Archive for December, 2022

I finished my 2022 devotional on time. This is a minor accomplishment, I tell you.

The devotional for the year was Come to the Waters: Daily Bible Devotions for Spiritual Refreshment by Jame Montgomery Boice.

Before the year began I was thinking about re-reading a Jack Miller devotional, or perhaps the Paul Tripp one I’d read in 2021. But I did have this hanging around for a few years (given to me by a congregant) and noticed the phrase “spiritual refreshment”. Needing refreshment I chose this one.

James Montgomery Boice was an important figure in 20th century evangelicalism. He was pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for 32 years. It was a Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod congregation that was part of the “join and receive” with the PCA in 1982. He was a key figure in the Philadelphia Conferences on Reformed Theology that eventually morphed into the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He and R.C. Sproul were good friends, and their families vacationed together at times.

Boice was known for expository preaching. People at Tenth Pres would mark time by the chapter of Romans he was in when they showed up. This devotional is comprised of selections taken from his expositional commentaries and some unpublished sermon manuscripts. It brings us through the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation (in order). Each day refers to a particular text for you to read, a pertinent selection quoted from that passage and then the devotion of the day.

These are all taken from sermons of his. It doesn’t usually feel like you are missing the context (good editing). These were not written for the warm fuzzy. They are thoughtful, typically connect the text to the gospel. They cover a wide range of topics for that “whole counsel of God” feel. You also get a feel for the story line of the Bible. It is not academic or dry. Sin will be exposed. Jesus will be exalted. Godliness will be encouraged. Upon occasion I may not agree with the exegetical conclusions, but not often nor are those differences important. He was, and I am, a sinner and neither of our conclusions are impeccable.

This is a good, worthwhile devotional. It avoids many of the traps that devotionals can fall into at times. The focus is not too narrow, there is no eisegisis (reading into the text) or overly focused on application to the neglect of gospel instruction and/or understanding the text.

If you are considering a devotional this would be a wise choice. Boice is solid (aside from eschatology which isn’t a focus here) and you won’t get any wonky theology. You will be edified, and refreshed.

Read Full Post »

It is that time of year, again. I saw “best of” lists beginning to pop up in November.

My list, as usual, is about what I have read instead of what was released. As a result you will not only find new books but some not-so-recent and even downright old books on this list. I won’t be including the novels I read. No dystopian novels this year. The news has been hard enough to watch and read.

I didn’t read as much as I have in the past. Some of that has to do with my state of mind. Some of it has to do with the rhythms of life. You might find something to add to your queue.

A Shelter in the Time of Storm: Meditations on God and Trouble by Paul Tripp. This is a series of meditations (52 to be exact) on Psalm 27 which is a lament. It is set up for one per week if you so choose. You could spend that week focused on that portion of the text and the questions he provides.

This was a timely read for me. My soul has been troubled by others in recent years. It helps to put all this back into perspective. I don’t really connect with the poems that are spread out in the book. I much prefer the prose meditations. He does keep bringing you back to the gospel, which is the important thing.

Forty Days on the Mountain: Meditations on Knowing God by Stephen Smallman. This is not a long book, but it is one that is focused on knowing God by meditating on a few texts. The main text is Exodus 32-34, when the LORD reveals himself to Moses on the mountain. The author follows some threads as well to provide you with 40 meditations on who God is. Most of these meditations are 2-3 pages, so longer than a typical devotional but not too long.

I read this during a time of frustration and burnout. It was a very helpful book in that difficult season. I needed to see God more clearly, and this volume aided me in thinking more clearly about God’s character.

Finding the Right Hills to Die On: the Case for Theological Triage by Gavin Ortlund. This was clearly a change of pace. It is also timely as the denomination I serve in struggles with some theological issues. Congregations will also struggle with different theological issues, and ours did. Not each doctrine carries the same import and weight, and shouldn’t be handled in the same way. Some require more time and energy. Being more serious, they may be the cause of breaking fellowship, excommunication etc.

We tend to focus on the less serious differences. We tend to get things reversed. His chapter on the Problem of Doctrinal Sectarianism is fantastic. Our unnecessary division harms the Body greatly. The same can be true when we don’t divide but permit serious error to continue unchecked. This book seeks to help us know when to take action, and when to be patient with different views.

We should be willing to fight and “die” over primary doctrines, the ones which are essential to Christianity. These issues should be clear, relevant and important. He makes some good distinctions in the course of the chapter (what must be expressed vs. what must not be denied; what is necessary at conversion vs. a mature faith; differences arising from good faith interpretations vs. interpretations that reject biblical authority). Disagreement can be cause for excommunication. He then shifts to the complexity of secondary doctrines which will divide denominations and congregations. People on both sides are still Christians, but the issue is important enough to the unity of the body that choices must be made. We may have fellowship with one another as fellow Christians but life in the same body begins to get complicated. He recognizes that this is the most difficult to sort out. The tertiary matters are not worth dividing over, and should not occupy too much of our time and energy.

Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners by Dane Ortlund is a book about sanctification. It is written with the same irenic or winsome spirit. There is a shorter version called How Does God Change Us? that is available for lay study. He includes our union with Christ, Jesus filling our empty hearts, the fundamental realities of justification lest we make a wreck of sanctification, honesty in our relationships with one another, the necessity of pain and struggle to grow, making use of the means of grace, and the work of the Spirit in sanctification.

Does he say all there is to be said? No. But he says plenty of necessary and good things to help us understand how God changes us. I found this a good and gentle book.

Rediscovering Church by Hansen and Leeman is a good book. As I mentioned in my review, I would recommend Devoted to God’s Church over this book. While there is some overlap, there is some material that differs in those books. Hansen and Leeman write from the perspective of congregationalism and credobaptism. This means that some of the topics or directions aren’t where I would go. But there is plenty here that is helpful regardless of one’s ecclesiology as we reset post-Covid.

The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. This was some sabbatical reading. It is at least the second time I’ve read this. It is great reading for those who are bruised reeds and smouldering wicks. He speaks much of the Messiah’s tenderness toward them. While it is primarily about being cared for by God, it has application in caring for others.

With Him: A Biblical Model of Discipleship for Men by Kenneth Smith is a short book about the most important aspect of discipleship which is overlooked. The disciples were with Jesus, and discipleship is intended to be very relational. We try to make it programmatic or focused on study materials. If discipleship is about more than gaining information but life transformation (including character building) then we must be with that person. We must invite people to be with and go with us as we go about life and ministry.

Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way Up Is the Way Down by Christopher Hutchinson. Books on this subject are not generally popular. Humility, in our day, is not seen as positive. We want to be affirmed, strong and capable. God, on the other hand, prizes humility. Hutchinson defines humility for us, discusses how it is found by faith, and how we enjoy hope when we embrace it. When we apply it, we grow in love. See what he did there? He connected humility with the three cardinal virtues of faith, hope and love. He connects humility and discipleship in the last chapter. There is no blueprint for discipleship, it is more like gardening than manufacturing. That is humbling in our age of programs. In growing in humility there will be different weeds to be pulled, nutrients applied etc.

