways one might apply the meaning in their own life... and that's just some of what could be said. The preacher's job, then, is not so much figuring out what things can be said, but figuring out what things should be said. 

Last week, I wrote about expository preaching: putting the truth of a text on display. Let's imagine, for a moment, that the truth of the text is a precious stone. To show the stone, we could simply place it on a shelf, or maybe under a glass. But if we want to appreciate the stone's value more fully, we have to find a way to view it from different angles, to see it against different backgrounds. We would never change the stone, but we could see its worth more completely by examining it in different ways. Similarly, the preacher displays the truth of God's Word, turning it one way and another, so that everyone has the opportunity to experience its full worth and weight.  

So, what tools can the preacher use to better display the truth of God's Word? There are many, and the scholars and students of preaching have different ways to describe and categorize them. Here are a few that are simple and easy to remember.

1. Explanation.  In any sermon, there should be some explanation of the text. Hearers need to know what the text means. Obviously, some texts will require more explanation than others. Explanation is necessary, but doesn't make a complete sermon. If there is too much explanation, there may not be time -or the listeners may be too worn out- for much else. A sermon isn't just a lecture, so the preacher should try to use other tools to compliment his use of explanation.

2. Illustration. The use of stories, quotes, media, object lessons, etc., can all be used to illustrate the points or main truth of a sermon. Illustration provides a more creative or engaging way to think about a particular truth. It also helps the listener maintain interest. But preachers and listeners alike should be careful: listeners sometimes remember illustrations without remembering the meaning behind them. (As you listen, think of an illustration as a side-dish at a good meal. It adds flavor, but it isn't the main course. You are there to be fed, not entertained. Nourished, not impressed.)

3. Application. Every sermon must include application. Application takes the truth of the bible passage to the life of the listener. Often, there are dozens of potential applications. Application causes a change in the hearer's heart that overflows into his or her thinking, decision-making, and day-to-day living. The preacher can't leave the meaning of the passage in its own time; It has to live and work in our time and culture.

4. Compelling. A sermon is not a presentation of facts given by a neutral presenter, who doesn't care what decision hearers might make. A sermon is an argument! The preacher has "seen and savored" wonder and glory in the scripture - and he wants his hearers to see it and savor it too. The sermon is also tied to the greater narrative of the whole bible- the gospel. The gospel is the central, redemptive story that connects all the pages of scripture and all of history together. The preacher desperately wants his hearers to receive the truth of the sermon, and he desperately wants them to believe the gospel.

As you begin to recognize some of the "tools" used in preaching, I hope you will grow in your ability to listen and apply the truth of God's Word for yourself. Next week, we'll be looking at that very idea: that the hearer is the one best equipped to apply the truth of God's Word in his or her own life. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Every. Single. Sermon. Part 1

In this brief series, I want to take a look at preaching. More specifically, I want to consider the sermon time in our worship service. I hope this will prompt you to think carefully about what really happens during that time- and maybe even get excited about it.

It may seem like there isn't much to think about: one person speaks while many listen. But that understanding makes the sermon little more than a speech or lecture. There is a lot more happening when a sermon is delivered; or at least, there should be. So, over the next few weeks, I'll be writing about the "sermon moment" in 4 parts: (1) What the preacher must do, (2) how he should go about doing it, (3) what the hearers of the sermon must do, and (4) how they should go about doing it.

What the Preacher Must Do

Possibly the most forceful command Paul left to Timothy was to "preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:1-2). What qualifies as "the Word?" I think John Piper has summarized the idea in a very helpful way (see his sermon notes, here). Borrowing from Piper, we see that the context of 2 Timothy points us to the Word being "all scripture," as mentioned in 2 Timothy 3:16.  For Timothy, the writings of the Old Testament were the scripture, and he would certainly have been well-taught in Paul's method of using them to lead people to faith in Christ. Piper also points to the context immediately following verses 1-2, specifically verse 3's warning about "sound doctrine." Paul has already urged Timothy keep the pattern of sound doctrine that he had received from Paul (2 Timothy 1:13). The faithful teaching that was received by Timothy was, during this period, being recorded and slowly collected as the New Testament. So, when we receive Paul's command to "preach the Word," we receive a command to preach the Bible.

So, the preacher must preach the Bible. That's much more difficult than simply picking a scripture passage and talking about it. A faithful preacher strives to ensure the meaning of his sermon is the same as the meaning of the scripture passage. In fact, the preacher's main task is to put the passage on display for the hearers to listen to it, understand it, and apply it to their own lives. That kind of preaching is called "expository" because it exposes the truth of a particular scripture passage. The sermon is not the preacher's ideas with some biblical backup sprinkled in. It is God's idea, brought to the hearers' attention by the preacher. 

There are at least a few other things that good, biblical sermons must include. The central message of the whole Bible is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the theme that runs through the Scriptures, beginning to end. No sermon should leave out an explanation and appeal to respond to the gospel message. Individual sermons may give a more or less detailed explanation or appeal, but every sermon should compel its hearers to follow Christ.

A faithful preacher also ensures that the sermon gives hope and grace to hurting people. The English Congregationalist preacher, Joseph Parker, famously said, "Speak to the suffering, and you will never lack an audience. There is a broken heart in every crowd." Taken with Jesus' teachings about the meek, the lowly, the poor, suffering, and outcasts, Parker's advice should resonate with every preacher. If the gospel message isn't for the broken-hearted, it isn't for anyone. 

With these things in mind, I hope you can appreciate the weight of the preaching responsibility! Pray for the men of God in your life who labor to preach faithfully. One of the most encouraging things you can do to support them is to come prepared to hear, examine, and make application of the message. Next time, we'll think about some of the tools the preacher uses in the sermon. By recognizing them, you can grow in your understanding and application of the sermons you hear.