Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Why Those in the World Cannot Love God

Part 3

The command to withdraw one’s affections from earthly things is, to the worldly man, the same as a call for his self-extinction, since his affections are set on nowhere but the world and cannot be transferred elsewhere. He may have a strong sense of the futility of life, but he will resist any attempt to shift his heart’s tendencies away from this life. To him, all such attempts are impractical.

Based on the wisdom of this world, he considers himself beyond such ideas as setting our affections on things above (Colossians 3:2), or walking by faith (2 Corinthians 5:7), or having no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3), or having our citizenship in Heaven instead of on earth (Philippians 3:20). When he observes these “overly spiritual” principles, the worldly person decides that Christianity is impossible to carry out.

He does not see the love of God in sending His Son into the world. He does not see the tenderness of God toward man in not sparing His own Son, but delivering Him to death for us all (Romans 8:32). He does not see the sufficiency of the atonement, or of the sufferings that Christ bore as a substitute for sinners. He does not see both the holiness and compassion of God in passing over the sins of His creatures through the sacrifice of the Creator Himself.

The worldly person does not turn to God for peace, pardon, and reconciliation. Therefore, when told to turn away from the visible and temporary delights of the world, he finds nothing left to look at. He is separated from the joys of eternity by the wall of his own sin and guilt. If he doesn’t believe that Christ has destroyed this wall, he cannot look in faith toward the things that are unseen and eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18).

You can tell a man to be holy, but how can he obey when his fellowship with holiness is a fellowship of despair? If he is burdened by a guilty conscience, he cannot grow in godliness. He must see that the atonement of the cross establishes both the justice of the divine lawgiver and the safety of the offender. Christ’s work is what opens the way for the salvation and sanctification of a sinner’s heart. And a forgiven sinner is free to entertain kind thoughts of his Maker once God has brought him near and declared peace to him.

Separate the truth of the gospel (“Christ died for sinners”) from the command of 1 John 2:15 (“Do not love the world”) and you will separate the cause from the effect. The result will be either a legalistic system that is impossible to live by or a set of empty convictions that result in nothing. We must bring the demand and the gospel together, which enables the true disciple of Christ to obey the command by the power of the gospel. He has put on the armor of God, and with these spiritual weapons he will gain the higher ground and win the battle. Of course, such a victory requires superhuman effort, but the power of the gospel is equal to the task.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

“Just Say No” Doesn’t Work

The Expulsive Power paraphrase
Part 2

In a sense, those of us in wealthy societies are especially familiar with the futility of worldly pursuits. Boredom is more prevalent in a first world country, where amusements are in abundance, than it is in a third world country, where entertainment is scarce. In the climate of our modern Western culture, the very multitude of our enjoyments has extinguished our power of enjoyment. Due to the sheer number and variety of distractions available, we reach a point of fatigue, unable to find any lasting satisfaction. With amusements and technology always at our fingertips, we eventually grow to see our colorful surroundings in black and white. Like King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, we discover that all our pleasures leave an aftertaste of futility and frustration.

It isn’t necessary for a man to experience pain in order to be miserable. All he needs is to look on everything with indifference. His unhappiness comes from his numbness: He is dead to all around him, and alive to nothing within him but the weight of his own useless existence.

Even when we acknowledge that worldly pleasures don’t satisfy, we still often pursue them. Why? Because desire is a universal and unchangeable human condition. Under the impulse of desire, we pursue an object to receive gratification.

Our habits of choice may be something openly sinful, such as sexual immorality. They may be focused on alcohol, video games, movies, or the approval of others. They may even be related to inherently good things, like work or leisure.

Whatever it is, our chosen interests are so captivating to us that we aren’t easily distracted from them. We develop strong habits in pursuing them. They may fail to satisfy us at times, but we refuse to give them up—even if the pleasure they provide is accompanied by negative consequences (nagging guilt, sexually transmitted diseases, poverty, loss of friendships, or even the coming vengeance of God).

If a pursuit brings only fleeting pleasure, such as pornography or illicit sex, your heart will still not let go of it any easier than it would submit to torture. Such is the grasping tendency of the human heart: it must have something to lay hold of. And if that object is stripped away without being replaced, the heart will experience a void as painful as starvation feels to the stomach.

Therefore, it isn’t enough to acknowledge how empty your pursuit is. You must direct your mind’s eye to another object—something powerful enough to free you from the grip of the first. In other words, a present desire cannot be gotten rid of simply by being destroyed. It must be replaced.

Human experience demonstrates this truth. Think, for example, of the last time you indulged a sinful desire that you had grieved over just the day before. Why wasn’t your sorrow enough to keep you from falling back into the same sin again? Because your sinful addiction wasn’t replaced by a superior desire. Until you experience the satisfaction of a greater pleasure, your sin patterns will take you in a never-ending cycle of desire, sin, and regret (James 1:14-15).

A Sunday morning sermon may help you see the emptiness of earthly pleasures. As you are reminded of how short life is and how death swallows all the joys and interests of the world, you may find yourself emotionally affected. You may even feel that a life-changing experience has taken place and that you will finally be free from your sinful cravings.

