The apostle Paul wrote to Titus that pastors must not only preach faithfully but also “refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). The idea is very simple. Pastoral ministry is not merely a building up, but also a tearing down. As Paul would say elsewhere, it involves tearing down every speculation and lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:5). To fail to do this is ministerial malpractice and harmful to God’s people.
Given this obligation, it becomes all the more imperative to be able to identify false teachers when they emerge. Sometimes false teaching originates from outside of the church. Sometimes such teaching originates from within. The New Testament teaches that a more rigorous response is required when it arises within. Thus faithful pastors must learn how to identify and deal with false teachers. But how do we do that?
For the next two blog posts, I want to address each half of that question. First, how to identify false teachers in the midst of the church. Second, how to deal with them.
The Bible suggests at least six characteristics that commonly identify false teachers. Not every false teachers exhibits all of these characteristics at once, but often times they present some combination of these traits.
1. False teachers contradict sound doctrine.
Even in the first century during the lifetimes of the apostles, there was an authoritative body of truth that functioned as the norm for faith and practice. Jude calls it “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Paul calls it “sound teaching according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:10-11). Elsewhere, it’s the “standard of sound words” and “the treasure” (2 Tim. 1:13-14), the “words of faith” and “sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:6). John calls it the “the teaching of Christ” (2 John 9).
In the first century, sound doctrine consisted of the Old Testament plus the apostolic word that Christ assigned to His apostles. The apostolic word was eventually written down as the apostles began to pass on. For us, the standard of sound doctrine–the faith once for all delivered to the saints–is the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. False teaching, therefore, is any teaching that departs from that norm. A false teacher is anyone within the church who stands against what the Bible teaches (1 Tim. 6:3; 2 John 9).
2. False teachers promote immoral living.
Jude shows us that false teachers often sneak into the church and “turn the grace of our God into licentiousness” (Jude 4). Licentiousness means a lack of moral restraint, especially with respect to sexual conduct. It is a total suppression of the moral norms of scripture. It is a life that excuses behavior that the Bible condemns. Peter says that such teachers deny the Lord Jesus by following “sensuality” (2 Pet. 2:2). A person who will not be ruled by God’s word is often being ruled by their own lusts. There is no shortage of charlatans who infiltrate churches with their charisma only to prove themselves lecherous meddlers with the women of the flock.
Some of them will try to justify their own sexual immorality or the immorality of others. But they often won’t mount a frontal assault on the moral norms of scripture. That is too obvious. Instead, they will redefine the Bible’s terms so that they no longer witness against their evil deeds. Those who redefine the Bible’s teaching about marriage and sexuality fall into this category.
3. False teachers deemphasize sin and judgment.
This is a trait that false teachers share in common with the false prophets of old. Jeremiah describes them this way:
For from the least of them even to the greatest of them,
Everyone is greedy for gain,
And from the prophet even to the priest
Everyone deals falsely.
And they have healed the brokenness of My people superficially,
Saying, “Peace, peace,”
But there is not peace (Jer. 6:13-14).
False teachers characteristically downplay sin. Instead of naming the people’s “brokenness” as sin, they simply say, “nothing to see here, move along.” The false teachers tell sinners whom God will judge that they are not really that bad and that there’s no need to fear God’s judgement. They divorce God’s love and grace from His holiness. They tell people who should have every reason to fear God’s judgment that they really don’t have anything to worry about. They flee from the confrontation that truth brings, and they tell sinners whatever their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
4. False teachers are motivated by greed or selfish gain.
Peter says that in their “greed” false teachers exploit God’s people with “false words” (2 Pet. 2:3). Indeed their hearts are “trained in greed” (2 Pet. 2:14). Paul says false teachers “suppose that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:5). Teachers who love money and material gain will often say whatever they have to say in order to increase their bottom line. They are mercenaries, not following the call of God but going after the highest bidder. They will embrace novelty. They will scratch whatever itch sinners want scratched. They turn the ministry into a profit machine because they are motivated by greed. Beware of the pastors who seem to have an appetite for material gain. This is a tell-tale mark of a false teacher.
5. False teachers cause division.
False teachers will try to convince the flock that sound doctrine causes division. But this is a lie. It is actually the false teaching that seeks to divide and conquer God’s people. Jude warns about them in this way:
“In the last time there will be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.” These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly- minded, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God…(Jude 18-20)
Who causes dissension in the ranks? Not those teaching sound doctrine. Christ’s people unite around the truth. They divide over error. False teachers are the ones who draw people away from the standard of divine truth into error.
6. False teachers resemble the flock.
Jesus says to “beware of the false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). The false teacher never comes to us with a cardboard sign around his neck saying, “I’m a false teacher.” The false teacher comes to us in the guise of Christianity. He has the form of godliness while denying its power (2 Tim. 3:5). If the false teacher looks and sounds like a Christian, then how are we to know if he is a false teacher? Jesus tells us how we know, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). In other words, what they do will often reveal far more about who they are than what they say.