The Mark of the Christian by Francis Shaffer is probably the most important book I read this year. I’d never read it but it popped up a number of times in conversations, books and lectures. It is not a long book (do you notice a theme here?). Don’t wait as long as I did to read this. It can help shift your perspective of what is important in the church: love and unity.

A Small Book About Why We Hide by Edward Welch is a great little book on a difficult and uncomfortable subject. Like Adam, we like to hide in the bushes and behind fig leaves. It has 50 devotions of about 3-4 pages on the subjects of shame and fear, our insecurities and failures. The last section is about incorporating our story onto God’s Story. A better way might be seeing our story within God’s Story, but we need to work to understand that. By faith we understand that Jesus deals with our shame, fears, insecurities and self-loathing. Our story is not intended to be understood apart from the biblical drama that unfolds.

Considering the Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ by Ray Ortlund Jr. Another book by an Ortlund. This time the father. He unpacks the gospel and its effect on the church and its culture. This is another short book, and an important book. It helped me to think through some church issues more clearly. It can help us to set better expectations for church life.

Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? by Tim Keller is an excellent book on the subject of forgiveness. He addresses why forgiveness is in increasingly short supply in our culture, responds to the criticisms of our culture, unpacks the biblical teaching on forgiveness and the more practical aspects of forgiveness. He challenges a number of misunderstandings and provides us with a path forward in our relationships broken by sin.

In the first half of the year I preached through Ecclesiastes. The commentary I found most helpful was Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters by Philip Ryken, which is part of the Preaching the Word series of commentaries. This series is built on homoletics. Sermons are adapted for the commentary. So far I have like the books in this series very much, and Ryken’s in particular (I also read the volume on Job). It is very readable, hits key exegetical points, isn’t overly burdened by original language study, has some good illustrations and helps you see gospel connections. You may want to use it in conjunction with a more technical commentary but this is warm, accessible and is directed toward application not just interpretation.

Read Full Post »

Considering Forgive

Our culture has a problem with forgiveness. It is becoming quite rare these days as we descend into cancel culture. There are also many misconceptions about forgiveness in the societal attack against forgiving others.

Tim Keller wades into the turbulent waters to help us think more clearly and biblically about forgiveness in Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I?. Keller answers both questions well. Keller is true to his MO in how he approaches the subject. He does a fair amount of cultural analysis as well as bringing the Scriptures to bear on the subject. He speaks in a way that can connect to non-Christians as well as Christians.

The title is in the imperative, so to speak. The goal is not simply to explore the subject philosophically but to help us to forgive. This means that at times it will feel uncomfortable, touching on the sore places in your life, the broken relationships and communities that plague us all.

He begins with the conflict over forgiveness in the introduction: “No Future Without Forgiveness”. It begins with a quote from Bell Hooks, which seems to be a strange choice based on her most famous literary work which is about hating the white guy who “took her friend’s” seat on an flight. But I digress. He addresses many of the current concerns about forgiveness. Many think that forgiveness and justice are opposed to one another. He brings up a number of true stories that reveal our society’s struggle. Some, like Sabine Birdsong, think Christianity is the problem. Somehow it is twisted into being superior to others. This all sets the stage for Keller’s book.

A Story of Forgiveness

This chapter begins with a discussion between Will Munny and the Schofield kid in Unforgiven. The story he tells is an adaptation of the parable of the unforgiving servant. This brings him to Peter’s question to Jesus about how many times he had to forgive his brother who sins against him. Peter asks if seven times is enough. The Talmud limited forgiveness to three times (three strikes and you’re outta my life). We want to limit the forgiveness we dispense, if we dispense it at all. Jesus shocks Peter, and us, with saying there is no limit.

He goes back to Jesus’ parable and the great, unfathomable debt the servant owed the king. There is no way he could ever repay the debt. To discharge the debt, the king was going to sell his servant to recoup a few dollars. The servant begs forgiveness of the debt. The debt is released as the king absorbs the financial loss. “Forgiveness, then, is a form of voluntary suffering.”

This servant, filled with joy over being forgiven, leaves only to encounter someone who owes him a few bucks. When the other man can’t pay the debt off, the servant tosses him in prison. When the king hears, he calls the servant back into his presence and has him tossed into prison. At this point Jesus offers the stern warning lest we act like the unforgiving servant. We have been forgiven so great a debt by God we can’t withhold forgiveness of the small, chump-change debt our brother has incurred against us.

Forgiveness is difficult. It can be difficult to receive due to pride. It is difficult to extend due to wounded pride.

True forgiveness is honest about the damage done. It calls sin what God calls it. That debt is then cancelled. When we forgive, we identify with the other person as a fellow sinner. The aim of forgiveness is reconciliation. The debt is forgiven so you can be restored to relationship. Keller rejects a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness.

Keller introduces the vertical and horizontal dimensions of forgiveness. God offers forgiveness which is received when we repent and believe. On the horizontal level, we forgive internally so we can pursue reconciliation and justice (not vengeance) and offer that forgiveness to others who then own their sin.

Returning to the parable, Keller notes that the point of the parable is that the servant was unchanged by his experience of forgiveness. He remains the same entitled and covetous man who incurred the debt in the first place. Many who call themselves Christians are just like him: unchanged. They keep score and hold grudges. They forget the immense debt they have incurred against God.

God’s mercy must and will make us merciful- if it doesn’t, then we never understood or accepted God’s mercy in truth.” pp. 13

Jesus is not calling us to try harder. Jesus is calling us to be transformed by the immeasurable grace and mercy we have received. That grace comes because King Jesus became a servant and bears the penalty of our sin. He pays our debt.

The Fading of Forgiveness

Keller begins with a quote from the novel Where the Crawdads Sing: “Why should the injured, the still bleeding, bear the onus of forgiveness?”. Here he returns to the problem of forgiveness and one manifestation in the MeToo movement. Many blamed forgiveness for why these abusive men were never held accountable, some even calling forgiveness “an extension of patriarchy.” Keller notes that this conflict emerges because of the definitions and models of forgiveness common in our society. He lays out three current models and critiques them.

Some think of forgiveness as nonconditional. You are just supposed to forgive and move on. The other party is not held accountable, including in the case of abuse. This can often be framed as “forgive and forget”. Keller calls this a “cheap grace whereby the power differentials between abusers and the abused remain unchanged and no justice was pursued.”

The second model is transactional forgiveness. In this model, forgiveness is granted to those who earn it. If the person does enough good to balance the bad they committed, or have suffered sufficiently, then they can be forgiven. This is not really forgiveness because the debt is paid by the offender. This sounds much like the Cultural Revolution in China where the victim (or government official) decides when the person has groveled enough. I’ve heard this in terms of race, that blacks in America alone can decide when a white person has suffered and been humiliated enough to be forgiven and possibly called an ally.

The third model isn’t forgiveness either. It is refusing to forgive. Forgiveness is viewed as victimizing the victim again. There is a sliver of truth here. “Forgiveness- conceived as automatic, unconditional, and expected- has been a way for women and minorities to be controlled.” That is a misconception of forgiveness, a divergent definition of forgiveness.

