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Posts Tagged ‘means of grace’


In recent years there have been more than a trickle but less than a flood of books on the topic of idolatry. I’ve read books by Tim Keller and Elyse Fitzpatrick. There is a relatively new out by Brad Bigney called Gospel Treason: Betraying the Gospel with Hidden Idols (e-book too).

In some ways the subject of idols is under addressed (similar to the subject of the Trinity and Union with Christ). The Bible focuses on the topic a great deal. So I’m thankful for Bigney’s foray into this subject.

He is a pastor and biblical counselor. That shows through in his work. There are enough personal examples and stories (his and other people’s) to flesh it out for us, but not so many that you grow weary. I’m finding there is a fine balance to maintain in this matter.

He identifies the issue in chapter 1:

“To move toward idols is to move away from the gospel and the Savior that the gospel proclaims, so the problem is not peripheral- it is central. … When the gospel loses center stage, your spiritual immune system shuts down, leaving you susceptible to a myriad of spiritual illnesses.”

Because we are sinners, albeit justified sinners, we are still prone to wander. Or drift. We drift toward someone or something that is essentially a Christ-substitute. In other words, towards an idol.

We may see our struggles with sin, but fail to see the idols underneath that struggle. Think of it like addiction. Your addiction often leads to a host of other sins: deceit, sloth, theft, adultery or promiscuity and perhaps even murder. The addiction is driven by something however. If you don’t address that “something” you will just shift addictions. Many AA meetings are filled with people chain-smoking cigarettes and gulping coffee. When we don’t address the idol our sin patterns simply change instead of going away. We think we are more sanctified, but we really aren’t. We continue to be stuck spiritually.

Bigbey is honest. He’s not offering a cure-all. We will struggle with this problem the rest of our earthly lives precisely because, as Calvin noted, our hearts are factories of idols. He also notes that God’s goal is not simply for you to sin less, but to make you like Jesus. Sometimes the process of changing our hearts means struggling with visible sins. He wants a Christ-conformed you, not a haughty person who simply obeys externally. In Jesus’ day they were often called Pharisees.

“Everything outside of Christ is saltwater, and it only leaves you thirstier than you were before.”

How do we see the carnage of idols? Bigney points us to the chaos in our relationships. This is what James does in his letter to the church. We tend to think other people are the problem and that if they will just go away all will be well. While there is an element of truth, we struggle with idols too and contribute to many of our relational conflicts. The conflicts are meant to help us see the idols. They are the visible manifestation of the unseen idol.

Bigney borrows quite a bit from David Powlison and Paul Tripp throughout the book but particularly from this section. That is not a bad thing. It is hard to improve on their work.

Idols also shape our identity. They alter our view of ourselves and the world. They are like fun house mirrors but we think we are seeing clearly and accurately.

“Your idolatry is bigger than just clinging to a few counterfeits. It includes taking on an identity replacement that leads to a sense of losing yourself.”

Bigney continues the diagnostics with a chapter on following the trail, looking at time, money and affections. Idols need to be fed and they consume those three things at an unhealthy rate. He then returns to the topic of chaos. This time it isn’t simply relational chaos but chaos with respect to time or money.

He returns to the heart, again, to warn us against following our hearts. While we are regenerate, and this affects every aspect, we are not fully and perfectly transformed. Therefore you heart can still lie to you and want the wrong things.

“Everybody is following his own heart and making a big, fat mess. Listening to your heart will lead you from one relationship to the next, and one job to the next, and one disaster to the next, with no end in sight. Guide your heart, guard it, but don’t dare follow it.”

Sticking with the heart, he wants to help us see where our hearts are most vulnerable. “Your heart is the compass that points to where you run under pressure.” Each of us has weaknesses. Satan knows them so you better know yours too.

After ten chapters of diagnostics and warnings, he moves into how God works to reorient us. He focuses on the means of grace, as he should. Even here there are warnings. We are to seek Christ in them, not just the doing of them to check them off our list. Our life is found in Christ, not in the reading, worship services etc. They point us to Him and we can find Him there but we too easily settle just for the externals. Daily reading? Check. Prayer time? Check. Weekly worship? Check.

We can do that and still be controlled by idols, particularly the idol of control (the need to be in control of your circumstances). We also need to be in fellowship with Christ’s people. They help us spot our sins and idols if we are in meaningful & biblical community (not simply a country club). Together we seek to submit ourselves to God (as seen in James 4).

