That Rebel Self (Newton)

 John Newton knew what it meant to be a saint and a sinner at the same time.  Here’s part of a letter he wrote to a Christian friend in April 1776:

I do not ask you if you are always filled with sensible comfort; but do you find your spirit more bowed down at the feet and will of Jesus, so as to be willing to serve him for the sake of serving him, and to follow him, as we say, through thick and thin; to be willing to be anything or nothing, so that he may be glorified?

I could give you plenty of good advice upon this head [topic], but I am ashamed to do it, because I so poorly follow it myself.  I want to live with him by the day, to do all for him, to receive all from him, to possess all in him, to live all to him, to make him my hiding-place and my resting-place.  I want to deliver up that rebel Self to him in chains; but the rogue, like Proteus, puts on so many forms, that he slips through my fingers: but I think I know what I would do if I could fairly catch him.

My soul is like a besieged city: a legion of enemies without the gates, and a nest of restless traitors within that hold a correspondence with them without – so that I am deceived and counteracted continually… Indeed it is a miracle that I still hold out.  I trust, however, I shall be supported to the end, and that my Lord will at length raise the siege, and cause me to shout deliverance and victory.

John Newton, Wise Counsel, p. 87-88.

Shane Lems

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Affliction, Purpose, and Mercy (Bruce)

 I’m enjoying this book of Robert Bruce’s sermons on Isaiah 38 (Hezekiah’s sickness and recovery).  In his first sermon, Bruce explained how the suffering of God’s people is not exactly the same as the suffering of those who are not God’s people.  Here’s what he wrote:

[Hezekiah’s story] teaches us not to measure the favor or displeasure of God by any external event here on earth.  For if we consider some visitation of God upon his child, if we dwell on the nature of the plague or affliction, both its quality and quantity, if we look to the lengthy duration of the plague, in the opinion of onlookers and of the person who is afflicted, after some time he will begin to think he is in a worse case than any of the reprobate.

But however it may be regarded in the heart and judgment of man, it is far otherwise in the judgment and heart of God.  For hidden in the heart of God concerning those who are his children is one purpose, but a very different purpose concerning the reprobate.  I will explain: when the affliction is common to us and to them, the cause for the affliction is by no means the same, neither is God’s purpose the same.  As to the godly, our affliction flows from the favor, love, and mercy of God in Christ Jesus and is directed towards our great profit and advantage, that is, that we being corrected here may not perish in eternity along with the wicked of this world.

On the other hand, the affliction visited on the reprobate flows from the burning wrath and indignation of God, as from the righteous judge; for he is initiating the punishment in this life that will continue for all eternity.

Therefore, as affliction to the ungodly is the harbinger of divine judgment, for those who love him it is a merciful correction.

Robert Bruce, The Way to True Peace and Rest, p.3-4.

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

Suffering and One Foot In Front of the Other

 For those of you who know what it means to go through a very hard trial, you probably understand sayings like this: “One day at a time,” and “I’m just putting one foot in front of the other.”  Trials and suffering are the mud and muck of life that slow you down, trip you up, and clog up your daily activities.  Everything slows down and you just have to focus on taking one more step ahead.

Maybe you could set a state record for hospital visits in one month; maybe you have a pounding headache from trying to sort out medical bills, or maybe you’re praying that God would keep your husband’s suffering down (if it’s His will).  Perhaps you’re dreading the next IV or worrying that your recent blood test will have bad results.  Sometimes you’re simply praying for a few hours of sleep and relief.  It’s just one day at a time!  I like how Tim Keller speaks of walking with God through trials:

“Walking with God through suffering means treating God as God and as there, as present.  Walking is something non-dramatic, rhythmic – it consists of steady, repeated actions you can keep up in a sustained way for a long time.  God did not tell Abraham in Genesis 17:1 to ‘somersault before me’ or even ‘run before me’ because no one can keep such behavior up day in and day out.  There are many people who think of spiritual growth as something like high diving.  They say, ‘I am going to give my life to the Lord! I am going to change all these terrible habits, and I am really going to transform! Give me another six months, and I am going to be a new man or new woman.’ That is not what a walk is.  A walk is day in and day out obeying, talking to Christian friends, and going to corporate worship, committing yourself to and fully participating in the life of the church.  It is rhythmic, on and on and on.  To walk with God is a metaphor that symbolizes slow and steady progress.

…Walking with God through suffering means that, in general, you will not experience some kind of instant deliverance from your questions, your sorrow, your fears.  There can be, as we shall see, times in which you receive a surprising, in explicable ‘peace that passes understanding.’  There will be days in which some new insight comes to you like a ray of light in a dark room.  There will certainly be progress – that is part of the metaphor of walking – but in general it will be slow and steady progress that comes only if you stick to the regular, daily activities of the walking itself.  ‘The path of the righteous is like the [earliest] morning sun, shining ever brighter till the light of full day’ (Prov. 4:18).

Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, p. 236-7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Not Trusting My Own Merits (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.)  Those whom God justifies he also sanctifies.  These two truths are twin truths.  Where one is the other will also be.  We don’t want to separate justification and sanctification.  On the other hand, we don’t want to mix them together.  We need to make a proper biblical distinction between the two or we mess up the gospel of grace.  John Calvin understood this and explained it well more than a few times.  Here’s one instance from his tract called “On the True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church.”  (Note that “regeneration” in this context is broadly defined and means renewal and sanctification.)

Let the children of God consider that regeneration is necessary to them, but that, nevertheless, their full righteousness consists in Christ:

—let them understand that they have been ordained and created unto holiness of life and the study of good works, but that, nevertheless, they must recline on the merits of Christ with their whole soul;

—let them enjoy the righteousness of life which has been bestowed upon them, still, however, distrusting it so as not to bring before the tribunal of God any other trust than trust in the obedience of Christ.

 John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851), 246.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Righteous in Christ, Not Ourselves (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.) In volume 3 of Tracts and Treatises you can find Calvin’s 1547 critical commentary on the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent.  It’s an excellent resource that not only sheds theological light on the central aspects of the Reformation, it’s also a wonderful and edifying defense of the solas and the doctrines of grace.  Here are some of Calvin’s helpful comments on the distinction between justification and sanctification:

It is not to be denied, however, that the two things, Justification and Sanctification, are constantly conjoined and cohere; but from this it is erroneously inferred that they are one and the same. For example: The light of the sun, though never unaccompanied with heat, is not to be considered heat. Where is the man so undiscerning as not to distinguish the one from the other? We acknowledge, then, that as soon as any one is justified, renewal also necessarily follows: and there is no dispute as to whether or not Christ sanctifies all whom he justifies. It were to rend the gospel, and divide Christ himself, to attempt to separate the righteousness which we obtain by faith from repentance.

The whole dispute is as to The Cause of Justification. The Fathers of Trent pretend that it is twofold, as if we were justified partly by forgiveness of sins and partly by spiritual regeneration; or, to express their view in other words, as if our righteousness were composed partly of imputation, partly of quality.

I maintain that it is one, and simple, and is wholly included in the gratuitous acceptance of God. I besides hold that it is without us [outside of us], because we are righteous in Christ only. Let them produce evidence from Scripture, if they have any, to convince us of their doctrine. I, while I have the whole Scripture supporting me, will now be satisfied with this one reason, viz., that when mention is made of the righteousness of works, the law and the gospel place it [righteousness of works] in the perfect obedience of the law; and as that nowhere appears, they leave us no alternative but to flee to Christ alone, that we may be regarded as righteous in him, not being so in ourselves. Will they produce to us one passage which declares that begun newness of life is approved by God as righteousness either in whole or in part? But if they are devoid of authority, why may we not be permitted to repudiate the figment of partial justification which they here obtrude [impose]?

…I, on the contrary, while I admit that we are never received into the favour of God without being at the same time regenerated to holiness of life, contend that it is false to say that any part of righteousness (justification) consists in quality, or in the habit which resides in us, and that we are righteous (justified) only by gratuitous acceptance. For when the Apostle teaches that “by the obedience of one many were made righteous,” (Rom. 6:19,) he sufficiently shews, if I mistake not, that the righteousness wanting in ourselves is borrowed elsewhere. …For however small the portion attributed to our work, to that extent faith will waver, and our whole salvation be endangered.

 John Calvin and Hendry Beveridge, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851), 115–116.

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

The Workings of our Remaining Sinful Nature

51Wtr7fGObL._SX358_BO1,204,203,200_ Those who have true faith have truly been given new life in Christ.  If a person believes in Christ, he or she has been “born of God” (1 John 5:1).  Regeneration means that someone who was dead in sin is now alive in Christ (Eph. 2:4-5).  However, new birth (regeneration) does not mean that the old sinful nature is completely gone.  True believers still struggle with indwelling sin (Gal. 5:17).  As Luther rightly said, the Christian is a saint and a sinner at the same time.