But then Monday morning comes along, accompanied by all the distractions of the world. And the machinery of the heart demands that you fill the void left by the vacant worldly pleasures. Before you know it, you are once again pursuing the sin you thought you had learned to hate. When you have no new affections to replace your old ones, the church can easily become a playground for fleeting emotions instead of a school for obedience.

It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. Well, so does the human heart: the room inside it may change one occupant for another, but it cannot be left empty without experiencing intolerable suffering.

Imagine telling a person to set fire to his own property. He might obey, painfully and reluctantly, if he saw that his life depended on it. But he would gladly burn his property to the ground if he saw that a new property worth ten times as much would instantly spring up from the ashes. In a situation like this, something more is going on than just displacing an affection; one treasure is being traded in for another.

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

When You Can’t Give Up the Sins You Love

Pornography and illicit sex. Drug addiction. Life-consuming video games. The world is a smorgasbord of tantalizing pursuits. And when it comes to forbidden pleasures (or good pleasures gone awry), our solution is usually something along the lines of, “Just say no.” Abstinence—from whatever we’ve become addicted to—is the key to victory.
This “solution” is filled with good intentions, but is it the right solution? Put another way, is the seduction of sin destroyed by mere avoidance of sin? I believe the answer to that question is no. Abstinence only works when a superior solution is established.
What is that superior solution? For the answer, I want to look at one of the most paradigm-shattering sermons I have ever been exposed to. You may have heard of it: The Expulsive Power of a New Affection, by Thomas Chalmers.
Yes, Thomas Chalmers has been dead for over 150 years. Yes, his sermon’s old-fashioned language is hard to slog through. But it contains a foundational truth that will rock your world.

Over a period of several months, I went through the painstaking—but highly rewarding—process of “translating” Chalmers’ sermon for easier accessibility. With Shannon’s help, I made the following adjustments:

  • Paraphrased it using modern-day English
  • Shortened it by taking out some redundancies
  • Rearranged it to help with flow
  • Eliminated some archaic illustrations, updated some others, and added a few transitions

It is my hope that the powerful truths of this sermon might be more readily available to a modern audience. Toward that end, this and the next four blog posts will show how Chalmers’ sermon can revolutionize how we deal with the tempting pleasures of sin. So, without further ado, here is the first installment in our series.

The Expulsive Power of a New Affection
A Sermon by Thomas Chalmers
Paraphrased, Revised, and Abridged by Cap Stewart

Central thought: I can’t learn to hate the sin that I love until I learn to love something else even more.

There is no greater warning against worldly, carnal desires than what 1 John 2:15 says: “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If any one loves the world, there is no love in his heart for the Father” (1912 Weymouth New Testament).

Not loving the world is indispensable to those who would follow Christ. “And do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2a). “[Y]ou once walked according to the course of this world [i.e., you don’t—and shouldn’t—now]” (Ephesians 2:2). “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth” (Colossians 3:2). “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is…to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

You can use one of two methods to keep your heart from loving the world:
  1. Try to convince yourself how empty worldly pleasures are. This, perhaps, will cause your heart to consider worldliness as being unworthy of your affections.

  2. Set your sights on another object that is more worthy of your delight—namely, God Himself. This will persuade you to replace an inferior affection with a new one.
My goal is to show that the first method is useless, and that the second method is the only way to rescue the heart from the worldly desires that control it. Before we get to the solution, though, we need to better understand the problem of worldliness.

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Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Predestination: Yes, God Does Keep Some Secrets from Us

Let’s continue our blog series on Paradise Lost by looking at Books 7 and 8.

Book 7:
Raphael recounts how God created the world, in what amounts to Genesis 1 in poetry form.

Book 8:
Adam shares the story of his first few moments of life.

On a couple occasions, Adam asks Raphael for more information about creation. His curiosity is completely innocent, and Raphael answers willingly enough, but with the caveat that some of God’s ways are beyond human comprehension. God will never withhold knowledge that will make us happier (7, line 117), but because God alone is omniscient, some of His truths are “suppressed in night” (line 123).

…heaven is for thee too high
To know what passes there; be lowly wise (8, lines 172-173)

We may not like to hear it, but God does keep some cards close to His chest. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).

One of the “secret things” that belong to the Lord is the doctrine of election, more popularly called predestination. Yes, the Bible talks about election. To ignore it is to skirt the edges of the ignorance we denounced in our last Paradise Lost post. Proponents of free will are in danger of this error. (It’s an error I committed frequently. When I didn’t believe in election, I simply pretended Romans 9 didn’t exist; I willingly denied truth that was readily available to me.)

At the same time, advocates of predestination—and especially those who call themselves Calvinists—need to be careful not to try figuring out exactly how election works. We mustn’t rely too heavily on human logic to make sense of the mystery of predestination. We may end up explaining how certain verses don’t really mean what they say—and that isn’t humble hermeneutics. Martin Luther warns us that “what is above us is none of our concern. For thoughts of this kind, which investigate something more sublime above or outside the revelation of God, are altogether hellish.”