Bottom line: … this was a good book. At times I found it inconsistent. There were excellent chapters and some that didn’t have much red ink underlining things. Could be a me thing. The bulk of the book is spent on explaining why they are a problem and how to diagnose them in your life. He did loop around some of those things a few times. I wanted him to develop the means of restoration more thoroughly, particularly union with Christ. Unlike Ed Welch, for instance, he doesn’t talk about the role of the sacraments (though E Free churches and pastors typically don’t focus on the Lord’s Table). So this good book could be better.

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Last week we looked at a Lutheran perspective on sanctification by Gerhard Forde in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification. We (this would be the imperial we if no one reads this) also noted some of the responses, particularly the one by Sinclair Ferguson. Dr. Ferguson is the next to present his view of sanctification, a Reformed perspective on this doctrine.

It should not surprise anyone familiar with Sinclair Ferguson to know that his presentation is not polemical, but well-reasoned (polemics can be well-reasoned, but often aren’t) and interacts quite a bit with Scripture (not just tossing out a reference proof text). As a Reformed pastor, I have a strong affinity with this presentation. Since it pretty much represents my view (recognizing that in 20 pages you can’t say all there is to say about sanctification) I can see no weaknesses or faults to discredit this view. The other authors obviously pointed out some they perceived (and in some cases imagined).

“A necessary connection between biblical doctrine and holy living is fundamental to the biblical and apostolic way of thinking. That is why Scripture is so full of moral imperatives logically derived from doctrinal indicatives…”

Instead of starting with justification like Forde did, Ferguson starts with the profound and oft-neglected doctrine of union with Christ. As Christ is our justification, so He is our sanctification: thru our union with Him. United to Him in His death, burial and resurrection (though I could add more) we are justified and sanctified (the double blessing of union that Calvin notes).

“Christ himself is the only adequate resource we have for the development of sanctification in our own lives.”

He shares His resources with us. So, Ferguson notes that sanctification is neither accomplished by divine fiat or self-exertion. Christ has provided all we need, and by virtue of our gracious union with Christ we are able to draw on these resources. It is not like a Matrix download where Neo instantaneously gains skills. By faith we drawn His resources and trust His Spirit to work in us. We participate but are utterly dependent.

“Faith involves trusting in and resting on the resources of Christ as though they were our own.”

At this point Ferguson walks through Romans 6 to understand how our union with Christ effects our sanctification. In Christ we have died to sin (via His atoning death) and live to God (via the resurrection) which is the essence of our sanctification. Death to sin does not mean we don’t sin (see Romans 7) but our sin no longer condemns us (Romans 8:1). We are no longer under its authority. Our life is no longer determined by our past, but Christ’s past. The verdict has been passed and Christ’s vindication means we are alive to God, and live for God. Because we are united to Christ we are a new creation. We are no longer the old man in Adam but the new man in Christ. Sanctification can be understood not as getting used to our justification, but as growing into our new identity in Christ.

This new man encounters oppositions from the world, the flesh and the devil. Spiritual warfare, in Scripture, is about the struggle between them and the Spirit. They seek to undermine our new life in Christ like old drinking buddies. They use guilt, shame, temptation and more. This is the context of Paul’s statements on the subject in Ephesians 6. Our sanctification is not an easy thing but one met with great resistance: internal and external.

“All that is true for me in Christ has not yet been accomplished in me by the Spirit.”

This is close to Frame’s perspectivalism. Christ’s work for us has already taken place and I already benefit from it. I have imputed righteousness, for example. Christ’s work in my by the Spirit (and His work thru me by the Spirit) is not been fully applied. Some of it is not yet, or not completely. Imparted righteousness has begin but is not complete. It won’t be until glorification. Romans 7 and Galatians 5 are two places that introduces us to this painful tension we must live with and in.

One aspect of sanctification is called mortification, the putting to death of sin aka the practices of the old man in Adam (Ephesians 4; Colossians 3). This imperative follows the great indicative of our union with Christ. We begin to live in accordance with our new identity in Christ (called vivification which Ferguson does not explicitly mention). We do not work to earn a new status or identity in Christ. Christ is restoring His image in us by His sanctifying grace.

Ferguson then moves to discuss the means of grace essential to our sanctification. These do not merit grace, but are the ordinary means by which God gives us grace as we seek Him by faith. He mentions the Word, God’s providences (often affliction or prosperity which reveals our weaknesses and vulnerabilities as well as sins that need to be confessed), fellowship and the sacraments. You will notice much of this is found in the Church. The Church is one of Christ’s essential means of grace for our sanctification. There we hear the Word, receive the sacraments and enjoy fellowship (including rebuke and encouragement).

