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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COME IN AT THE GATE

Such people claim they know God, but they deny him by the way they live. They are detestable and disobedient, worthless for doing anything good. [Titus 1:16 (NLT)]

enter by the gateI’ve been reading The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. I vaguely remember reading some of this 1678 allegory in senior English class but that time it was in the original Middle English (the language of the King James Bible) and difficult to read. Although I thought myself a Christian, I was unfamiliar with most of the biblical references and concepts. In reality, all I wanted to do was to get through it (along with Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, and Ulysses). With less pressure, more biblical knowledge, and an annotated modern version, I’m actually enjoying the tale of Christian: a man who leaves his home in the City of Destruction in search of the Celestial City.

Even without footnotes, I recognized the gate when Christian arrived there and understood Goodwill’s welcoming words: “In spite of everything people have done before they come here, we make no objections against anyone. No one will ever be driven away.” After warning him about other paths that are wide and crooked, Christian is told he can distinguish the right path because it is straight and narrow.

While on the path, Christian encounters two men who have climbed over the wall. Named Hypocrisy and Formality, they think they’ve found a short-cut to the Way. Hypocrisy, of course, is someone who puts on a mask and pretends to be what he is not. He acts the Christian in public but is an entirely different person in private. He may bring food to the needy on Sunday but beat his wife on Monday. Formality is the man whose religion is based on ritual and rests on outer form. Although he faithfully attends church, fasts, kneels, tithes, takes communion, and wears a cross, He’s only going through the motions. Neither man has a spirit of godliness or a relationship with Christ. With no true faith or repentance, they have built their lives on pride and pomp, appearances and rituals. Coming from the land of Boasting (Vain-Glory in the original), their religion is empty. Thinking that God is as impressed by external appearances as are they, the proud men are going to Mount Zion for praise: not to praise God but rather to be praised!

Satisfied with the appearance of godliness and unwilling to pay the cost of repentance, the two have taken the easy way by climbing over the wall. When Christian tells them that entering that way means the Lord of the Way will consider them thieves, they tell him to mind his own business; no one likes being confronted about their superficial professions of faith. When the men come to the hill called Difficulty, the narrow path leads straight up the hill. Seeing how steep it is, Formality and Hypocrisy choose the easy paths that seem to go around the hill while Christian climbs it. Having chosen the paths of Danger and Destruction, unlike Christian, those two will not reach the Celestial City.

This part of Bunyan’s tale hit home because we just finished a sermon series about the “cultural” Christian or what Craig Groeschel calls the “Christian atheist.” Like Hypocrisy and Formality, the cultural Christian believes in God but doesn’t know Him, lives as if He doesn’t exist, won’t recognize his deceptive and shallow faith, and follows laws and ordinances without following the Way. Bunyan’s is a cautionary tale as are Jesus’s words about the gate and narrow path. There are no shortcuts to salvation and the narrow road is not one of ease; nevertheless, the journey is worth it!

You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. [Matthew 7:13-14 (NLT)]

I tell you the truth, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! … Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. [John 10:1,9-10 (NLT)]

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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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THE PUPPET KING (Part 2)

Joash did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight throughout the lifetime of Jehoiada the priest. … But after Jehoiada’s death, the leaders of Judah came and bowed before King Joash and persuaded him to listen to their advice. [2 Chronicles 24: 2,17 (NLT)]

b;ue flag irisYesterday, I wrote of the Levites’ failure to protect Judah from idolatry but one Levite stands out in his loyalty to God and commitment to the temple: Jehoiada the priest. At the time, Queen Athaliah, thinking she’d massacred all of the rightful heirs to the throne, ruled Judah. The daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, she was as evil as her parents. Unknown to her, however, one heir, a baby boy named Joash, survived. Having been hidden by his aunt, he was raised by the high priest Jehoiada. Keeping the boy’s existence secret, the priest plotted to put Joash on the throne. When the boy was seven, Jehoiada made a pact with five army commanders. They secretly travelled throughout Judah and summoned Judah’s Levites and leaders to a meeting at the temple. Declaring that the king’s son should reign, the priest introduced Joash and the men made a plan to depose his wicked grandmother. The armed men protected the boy as they anointed him, placed the crown on his head, presented him with a copy of the law, and proclaimed him king. Athaliah was slain, the temple of Baal demolished, and its pagan priests killed.