Keller calls these cheap grace, little grace and no grace. All of these lack the vertical dimension of forgiveness. God is removed from the picture or just ignored. This where Keller begins to describe the shift in our culture from God-awareness to the therapeutic culture. He is basically summarizing Trueman’s book in about a page. He focuses on Freud who deconstructed cultural norms, blaming them for producing our anxiety, guilt and shame. The individual is to disentangle themselves (through therapy- a good example of which is Zachary Levi’s “conversion”) from tradition, duty and any obligation to community to express their own desires. In our individualistic society, forgiveness seems unnecessary since it is intended to maintain community. The church has become counter-cultural, not simply an alternate community but simply as an actual community.

Additionally, we see the influence of secularism which has re-created a shame and honor culture. We are taught to demand respect. We expect others to affirm our choices with regard to identity. We have inverted things. In previous shame and honor cultures, the honor was on the top of the ladder, and shame was to be low on the social scale. Now, those on top are viewed as shameful oppressors and those on the bottom the honorable victims. People look for ways to be victims (even changing gender?) and gain status in society. We aren’t preserving relationships through love and covering sins, but choosing to destroy community through a constant state of being aggrieved. We are descending into vindictiveness.

In summary, the new shame-and-honor culture either produces a heavily inquisitorial, merited-forgiveness approach or leads people to abandon forgiveness altogether.” pp. 33

We are moving toward a culture without forgiveness. We see the rise in violence, riots and grudges. On the small scale, a victim brings a gun to work or school to gain vengeance on his oppressors. On the larger scale, there is genocide after cycles of retaliation. We are silencing the calls of Hannah Arendt, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu to forgive. Each is a prominent member of an oppressed group. King warned us that when we forsake forgiveness we forsake love. We need to learn to forgive. We need to learn to love.

Here Keller brings us back to a community of forgiveness: the Amish in Nickel Mines who forgave the gunman who killed 5 of their children and injured 5 more. They belong to a community where community matters. They practice self-renunciation instead of personal entitlement and self-fulfillment. Their confession of faith rejects revenge and retaliation. Christians need to return to the example of Christ, the commands of Christ and the substitutionary penal satisfaction of Christ.

The History of Forgiveness

Keller shifts from the present to the past. Hannah Arendt points to Jesus who introduced forgiveness into the realm of human relationships. The ancient world did not view forgiveness as a virtue. They valued wisdom, justice, courage and self-control. In their dog-eat-dog world, there was no room for forgiveness and other perceived weaknesses. You needed to defend your honor.

In Greece, the word for pardon is not the release from a debt but to excuse the person. They made some allowances, pointing to extenuating circumstances (they had a bad day, they are hangry…). When you cannot defend your honor, you could look down on them until they and their actions become inconsequential to you. There was no equality of dignity. There was no religious reason to forgive other people.

Christianity changed the world in many ways. One was the introduction of forgiveness into personal relationships. For them slaves had dignity. God would balance scales, so we could be patient in unjust suffering. Missionaries served and forgave. Before the gospel came, Anglo-Saxon warriors would not steal because it would be beneath them and rob them of honor. You thought of yourself, not the little, old woman who needed that money to live on. Shame-and-honor cultures are self-regarding. Christianity regards the other person: love your neighbor as yourself. To the self-regarding Anglo-Saxons, forgiveness seemed dangerous. The reformation of the culture was incomplete, and unable to love their enemy they preached Crusades. Controversial German poet Heinrich Heine noted that Christianity softened but did not eliminate Germany’s love of war.

The Book of Forgiveness

Some claim that the Bible doesn’t stress forgiveness. They look for specific words and provide a revisionist vision. Keller notes that in Hebrew three root words express forgiveness. Kpr is about covering sin and is often found in the context of sacrificial blood. Slb points to pardoning another, to stop blaming them and is often connected to sacrifices as well. It points to atonement. Ns is to lift or bear away, the expiation of sin.

In the Pentateuch we see that sin results in alienation from God, one another and creation. But on the day they sinned they did not die. God displayed mercy. There was mercy for Cain, who killed his brother Abel. The mark kept others from killing him. Joseph’s brothers asked him to forgive them- to send away the sin so he no longer counted it against them. Old Testament worship is largely about forgiveness to restore the relationship with God.

The Psalms speak of the depths of our guilt and shame. They expose our universal need for forgiveness. We see the problem of forgiveness because sin creates a record to be held against us. We also see that God does forgive (Ps. 32; 130).

He then refers to the reality of forgiveness in the Prophets. Where the Pentateuch speaks of the covenant made and forgiveness provided. The wisdom literature of the covenant lived and forgiveness received. The historical books speak of the covenant broken and forgiveness rejected. The Prophets are a bit more complex with the consequences of breaking the covenant and the coming covenant renewal with reaffirmation of forgiveness. Keller puts this in a handy little chart WordPress won’t let me reproduce. There are covenant lawsuits with the coming exile in fulfillment of the covenant curses of Deuteronomy, and the promise of not only return to the land but to God and a new covenant.

In the New Testament we see the remission of sins mentioned 40 times. Forgiveness comes at a cost to someone. As we go through the NT we see Jesus is the One who paid that price. The basis is the cross.

The God of Love and Fury

On the cross we see both the love and fury of God revealed. We see His mercy and justice on display.

This is not a New Testament thing. We see the roots of it in Exodus, particularly in the Ten Commandments, and in God’s revelation of Himself to Moses on the mountain in Exodus 34. There is the tension: “forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.” He is both. The first to those who repent (by His grace), and the latter to the unrepentant. He is a God of love and a God of wrath. Often our problem with forgiveness is a problem in our understanding of God. Love and wrath are “meaningless apart from each other and indeed they establish each other.” Here is the doctrine of simplicity on display. He is both, fully. He is angry because what He loves is threatened. His wrath is an expression of His love.

“... if you believe only in a God of love, you will live like a spoiled child, but if you believe only in a God of wrath, you will live like an abused child.” pp. 75

The cross reveals that God is not disinterested and detached. He deeply loves His people. He pays our debt by surrendering His only Son, the Son He loves, to death in our place.

Too many want a God of love that has no wrath. Such a God can’t exist. Keller quickly exposes the vacuousness of moral relativism and the progressive god of only love.

Justice and Love, Honor and Abuse

Some think that forgiveness means that there is no justice. We conflat personal forgiveness with public justice as if to forgive means there can be no public penalty. Keller wades into this helpfully.

Ancient cultures were based on shame and honor, a hierarchy of honor and social status. They were not concerned with forgiveness but rather preserving honor. This meant getting some form of vengeance. If someone of higher status wronged you, there was often little to no recourse. Someone beneath you, however, could bear your wrath. In some cases, it might be honorable to make excuses for the other person’s wrong.

The Stoics counseled dismissiveness. They overcame bitterness by despising the other person. It was a way of detaching the heart.

The Scripture were unique in speaking of forgiveness in personal relationships. Keller brings us to Leviticus 19.

17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. Leviticus 19

God forbids hating your brother, vengeance, and grudges. To hate is to think less of, to decrease their status in your heart. We are not to hang on to the hurt, or express our wrath. Rather, we are speak or reason frankly with them. We love and rebuke the person who wronged us. If we don’t, we share in his future sin.