The controversial aspect to this is the Law and the Christian’s relationship to the Law as part of the Word. It should not be controversial in light of 2 Timothy 3’s view of Scripture. The third use of the law, as a guide for Christian living, is often accused of being legalistic. But we are not trying to establish or maintain our status through obedience. We have these by grace. The Law shows us what it looks like to live as the new man in love. We don’t say, as we are often accused of saying, that the Law has the power to sanctify us. The power comes through our union with Christ in the power of the Spirit through faith and love.

The Responses

Ferguson said very little about the Law (just about 1 page), but Forde sees this as overplaying the role of the law in our sanctification. He puts words in Ferguson’s mouth about the law “producing holiness.” He is allergic to the law and misinterprets Ferguson as a result. In some sense Forde underestimates the “already” aspects of our salvation such that we still interact with the law as if non-Christians. I can read the Law and say “this is who Christ is and who He wants me to be- help me to be like You.” Forde agrees with Ferguson’s description of sanctification (though it differs greatly from his own chapter) but faults him on implementation. Perhaps because there is so little implementation in Forde’s scheme (to borrow his phrase).

Wood, the Wesleyan perspective, agrees with much of what Ferguson says but claims that the intention of the heart is what is decisive. That is rather subjective in practice. He takes this to briefly introduce Wesleyan perfeectionism. It is not sinless perfectionism but we’ll get there next time.

Spittler calls himself a “Reformed Pentecostal” and sees much to affirm in Ferguson’s presentation. He would not share Ferguson’s high view of the sacraments. He also thinks there is too much focus on controlling behavior.

The Contemplative response, by Hinson notes that Ferguson makes too little of prayer in his discussion of the means. I suspect Ferguson would agree with this oversight. He then lapses into a great misunderstanding of the Puritans which seems to imply that Ferguson wants to coerce obedience from people, even non-Christians. I really didn’t follow this line of reasoning because it was quite irrational as well as historically inaccurate.

Bottom Line: Sanctification by being united to Christ and appropriated by the means of grace.

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Leaders made mistakes. Even pastors do. The good ones learn from their mistakes and the bad ones don’t. As a result, I’ve been reading Mistakes Leaders Make by Dave Kraft.

The first mistake Christian leaders can make is to allow ministry to replace Jesus. This is quite subtle. It is a question of identity and satisfaction. The identity and satisfaction of a Christian is intended to be Christ. But the pastor or Christian leader can, like other people, have them shift to the work we do. In this case that is ministry.

“Our identity in and intimacy with Jesus slowly dissipates, and over time, the ministry begins to occupy center stage in our affections, time, and focus.”

One of the contributors to this process can be ambition. Godly ambition is a good thing. But it can morph into selfish ambition and you don’t even realize.

Most pastors work long hours. They often feel the pressure for the church to grow. We have to invest ourselves intellectually, emotionally, financially and more. With that investment there can be that subtle shift into selfish ambition. We confuse our goals with God’s goals. Results become increasingly important. Our emotions begin to move up and down based on the numbers.

(more…)

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In the past year so there, a discussion (not a conversation!) has been going on about the nature of sanctification. Much of this as taken place on the internet, among people who are (or seem to be) friends or at least acquaintances. One of those men was Kevin DeYoung. He believed that he should write a book examining the Reformed Tradition’s view of sanctification. I, for one, is glad he did. The Hole in Our Holiness is that book.

Kevin avoids the temptation to write a polemic against other views. Instead, he is more positive approach, instructing people line upon line. He generally writes concisely, making the book accessible for lay people. He is not overly technical either. The most technical chapter is “Be Who You Are” because it covers our union in Christ. He does a good job explaining what it is, and how our sanctification flows out of that union.

DeYoung begins by addressing the odd gap that exists in broader Reformed circles. We speak much of being gospel-centered, but we don’t seem to be making as much progress in our sanctification as we would think. Isn’t the gospel sufficient? Yes, it is. And yet God has appointed various means of grace.

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No, I’m not talking about progressivism. I’m not talking about evolutionary progress. I’m not talking about the progress of civilization.

I’m talking about progress in sanctification. Sometimes we fall into the trap that it really isn’t possible. We see our sins more clearly and more abundantly than we did before. We seem mired in it.

In the final chapter of The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung address the very real possibility, and expectation, of progress. There is such a thing as hope and change, in the life of a Christian.

He starts in 1 Timothy 4:15. Shortly after his ordination, it clicked for him.

15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Paul wanted people to see Timothy’s progress, not just as a pastor but as a godly man. He was to practice “the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” But in verse 12 he’s told to “set the believers¬†an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” He was to be growing, making progress, in these things. This implies that while Timothy was godly, he was not perfect and could become more godly.

“Paul didn’t think “set an example” means “get everything right the first time.”

