Anticipation, Part 2: Confess & Repent (Matthew 3:1-12)

It’s often been said that to succeed in this world, we need to have the heart of a child and the skin of a rhinoceros. In other words, we need to be tough and tender at the same time—tough enough on the outside to take the hits of this life when they come, and tender enough on the inside to be kind and compassionate toward other people who are likewise taking hits. 

Unfortunately, in this broken world of ours, we sometimes get these two things backwards. We wind up developing the skin of a child and the heart of a rhinoceros. That is, we get touchy and sensitive on the outside, and we get jaded and cynical on the inside. But when our hearts grow cold, we block the work that God wants to do in our lives.

Jesus spoke on more than one occasion of a condition he called sclero cardia—“hardness of the heart”—a condition for which spiritual surgery is required. This passage is about that surgery. John the Baptist prepares the way for Messiah by getting people’s hearts ready to welcome and receive Jesus. His call is for believers to open their hearts, humble their hearts, and surrender their hearts to God. These heart movements involve the spiritual practices of confession and repentance, along with the humility that comes with public baptism.

While these disciplines can be challenging at times, they ultimately lead to liberation. Before we sin, Satan lies to us, trying to convince us that there will be no consequences if we give into the temptation. After we sin, Satan lies to us again, trying us to convince us that our sin is unforgiveable. The practice of confession and repentance enable us to neutralize his lies, for “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

In the end, God wants your heart to be like a hay-filled manger—soft and ready for Jesus. Otherwise, you will miss all that God wants to do in your life.

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Anticipation, Part 1: Watch & Wait (Matthew 24:36-44)

The overarching theme of Advent is the coming of Jesus Christ, both in the manger of Bethlehem at his first coming, and in the clouds of glory at his second coming. That’s why the traditional lectionary readings of the season can feel joltingly at odds with our quaint Christmastime expectations. As one devotional writer puts it, “Rather than holly and candlelight, we read of end-times horrors. Instead of rejoicing angels, we begin with a prophet calling loudly for repentance. These passages shock us out of our cozy mindset to remind us that Jesus is the Mighty God.”

Indeed, the Savior whose birth we are preparing to celebrate is the very Son of Man who will one day return at the end of the age in power and great glory. In his famous Olivet Discourse, Jesus reminds his people he will come to earth again one day (Matthew 24:36-41). It will be a secret day—because only the Father knows when it will take place (v. 36). It will be a surprising day—because everything in life will be unfolding as it usually does (vv. 37-39). It will be a separating day—because some will be taken, and some will be left (vv. 40-41).

Jesus then instructs his followers on how to stay prepared for his return (Matthew 24:42-44). They are to be watchful—as a person deeply longing to reconnect with a loved one (v. 42). They are to be diligent—as homeowners working to protect what is most valuable to them (v. 43). They are to be ready—as a servant who would be unashamed by his master’s surprise return (v. 44). In short, God’s people don’t just wait for Christ’s return, they prepare for it. That’s because the child in the manger is actually the Mighty God whose kingdom will never end.

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Avoiding the Desert (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)

In John 8 we read the famous story of the woman caught in the act of adultery—a story so famous that even those who know little about the Bible know that one. They even quote it sometimes because it contains one of the best zingers of all time. Jesus said, “Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” With that, the would-be executioners drop their stones and leave, oldest to the youngest.

Jesus—the only person in history who by that criteria had the moral authority to execute the woman—chose not to do so. Instead, he allowed himself to be executed for her when he went to the cross on her behalf. He took her place, and ours, as well. No wonder the hymn writer said, “Amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree.” Quite significantly, the last thing Jesus said to the woman in this encounter was, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus says the same thing to people today, “Go and sin no more.” 

Unfortunately, many believers take that statement to be a suggestion rather than a command. They regard it as helpful advice rather than holy admonition, which is dangerous. Perhaps we think to ourselves, “Grace is so amazing, once I receive it, nothing else matters. God will keep loving me, forgiving me, and regarding me as his child.” Whatever truth there may be to such notions, that’s not how the child of God thinks! The Christian life is not a moral free-for-all. Jesus was tortured and executed for sin; that’s why we no longer play around with it. Jesus still says to the rescued child of God, “Go and sin no more.”