Justice and love are combined in God, and so they must be in us. Grievous sin must be forgiven, but it should also be pointed out. To not forgive but seek justice alone is to risk going beyond justice to revenge. He quotes Nouwen about the struggle to forgive, “This lifelong struggle lies at the heart of the Christian life.

So while being deeply committed to justice, we do not go out into the word with a condescending attitude toward the unjust. We do not demonize or deal harshly or high-handedly with anyone created in God’s image. We pursue justice tirelessly yet with humility.” pp. 92

He applies this to the problem of abuse. He tells some of Rachael Denhollander’s story. To forgive and forget (to not also seek justice) is to allow an abuser to harm others. Too often the church wrongly counsels this. The podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill exposed, among other things, this approach that was abusive in itself. Denhollander struggled with this teaching. She wanted to forgive, but not allow him to abuse other girls. She had to realize there were more answers in the faith than outside of it. She realized that from the perspective of many other religions, his good works would have made up for his abuse. Those good deeds didn’t stop her pain, or him from causing more pain. She needed something deeper and better.

The answers she needed were found in the doctrine of the substitutionary penal atonement. This doctrine, dismissed and derided by “progressive Christians” is where justice and mercy meet. Our need for justice is met by Christ on the cross. The cross reveals God’s love for His people, and His hatred of sin. We see that sin and evil are not trivial. Jesus comes and takes the punishment due our sin. Seeing our need, we are more likely to extend it to others.

She needed to forgive Dr. Nassar. She also needed to report him, to speak frankly to him, so he might feel the burden of his guilt and perhaps be brought to repentance in part by paying the penalty of his crime in prison.

Keller then brings us to the Passover where the lamb is slain in their place. Each home deserved a visit of the angel of death. The lamb was their substitute. This lamb pointed to the ultimate Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world, Jesus. We are on an even playing field at the foot of the cross, and there is mercy and grace for all who repent and believe.

The Basics of Forgiveness

In the 7th chapter, Keller harmonizes two of Jesus’ commands regarding forgiveness. The first is Mark 11:25 which tells us to seek out those you hold something against us. We are commanded to forgive them in the strongest possible way. Jesus warns that to no forgive means we are not forgiven. It means that we don’t yet understand grace, but are like the unmerciful servant.

Similar to this is Luke 17:3-4 which tells us to forgive repeatedly. We have the dual responsibility to forgive and to confront (Lev. 19 & Gal. 6). This is when the sin is against you. He warns us against being more willing to confront than forgive. We should not be slow to forgive. We are to seek the restoration of relationships and community.

The “problem” is that the passage in Luke refers to repentance and the Mark passage doesn’t. Some think we should only forgive when they repent. We see examples of people forgiving without the repentance of the offender. What are to make of all this?

Keller addresses inward and outward forgiveness. In Mark we are not to avenge ourselves, but forgive. This is an inward forgiveness or what is also called attitudinal forgiveness. There is no reconciliation apart from inward forgiveness. Nor is there reconciliation without the repentance of the other party in cases of grievous sin. You then convey outward forgiveness. Outward forgiveness is part of the pursuit of justice. We speak the truth about their actions with love. He stresses that it is important to discern and apply the differences in ministry to others. We have control over whether we forgive, not don’t have control over whether they repent.

He also addresses two commands by Jesus to love our enemies. The righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees includes a love for your enemy. Jesus addresses an abuse of talionic justice. “An eye for an eye” refers to the limits upon judges in deciding cases. It was a law to end vendettas. It is not about private, personal action. I can’t knock out your tooth because you knocked out mine. But this was how the Pharisees seem to have applied it.

Jesus affirms the reality of evil and evil persons. He does not want us to retaliate, but to love evil people. We do this by going the extra mile (referring to being impressed by Roman soldiers), or by accepting the insult of being struck with the back of the hand. We resist the Evil One, and evil. But love the evil doer.

In Leviticus 19, the neighbor was considered your fellow Israelite. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus answers the question “Who is my neighbor?”. The person in need is your neighbor, not just a fellow Israelite/Christian. We are to be compassionate to the “other”, not just those who love us.

Our Need for Forgiveness

He begins this chapter with a quote from one of Adele’s songs, “My Little Love”, written to her son after her divorce. “I’m so guilty. I’m so far gone and you’re the only one who can save me.” She is right about being guilty and far gone. She’s wrong about who can save her.

In the last few centuries we’ve seen Nietzsche, Freud and Marx seek to strip people of guilt and shame as social constructs that exist to keep them in line and or under the oppression of the powerful. Yet, secular people still feel guilty. They still need to remove their moral burden. Often this comes by becoming a marginalized person or a victim. This removes your responsibility without ever having to admit you are a sinner. You blame your problems on “The Man.”

Another thinker, Franz Kafka, foresaw this in his book The Trial. The main character, Josef K., is arrested, placed under house arrest, interrogated and endures numerous hearings. He never knows why. They never reveal the crime to him. He is executed. Like Josef K., so many feel guilty but never know why. Kafka seemed to understand that we can’t wish the guilt away, but didn’t get why we experience it.

Keller brings us back to Genesis 3. After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve know there is something wrong. They are naked and vulnerable so they cover up. When God approaches they hide in the bushes. These leaves cannot protect us. We continue to feel like we don’t measure up, that we are dirty and unlovable.

Keller brings us to the story of Joseph to see forgiveness in action. First proud Joseph became humble and full of joy before meeting his treacherous brothers again. Like those brothers, we can doubt the love of our Brother. Horizontal forgiveness is rooted in vertical forgiveness. We struggle to forgive precisely because we want to be in the place of God, instead of recognizing that we, too, are in the seat of sinners.

Years ago a woman came to me seeking counsel after experiencing some relational problems during a project. She struggled because people had offended her. I encouraged her to remember that she too was a sinner in need of forgiveness so she could forgive them. Later she would say I “gave her nothing”. She wanted to remain in the position of judge.

Joseph is honest about his brothers’ evil intentions. He doesn’t pretend what they did wasn’t evil. We can’t just pretend the abuse or offense we have suffered isn’t evil. Don’t minimize it (or over-inflate it). We should lament and express our pain as well as speaking frankly with them with an eye toward reconciliation, not condemnation.

Joseph then repaid the evil they committed with good. In Romans 12, Paul advises the same, and quotes a Proverb to back up his point. When we do this, Keller says, we are treating people like God treated us. He not only pardoned us, but blessed us greatly in Christ.

We can do these things because of Christ, and Him crucified. He underwent judgment in our place. He also gives us the spiritual resources necessary to forgive and seek reconciliation.

Receiving God’s Forgiveness

If we are to forgive others, our own sin must be forgiven. Secularism, with its focus on autonomy, has nothing to offer those who feel unworthy and guilty. There is no one to forgive them. There is no objective standard to explain their sense of guilt.

Keller discusses true and false guilt. True guilt is the proper response to breaking God’s law. But men have added so many laws of their own to God’s law- what Jesus would call the traditions of men. False guilt is a response to human tradition. It is about failing to meet the expectations we or another person put upon us. We need to bring our true guilt to God.

