The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Part Eleven)


Romans 8:9-10

But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this one is not his. But if Christ is in you, on the one hand the body is dead because of sin, but on the other, the Spirit is life because of righteousness (my translation).

Previously in our series on the Holy Spirit, we considered from the Scriptures our need of the Holy Spirit’s work; namely, we were dead in sin. Next, we saw how the Spirit met this need by regenerating grace. This grace involved a washing and renewal (Titus 3:5) and conveyed an image or likeness unto God (Colossians 3:10). When the Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to cause us to be born again, four things happen: He gives a new heart (inner person) and spiritual life; he gives the gifts of repentance and faith; he breaks the power of sin; and he opens our hearts to Christ and his glory. The old person of the heart that was dead in sin is born again, so that we are now new in Jesus Christ.

“In Christ” is the key idea of salvation. All aspects of salvation, whether regeneration and conversion, or justification, or adoption, or sanctification, or glorification, happen because of our union with the Lord Jesus Christ. How do we come into saving union with the Lord Jesus Christ? Let us look at our text.

At the time of salvation, the Holy Spirit joins the believer to Christ. When we are saved, the Spirit enters the inner person of the heart and brings about union with the Lord Christ. This is a spiritual reality, and it cannot be perceived by our senses. But we know this happens on the authority of God’s word. In fact, we can say this: It is a serious error to equate this act of spiritual union with certain physical manifestations or acts. (See Edwards on the Religious Affections.) There might be physical effects, but they are not an essential part of this event. This is one reason not to compare your conversion experience too closely to another believer. The Spirit works the same new birth, but there are various emotional effects.

When the Spirit enters a person, he effectively calls us to Christ; he unites us to Christ, so that we are “in Christ”, or as Paul states in verse ten, Christ is “in us”. Notice that the apostle speaks interchangeably of being “in Christ” and “in the Spirit”. This is not because of confusion about the Trinity in his thinking, but it flows from the truth of Jesus Christ as the Ascended Lord, and so the giver of the promised Holy Spirit. The Spirit mediates the presence of Christ, and the Father, to us (cf. John 14:18, 23).

A basic definition of a Christian is to have the Holy Spirit of God living in the inner person of the heart. “However much we may need to grow in our relationship to the Spirit; however much we may be graciously given fresh and invigorating experiences of God’s Spirit, from the moment of conversion on, the Holy Spirit is a settled resident within” (Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 490).

Observe that the Spirit “lives” within us. He is active, residing in our hearts. He gets involved in changing us to become increasingly like Christ. He does not like unChrist-like activity and he will let you know his displeasure. He does like righteousness, peace and joy, and he will also let you know his pleasure in them.

This saving union with Christ produced by the Spirit is the basic experience of salvation (2 Timothy 2:10; Colossians 2:10). This is a practical matter.  “To the degree you understand union with Christ, to that degree you will understand the Biblical concept of salvation. Pause right now and ask God to make the doctrine of union with Christ a reality to your heart as well as to your mind… Every spiritual blessing which is necessary for our full salvation and which renders us complete in grace flows out of and is derived from our union with Christ” (Morey, The Saving Work of Christ, pp. 87-88, his emphasis). Understanding this will contribute much to a proper focus on Christ in our relationship with the Lord and his people. We will have confidence before God, since we are in Christ. We will accept one another because we are jointly in Christ. As we think on this reality, we will sense how sin is an ugly violation of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Instead, we will desire to know the Lord better and to stay close to him.

Grace and peace, David

Prayer One of a Struggler

Psalm 25:1-3

In a culture of fantasy, the people of God need to demonstrate the reality that people who do not know the Lord sadly lack. As the Holy Spirit tells us in the word of God, all people seek for happiness (Ecclesiastes). But our culture has passed that. In our culture, people pursue pleasure, do all possible to avoid pain and self-denial, and want immediate gratification. Generally speaking, people pursue anything that promises change by a single event or a very simplified process.

We need to think and act differently, to face life in the world that the Lord has ordered that we live in, and to live in the way that demonstrates God’s surpassing glory. One way we can start doing this is to admit, “Hello, my name is ________, and I’m a struggler. I struggle with life’s fears, troubles and uncertainties; I struggle with the many times I rebel against God; and yes, I even struggle with knowing God. But I also know that I don’t struggle alone. God is with me, and so are his people. Let me tell you about what God is doing in the struggles of my life.”

This psalm has evidence of being carefully put together in the form of an acrostic poem. So then, it is not a spontaneous composition, but the result of hard work and meditation. It has the structure of a “meditation sandwich”. The “bread” of the sandwich consists of three prayers. The first two are in verses 1-7, and the third is in verses 16-22. The “meat” of the sandwich is the meditation on God and his friendship with his people. Let us consider the first two prayers together.

David struggled with his hope in God. In you, Lord my God, I put my trust. I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me. No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame, but shame will come on those who are treacherous without cause.