There is probably more that could be said to define false teachers, but these six characteristics are the very least that we might highlight here. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss what a faithful response to false teachers should look like.
What do you do with your sin? You can explain it with science. You can minimize it with sophistication. You can swallow it up with self-talk. Or you can confess it to your Savior.
There are the two radically different schools of thought when it comes to dealing with our imperfections.
One message–the “good news” of the world–tells you: “You own yourself, you engineer yourself, you invent yourself, you discover yourself.” This message screams an absolutely diabolical falsehood. It will not give you the freedom you are looking for. It will not give you peace of mind. It will not give you a clean conscience. It will not give you eternal life.
The second message–the good news of the cross–will give you real freedom. It confesses, “I am not my own. I was bought with a price. I am not in charge. I am not the purpose of my life. I will not find the “true” me. I cannot create a better me. I need a new me.” The gospels promises life, but only through death–Christ’s death first, then yours in his.
Do you want true, lasting comfort for your body and your soul? Do you need what you can’t supply? Are too lost to find yourself? Do you want to cope or do you want to be saved? If you have sin (and we all do), and if you are ready to name it for what it is, call out to God. Do not delay. Weep, wail, plead. See the Son of God crucified in your place. See the Son of Man risen for your justification. Approach the throne of grace in Jesus’ name. God will not turn a deaf ear to an honest cry. A broken and contrite spirit he will not despise.
Run to the cross. There you will find salvation for your sin sick self.
He is the radiance of the glory of God . . .” Hebrews 1:3a
All that God is — the measureless sum of his eternal and eternally rich attributes — shines forth in Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son. Jesus is supremely radiant.
What does this mean? It means that this Bright Morning Star (Rev. 22:16) will be the sun of the new heavens and the new earth. We won’t need this old sun, we will have the Lamb as our Lamp (Rev. 21:23). And it means that even now, the sun of righteousness who has risen with healing in his wings (Mal. 4:2) must be the center of our spiritual solar system or everything else goes out of whack. Indeed, if we were to kick our sun out from the center of our system, we wouldn’t just have chaos, but death. Life would be unsustainable. So it is with Jesus. If he is not the center, we die.
Also like the sun’s beams, the radiating lines of the Son’s glory are too numerous to count. Ever tried counting sunbeams? You can’t do it. It’s like counting airwaves in the wind. Jonathan Edwards says that in Christ we find an “admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.” These diverse excellencies are the sunbeams of his magnificence, finding their unity in him, as they — though disparate — converge and emanate back out to reflect the imprinting of the nature of God.
He is the Lion and the Lamb. He is the Lamb and the Shepherd. He is the Shepherd and the Warrior. He is the Warrior and the Priest. He is the Priest and the Sacrifice. He is the Sacrifice and the Victor. He is the Victor and the Servant. He is the Servant and the King. He is the King and the Convicted. He is the Convicted and the Judge. He is the Judge and the Advocate. Diverse excellencies, each pair juxtaposed yet complementary, finding their admirable conjunction in him.
And there’s so much more. John says if all the things Jesus did during his earthly ministry were written down all the books on earth could not contain them all (John 21:25). Is it any wonder, then, that we will take all eternity to bask in the radiance of his glory?
Biblical theology and systematic theology are two different manners of arranging the teaching of the scriptures. Biblical theology seeks to understand the progressive unfolding of God’s special revelation throughout history, whereas systematic theology seeks to present the entire scriptural teaching on certain specific truths, or doctrines, one at a time. Biblical theology is thus historical and chronological in its design; and in fact, a close synonym for biblical theology, at least in its wide-angle task of accounting for all of special revelation, is the term “redemptive history”. Biblical theology is not always pursued in so broad a fashion, however; sometimes, certain themes are approached in a biblical theological manner; for instance, a biblical theology of holy space in worship would seek to understand how that specific motif unfolded in redemptive history, from the beginning of revelation until the end. Another narrower application of biblical theology would be the study of the unfolding of revelation during a specific time period (for example, post-exilic biblical theology); or the study of the development of themes in a particular author (for example, Johannine biblical theology); but ultimately, even these narrower applications are truly biblical-theological in nature only as they seek to advance an understanding of the progression of redemptive history as a whole.
Systematic theology, on the other hand, is laid out, not chronologically, nor with a consideration of the progressive development of doctrines, but thematically, taking into account from the outset the complete form which revelation as a whole has finally assumed. Systematic theology attempts to answer the question, “what is the full extent of the truth that we may know about the doctrine of sin, or salvation, or the Holy Spirit, etc.?”. Hence, systematic theologies progress from the doctrine of the Godhead, or theology proper, to christology, pneumatology, angelology, soteriology, and so on, treating each theme exhaustively.