He identifies three forms of counterfeit repentance: blame shifting, self-pity, and self-flagellation. In Genesis 3 Adam blamed “the woman you gave me” for his sin. Eve blamed the serpent for deceiving her. No one was accepting responsibility for their actions. Self-pity is sorrow over consequences, not the sin itself. It can look like repentance, but it doesn’t change us. It is a form of self-centeredness. It is sin.

We can also beat ourselves up. We have a child who, when young, literally hit themselves in response to guilt. We had to repeatedly point them to Jesus who bore our guilt. As adults, we are often more subtle in our self-flagellation. It can be verbal, degrading yourself or depression. It is the attempt to self-atone and is a form of self-righteousness.

True repentance owns the sin. It confesses it for what it is. It also forsakes the sin. It should include a plan to do so. We are also to receive the mercy of God by faith. We are to go deeper in our understanding of God’s mercy and the doctrines around it (like the atonement, union with Christ, the judgment etc.).

Granting Our Forgiveness

He begins with a quote from Jane Eyre. After no reconciliation she questioned him. He noted that there was nothing to forgive. Jane would have preferred to have been knocked down. Why? This break in relationship was apparently over “nothing”. She was not forgiven. She felt inconsequential.

Keller brings us back to Luke 17. Jesus warns us of an unforgiving spirit. We often don’t know how angry we are at the other person. He advises that we assume we are more bitter than we realize.

Many moons ago CavWife was dumped by a boyfriend (his loss, my gain). One day her boss, caring for her, addressed her bitterness. “I’m not bitter.” Bitterness is like bad breathe or body odor. We are the last to know.

If we don’t address our wrath we’ll become restless spirits. We will be controlled by the past. We will become “someone who’s haunted.” He returns to internal forgiveness. We need to identify with the wrongdoer as a fellow sinner. They are still a brother or sister you are to love, and that includes forgiving them as you’ve been forgiven. We need to forsake our moral superiority. We than absorb the debt rather than make them pay. We don’t get even, and forsake the desire to get even. As time goes by, you will see new depths to how they hurt you and your need to keep forgiving them. Their debt is bigger than you realize (but not as big as your debt to God).

He then addresses some forms of counterfeit forgiveness: excusing, denying, holding a grudge while forsaking active revenge, suspending judgment until the next time you do it, abandoning justice so the person can continue to harm others, and granting immediate trust.

We are also to will their good. We are to pursue their good as much as we are able. The true enemy is the evil in them. Whether we seek vengeance or completely cut them off, it is all about us. Feelings follow actions in forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t a warm fuzzy, but absorbing that debt and forsaking revenge. Don’t wait to feel it; grant it.

CavWife is much quicker to get the feeling than I am. I may forgive, but it takes time for my anger to dissipate. Don’t expect a quick hug from me.

In absorbing the debt, we leave it in the past as we relate to the person moving forward. We don’t bring it up again. While we may come to a greater understanding of the debt, we should not keep going to them with each new realization.

Forgiveness is a promise not to keep bringing the matter up to the person, to others, or even to ourselves.” pp. 174

Extending Forgiveness

When we forgive, the goal is reconciliation. Keller brings us Jesus’ statement on anger from Matthew 5:21-25. Our failure to love is connected to murder. As such, it is forbidden. This is the principle Keller wants us to keep in mind. Our anger is spiritually dangerous.

So when we get angry, we should ask: “What am I defending?”” pp. 185

Practically, he tells us to go to the person we’ve made angry. That’s hard. Who likes to talk to an angry person. We tend to procrastinate and avoid the issue. The problem between the two of you, in Matthew 18, is also a matter of the church. If affects the local body if conflict between fellow Christians is not reconciled. We are to go to reconcile, not condemn. Jesus does say to “point out their fault” which refers to a painful admonition. You may have to go more than once. You may need to bring others to hold both of you accountable. You want to persuade, not obliterate.

In Matthew 5 and 18, we see that we are to be the one to initiate the reconciliation. Don’t wait for the other person.

Keller then looks at Romans 12 to see how evil wins by distorting our relationships, our view of self and helps the offender in their self-justification. We also counsels how we can overcome evil with good by praying for them, forgiving them, not avoiding them (a form of retaliation), doing good to them, and being humble toward them.

Final Thoughts

This is a very thorough and convicting book. He is likely to hit some sore spots, but that is good. Don’t let that lead you to put the book down, but may it prompt repentance and a moving toward reconciliation.

While Keller is writing to Christians, he doesn’t limit his scope to the Church. He looks at the society in which we live. He is well-read on the subject(s) but doesn’t bog down. He provides quick summaries of the pertinent point. He echoes Carl Trueman on many points concerning the philosophical shifts.

Our society can influence us. We are discipled by the world more than we care admit. It is too easy to follow the flesh into seeking allies to further contention and dissension. It is too easy to follow the flesh in running away, avoiding that person or going on the warpath. God has something better for us, and Keller labors hard to proclaim this to us.

It is common for me to read that Keller is “progressive”, a “compromiser” and one who has lost the gospel. I don’t see that in his other books. I don’t see that here either. Progressives hate the doctrine of substitutionary atonement that Keller teaches and affirms repeatedly in this book. It is gospel drenched. It is not advocating a cheap grace that uses “forgiveness” to cover up issues instead of addressing them. He isn’t advocating justice apart from the gospel like a social justice warrior (another accusation I see online).

Forgive, in my opinion, exceeds another book on the subject I read not too long ago: Unpacking Forgiveness by Chris Brauns. They address different issues: Keller the Shame-Honor and Cancel cultures, Brauns the therapeutic model. Keller’s doesn’t share the weaknesses of Brauns’ book. There are topics one will address that the other won’t. If I had to give one away, it would be Forgive.

This book, while referencing some important thinkers and their works, is filled with Scripture. He doesn’t proof text to justify his points. He examines the texts in question. Scripture is his authority, or should I say the authority behind his views. This is what makes the book hard to hear at times since the Word of God is living and active, cutting us to the heart like a two-edged sword.

Read Full Post »

Life change, the doctrine of sanctification, can be confusing at times. Life change is hard. We can often feel stuck, and it can seem (key word) hopeless. The last few years have been hard. I’ve been working to address some sin in my life. I’ve been in mental ruts that have been difficult to get out of.

You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions has been sitting in my book cart for a few years. That is where books in my reading queue are. When it was time for sabbatical, it seemed a good choice to take with me for personal growth.

While it took me months to work my way through it, it was a good choice. That length of time was not about the length of the book but the busyness of life. When I re-emerged from my sabbatical I wasn’t done and life grew very busy. But I finished. And then came the delay in blogging about it. (And people wonder why I haven’t finished my book)

Tim Chester’s book is short (about 180 pages and 10 chapters). That should not be seen as a disadvantage. It is succinct. True, he doesn’t say all he possibly could say, but he gets to the heart of the matter. He does cover some material that is often overlooked. There is no fluff in this book (I could learn from this). Chester drinks from the stream of John Owen and therefore Sinclair Ferguson, J.I. Packer and Jerry Bridges who were greatly influenced by Owen and John Flavel. He also read Berkower, and has been influenced by some of the CCEF books on this subject. Aside from Berkower, there is a strong Puritan (Reformed) emphasis in this book. This, in my opinion, is a great strength of this book. (I suppose some may say I live in a Puritan echo chamber, but I can think of far worse places to be.)