Unlike Luther, John Wesley was an advocate of free will, yet he agreed on our need for humility in mining the depths of God’s wisdom. Commenting on Deuteronomy 29:29, he says that the ways of God “are often times hidden from us, unsearchable by our shallow capacities, and matters for our admiration, not our enquiry.” When we are “lowly wise,” we humbly and willingly accept our limitations in the face of God’s omniscience.

There is definitely room for debating Biblical doctrines, even weighty ones. There are many mysteries that God has revealed, either in full or in part. But where mystery remains, let us not pretend to know what God has not taught.

How do we know when we are being lowly wise? When we step into the waters of God’s mysterious providence and, instead of complaining about getting wet, we admire the unsearchable wisdom of God that is “past finding out” (Rom. 11:33). We know we are being lowly wise when we can say along with King David, “LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty. Neither do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me” (Ps. 131:1).

Far from making Him cold and distant, God’s omniscience comforts me with the promise that His knowledge is infinite. Therefore, He can be trusted with all my cares, longings, and needs, for He is both aware of them all and aware of what is truly best for me.

So let us praise God for what He has revealed, and let us admire Him for the knowledge He has kept secret. We may not know all His mysterious ways, but we do know His heart, and it is a heart that lavishes unending grace on undeserving and repentant hearts. Knowledge of this amazing love is more than enough.

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Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The 3 Habits of Highly Effective Heretics

These days, it’s popular to crack down on things like hate, hypocrisy, and heresy. Well, okay, the first two vices aren’t cool—and rightfully so. Depending on your definition of those words, it can be wise and good to oppose them. But heresy has put on lipstick and a short skirt, and many in the church have responded by trading in their spectacles of discernment for hairspray and cologne.

Yes, we should be opposed to hate (Jas. 2:1-9) and hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11-13), but members of the early church had a healthy concern for what is arguably our greatest danger: heresy. Impure doctrine can often be a cause of hatred, hypocrisy, and a host of other problems. In the end, all wrong behaviors stem from wrong beliefs.

One place where Paul warns against heresy is Philippians 3:17-19.

Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.

Paul gives two facts about heretics: 1) they are enemies of Jesus Christ, and 2) their end is destruction. What I want to briefly examine, through, are what he points out next: the three habits displayed by heretics.

1. Their belly is their god.

A person’s functional god is whatever he or she obeys most readily. He who constantly refuses to consider the opinions of others and he who can’t move without the approval of others are both serving a functional god.

Here, the heretic is described as following the dictates of his belly. The word “belly” might be better translated as “heart.” In other words, heretics are swayed by their feelings more than anything else. They go with what they feel is true and right and good.

It’s easy for this to happen. The “follow your heart” mantra is everywhere in our society, including the church. Accordingly, heretics make many of their appeals based on the subjective and emotional. They encourage us to be true to ourselves and to follow where our own hearts lead. True happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction can only come from following the god in our gut. It’s a deadly lie that heretics love to live out loud (Rom. 16:18).

2. Their glory is in their shame.

People who follow their hearts don’t stop seeking to do what is right. They just do what is right in their own eyes. And therein lies the problem: evaluating what is right and wrong with their own eyes. The Bible specifically mentions this tendency, and never with approval. For example, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise” (Pr. 12:15). (See also Deut. 12:8; Jud. 17:6, 21:25; Pr. 21:2.)

When heretics in the church treat their hearts as the ultimate moral compass, they come to accept or even promote those things which are shameful. Evil is called good and good evil. Love is called hate and hate love. Vice is called virtue and virtue vice.

Heretics are like the early American slaveholders: boldly professing Christianity while making a case for culturally acceptable, yet grossly unbiblical, practices. They take pleasure in falsehood, not realizing that they have learned to enjoy dark deeds even in broad daylight (2 Pet. 2:13).

3. They set their mind on earthly things.

That is, “all they think about is this life here on earth” (NLT). Or, “this world is the limit of their horizon” (Phil). This truth is made even clearer in the next verse, which says true Christians recognize they are citizens of another world—i.e., heaven.

Being concerned with earthly things is not sinful in and of itself; what is dangerous is to be so caught up in earthly pursuits that you act like a citizen of earth instead of an ambassador from a faraway—and countercultural—land.

To quote C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. . . . [T]he English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade [and many others] all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.” If this statement is true for lukewarm Christians, it is even more true for heretics.

Two takeaways:

1) If we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that the seeds of heresy lie in every human heart. We are all capable of the above three habits. Realistically, we have all at least dabbled with them. Heresy is dangerous—and even deadly—but if our pointing fingers never feel our own spiritual pulses from time to time, something is wrong.

2) The proper response to heresy is not gloating. It is grief. The heretic is, ultimately, an enemy of God—even if he speaks behind a pulpit and publishes bestselling books. Thus, his destination is destruction. This news should be sobering, not a cause for salivating.

Let us weep along with the Apostle Paul that there are those in the church—professing Christ with their lips!—who are living their lives as enemies God—crucifying Christ again by their actions (Heb. 6:6). May we display God’s grace by experiencing painful sorrow rather than pleasurable self-righteousness over the heresies that threaten to stain and sully Christ’s bride.

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