I do not nullify the grace of God. Galatians 2:21
“What eloquence is able sufficiently to set forth these words: ‘to nullify grace,’ ‘the grace of God,’ also that ‘Christ died for no purpose’? The horribleness of it is such that all the eloquence in the world is not able to express it. It is a small matter to say that any man died for no purpose. But to say that Christ died for no purpose is to take him quite away.”
Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, on Galatians 2:21.
Paul asserted that he did not nullify the grace of God. By implication, Peter was nullifying the grace of God when his conduct was “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). How on earth did Peter do that, and is there any chance we could do that again today?
With Paul, Peter believed the gospel at the level of doctrine. Speaking for Peter and himself, Paul writes, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). Peter’s theology was right. He nullified the grace of God by conduct – not doctrine, but conduct – that was not in step with the truth of the gospel.
That is astounding to me. I am instructed and warned. It was possible for no one less than an apostle to nullify the grace of God in Jesus Christ crucified. He did that not by rejecting gospel doctrine but by injuring the relational culture consistent with the gracious doctrine. Gospel doctrine without gospel culture nullifies the grace of God. Gospel doctrine, however pure, cannot stand alone. Faithfulness to the gospel is a matter of both profession and conduct. Paul thought so. He was so certain about it and felt so strongly about it that he rebuked Peter publicly over it.
If nullifying the grace of God was possible for an apostle in the first century, it is also possible for us and our churches and organizations today. Nullifying the grace of God, as Luther points out, is a horrible thing. But it isn’t hard for us to do a horrible thing without even realizing it. It is easy for us, as it was for Peter and these other Christian leaders, to be witnesses against the gospel even as we think we are being witnesses for the gospel. All we have to do, to counteract our own doctrine, is fail to build a culture that embodies that doctrine.
Words, blog posts, tweets, emails, personal encounters, and so forth – these are how we can build a gospel culture with one another every day, and these are how we can tear it down. We are either living proof of the grace of God, or we are a living denial of the grace of God, but we are never neutral. And pointing to our orthodox doctrinal statements, wonderful as they are, is no refuge. Faithfulness is also a matter of pressing the grace revealed in our doctrine into our every relationship all the time. This is not a matter of personal niceness; it is a matter of biblical authority. We have no future without it.
Theological acuity matched by relational obliviousness nullifies the grace of God. But bold theological proclamation embedded in beautiful human relationships makes it obvious that the grace of God is working among us in power.
Wise pastor Ray Ortlund addresses this problem throughout his forthcoming book, The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ (Crossway; April 30, 2014). He writes this on pages 82–83:
A gospel culture is harder to lay hold of than gospel doctrine. It requires more relational wisdom and finesse. It involves stepping into a kind of community unlike anything we’ve experienced, where we happily live together on a love we can’t create. A gospel culture requires us not to bank on our own importance or virtues, but to forsake self-assurance and exult together in Christ alone.
This mental adjustment is not easy, but living in this kind of community is wonderful. We find ourselves saying with Paul, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things” — all the trophies of our self-importance, all the wounds of our self-pity, every self-invented thing that we lug around as a way of getting attention — “and count them as dung in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8–9).
Paul did not regard the loss of his inflated self as sacrificial. Who admires his own dung? It is a relief to be rid of our distasteful egos! And when a whole church together luxuriates in Christ alone, that church embodies a gospel culture. It becomes a surprising new kind of community where sinners and sufferers come alive because the Lord is there, giving himself freely to the desperate and undeserving.
But how easy it is for a church to exist in order to puff itself up! How hard it is to forsake our own glory for a higher glory!
The primary barrier to displaying the beauty of Jesus in our churches comes from the way we re-insert ourselves into that sacred center that belongs to him alone. Exalting ourselves always diminishes his visibility. That is why cultivating a gospel culture requires a profound, moment by moment “unselfing” by every one of us. It is personally costly, even painful.
What I am proposing throughout this book is not glib or shallow. So much is set against us, within and without. But the triumph of the gospel in our churches is still possible, as we look to Christ alone. He will help us.
This month we will be inducting new members into the most honored body the world has ever known: the church of Jesus Christ. The initiation fee for this club is so high that no human could have ever paid it; God himself had to pick up the tab. The benefits of the club never expire. The fellowship of the club is unmatched; you receive intimate access to the Lord himself (John 17:23).
With such benefits, you’d think church membership would be held in infinitely high esteem. But for many reasons, Christians seem to think less of it than ever before. If you’re one who looks upon church membership lightly, then I invite you to reconsider.