(more…)

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Kevin DeYoung continues with the general theme of our union with Christ in the 9th chapter of The Hole in Our Holiness. That union is the foundation of our communion with Christ. That communion with Christ is important to our growth in holiness.

Communion with Christ is only possible for those who are in Christ, or united with Christ. Communion, or fellowship, with Christ is our ultimate goal. All of the blessings of the gospel, including sanctification, come to us in Christ. We do not seek them, including holiness, apart from Christ. We seek them from Christ. All that you could ever seek, with the exception of sin, is to be found in Christ. Seeking them elsewhere is an exercise in futility.

“Just as a once-for-all, objective justification leads to a slow-growth, subjective sanctification, so our unchanging union with Christ leads us to an ever-increasing communion with Christ.”

DeYoung distinguishes between union and communion. They cannot be separated from one another, as if you have one without the other. But they are different. Our union with Christ is unbreakable. Our communion with Christ is subject to change depending on whether we are pursuing Him or sin at a given time. It is like marriage, he notes, we are in the state of marriage regardless of how we feel about each other at the moment. But the strength of our marriage is variable, depending on love and sacrifice. You are not more or less marriage. You either are or are not. But your marriage can be more or less healthy. Similarly, we are not more or less a Christian (union with Christ), but our relationship is more or less healthy (communion & sanctification).

“I don’t want to belabor the point, but it’s important we understand that communion with God is predicated on union with Christ and not the other way around.”

(more…)

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Nearly 2 years ago I preached on God as the Creator of time, and Lord over work and rest. He made us to work AND rest. There are limits to each.

One of the young moms, no doubt stressed by the realities of raising kids, asked me about how this applies to moms. I intended to think through this a bit more, and just got mired in other responsibilities. So, here are some thoughts about how moms can find the Sabbath a delight, and opportunity to rest from their ordinary labor.

It is more difficult when the location of your ordinary labor is where you live (working moms are a different matter, obviously). But even if you would outside the home, at home there are always things that need attention whether they are urgent or not.

Take the day off from cleaning the house. In most families, moms do most of that. I remember a time we were eating with my siblings and their spouses at my parents. After dinner, Mom got up and started clearing dishes. CavWife was shocked that no one stood up to help. Mom always did it (though one chore of mine for awhile was cleaning the dishes). Husbands or older children can step up on Sundays to give moms a break when it comes to the dishes. But lay aside the laundry, floors, dusting etc. The home will not fall apart prior to Monday. And if you find that you will go crazy if you won’t- then there is a deeper issue to address.

Go out for lunch, maybe. Some people are not comfortable with this due to their convictions about others working on Sunday. They are working whether you go out to eat or not. They are suffering the consequences of the worship of money and comfort. If your conscience won’t let you, don’t do it. But the restaurant workers won’t condemn you, and could use the tip money.

Eat leftovers. The big Sunday meal may be a great tradition to build memories and a special time to be together, but it puts an unfair burden on moms (unless you grab take out). But Sunday can be a great time to clear out the leftovers from the fridge, or at least eat something simple. Most dads or older kids can operate a microwave.

Allow Dad to cook! It could be a time when he cooks for the family. Homemade pizza, BBQ or some other dad specialty allows mom to get some much needed rest (imagine how less stressed, and irritable they’d be).

Take a nap. One of the benefits of having younger kids is nap time. It is often a great time to get stuff done. Most Sundays CavWife and I use that to enjoy some time together. Sometimes, it is a great time to catch a few winks after not sleeping well all week.

Enjoy some sex (with your spouse). You didn’t expect that, did you? In doing research for a sermon years ago on the Sabbath, I ran across the mention of the Jewish practice of Sabbath sex. The slower pace of the day should help you to enjoy some time together enjoying the marriage bed. We have some friends who really appreciated this suggestion.

Pursuing Christ through the means of grace. God mercifully gave us a whole day to pursue Him. It is about more than public worship, however. There should be family and even personal worship. Moms often have a hard time finding time to read their Bibles or other books, pray, sing, etc. I put this near the end because this is all some people think the Sabbath rest should be about. But the phrase is redundant- Sabbath means rest. As Christians we rest in Christ from our works. But Sunday is a great day to read things that will point you to Jesus and the sufficiency of His work for you. It is a great grow in grace kind of day.

Works of mercy. It could be as simple as inviting a lonely person over to help you with the leftovers. Or someone who is struggling financially. Simple works of mercy, like hospitality (you don’t need to do anything fancy) restore their souls, and yours.

Anyone have any other ideas for moms to enjoy some rest in accordance with God’s merciful law.

Update: Here is a good article by Dr. Bill Evans on the Sabbath principle.

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