Posts Tagged ‘sufficiency of Christ’

I’m getting older.

Last week I sat at a funeral and pondered the fact that soon we’ll begin burying our parents. I’m on high blood pressure medicine and trying to avoid medicine for cholesterol. The finish line of retirement is getting too close and I don’t have money to retire. I’m close to being too old to change congregations as a pastor. Windows are closing on me. I’m dealing with the fading of the flesh.

I want to see the flourishing of faith in my life. I want the renewal of the inner man as the outer man fades away.

What better book to read on vacation than The Fading of the Flesh and the Flourishing of Faith by George Swinnock. I own the Works of Swinnock, a Puritan, and have read his material on prayer. This is a short reproduction by Reformation Heritage Books.

I didn’t finish it on vacation and it got bogged down in my post-vacation reading surge for a short topical sermon series. But I got through it.

Don’t let that dissuade you from reading the book. That was a me thing, not a it thing.

The basis of this book was a funeral sermon that Swinnock preached. It would be interesting to know how much of this was the sermon, since it is about 170 pages. I usually try to preach a homily, what I call sermons of about 20 minutes or less. CavWife jokes that 20-30 becomes the sermomily and over 30 is a full-blown sermon. This easily could have been one long funeral sermon.

It is broken into two main ideas, as indicated by the title. He wants people to face the futility of life and the “treasures” it offers. He calls people to seek their satisfaction in God as their portion. This is an exposition of Psalm 73:26. Much of it seems to be taken up with the negative, but he keeps coming back to what Piper would call Christian Hedonism in the 1980’s.

26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

There are chapter titles like: Man’s Flesh will Fail Him, The Folly of Living for the Flesh, Be Prepared to Die, How to Be Prepared to Die. As I said the futility of living for the flesh. Sowing there we will reap nothing by misery & condemnation.

Beginning chapter 9 the focus shifts to: God Is Man’s True Happiness, God Alone Is Sufficient to Man’s Soul, Portion of Sinners and Saints in the World to Come.

The chapters are relatively short allowing for devotional reading. You can work through the book as time permits. If you are like me, you hate stopping mid-chapter. You don’t need a big chunk of time to work through a chapter.

Who cares if it isn’t worth reading? It is worth reading. Even as a Christian for over 30 years, living for the flesh is always an ever-present danger. It changes over time and as you age. You can be preoccupied with health (I joke with some retired folks that going to the doctor is their new job), or retirement or “legacy”. The world still offers distractions from Christ.

We still need reminders of the sufficiency and supremacy of Christ as our portion. This book presses that home in a variety of ways.

I had a few minor quibbles. For instance, Swinnock is critical of Naboth for wanting to hang on to his inheritance. He seemed to take that out of its historical context in which that was part of the portion God provided. The villains of the story are Ahab and Jezebel who coveted his inheritance for themselves and destroyed him as a result. The walk away for that text is not that Naboth should have treasured God and sold his inheritance.

This is a book worth reading to reorient yourself as your flesh fades so God will be the portion you seek.

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In preparing for my sermon on Sunday I re-read Jonathan Edwards’ discourse “Men are Naturally God’s Enemy”. Nestled in there was the following:

“All the sin that men commit, is what they do in the service of their idols: there is no one act of sin, but what is an act of service to some false god. And therefore wherein soever God opposes sin in them, his is opposite to their worship of idols: on which account they are his enemies. God opposes them in their service of their idols.”

Idols are our functional saviors, what we use to supplement (or replace) the living and true God. We use them to “save” us from the realities of life in a fallen world. They offer pleasure, distraction, hope and other benefits. Not that they can deliver. But we rely on them, and their false promises, anyway.

As Tim Keller notes, these idols are often good things. We aren’t talking about little statues we bow down to each morning. But they function as gods in our lives. They have our allegiance. We rest our sense of security on them. This we do because, as John Calvin noted, our hearts are factories of idols. Not that we create idols, but turn good things into idols. The problem is not “out there”, but “in here”.

As I lay in bed, wishing I was asleep, I was struck by the fact that our most common idols are found in the first few chapters of Genesis. Sure, there are modern ones like fancy sports cars (or luxury sedans or…), all things Apple, and other inventions. Or science, many bow down there accepting whatever science says (this week) without recognizing that scientists are finite, sinners with (often ungodly) presuppositions instead of purely objective thinkers and observers. But most of our idols have been there from the beginning. As a result, they go unnoticed by most people.