Could it be, then, that some believers have misunderstood grace? Could it be we’ve forgotten that “belief behaves”? Grace is not only God’s unmerited favor toward his people, it is also a power from God that enables them to live a godly life. The Apostle Paul writes, “For the grace of God that brings salvation…teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-12). So, grace is not some coupon we can cash in to sin at a reduced rate of consequences.

Having expounded upon the grace of God in Christ, Paul anticipates an important question in Romans 6:1-2: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Or again, Jude 1:4 says, “[It is] godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality.” That’s a truth modern evangelicals need to hear. It was certainly a truth the believers in Corinth needed to hear. Like many people today, they understood the grace of God to be little more than fire insurance from hell.

That’s why their church was in chaos, marked by envy, strife, factions, worldliness, irreverence, and in some cases, outright immorality. So, Paul turns up the heat on them in this passage, giving them important lessons from Israel’s checkered spiritual history. He reminds them of a truth believers need to embrace today as well: The grace of God in Christ is not a license for immorality, but our motivation for holy living. Fortunately, God always provides a way out of the spiritual traps that can so easily ensnare us.

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Yet Will I Trust Him, Part 6: The End of Suffering (Job 42:1-17)

Everyone loves a happy ending. Most of our fairy tales begin with, “Once upon a time,” and they end with, “And they lived happily ever after.” That’s the way they’re written because that’s the way we want them. That’s the way we like them. Some would say that that’s the way we need them. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy finally makes it home, where she’s longed to be from the very beginning. In Beauty and the Beast, the prince is restored, and the curse on the castle is finally lifted. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey learns it was better for his town that he lived instead of jumping off a bridge. In Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket inherits the entire chocolate factory for passing a test and returning the Everlasting Gobstopper.

Now, it’s certainly true that when it comes to life and literature, the good guys don’t always win, the hero doesn’t always get the girl, the man in rags doesn’t always make it to riches, and the wrongs endured aren’t always righted. In such cases, the audience is left with unanswered questions, moral ambiguities, a sense of disappointment, or perhaps even the anger that comes with unfinished justice. People generally aren’t inspired by a miserable ending. That’s because it conveys a lack of rhyme or reason to the universe—a sense that there’s no benevolent sovereign authority overseeing life as it unfolds before us. We’re just doomed creatures with bumper stickers announcing, “Excrement Happens,” and we think, “Hopefully it won’t happen to us.” But that seems horribly unsatisfying. Even depressing.

Research indicates that given a choice between happy endings or sad endings, we tend to choose the happy ending by a 10 to 1 margin. Even if we have to re-write the author’s original conclusion, as in Pretty Woman, we’ll get our happy ending. Human beings crave it. Job craved it. Fortunately for Job, he eventually got it. He had to wait for it, and he had to be divinely prepared for it, but he eventually got it. In spades. All that he lost was restored to him two-fold. 

For many people, if the happy ending takes too long, they simply settle for the happy hour. They anesthetize the pain of life, never really facing up to it or being completely honest about it. But Job did face up to it. And he was honest about it. In the end, after his painful ordeal, Job gets his happy ending. That tells us the God who knows his people’s suffering will someday end his people’s suffering.

This message explores how the end of suffering commences with our restoration to God, continues with our reconciliation to others, and culminates in our reversal of painful circumstances forever. The Apostle James wrote, “As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11). That’s why there’s a happy ending for God’s people—precisely to demonstrate that the Lord is full of compassion and mercy, even if we have to wait for it to fully realize it.

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Yet Will I Trust Him, Part 5: What Good Is Suffering? (Job 7:20-21; 10:18-20)

If suffering has no ultimate meaning or purpose, then God is a monster. He’s mean, cruel, ugly, vicious, and sadistic. He’s like Sid Phillips in Toy Story—that little hellion who likes to torture his toys, pull them apart, set them on fire, and give them brain transplants. A popular online skeptic writes:

“The existence of such large quantities of suffering, despair, pain, natural disasters such as earthquakes, the death of the unborn, and the immense suffering of lovers, and kind-hearted people means that god is evil and intentionally creates life in order to create suffering.” In other words, God is the celestial Sid; therefore, he cannot possibly exist.