When we hear the word membership, we immediately think of a club. A member pays dues, comes to meetings, and fulfills the obligations of a club member. When you move, or no longer have time for the club, you simply withdraw your membership and move on.
The Bible says membership is much more intimate. “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body” (Eph. 5:29-30).
To be a church member means we are a member of Christ’s body—just like your finger is a member of your body. His blood runs through us. His Spirit animates us. His will moves us. He feels our pain, cleanses us when we get dirty, nurses our wounds, and cherishes us with pride.
Leaving the church is not simply leaving a club. When you walk away, you dismember yourself from the body. Jesus and the rest of the body sorely miss you, and bleed after your departure. You cut yourself off from your only source of life and nourishment. Like an amputated hand, you will slowly bleed out, wither, and die.
Not Possible, Biblical, or Healthy
I hear you complaining already. My, he’s being a bit dramatic. I’m a member of Christ; I just can’t find a local church I like. I’m a member of the universal church, just not of any one in particular.
I want you to understand that being a part of the universal church without submitting to a local church is not possible, biblical, or healthy.
First, it’s simply not possible. To imply you can be part of the greater community without first being part of the smaller is not logical. You cannot be part of Rotary International without also being part of a local chapter. You cannot be part of the universal human family without first being part of a small immediate family.
Second, it’s not biblical. Every letter in the New Testament assumes Christians are members of local churches. The letters themselves are addressed to local churches. They teach us how to get along with other members, how to encourage the weak within the church, how to conduct ourselves at church, and what to do with unrepentant sinners in the church. They command us to submit to our elders, and encourage us to go to our elders to pray. All these things are impossible if you aren’t a member of a local church. (See 1 and 2 Corinthians, James, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and 1 Peter for references.)
Asking where the Bible commands you to be a church member is like asking where the USGA rulebook for golf insists you be a human. The whole book is addressed to the church.
Finally, living without church membership is not healthy. Independence—the desire to choose for yourself what’s right and wrong—is at the heart of sin. You need the humility lesson of submitting to flawed elders. You need the encouragement of sharing victories with your church. You need the fellowship of sharing sufferings with your church.
You need to know we’re all in this life together, and we won’t walk away from you just because you let us down or we disagree. Together we build each other up into the image of Christ; no one can make it alone. I encourage you to rethink the importance of church membership. Our fellowship may be an affliction, but we are a glorious affliction. And we will walk into glory together.
Graeme Goldsworthy states an important hermeneutical point, “It is impossible from the Old Testament alone to understand the full measure of God’s acts and promises that it records.” The reason why the OT alone does not convey its full, underlying meaning is the doctrine of progressive revelation, i.e., the truths of the Bible were not revealed all at once but were progressively revealed over time. Thus, the OT is the preparation of the gospel; the Gospels are the manifestation of the gospel; Acts is the expansion of the gospel; the Epistles are the explanation of the gospel; and Revelation is the consummation of the gospel.
Jesus and the NT authors understood this. They saw the entire OT as in some way a book about Jesus. He is its central person and integrating theme and is “the final and the fullest revelation of what the promises are really about.” Because the Bible ultimately is the story about Jesus Christ, who is explicitly revealed only in the NT, the NT writers generally look at the OT in a “typological” way. The NT reveals that OT Israel as a nation, and all of its laws, ceremonies, and institutions, and the OT prophecies concerning it, were “types,”“symbols,”“shadows,”“copies,” or “examples” of NT realities that were fulfilled and superseded in Christ and his church. Willem VanGemeren points out, “The coming of our Lord radically altered the understanding of the Old Testament.
The apostles understood the canon in the light of Jesus’ ministry, message, and exaltation. The traditional understanding of Moses’ words and the Prophets had to undergo a radical transformation in view of the coming of our Lord.” Edward Young describes the transformative significance of Christ’s coming with respect to the issue of how to approach OT prophecies hermeneutically: “The revelations granted to the prophets had somewhat of the obscure about them. They are characterized as dreams and visions, and probably, enigmatic sayings. . . . Since the revelation granted to the prophets was less clear than that given to Moses; indeed, since it contained elements of obscurity, we must take these facts into consideration when interpreting prophecy. We must therefore abandon once and for all the erroneous and non-Scriptural rule of ‘literal if possible.’
The prophetic language belonged to the Mosaic economy and hence, was typical. Only in the light of the New Testament fulfillment can it properly be interpreted.” How the NT fulfills the OT “types” and promises is not self-evident. Goldsworthy points out, “It was not self-evident that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament promises. Those Jews who looked for a literal fulfillment of the Old Testament promises failed to recognize Jesus as the fulfillment.”