With this successful rebellion, Jehoiada led the people and the new king in rededicating themselves to the Lord. The temple was restored, the priests and Levites again followed David’s instructions, and gatekeepers returned to the temple. Unfortunately, after Jehoiada’s death, Joash made the same mistake his ancestor Rhehoboam did: he listened to the wrong people and followed bad advice. The nation returned to idolatry, the temple fell into disrepair, and the temple’s treasures were used to pay tribute to the King of Aram. As the Chronicler wrote: “Because of this sin, divine anger fell on Judah and Jerusalem.” [24:18] The Lord’s judgment took the form of an invasion by the Arameans.

Sadly, the Judeans cleaned the temple of idols but they never scoured the idolatry from their hearts and the story only gets worse. The Lord sent prophets advising Judah to repent but they wouldn’t listen. Then, when Jehoiada’s son, Zechariah, prophesized that they were headed for destruction, Joash had him stoned to death in the temple courtyard, adding murder and desecration of the temple to his sins.

Joash was a puppet king and only as good as his advisors. He may have held the Book of Law in his hands but he never placed it in his heart. As a result, Joash was dependent on man’s word rather than God’s. Let us learn from this story and take our advice from God rather than man.

Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join in with mockers. But they delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do. [Psalm 1:1-3 (NLT)]

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. [James 3:17 (NLT)]

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DEFILED (Part 1)

Santa Rose de Lima - Abiquiu NM“The people of Judah have sinned before my very eyes,” says the Lord. “They have set up their abominable idols right in the Temple that bears my name, defiling it. [Jeremiah 7:30 (NLT)]

King David assigned temple duties to the 38,000 Levites: 24,000 oversaw the work in the temple; 6,000 acted as officials and judges; 4,000 were temple gatekeepers; and 4,000 became musicians. Rather than owning land themselves, Levites were scattered throughout Israel so they could instruct the people, guard the worship of the Lord, and prevent idolatry. These were not meek men. It was Levi and his brother Simeon who killed all the men of Shechem in retaliation for the rape of their sister. After the Israelites worshipped the golden calf, Moses said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” The Levites gathered at his side and then, at his command, slaughtered 3,000 of their fellow Israelites for their idolatry. [Exodus 32:26,28] Hardly what we’d think of as typical church workers, the Levites were a tribe of warriors.

Responsible for the temple’s treasury, furnishings, and articles used in worship, the Levite gatekeepers were to protect the temple from theft and desecration. No one, not even the king, was allowed to defile the temple. Yet, during Rheoboam’s reign, King Shishak of Egypt carried off the temple’s treasures; later King Asa sent what was left of its riches to the King of Aram as tribute. During Queen Athaliah’s reign, the temple was ransacked by her followers and parts of it used to build a temple to Baal. King Ahaz presented temple treasures to the king of Assyria, moved the original bronze altar, replaced it with a replica of an Assyrian altar, and made offerings to the gods of Damascus. He removed the Sabbath canopy and several ornaments from the temple, shut the temple doors, and set up altars for the worship of pagan gods.

By the time of King Hezekiah, people were worshipping the bronze serpent made by Moses. Although Hezekiah destroyed it and had the Levites purify the temple, his son, King Manasseh, again desecrated the temple by erecting an Asherah pole and altars for star worship. By the time of King Josiah, the temple had fallen into disrepair, the Ark had been removed from the temple, the book of the law had been misplaced, and Baal and Asherah were worshipped there. Josiah again cleansed the temple but his reforms did not last and both the temple and nation were defiled by sin.

I wonder what those warrior priests, the Levites, were doing during all of this temple sacrilege. While a few prophets spoke in condemnation of the various abominations, other than the rebellion led by Jehoiada, the Levites’ silence and apparent compliance throughout the books of Kings and Chronicles is reprehensible.

Today’s temple of God is Christ’s church and, sadly, His temple continues to be violated. Rather than Asherah poles and images of Baal, today’s defilement is far more subtle. It includes things like sexual exploitation, abuse of power, cover-ups, misuse of funds, false doctrine, being a place of gossip or conflict, hypocrisy, ignoring sin, putting numbers before discipleship or entertainment before worship, seeking financial gain rather than the glory of God, neglecting the call to service, replacing the gospel with pop psychology and feel good messages, overlooking malicious behavior, following personality rather than Christ, neglecting the sacraments, and allowing prayer or Bible study to be an afterthought.

For the most part, the Levites silently stood by as they saw God’s temple being defiled. Let us never make the same mistake.

Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. [1 Corinthians 3:16-18 (NLT)]

And then he added, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.” [Mark 7:20-23 (NLT)]

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