(25:1-3 NIV). Clearly, he experienced the tension between confidence and disgrace that is part of hope in this world. Too often we idealize spiritual qualities like hope and faith, picturing either one as possessed only by the triumphant. But David, who saw many mercies of God for his benefit, struggled in this area. However, he did not wallow in self-pity. He reached out to the living God.

Next time in this psalm, we will listen to how David addressed the Lord. Now, we will concentrate on the fact that he did pray to the Lord. We ought to have God at the top of the list when we are in struggles. Brothers and sisters in Christ, family, friends, and counselors can play valuable roles in our lives. However, we ought first to turn to the Lord. I think most of us realize God’s priority in the life of faith. Yet, this can be a serious challenge. We can see people and find it more natural to seek them. It is also far too easy to use the forms of prayer, while avoiding direct, meaningful conversation with God our Father. We must concentrate on the great God to whom we pray. He has all-power and can make changes in us and our circumstances. Many times, (not every time), the change must first occur in us, before the Father will change other matters. If a child likes to scribble on the walls with crayons, it is wise to train the child not to do that before you repaint the walls. So then, we must approach the Father with a willingness for him to change us. “Lord, I’m struggling in this situation, but I need to refocus on you and stop obsessing about my problem. Give me grace to ‘drop the crayon’ because I’m doing a lot of ‘scribbling’.”

The ‘scribbling’ can take many forms, including the failure to interact with God in a personal manner. He is not a ‘vending machine’ and prayers are not ‘dollar bills and quarters’ to get power from him. David had the right approach. Listen to his opening words: In you, Lord my God…. Let us talk with the Lord as the Holy and Exalted Person that God is.

Grace and peace, David

Fellowship Differently

Philemon 1:7

For I have great joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother (HCSB).

When we meet together as the Lord’s people, we assemble to worship and to fellowship. This last word is not well understood. It tells us of what we share together in Christ, and what we should share with each other. In short, fellowship is much more than the proverbial ‘coffee and donuts’ and chatting with each other about our children, jobs, houses, and sports teams. Much of this is no different from talking with others at work or with other adults at children’s sports.

Fellowship concerns sharing our lives in Christ with each other. It involves building up, encouraging, comforting, and helping one another, and very much more. True fellowship rests new life in Christ, love flowing out from Christ by the Spirit, and upon shared ideas, values, and attitudes.

To experience fellowship as followers of Christ requires good models, since most of us do not grasp abstract concepts. How to fellowship is more caught than taught. If someone has taught you how to share your life with others by example or as a mentor, thank God for that person right now. But what if you and your local church obviously fall short of true fellowship? How can you fellowship differently?

One way is to study and then seek to imitate the examples written in the Scriptures. In our text, Paul commends Philemon for being such a person. Let’s observe Philemon in these words of the apostle.

  • Philemon gave Paul great joy and encouragement from his love. Philemon’s love, which came from the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), reached out to other followers of Christ. He set his heart on Paul and others to act for their benefit. His love desired that others rejoice. He wanted them to be encouraged! You see, every gathering of God’s family ought to have the aim to produce joy and encouragement. We should enter the meeting determined to spread joy and encouragement, and we should leave, having received large baskets of the same. Notice that word “great” or “much”. Obviously, this happens when love overflows. For example, it does not come from a polite handshake but a warm embrace. We cannot act like we’ve been “emotionally neutered”, if we’re to spread much joy and encouragement. Yes, I know love is more than emotions, but it is also not less.
  • Philemon refreshed the hearts of the saints. The word translated “heart” is a strong term, used for the deep interior of a person along with their emotions. Again, it was more than a polite, “I’ll be praying for you; keep me posted,” kind of action. It is trying to improve the outlook of a person from the depths of their being. It asks itself, “How I can act to refresh this person?” Many times, we cannot change the circumstances of others. But we can seek to lift them up, to speak hope into them, so that they will endure in faith to the glory of God. To refresh someone’s heart requires us to invest time with them.
  • Philemon acted as a brother. His commitment and relationship to his brothers and sisters in Christ fueled his good works for them. We are a spiritual brotherhood, and we dare not forsake others because we feel we have too many needs of our own. Everyone in Christ has new life and the Holy Spirit and gifts from the Spirit. How can we hold ourselves away from our brothers and sisters because “I’m too tired” or “I’m too busy” or “I have so many problems”, etc.?

Let us observe Philemon, and then let us go out to imitate him. Every group we are part of, whether small or large, need refreshed hearts. Will you give yourself to refresh others?

Grace and peace, David

Church Life – Respect (Part 2)


1 Timothy 5:1-2

Never speak harshly to an older man, but appeal to him respectfully as you would to your own father. Talk to younger men as you would to your own brothers. Treat older women as you would your mother, and treat younger women with all purity as you would your own sisters (NLT).