Menn, Jonathan (2013-09-04). Biblical Eschatology (Kindle Locations 624-648). Resource Publications – An Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Want to know how to read the Old Testament? Here’s a quick primer: Martin Luther said that everything bad in the Old Testament (and there’s a lot) is there to point out our sin, while everything good in the Old Testament is there to point us to our Savior. Remember this pithy little couplet, and you’ll be well on your way to understanding what can often seem to be an intimidating and inscrutable collection of books.
Consider Joseph, for example. His life, like all of ours, is a mixed bag: some bad, some good. There’s no question that we can learn a lot of good from reading about Joseph’s life. His refusal to sleep with Potiphar’s wife stands out. The Bible never tells us that, after all Joseph had been through, his faith in God wavered. In fact, it tells us just the opposite. When he finally encounters his brothers years after they sold him into slavery and lied to their father about him dying—and he now has the power and the authority to enact some serious vengeance—he extends tremendous grace saying, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.” Amazing.
But Joseph wasn’t always gracious and humble. In fact, when we first meet Joseph, he’s a spoiled brat. He was his father’s favorite son, and he knew it. While his older brothers had to break their backs toiling in the fields, Joseph got to stay at home. When Joseph has two separate dreams which imply that his brothers (and even his mother and father!) will eventually bow down to him, he doesn’t hesitate to go out into the fields to share the dreams with his family. It’s no wonder that the Bible says his brothers “hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (Genesis 37:4). I certainly know what I would have done if my youngest brother had been so impertinent.
What Joseph’s brothers do is well-known: they drag him away, strip him of his clothes (a many-colored robe that his father had given him), and sell him into slavery. They dip the robe in animal blood and tell their father that they’ve found it, and fear that Joseph is dead.
Joseph’s brashness testifies to the fact he had built his identity on being his father’s favored son. To be the Patriarch’s favorite son was a big deal and Joseph derived his worth from it. It led him to believe he was better than his brothers and that gave him a sense of significance and pride. As long as he was the favorite, he was somebody: he mattered.
In this way, we are exactly like Joseph.
What are you building your identity on? Think of it this way: what do you wake up in the middle of the night worrying about? For many people, it’s their careers. If they’re not an adequate provider for their family, or a pillar of their community, they feel that they have no identity at all. For some, it’s their children. How well their children “turn out” (the grades they get, the college they get into, the career they choose) defines them as a person. Maybe it’s the way you look, or your reputation. Maybe it’s your marriage or the dream of one day getting married. Maybe it’s your health. We long to have meaning and purpose and lasting stability but so often we try standing on an endless catalog of God-replacements that end up sinking us into slavery like it did for Joseph. For example, I never realized how much I was depending on my kids for happiness until we had a difficult year with one of our sons last year. What’s that thing or who’s that person in your life that if taken from you would make you feel like life’s not worth living?
I’ve told the people at Coral Ridge this before (and it’s embarrassing to admit) but one of the reasons I work so hard in preparing sermons is because at some level I need them to think I’m a good preacher to feel like I matter. When I feel like I haven’t preached a good sermon it cuts me to the heart—because who am I if I’m not good at what I do? You ever feel like this? About anything? Anyone?
But the story of Joseph doesn’t end there. While the bad stuff in his life points out our sin, the good stuff points out our Savior—and how he works to rescue sinners out of slavery and death. Within the story of Joseph, we hear whispers and see snippets of a new and better Joseph. Over and over again Joseph’s story illustrates that life comes out of death. He gets thrown in a pit to die but comes out and is spared, rising through the ranks of Potiphar’s household. He gets thrown into prison—is forgotten and forsaken—but is eventually rescued by the King and put in a place of power and honor. He relives the pain of his brothers’ betrayal when they come to him for food years later, but uses his new power to save them rather than kill them—assuring them that what they meant for evil God meant for good. And as a result of his mediation, a world on the brink of death is saved. All of this points us to Jesus.
Years later, another favored son would be betrayed, sold, and mistreated by his brothers. He too would be falsely accused, thrown into captivity—the captivity of the cross—paying the price for sins he did not commit. And in the prison of that cross, he too was forsaken (“My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me”)—but like Joseph, he didn’t stay imprisoned. Jesus did not get out of prison by interpreting the dream of God; his death and resurrection was the interpretation of God’s dream—a dream dreamt before the foundation of the world to do and be for us what we could never do and be for ourselves.
Like Joseph, Jesus was brought to life out of death and now sits at the right hand of King, forgiving those who betrayed him (all of us), and using his power to save rather than kill. By the time his brothers come to see Joseph, he is so powerful that there is nothing at all his family can do for him: his love is completely one-way. Rather than punishment, they get nourishment. Our new and better—and final—Joseph does the same. Jesus sits at the right hand of God, and when we come before the judgment seat, faces to the floor, expecting our richly deserved death sentence, he steps in. He was punished, not just for crimes he didn’t commit, but for our crimes. Our sins were placed on his shoulders and his righteousness was given to us. We, his hateful brothers and sisters, are welcomed home for safe-keeping. Just as in Joseph’s story, through one man’s mediation many are saved from starvation, so through the mediation of Jesus many are forever saved from a hunger we could never satisfy ourselves.
