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MyChurch: rbvincent
Grace Presbyterian Church
Bob Vincent  |  Alexandria, Louisiana
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The Supper Should Lead us to Communion with Christ
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Posted by: Grace Presbyterian Church | more..
BLOG ON: SERMON Tenses of the Lord's Supper
Grace Presbyterian Church
Bob Vincent
One reason why people have difficulty in understanding the significance of Baptism and the Lord's Supper is they tend to think of them merely as word pictures that remind us of great truths. The blessing of the Lord's Supper, it seems, could be achieved just as readily if we did away with the cumbersome crackers and shot glasses of grape juice and replaced them with a large chart at the front of the auditorium. A flannel board presentation would do just as well, because the blessing is fundamentally found in the intellectual and emotional remembrance of the great truths of the gospel. It is no wonder that those who have held to the views attributed to Ulrich Zwingli have tended to less and less frequent Communion. Some Protestants have gone from the ancient view that every worship service should involve the Lord's Supper, to quarterly and even annual Communion.

Historically, most Protestants did not follow this line of thinking, and referred to Baptism, the Lord's Supper, prayer and the reading and preaching of the Word as means of grace. But even this way of speaking can lead to misunderstanding, and some people think of these things as having some kind of resident power. The means of grace may seem like spiritual vitamin pills that contain a mysterious substance that helps us be better people. To correct this idea, it is important to think of the means of grace as paths to Jesus, as means of connecting and communing with him.

This is not a modern problem; consider Jesus' words recorded in John 5:39: "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life . . . " The problem with his audience was that they supposed the Bible itself possessed eternal life. It was as if the words were magic words, and the physical pages had resident power in them. Jesus rejects such a view out of hand, and tells them that the Scriptures point to something far more important: "it is these that testify about me." (John 5:39) He, not the Bible, is the source of all we need. We can read, memorize and study the Bible and miss the heart of the matter: "You are unwilling to come to me so that you may have life." (John 5:40)

This is not to denigrate the Holy Scriptures; the Bible is God's infallible Word, completely trustworthy in all it teaches. But it is to remember that the written Word testifies to the Incarnate Word, and that is its great purpose. It is the Incarnate Word with whom we must deal if we will have life. Many people approach the Bible and theology in abstraction from the Lord Jesus. But Paul warns us about mere intellectual knowledge of divine things: "Knowledge puffs up; love builds up." (1 Corinthians 8:1)

A person may have earned a doctorate in theology and be thoroughly committed to the great truths of the Bible, and yet the Bible may do him no more real good than it does for the superstitious person who, while never having read the Bible, always carries one in his car as an amulet. It is the magic charm view of the Bible, against which Jesus comes in John 5:39, 40. For the Bible to do us great and lasting good, it must bring us to the foot of the cross of the Lord Jesus, where we can lose ourselves and find ourselves. It must bring us to him as he is offered to us in the gospel.

The preaching of the Word must be more than a moral pep talk, even though it should encourage us to apply God's Word to our everyday lives. And while good preaching involves intellectual instruction both in terms of biblical exposition and an exposure to systematic theology, it must so focus on the adoration of our Lord Jesus and what he did for us in his death and resurrection, that we, with Paul, can say, "I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified." (1 Corinthians 2:2)

The same is true for prayer, whether it is silent, spoken or sung. There is such a thing as saying prayers, and there is such a thing as praying. We may truly pray when we read or recite a prayer. And we may be merely saying words when we speak extemporaneously, even though we are using the language of prayer. It is a matter of communion and focus. We pray in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, through our Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ, to God, our Father.

If we approach Baptism and the Lord's Supper with this understanding, we will be on solid, biblical ground. Baptism, as we have seen, is a means to Christ. And if it does not lead us into a life of trust and devotion to Christ, of our regularly turning from sin to him, we may well question if we have experienced the reality of baptism after all.

The Lord's Supper really is a means of grace; it is a pathway to Jesus. When we eat of the bread and drink of the cup, we proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26) But the Supper is more than a visual lecture: God's Word is never an empty Word; the proclamation of the Word of promise produces the reality of the promise. In the case of the Supper: Christ himself, crucified, once for all time, on the cross, for helpless sinners. He is present in the Supper, the whole Christ, to nourish us by the work of the Holy Spirit. Christ, who physically sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, from where he will physically come again, is present with us as the Holy Spirit makes the reality of our already being seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus real to us and grants us true communion. (Ephesians 1:3; 2:6; Hebrews 12:22-24)

So it is that we are told: "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 10:16) We share in Christ's body and blood as we eat the bread and drink the wine. So powerful is the supper that those who imbibed too much of the wine and became drunk, experienced dreadful side effects: physical sickness and even death in some cases. (1 Corinthians 11:30)

However, this should not lead us to superstitious dread, but joyful anticipation, because it is the heavenly meal, an appetizer of the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. As in the whole of New Testament worship, by eating it, we "taste . . . the good Word of God and the powers of the age to come." (Hebrews 6:5) He is, after all, already at the door, ready to call us in to the Banquet Hall of the Great King; it will be dreadful for those who know him only as Judge, but for us, it will be full Communion with our dearest Friend. (cf. James 5:9; 1 John 3:3)

At that grand meal, we will not eat strange food, for we will have tasted its like many times in the broken bread and common cup of the earthly assembly. At that grand meal, our focus will not be the exquisite delicacies set before us; we will be the ravished, enraptured Bride, whose only focus is the Bridegroom. The dainties are simply the accouterments of joy, the substance is Christ.

So it is in the here and now. We do not focus on medieval theories about how Christ is present, using Aristotelian logic to explain away what our senses tell us, for we perceive that we are eating bread and drinking wine. Rather, we simply focus on the fact that Christ is present so that as we eat the bread and drink the wine, we do really commune with him. But this does not happen automatically, simply by the work having been performed, ex opere operato. It happens as the Lord Jesus Christ, who is seated at the right hand of the Father, is the object of our faith, not the physical elements of communion. Our assurance of blessing is grounded on God's Word of promise, not the strength of our faith, nor the stirring of our emotions, much less on the correctness of our theory about the Supper.

The Supper is Communion and that tells us that it is a means to an end. That end is the Lord Jesus himself; it is a pathway to fellowship and adoration of him. It is in communion with him that we are changed, excited and empowered, to become more like him.

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Hanukkah, The Light in Defiance of the Pagans
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Posted by: Grace Presbyterian Church | more..
BLOG ON: SERMON Hanukkah and the Man of Sin
Grace Presbyterian Church
Bob Vincent

When I preached this message, I distributed a handout that contained portions of First Maccabees, not because I regard it as part of the Bible but because of the historical light it sheds on the fulfillment of Bible prophecy. You may find it helpful to have it in front of you while you listen, because I refer to it in the message. You may also find reading "Daniel and the Captivity of Israel" to be beneficial, as well as portions of Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews.

The Lord Jesus observed Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, a celebration not mandated in the Torah itself but foretold by the Prophet Daniel.

"Then came the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon's Colonnade." (John 10:22, 23.)

In 2005, Hanukkah is celebrated from sundown on December 25 through sundown on January 2, 2006. (The observance of all Jewish holidays begins at sunset the previous day.) The year 2005 translates to the year 5766 on the Jewish calendar, so sundown, Sunday, December 25, 2005, is Kislev 25, 5766, the first day of Hanukkah.

The celebration of Hanukkah is based on a miracle recorded, not in the Bible, but in the Talmud: the burning of a day's supply of pure olive oil for eight days, until fresh jars of clean oil could be brought into the temple. But while this miracle is not recorded in the Bible, the events surrounding Hanukkah are, and Jewish people have continued to celebrate Hanukkah from a century and a half before Christ, down to the present time.

These eight days are reflected in the lighting of the eight candles during Hanukkah, and the eight-branched candelabrum, called a Menorah, has become a symbol of the holiday. Starting with one light on the first evening, the number is increased by one each night until on the eighth night all eight candles are lit.

Hanukkah occurs in December (The Hebrew month Kislev.) and marks the consecration of the Temple of Jerusalemin 164 B.C., after its recapture from the Syrian Greeks under their leader Antiochus Epiphanes during the first Abomination of Desolation, foretold by Daniel the prophet:

"The king of the North (Antiochus IV, Epiphanes, 175-164 B.C.) will return to his own country with great wealth, but his heart will be set against the holy covenant. He will take action against it and then return to his own country . . . Then he will turn back and vent his fury against the holy covenant. He will return and show favor to those who forsake the holy covenant . . . His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation. (Daniel 11:28-31.)

"Out of one of them came another horn (Antiochus IV, Epiphanes, 175-164 B.C.), which started small but grew in power to the south and to the east and toward the Beautiful Land. It grew until it reached the host of the heavens, and it threw some of the starry host down to the earth and trampled on them. It set itself up to be as great as the Prince of the host; it took away the daily sacrifice from him, and the place of his sanctuary was brought low. Because of rebellion, the host of the saints and the daily sacrifice were given over to it. It prospered in everything it did, and truth was thrown to the ground. Then I heard a holy one speaking, and another holy one said to him, "How long will it take for the vision to be fulfilled-the vision concerning the daily sacrifice, the rebellion that causes desolation, and the surrender of the sanctuary and of the host that will be trampled underfoot?" He said to me, "It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings (just short of seven Jewish years.); then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated."'(Daniel 8:9-14.)

The seven year time frame of Hellenistic Syrian desecration of the Templebecame the foreshadowing and type of the oppression of the people of God under worldly authority, and Antiochus Epiphanes, is a picture of the future Man of Sin. The more we understand what happened under him, the better picture we have of the Man of Sin, whose motives for a one world government and common culture appear good and humane, but are beastly in the end. "Antiochus' ambition was to use the common culture of Hellenism to unify the diversity of the Seleucid empire." [The Anchor Bible Dictionary, (New York: Doubleday.) 1992.] The dreadful persecution that this Greek tyrant inflicted on God's people is recorded in several places, including Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews and the first four chapters of First Maccabees.

A survey of this history is helpful, not only for understanding the basis for Hanukkah, but also for understanding the coming of the Lord Jesus, both in his birth and in his return. That's one reason why observing Hanukkah fits in so well with the Christian season of Advent, pointing as it does to our Lord's two advents. Daniel is concerned with the exile of the Jews and how they survived under foreign oppression. It looks ahead not only to a return from the exile but to a restoration of the theocratic kingship under a descendant of King David.

The nine candles of Hanukkah point to the triumph of God's people over an anti-Christ figure who reigned over a century and a half before the Lord Jesus was born, Antiochus Epiphanes. But that ancient tyrant is a foreshadowing of the final enemy of the people of the Lord, the one "whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming." (2 Thessalonians 2:8.) The light of Hanukkah points to the light shining in the darkness, and the ultimate triumph of the light, through him who is the Light of the world. (John 8:12.)

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Temptations, Accountability and the Roots of Sexual Sin
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Posted by: Grace Presbyterian Church | more..

On an e-mail list somebody asked about sexual temptations, sins and accountability, and I thought that it might be profitable to pass along the dialogue because these situations are found in every congregation.

This was my response.

While we are truly unique among God's creatures because we alone have been created in his image, we are still part of the animal kingdom and can learn some things about ourselves by studying them. Solomon did this, at least by drawing analogies between them and us. "Solomon . . . spoke three thousand proverbs and . . . described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish." (1 Kings 4:30-33.)

While God has made sex to be pleasurable and given it a metaphysical dimension for humankind, (cf. Paul's use of Genesis 2:24 in 1 Corinthians 6:16.) the act is very much centered on reproduction. (Genesis 1:28; cf. 1 Timothy 5:14.) In light of that, one observes a certain pattern in creation. Animals live in sexual awareness of their environment, and their "antennae" regularly report sexual data to their brains. The primary data source for most mammals are the olfactory nerves, and the data on which they focus most of the time has to do with food, whether it's smelling the scent of ripe bananas or of a passing herd of wildebeests. For much of the time there are no sexual scents out there that are of any real interest to them, and they go about their predestined regimen in a fallen world, hunting, eating and sleeping.

Into this regimen comes a brief season when the female goes into estrus. Just before ovulation, her body produces a special scent that indicates her readiness to mate. Once a male picks up that scent, he loses his focus and departs from the regimen of normal life in a frenzied hunt to find the source of the scent and do his best to mate with her, sometimes even if it costs him rejection and death. In other words, both genders have a sexual awareness, but for the male, in addition to continually monitoring his environment for food, he also continually monitors his sexual environment. Most of the time, there are no distractions, but his "sexual antennae" are always up, and at some level of consciousness, he constantly takes a sexual inventory of whatever passes by his nose.

Among creatures created in the divine image, though scent can be a powerful stimulus, sight is our primary tool in navigating our environment. And so, instead of our brains receiving most of their data through our olfactory nerves, we rely on our optic nerves. But a similar sexual pattern exists in spite of our reliance on a different set of cranial nerves. The human male goes about his tasks continually monitoring his environment, generally not focused on reproduction. Nevertheless, at some level, he is continually taking a sexual inventory of whatever passes by his eyes, very often with little distraction.

As with other animals, female humans send signals when they are receptive to mating. Scent is part of this, but fundamentally sight is the major trigger. I don't want to get too graphic here, but in monitoring their environments, males pick up on the presence of a female who is receptive to mating by the way she looks, from the color in her face and the shape of parts of her body, to how she carries herself. One difficulty in our advanced civilization is that we have learned to fake those signals by means of makeup and clothing. Here is how it works.

Jethro Bodine is a godly man who works for the Acme Widget Company. He's been married to Daisy Mae for ten years, has three children and is a member of the Saint Vidas Presbyterian Church. He and his wife have sex on an average of twice a week. Early on in his marriage, Jethro made a Job 31:1 covenant with his eyes at a Bill Gothard seminar. Jethro is aware of his environment. His Uncle Jed walks by, and at a very primitive but subtle level, Jethro's brain picks up signals, but there is nothing that indicates that Uncle Jed is a candidate for reproductive activity. At work the same phenomenon takes place, but Mrs. Finch is older than Jethro's mother, a very devout Baptist and quite modest in how she carries herself and in how she dresses. At a subtle level, Jethro's brain is monitoring his environment and constantly taking sexual inventories, but the second wife of Atticus Finch never sends out a "come hither" signal, and so Jethro is never really tempted to fantasize about Mrs. Finch.

