Oh This Heart of Stone! (Newton)

John Newton portrait

The kind folks at “The John Newton Project” recently sent me a sample of some of the work that they’ve been doing: transcribing Newton’s handwritten diaries for publication. I’ve been blessed and encouraged by Newton’s other writings, and so far these diaries have also been wonderful to read. You can learn more at “www.johnnewton.org“.

This morning I was reading an excerpt of Newton’s diary from February 16, 1755. The week before he had heard a comforting sermon on how God will not cast his people away. In this diary entry Newton was reflecting on that sermon from and also talking about the coldness in his own faith – something that he often struggled with. Notice how Newton ended this entry: a prayer for God’s blessing and presence in public worship. Here’s the excerpt:

His [the preacher’s] application was very suitable, both for comfort and advice – but I think for a great while past I have not been more trifling and dead, in the Lord’s house and on the Lord’s Sabbath, than I was all that day. Though my mind was several times strongly impressed with the thought I was in God’s immediate service, and presence, yet I could not command my attention, much less raise my affections, either in prayer or hearing – so that my frailty greatly disappointed what was I hope the chief end of my journey, an expected opportunity of drawing nearer to God.

The rest of the week has been too much of a piece with the poor beginning – very little of the presence of God either in my duties or conversation – consequently little life, spirit or diligence in either. I know nothing that I have said or done for the glory of God or the good of my fellow creatures; surely I dare not say no opportunities have offered of either kind, had I been solicitous to improve them – too often I have been hasty and wishing, diffident of Providence, and disposed to resume a concern for those affairs, which I but very lately committed so solemnly into the Lord’s hands. I have greatly wasted time, and given in to unnecessary and unsuitable indulgence.

Alas my weakness! O this heart of stone, this cold, formal, sensual, deceitful, unbelieving heart. Surely all the dark part of the 7th [chapter] of Romans belongs in an eminent manner to me. And if notwithstanding all my vileness I have any interest in the beginning and the close of it, what a wonderful instance am I, both of the riches and the freedom of Grace. Lord thou canst and hast promised thou wilt bring good out of evil; grant that these my continual infirmities and sins, may render me lowly in my own eyes, and endear more and more unto my soul that glorious truth that Christ is made sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Lord increase my faith and bless me with a renewed pardon of all my past follies, and grant that I may see thy power and glory in the sanctuary tomorrow.

John Newton, February 16, 1755. From “The John Newton Project.”

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Gospel is Sprinkled Throughout Scripture (Melanchthon)

Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici (Fundamental Theological Themes) was published early on in the Reformation – in 1521 when Melanchthon was only 24 years old. Melanchthon’s Loci is something of a summary of the main Christian themes in Scripture. Martin Luther hailed the Loci more than once and said it should be included in the canon of the church – that is, in the church’s essential theological books. To be sure, it is an excellent piece of Reformation literature that is well worth reading. Below is a section I ran across this morning which I thought was quite helpful:

 So far do I write on the promises [of God], all of which ought to be related to that first one which was made to Eve. It signified to Adam and Eve that sin, and death, the penalty of that sin, would at some time be abolished, namely, when the progeny of Eve should bruise the head of that serpent. For what do the head of the serpent and its cunning signify but the kingdom of sin and death?

If you should relate all promises to this one, you will see that the gospel is sprinkled throughout the whole of Scripture in a remarkable way; and the gospel is simply the preaching of grace or the forgiveness of sins through Christ. And yet as I said a little while ago, all promises, even those of temporal things, are testimonies of the goodwill or the mercy of God; he who trusts in them is righteous because he thinks well of God and has given praise to him for his kindness and goodness.

He who hears the threats and acknowledges the history does not yet believe every word of God; but he does who, in addition to the threats and the history, believes also the promises. It is not merely a matter of believing the history about Christ; this is what the godless do. What matters is to believe why he took on flesh, why he was crucified, and why he came back to life after his death; the reason, of course, is that he might justify as many as would believe on him. If you believe that these things have been done for your good and for the sake of saving you, you have a blessed belief.

Philip Melanchthon, Loci Communes “Justification and Faith” in Melanchthon and Bucer, p. 104-105.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Justifying Faith: Receiving Christ (Owen)

When the Westminster Confession explains justifying faith, it uses the term “receiving.”  Here’s chapter XI.2: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification…” (emphasis mine).  The Heidelberg Catechism also uses this word in answer 30: “For either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior must have in him all that is necessary to their salvation” (emphasis mine).  Are there biblical reasons to use the phrase “receiving Christ” when talking about faith?  Yes, for sure!  Here’s how John Owen nicely explained it:

That faith whereby we are justified is most frequently in the New Testament expressed by receiving…  First, That it is so expressed with respect unto the whole object of faith, or unto all that does any way concur unto our justification; for we are said to receive Christ himself: “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God,” John 1:12; “As ye have received Christ Jesus the Lord,” Col. 2:6.  In opposition hereunto unbelief is expressed by not receiving of him, John 1:11, 3:11, 12:48, 14:17.

And it is a receiving of Christ as he is “The Lord our Righteousness,” as of God he is made righteousness unto us. And as no grace, no duty, can have any co-operation with faith herein — this reception of Christ not belonging unto their nature, nor comprised in their exercise — so it excludes any other righteousness from our justification but that of Christ alone; for we are “justified by faith.”

Faith alone receiveth Christ; and what it receives is the cause of our justification, whereon we become the sons of God. So we “receive the atonement” made by the blood of Christ, Rom. 5:11; for “God hath set him forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” And this receiving of the atonement includes the soul’s approbation of the way of salvation by the blood of Christ, and the appropriation of the atonement made thereby unto our own souls. For thereby also we receive the forgiveness of sins: “That they may receive forgiveness of sins …… by faith that is in me,” Acts 26:18. In receiving Christ we receive the atonement; and in the atonement we receive the forgiveness of sins. But, moreover, the grace of God, and righteousness itself, as the efficient and material cause of our justification, are received also; even the “abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness,” Rom. 5:17.