That’s good news.
We will all suffer, of that there is no doubt. It is strange, then, that we are often unprepared for it. With that in mind, a useful exercise is to summarize Scripture and identify what words of God can guide us when things are hard.
Here is my current list of ten things to do while suffering (it is always subject to ongoing refinement).
- Don’t be surprised by suffering (1 Pet. 4:12). The Son suffered, so do those who follow the Son. You will not be spared the sufferings that the world experiences, but you will participate in them, both for the world’s benefit and your own.
- Live by faith, see the unseen (Heb. 2:2). Normal eyesight is not enough. Your eyes will tell you that God is far away and silent. The truth is that he is close—invisible—but close. He has a unique affection for fellow sufferers. So get help to build up your spiritual vision. Search Scripture. Enlist others to help, to pray, to remind you of the Truth. Ask the God of comfort to comfort you.
- Suffering will reveal what is really in your heart. It will test you (Jam. 1:2). Where do you turn when tested? Do you turn toward Jesus or turn inward?
- God is God, you are not (Job 38-42). This is important. Humility and submission before the King can quiet some of your questions.
- Confess sin. There is nothing new here; it is a regular feature of daily life. Yet it always helps you to see the cross of Jesus more clearly. It is the quickest way to see the persistent and lavish love of God (Heb. 12).
- Keep an eye out in Scripture for the Suffering Servant. He has entered into your suffering, and you can enter into his. (Isaiah 39-53, John 10-21)
- Speak honestly and often to the Lord. This is critical. Just speak, groan, have someone read you a psalm and say a weak, “Amen.”
- Expect to get to know God better while in this wilderness. That is how he usually works with his people (Phil. 3:10-11).
- Talk to those who have suffered, read their books, listen to them. You are not alone. Insist on being moved with compassion as you hear other stories of suffering.
- Look ahead. We need spiritual vision for what is happening now and for where the universe is heading. We are on a pilgrimage that ends at the temple of God (Ps. 84).
“A sense of having our sins forgiven is the mainspring and life-blood of love to Christ. . . . Would the Pharisee know why this woman showed so much love? It was because she felt much forgiven. Would he know why he himself had shown his guest so little love? It was because he felt under no obligation, had no consciousness of having obtained forgiveness, had no sense of debt to Christ. . . . The only way to make men holy is to teach and preach free and full forgiveness through Jesus Christ. The secret of being holy ourselves is to know and feel that Christ has pardoned our sins. Peace with God is the only root that will bear the fruit of holiness. Forgiveness must go before sanctification.”
J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, on Luke 7:36-50.
(HT: Ray Ortlund)
Jesus’ intercession is his identification and involvement with the will of the Father. If we started with Jesus as the ultimate word of God to humankind, the Word incarnate, we now see him in his exaltation as the ultimate word of humankind to God. His resurrection has shown that he is the perfectly acceptable advocate for sinners. His very presence with the Father pleads our cause, but pleads it from the God who loves to give his true children what they ask. Since this role of Jesus is from start to finish on our account, it gives us confidence to ‘draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith’ (Heb. 10:22).
Prayer and the Knowledge of God (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 35
(HT: Of First Importance)
So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:11).
We do not know when God’s purposes will be accomplished. We do not always know whether the divine plan is to harden the heart or to soften it. We do not know the outcome of our work. But we should know that our work in the word is never in vain. No sermon from the word, no bible study, no time of prayer in the word with your children, no memorizing of scripture, none of it is wasted.
If there is time spent in the word, God promises it is working.
Working something. The same sun which melts the snow hardens the clay.
Why should missionaries continue to labor in the hardest parts of the world with limited success, or no success at all? Because they are confident that God will have a people for himself from every tribe and language and tongue and nation. And so they stay.
John Newton once wrote a letter to Reverend Thomas Jones stating, “If I were not a Calvinist, I think I should have no more hope of success in preaching to men than in preaching to horses or cows.” Which is not much different than Paul saying he endured everything for the sake of the elect (2 Tim. 2:10).
One of the most common objections to the doctrine of election is that people do not see the point of sharing the good news and working hard for the gospel if God has already chosen who will believe. But human logic sometimes runs in the opposite of biblical logic. The world says “Why speak if God has chosen.” The Bible would have us ask, “If God has not chosen some to believe, why bother speaking?” Paul remained in Corinth because God told him there were many people in that city (Acts 18:10). This is precisely the reason to keep on speaking—because God has chosen some; because God is sovereign; because God has elected; because some will believe.