But what if God can do something incredibly good with the things that are bad? Moreover, defining good and evil without some sort of fixed, objective reference point by which the two are distinguished is impossible. Is the difference between good and evil just a matter of the skeptic’s feelings or opinions? Well, who died and left him boss? Why should we listen to him? What’s his authority for placing the dividing line where he does?

If he appeals to the strength of his own logic, as his website boasts he does, we still have to ask, “Where do the laws of logic come from?” The laws of logic are timeless, immutable, and non-material—just like the nature of God himself—the “Logos”—whom the skeptic seeks to deny. No, Mr. Skeptic, in the biblical worldview, suffering does have meaning and purpose, even if in yours it doesn’t.

Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, wrote, “In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” In other words, if suffering has meaning, we don’t have to jump off the bridge of pain into the angry waters of skepticism. We can jump off the bridge of pain into the soothing waters of hope. The meaning of our suffering is not always clear, but God has made it clear that our suffering always has meaning

As such, This message catalogues some possible causes for human suffering. It also highlights some possible benefits of suffering according to the biblical worldview. As Simone Weil has noted, “The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.”

Ultimately, the greatest act of evil, pain, and suffering in the history of the world took place at the cross of Christ. It was there that Jesus bore the sins of humanity in his own body, mind, and soul. Out of that unique and incomparable ordeal, God pulled the greatest good known to the human race—the salvation of those who would trust in his Son for the forgiveness of their sins. 

As Job declared in the midst of his pain, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him,” so Jesus also declared from his cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” We can do the same—precisely because our suffering has meaning.

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Yet Will I Trust Him, Part 4: A Cosmic Answer to Earthly Pain (Job 38:1-42:6)

Job is a man in agony, and he’s been pelting God with questions because of it. He wants to know—as would anyone—how the Lord could allow him to suffer for no apparent reason. Like a lawyer shooting out questions in rapid-fire succession, Job lets God have it. Throughout the interrogation, God remains silent. He doesn’t say a single word, but that is about to change. For 30+ chapters, Job has questioned God, but now God will question him. It’s Job’s turn to be quiet. Really, it’s Job’s turn to be put on trial.

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand’” (Job 38:1-4). Thus begins what some critics have called “the grand failure.” God misses an opportunity here to explain himself. He simply pulls rank on poor Job, sort of like a drill sergeant flexing his muscles and barking orders at his soldiers just because he can. “Drop and give me twenty, Job.” O.k., God is all powerful, but how is that helpful? How is that an answer? And why does this power play—if that’s all it is—lead to such a dramatic response of humility and repentance by Job after God is done speaking to him (cf. Job 42:6)?

As it turns out, God’s response to Job is much more than a power play. Indeed, divine power is only part of the response. Quite significantly, Job’s encounter with God is uniquely personal to him. It’s also supremely gracious, as this message seeks to show. God takes Job on a whirlwind tour of the cosmos, which leaves him overwhelmed in more ways than one. The divine strategy is clear: The God of nature reveals the nature of God. This nature is critical for all of us to know and experience when we ourselves are suffering. For example:

God shows himself to be infinitely powerful. When we are suffering, we need to know that God is still in charge of the universe. 

God shows himself to be infinitely perceptive. When we are suffering, we need to know that God still has a good purpose for us.

God shows himself to be infinitely playful. When we are suffering, we need to know that God is still delighted with his creation.

God shows himself to be infinitely parental. When we are suffering, we need to know that God still cares about us personally.

What Job wanted all along was a demonstration of God’s goodness, and that’s exactly what he gets. God unveils to Job his divine strength, wisdom, joy, and love. He gives Job a cosmic answer to earthly pain, and he accepts it. As such, God’s response here is not a “grand failure” at all. It’s the “grand finale.” Job learns what all of us can learn in times of pain and suffering: The answer to life’s hardest questions is God himself.

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth has despised Mr. Darcy for most of the book. He appears to be distant and aloof. He appears to be cold and unfeeling. He appears to be pompous and proud. But when Mr. Darcy finally reveals himself—in all of his charity, love, and good deeds—Elizabeth is melted by love. When God reveals himself to Job, a similar thing happens. He is melted by love, and he is supremely satisfied by that love. We can be, too.

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Yet Will I Trust Him, Part 3: How Not to Help (Job 2:11-13; 42:7-9)

It’s often been said that good help is hard to find. The book of Job is a perfect case in point. Satan (“the accuser”) doesn’t make an appearance after chapter 2, but he doesn’t need to. He’s got Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad to do his dirty work. In so doing, they unwittingly become the Larry, Moe, and Curly of the Old Testament—three stooges who keep making a bad situation worse. Indeed, God finally takes them to task for their performance. He says to Eliphaz, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). 

Ironically, these men thought they were being helpful. They thought they were being supportive. They thought they were defending God against Job’s accusations and complaints. In reality, they were just pouring gasoline on the fire. They were pouring salt in the wound, adding insult to injury. They did not comfort Job, and God, in the end, did not comfort them with any affirmation.

One challenging aspect of this drama is that sometimes the three friends do speak words of truth. They do say some correct things about God. Their theology isn’t all bad. Why, then, is God so angry with them? It’s because misapplied truth is a serious form of error, and misapplied help is a serious form of harm. In other words, it’s possible to be right in a wrong way. It’s possible to be right in a wrong-headed way. Know-it-alls tend to be like that. In fact, some of the cruelest people in this world are religious people who set out to defend God. (As if he needed their help.)

Nevertheless, one can sympathize with these men to a certain point. They come to visit Job because they do care about him. They do want to help, but the situation they find themselves in is not easy. What could they possibly say to Job—a man who keeps getting brassy with the Almighty? A man who seems to keep crossing the line of disrespect with his Maker. They’re almost in a no-win situation. But as Abraham Lincoln once said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” Job’s three friends would have been better friends had they kept their mouths shut in Job’s presence.

Eliphaz offers the arguments of a flawed mystic. Bildad offers the arguments of a false mediator. Zophar offers the arguments of a faulty minister. And that’s the problem. They’re offering arguments rather simply being present and being quiet. As a result, Job is still in pain, still in confusion, and still in despair. The help he receives is no help at all. What can we learn from their mistakes? This message offers some useful advice for two different but related groups. The first group is “When you are the friend wanting to help.” The second is “When you are the sufferer needing help.” The book of Job has plenty to say to both groups.

In the end, just as Jesus came into a world of suffering and ministered to people in pain, so believers can also enter into other people’s suffering and minister to them in his name. Such a ministry may not always require words. In fact, Jesus has a revealing middle name—it’s “With.” Emmanuel means “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14; Matt 1:23). It means God present to us, God in our midst. The believer’s ultimate witness, then, is “withness,” especially in times of suffering. 

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Yet Will I Trust Him, Part 2: Honest to God (Job 2:1-10)

For 36 chapters in the book of Job, the suffering patriarch erupts in a molten river of intense emotion, basically protesting, “God, my life is excruciating right now, and I don’t like it. In fact, I wish I had never been born.”  As such, we get a window into the heart and mind of a godly man who suffers untold agony. We may not be able physically to feel what Job is feeling at the moment, but we can certainly appreciate the weightiness of his tortured questions. “Where are you in this horrific mess, God? And why won’t you stop it? I’m not happy with you right now. What’s going on?” 

As the drama unfolds, we find Job either praying to God out loud, responding to his three friends who admonish him, or talking to nobody in particular—just writhing in pain and bewailing his very existence. We can only conclude from all the ink used in these sacred chapters that when God’s people struggle in profound ways, God knows, and God cares. Our misery is never off his radar. That seems like small comfort, though, when the pain endures.

One thing that often startles people about these chapters is how Job explodes with honest, blunt, and raw expressions about how he feels. Some of his statements don’t seem very pious. They don’t seem to match what we might think a godly person might say in such a situation. And yet, God doesn’t seem to be too terribly upset by that. We might expect by the end of the book that Job would get a divine scolding: “Hey Job, you overdid it. You said things you shouldn’t have said. You should have had a more hopeful outlook. You should have had a more positive confession.”

But no, God essentially says, “Job, you were right. It’s your pickle-faced friends who didn’t express their true feelings but instead quoted all the religious clichés of the day who were way off base.” That may be surprising to us, but it’s an important reminder that in the midst of our flailing faith, God is right there with us. As Job himself said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27).

God did stand upon the earth in the person of Jesus Christ. And when he did, he suffered greatly. His final statement from the cross was, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Like Jesus—and Job—God’s people can do the same today.

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Yet Will I Trust Him, Part 1: A Man Called Job (Job 1:1-12)

The world doesn’t seem to be what it ought to be. It is broken as well as beautiful, and that hurts. Has your life ever been affected by crime, poverty, violence, joblessness, or homelessness? What about disease, disabilities, deformities, or discrimination? How about a weather event, such as an earthquake, tornado, flood, or hurricane? Has your family ever been jolted by a fire, a fatal accident, a destructive riot, or a school shooting?

The question is always the same. After the initial shock and horror subsides, after the news crews go home, after others have gotten on with their lives, we’re always left with the same question: “Where was God in the midst of my suffering? And why did he let it happen in the first place?”

Christian professor Peter Kreeft has said, “More people have abandoned their faith because of the problem of evil than for any other reason. It is certainly the greatest test of faith, the greatest temptation to unbelief.” It is for this reason Christian author Philip Yancey calls the problem of evil “theological kryptonite.”

Can the ancient Hebrew book of Job provide any insight into the universal problem of pain? It is often said that the theme of Job is the age-old question, “Why does a loving God permit the righteous to suffer?” But if that is the theme of the book, the question is never fully answered. Perhaps the theme of the book is better stated, “How do the righteous suffer?” The book of Job can show us how to endure until the world is finally what it ought to be—beautiful and not broken—when God in Christ makes all things new.

At issue in this first message of the series is the question, “Shall a person love God because he’s God, and enjoy the blessings received from his hand?” Or “Shall a person love God only because of the blessings he or she might receive from his hand?” Satan’s implied accusation is, “God, you’ve stooped to bribery. You give good gifts to your people to make them love you. Take away the gifts, there will be no more love.” But in Round 1 of his suffering, Job proves the accuser wrong, so the score right off the bat is God—1, Satan—0. Moreover, we come discover that suffering is not meaningless if we come to know God better in the end. Job certainly did, and so can we.

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Case Dismissed (Zechariah 3:1-10)

“If life had a second edition,” wrote John Clair, “I would correct the proofs.” But as Steve Miller used to sing, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future.” No part of our lives can be un-lived or re-lived. That’s why guilt can be such debilitating factor in many people’s lives. Past failures can feel like a ball and chain around the soul. Is there a solution for such a spiritual bondage? There is indeed, and we get a glimpse of it in Zechariah 3.

God gave the prophet Zechariah a message for the Jews who had returned from exile, many of whom were trying to get back on track with the Lord. They, too, had a past that was filled with shame. In picture form, God gives them his promised solution for sin and the guilt that usually comes with it. It’s the picture of Joshua, a high priest, who has dirty clothes and therefore is disqualified from ministering in the temple. God’s solution is to rebuke Joshua’s accuser in court and give the priest a new set of garments: “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you” (Zechariah 3:4). Case dismissed!

But how can God unilaterally dismiss a case without sufficient grounds? Wouldn’t he be violating a sense of due process in his own courtroom? Wouldn’t he be violating the canons of earthly ethics and eternal justice? Wouldn’t he be appealing to a legal fiction to simply declare that Joshua is now both sin-free and guilt-free? No, not in this case, for God speaks of that which is “symbolic of things to come” (Zechariah 3:8)—a “servant,” a “branch,” and a “stone,” all terms that refer to the coming messiah.

God says, “I will remove the sin of this land in a single day” (Zechariah 3:9), and he did—on Good Friday. The case against God’s people is dismissed because God in Christ has paid their debt on the cross. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The Apostle John wrote, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1). Indeed, when God is your advocate, all charges against you will be dropped.

No part of our lives can be unlived or re-lived, but we can still have a new life in Christ by faith. It’s a life in which not only are the charges against us dropped, but we are also sentenced to eternal life in the unrelenting love of God. That’s why we call it the “gospel,” the good news of Jesus Christ.

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Salvation Made Visible (Mark 2:1-12 and Selected Verses)

In Mark 2:1-12, Jesus famously healed the paralytic, a man lowered on his mat through someone’s roof because of the crowd. Before Jesus restored his legs, however, he restored his soul, declaring the man’s sins forgiven. Some folks in the crowd fussed at Jesus for saying such a thing because only God himself can forgive a person’s sins. Therefore, Jesus told the man to take up his mat and walk home, in full view of the crowd. To everyone’s amazement, he did. The visible miracle (the healing of his legs) authenticated the invisible miracle (the forgiveness of his sins). In a dramatic display of his own power and authority, then, Jesus made the man’s salvation visible to everyone.

This story teaches us a lot about Jesus, but it also illustrates how God wants a believer’s salvation to be made visible in our day, too. He wants it to be verifiable. He wants it to be evidence by a changed life. The theological word is “sanctification,” which means to be set apart. This message looks at the doctrine of sanctification—the process by which God shapes a believer’s character over time to be more like Christ’s. While justification speaks of the beginning of our salvation, sanctification speaks of the continuing of our salvation. Like the two natures of Christ, they are distinct theological realties, but they cannot be separated.

Justification is about Christ’s work for us on the cross. Sanctification is about Christ’s work in us by the Holy Spirit. Justification is about Christ’s completed work in making us his children forever. Sanctification is about Christ’s continuing work in making us godly in life. Justification is about removing the penalty of sin in our lives. Sanctification is about breaking the power of sin in our lives. Justification is about forgiveness, so that we can come to God. Sanctification is about holiness, so that we can become like God (in character). Justification calls us to believe. Sanctification calls us to behave.

John Calvin explained the relationship between justification and sanctification using the sun as an illustration. He said the sun’s heat and the sun’s light are two distinguishable things. They are not the same, but they are always found together. They both flow from the nature of what the sun is. Moreover, we cannot have the sun’s heat without the suns’ light in the same way that we cannot have justification without sanctification.

Sanctification, then, is progressively growing in the grace we have freely received in Christ. It is the continuing work of God in the life of the believer, making us holy in practice, not merely in position. As Maxie Dunham has said, “We don’t buy a violin today and expect to give a concert in Carnegie Hall tomorrow. Similarly, we may be converted to Christ in a moment, but…walking as a Christian requires discipline and is a lifelong undertaking. As Christians, we do not emerge from our conversion fully grown; we must grow.” The Apostle Peter would agree: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). In short, belief behaves.

When we embrace Jesus as the Savior who justifies us, we are at the same time embracing Jesus as the Lord who sanctifies us. The key to sanctification is living up to what we have already attained in Christ (cf. Philippians 3:16).

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Squeezed, Part 3: So, All This Was Planned? (Philemon 1:15-25)

All the characters in this short letter get “squeezed” by the gospel. Onesimus gets squeezed by having to take responsibility for his crimes against Philemon and make an effort to be reconciled to him. Philemon gets squeezed by having to accept Onesimus back into his home after the whole family was offended by his departure. Paul gets squeezed by having to navigate the social customs of his day as well as the relational tension between two people he deeply cares about. It’s a classic case of triangulation, and the path forward for everyone is both challenging and awkward.

In this final message of the series, we look at who is doing the squeezing. If everyone in this situation gets squeezed, we have to ask, who does the squeezing? Who is putting the pressure on all the people involved? A careful reading of the passage shows us it’s the character who never comes on stage. He’s the silent showstopper who never delivers a line. He’s also the script writer and the wise director of the whole production. 

Paul knows who he is. He writes to Philemon, “Perhaps the reason Onesimus was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 1:15-16). Philemon might have thought to himself, “Was separated?” What do you mean, “Was separated (passive voice)? The kid ran away (active voice)!” 

Paul is introducing yet another character into the story. Not only does he introduce this additional character, he also introduces a higher purpose. Paul is essentially saying, “Philemon, I want you to consider something in this whole mess that you might not have considered up to this point. Someone came and parted Onesimus from you in order for a greater purpose to be served—namely that you get him back for good as a true believer and a brother in the Lord.” That someone is God himself.

Paul goes beyond all secondary causes of the situation right up to the primary cause of all situations—God himself. Paul understands that God is sovereign; he is above all circumstances, and yet he is in those circumstances at the same time—letting Philemon and Onesimus be parted for a greater ending to the story. 

Grammatically, we call it “the divine passive.” That is, God is the agent behind the event, playing 3D chess in the world to bring about his perfect plan. Indeed, all the events of this world have their origin in—and are superintended by—the all-wise, infinitely good God whose name is “Love.” That means life is not a series of blind chances or accidents. God leverages the contingencies of this world, including its resident evil and the free choices of fallen human beings, to bring history to its rightful conclusion.

Peter brings these two paradoxical realities together in his Pentecost sermon: “This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:23-24). God in his sovereignty used fee human choices to pull the greatest good in history out of the worst crime in history. The result was “God and sinners reconciled.” That’s the motivation for Philemon and Onesimus themselves to be reconciled.

Quite significantly, Paul tells Philemon, “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” (Philemon 1:18). That’s a tiny picture of the gospel. Onesimus has a debt toward Philemon he cannot pay, and Paul offers to pay it. Fallen human beings have a debt toward God we cannot pay, so Jesus offered to pay it. He was squeezed when he was on the cross, and what came out was pure love and forgiveness. May the same be true of us when we get squeezed.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Doing Right When Wronged (Romans 12:17-21)

The world cares very little about our Christian beliefs, but they cannot argue with a life beautifully lived. In Romans 12:17-21, the Apostle Paul shows us what a beautiful life looks like. He does so by giving us three instructions for when we’ve been personally wronged. But first, a caveat because this is one of those texts that gets over-applied by some people, under-applied by other people, and mis-applied by a lot of people. 

When we look at the whole sweep of biblical teaching, there were three realms of response when it came to handling various wrongs that could be inflicted on people in a fallen world. The first realm was in times of international aggression (e.g., sieges, invasions, captivities, atrocities, etc.). God’s people were to seek divine guidance through their national security council (prophets, priests, and kings). Hostilities de-escalated when God’s people trusted him to give their national leaders an appropriate response.

The second realm was in times of criminal activity (e.g., thefts, kidnappings, rapes, murders, etc.). God’s people were to seek justice through their established legal system (laws and judges). Hostilities de-escalated when God’s people trusted him to give their judges his wisdom for a just settlement or resolution to a serious issue.

The third realm was in times of personal offense (e.g., slights, insults, disputes, insensitivities, etc.). God’s people were to seek relief through their own reconciliation efforts, beginning with extending personal forgiveness. Hostilities de-escalated when God’s people trusted him to give them the emotional support they needed to move beyond the offense. God wanted his people to handle these kinds of situations themselves and not clutter up the legal system with them. He modeled forgiveness for them, and he wanted his people to follow in his footsteps.

Romans 12:17-21 and other similar passages are meant to address personal offenses, not international aggression, or even criminal activity (cf. Rom 13:4), though reconciliation is always the goal. Paul says more about those kinds of situations in the next chapter—the state bearing the sword to punish wrong-doers, etc. But the passage at hand addresses personal offenses, not international aggression or even criminal activity.

Paul’s instructions in the case of personal offense are as follows. First, we do not try to settle the score ourselves. Second, we find ways to be kind to our offenders. And third, we trust that God will make things right in the end. This is how Jesus responded to the wrongs done to him when he was on the cross. Indeed, believers are never more like Christ than when we respond to personal offenses like Christ. When we live like this, we live beautifully, and we give the gospel credibility in this generation.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

A Life That Counts (John 12:26b; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Hebrews 6:10)

Several years ago, a survey was conducted in which people 95 years old or older were asked the following question: “What would you change if you could live your life over?” Here are their top three responses: (3) I would reflect more (i.e., slow down and think more deeply about things); (2) I would take more risks, more chances (i.e., try to be more adventurous); and (1) I would try to do more things that would outlive myself (i.e., do something of lasting significance). So said the 95-year-olds.

It’s interesting how the reality of impending death has a way of getting people in touch with the deeper issues of life. And, really, we don’t have to be 95 for that to sink in. A 30-year-old man who was dying of leukemia once said in the midst of his own pain and suffering, “I really don’t think people are afraid of death. What they’re afraid of is the incompleteness of their life.” Indeed, too many people are plagued by that gnawing sense of not having accomplished what they thought they would accomplish before leaving the planet.

Among believers, this dynamic is often the case regarding church work, too. Let’s face it, serious Christian service and church ministry is often hard, time-consuming, thankless, subject to criticism, and—most of the time—pro bono. It’s volunteer work that often goes unrecognized and therefore (we think) unappreciated.

If you’ve ever had that sense of, “What have I really accomplished in my service to Christ and his church?,” you might receive a tremendous amount of encouragement from the three passages highlighted in this message:

  • Jesus said in John 12:26, “My Father will honor the one who serves me.”
  • Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
  • The author said in Hebrews 6:10, “God…will not forget your work.”

Pastors might forget your work. Church staff might forget your work. Ministry leaders might forget your work. You might even forget your work, but God will not forget your work! 

This message looks at two instructions Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15:58 that help us live a life of significance as believers: (1) Make your life count by standing firm in Christ (15:58a); and (2) Make your life count by serving fully in Christ (15:58b). In other words, make your life count by trusting and serving Christ. Incredible gifts await those who trust and serve the Lord (cf. Revelation 2-3), so live a life of significance for him. Just don’t wait till you’re 95 to do it!

Sermon Resources:

Lord of the Rings Video Clip 1: “I Can Carry You”

Lord of the Rings Video Clip 2: “You Bow to No One”

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Widows, Orphans, and Immigrants (Exodus 22:21-24 and Selected Verses)

It is universally true, thankfully, that decent folks don’t like it when people take advantage of other people. Wherever we go in the world—from the most primitive cultures to the most civilized societies—people do not appreciate the intentional oppression of other people, especially disadvantaged people. More importantly, God doesn’t like it when people take advantage of other people. They are, after all, made in his image.

Unlike other law codes from the ancient Near East, God’s laws show a remarkable concern for widows, orphans, and immigrants. Indeed, the penalty for mistreating such vulnerable people is high. This message looks at various aspects of these laws, all of which tell us something about the nature and ways of the God who gave them. Clearly, God is the champion of the poor, the outsider, the unfortunate, the defenseless, the powerless, and the desperate. As such, he wants his people to protect them, be kind to them, and provide for their needs. 

The God who gave these laws has a big heart, and it especially goes out to those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” God is angered by such things as racism, prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, neglect, and harsh or condescending treatment of those of another race. Making life more difficult for those for whom it is already hard is infuriating to him. Therefore, God wants his people to try to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and to treat them as they would want to be treated if they were in a similar situation.

When Jesus was on earth, he embodied these laws perfectly. He cared for the widows, treasured the orphans, and welcomed the immigrants. To be Christlike, then, means to share God’s concern for widows, orphans, and immigrants. For God’s people, this concern must translate into action. The sermon concludes with a word of hope for those who may have broken these laws, and encouragement for how they might go about being better aligned with God’s heart moving forward.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.