Then Mrs. Finch retires and Acme Widget hires Mayella Violet Ewell for the secretary pool. Young Ms. Ewell has just finished her third marriage and is twenty-seven. She wears tight skirts and blouses with plunging neck lines. Her lips are always quite red, and she wears high heels that cause her rear end to move in a particularly engaging way. It isn't that Mayella is necessarily receptive to male advances; it's just that she sends off signals, but they are a learned affectation and not necessarily indicative of her heart. She has a deep-seated need to reassure herself that she still "has what it takes," and her insecurities go back to childhood.

As with Jethro's subtle awareness of Mrs. Finch's female sexuality, he picks up on Mayella's, immediately and almost intuitively taking an inventory of her most prominent features. The trouble is there is nothing subtle about Mayella's sexuality and the signals that she sends--they shout for his attention. When he's introduced to her in the office, he can't help but notice the amount of cleavage that she reveals. Later at a coffee break, he overhears two other men in the office chatting about Ms. Ewell, what's real and what's false and what they would each like to do. Jethro prays silently, turns and walks back to his desk. During the rest of the break, he reads the eleventh chapter of 2 Samuel and prays again. As the afternoon wears on, from time to time a mental picture of her cleavage passes across his mind, but he prays and turns his attention back to his work.

So far Jethro has not sinned. Each time one of Satan's imps puts a tape of Mayella into Jethro's mental VCR, Jethro presses the eject button. Jethro loves his wife Daisy Mae very much and values a pure heart and clean conscience. When they pray together that evening he never mentions the new employee at Acme. All is well.

Four nights later, Jethro wakes up in the middle of the night, his heart pounding. He just had an erotic dream about Mayella Ewell which he thoroughly enjoyed and for which he feels profoundly guilty. He lies in bed, pondering what just happened and why he enjoyed himself so much. "Was that my flesh? Was it a succubus? What in the world is going on? Oh God! Please forgive me. I'm so sorry."

He tells Daisy Mae nothing the next morning and heads off to work. Has Jethro self-consciously chosen to sin yet? No, but he's in difficulty. The erotic dream reminds him that he has not achieved sinless perfection and never will this side of heaven. It's also a kind of divine wake up call, filtered through his subconscious mind, warning him that he needs to take some steps to tend to matters before they get out of hand. But Jethro has not deliberately sinned yet, not even in his imagination. He hasn't yet self-consciously lusted for Ms. Ewell, even though his brain has been picking up sexual stimuli and registering them at a primitive level. Later on that morning, when he walks over to get a cup of coffee and Mayella Ewell comes over to join him, he feels profoundly ill at ease, as if they actually had been intimate together the night before. Thoughts dash through his mind, "She knows!" "Did she have the same dream?" "God help me!"

The struggle is more difficult now, after the dream. When he notices Ms. Ewell bending over to pick up a piece of paper, he catches himself staring at her rear end. "God help me!" he almost shouts out loud to God when he realizes what he is doing. Sin is beginning to impact him even though he hasn't yet let one of those imps play a tape in his mental VCR.

What should Jethro do? I'm not sure that he should go to his wife, but I am sure that he needs to contact a brother in Christ for help, perhaps his pastor or one of the elders.

What would I tell Jethro if he came to me? First of all, I would pray with him. Then I would make sure that he understood that his reactions are normal and natural in a fallen world, but I would also press him to understand the potential danger he is in, and I would open up the book of James and talk to him about temptation.

'When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.' (James 1:13-15.) I would lay out before him the dreadful consequences of his not pressing the eject button on his mental VCR, and I would do this very graphically by describing things that might happen to his wife and three children, if he were to fall into sin.

Then I would turn to James 3:15 and explain how he has three enemies to battle: the world, the flesh and the devil. I would press him to take very seriously the importance of not looking over at Ms. Ewell, and when he found himself thinking about her, both to pray and to command those thoughts to get out of his mind in Jesus' name. I would ask him to see if there was a way that he could arrange his office space where Ms. Ewell was not so constantly before his eyes. I would urge him to keep close to his wife, maintaining regular sexual activity with her. And I would make him commit to keeping in contact with me. "Here's my cell phone number. You call me whenever you need prayer." I would urge him to believe that God will give him victory over this.

But I'm not sure that I would press him to tell his wife. I don't believe that it is good for a marriage for a man to give a daily report to his wife on every female he notices: "Daisy Mae, this morning at work I caught myself staring at our new employee, Mayella Ewell's rear end when she bent over. At noon over at McDonalds, a buxom girl in a halter top caught my eye. I didn't allow myself to fantasize about her, but it was sure a struggle not to take a second and third look. This afternoon, as I drove up, I noticed our neighbor, Lolita Haze, sunbathing in her backyard in a bikini, and I had some trouble reining in my thoughts even though she's only fifteen--Wow! She could pass for twenty-five!"

It is enough to say that we all struggle with sin, and each person's struggle has some unique qualities about it. Furthermore, it's important to distinguish between the temptation to sin and mental sin. The one is not sin; the other is. Noticing a person's physical attributes isn't sin; playing a tape in the theater of our mind about that person, fantasizing about having sex with her is. All of which should lead us regularly and earnestly to pray: "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." (Matthew 6:13.)

I hope that helps.

Someone responded to what I posted by writing: 'I have issue with the "christian" remedy. It occurs to me that urging Jethro to detour his eyes, find a different place in the office, pray and command the lustful thoughts to be gone, etc.... all smack of law. As I'm consumed by the love of God for me in Christ I will find myself doing the law not through pursuit thereof but out of love from a sincere faith and a good conscience.'

And I responded:

I have to agree with you. I was focusing on two things: the natural roots of sexual temptations and the importance of accountability. But I failed to deal with the heart of the matter which is Christ himself: his love for us and the powerful effect of our love for him.

The driving force in our pursuit of holiness must be Jesus Christ. Jesus' righteousness is the ground of God hearing our prayers, and Jesus' love for us encourages us to pray. The glory and honor of the name of Jesus presses us. The goal of the Christian life is not mere morality; it is complete conformity to the restored image of God in the face of the Lord Jesus. And the means of grace are not like spiritual vitamin pills that contain a mysterious substance that helps us be better people: the means of grace are paths to Jesus, a means of connecting and communing with him. For our diligent use of all the outward means of grace to do us great and lasting good, they must bring us to the foot of the cross of the Lord Jesus, where we can lose ourselves and find ourselves. They must bring us to him as he is offered in the gospel, and bring us again and again.

That's true for preaching and for prayer, and it's true for other ordinances as well. Baptism is a means to Christ. If it does not lead us into a life of trust and devotion to Christ, of our regularly turning from sin to him, we may well question if we have experienced the reality of baptism after all. The Lord's Supper really is a means of grace; it is a pathway to Jesus. When we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26.) But the Supper is more than a visual lecture: God's Word is never an empty Word; the proclamation of the Word of promise produces the reality of the promise. In the case of the Supper: Christ himself, crucified, once for all time, on the cross for helpless sinners. He is present in the Supper to nourish us by the work of the Holy Spirit. Christ, who physically sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, from where he will physically come again, is present with us as the Holy Spirit makes the reality of our already being seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus real to us. (Ephesians 1:3; 2:6; Hebrews 12:22-24.)

The goal of these means of grace is that our hearts would be filled with the glory of God and increased in devotion and affection for the Son of God. "Christ's love compels us." (2 Corinthians 5:14.) And the truth is sealed to us that as citizens of heaven who have already passed from death to life, as members of Christ's own Body, even in this present darkness, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us and gave up himself for us. "Sin shall not be master over" us; we are "under grace," (Romans 6:14.) a grace that removes the guilt and the power of sin.

Thank you so much for your comments.

Another person commented on my post: "We cannot in any regard be compared to animals in a good or acceptable light. God made very distinct differences, and frankly I am offended to even think of ourselves in that manner. I don't know how easy it would be for you to find scripture to back up a claim that men are like animals taking in the world on a purely innocent sexual level... but by all means, if you can find it, I'd like to see it."

This was my response:

I am in no way defending a person's indulging in lustful thoughts, nor am I saying that human beings are exactly like animals. I am simply saying that there are some analogies between the ways that animals respond to natural stimuli and the ways that we do. But we are absolutely unique, because we alone have been created in the image of God and endowed with a reasonable soul. Unlike those "unreasoning animals," we are not at the mercy of our natural impulses, and God will hold us accountable for our failure to restrain these drives, even in the privacy of our own thoughts.

I am also asserting that a man's being aware of the attractiveness of a female is not the same as sexual lust--there is often a fine line, to be sure, but there is a line, nonetheless. Furthermore, a temptation to sexual sin and a fellow's indulging in a sexual fantasy are also two different things. Temptation is not sin. Our Lord was tempted in all the ways that we are, but our Lord never sinned, not even in his thought life: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin." (Hebrews 4:15.) My advice to every man is to avoid situations where he will be tempted to lust. Afterall, a defiled heart is very deadly; as our Lord warned in the context of dealing with sexual lust: "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell." (Matthew 5:29.)

The heart of the Jethro story is my assertion that a woman can barrage a man with sexual stimuli. Those stimuli will distract any man and pose an occasion for stumbling into sin. That's why women must be careful how they dress and why men must resist these stimuli in order to keep a conscience void of offense. Just as a loud noise will cause me to stop what I'm doing and look to see the source of the sound, so a female who is dressed very provocatively is a distraction as well. Males have a natural impulse to look, and this goes back to the basic pattern of nature: a female indicates her openness, and a male responds by courting the female.

Please know that I meant no offense, but I am concerned very much that men and women take occasions of sin seriously, especially sexual sin in our all too permissive and provocative culture. Over the decades my wife and I have ministered to many people who have fallen into sexual sin, and I can assure you that we take sexual sin dreadfully seriously: it always leaves a swath of terrible destruction in its wake.

In response to the above, the person commented: "I am having trouble finding scripture that supports the ideas that it is 'Natural' for men to have 'impulses' to look and that men are more easily sexually tempted than women."

And I responded:

First of all, we need to remember that to say something is "natural" is not the same as saying it is good. Because of the sin of our first parents, we are all born with a fallen nature, so what comes "naturally" is not exactly the same after the Fall as before. As human beings, we are all in the image of God, but that image has been radically marred, and nothing is exactly the way that it was in our first parents. We are totally depraved--not that we are as bad as we can possibly be, but no part of us has escaped the ravages and influence of sin, including our capacity to reason and our how we relate to others sexually.

I am not saying that men are more easily sexually tempted than women, but I am saying that sight is the primary "trigger" for most males' sexual temptation. In sexual matters, women are just as affected by sin as men are; it's simply that sexual sin is often more subtle and deceptive for many women, and they tend to fail to recognize it as quickly as men. Most men know when they are indulging a sinful fantasy, and I don't need to go into graphic details. But I'll give a snapshot of pornography for a woman:

'We sat on the veranda, sipping a fine vintage of Cabernet sauvignon. It was an elegant restaurant, as delightful as any place I'd ever seen, and our table overlooked the Mediterranean. The Gypsies played Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," soft and sensual. As the gentle breeze blew, his rugged face glowed bronze with strength in the light of the setting sun. When we lifted our glasses, our knuckles brushed against each other, and I knew that I had never known true love before.

'My new job had carried me far from the tiresome boredom of a never ending set of dirty dishes and dirty diapers, of an insensitive and sometimes boorish husband, but now . . .'

Well, it may not always be that graphic; sometimes it's just a woman thinking about how insensitive or unromantic her husband is and wishing that he could be more like Mrs. So-and-so's. Visible nudity does not tend to have the same impact on most women that it does on most men. Pass the word that the Scotsman in the kilt isn't wearing anything underneath, and the reaction of most females is disgust. Pass the word that the young woman sitting on the platform with a short skirt has nothing else on, and almost every male will be tempted to sneak a peak, whether he's significantly pre-pubescent or just arrived from the geriatric ward in his wheelchair. Of course, some women do struggle with visual temptations to lust, but I believe for most women this is a "learned" behavior, not unlike somebody's acquiring a taste for Bourbon Whiskey--nobody likes Bourbon the first time he tastes it; it's an acquired taste. Women are more often tempted by strong character, power, kindness and attention--it's why an ugly, old, paunchy preacher can be a snare to some women.

But I'm speaking in glittering generalities, and there are plenty of exceptions.

In our struggle with sin, we all come from different backgrounds, genetically and environmentally. No one is born a homosexual, but the way that original sin works itself out in each person may make one person more vulnerable to homosexual temptations, while another person may more easily be tempted in the area of stealing and another have more difficulty with a hot temper. But we all choose to sin when we sin, and we're all responsible for our choices.

The bottom line is that the Church is full of real Christians . . . people who have been declared righteous merely through faith in Jesus Christ, but people who have also begun to experience the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. That sanctifying work is best done in a context of a church that preaches the Law and the Gospel, under an overarching banner of grace and accepts people as they are. A good church should never allow an environment that encourages people to pretend that they are something that they aren't, but should provide structures for honesty and accountability as sin is dealt with. It needs to be a community where saints encourage each other to press on for victory, lifting them up when they fall. We must do all that we can to arm people up and encourage them to "press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called" them "heavenward in Christ Jesus." They will never "obtain all this" or be "made perfect" in this life, but they can be cheered on as they forget "what is behind and" strain "toward what is ahead," nothing less than full conformity to Christ in the resurrection. (Philippians 3:14, 12, 13, 10, 11.)

This, in turn, led another person to ask: "If the fall could so radically alter man such that he would struggle against his fallen nature in areas of illicit sexual desires for the opposite sex, why would/could this not extend to a man, according to his fallen nature, sexually desiring another man. I can't find where this would run counter to scripture's depiction of the gravity of the fall. It doesn't make it any less sinful, but why couldn't this NOW be a natural proclivity for some fallen men. Essentially, being born homosexual."

To which I responded:

As people who take the Bible as the only infallible guide for how we understand the world, I don't think that we have to opt for either of the two extreme views about homosexuality: on the one hand, that it is simply learned behavior and a matter of personal choice, or that people are simply born that way and have no real choice in the matter, on the other. We have to take into account several biblical truths.

First, we must remember that people grow in wickedness as they live their lives apart from God. While no one is born as an innocent, blank tablet, (Psalm 58:3.) sin does grow and develop, and people become increasingly given over to evil as they grow older, especially as they live in defiance of God's Word. (Romans 1:18ff.) Sin progresses, and each transgression produces a further hardening of the heart and deadening of the conscience. This in turn leads a person into greater sin, and then greater hardening again, on and on, reflecting the law of sin and death. Only God's acting decisively for us in Jesus Christ breaks this deadly cycle of downwardly spiraling depravity. (Romans 8:1-4.)

Secondly, we simply do not know all of the causes of human behavior, and it is the height of hubris for modern man with his truncated view of reality to assume that he can. Probably a lot more is due to genetics than our radically egalitarian society would like to admit, and even environmental factors are only superficially known and understood. But for those who take the Bible at face value, human behavior is also profoundly influenced by other forces: the Holy Spirit and God's elect angels can stir us for good, and demons can affect human decision making for evil. One has only to read the narratives of the Old Testament to see how often people's behavior is due to some force beyond their natural world, oftentimes carrying out a curse. This is true from Saul's "evil spirit from the LORD" (e.g. 1 Samuel 16:14.) to the stupid decision of King Rehoboam, (1 Kings 12:15.) to the lying spirit that ensnared King Ahab, (1 Kings 22:21.) and to Nebuchadnezzar's madness. (Daniel 4:23 ff.)

Sometimes these supernatural forces begin to impact human beings at a very early age, long before they have personally done things to expose themselves to such baneful influences. One may examine the case of the boy with convulsions: "When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth." (Mark 9:20.) When Jesus asked the boy's father how long this had been going on, his father replied, "From childhood. And it has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him." (Mark 9:21, 22.)

Over the years I have known lots of people with bizarre problems, probably the most bizarre of whom was a necrophiliac. How did this man come to be attracted to the dead? Even though he was born with a depraved heart, I do not believe that he sprang from his mother's womb wanting to have sex with corpses. I submit that there were lots of factors, many of which we cannot know and probably about which the man himself is unaware. Was heredity a factor? Probably, but I don't know. What about something demonic? I believe this was a factor, but I certainly don't believe that it was the only factor.

He was pretty much like everybody else when he came from his mother's womb: totally depraved, sin influencing all of his life just as every other baby. But because I believe that it is consistent with the doctrine of total depravity to say that original sin impacts different people differently, I have no problem with thinking that he had a weakness that made him vulnerable to be drawn into necrophilia, just as someone else may have a weakness that makes him more susceptible to stealing, while another is more likely to become ensnared by substance abuse.

Added to whatever predisposition that made this man vulnerable to the temptations of necrophilia, there came a series of experiences, each of which pushed him further along this twisted path. As he made one sinful choice after another, his tastes in evil became increasingly perverted. But it is also likely that some of these early experiences had nothing to do with his own personal, sinful choices. In fact, it is possible that he may have no conscious memory of certain decisive events, because he shoved the memory of them down so deeply within his heart.

As one experience gave birth to another, and he chose to go his own way rather than crying out for divine mercy, at some point he decided to do something to a corpse. It may have come in the wake of his having been rejected and even ridiculed by a woman with whom he was infatuated. In flight from his sense of impotence, he sought to gain sexual power over another, and the door of opportunity opened for him because "evil comes to him who searches for it." (Proverbs 14:22.) Perhaps he was working as an orderly at a hospital and had access to the morgue; maybe it was when he first worked in the funeral industry. His first sexual encounter brought him tremendous shame, but also demonic, mesmerizing pleasure as his need for power blended with his erotic desire. After his first experience, his shame and guilt may have kept him from repeating the behavior for a long time, but sooner or later the pull became overpowering, and fresh opportunities came along. He plunged deeper and deeper into depravity, sometimes getting caught and fired, but never prosecuted. What funeral home wants that kind of publicity or exposure to litigation?

I have deliberately chosen a most unacceptable form of sexual deviancy because it causes revulsion in most people while illustrating what is involved in all behavior that violates the seventh commandment in a general way: not only necrophilia, but homosexual acts and regular dalliances in adultery are particularly depraved forms of violating that commandment. Furthermore, these kinds of perversions are more common than most people would imagine, and it is not out of the question that you may have a necrophiliac as a member of your church. I have no doubt that you have at least a few members who struggle with homosexuality, adultery and pornography and other forms of sexual deviancy--when I first studied abnormal psychology back in the sixties, homosexuality was still listed as a sexual deviancy.

The third thing that we must understand in thinking about the roots of homosexuality is that sin is still visited on succeeding generations of people who reject God. In our imbalanced Western Individualism we are apt to think of each generation as a blank slate, forgetting that we inherit things from our ancestors, not only material things, but spiritual as well, both for our weal and our woe. While under the New Covenant the ancestral curse is broken, (Jeremiah 31:29, 20.) this once for all time, accomplished redemption must be applied in the course of people's lives. Furthermore, most people are not related to God through the New Covenant, and the ancient patterns of generational iniquity still operate on the rest of our fallen race. Romans 1:18-32 should not be read only in an individualistic way, but also generationally and culturally. Therefore, a nation such as the United States, whose churches in large measure used to profess the biblical gospel and whose culture once reflected Christianity to a great degree, is now liable to the curse of God for its egregious apostasy.

Romans 1:18-32 makes it very plain that widespread homosexuality is a result of a curse from God on a civilization that has rejected him and his truth:

"For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

"Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator--who is forever praised. Amen.

"Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

"Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them."

Lastly, whatever all its causes, homosexuality is a complex phenomenon, and people who struggle with it need to be offered love and hope within a context that uncompromisingly affirms the permanent and absolute nature of God's moral law, under the banner of a salvation that pardons, heals and empowers human beings effectively to deal with their sins. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11.)

Bob Vincent

Bob Vincent Bob Vincent

Bob Vincent has been the pastor of the Grace Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Louisiana since 1975. He and his wife Sandy were married in 1968; they have...

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Homosexuality
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BLOG ON: SERMON The Law of God, 1
Grace Presbyterian Church
Bob Vincent

While I don't believe that the Scripture explicitly teaches that some people are born with the inclination to homosexuality, I do believe that it is implicit in the biblical concept of original sin: we are all born dead in trespasses and sin. We have a nature that is bent toward evil and unable to do what is right apart from grace, but the bondage of the will does not mean that we are not responsible for our actions. (For an expansion of this, click here.)

I believe that within the concept of original sin is a measure of diversity in its outworking -- an idea that is not inconsistent with biblical revelation.

Where I cannot be dogmatic has to do with the interaction of the material and non-material aspects of the human person. One of the most fascinating courses I ever took was physiological psychology and neurology. In the human personality, where does the soul/spirit end and the brain begin? I don't know. But I do know this: all of us were born with twisted hearts, bent toward sin, unable to please God or to change ourselves by our own efforts. For some of us this radical evil expresses itself in a stronger tendency to lie; for others, it is a stronger tendency toward violence; still others struggle with bizarre sexual thoughts, even from early childhood.

Taking into consideration original sin and the diverse ways that it expresses itself has implications for how we deal with the inclination to homosexuality. That means we must treat it in the same way as other deviations from biblical standards: we must condemn the sin, while at the same time extending a loving and compassionate hand to all those who struggle with it.

Perverse sexual acts are clearly condemned in a number of places in the Bible, as for example in Leviticus 18:22, 23: "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable. Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion." Under the jurisprudence of Israel, it was a capital crime: "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads." (Leviticus 20:13.)

The New Testament upholds the moral standards of the Old, and so it, too, condemns homosexuality. Consider, for example, Romans 1:18-31, especially verses 26 and 27: "Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion."

Our Lord Jesus did not remove the moral standards of the Old Testament; he came to give us grace to change us so that we have the desire to keep it and new power to put that desire into effect. And he died to forgive us for our failures to do so. (Matthew 5:17-20; 15:19; Romans 3:31; 6:1-23.) [i]

To what extent is the electro-chemical, genetic stuff that forms the brain affected by original sin? To what extent does it, in turn, influence human behavior? I don't know. I do know that I am responsible for my sins, including mental sins.

On my next anniversary I will have been married for thirty-eight years; we have three daughters and two sons, so I've had a fair opportunity to observe cyclic patterns of behavior. Just before the onset of menses some people have a harder time being cheerful and gracious than they do at other times. This is due to hormonal changes in the chemistry of the brain.

I am a diabetic; if I don't watch my blood sugar, I can be very snappy and am more likely to say something in an ugly way. I am not denying responsibility for my conduct, only saying that I am more likely to say something I shouldn't when my chemical balance is off. I'm not saying that those sinful responses are justified, nor am I inferring that I'm the victim of chemical processes; I'm simply saying that I have to be more on the alert to my tendency to sin with my tongue at those times when my blood chemistry is off.

At those times when my testosterone is high, I may have a bit more trouble dealing with the invasion of an immoral thought than at other times, but that's never a justification for sin, because I don't live in a Skinner box; I am not, in the final analysis, materialistically determined.

In my experience as a pastor, as I have dealt with hundreds of cases of sexual sin, I have found that some people had vile sexual thoughts from their earliest childhood memories. Why? I don't know. It can all be traced back to Adam and the generational curse he bequeathed to us. But can it be traced more immediately to generational patterns accruing from the sins of a person's parents or grandparents?

Where does demonic activity enter in? The gospels record more than one incident of childhood demonization. (Matthew 15:22-28; 17:14-18.) [ii] And I've yet to deal with a male homosexual or lesbian where there was not at least some degree of demonization.

Over the years I have prayed with people whose earliest dreams they remember are sexual in nature, and some of those dreams were homosexual in orientation. Many people would say that this is strictly due to some unknown environmental factor, as, for example, someone having been molested early in life, the memory of which he has repressed. While I'm not ruling that out, neither do I think that we should dogmatically accede to that paradigm for explaining this problem. Here is this person, and he has now become a Christian. Having been born again, he now desires to please God and obey his commandments. He has found supernatural power to resist temptation, but he still faces temptation.

What kinds of temptations does he face? One of the members of my church, a former homosexual, (1 Corinthians 6:9-11.) [iii] told me that when he saw a scene in a particular film he had to shut his eyes because he found himself tempted to have immoral desires for the actor. The point is that he shut his eyes. That's evidence of the Holy Spirit's working in him, making him into a new person in Christ. This is in keeping with what we are told in 1 John 3:4-10.[iv]

What hope can I offer this man? The same hope I offer every believer: victory in Jesus. But we do not yet see all things underneath his feet, and while we are in this world, still having this sinful nature and still being assailed by the devil and his minions, we will have to struggle. Christians, after all, are not perfect people. In fact, as a general rule, they have a keener sense of the struggle with their own sinfulness than other people do. Someone has said that a Christian is a person who is more sinful than he wants to be.

Some former homosexuals will progress to the point where they cease to be tempted in the sexual area; others will not. But one sweet day, none of us will ever be tempted again. For those who continue to be assaulted by homosexual temptation, as with all other temptations to sin, the coping strategy of Ephesians 6:10 ff.[v] works very well.

James 3:15 states, "This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic." Bad thinking arises within us either through the world, our own sinful nature or demons. It is normally the product of all three working in conjunction: so we can never say, "The devil made me do it."

From my perspective, all evil thoughts, generally speaking, are simply some of Satan's fiery darts (Ephesians 6:16.), making use of the world-view to which we are daily subjected in our culture, and the residue of human autonomy in our minds.

Let me share how I have dealt with atheistic thoughts, because the same means work for any other mental barrage of evil.

The last part of my undergraduate education was at a denominational college where the idea that the Bible is an authoritative revelation from God was pretty much rejected by the faculty of the Religion Department. I majored in philosophy and religion and also took a lot of psychology, studying Freud, who, of course, secularized biblical concepts. (For example, he turned God's speaking through the human conscience into the internalized parent of the superego.) For years, words that I had heard and read would be vomited into my conscious mind, especially when I would be in prayer. I would then take time to argue with myself, reexamining the evidences for the Christian faith, which, of course, ruined my prayer time.

Then one day it "dawned" on me that this was all nonsense. The day I came to Christ, September 4th, 1964, I had resolved my doubts. During the eight years I spent in college and seminary (1965-1973.), I had never found one thing that disproved the existence of God, the deity of Christ or the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible. So I concluded these doubts about the existence of a personal, knowable God who hears prayer or about life after death were simply demonic distractions, designed to hinder my enjoyment of God.

When I am assailed by such obsessive thoughts, I realize that they do not arise from legitimate intellectual questions but are demonic distractions, making use of the worldly and carnal residue within me. I bind these defiling spirits in Jesus' name and command their insinuating doubts to get out of my mind. In other words, I take authority over them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, claiming the liberty and cleansing of his precious blood.

When we speak with the authority of faith to wicked thoughts, the deliverance is quick; the fog of confusion is gone. Once we have taken authority in faith, we are then able to pray effectively for protection. But most folk think that prayer works without taking authority over the devil; it doesn't. Satan hates prayer, but he will call for a time of prayer when it is time for us take our stand and engage in warfare against him by exercising the authority the Lord Jesus has given to every believer over the Powers of darkness.

Someone has said that we cannot help a little bird from alighting in our hair, but we can prevent him from building a nest there. This we do by making use of the means of grace, drawing near to the Lord Jesus through them and using the authority that he has given us in his name. As a believer determines to walk in freedom, using the "weapons of our warfare," the frequency of such attacks diminishes. However, we must remember that the time to take off our armor is not in this life but in the world to come, because as long as we are in this world, fiery darts come, sometimes out of the blue, when we least expect them and haven't wrestled with them for some time.

A great, old work dealing with the Christian's struggle against the evil one is William Gurnall's The Christian in Complete Armor. (Originally published in 1680.) (London: The Banner of Truth Trust.), 1979. Gurnall said of the danger of meditating on evil thoughts: "Our hearts are of that colour which our most constant thoughts dye into it. Transient, fleeting thoughts, whether of one kind or another, do not alter the temper of the soul. Neither poison kills nor food nourishes, unless they stay in the body; nor does good or evil benefit or harm the mind unless they abide in it."

I try to remember that my mental VCR has an eject button: the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and the authority of his blood.

What works for one area of sin, works for all others. You may never find yourself taken captive by atheistic thoughts; your master may be sexual temptation. It makes no difference whether that temptation is heterosexual or homosexual in nature. Jesus died and rose again to give you the power to reject evil. Through him, you can be free to think what you want to think. You have the power to command thoughts of atheism, sexual sin, despair and the pull to suicide to get out of your mind. Through the power of a Holy Spirit empowered will, by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, you can choose to think what you want to think. You can be free.

For further reading on overcoming sin, please read How to Conquer Sin in Your Life.

If I can be of any help to you, please feel free to contact me.

Bob Vincent

[i] "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:17-20.)

"For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander." (Matthew 15:19.)

"Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law." (Romans 3:31.)

"What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:1-23.)

[ii] 'And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon." But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying out after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." And he answered, "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.' (Matthew 15:22-28.)

'And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, said,"Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him." And Jesus answered, "O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me." And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly.' (Matthew 17:14-18.)

[iii] "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:9-11.)

[iv] "Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

"Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother." (1 John 3:4-10.)

[v] "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints." (Ephesians 6:10-18.)

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Obsessed with the Gospel
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BLOG ON: SERMON Standing on the Promises, 2
Grace Presbyterian Church
Bob Vincent

Some time back, I attended church with a relative. His church is part of the denomination in which I was raised, and there are still many pockets of Evangelicalism in it; I had come to believe here was one of those pockets.

The senior pastor was on vacation, and his associate was to preach. Before the service I met the preacher, garbing up with collar, robe and stole back in the fellowship hall. (I have no objection to these things -- I'd preach in a polka dot bathrobe, if that's what it took for people to worship without distraction -- but the people of Grace don't like me in a collar and robe, so I wear a suit and tie.) When it was discovered that I lived in Louisiana, I was told that the morning preacher was an alumna of a particular seminary that is not too far away and is connected to a clearly Evangelical denomination. As I sat and read through the bulletin, I looked for the title of the sermon and the text. The title was "No Greater Love;" the text was John 15:12-17.

I looked forward to the message: "Thank you, Lord," I silently prayed, "we will hear the gospel today." As the preacher began and read the Scripture, I waited in anticipation.

The sermon began with words about how kind the people of the congregation were, how they practiced hospitality, and I waited, assuming that the remarks were to establish rapport. Then there was information about going to a conference to learn how to coordinate activities in the church so they could help each other better, and I waited some more. "Churches are often known for certain things -- We are friends -- it should be known in town that the X Church takes care of its own." As I waited, considering the title of the message, "No Greater Love," I thought, "Fifteen to twenty minutes is a pretty long warm up to get to a passage." But there was that magnificent passage that had been read earlier:

"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit -- fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other." (John 15:12-17)

And I waited a minute or two more.

Then it happened: the minister closed in prayer.

I was sick in my soul. How could the title of that sermon be "No Greater Love?" How could John 15:12-17 be reduced to a moralistic pep-talk on friendship? Then I thought about the flattery, about how committed this congregation was to "taking care of its own." Here was a church with attendance of roughly half the one I attend and twice the budget, lots of wealthy, retired people who moved south to play golf year round. My uncle told me that one retired man recently dropped about a hundred thousand on them -- they have more than a few millionaires. As I surveyed the congregation, they all looked as if they had just attended the weekly meeting of the Rotary Club, dressed to the nines. "Takes care of its own?" Well, that's biblical: "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers." (Galatians 6:10) But what about Galatians 2:10? "We should continue to remember the poor." Rich folk tithing is not sacrificial, faith-enabled giving -- the New Testament standard.

As I reflected, I applied my Rotary Club test to the sermon. (Having been a Rotarian for roughly a decade, I have about five hundred after dinner talks bouncing around somewhere in my head.)

If it passes as a good Rotary Club message, it flunks as a sermon.

Rotary Club talks inform and motivate people; they never make you feel guilty or uncomfortable; they never make you despair of any hope but the Lord Jesus.

What a missed opportunity with the text including John 15:13, from which the sermon title had been grabbed! "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."

I like politics, history and the arts; I like friendship and know that we can all be better friends, but I love the gospel. I certainly believe that the people must help their own (1 Timothy 5:8, "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."). I am a strong believer that the Church must be involved in society. The "Social Gospel," whether in its original, liberal form from Walter Rauschenbusch, or in its conservative form from McIntire, Rushdoony, North and Bahnsen, can be a reflection and application of the biblical gospel and does not necessarily undermine the salvation of souls. But I want -- I need -- to hear the old, old story. That's always basic, the foundation of everything else.

I crave to hear how the eternal Son of God became a real human being, just like me except that he never sinned.

I yearn to listen as the preacher describes how the Lord Jesus died on the cross for my sins, passively submitting to the Father's will, actually taking away the guilt and the consequences of every sin that I ever have or ever will commit, thereby securing my salvation, forever sealing shut the gates of hell for me and for all who put their trust in him.

I long to be told about his sinless life and how he actively obeyed the will of God, having perfectly kept the Law in my place, that his righteousness is credited to my account, as if I myself had actually done every good and righteous thing that Jesus did.

I hunger for the promise of victory over sin that is granted me solely by grace through the Lord Jesus, who purchased the gift of the Holy Spirit, who has sanctified me, who is sanctifying me, and who one day will finally and fully sanctify me, who in his gracious work begets within me the pursuit of holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.

I pine for those sweet words of hope that the Lord Jesus Christ has conquered death by his resurrection from the dead, that because he lives, I have new life in the here and now, that when I die, my soul will instantly go to be with him, and that when he returns, I, too, will rise from the dead.

I pant after the words of comfort that Jesus loves me, not abstractly the way that people love humankind, but personally -- he knows me by name and is seated at the Father's right hand praying for me, that because of his session and sovereignty, all things must work together for my good.

I ache to have the preacher tell me that God graciously grants me all this by his mere grace, and that faith is the sole instrument through which I receive God's great salvation, a salvation that is guaranteed by God who unconditionally chose me before the foundation of the world, not because of anything in me, good or otherwise -- because I know that without the Lord Jesus, I am still a hell-deserving wretch, no better than any other human who has every lived.

That's why I love the gospel; it's why I'm obsessed with it. I go away empty when I don't hear those precious words of invitation, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28) And I wonder how anyone who has ever experienced God's grace in Jesus Christ can ever stand before others, read a text like John 15:13 and give a moralistic lecture on being friends.

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The Struggle with Militant Islamicism
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BLOG ON: SERMON Principalities and Powers
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Bob Vincent

1. "The children of Issachar . . . had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do." (1 Chronicles 12:32.) It is important that we understand the position of America.

It is my conviction that America has been under the judgment of God for over a generation. While we may tend to view the significance of removing Scripture and Christian prayer out of our public life as relatively insignificant, it is my conviction that God cursed us as a nation when we did it.

God does bless and curse nations; Abraham's physical descendants were not permitted to possess the Promised Land until "the sin of the Amorites . . . reached its full measure." (Genesis 15:16.) Pagan Rome was not permitted to annihilate the Jewish state until that generation fulfilled our Lord's warning: "Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!" (Matthew 24:32.)

One cannot reject the manifest recognition of God without dire consequences. Isaiah 3:4-10 and Romans 1:21-32 spell out elements of that curse. Romans 1:21-32 depicts a spiral into pleasure that becomes increasingly demented, perverse and pervasive. Homosexuality is rampant and becoming increasingly dominant in American life and law, because our righteous God is giving us the just fruit of our public repudiation of him:

"For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools . . . Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator . . . Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done." (Romans 1:21-28.)

It is because God has cursed America that on June 26, 2003, the United States Supreme Court ruled six to three that Texas' anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause in Lawrence et al. v. Texas. It is because we are under the judgment of God that the United States Supreme Court refused on May 15, 2004, to hear and overturn the Massachusetts' supreme court's ruling in Hillary Goodridge & others vs. Department of Public Health & another, the court case that has now legalized homosexual marriage. Among other reasons, because of the Interstate Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, (Article I, Section 8.) the implications for this ruling will impact all fifty states.

Almighty God has released the flood of depravity that is coming on the American people.

The nineteen-sixties began with the removal of recognition of God and ended with massive contempt for authority and tradition. 1961 marked Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 490 (1961), where state religious test acts were ruled unconstitutional. The decade went on to Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), where state approved prayers in public schools were ruled unconstitutional and then on to School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), where school sponsored reading of the Bible was ruled unconstitutional.

What also happened in or as a result of that watershed decade?

1.1. Reflecting the removal of the wisdom of the framers of the United States Constitution, America not only removed the religious basis of its morality, but also the basis for the effective transmission of knowledge as well. The Northwest Ordinance, (July 13, 1787) stated in Article 3: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." One notices the federal government's rationale for public education and the specific priority assigned to religious instruction, which under the original American system would have varied from state to state: "religion, morality, and knowledge." The United States Congress passed this ordinance during the time that the Constitutional Convention met (May 29 through September 17, 1787). This is the same Congress that approved the United States Constitution and sent it down to be ratified by the states.

1.2. In many parts of the country, particularly those places with large minority populations, the public school system buckled under federally mandated integration. Desegregation ought to have taken place -- there were and are enormous inequities in American life -- but the destruction of neighborhood schools and forced busing in order to achieve racial balance has terribly impacted public schools in many places, and the most severally impacted element in American society has been the African-American community, where the level of literacy has plummeted in the past forty years.

1.3. Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," while noble in its stated intent, has had a devastating impact on the nuclear family among the poorest people in American society, as males have been forcibly removed from the home.

1.4. June 27, 1969, saw the riot at the Stonewall Bar in New York City, where the homosexual confrontation with American society began. This riot was part of a larger sexual revolution that dethroned moral absolutes with such things as Episcopal priest, Joseph Fletcher's 1966 publication of Situation Ethics: The New Morality, and legitimized the fictions of Alfred Charles Kinsey. The intellectual apostasy begun in the American church in the early days of the twentieth century fully aided and abetted this revolution; had this ecclesiastical ethical insurrection not taken place in the nineteen-sixties, Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) could never have begun America's holocaust of the innocent on January 22, 1973. That moral revolution has also made possible the inclusion of females in combat roles in the American military.

1.5. America lost its first war, Vietnam, where 58,000 young Americans, to say nothing of others, lost their lives for absolutely nothing. Back in the sixties, I told a ROTC senior, "When you are dying in Vietnam, remember my words, 'I am dying for absolutely nothing.' The Vietnamese lack the religious foundation to function democratically, and America lacks the political will to win there. Sooner or later, we will pull out and allow the North Vietnamese and Vietcong to take over." As the supply pastor of a small Presbyterian church, I also had to bury a young man who was killed there; he left a wife and a child. How dreadful!

Isaiah 3:4 warns: "I will make boys their officials; mere children will govern them. People will oppress each other -- man against man, neighbor against neighbor. The young will rise up against the old, the base against the honorable." When I think about Isaiah's curse that God will "make boys their officials," I think particularly of President Clinton's satyriasis that was so clearly like that of an early, post-pubescent male. But I also think about the policies of our leaders outlined above and how we have come now to become involved in yet another ground war in Asia.

Therefore, according to "our place and calling," (Westminster Larger Catechism, 108.) we must repent corporately and individually for America's choice publicly to reject the recognition of God from our public institutions and the removal of his Moral Law as the self-conscious foundation for our jurisprudence.

We must acknowledge in the prayers of our pulpits that God would be altogether just if he allowed hundreds of thousands of young Americans to die in combat for absolutely nothing, our social and economic infrastructure to be destroyed by terrorists and our nation fall to a foreign power. We must plead God's mercy in Christ for ourselves, our apostate churches and our civil authorities, using Ephraim's plaintive plea, "Turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the LORD my God." (Jeremiah 31:18.)

2. We must pray for our leaders, as we are instructed: "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone -- for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." (1 Timothy 2:1, 2.)

If Saint Paul instructed seventh decade, first century believers to pray for the pagan civil authorities over them, including the infamous Nero, how much more ought we pray for President George W. Bush, a man who appears to be an Evangelical Christian?

We should pray that we are able to "live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." A fundamental part of that petition is that God would use the civil authorities so that we may advance the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ without being hindered by others. We should pray that we may not only share Christ and his Word openly and worship freely, but that we may also go about the business of life Christianly without opposition. We must pray that civil government would do its two-fold work effectively not only by restraining evil, but also by protecting the structure of society so that those who "do right" may enjoy the fruit of their labors: "to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right." (1 Peter 2:14.)

I could write a number of pages about the specific things for which we ought to pray regarding our civil authorities, but focusing on the Iraq situation, I will limit myself to it and the "War on Terror."

We should petition our heavenly Father for the sake of our King and Savior that he would give our President to be separated from "counsel of the ungodly" and given the grace of humility that he may have the wisdom to lead the United States. We should pray that if he has made unwise or evil decisions that he would be given the grace effectively to repent of those decisions and lead our nation in acts that are appropriate to such repentance. In my own view, it was a legitimate response to the attacks on our nation on September 11, 2001, to invade Afghanistan and remove the Taliban. The invasion of Iraq is another matter entirely, far less clear-cut.

After the end of the Vietnam War, our government began a policy of downsizing the American military until the Iranian, Shiite, Islamic revolution humiliated us under President Carter. Ronald Reagan ran on a platform of increased military might and put his policies into effect soon after becoming President. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fragmentation of our old nemesis, the Soviet Union, the first President Bush continued that downsizing after the First Gulf War, and this proceeded apace under Bill Clinton.

Other changes took place under President Clinton, including farming out many aspects of government to semi-private agencies. As this has continued under George W. Bush, we now rely more on private corporations and on National Guard and Army Reserve Units than we have in the past. Much of what happened at Abu Ghraib reflects this. The commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, Janis Karpinski, was not Regular Army but an Army Reserve brigadier general. Indications are that the soldiers who carried out the sexual humiliation of the imprisoned Arabs were not simply sexually perverse simpletons with time on their hands; these abuses too closely reflect tactics Israel effectively developed in torturing Arabs, especially as they worked with the remnants of the non-Israeli, Maronite militias. There are indications that both CACI and Titan corporations have some connection to the Israeli Mossad and Shin Bet security service.

I have said that to say this: "Shock and awe" military technology cannot replace "boots on the ground." The Iraq invasion took place far too quickly; there was no more imminent threat to our nation coming out of Iraq that demanded such immediate action than there was from any number of other states. Had our President followed in the footsteps of his father and taken time to build a larger coalition, especially one that officially included most Muslim states, and had he taken time to supply our military personnel adequately with matériel, I do not think that we would be in this bloody quagmire on May 23, 2004.

The failure to build a larger coalition stretches our military forces very thin. This past week American troops began to be moved out of South Korea in order to send them to Iraq -- given its nuclear program and its proximity to Communist China, (the one nation-state -- as over against transnational terrorist networks -- most likely to threaten the United States a decade from now.) North Korea poses a much more imminent threat to our national security than did Saddam Hussein. And the Iraq invasion, done as it was without adequate preparation, lessens our ability effectively to deal with these transnational terrorist networks, such as Al-Qaeda. My opinion is that we unwittingly followed Osama bin Laden's script when we did so, but I am a private citizen with limited knowledge, wisdom and intelligence, so whether or not we were foolish to invade Iraq, especially when and how we did, we are there now, and the situation is very, very volatile, and foolish moves will have enormous, unpredictable consequences. A precipitous retreat can spell disaster not only for our nation but for the whole world.

We should pray for our Commander in Chief to wage war effectively against those who truly threaten our nation. The focus of our prayers should be for the quick and total defeat of those in Iraq who are an actual threat to us, the preservation of human life where at all possible, and for our military forces to be able to return to other tasks quickly.

3. Living in a modern, liberal, democratic republic under a constitution that guarantees a number of basic freedoms, including the freedom of speech, believers have the right and pastors have the responsibility, biblically to evaluate the policies of our government, but we must never "adhere" to our nation's "Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." (i.e. "Treason," as defined by Article III, Section 3 of the United States Constitution.) And we should beware of bringing abusive and railing accusations against those whom God has placed over us to lead us. If even the Archangel Michael did not dare to speak abusively even to the devil, (Jude 1:9.) how much more careful ought we to be of slandering those whom God has put in authority over us.

Under this point, I will throw out a sketch of what I would do were I the President of the United States, with sufficient control of both Houses of Congress and the Federal Judiciary to proceed unhindered. Of course, this is exceedingly far-fetched, but it does form a basis of how I think believers might pray for God to direct the hearts of those whom he has placed over us. (Proverbs 21:1.)

3.1. Following the examples of Judah's best kings, as well as Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, I would get on my face before God, confessing my sins and those of my people. Following the example of Israel's wisest king, I would confess, "I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties." (1 Kings 3:7.) I would ask for wisdom to know God's will and the grace to do it.

3.2. I would seal America's borders and systematically expel all illegal aliens; I would focus on the expulsion of all foreign born, Muslim visitors, especially unmarried males who did not have a compelling reason to be in the United States. Every branch of government within the United States should profile certain types of foreign people, so as to protect the Constitutionally mandated rights of actual American citizens.

3.3. In a systematic and orderly way, I would remove everyone in my administration who had loyalty to the welfare of any nation other than the United States or who put his or her personal or corporate welfare above the interests of the nation. I would see to it that those who had broken our laws, including those of the Geneva Convention -- no matter how high up in the chain of command they were -- were prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

3.4. As quickly as possible, I would remove all females from combat roles in the United States military.

3.5. While continuing to support the state of Israel, I would serve public and private notice to Israel and the Arab world that the United States will no longer unquestioningly support all of Israel's policies.

3.6. In an orderly way, I would cease to support Arab dictators who violate the basic human rights of their own people, no matter how friendly these tyrants appear to be to the United States.

3.7. I would cause the anti-Christian, secularist, hedonistic Crusade of the formerly Christian West against Arab culture to cease and would do what I could to encourage true Christians to do the only thing that can bring freedom to the Muslim world: go there as missionaries of the Lord Jesus Christ.

3.8. I would do what I could to lessen America's sixty year reason for meddling in the Arab world, going back to 1943, when America first stationed our troops in Arabia under President Roosevelt: our dependence on their oil. I would do this slowly, but steadily, by developing America's own oil fields and working to reduce our heavy need for oil -- among many other ways, by means of tax incentives for alternative energy sources and against private vehicles that get poor mileage, as well as by working significantly to increase mass transit systems in American cities.

3.9. In the War on Terror, I would unshackle the less savory elements of the American Intelligence community, empowering them to take that war in a very personal, private and painful way not only to those engaged in terrorism, but also to those who are associated with it or profit from it, including foreign political leaders, manufacturers and bankers. (This point and the next are the only ones about which I have real scruples. Not to be overly influenced by William James, but assassinations do cost far fewer lives and much less money; they minimize the disruption to the lives of our own citizens and tend not to destabilize other nations so severely as do wars.)

3.10. As quickly as possible, I would install a tough, puppet regime in Iraq and move American military personnel to more secure locations within the country, trying to maintain a measure of pressure to keep the country either from becoming Balkanized, on the one hand, or a bastion of intolerant, Shiite rule, on the other. But as soon as I could do so without jeopardizing the national security of United States, I would arrange for the complete removal of American forces, even if Iraq were left in a shambles, with on-going civil conflict. That is terribly sad, and it would have far worse consequences on the Iraqi people than did our abandoning the South Vietnamese thirty years ago, but I see no other way, not even with the significant involvement of other nations. (Written on May 22, 2004.)

I welcome your comments.

Bob Vincent

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Righteous and at the Same Time a Sinner
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BLOG ON: SERMON Standing on the Promises, 2
Grace Presbyterian Church
Bob Vincent
Simul Justus Et Peccator (Martin Luther)

Peccator is the Latin word for "sinner." Luther's Latin statement may be translated: "Righteous and at the same time a sinner." From reading Luther, I don't believe that he thought that a believer who is trusting in Christ is ever left in bondage to sin and not able to deal with specific sins in a godly way. However, Luther, along with the rest of the Reformers, understood that none of us is ever completely free from the contaminating influence of sin. Luther's statement fits in well with mainstream Protestant thinking:

"We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from his Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment.

"Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God's sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections." (The Westminster Confession of Faith, "Of Good Works," Chapter XVI, v, vi.)

In particular, we see Luther's understanding as we consider the clauses in paragraph v: "As they are good, they proceed from his Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment."

It is truly a cause for wonder at God's grace, that he not only pardons our sins and accepts us as righteous in Christ, but that he also accepts our good works as good. It is not as though our good works "were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God's sight;" it is rather that God looks at our good works "in Christ," his precious blood covering the contaminating element of sin from which no aspect of human life is fully free in this life. And so, because of Jesus' blood and righteousness, when God examines my good works, he "is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections."

As Luther wrote:

"1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.

"2. This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.

"3. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh." (Martin Luther, The Ninety-Five Theses.)

When I think about that ubiquitous element within all good works, I am prompted not only to evangelical humility and self-examination, I am pressed to pray: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting." (Psalm 139:23, 24.)

As I contemplate the fact that in the Fall I lost more than a gift of super-added grace (donum superadditum) -- that in spite of the work of grace God did within me, sin still corrupts every aspect of my life, even -- especially -- my ability to know my own heart -- I am compelled to cry: "Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults."

As I consider my peccability, I plead with God, especially given the fact that even in that noble work of self-examination, I may find myself so focusing on my assumed spiritual attainments that I begin to succumb to the Siren song of seduction to pride -- that will always bring me to crash on the rocks of some notorious and destructive sin. Being keenly aware that great men have done great harm as they have stumbled in the blindness that their pride begets, I long for God to grant me a fresh revelation of my remaining corruption so that I may deal with it and so that he may keep me back "from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression." (Psalm 19:12, 13.)

The more I know myself, the more I comprehend the truth of Doctor Luther: "the whole life of believers should be repentance." One trouble with much that passes for Christianity is the tendency to view the work of the Law as having been completed at the time of people's conversion to Christ. But Christians must grasp that the Law is to be their Schoolmaster every day, not only to be "the rule of their obedience," but "to humble them in the sense of their sin and misery" thereby daily leading them to the foot of the Cross in the brokenness of repentance. (Westminster Larger Catechism, 97, 95.)

In this life all that we do falls short of what it needs to be, including our confession and repentance. Bishop Berkeley (A.D. 1670.) wrote, "I cannot pray, but I sin; I cannot preach, but I sin; I cannot administer, nor receive the holy sacrament, but I sin. My very repentance needs to be repented of: and the tears I shed need washing in the blood of Christ."

As I ponder Berkeley's words, I reflect on my penchant for sin. Even in that most noble of tasks, the preaching of the gospel, all too often I've caught myself thinking about something I just said -- "That was really eloquent" -- and I grieve the Holy Spirit. Or, sadly, sometimes I find my eyes noticing someone in the congregation, glowing with joy as she stands and sings, but perhaps with too tight a blouse, and I have immediately to renew the covenant I made with my eyes. (Job 31:1.) Of course, noticing a female, on the one hand, and playing a video tape in the theater of the mind, on the other, are two different things, but every believer has to be careful with his eyes and the imagination, and this carefulness cannot cease this side of being face to face with the Lord Jesus. Even in the greatest of all good works, prayer, how often have I found myself interceding for someone only to be aware that in my very prayers, some hurt from long ago had begun to seep into my mind, oozing its putrefying self-righteous bitterness into my soul, so that my prayer had become a pustule full of sin.

The important thing is that I am stung by these things and turn from them to Christ; that is compelling evidence that I do have true faith. I do have good works, the same works that will inevitably, eventually come to be present, in some measure, in everyone who has put his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jonathan Edwards (A.D. 1743.) wrote: "When I look into my heart and take a view of its wickedness, it looks like an abyss infinitely deeper than hell. And it appears to me, that, were it not for free grace, exalted and raised up to the infinite height of all the fullness and glory of the great Jehovah, I should appear sunk down in my sins below hell itself; far below the sight of everything, but the eye of sovereign grace, that alone can pierce down to such a depth. And it is affecting to think how ignorant I was, when a young Christian, of the bottomless depths of wickedness, pride, hypocrisy and deceit left in my heart."

As I attempt to evaluate my good works, I am reminded of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 4:5, "Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God." It is that truth that brings about Paul's understanding about the inadequacy of his own conscience: "My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me." (1 Corinthians 4:4.) Only at the judgment seat of Christ will we be able to make a true confession for our sins.

As I contemplate the fact that my good works are accepted only "in Christ," I am also reminded that, "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad." (2 Corinthians 5:10.) That "Day will bring . . . to light" the true significance of what we have done in this life. (1 Corinthians 3:13.) And though we may suffer the loss of rewards, yet we ourselves "will be saved," even if it is "as one escaping through the flames." (1 Corinthians 3:15.)

For the believer, the outcome of the judgment seat of Christ is never in doubt, because our true judgment day has already come and gone; it took place two thousand years ago on a hill called Calvary. As the Lord Jesus said, "Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life." (John 5:24.)

What a wonderful truth! You and I who have put our trust in the Lord Jesus have already crossed over from death to life, and we will never be condemned -- no condemnation now -- no condemnation then. As Saint Paul put it: "Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died -- more than that, who was raised to life -- is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us." (Romans 8:33, 34.)

Yet, in spite of there being no condemnation, there will be a Judgment. To what purpose? It is common in some quarters to believe that this will only deal with those sins for which we did not ask specific forgiveness in this life. But does this fit in with what we find in Scripture?

We must remember that God no longer remembers our sins AGAINST us. That does not mean that God gives himself some kind of amnesia.

Take, for example, the case of David. He was a justified man; had he had a fatal heart attack in the act of adultery with Bathsheba, he would not have gone to hell. His penitential thirty-second and fifty-first Psalms describe both his grief for his sin and his gratitude to God for his refusing to charge it against him: "Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit." (Psalm 32:1, 2.) Yet, David's sin is recorded in Scripture, in God's Word, which is "forever settled in heaven." (Psalm 119:89.)

Because of the blood of Jesus, instead of David's sin being some hideous thing for which he must one day be condemned, it has become the dark tapestry on which the jewel of God's grace is displayed in all its crystalline brilliance.

It is at the judgment seat of Christ that I shall truly understand my own utter wretchedness, but -- wonder of wonders -- it is at the judgment seat of Christ that I shall truly understand grace -- forgiving, justifying, nailing-Jesus-to-the cross-as-my-substitute, blood-bought, grace.

As the years go by, as the Lord gives greater revelation of our hearts, do we not discover, especially as we mull over past conflicts with others, that our actions often had much more of our flesh in them than we thought at the time? The judgment seat of Christ completes that process both of self-examination and of reconciliation with others and brings complete healing. We will face things about ourselves too hideous for our frail minds to handle while in this mortal frame, but there we will face them while being held in the loving, all accepting, arms of our dear Savior.

The truly stupendous thing is that we do not have to be afraid of this event, "because fear has to do with punishment," (1 John 4:18.) and there will be no punishment there. It will be a time of healing and release, of restoration and reconciliation with the whole body of Christ. Every church split will be made whole; every injury will be healed. It will be a time of mourning, but the happy mourning of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3 ff.), for we will know a comfort beyond all comprehension -- the comfort of the Comforter (PARAKLHTOS.), the Holy Spirit, and the comfort of the Comforter (PARAKLHTOS.), the Lord Jesus (John 14:16; 1 John 2:1.). Then our mourning will turn into unspeakable joy, for our blessed Triune God "will wipe every tear from" our "eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things" will have "passed away." (Revelation 21:4.) From then on our good works will be fully good, every last tincture of sin forever gone.

Glory to the Lamb!

"Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness he requireth
Is to feel your need of him.

"Come ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you're better,
You will never come at all."
Joseph Hart (1712-1768

Bob Vincent

(318) 445-7271, work; (318) 793-5354, home; bob@rbvincent.com

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Responding to Harsh Providence
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Posted by: Grace Presbyterian Church | more..
BLOG ON: SERMON Standing on the Promises, 3
Grace Presbyterian Church
Bob Vincent

How should we respond to a harsh providence like Katrina?

When we ponder my favorite verse in the Bible, Romans 8:28, we need to keep in mind that it does not teach that everything that happens is good.

1. Bad things really do happen.

This past week (September 3, 2005) was full of the sights and sounds of suffering . . . and the smells. After an earlier trip transporting elderly folk from Baton Rouge to Lafayette with our assistant pastor, Ritchey Cable, my wife and I went in a convoy to the Superdome to take people to the New Orleans airport temporary triage unit. One of our people was a woman who was completely out of her mind. A man on our van told us that she had entered the Superdome with five children, and now she had none. What happened? He had no idea. He only said that he had seen things he didn't want to talk about, didn't want to think about. Yes, there were gang rapes. Young men beat old people in wheelchairs to steal their meager belongings. There were rotting corpses. The stench . . . So much that happens to us is bad . . . really bad.

There is nothing good about death or the things that lead to death. I was with my father for the last twelve hours of his life. I listened to him gasp for breath for two hours, literally drowning in fluid, gurgling with the death rattle. That's not good. That's terrible. I'll never forget the sights, sounds and smells of his death, or that of my mother or mother-in-law -- of scores of other people.

I've sat with literally hundreds of people who've had their lives torn apart by some sexual sin, seen the response of dozens of folk as they discovered for the first time that their spouse had been unfaithful to them. Adultery is not good. It's vile and brings unbelievable pain to others. People have horrible reactions when they hear a spouse confess to infidelity. I've had to pull somebody off of a spouse, seen a man break his knuckles as he hit my wall, felt the dent in the paneling from where a wedding band bounced off. I've ministered to bleeding children, wounded by the sword-thrusts from two fools who couldn't keep their mouths shut in front of their children, especially in the wake of a divorce.

2. When we encounter these bad things, we must earnestly pray for divine intervention.

Our Lord teaches us this by his example in the Garden: '"Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:36.)

At least four things stand out in that verse:

2.1. Jesus rests in the love of God. God is his Father and his stance toward his child is one of affection and delight: "Abba, Father."

2.2. Jesus rests in the absolute sovereignty of God: "Everything is possible for you."

2.3. Jesus really prays: "Take this cup from me."

2.4. Having prayed, Jesus rests in submission to God's good purpose: "Yet not what I will, but what you will."

Over the years I've discovered that people tend to minimize either the third or the fourth actions of our Lord. I've encountered many people who are so ensnared by the false, materialistic "gospel" of "name it and claim it" that they can never come to rest in the sovereign goodness of God who ordains sometimes evil things to bless his own. I once had to ride in an automobile with a man who was obviously suffering from a viral infection, but he had become so superstitious about what he said that he wouldn't acknowledge the reality of his plight, and so he confessed, "I am catching a healing." He seemed to ignore the truth of Psalm 34:19, "Many are the afflictions of the righteous."

But there is a second half to that verse, the part that another group of Christians tends to minimize: "But the LORD delivers him out of them all." Fatalists, those who believe more in line with Islam than with biblical Christianity, so focus on the sovereignty of God that they rush to rest in the sovereignty of God without the struggle of persistent, prevailing prayer. They forget the biblical truth, summed up so well:

"God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established." *

I find the above paragraph thoroughly biblical; it asserts God's absolute sovereignty, while affirming that certain seemingly incongruous doctrines are also true: 1. God is not the author of sin; 2. God does not force his will on his creatures; 3. God's foreordination includes not only the end result, but also all of the means to that end. Biblical predestination is never fatalistic.

In the light of that truth, we must really pray. Indeed, our Sovereign God admonishes us to give him no rest: "You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth." (Isaiah 62:6, 7.)

Under the overarching, immutable decree of God, it is because Moses refused to accept God's admonition as final that we have the people of God, as we know them today:

'"Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation." But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. "O LORD," he said, "why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? . . ." Then the LORD relented (niphal, waw-consecutive, imperfect of NACHAM, "repented, changed his mind, came to regret," etc.) and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.' (Exodus 32:10-14.)

The truth of the matter is that our sovereign God makes use of second causes and sometimes sovereignly limits himself by people's lack of faith: 'Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor." He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.' (Mark 6:4-6.)

Saint James admonishes us: "You do not have, because you do not ask God," and goes on, "When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures." (James 4:2.)

God help the Christian who simply acquiesces to a severe providence without earnestly and persistently pleading the promises of God. If my child is caught in drug addiction or sexual sin, may God deliver me simply from praying, "Lord, give me grace to endure this trial. Your will be done." No, I need first to fight the circumstances, and I need to wrestle with the Lord, as did Jacob at Peniel. (Genesis 32.) That's what Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane.

3. We must come not simply to accept a severe providence fatalistically, but to embrace it, in time, with cheerfulness.

There comes a point in prayer where we are brought to surrender. It may be in a few moments, or it may be weeks or even months or years. But that is what our Lord does when finally he comes to pray, "Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:36.) Saint Paul's response to his "thorn in the flesh," his tormenting "angel of Satan," serves us well as another example:

'Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.' (2 Corinthians 12:8-10.)

3.1. We must remember that God has destined both the good and the bad things that happen to us for his glory and for our good.

The reason that we can come eventually, cheerfully to embrace a severe providence is because of what the Bible teaches us about our relationship with our sovereign God. Because God chose us out of a sinful and fallen humanity, chose us for no reason inherent in us, chose us not because he foresaw our faith or good works, but unconditionally, we stand under his grace and will never come under his condemnation. (Romans 9:6-18; Acts 13:48; Ephesians 1:3-2:10; John 6:37, 44; 10:28, 29; Romans 5:1ff.; 8:1, 31-39**.) Even when we experience suffering in this life, it is never as a condemning consequence for our sins, but part of God's benevolent plan for our lives, including his Fatherly discipline, whereby he causes whatever happens to us, even our own sins, failures and foolishness to work together, not only for our own individual good, but for the good of all God's people in all ages and places. (Romans 8:18-30***.)

Because our Lord was cursed and condemned, we never will be (Galatians 3:13.) -- "in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." (Galatians 3:14.) "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all -- how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32.) When we read of those dreadful curses and condemnations, we know that they will never be visited on us. Rather, all we ever receive is the blessing of God. We are united with the one true Seed of Abraham, and we are therefore the inheritors of all the good things and none of the bad. (Romans 8:17.)

And all this is so because God did not "spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all." (Romans 8:32.) He did not spare him from one ounce of guilt that is yours or mine; he did not spare him one piece of the defilement and consequences of that guilt; he did not hold him back from experiencing the full brunt of his just wrath due for our sins, but abandoned him to hell on the cross. Who can bring any charge against us? (Romans 8:33.) Who can condemn us? (Romans 8:34.) There is no longer condemnation (Romans 8:1.) because there is no longer any guilt left.

"What is your only comfort in life and in death?" asks the Heidelberger and answers:

"That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him."

3.2 We never thank God for evil in abstraction, but for his goodness in every circumstance, because he has ordained whatsoever comes to pass for our good -- full conformity to the restored image of God in Jesus Christ. (Romans 8:29.)

"Thank you, God, for my spouse's adultery and for the financial destruction it is going to bring. Thank you for the psychological torment that it is going to bring on our little children as the hate daily grows between us."

Of course, we should never pray that way -- that is the prayer of a fool. Rather, we give thanks to God that we are not alone in these trials and that our faithful Savior was tempted in all the ways that we are and that he, too, suffered injustice in this world, that we have a Friend in heaven who is praying for us with a full awareness of what we are going through. We give thanks that God is still in absolute control and that his loving hand is orchestrating all these things for our ultimate welfare in Jesus Christ that we may be like Jesus. (Romans 8:29.)

Resting in the biblical truth of God's absolute sovereignty, we approach life differently than the rest of humankind.

"Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.)

There is tremendous power in our praising God in the middle of the Chaos of our lives "under the sun," but this is only possible as we focus on our Lord, his goodness and his good goal, not on ourselves and our sometimes miserable circumstances. How poignantly this was brought home to us last night. Our son and his wife came up from Baton Rouge with a fifteen year old, single, pregnant African American woman. Several days back, Benn had received a telephone call from one of his old Intervarsity Christian Fellowship friends from Tulane days. Benn's friend had received a phone call from this young woman, stranded in a shelter in Gonzales. Her family had been transported away, but she had been left. Benn went that night to the shelter and brought the young woman up to Baton Rouge to stay with them. Then they came on to Alexandria, and Benn took her to catch a flight early this morning. Benn's IVF friend's wife's family is going to take the young woman into their home to live. The young woman's mother is a crack cocaine addict from the poorest section of New Orleans, but this young woman and her baby will live with an obstetrician and his family. She and her soon to be born baby will live in a nurturing Christian environment with wonderful opportunities in the future. As Sandy and I interacted with Neal last night -- I once called her Katrina by accident -- we found her to be bright and an avid reader. Romans 8:28 is still true.

"Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:16-18.)

To the degree that we are full of Jesus rather than full of ourselves, colored and controlled, not by psychotropic drugs and other coping devices, but by the Holy Spirit, we can maintain this response of gratitude:

"Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be being filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ." (Ephesians 5:18-20.)

We don't do this with a Pollyanna-esque denial of reality, but with a "cynical" realism that chooses cheerfully to be optimistic by faith and chooses to express that cheerfulness in regular seasons of thanksgiving before God and man, and especially in the sanctuary of our own hearts.

Bob Vincent

* The Westminster Confession of Faith, III, i

** 'It is not as though God's word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: "At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son." Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad -- in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls -- she was told, "The older will serve the younger." Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden." (Romans 9:6-18.)

"When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed." (Acts 13:48.)

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will -- to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment -- to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession -- to the praise of his glory. For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions -- it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 1:3-2:10.)

"All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away." (John 6:37.)

"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:44.)

"I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand." (John 10:28.)

"My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand." (John 10:29.)

"Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." (Romans 5:1-5.)

"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus," (Romans 8:1.)

"What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all -- how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died -- more than that, who was raised to life -- is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:31-39.)

*** "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." (Romans 8:18-30.)

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Fight the Good Fight
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BLOG ON: SERMON Standing on the Promises, 3
Grace Presbyterian Church
Bob Vincent
I have been preaching through the book of Hebrews for several years. That may seem to be a long time, but think about what is in chapter 11 alone: well over a year's worth of preaching from the Old Testament, as character after character responds to God's Word in faith and sees the power of God manifested in life's circumstances. On Sunday morning, February 12, 2006, I came to Hebrews 13:6, 'So that we may boldly say, "The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do to me."'

In the weeks that led up to my preaching from this text, I was impressed with the significance of where its quotation came: Psalm 118, the last Psalm in the Great Hallel. Psalms 113-118 are sometimes called the Egyptian Hallel. These Psalms were to be used on the evening of the Passover, so when the gospel writers mention that Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn at the end of the last Passover, (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26) they are referring to this collection that ends with Psalm 118. How significant that they would sing these words on the evening before the Lord Jesus was nailed to that Roman cross for our sins:

"The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell got hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. Then called I upon the name of the LORD; O LORD, I beseech thee, deliver my soul." (Psalm 116:3, 4) "I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD. . . Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. O LORD, truly I am thy servant; I am thy servant, and the son of thine handmaid: thou hast loosed my bonds" (Psalm 116:13-16).

"The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the LORD'S doing; it is marvellous in our eyes. This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. Save now, I beseech thee, O LORD: O LORD, I beseech thee, send now prosperity. Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the LORD. . . bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar" (Psalm 118:22-27).

Clearly Psalm 118 is a Messianic Psalm. The Lord Jesus is the Stone rejected by the builders (Psalm 118:22; Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:7). He is the ultimate and final sacrifice bound to the altar; his blood was shed once for all time, obtaining eternal redemption(Hebrews 9:12-15, 23-28; 10:1-18).

The writer of Hebrews applies this Messianic Psalm to us. Because we are "in Christ," this Psalm is ours, as well. Its promises are our promises, "For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us" (2 Corinthians 1:20). And because King David is "in Christ," this Psalm is his Psalm, too, a Psalm that had its origins in terrible conflicts from which our Lord God delivered David.

"In Christ," David is also the stone rejected by the builders, often despised and overlooked, as when the Prophet Samuel came to Bethlehem to anoint King Saul's successor. 'Jesse made seven of his sons to pass before Samuel. And Samuel said unto Jesse, "The LORD hath not chosen these. And Samuel said unto Jesse, "Are here all thy children?" And he said, "There remaineth yet the youngest, and, behold, he keepeth the sheep."' (1 Samuel 16:10, 11)

People were often against him. His own father-in-law repeatedly plotted his death, but God was always with David to deliver him, and David celebrates these wonderful deliverances in Psalm 118. As I analyzed each word in the Hebrew text, I was impressed with the significance of the triplet in verses 10-12:

  • All nations surrounded me, but in Yahweh's name indeed I cut off their foreskins.
  • They surrounded me, surrounded me completely, but in Yahweh's name indeed I cut off their foreskins.
  • They surrounded me like bees, they crackled like a fire of thorns, but in Yahweh's name indeed I cut off their foreskins. (Psalm 118:10-12; in Mitchell Dahood, Psalms III, 101-150, Anchor Bible, Vol 17, [New York, 1970], p. 154. Supporting Dahood's translation is Brown-Driver-Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament [Oxford, 1968], p. 558: "Psalm 118:10; 118:11; 118:12 in the name of y_, yea I will make them to be circumcised {enemies, by force of arms. . .}).