This means that when we stumble into sin, we can’t simply blame the devil or the world.  The devil can mess with us and the world can entice us, but we sin because we still have the “old man” in us, the “flesh.”  So how does this “old man” function in us?  W. Brakel (d. 1711) explained this well in his discussion on sanctification.  I’ll summarize it below:

  1. Sometimes the old nature stirs us up to sin by violent assaults.  The lusts are so agitated and are stirring so vehemently that there is no time to think upon the fear of God. Even if the fear of the Lord is present, the lust is so strong and forceful that any good inclinations are quickly extinguished.
  2. Sometimes the old nature seeks some rest and relaxation.  He begins to think upon natural things and the lusts of the flesh begin to stir, and the thoughts pertaining to natural things become sinful.  His mind wanders and he lusts, covets, or becomes proud.  He falls into more sin as the moment permits, or even to the degree he never thought himself capable of.
  3. Sometimes the old nature gains strength due to recklessness.  He puts himself into situations he knows will ensnare him, but he does it anyway.  The sin at hand gains the upper hand.  Contact with grease cannot but leave a stain (vetjes maken smetjes).
  4. The old sinful nature also is engaged in keeping us from doing good.  A) He makes us think there is no time to pray, read Scripture, sing, or meditate upon the word.  B) He makes us procrastinate and say we will do godly things later.  C) He makes us believe that doing good is too difficult and impossible to do.  D) He makes us think that doing good is in vain because God is not paying attention and it will not benefit us. E) He makes us compromisers by saying the path is not as narrow as we think.
  5. The old sinful nature also wants to keep us from doing good so he attempts to spoil that which is good.  A) He makes our thoughts wander.  B) He distracts us by making us think about a good thing that isn’t applicable to the situation. C) He causes us to be proud of doing good, and the purity of the duty is contaminated.  D) He causes us to think we do not have the Spirit.  E) His atheism and unbelief surface and it ruins the good with evil.

Why is this important?  For one thing, it helps us as Christians to know ourselves.  We can’t point fingers and blame others for our sinful words, thoughts, and actions (Ps. 51:3-4).  It also keeps us truly humble to know we still have the old man of sin dwelling in us.  It helps us stay near the cross, where we receive continual cleansing from Jesus’ blood.  It makes us constantly confess our sins to God.  It makes us all the more dependent upon the Holy Spirit to give the new man strength in the battle.  It teaches us that God gets all the credit for any good in us or anything good we do in his sight.  Realizing that our old man remains in us also makes us long for heaven, when sanctification will be complete and we will be fully delivered from our remaining sinful flesh.  And the list goes on.  Paul put it this way: What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body?  I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom 7:24-25 HCSB).

The above edited and summarized quote is found in volume three of Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, p. 9-11.

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

Talking To A Fellow Christian About His or Her Sin (Welch)

Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love Christians are not loners who plow through life by themselves – at least they shouldn’t go it alone!  Since we believe in the fellowship of the saints, there are times when one Christian has to talk to another Christian about his or her sin.  If it is done out of love, if it follows biblical patterns (e.g. Mt. 18), and if it is aimed at repentance, restoration, and spiritual growth, talking to a fellow Christian about sin is a blessing.  It’s not easy and it does sometimes sting, but it is a good thing!  Here is some advice from Ed Welch on talking to a fellow Christian about his or her sin.  He says we need to do so with humility and patience:

Humility means that we already see our sins as worse than others’ sins, so we have no reason to defend ourselves when someone points out our sin (Mt. 7:2-5).  This does not mean that we must publicly identify our own sins before we talk about sins in others.  It means that we live as redeemed tax collectors (Luke 18:9-14) who have no confidence in our own righteousness but live because of God’s lavish forgiveness and grace.

Welch is exactly right.  If we have any sort of arrogance or pride when we confront a brother or sister about their sin, the discussion will usually go downhill rather quickly.  Have you ever had an arrogant person point out your flaws or shortcomings?  It’s not easy to hear since it sounds like what it is: someone who thinks he’s better than you reminding you that you’re beneath him.  Here’s Welch again:

“Patience is humility’s partner.  It is one of the identified fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), and it is a central feature of love (1 Cor. 13:4), so it is essential to our ability to be helpful.  It means that the one we are speaking with is like us – he does not respond perfectly, he changes slowly, and he needs a patient helper.  …Patience is interested in what direction people face.  Do they face toward Jesus?  Patience is more interested in direction and less interested in how fast people are changing.

Again, this is helpful.  Sometimes iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17) takes more than a few days!  In other words, sanctification doesn’t happen overnight.  Sometimes God works slowly in a person’s heart and mind, so we need to be patient with God’s timing.  Granted, there are exceptions to this (if someone is physically in danger, for one example), but generally it is very wise to be patient as we talk to another Christian about his or her sin.  God is patient with us, so of course, we should be patient with one another!

The above quotes are from chapter 15 of Side By Side.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI