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Posts Tagged ‘affliction’


“That’s it?”

That was my general sense after finishing David Powlison’s book How Does Sanctification Work? after my study leave ended. That isn’t quite the fairest sentiment. It communicated some good things.

I found his similar book on sexual brokenness, Making All Things New, to be better. It too is short and therefore limited in scope. This one, on a much broader topic, seemed too limited in scope.

Powlison begins with an experience he and his wife had in reading Scripture. They read Deuteronomy 32:10-12. They each came in need of grace, but with different circumstances. God addressed each of them on the basis of His Word. Yet the Spirit “illuminated” (see WCF I) different aspects for them because they needed different aspects of the truth contained in that passage. There is a sense in which the means of grace as the same for us, but the way God uses them in “tailor made” to us and our circumstances. Sanctification for David and his wife looked both the same and different.

And so Powlison continues with the truth that there are many keys to sanctification. We often try to be reductionistic regarding sanctification. We pick one of many complementary truths as if it was the whole truth. As a result, we can easily go astray. What you have found beneficial in your circumstances and in light of your personality is not a magic bullet intended to sanctify everyone despite their different circumstances and personality.

In the midst of this he seems to allude to the recent controversy over sanctification in which a prominent Presbyterian pastor taught an essentially Lutheran view that sanctification is growing in our justification. Certainly, as we grow in our understanding of justification, it furthers our sanctification. But we must not conflate the two. And that certainly isn’t all that sanctification is. But it is not less than that.

For me, the third chapter was most helpful. It is called “Truth Unbalanced and Rebalanced“. I’ll let him briefly explain his point:

“Ministry “unbalances truth for the sake of relevance; theology “rebalances” truth for the sake of comprehensiveness.”

Timely words are selective, not comprehensive. They are not balanced in themselves and create a bit of an unbalance. He didn’t put it this way, but think of it as exerting more strength than usual to a person who is falling. We can over-correct but get them moving in the right direction where we then rebalance them. We are pulling people out of ditches or away from cliffs. There is not the time for comprehensive conversations in the moment. But we rebalance them by having subsequent conversations that are comprehensive. The “key” becomes integrated in a more holistic theology rather than a magic bullet.

“The task of ministry in any moment is to choose, emphasize, and “unbalance” truth for the sake of relevant application to particular persons and situations.”

This is the “key” contribution of the book. Dr. Richard Pratt expressed it as taking the proper medicine from the cabinet. Not all truth is pertinent to a particular circumstance. When the crisis is over, there is time for theological reflection to establish healthy patterns of living. You offer them “the rest of the story.”

Where he goes with all this is a view similar to the book How People Change. There are a number of interactive elements (union with Christ, focus on Christ’s work for us, God’s commands, fellowship with other Christians, suffering, my choices etc.). His point is that while all these are present and used by God in our lives, at any given point one may be more powerful than the others. We do well to remember that how God works in me and through me will not be the same as how He works in you and through you, at least at any given moment. My wife is a different person than I am, and the process of sanctification will look a little different in her life though the same general elements are there.

Sanctification ends up as something we cannot control or predict. God works in us by His Word and Spirit so we apply the Scriptures, understand our identity in Christ and our will and/or desires are shaped and molded (Phil. 2:12-13). He also uses other people and our circumstances in this gumbo of sanctification. People will bring us the Word and wisdom. Circumstances provide the opportunities to obey, experience consequences, limit or expand options. God is at work in all things things to conform us to the likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:28-9).

Powlison then gets personal. He tells his own story, first in terms of his conversion and then sanctification. He then tells the stories of Charles and Charlotte. In this we see the basic patterns at work in a personalized way. In this way the book is helpful for us. It arises from his decades of work as a counselor.

This could serve as a good counterpart or complement to Sinclair Ferguson’s excellent book, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification, which is an exegetical look at sanctification. Both should help pastors, church officers and lay leaders walk people through God’s sanctifying work.

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When preaching we can’t always develop every theme in the text, or even the sermon, as much as we would like. Last Sunday I was preaching from John 8. Among the many things Jesus said, He said this:

21 So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin.

We have a bit of a conundrum here. Though they will seek Him they will still die in their sins (in the state of sin and under the penalty of sin). What is going on?

5f778-wizardtimI started by bringing them to Deuteronomy 4. Moses, the great prophet who anticipates the Great Prophet, is warning them what will happen if they don’t seek God with all their heart. If they have divided hearts, and seek the gods of the nations He will send them into exile into the nations. The Assyrian and Babylonian exiles were not chance and happenstance. Exile was one of the curses of the covenant that Moses warned them about.

But exile was not supposed to be the end of the story, even in Deuteronomy 4.

29 But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. 30 When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice. 31 For the Lord your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.

From that as yet unknown place of exile, similar to their experience in Egypt, they will return to the Lord. He is a merciful God and will seek them thru the exile. In our chastisement He holds out His hands to us, so to speak, asking if we’re ready to come home again.

They will find Him IF they seek Him with all their heart. They must be a repentant people, putting aside the gods of the nations. That whole-hearted devotion is further described as listening to His voice: obedience. The desire to obey is one of the signs of true repentance (though the actual obedience continues in fits and starts).

11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. Jeremiah 29

Verse 11 is one of the most frequently quoted passages  and most frequently taken out of context. Jeremiah does not come up with this on his own. It is an application of the covenant to the circumstances of the people of Judah. The curse of the covenant mentioned in Deuteronomy 4 has already happened to Samaria (the northern kingdom) and is in the process of happening to Judah at the hands of Babylon.

He wants them to know that this is not the end, just as we saw earlier. He has plans for their restoration to Him, and the land. If we claim this promise, we must remember that it is spoken to those under God’s chastisement (yes, it still happens as we see in Hebrews 12). We have hope because Christ has born the penalty we deserve and given us His righteousness.

Jeremiah repeats this promise about seeking Him. Their divided hearts that brought them to this horrible place must be united in seeking Him. As a Jealous God, He wants all our love. He doesn’t want to share us with other gods. For them it was Baal, Molech, Chemosh and a host of others. For us it is money, sex, power, security, the State, our spouse (past, present or future), child and a host of others. Affliction can be the call to return to whole-hearted devotion. Then we will find Him. We must remember though, that He is the One who sought us, and gracious gave us that renewed devotion.

So, we can say that they reason they sought but didn’t find Jesus is that they didn’t seek Him with all their heart. In the coming tribulation (fulfilled in AD 70), the unbelieving Jews sought “Messiah” or deliverance from the advancing Roman legions from a variety of sources. They were like the kings of Isaiah’s days, trusting in horses, chariots and Egypt (political alliances). They were not trusting completely or solely upon the Lord. The unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day were the same. They didn’t look to Him alone.

Let’s fast-forward to after the cross. On this side do we still have these same issues as I’ve alluded to? Yes!

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. James 4

Note that last word: double-minded. We see the fruit of this in the first few verses of James 4. Like rudderless boats they are driven along by their ever-shifting passions. They are at war with one another because they are not in submission to God. The Spirit is zealous for them, as James mentions, just as we saw in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah. God is working in our affliction to draw us back to Him. This call to repentance by James includes the notion of whole-heartedness or purity of heart. When we cry out only for Him we are drawing near to Him and He will draw near to us.

James 4 is in harmony with the passages we looked at in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah. We see the dependence of the New Covenant on the Old, and the continuity between them on display (if only we’ll look and listen).

Better, when we are afflicted we should remember that God is pursuing us, seeking to purify our hearts so they are more fully His. In that process we are to stop seeking all else and seek Him as what we really need. If we have Christ we will have all else we need.

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"no one gets a smooth ride" The Choir

There are lots of books that deal with the providence of God. Some are good, and some are not so good. Some are just plain horrendous!

I’m beginning to preach on the life of Joseph in the latter sections of Genesis. You cannot avoid the reality of God’s sovereignty in this section of Genesis. As I prepare the sermons, there are three books I’ve pulled off my shelves (and the church library) to help me along the way, particularly as I ponder application of the doctrine. They hit different aspects, complementing them.

First, I’m going old school with Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot: The Sovereignty and Wisdom of God Displayed in the Afflictions of Men. Some of the things that Boston stresses include humbling ourselves as our afflictions reveal the sin in our hearts. This is one of the things I want to address as we move along.

“But as the fire under the pot makes the scum to rise up, appear atop, and run over, so the crook in the lot rises up from the bottom and brings out such corruptions as otherwise one could hardly imagine to be within.” Thomas Boston

Second, I’m using Trusting God by Jerry Bridges. The title conveys the main point of the book, helping people to trust God in the midst of afflictions of all kinds by knowing that He is ultimately in control and His purposes for His people are good.

“It is difficult for us to appreciate the reality of God sovereignly doing as He pleases in our lives, because we do not see God doing anything.” Jerry Bridges

Third is R.C. Sproul’s Invisible Hand: Do All Things Really Work for Good?. I never bought it because I read it while I worked for Ligonier. We could use the resources, and this explains why I’m missing his books from the mid-late 90’s. This is more of a redemptive-historical approach. The seemingly disconnected events are actually the working out of the plan of salvation for God’s people. Our confidence is that God, who accomplished our salvation in Christ, will continue to accomplish His plan for us through the events of our lives and history at large.

“Because the word providence is rooted in the Latin term for seeing or vision, we may be tempted to restrict its theological application to God’s mere observance of human activity. It is not merely that God looks at human affairs. The point is that He looks after human affairs. He not only watches us, He watches over us.” R.C. Sproul

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I’ve been reading Paul Tripp’s War of Words: Getting to the Heart of Your Communication Struggles.  [It is also available in a video series with workbook]   One of the issues he addresses is improper motives for following Jesus.  It is not a modern problem, but one that we see even in the ministry of Jesus.  Tripp takes us to John 6.  The people followed Jesus because they wanted to be fed, again.  They failed to look past the miracle (John uses the term sign) to the thing is signified.  They were unhappy when Jesus didn’t meet their expectations.

