THE NEXT STEP

Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them. … This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5: 14b-15,17 (NLT)]

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness. [Westminster Shorter Catechism]

waterfallIn writing about the Sinner’s Prayer yesterday, I wondered if, by saying it, a new believer gets the false impression that his responsibility ends with a prayer when, in fact, it has just begun! Justification takes only a moment but sanctification takes a lifetime. Addressing the guilt of our sins, justification is when, by the grace of God, we are made righteous through God’s grace and our faith. It’s as if we’re guilty criminals, standing in God’s courtroom, and God pardons us. Telling us our debt to society has been paid, He sets us free. While it’s easy to walk out of the courthouse, it’s not so easy to alter the behavior that led to our life of crime. Like any felon, we need to change our ways, which is where sanctification comes in. Rather than the reformation of a criminal, it is the transformation of a sinner.

Powered by our faith and the Holy Spirit, sanctification transforms our sinful character so we grow more and more like Christ. Focusing on the destructive power of sin in our lives, it gradually shapes our hearts, minds, and desires to those of God. Sanctification is the work part of our salvation and requires diligence in study, prayer, fellowship, witness and service. It’s coming to know Jesus, loving and obeying God, and letting both His word and the Holy Spirit convict us when we sin. It’s allowing God to work in and through us, not as a way to earn His blessings and favor, but because we delight in His will.

While holiness is the goal of sanctification, I don’t think any mortal can live a life completely free from sin in this world. Nevertheless, even though we can’t attain sinless perfection, like the Apostle Paul, we will continue to struggle against sin and temptation as long as we’re on this side of the grass. We persevere and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, continue to grow more and more like Christ every day.

The Christian life requires hard work. Our sanctification is a process wherein we are coworkers with God. We have the promise of God’s assistance in our labor, but His divine help does not annul our responsibility to work. [R.C. Sproul]

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. [Philippians 2:12b-13 (NLT)]

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-24 (NLT)]

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GOOD PRIDE OR BAD?

The Lord detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished. [Proverbs 16:5 (NIV)]

peacockIf asked to list the seven deadly sins, we might not recall sloth or gluttony, but we’d probably remember pride. With few exceptions, when we find mention of pride in Scripture, it has a negative connotation. It refers to arrogance, conceit, disrespect, haughtiness, and effrontery and prideful people are called stubborn, insolent, willful, and selfish. Since Scripture makes it clear that pride is a sin, where does that leave us when we enjoy the satisfied feeling of a job well done or the pleasure of receiving praise? What emotion is appropriate when we have attained a goal or succeeded at a difficult task? What feeling can we share with someone who has achieved something extraordinary? If not pride, what?

It is a sense of pride (of wanting to do my very best) that makes me work so hard at my writing and I confess to feeling proud when I receive a compliment on my work. Moreover, I’m proud of the accomplishments of my children and grands and I’m not sure any of that is wrong. Since we find the Apostle Paul expressing pride and even boasting, it would seem that there can be a good kind of pride.

Good pride has a sense of worth and is earned through effort and hard work; sinful pride over-estimates its worth and is competitive by nature. Rather than doing its best, it just wants to do better than others. Good pride makes a realistic assessment of itself and sees its faults. Sinful pride, however, has an inflated ego blind to its faults; instead of self-esteem, it is more like a low regard for everyone else. Good pride, like the pride Paul had in the Corinthians and Thessalonians, encourages others because it isn’t threatened by their success. Generous, it takes satisfaction in others’ accomplishments. On the other hand, sinful pride discourages and demeans; selfish, it takes satisfaction only in itself. While good pride is humble, quiet and self-assured, the other arrogantly blusters and brags.

The biggest difference between the two prides, of course, is their relationship to God. Good pride sees the need for God and has confidence in His power but sinful pride sees no need for God (or anyone or anything else) and has confidence only in self. Good pride exalts and worships God. It takes no credit for God’s gifts and, if it boasts, boasts only of what God’s grace has accomplished. Sinful pride, however, exalts and worships itself, takes all the credit and sings only its praises.

Rather that two different prides, I wonder if there could be just one kind of pride that exists on a continuum: acceptable or good pride on one end and sinful pride on the other. After all, there must be a continuum for other sins. At some point, eating (which is not sinful) can move into over-eating and then onto gluttony (which is a sin). For that matter, at what point does admiration turn into envy, desire into lust, or chatting turn into gossip? Somewhere on those continuums, what’s acceptable becomes what’s not.

Let us be cautious then, of self-reliance and over-confidence, lest our acceptable (and humble) sense of pride imperceptibly slides down the line toward arrogance, conceit, and sinful pride. We must never forget that anything we’ve managed to accomplish in this world has been possible only because God has encouraged, empowered, equipped and sustained us.

Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry. [Romans 11:13b (NIV)]

Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else. [Galatians 6:4 (NIV)]

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ANSWERED PRAYERS – St. Nicholas – Part 2

He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” [Matthew 26:39 (NLT)]

Sometime near the end of the 3rd century, the Bishop of Myra died and a conclave was held to elect his replacement. St. NicholasLegend has it that the bishops kept praying and voting but could not come to an agreement. In a stalemate, they prayed all night for God’s guidance and He revealed how they should make their selection. They were told that the first person to walk into the church that morning would be the one God wanted to shepherd His flock. A young man was the first to come in the door and, when asked his name, he replied, “Nicholas, the sinner.” He was brought into the sanctuary and placed on the bishop’s seat. Nicholas, who would eventually become both saint and Santa Claus, was then consecrated the new Bishop of Myra. In spite of the odd manner of his selection, from what we know of Nicholas—his good deeds, wisdom, generosity, and deep faith—God seemed to know what He was doing.

When those bishops first got together to select the new bishop, I suspect each man had his favorite candidate and his prayers probably were that the other bishops would see the light and vote for his man. Busy telling God the outcome they desired rather than asking Him to reveal who He wanted, it’s no surprise the bishops came to an impasse. Once they agreed to ask God for His divine wisdom, their prayers were answered.

There’s no point asking God for His guidance, however, if we’re unwilling to accept His answer. Granted, selecting the first man into church seems rather strange but God knew who that would be. While there are variations in the story’s details, most agree that Nicholas was quite young and, while he was devout and well versed in Scripture and may have been a monk, he was unknown to the bishops and not a priest. Could some of the bishops have had second thoughts at that point? Here was an unknown entity: someone who’d never been deacon or priest, inexperienced in the church and its politics, who would now be in charge of deacons and priests, and on an equal footing with the other bishops. And what of young Nicholas? Many stories mention his hesitation at taking on such an undeserved honor. Nevertheless, both the young man and the bishops were obedient to God’s plan; Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra and history tells us he was the right man for the job.

Do we really think God needs our advice in running the world and our lives? When we pray, do we tell Him what we want Him to do and the outcome we desire or are our prayers open-ended, leaving the end result up to God’s will? God is not a cosmic vending machine and even He can’t please all the people all of the time. If I get every green light, then someone else is getting all the reds! We all can’t get what we want but we all can get what God wants for us! In Gethsemane, Jesus asked for release but He finished His prayer with acquiescence to God’s will. We must do the same in our prayers. When we say, “Thy will be done,” however, we can’t have the unspoken proviso of, “as long as I like Your answer.”

For me, the story of his ordination is the best part of the St. Nicholas legend and yet the saint plays a minor role in it. It’s a story of faith—faith in a loving and wise God, a God who answers the right prayers and a story of submission—submission to God’s will and the willing acceptance of His answer, strange as that answer may seem.

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [James 1:5-7 (NLT)]

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ST. NICHOLAS DAY

Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” [Matthew 19:21 (NLT)]

Sr. Nicholas

Although it is difficult to know fact from fiction, we do know that St. Nicholas was born around 270 AD in Patara, a city in Lycia, in Asia Minor. The son of wealthy and devout parents, it was his uncle, the Bishop of Patara, who took charge of his spiritual life. Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra, quite likely attended the council of Nicaea, spent seven years imprisoned under Diocletian Persecution, and died on December 6, around 343 AD. While we don’t know much about the man, he must have had a great impact on the early Christian church because, by 450 AD, churches in Asia Minor and Greece were being named in his honor and, by the mid-6th century, the Emperor Justinian dedicated a church to him in Constantinople.

When Nicholas’ parents died, legend has it that he began to distribute the money and property he had inherited to those who begged him for help. Taking seriously Jesus’s command to sell his possessions and give to the poor, he selflessly gave away his entire wealth. It’s said that wherever he saw suffering or need, he gave in secret and expected nothing in return. The best known story of this revered saint is that he secretly provided money for the dowries of three girls whose father was so poor that he was going to sell them into slavery. Nicholas secretly provided each girl with a bag of gold (some say by putting it in their stockings that were drying by the fire). This legend evolved through the centuries into the custom of gift giving on the eve of his saint’s day.

Today is St. Nicholas Day. Last night, in his memory, children throughout Europe put out shoes, boots, or stocking to be filled with small gifts, fruit, nuts, candies and cookies brought by the Saint. These little gifts are meant to be shared with others and not hoarded for oneself. Perhaps we should pare down our Christmas lists so that our gifts can fit into a shoe or stocking. Let us also remember that those gifts are to be shared.

From what we know of the beloved saint, he loved God more than anything. I wonder what he would think of the way his name, faith and generosity have turned into such crass commercialism. While he is the patron saint of children, seamen, brides, the hungry, and scholars he is not the patron saint of credit card companies, malls, shoppers, catalogues or Amazon! Nicholas certainly wouldn’t approve of the way Santa Claus has eclipsed the Christ child in the hearts of many.