1 Samuel 18 records one example of this kind of violent circumcision of David's enemies: 'And Saul said, "Thus shall ye say to David, 'The king desireth not any dowry, but an hundred foreskins of the Philistines, to be avenged of the king's enemies.'"' (1 Samuel 18:25) King Saul's plan was that David would be killed by these "uncircumcised Philistines," but the Lord was with David and delivered him in battle so that David brought, not one hundred, but two hundred of these Philistine "scalps" (1 Samuel 18:27) and won Michal, King Saul's daughter.

How often must David have been in violent battles, surrounded by deadly enemies: "They surrounded me like bees, they crackled like a fire of thorns . . ." Again and again, the Lord delivered David: "but in Yahweh's name indeed I cut off their foreskins." (Psalm 118:12)

David celebrates the victory of God over his enemies in Psalm 118, and as we sing this ancient hymn of praise, we are reminded that the truth of the Sovereignty of God is not about fatalistic, passive acquiescence to some horrible thing that we fearfully imagine is God's predestined end for us. It is about fighting the good fight of faith, confident that as we go into battle, the Lord is with us -- as Moses teaches us to sing: "The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name." (Exodus 15:3)

As believers living under the New Testament, we are called to battle every bit as much as David. But unlike David, our weapons are not sword and bow. "For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ." (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

The Christian must never look at dark circumstances and assume that God has foreordained some dreadful thing for us and those we love. On the contrary, we are called to pray and fight; we are called to plead the promises of God, trusting in our Sovereign God to deliver us from the malice of Satan as we resist the evil one, firm in our faith. We are just as much in battle as David ever was, with a most deadly foe. "For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe. His craft and power are great and armed with cruel hate. On earth is not his equal." (Martin Luther's paraphrastic hymn of Psalm 46, "A Mighty Fortress Is our God.")

Given the secularistic prejudice that has numbed the minds even of many Bible-believing Christians, we must beware that we do not rule out the evil supernatural forces that are pitted against us in the ordinary circumstances of life. God is sovereign over all of life, to be sure, but underneath God's sovereign purpose, a real battle is still raging between Christ and Satan. We face three real and deadly enemies: the world, the flesh and the devil. And as we live our lives in this world, we must take seriously the real power of Satan. This is explored in a sermon that I preached the Sunday after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, right after returning from there with my wife, "A Trip to Job's House." But the Bible takes natural circumstances seriously as well as the supernatural battle going on for our planet, even though all things are under God's sovereignty.

When we encounter dreadful things, we must fight them using the Spiritual weapons God has given us. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5) We must pray and take our stand. If we have loved ones who have gone astray, turning their backs on the Lord Jesus, we should never adopt a fatalistic attitude, twisting the teaching about God's sovereignty into some heartless fatalism: "God if it be thy will, save my child." What nonsense! Scripture reveals God's revealed will, and God's revealed will is the salvation of our loved ones. God's sovereignty is never revealed so that we adopt an attitude of stoical resignation; it is so that we will fight, confident that the Lord is beside us: "The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name." (Exodus 15:3)

The Bible reveals God's will. We should always take our stand on what the Bible tells us pleases God: God's will is life and health and strength and enough of this world's goods to take care of those for whom we are responsible and have enough left over to give to others in need. God's will is salvation: "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28) "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house." (Acts 16:31)

When our Lord Jesus faced the most frightful and painful event in the history of the world, he earnestly prayed against it, and did not rest until he had God's good purpose clearly set before him: "Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt." (Mark 14:36) At least four things stand out in Mark 14:36:

  1. Jesus rests in the love of God. God is his Father and his stance toward his child is one of affection and delight: "Abba, Father."
  2. Jesus rests in the absolute sovereignty of God: "All things are possible unto thee."
  3. Jesus really prays: "Take away this cup from me."
  4. Having prayed, Jesus rests in submission to God's good purpose: "Nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt."

Too often Christians fail to pray through a matter until they truly have the mind of the Lord. The Apostle Paul prayed earnestly to be delivered from his painful, demonic thorn in the flesh, and he did not rest until he was assured by the Lord himself that he had something better in mind than merely being delivered from a vexing problem: "For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me." (2 Corinthians 12:8, 9)

Living as we do when Christian Theology is no longer the Queen of the Sciences, we are apt to receive bad news as if it is a revelation of the will of God. Physicians, driven by fear of litigation and the rising cost of malpractice insurance, lay out all of the negative possibilities to their patients, and hurting people sometimes hear these words as if they are a divine decree. They hear the doctor say, "Some people who undergo this treatment may die." They think, "Oh, no, I'm going to die!" Without really wrestling in prayer, without following the biblical instruction of James 5:13-16, they simply pray for grace to accept the inevitable. How foolish! How shortsighted! How unbiblical! Such thinking fails to come to grips that the world is governed by more than an observable nexus of natural phenomena. Behind every natural phenomenon is something greater, something beyond the observation of the natural man. God is sovereign: "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father." (Matthew 10:29)

Beyond natural phenomena is something else, too, the manipulation of Satan. His hateful hand can sometimes be traced in the physical afflictions that we often face. Had we been present at the synagogue that day when Jesus healed the crippled woman (Luke 13:11-17), perhaps we could have offered a purely natural explanation for her malady. But Luke tells us that there was something sinister that lay behind her natural problem: she "had a spirit of infirmity" (Luke 13:11). The Lord Jesus puts it this way: "This woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound--think about it--these eighteen years" (Luke 13:16).

Until Jesus returns, everybody is going to die (Hebrews 9:27). But we need to consider the fact that not every sickness is "unto death" (John 11:4.) Furthermore, we need to embrace the concept that it is normally God's will that we be in sufficiently good health to go about the business of doing what God has called us to do. And we need to see the real advantage Satan and his demons take through human sickness. These times of pain and affliction become exacerbated by demonic whispers in our souls: "You're going to die, and there's nothing that anybody can do about it. You are a failure. God doesn't love you. His promises are not for you." This is one reason that we should not only pray for the sick, but also visit them and pray with them. They need words of encouragement. We need to go and speak God's Word to them to put life into them, to put the fight back into them.

Yes, of course, it isn't always God's will to heal everybody of every disease. But so often we may miss the blessing of seeing someone wonderfully delivered and the testimony of that deliverance resulting in lost people coming to the Lord Jesus. May we fight the good fight of faith, remembering that Psalm 118 was not written with a passive faith in mind, but a warring faith--a faith that boldly runs into the battle of the ages, joining the ranks of other warriors in the Lord's army. In such an active faith, as we boldly do what we could never do without the promises of God, we may stand secure, bolding shouting the promise: "The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do to me."

Bob Vincent

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BLOG ON: SERMON The Shaking of the World
Grace Presbyterian Church
Bob Vincent

In Jesus of Nazareth, God, the second person of the blessed Trinity, without ceasing to be God, becomes a human being. He hungers and thirsts, weeps and wrestles with temptation and fear, becomes impotent against evil and limited in knowledge, experiences the guilt and pain of humanity -- his lot, too, is the loneliness, alienation and abandonment that characterize human experience. The damning God becomes damned in his human nature and dies on the cross.

The God of Compassion and Human Misery

I love God, but there are things that my fallen, fallible and finite human nature dislikes about him. The number one thing that troubles me about God is that he allows hell to exist and that he allows any sentient creature to go there.

Our family has one dog and two cats: a Rat terrier named Hamilton who suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a Siamese cat named Edgar and a huge, neurotic Polydactyl named Emilio -- our sixteen year old, arthritic, totally deaf, partially blind, Boston terrier named Ralphie died in early December of 2004. We really like these three animals and have spent a fair amount of money with the veterinarian keeping them healthy. If they are in pain, we do our best to relieve them.

We care about most animals that way. If an animal were to be seriously injured, I would make a prima facie judgment. Could this animal make it to the veterinarian? What would be the quality of his life, were he to survive? If I determine that there is reasonable evidence that he can be saved, I will drop what I am doing and take him into town. If I conclude that he is hopelessly gone, I will fetch my 357 revolver and shoot the poor creature through the skull, thus putting him out of his misery. It would cause me psychological pain to do it -- I know that because I've done it before -- but I would relieve the suffering because I care about the feelings of an animal: "A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel." (Proverbs 12:10.)

If one of my animals persistently wandered off into traffic, and I knew about it and did nothing, I believe that I would be responsible for his suffering were he to get hit. Now if I feel that way about dogs, cats, raccoons and squirrels, what about other sentient creatures -- what about the one species that was directly created by God and made in his image? Surely I must feel some compassion for the whole of humankind, from Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin to Ted Bundy and the neighborhood exhibitionist. That compassion has been tested, as, for example, some years ago when a man confessed in my office that he had raped a child. But even there, in spite of all that he had done, I felt compassion for him, for he was both victimizer and victim himself, having been gang raped as a new recruit in the United States Army by some of his fellow soldiers.

One of the things that troubles me most about God is that he has allowed this world with its endless cycles of sin and death to go on and on, human beings not only reproducing themselves biologically, but reproducing their patterns of sin generationally. And worse than anything that ever has taken place on our planet is what awaits people after life -- eternal separation from God in a place of unending, conscious agony. God could prevent all this. Why doesn't he?

Modern man has mastered the art of manipulating the wills of the masses so that they truly desire the ever changing images of beauty, success and fulfillment that are pitched at them through magazines, newspapers, television and the cinema. Free will is not destroyed, simply massaged, not unlike the way that a man wins the love of a woman -- one of the things that caused Solomon to wonder. (Proverbs 20:19.) Do not successful parents benevolently manipulate the wills of their children so that their little ones desire to do that which pleases the parents? Can God not do the same? Can he not woo the whole human race to Christ without violating our wills? Is he less competent than Hollywood and Madison Avenue?

If God can prevent any sentient being from ending up in hell, why doesn't he do it? "The eternal fire (was) prepared for the devil and his angels." (Matthew 25:41.) But what about even Satan himself and his poor minions, the pathetic fallen spirits that were primordially duped by him? I don't even want the demons to burn in the unrelenting, eternal fires of Gehenna, in that place where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched, where the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever, once the inexorable sentence is passed. (Mark 9:48; Revelation 14:11.)

Even if one rejects classical theism and denies God's complete omniscience, this still does not get God off at the bar of human justice. At any point, seeing that his creation had gotten into such a mess with masses of people raping, murdering and enslaving others, he could have stopped it in some fashion or other. Wouldn't you? Wouldn't I? Would you allow one soul to go to hell? Would you not do everything in your power to manipulate a person so that he would freely choose to comply with whatever conditions were consistent with your own moral character? The Arminian and the Pelagian have no easier task than the Calvinist or the Hyper-Calvinist defending such a being before the court of human justice.

Soon every man who has never known God's grace in Jesus Christ will join hands with Satan and all the demons in hell to attempt to damn such a God to the very hell he has allowed to exist. But I won't, nor will any who have come to know his sweet grace. I will not sit in judgment of this high God. He is wholly beyond me. He is the dreadful Sovereign, God the All Terrible, the one from whom heaven and earth must flee away. I will bow my knees and worship him because it is my bounden duty. Nor will I question him. He is Yahweh God of Armies. "My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me." Psalm 131:1, 2.)

I do not question this God, because he is the God who is and there is no other. He can cast me into hell. He creates weal and woe. (Isaiah 45:1ff.) It isn't that I don't have all these feelings, but I choose not to indulge them, remembering that I am dust -- fallen, fallible and finite in the totality of my being, in the totality of my capacity to reason.

And truly -- I take an oath -- as God is my witness -- as I have lived in this world, wandering in the mad labyrinth of the human mind -- my own and others -- I have concluded that I deserve no less fate than to burn in hell forever. Over the years I have counseled several hundred people with sexual problems -- I have heard the damnedest things, the most bizarre things -- sadly, I discover in all of this putrefying business that the seeds of the most unspeakable evil are in me, too. I have come to discover the real problem with the Pharisee's prayer, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men." (Luke 18:11.) His real trouble was that he was like other men and didn't know it.

In one of the imprecatory sections of the Law, Deuteronomy 28:53-57, we discover what is in the most gentle and sensitive man and woman -- your mother and mine -- you and me -- they will kill and eat their own children and not share so much as a piece of afterbirth with the rest of the family. The longer I live, the more I study World History, the more I see the hidden side of human nature, the more I confess that man is evil -- that I am evil -- yet, paradoxically and by grace, I am a saint, too. Whatever else the Bible teaches about God and hell, it teaches that everyone who ends up in hell is suffering the consequences of his own behavior. The longer I live, the more I see this as true.

Lost humanity and the truth

Several passages come to one's mind in thinking about the destiny of those who have never heard the gospel.

The first is Romans 1:18-20: "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

Here we learn that every human being has a basic, latent knowledge of the true God. This knowledge exists not only in the glaring, compelling and conclusive evidence of the existence of a Supreme Being, Prime Mover, or First Cause in the very structure of reality outwardly, but is confirmed inwardly according to verse 19: "because that which is known about God is evident within them." In other words, this knowledge is not only a posteriori, but a priori as well. And it is very comprehensive knowledge according to verse 20, including the true nature of God's character, which according to Romans 2:14, 15, includes a basic sense of right and wrong: "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them."

This knowledge is part of the very nature of a human being; it is contained within the broken and twisted remains of the image of God. But factual, compelling proof never stops people from doing evil: "Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them." (Romans 1:32.)

The problem is not a lack of conclusive evidence, but a deep-seated mental illness that has gripped every human being. Just as a grown woman may push back the memory of her mother's boyfriend having molested her when she was a little girl, so all humans repress this painful truth out of the conscious mind. But that repressed memory of the true God, guilt and coming judgment is still there, just as all painful childhood memories are, and it haunts people in the dark night: "For God does speak -- now one way, now another -- though man may not perceive it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on men as they slumber in their beds, he may speak in their ears and terrify them with warnings, to turn man from wrongdoing and keep him from pride, to preserve his soul from the pit, his life from perishing by the sword." (Job 33:14-18.)