In one of the books I’ve read (it’s been a few years and my aging mind can’t remember which one and I don’t have the free time to chase it down), the author tells of a person from India coming to the States. Now, when people from the States go to India they are struck by the sheer number of little idols, statues to gods, that are seemingly everywhere. Yet, this person arrived on our shores aghast at all of our idols! It is always easier to see other people’s idols. Just like it is easier to see their splinter while not noticing the log in your eye.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis 1 (ESV)

We see here a number of idols, or functional saviors, that enslave people. I guess I could start with religion. I’m not talking faith in the God of the Bible, but that tendency toward ritual and legalism that provide us with a false sense of assurance. But I won’t.

Marriage is a frequent idol for people. They think it a refuge from loneliness, economic insecurity and hopelessness. Many single people think life would be tolerable if only they were married. Many married people live in fear of their marriage ending and don’t take the necessary steps to make that relationship healthier and godly. They so need the approval of their spouse they never say ‘no’ and live in misery because they fear a greater misery.

Connected to marriage by God, but disconnected by humanity, is sex. We live in a society of sex addicts, or idolators. Sex offers them, they think, enough pleasure to overcome the pain and boredom of life that they become enslaved. They think it offers intimacy, but forsake its intended intimacy through objectification of various kinds. It often destroys the relationships we so desperately want.

Also connect to marriage by God, and increasingly disconnected by people, is children. Many seek love from (rather than giving love to) children. They seek immortality through their children. They seek to fulfill their own failed goals through their children. Many people place intolerable burdens on their children, destroying them as a result.

We also find control. We are to subdue and rule creation- under God’s authority. But we try to play God and make everything bend to our authority. We crave control, fearing we are not sufficient to meet the challenges of unexpected events or circumstances. It destroys relationships like acid (then we wonder why the person left even as we try to manipulate them back into the relationship).

We also make a god of creation. Our idol factory hearts twist stewardship of creation into environmentalism so that the environment and/or animals become more important than people made in God’s image. People begin to sacrifice real and potential relationships on the altar of being green. They look to their pets to fill the black hole in their hearts that crave unconditional love. We should care for the environment and animals, including pets, but many give them ultimate status in their universe.

Work is another functional savior for people. (For others the avoidance of work is their idol). They seek to be utterly independent, secure and safe thru their work. It provides an ultimate meaning for them that only God is intended to have. They turn the image of God in on itself. God works, and calls us to work. It is the ordinary means of providing our needs. But in God’s providence, at times we endure hardship that we might be humble and experience grace and compassion so we will be ready to extend grace and compassion.

“A true hope looks forward to the obtaining of happiness in no other way but the way of the gospel, which is by a holy Savior, and in a way of cleaving to and following him.” Jonathan Edwards in Charity and Its Fruits

All of these things, as God gave them to us, is good! But we ceaselessly give them more importance than intended. We use them in the place of God to provide us with satisfaction, security, pleasure and even salvation. All that we have turned into functional saviors can only be returned to their rightful place as we seek all our significance, meaning, security and satisfaction from Christ. This only happens as we see the the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ as Creator and Redeemer. As Jonathan Edwards argues, only when we see Christ as sufficient to bestow all the happiness we need, will we forsake other means to secure earthly happiness.

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Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Way back in 1517, Luther attacked the use of indulgences by the Church of Rome.  They were used to provide a false hope, and a steady flow of cash for Papal building projects.  The Reformation was born.

Many, Cavman included, think we need a new (or renewed) Reformation since the doctrine of justification by faith alone as fallen on hard times in evangelical circles.  People have once again put sanctification prior to justification, just in a different form than Rome did.

But the Church of Rome has made a change that was not expected by many people.  Indulgences are back.  Yes, like the Terminator they have returned, and that is not a good thing either.

“Why are we bringing it back?” asked Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who has embraced the move. “Because there is sin in the world.”

Like the Latin Mass and meatless Fridays, the indulgence was one of the traditions decoupled from mainstream Catholic practice in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council, the gathering of bishops that set a new tone of simplicity and informality for the church.


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