And if they don’t? God has a plan for our good and his glory in that too.
God’s sovereignty is fuel for our faithfulness–not a deterrent to hard work and sacrifice but the best motivation for it.
Tomorrow I head for East Africa again. My current ministry in Tanzania is facilitating the formation of a Gospel Partnership among the pastors of Mbeya. Getting the central message of the bible right, and teaching and nurturing a gospel-centered koinonia into existance, is a wonderful privilege. There is great potential here to impact the nation for the Kingdom of God.
Look with me at what Paul says in Ephesians 2:7. God made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” If you ever wondered what God’s going to do in heaven, there it is!
The ultimate motivation in God’s heart for saving lost souls was so that they might become, throughout all eternity, trophies on display for all to see the magnificence and the surpassing riches of God’s grace in kindness in Christ!
He employs the plural “ages” to make the point that like waves incessantly crashing on the shore, one upon another, so the ages of eternity future will, in endless succession, echo the celebration of sinners saved by grace, all to the glory of God. There will not be in heaven a one-time momentary display of God’s goodness, but an everlasting, ever-increasing infusion and impartation of divine kindness that intensifies with every passing moment.
God is going to put on a continuing and perpetual public display of his “grace” toward us! Heaven is not one grand, momentary flash of excitement followed by an eternity of boredom. Heaven is not going to be an endless series of earthly re-runs! There will be a new episode of divine grace every day! A new revelation every moment of some heretofore unseen aspect of the unfathomable complexity of divine compassion. A new and fresh disclosure of an implication or consequence of God’s mercy, every day. A novel and stunning explanation of the meaning of what God has done for us, without end.
In heaven our experience of God’s grace won’t be a bit here and a bit there. Paul says there will be a display of the “immeasurable riches” of his grace. His grace cannot be quantified. His grace exceeds calculation. God isn’t simply gracious: his grace is deep, wide, high, wealthy, plentiful, abounding, infinitely replenishing.
There will never be an end to God’s grace and kindness to us in Jesus. Never! Not for all eternity! The point of Paul’s effusive language is to emphasize that the grace of God in Christ is endlessly infinite, endlessly complex, endlessly deep, endlessly new, endlessly fresh, endlessly profound. God is infinite. Therefore, so too are his attributes. Throughout the ages to come, forever and ever, we will be the recipients each instant of an ever increasing and more stunning, more fascinating, and thus inescapably more enjoyable display of God’s grace than before.
With that unending and ever-increasing display will come an unending and ever-increasing discovery on our part of more of the depths and greatness of God’s grace. We will learn and grasp and comprehend more of the height and depth and width and breadth of his saving love. We will see ever new and always fresh displays and manifestations of his kindness. The knowledge we gain when we enter heaven will forever grow and deepen and expand and intensify and multiply.
We will constantly be more amazed with God, more in love with God, and thus ever more relishing his presence and our relationship with him. Our experience of God will never reach it consummation. We will never finally arrive, as if upon reaching a peak we discover there is nothing beyond. Our experience of God will never become stale. It will deepen and develop, intensify and amplify, unfold and increase, broaden and balloon.
Our relishing and rejoicing in God will sharpen and spread and extend and progress and mature and flower and blossom and widen and stretch and swell and snowball and inflate and lengthen and augment and advance and proliferate and accumulate and accelerate and multiply and heighten and reach a crescendo that will even then be only the beginning of an eternity of new and fresh insights into the majesty of who God is!
Lesslie Newbigin on the role of the Church in the world:
“The very essence of the Church’s life is that she is pressing forward to the fulfillment of God’s purpose and the final revelation of His glory, pressing forward both to the ends of the earth and to the end of the world, rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God.
The treasure entrusted to her is not for herself, but for the doing of the Lord’s will, not for hoarding but for trading.
Her life is to be forever spent, to be cast into the ground like a corn of wheat, in the ever-new faith and hope of the resurrection harvest. Her life is precisely life under the sign of the Cross, which means that she desires to possess no life, no security, no righteousness of her own, but to live solely by His grace.
When she becomes settled, when she becomes so much at home in this world that she is no longer content to be forever striking her tents and moving forward, above all when she forgets that she lives simply by God’s mercy and begins to think that she has some claim on God’s grace which the rest of the world has not, when in other words she thinks of her election in terms of spiritual privilege rather than missionary responsibility, then she comes under His merciful judgment as Israel did.”
- From The Household of God, 132.
(HT: Trevin Wax)
Grace is at the heart of the Christian faith. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than at the cross of Christ. It is grace that the Son of God took on flesh, and grace that he taught us how to live — but it is especially grace that he died on the cross in our place.
Moreover, this climactic grace shown at the cross has a specific shape — it has edges. These edges help us see what exactly happened when Jesus died. And it’s important that we see because seeing leads to worship — you can’t worship what you don’t know.