So that faith, with respect unto all the causes of justification, is expressed by “receiving;” for it also receiveth the promise, the instrumental cause on the part of God thereof, Acts 2:41; Heb. 9:15.

John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 5 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 291–292.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The “Old Mire” of Works-Righteousness (Luther)

  Although I appreciate almost any sermon by Martin Luther, there are some that brilliantly stand out to me. One of those is a sermon called “Concerning the Sum of the Christian Life.”  It’s a sermon on 1 Timothy 1:5-7:  “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions” (NASB).

At one point in the sermon when Luther was discussing “sincere faith” he contrasted faith in Christ to works of the law.  The law, he wrote, drags us to the judgment seat of God, shows all the ways we’ve disobeyed, and calls down the sentence of the Judge.  The gospel, however, is the fact that Christ is our mercy seat, and through faith alone in him alone, we find forgiveness and the favor of God.  Luther said that even though we might understand this reality, it’s very difficult to let go of the law and our works in order to hold only to Christ for acceptance and peace with God.  Here’s how he explained it:

Let him that will, try and enter upon the beginning of this matter, and he shall soon see and experience, how hard and difficult a matter it is for a man who has passed all his life in works of great holiness, to leave the whole and cleave with his whole heart through faith unto this Mediator only.

I myself have now preached the Gospel for nearly twenty years, and have assiduously devoted myself to reading and writing upon faith, and may justly seem to have emerged from this false opinion. Yet even now, at times, I feel that old mire sticking to my heart; under the influence of which, I would willingly so act towards God, as to take a something with me in my hand to him, for the sake of which he should give me grace according to my righteousness. And scarcely can I be brought to commit myself with all confidence to mere grace only. And yet it must be so, and cannot be otherwise. The mercy-seat must stand and prevail alone (seeing that he has set himself before us as the only refuge) or no one shall ever be saved.

…And I have no other consolation, no other help or hope of salvation, than that Christ my mercy-seat, who never sinned, who never was defiled with iniquity, who died for me and rose again, now sits at the right hand of the Father, covers me with the overshadowing wings of his protection; so that I doubt not, that through his benefits and intercession, I am safe before God, and delivered from all wrath and terror of judgment. Thus, faith sets nothing before itself to trust in rashly, but remains pure in all things by resting in Christ alone.

 Martin Luther, “Sermon VIII: Concerning the Sum of the Christian Life,” in Select Works of Martin Luther: An Offering to the Church of God in “The Last Days,” trans. Henry Cole, vol. I (London: T. Bensley, 1826), 542.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

I’ll Keep On by NF (Music Monday)

I'll Keep On [feat. Jeremiah Carlson]  I realize that rap or hip-hop is not everyone’s favorite music genre or style. And, of course, some rap and hip-hop songs are explicit, downright filthy, and not for Christian ears.  But I really enjoy this style of music when it steers clear of the filth and explicit themes.  Unlike some other music, rap/hip-hop can say so much with just a few phrases.  In good rap and hip hop, there are typically no wasted words or lines.  Good rap is often deep and thoughtful.  It makes me think hard and it gets to my heart.  (It’s just the opposite of those annoying pop choruses that drive us crazy when they get stuck on ‘repeat’ in our heads!)

One of my favorite rap artists is NF (Nathan Feuerstein).  NF has a handful of albums out which are all full of high-quality music and intense, profound, and moving lyrics.  (As a side, I let my teenage sons listen to NF, and they really enjoy it.)  For this edition of “Music Monday” I’d like to point out one of my favorite songs by NF: “I’ll Keep On.”  This song is found on his album called Mansion.  Notice the honesty, the confession of weakness and sin, and the Augustinian theme that our hearts are restless until they find rest in God.

…Faith is something I am not accustomed to
And trusting other people’s something I don’t really love to do
I’ve never been a fan of it, I act tougher
Really my shoulders they ain’t built for this
And I don’t have nothing

It’s like I’m standing in the rain and you offer me a raincoat
But I would rather stand there and get wet than take the handout
What’s wrong with me? You said you’ve always got your hands out
And I cannot continue on my own, so take my hands now

I give you everything, God, not just a little bit
Take it from me, I am nothing but a hypocrite
I hate sin, but I built a house and I still live in it
Afraid to open up the door to You and let You into it
My soul is lost and what it needs is Your direction
I know, I’ve told You I do not need Your protection
But I lied to You, this thing is tiring
And man was not created for it,
God, please retire me now!

Oh these hands are tired
Oh this heart is tired
Oh this soul is tired
But I’ll keep on
I’ll keep on…

Trust is something I am not accustomed to
And I know the Bible says that I should always trust in You
But, I don’t ever read that book enough
And when I have a question I don’t take the time to look it up
Or pick it up
It collects dust on my nightstand
I’m just being honest
Please take this out of my hands
I have no control – I am just a person

But thank the Lord that I serve a God who’s perfect
I do not deserve the opportunity You’ve given me
I never knew what freedom was until I learned what prison means
I am not ashamed, I don’t care if they remember me
My life will always have a hole if You are not the centerpiece
Take me out of bondage, take all of my pride
If I don’t have a Savior, I don’t have nothing inside
Take all of my lust, take all of my lies
There’s no better feeling than when I look in the sky, in Your eyes,
it’s amazing!

Oh these hands are tired
Oh this heart is tired
Oh this soul is tired
But I’ll keep on
I’ll keep on…

NF, “I’ll Keep On”, from the album Mansion.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015