As we move into this holiday season, perhaps we should emulate St. Nicholas, the original Santa Claus. His life wasn’t about how many presents were stacked under a tree; it was about dedicating his life to serving God and helping those in need. It is Jesus, not Santa, who is the reason for the season!

Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. [Deuteronomy 15:10-11 (NLT)]

Blessed are those who are generous, because they feed the poor. [Proverbs 22:9 (NLT)]

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LET ME BE YOUR SERVANT

And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. [John 13:14 (NLT)]

Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. [Mark 10:43-44 (NLT)]

crab appleAs she sang, “Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too,” I reached over to take my husband’s hand. I contemplated the road we’ve traveled together for over half a century as the soloist continued: “We are pilgrims on a journey, we are trav’lers on the road; We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” As I listened to the rest of Richard Guillard’s beautiful song, I thought it was the perfect choice for a wedding.

I will hold the Christ light for you, In the night time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you, Speak the peace you long to hear.
I will weep when you are weeping. When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow, Till we’ve seen this journey through.
[“The Servant Song” by Richard Guillard]

During last week’s worship, however, I realized Guillard’s song applies to Christian fellowship as much as it does to marriage. His words describe the church or, at least, what the church is supposed to be. We comfort and support, encourage and enlighten, pray for and serve one another. We share good times and bad, walk together, go the extra mile, and help carry one another’s burdens.

“Will you let me be your servant?” That’s what Jesus was asking when he stripped off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and knelt to wash the disciples’ feet. That servant, on his hands and knees and holding a wash rag, was God! When Jesus came to Peter, the man protested and only relented when told, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.” Whether Jesus meant that Peter’s sins had to be washed away by the cross or that Peter needed to humbly submit to Jesus, I’m not sure. Either way, Jesus taught a valuable lesson both about servanthood and accepting God’s grace.

It’s important to serve but equally important to graciously accept the gift of service that comes with Christian love. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet but He also allowed a woman to wash his feet with her tears and wipe them with her hair. Servanthood in Christ’s church involves both the giving and accepting of grace but, for many of us, giving comes far easier than accepting.

How can we wash one another’s feet if we won’t take off our shoes because someone might know we have athlete’s foot or see the ugly bunion, corn, bruised toe, or blister? Let’s not be afraid to share our vulnerability, expose our failings, acknowledge our doubts, admit our fear, or disclose our needs. Let us love and serve one another as did Christ and let us accept that love and kindness as did His disciples.

Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you;
Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.
[“The Servant Song” by Richard Guillard]

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. … When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. … Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. [Romans 12:9-10,13,15 (NLT)]

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BUT HOW?

Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” … Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”  [Luke 1:34,38 (NLT)]

queen butterfly Angels taking on bodily form and appearing to people certainly wasn’t an everyday occurrence so it’s understandable that Mary was troubled and perplexed by Gabriel’s presence when he showed up in Nazareth. After telling her not to be afraid, the angel gave her the startling news that she would conceive and give birth. Mary may have been a virgin but she knew that babies weren’t brought by the stork or found in a cabbage patch. “But how?” was her first response.

“But how?” Isn’t that our typical response when God calls us to His work? Abraham couldn’t see how his people would possess Canaan, Sarah couldn’t see how God could give her a child when her child-bearing days were over, Moses wanted to know how he could convince both the Israelites and Pharaoh, Gideon asked how he could rescue Israel, Samuel asked how he could anoint a new king without being killed by Saul, and Zechariah asked how his wife could possibly become pregnant. Given their situations, “But how?” certainly seems understandable.

The angel’s answer that the Holy Spirit would come upon her still didn’t tell Mary exactly how her pregnancy would come about. Had that been me, I would have wanted a better explanation and then followed with a series of “whys” and “what abouts.” While being told that her barren cousin Elizabeth was already pregnant may have reassured Mary that what seems impossible can actually happen, Elizabeth was married and Mary was not! “But how?” probably was just one of many questions circling in Mary’s head.

Unlike Moses, Mary didn’t try to squirm out of the task with excuses; unlike Sarah, she didn’t laugh in unbelief; unlike Gideon, she didn’t ask for a series of signs; unlike Samuel, she didn’t point out the problems she was sure to face with her pregnancy; and, unlike Zechariah, she believed the angel. After asking him, “But, how?” Mary accepted the simple explanation that nothing is impossible with God and humbly submitted.

Do we forget that God doesn’t have the limitations we have? He can make manna appear, feed 5,000 with a few fish and loaves, part the sea, walk on water, restore sight to the blind, and raise the dead. Nevertheless, we often ask, “But how?” when called by God to serve and then allow the logistics of His task keep us from doing His work. Could we be missing God’s blessings because we’re too busy asking, “But how?” instead of responding in faith? Let us never forget that God will work out the how; we just need to submit as readily as did Mary.

You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said. [Luke 1:45 (NLT)]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” [Matthew 19:26 (NLT)]

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