So in hopes of more clarity — fuel for worship — here are five biblical truths about what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
1. The death of Jesus was for his enemies.
God’s love is different than natural human love. God loves us when we’re utterly unlovable. When Jesus died, he died for the ungodly, for sinners, and for his enemies. Paul gets at how contrary this is to human nature when he writes, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person one would dare to die, but God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7–8).
2. The death of Jesus purchased a people.
The death of Christ was effective in its purpose. And its goal was not just to purchase the possibility of salvation, but a people for his own possession. Hear Jesus’s words: “All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out… And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:36, 39).
If we say that Christ only purchased the opportunity of salvation for all men we gut biblical words such as redemption of their meaning. John Murray writes: “It is to beggar the conception of redemption as an effective securement of release by price and power to construe it as anything less than the effectual accomplishment which secures the salvation of those who are its objects. Christ did not come to put men in a redeemable position but to redeem to himself a people” (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 63).
3. The death of Jesus is on our behalf.
Jesus’s death was substitutionary. That is, he died in our place. He died the death that we deserved. He bore the punishment that was justly ours. For everyone who believes in him, Christ took the wrath of God on their behalf. Peter writes, “[Jesus] himself bore our sin in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
4. The death of Jesus defines love.
Jesus’s death wasn’t just an act of love, it defines love. His substitutionary death is the ultimate example of what love means, and Jesus calls those who follow him to walk in the same kind of life-laying-down love. John writes, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16). John Piper explains: “Jesus’s death is both guilt-bearing and guidance-giving. It is a death that forgives sin and a death that models love. It is the purchase of our life from perishing and the pattern of a life of love” (What Jesus Demands from the World, 266).
5. The death of Jesus reconciles us to God.
Justification, propitiation, and redemption — all benefits of Christ’s death — have one great purpose: reconciliation. Jesus’s death enables us to have a joy-filled relationship with God, which is the highest good of the cross. Paul writes, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Colossians 1:21–22).
Think about how this works in our relationships with other people. When we sin, not only do we hurt the person we sin against, we harm the relationship. It will never be the same until we seek forgiveness. So it is with our relationship with God. We enter this world sinful, and as a result, we’re alienated from God. Only forgiveness — forgiveness which was purchased at the cross — can heal the relationship so that we are able to enjoy fellowship with God.
The book of Job is not answering a theoretical question about why good people suffer. It is answering a practical question: When good people suffer, what does God want from them? The answer is, he wants our trust.
The book is driven by tensions. One, Job really was a good man (1:1, 8; 2:3). He didn’t deserve what he got. Two, neither Job nor his friends ever saw the conflict going on between God and Satan, but his friends made the mistake of thinking they were competent to judge. Three, his friends interpreted his sufferings in moralistic, overly-tidy, accusing categories (4:7-8). Thus, they did not serve Job but only intensified his sufferings further. Four, Job refused to give in either to his own despair or to their cruel insinuations. He kept looking to God, he held on, and God eventually showed up (38:1-42:17).
One, even personal suffering has a social dimension, as others look on and inevitably form opinions. Suffering brings temptation both to the sufferer and to the observer. The sufferer is tempted to give up on God. The observer is tempted to point his finger at the sufferer with smug, self-serving thoughts and words: “This is all your own fault, of course. If you’d just own up, everything would start getting better.” The fallacy here is to assume that we live in a universe ruled by the simple laws of crime and punishment. Our minds dredge up these thoughts not really because we are confident in ourselves but because we are uneasy about ourselves and therefore threatened by the suffering of another: “If it’s happening to Job, it might catch up to me too.” So we cling to the illusory feeling of control by reinforcing our own self-image of moral superiority. We try, by sheer force of assertion, to re-order the moral universe in a way reassuring to our prejudices. The book of Job teaches a more honest and humble way. When we observe someone suffering, we too should trust God and sympathize with the sufferer rather than off-load our own guilty anxieties by dumping on the sufferer.
Two, when we ourselves suffer in ways that defy easy explanation, God wants us to trust him more deeply than we ever have before. Job eventually settles into a profound place where, without answers to his questions, he trusts in the omnicompetence of God: “I know that you can do all things” (42:2). What God can do is more important than how God explains himself. What if he did tell us every mystery right now? Would we be satisfied? Would we say, “Oh, I see. Here I have your explanation for it all. That really makes everything okay now”? I doubt it. An explanation is a wonderful thing, so far as it goes. But it is an intellectual thing. It cannot touch our core being, where the anguish in fact has taken up its deepest residence. Far better to leave it all with God, as our faith deepens from questioning to waiting. We don’t live by explanations; we live by faith.
“I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able.” 2 Timothy 1:12