Each chapter ends with bullet point summaries for reflection, a few questions and a Change Project. He wants you to process and apply the information.In other words, he wants you to change. In my case, his desire was not accomplished but hopefully it will be more so in your case. That doesn’t mean I didn’t apply the truth here, just that I didn’t work through the projects.

What Would You Like to Change?

This is a good place to begin. Something brings a person to such a book. He wants to get that out in the open, so to speak. Too often we are focused, as he notes, on the less important changes. We want to be more successful in our careers, or feel more competent as a parent (insert laughter here). Chester wants us to know that God has bigger plans for you precisely because you are made in His image to be His representative here on earth. But we are a broken and distorted image: we fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) because we are sinners. Our lives speak lies about God.

Jesus, the Second Adam (or Adam the Second as Sinclair Ferguson so often puts it) is the Son of God and the perfect man. He is the exact representation or image of God. His life spoke no lies, but perfectly revealed the character of God. Jesus isn’t simply our Example, but our Savior and part of that saving work is to restore the image of God in us. While we want to fiddle about with a few things that make our life more difficult, Jesus wants to remake us so we stop speaking lies with our lives. He wants to change us from the inside out.

As part of this, Chester points us to 2 Corinthians 3. To reflect the glory of Christ we must first behold the glory of Christ. We can’t change apart from Christ. We can’t change apart from meditating on Christ in His presence. Perhaps this is why we are so slow to change: we spend so little time beholding Christ because there is so much for us to do, and so much to distract us. This is really about beholding Christ as He is presented to us in the gospel (to borrow a phrase from the Westminster Shorter Catechism on saving faith).

The message of this book is that change takes place in our lives as we turn to see the glory of God in Jesus. We “see” the glory of Christ as we “hear” the gospel.” pp. 19

This work begins in sanctification but is only concluded in glorification. We become as He is when we behold Him as He is either in heaven or at His return. God’s plan is not to simply rearrange the furniture of your life but to engage in a whole house remodel. He’s not simply changing the color of the walls and putting in a new sink, bu he’s going to remove the rot, fungus and termite damage and restore health and wholeness (loving God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength).

Why Would You Like to Change?

In the second chapter, Chester deals with the question of motivation. People can have wrong or mixed motives. Some people want to prove themselves to God. Self-righteousness runs deep in us. We want to make up for our sins. We may also want to prove God was right to save us (sounds crazy, right?) or earn it after the fact. We can try to prove ourselves to others. We may want to prove them wrong about us, or prove they can trust us after all. We can also try to prove ourselves to ourselves. We want to be a “former (fill in the blank)”.

Chester then moves us to the doctrine of justification. This guts our attempts to prove ourselves to anyone. Our attempts to look good are about our glory, not God’s. We can try to live the right way for the wrong reasons. God sees through that, and kills our pride through justification by faith alone. Many don’t grasp the right order of salvation, and try to put sanctification prior to justification. We are not justified by our sanctification. We are justified on the basis of Christ’s obedience. Justified, the Spirit sanctifies us or makes us more like Jesus.

God gives us a new identity to live out. We don’t earn it, it is graciously given to us. This new identity is to shape how we live in the present and future. Our new identity in Christ is that we’ve been adopted and are God’s children. The down payment of our inheritance as sons of God is the Spirit. He gives us the power to change. We are also the Bride of Christ- we are forever united to Him. As we see in Ezekiel 16, we were a bloody (unclean) mess, but God comes and makes a covenant with us, covers us, cleanses us and dresses us in beautiful clothes. We see something similar in Revelation. We are sinners whose robes have been washed white in the blood of the Lamb. He adorns us. We see this in Ephesians 5 as well- as Christ gave Himself to redeem people who were dead in sins and trespasses. He cleansed us with the washing of the Word. These truths, these aspects of our new identity, are to control how we live more than our desire for sin and/or self-righteousness.

All too often we think of holiness as giving up the pleasures of sin for some worthy but drab life. But holiness means recognizing that the pleasures of sin are empty and temporary, while God is inviting us to magnificent, true, full, and rich pleasures that last forever.” pp. 35

How Are You Going to Change?

Not only can we try to change for the wrong reasons, we can try to change in the wrong way. We try to change ourselves with rules and regulations. We rely on disciplines and rituals. These are attempts to change from the outside in.

The law can’t change us. It provides a picture of what we should look like, but doesn’t provide the power for us to change. I’ve explained it before as the law being the tracks, but we need the power of the Spirit to move on those tracks. To rely on the law for sanctification is to return to the works of the law by which no man may be justified. As Paul warns in Galatians, we return to slavery.

Chester speaks more of legalism. Legalism focuses on externals, and makes holiness manageable. It seeks to make holiness something we can achieve. Pride drives us, and lies to us that we aren’t legalists.

While we have responsibility, transformation is God’s work. He sanctifies us. He cleanses us of our idolatry, He removes our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh and places His Spirit in us to cause us to walk according to His law (Ez. 36). Paul speaks of God working in us so we will and work according to His will (Phil. 2:12-13).

As His children, the Father disciplines us so we bear the harvest of righteousness (Heb. 12). In this endeavor, He uses hardship to discipline us. Chester does warn us against considering it as punishment for specific sins. He is weaning us from the world, and our dependence on the things of this world. He grows our trust in Him.

The Son also sets us free. Chester points us to Romans 6:1-7. United to Christ, we died in His death. United to Christ, we were raised in His resurrection. He gives us the power of a new life in the Spirit. We are free from seeking justification through the works of the law.

The Spirit also works to set us free. The Spirit brings us new life so we can see Christ as delightful and trust Him and submit to Him. The Spirit leads us (and empowers us) to resist the works of the flesh and grow in the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit is about character, not just actions. It is about who we are inside.

So, we should recognize that our transformation is a Trinitarian work. All three persons of the Trinity participate in our liberation from sin.

Chester also brings regeneration into the mix. Regeneration is God’s work in us, but it bears fruit in our lives. Like an infant we grow, maturing. John Newton uses the illustration of maturing corn in his letters. In a class back in the early 1990’s Jerry Bridges was asked about Lordship Salvation. He noted that the important missing piece was regeneration. We can change because we’ve been born again and have a heart of flesh.

We are sanctified by faith in Christ’s work for us. In the Westminster Larger Catechism #75 we see that in sanctification the Spirit applies the death and resurrection to us in increasing measure so we die more and more to sin and live more and more to righteousness. He quotes Owen saying “Holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing and realizing of the gospel in our souls.”

Here Chester goes into the differences between justification and sanctification which we see laid out in WLC #77. They are inseparable, coming in our union with Christ (Calvin calls this a double grace). I’ve laid it out the differences in this table.

Imputation of the righteousness of ChristInfusion of grace and enabling its exercise
Sin is pardonedSin is subdued
Equally frees all believers in this lifeNot equal in this life, nor perfect in any of us
Never fall into condemnationGrows up to perfection (in glorification)

When Do You Struggle?