Tripp asks about your great “if only.”  “If only  … I would be happy.”  That would be your dream- the fountain from which all happiness would flow.  But now all that flows is a steady stream of disappointment and bitterness.  We think that Jesus has let us down, because he has not fulfilled our dream.

“Their pursuit of Christ was born instead out of a love for self and the hope that Christ would be the one who would meet their felt needs.  … What moves and motivates everything we do is not a submission to God’s will and a burning desire for is glory, but our own set of personal desires and dreams.”

Sign of the Bread of Life

Our dreams motivate us.  Often into self-destruction.  Witness all those misguided people who end up on the first 2 episodes of American Idol.  They had a dream for themselves that was out of step with reality (and no one loved them enough to say ‘you can’t sing’- I’m not sure why since no one has a problem telling ME I can’t sing).

What is God’s dream for us?  If you are a Christian that is simple: that Christ would be your life, and that you’d have a deeper, stronger, more mature faith (self-abandoning trust as Packer says) in Christ.  Tripp develops this from John 6 and 1 Peter 1.

Any material blessings we experience are merely signs- and those signs point us to Jesus who is Life.  When they become the whole enchilada we lapse into idolatry.  When we don’t have them, watch out!  We will be filled with anger, bitterness, depression and a host of other vile things.

“In my opinion, in the heart of every sinner is a desire that life would be a resort.”

Probably, Las Vegas.  All you can eat buffets.  Lots of attractions to keep you occupied.  Comp rooms if you gamble (a lot).  Lots of eye candy, which really isn’t helpful.  But no mess, no fuss and party all the time.

But life is not like that.  And we take it out on others.  They may be blocking our desires, or merely ‘innocent’ bystanders.  Either way we become one of the thousands slain by hardship (though hundreds of thousands have been slain by affluence).

“If we are living for earthly bread and see it as our source of life, we are going to be in for big trouble when we don’t have it.  But if we are living for spiritual bread, for a deeper communion with Jesus Christ, then our lives (with all of their problems) become wonderful places to know and grow in fellowship with the One who is life. … If he is what your heart craves, there are wonderful opportunities to grow in grace and knowledge in the midst of all kinds of difficulty.”

Is that how you face difficulty?  Or are you miserable, whiny and petulant?  At that moment you are not craving Jesus, but something or someone else.  Your response to trouble matters.  It is a sign to the condition of your heart.

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I must confess that I have never read an Alister McGrath book, until now.  Three years ago a friend recommended The Journey: A Pilgrim in the Lands of the Spirit while I was on one of my journeys to the RTS Orlando Bookstore for a sale.  At some point I started to read it, but got stuck along the way.

Fast forward to my trip to PA earlier this month.  Seemed like a good book to bring.  I’m wondering why I put it down in the first place.  It was very appropriate for the place in life where I find myself.

Alister McGrath confesses that it is too easy for him to intellectualize his faith.  Here he is not advocating an anti-intellectualized faith, but internalizing the truth of our faith so it produces hope in the midst of life’s journey.  To do this he spends some time advocating biblical meditation (see my post on this).  This is part of the map he provides for us to persevere on the journey.

He takes Exodus as his template with alternating stages of wilderness and oasis.  To promote trust and hope in the midst of the suffering that will often mark this journey, he talks about remembering what God has done and anticipating what God will do.  These are essentially the past and future aspects of biblical meditation.

“The present was thus sustained by the memory of past events and the hope of future events.”

Along the way the introduces a series of landmarks from a biblical theology (creation, fall, redemption), and some companions for the journey.  He recognizes the need to learn from those who have gone before us.  He chooses men like Jonathan Edwards, J.I. Packer, C.S. Lewis, John Bunyan and more.

(more…)

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In addition to preparing Nehemiah 4 for Sunday, I’ve also been waiting.  Yes, waiting for word about my interviews.  My mind plays tricks on me.  So I need to keep remembering what I’ve been reading in my devotions in the Psalms.

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.  Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.

Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been of old.  Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, o Lord! (Psalm 25:4-7, ESV)

Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.  The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distresses.  Consider my afflictions and my trouble, and forgive all my sins. (Psalm 25:16-18, ESV)

I feel very forgotten, and want God to remember me.  But with mercy and his steadfast love, not in my sin.  I desperately need him to be gracious to me, lifting my isolation and affliction.  Yes, I want him to consider my afflictions, and respond with compassion toward me (and my family).

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.  Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27:13-14, ESV)

Waiting is so hard.  But I must realize I am not merely waiting on an e-mail or phone call.  I’m waiting on God.  He has proven his love for me in Christ- so I should take courage and be strong.  When my mind fluctuates, I must return to that truth, that reality, to stead the ship.

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