The above truths have profound significance in how we deal with those whom we encounter outside the pale of the Church. They mean that so much of the proclamation is simply confirmation of truth that outsiders already know. It takes the work of the Holy Spirit to bring up this deeply buried knowledge, but he is pleased to honor the proclamation by doing so. What is not buried within and cannot be deduced from an analysis of the external evidence is God's loving act of grace in Jesus Christ, even though the proclamation of the good news resonates as truth deeply within fallen man, plagued as he is by guilt and angst.

Such knowledge of God leaves people without excuse (Romans 1:20.) but cannot save them from hell, however, and most importantly, people are not in hell simply because they did not respond to the gospel. They are in hell justly suffering for their countless acts of rebellion against God and ungratefulness toward his kindness. That someone has heard the gospel and spurned it only adds to his condemnation. There is eternal equity in all God's dealing with people: "That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows." (Luke 12:47, 48.)

Human nature and choice

Someone asked me: "If people are sinful by nature, then they have no choice but to act sinfully. (i.e. commit acts of rebellion against God.) So the question is: how can you justly punish someone for acting in the only way they can? The ideas of personal responsibility and choice usually work their way into our definitions of justice."

This is an ancient question, similar to the one with which Christ's holy apostle dealt in Romans 9.** Paul, while recognizing the difficulties you raise, essentially responds by warning us that we cannot question God. This is not an answer that most of us modern folk, especially those of us in the West, are comfortable with. Our Weltanschauung, the distorting glasses through which we look at the world and whose vision we naively assume conforms to reality, is radically egalitarian and radically individualistic: we think that no one is superior or inferior to another, that no one can be affected by the actions of another. We live in the days of the final outworking of the bastardization of the Democratic Ideal, and imagine that God himself must conform to our image.

Against such a view, the Scripture holds up a Despot (transliteration of a Greek word used of God and rulers with absolute power over others, e.g. Acts 4:24; Revelation 6:10.) who is wholly righteous and all powerful. Sin is so very serious and so very evil, fundamentally, not because of its impact on other human beings, but because it is an offense against his Majesty. This is what David confessed, dripping with bloody murder of a trusting friend and sordid adultery with that friend's wife: "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment." (Psalm 51:4.)

Because God is God, we must shut our mouths and await the consummation when we will understand and accept all God's ways as holy and just. We must recapture the vision of the grandeur and greatness of God, as in the old Russian national anthem.

"God The All Terrible! King, who ordainest
Thunder Thy clarion, the lightning Thy sword;
Show forth Thy pity on high where Thou reignest:
Give to us peace in our time, O Lord.

"God the All-merciful! earth hath forsaken
Thy ways all holy, and slighted Thy word;
Bid not Thy wrath in its terrors awaken:
Give to us peace in our time, O Lord.

"God the All-righteous One! man hath defied Thee;
Yet to eternity standeth Thy word,
Falsehood and wrong shall not tarry beside Thee:
Give to us peace in our time, O Lord.

"God the All-provident! earth by Thy chastening,
Yet shall to freedom and truth be restored;
Through the thick darkness Thy kingdom is hastening:
Thou wilt give peace in Thy time, O Lord.
Amen."
Alexis F. Lvov

God and Justice

Justice is an interesting concept, and a key verse for understanding what the Bible means by it is Micah 6:8: "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

This passage is very rich, and several Hebrew words stand out, but the word I want to pursue is Mishpat, often translated by "justice." Two passages throw light on the underlying connotation of this interesting Hebrew word, Exodus 26:30 and 1 Kings 6:38.

"Then you shall erect the tabernacle according to the plan (Mishpat) for it that you were shown on the mountain." (Exodus 26:30.)

"And in the eleventh year, in the month of Bul, which is the eighth month, the house was finished in all its parts, and according to all its specifications (Mishpat). He was seven years in building it." (1 Kings 6:38.)

Here we see that an underlying meaning in Mishpat is conformity to specifications: in these two cases, following the building plans. As we flesh out the meaning of Mishpat inductively by studying the various contexts where it is found, a picture emerges: justice is conformity -- in the case of morality, to the model of God's own holy nature, his character as he has revealed it as the pattern for human conduct. God reveals his own moral nature in two fundamental directives: loving God with the whole of our being and loving others as we love ourselves. These two directives are fleshed out in many commands; indeed, just as a door hangs and swings on its hinges, the entire Old Testament hangs on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:34-40.)

The Ten Commandments are not independent of God, as if he were bound by some abstract moral principle that is above him and separate from his existence; rather they refract the very character of God himself, his own morality. In effect, they codify, within the ethos and milieu of Israel in the Second Millennium before Christ, God's own moral character. A beautiful analogy to this is found in how a prism refracts light into its various colors. These commandments are right simply because they are consistent with who God is. In other words, murder, adultery and stealing would not be wrong if they were not contrary to God's own nature; were there no God, there would be no right and no wrong. As Dostoevsky said, "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted."

This moral nature of God stamped on the human soul is part of what it means for us to be created in the image of God, an image that was radically marred, gnarled, broken and twisted in the fall, but not completely lost. In the fall man lost more than a gift of super added grace (donum superadditum.); rather, the totality of his being, including his intellect, was radically affected by sin. Humankind is totally but not utterly depraved; man is not as bad as he can possibly be. There remains in fallen man the shattered image of God, including moral judgment because humankind is created in the image of God and thereby finitely mirrors God's own knowledge, righteousness and holiness. (Genesis 1:26; Colossians 3:10; Ephesians 4:24.) That is to say, even lost people have an innate, intuitive, instinctive sense of right and wrong, based not on experience, nor as an internalized parent -- a Freudian superego -- but as part of the very essence of what it is to be human.

This knowledge of the true God and of his character exhibits itself imperfectly in the human conscience: "For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them . . ." (Romans 2:14, 15.) This remnant of the image of God is why even non-Christian people struggle with a sense of indignation at the injustices all around them.

As odd as it may seem, the very reason why human beings recoil at some of the ways of God is because we are all created in his image. It is why humans not only fear hell, but also are also revulsed by the very idea of the eternal, conscious suffering of sentient beings. Unregenerate humans act in defiance of God, judging him by their own independent, autonomous intellects and emotions. Nevertheless, behind that rebellion is a testimony to the remnant of God's own moral character stamped on the soul of every human being, a divine sense of right and wrong, Mishpat, justice, conformity to the specifications of the Builder.
The Lord Jesus, as the Second Adam, is pre-eminently Man in the Image of God, restoring what was lost to us by our first father. (1 Corinthians 15:45-49; Ephesians 4:20-24; Colossians 3:9-11.) In him, in the fullness of time, all believers will be fully restored to the image of God. Then, and only then, will justice be fully understood. Then, and only then, will justice truly be rendered:

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (1 Corinthians 4:3-5.)

Until that Day, all justice in this world is at best a stab in the dark. For not truly knowing our own hearts, (Jeremiah 17:9.) we are incapable of rendering just judgment on others, not only humans, but first and foremost, on him who is the very Archetype of Justice. To sit in judgment of God is the most brazenly arrogant and naively foolish thing fallen man can do.

The dominant motif in the nature of God

Scripture tells us that God's very nature is mercy and that while justice is part of God's character, his delight is love and mercy. This is seen in one of the most important texts of the Old Testament, Exodus 34:5-7:

Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."

Exodus 34:5-7 is a central passage of the Old Testament and is quoted repeatedly by other Old Testament writers: e.g. Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2. The quotation in Jonah is very revealing in terms of God's disposition toward the heathen: 'But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to Yahweh, "O Yahweh, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity."' Jonah hated these northerners, the Assyrians, and he wanted to see their capitol destroyed. His reason for not bringing the message of God's offered mercy to them was that he knew God's character; he knew that God is love, quick to forgive all who turn from their sin to him. And Jonah knew this because he knew the message of the Torah, for the Torah is Yahweh's Direction, not only about how Israel ought to live under covenant with him, but also Direction pointing to him, who he is in his very essence, and that essence is loving kindness and delight in forgiveness. While it does not exclude judgment, even generational judgment, it focuses on mercy, kindness and forgiveness.

That is the message that we must take to those who have never heard the good news of Jesus Christ. For those who have never heard, whatever else may be true at the divine bar, they, too, will admit that their punishment is wholly deserved. But at that bar also stands a Savior who shed his blood for sin and the great Judge is one who is the God of Exodus 34.

God rejects sin, disease, death and hell

The God of mercy also rejects sin, disease, death and hell, and he demonstrates that in the Incarnation. In the face of Jesus of Nazareth, I see God.

I see that God is both one and three, fully transcendent, yet fully immanent, that the one "who works all things after the counsel of his own will" (Ephesians 1:11.) also rejects sin, disease, death and hell by becoming part of his own creation.

In Jesus of Nazareth, God, the second person of the blessed Trinity, without ceasing to be God, becomes a human being. He hungers and thirsts, weeps and wrestles with temptation and fear, becomes impotent against evil and limited in knowledge, experiences the guilt and pain of humanity -- his lot, too, is the loneliness, alienation and abandonment that characterize human experience. The damning God becomes damned in his human nature and dies on the cross.

I do not understand this God, his eternal, immutable decree, nor his stooping to my weakness in love. I cannot comprehend how the same God who has elected people to eternal salvation for reasons known only to himself and not based on anything good or commendable in them, sincerely, earnestly and passionately invites all people to come to him and vests mere mortals, the Church, with the task of proclaiming this good news.

There are simply so many things that the Bible never tells me about God, and so I defer my questions about who he is and why he has done what he has done to another time, a time when I will see him as he is, and when I will fully know, even as I am fully known, but until then I walk by faith, not by sight. (1 John 3:2; 1 Corinthians 13:12; 2 Corinthians 5:7.)

After walking with him for over forty years, I have come to know the voice of the good Shepherd. (John 10:4, 5.) He has demonstrated his love in countless ways over the years in my experience. I have seen him physically heal people, sometimes in a moment of time. Our congregation is filled with people who have come to the Lord Jesus bound in the chains of adultery, drunkenness, homosexuality and violent, hateful bitterness, and they have been set free, their bitterness and bondage gone, their sanity restored. I have seen him heal marriages, set people free from demons and provide for human needs in all kinds of ways, sometimes with huge sums of money, seemingly out of the blue, at just the right time. *

All of this demonstrates that God -- whom I do not fully understand and whose ways sometimes trouble me -- is a God of mercy, kindness, love and grace. His own character and disposition to the entire human family is mirrored in his command through Paul: "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers." (Galatians 6:10.) He commands this because, he "is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe." (1 Timothy 4:10.)

God's gracious act of redemption in Jesus Christ is both universal and particular -- being sufficient for every sin ever committed and making possible the sincere and true offer of salvation to every human being, while at the same time actually procuring the salvation of all those whom the Father has given to the Son, a multitude so great that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language. (1 John 2:2; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; John 3:16; 10:11, 15, 16, 26-30; Titus 3:4-7; Revelation 7:9.) The Sovereign Elector of Romans 9:10-24 extends his hands in mercy to people who are disobedient and obstinate in Romans 10:21. Based on the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ, 'The Spirit and the bride (can now) say, "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!" Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.' (Revelation 22:17.)

Those who spurn God's gracious offer justly go to hell, for while salvation is based entirely on grace, damnation is based entirely on works. And while no one who is in heaven deserves to be there, everyone who is in hell deserves to be there. One blessed and dreadful day, even Satan himself and every man and woman will bow their knees and acknowledge that God is just in all his ways. (Isaiah 45:23-25; Romans 3:4ff.; 14:11; Philippians 2:10, 11.)

I find my bitterness and fear go and my sanity restored, when I, like the Psalmist (whose words I quoted earlier.) "do not concern myself with great matters or things too profound for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me." (Psalm 131:1, 2.) I don't think that is partitioning my thinking, but it is a choosing not to think too deeply with my fallen, finite and fallible reason.

As I adore this God in worship, I find myself changed. I receive him in the proclamation and in the breaking of bread, and I praise him with my life and lips.

"Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.

"Bold shall I stand in Thy great day,
For who aught to my charge shall lay?
Fully absolved from these I am,
From sin and fear, from guilt and shame."
Nicolaus L. von Zinzendorf

* More than fifteen years ago, my transmission went out in our only vehicle; it was going to cost $900, and I simply did not have the money. I told no one about it, but cried out to God on my knees, and several days later I found an envelope that had been pushed under my door. Inside were nine, one hundred dollar bills. I certainly praised the Lord, but I didn't understand just how special this gift was at the time. When I received the anonymous gift, I had assumed that some brother had learned about my transmission from the mechanic and had chosen to bless me in this way. However, some years later a young man came to see me. He was a Baptist from another parish (county) and hardly knew me. He asked me, "Several years ago did you find an envelope with nine, one hundred dollar bills in it?"

"Yes," I replied. Then he told me that he had been praying, and the Lord had told him to go to Alexandria and give this amount of money to me. Needless to say, I was stunned at such an example of one of God's providentia extraordinaria.

I could go on and on about the strange and wonderful ways that God answers prayer, from couples conceiving children after having failed at fertility clinics to people on occasion being instantly healed of diseases, but I will add only one more:

On September 15, 1996, as I put a check in the morning offering for $110, God quickened me with what had happened to Isaac in Genesis 26:12. By faith -- I had never been able to do this before, nor have I ever had the liberty to pray this way since -- I prayed for a hundredfold blessing -- we were really hurting financially at the time. I continued to press this home to my Father in prayer for weeks on end, and then, on November 16, 1996, out of the blue, I received 200 shares of Wachovia Bank stock from a relative on the East Coast. I got on the Internet and discovered that the stock had closed at $55.00 per share. Do the math: it comes out to the penny. Through God hearing our prayers, instead of living in a church owned parsonage, we now have a beautiful home of our own, on top of a hill overlooking a lake, and have been able to give away many thousands of dollars. All of this demonstrates that the God whom I do not fully understand is a God of mercy, kindness, love and grace.

** Romans 9:10-24:
And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad -- in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call -- she was told, "The older will serve the younger."

As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory -- even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Category:  Eschatology

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