Chester now wants us to consider the question of when we struggle with our particular temptations. To understand the context helps us in the battle to mortify our sin. He reminds us that “we are messed-up people living in a messed-up world.” Because of this, “we’re allowed to struggle. It’s legitimate to feel pain, disappointment, and heartache.” Note that he is NOT saying it is legitimate to transgress God’s. But, due to the remnant of sin, we will struggle with temptations. We can also deal with the pain, disappointment and heartache resulting from our temptations and transgressions.

God knows that we suffer from the sins of others, as well as our own sin and its consequences. Being justified removes our condemnation, not our struggle. Sanctification, being imperfect in this life, means we will struggle. Jesus doesn’t forsake us in our struggle. He doesn’t stand off in either disinterest or disapproval in our struggle. He works by the Spirit to help us in our struggle.

God uses our struggles for good (Rom. 8:28-29), which is defined as being conformed to the likeness of the Son. He changes us through the struggle. One of my contentions is that our struggle with besetting sins is often God’s way to humble us. With pride being a root sin, we need to be humbled and He often allows us to struggle with persistent temptations and/or transgressions to humble us. We are often focused on the surface sin that we don’t address the root sin. For instance, in one of her books Rosaria Butterfield notes that her real problem wasn’t her lesbianism (she’s not denying its sinfulness) but her pride (I can’t find my copy of Secret Thoughts to find the citation). Her lesbianism was one of the manifestations of her pride, and until the pride was addressed she’d make little to no progress with the manifestations of it. But I digress.

Those struggles reveal our hearts. It is out of the heart, Jesus says, that all our sin flows. The heart is the source of our desires and thoughts, and therefore my behaviors. Our temptations and transgressions give us a glimpse of what lies hidden within. While there may be external temptations, they only hook us because of the sin in our hearts. It is easy for a man to objectify an attractive woman he sees because of the sin remaining in his heart. It is easy for a woman to fantasize about romance while reading or watching a movie because of the sin in her heart that makes an idol of romance or connection (similar to how men make an idol of sex).

[As an aside, he quotes from the New Living Translation on pp. 66 and says it paraphrases Proverbs 4:23. No, it is a translation unlike the Living Bible. It is a thought for thought translation rather than word for word, but still a translation. It returns to the original languages and seeks to accurately convey the meaning in understandable words and grammar. So, I found his statement misleading,]

Chester notes that our circumstances can trigger our hearts. We are squeezed and bad things come out. The circumstances don’t create the bad things, but give opportunity for us to see the evil already within us. Here he points us to James 1 and James 4 to understand the reality of our desires which give birth to sin. We can’t blame God for the sinful or inordinate desires we have. We’ve been given over to sinful corruption as a judicial act on Adam’s sin as our federal head. The evil desires (sin original) in our hearts produce sinful emotions, temptations and transgressions (all sin actual).

The battlefield is within, not without. It can’t be handled by laws like “don’t touch”, as Paul says in Colossians 2. It is only addressed by the work of Christ as Paul labors to tell the Colossians all through that letter. Sin is tied to unbelief. We believe lies from others and our corrupt desires (Eph. 4:22). The word for disobedience in Eph. 2:2 conveys a stubborn refusal to obey due to unbelief. We are to speak, and hear, the truth in love.

Sin happens when we believe lies about God instead of God’s word and when we worship idols instead of worshiping God.

What Truths Do You Need to Turn to?

Behind every sin is a lie. The root of all our behavior and emotions is the heart- what it trusts and what it treasures.

Paul is clear that the thinking of people outside of Christ is futile, and their understanding is darkened. We see this in Romans 1 and Ephesians 4. In regeneration we are given the mind of Christ, and our mind is being sanctified. But it is not fully sanctified. We still believe lies due to our fallen nature, the remaining corruption in us.

We need the truth to set us free, and to sanctify us (Jn. 17:17). Our minds need to be renewed (Rom. 12). This means we need to stop listening to the lie that we can’t change, and believe that we can even if that transformation won’t be complete. We need to reject the lie that we can change ourselves, and believe that the Spirit works to transform us through the truth, particularly the truth of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Christ. We need to preach the truth, the gospel, to ourselves rather than listen to ourselves. We aren’t going deeper and deeper in self-analysis, but deeper and deeper in understanding gospel truth.

Some truths that Chester puts forth for us:

  1. God is great- so we don’t have to be in control.
  2. God is glorious- so we do not have to fear others.
  3. God is good- so we do not have to look elsewhere.
  4. God is gracious- so we do not have to prove ourselves.

We can also reject the lies of:

  1. Restless anger
  2. Joyless duty
  3. Anxious performance
  4. Proud comparisons

What Desires Do You Need to Turn From?

Peter tells us to “prepare our minds for action” (1 Peter 1:13). He continues to say that we are to not be conformed to the passions or corrupt desires of our former life. One of those corrupt passions is idolatry. When we turn to idols we also turn from the living God (Jer. 2:13).

The flesh makes life about us instead of God: our comfort, our prosperity, our pleasure, our glory and our will. We enslave ourselves in the ultimate paradox.

Some desires are corrupt in and of themselves. Deviant sexual activity is corrupt in and of itself. These desires are never holy. They are never good or acceptable.

Other desires are corrupt because they are inordinate: we want a good thing more than we want God. We can want vindication, for instance, but when it becomes more important to us than God it becomes corrupt.

Turning from these desires is repentance. It begins in conversion and continues through the rest of our lives. We turn from our sin and to God because we apprehend the sinfulness of our sin and God’s mercy in Christ. Repentance is an essential part of life transformation.

There is also mortification, the putting to death of temptations before they become transgressions. It is saying ‘no’ by the grace of God. The earlier the better lest you fall in temptation as Owen discusses. It is to fall under the power of temptation, becoming obsessed by it and moving toward transgression. Kill it or it will kill you, to paraphrase John Owen.

Chester quotes from Ferguson to help us to understand it. “It is the deliberate rejection of any sinful thought, suggestion, desire, aspiration, deed, circumstance or provocation at the moment we become conscious of its existence.” In my head I will say “no” to my prideful stirrings, and other temptations.

Corrupt desires feed corruption. They bear bad fruit. When we follow the lead of the Spirit we bear the fruit of the Spirit. Here Chester brings up establishing godly habits. This is something he’ll develop later.

Repentance requires faith. We must believe God’s evaluation of our actions, that they are sin. We must believe the truth of the gospel. We need to believe that “God is bigger and better than our sinful desires.”

What Stops You from Changing?

Chester identifies two basic reasons why we don’t change: self-love and love of sin. We are filled with pride, and prone to love the sin even if we don’t like the consequences of sin. The deceitfulness of sin has us focusing on its fleeting pleasure, not lasting punishment.

Pride leads us to believe that we deserve the pleasure sin provides. We need to repent of our pride and self-reliance. The road to holiness is paved in humility. Calvin ties this to self-denial.

We don’t change when we excuse our sin. We don’t change when we blame others for our sin. We don’t change when we blame our circumstances. Sin is our response to our circumstances, but not caused by it. We don’t change when we minimize our sin- thinking it is “not that bad.” This can also be tied to the quest for self-fulfillment, one of the lies of our culture which we can believe.

We don’t change when we hide our sin. We hide from one another. We don’t seek the help of others. We rely on ourselves. This can be a function of pride (not wanting to look like a real sinner). It can also be a function of shame (everyone will reject me because I’m so bad). Steve Brown used to tell us “demons die in the light” and sins grow in the dark.

What Strategies Will Reinforce Your Faith and Repentance?

Chester reminds us that simply knowing the truth doesn’t change us. We must act on the truth. We act with the gospel disciplines of faith and repentance. We have to remember that we reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7-8). Our present is (at least in part) the fruit of past decisions.

We are to sow to the Spirit, not the flesh. A desire for holiness, for change, will mean that we follow the lead of the Spirit (Gal. 5) and bear great fruit.

Chester also lays out some other important strategies connected to this:

  1. Avoid whatever provokes sinful desires. We shouldn’t ponder how close we can get to the lion before we get mauled. Stay away from situations that provoke your sinful desires.
  2. Avoid whatever strengthens sinful desires. Don’t feed them, starve them! I used to get book catalogs. I buy too many books. I stopped getting catalogs. Sadly I get emails now, but you get the point. He notes that the lies of the world will reinforce and resonate with our sinful nature.
  3. Saying “No!” to sinful desires. He provides a series of examples of this. This is mortification. Say ‘no’ to the click bait. Avert your eyes from the attractive person, or if talking with them look them in the eye. Resist unnecessary trips to window shop if you are a compulsive shopper.

Some Christians sow to the flesh every day and wonder why they do not reap holiness.John Stott, quoted on pp. 138

Sowing to the Spirit means we say “Yes!” to the Spirit’s prompting to read the Word, pray, be generous, etc. This strengthens the movement toward virtue and godliness. Chester focuses on the means of grace, which feed our faith which then receives grace. These are the Bible, prayer, community, worship, service, suffering (not running from it, which isn’t the same as looking for it), and hope.

How Can We Support One Another in Changing?

This is one of the best chapters because it is on a subject that is often neglected. We are in what Chester calls “a community of change.” We were not meant to be alone in this. There are some who think they don’t need the church. There are others who don’t properly utilize the community. And, sadly, there are graceless communities that beat up people who are repentant.

In Ephesians 4 Paul uses the illustration of the Body. We are to grow up to match our head. Babies has disproportionately large heads. They grow into them. Christ is mature, and the rest of the body is intended to grow up into Him.

Sin is a community issue. If it keeps individuals from growing, it keeps that individual from helping the body grow. Too many people hide their sin but disengage from the body so it suffers too.

We all need one another. You need others to grow and change. Others need you to grow and change. We need both gospel doctrine and gospel culture! In keeping with Ephesians 4, we are to speak the truth (in love) to one another. This necessitates attending worship and participating in congregational life.

Love without truth is like doing heart surgery with a wet fish. But truth without love is like doing heart surgery with a hammer.” pp. 158

It is impossible to be a community of change if we aren’t a community of repentance. Because we are only superficially involved, we don’t know one another’s sins and don’t rebuke, encourage and help one another with those sins. We also have to be a community of grace so people can be honest, open and transparent about what is going on in their lives.

Are You Ready for a Lifetime of Daily Change?

In the final chapter Chester notes the reality that we are in for a lifetime of change, but that change only happens on the daily level. Our daily choices determine whether or not (or how) we change.

Without getting to philosophical, he enters the question of the will. He doesn’t get deep into divine sovereignty vs. human responsibility (Scripture upholds both with the doctrine of concurrence). Our wills have been freed by Jesus so we can now choose spiritual and eternal good. This is not a refutation of divine sovereignty, but a recognition of how regeneration changes us. We can still choose to do things that are spiritually harmful for us. That freedom is important. Free but certainly not perfected we will make good choices and bad choices. We choose according to our desires, and some of our desires are still messed up which is why we need to put off the old man.

Life change is a marathon, as he states. Precisely because we aren’t perfect, we will change and can change. There are many influences on our lives because they influence our thinking and therefore our choices (The will is the mind choosing- Jonathan Edwards). We listen to podcasts, blowhards in the break room, talk radio, friends, pastors (good and bad) and other media. People shape our thinking and therefore our choices. We are being discipled all day- by someone. (Conversely we can disciple others all day too.)

Change is a daily task over the course of a lifetime. Some decisions have bigger consequences, and we don’t always recognize the big decisions at the time. But just because I make the right choice today doesn’t mean I won’t be faced with the same choice tomorrow. Joseph, for instance, didn’t turn down Potiphar’s wife once. She was frequently trying to seduce him, refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer. Today’s ‘no’ to pride, porn, revenge, covetousness etc. is just that: today’s. Tomorrow we will face many of the same choices. Mortification of sin is consistently saying ‘no’ over the long haul. It gets tougher tomorrow when I say “yes” today.

Change will not be easy. Sin is habit-forming- not just habits of behavior, but also habits of thinking. However, change is possible.” pp. 172

One of the “problems” is that growth often includes a growing awareness of our sin. We see it more clearly and more deeply. We are actually growing but paradoxically see more of it. This is the “problem” of holiness. The more godly you are, the less godly you will likely feel as you realize you are the chief of sinners.

He notes that it is very important to keep the “already” and “not yet” of change clear. We don’t want to be overly optimistic in the short run, nor despair in the long run. There are sins that have far less hold over me now. I experience periodic temptations and don’t succumb. While those temptations are far less frequent and not “overwhelming” they are still there. There has been progress in mortification, but they aren’t completely dead yet. I must remain vigilante lest I give them a foothold and feed them.

He summarizes the book in this way (pp. 173):

  1. Keep returning to the cross to see your sin canceled and to draw near to God in full assurance of welcome.
  2. Keep looking to God instead of to sin for satisfaction, focusing on the four liberating truths of God’s greatness, glory, goodness and grace.
  3. Cut off, throw off, put off, kill off everything that might strengthen or provoke sinful desires.
  4. Bring sin into the light through regular accountability to another Christian.

This is how we make progress. We also remember that because I am in Christ, though I remain a sinner, I’m also righteous in His eyes. The doctrine of justification is essential to the doctrine of sanctification. Apart from it, sanctification is a meritorious work on our part. Chester relates a less common Reformation slogan: semper peccator, semper iustus: “always a sinner, always justified”.

Sin never has the last word for the children of God. Grace always has the last word. If we confess our sins to God, he is faithful. He’ll keep his promise to forgive.” pp. 176

This little book is very helpful. It is a great example of practical theology. It is understandable and meaningful. The cookies are not out of reach. His chapters on what and why we want to change, the community of change, and the last on a lifetime of daily change are helpful contributions that you don’t find often enough in books on this subject.

This makes the book a great resource for one-on-one discipleship, a small group study or SS lesson. The level of personal interaction will determine how much is theoretical and how much is accountability. It is also accessible enough to give away. Let’s hope this one stays in print for the glory of God and edification of the church.

Read Full Post »