Our subject is the respect that we ought to demonstrate to others in Christ. We are all children in the family of God the Father, and he wants us to esteem one another highly. The Holy Spirit does not give us a lofty ideal, but he directs us in specific relationships. The apostle Paul gave his close associate Timothy direction about how to deliver proper rebuke to other members of a local church. Consider 2 Timothy 4:2: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction (NIV). The fact that Timothy was a minister does not hinder the application of the text to all in the church in their mutual relations, because Timothy was to function as an example to others (4:12). Paul uses a tension-filled time, the need to correct others, as a paradigm for our interactions with each other. Every follower of Christ will have occasion to confront others in our local spiritual family, and the Lord expects us to do it. I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another (Romans 15:14 NIV).

In the church, we should correct, rebuke, and encourage (don’t ignore the need to encourage!) four groups: older men, younger men, older women, and younger women. We must speak in a proper way as we do any of the three actions, but there is special need for caution when the action is rebuke. It is too easy to adopt a harsh tone that harms the person and our relationship with him or her. We ought not to rebuke because we feel frustrated with the person. Neither should we rebuke because we assume we are spiritually or personally superior to the person. We must remember that we are one in Jesus Christ and that each one is deeply loved by the Lord.

In our culture, older people are demeaned, devalued, and disrespected. The Holy Spirit tells us to honor older people. Older men and women are precious to the Lord. We must regard them as our fathers and mothers. This requires us to speak with them lovingly, kindly, patiently, and gently. In other words, we must speak according to the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). This is true spirituality. Older people are valued by God, and we must also value them by respect in our thoughts, attitudes, actions and words toward them. God requires us to honor our parents. Older people in our churches should receive the same kind of honor.

Younger men and women are to be treated as brothers and sisters. Spiritual experience provides many benefits, but among them is not a know-it-all attitude that can’t keep its mouth shut. Neither is stubbornness spiritual. Neither antiquity or being on the cutting edge give value to ideas and ways of doing things. Wisdom and truth provide value. We must understand the times in which we live, and younger people can have a better grasp on what’s happening now and where the future is headed. This does not mean that they are automatically right, but it strongly suggests that we ought to listen. A rebuke of younger people demands that we hear them and attempt to understand their situation. It involves patient explanation of godliness and true holiness.

The Holy Spirit values a family attitude. He wants us to do everything, including the hard things like correction and rebuke as brothers and sisters in the Lord. He wants us to prize the family relationship of the people of God. A church is not a business, a club, or an institution, and so it should not be run like a business, a club, or an institution. This Sunday when you are in church, take time to look around at others. They are your family. Take steps to reach out to others as brothers and sisters. Do you know them, their needs and struggles, and what causes them sorrow and joy? Invite them over to share in a family manner. Open your hearts to each other. Listen and feel and sympathize. Laugh and cry. Love.

Grace and peace, David

Church Life – Respect

1 Timothy 5:1-2

Never speak harshly to an older man, but appeal to him respectfully as you would to your own father. Talk to younger men as you would to your own brothers. Treat older women as you would your mother, and treat younger women with all purity as you would your own sisters (NLT).

Years ago when I was a pastor in upstate New York, one of the men of the church gave me a study Bible. He frankly confessed that he had used it for a while and didn’t like it. That’s why he gave it to me. (I appreciated his candor, but it made me wonder why you would give your pastor something you yourself didn’t like. I suppose every pastor can provide stories of similar gifts.)

I must admit that I was underwhelmed by the gift, and I put it aside. A few years passed and I moved to Pennsylvania. The binding of the Bible I had used for notes broke, and so I picked up the long unused study Bible to use it for note taking. (I usually use an unmarked Bible for preaching, since it’s easier to read. I think a preacher should have an open Bible with him during the message.) Now the binding on that study Bible is broken, and I mainly use it for reference.

I tell that story to tell this. A question came up in our Sunday morning meeting about the section headings in Bibles. They were added by the translators to help us easily find places in the text, and were not intended to be guides of interpretation. For that, I am glad. A few years ago, we focused on 1 Timothy at a men’s retreat. In preparation for that, I had read and reread 1 Timothy, and I had marked it up somewhat with colored pencils and short notes. The section heading above our text was “Advice About Widows, Elders and Slaves”. Below it I had written, “The church as a family.” In another study Bible during another study, I wrote “Family attitude toward others in the church”.  I think that presents the idea of the section more comprehensively. Yes, it does talk about widows, elders, and slaves, but in our religious culture’s individualistic and institutional views of the church, we miss the idea of the church as a family. The local church in the New Testament is much more than sitting in a building with some people that might also worship there.

Too often Christian people fail to think of others in the church as our family. Perhaps they might be thought of as friends, but not family. Church members know that they ought to be outwardly nice and even pitch in to provide meals and presents at bridal and baby showers. But being nice is not the same as being family. To be a family requires gut-level acceptance, sympathy, and care… and respect.

We have lost a sense of the importance of respect in our spiritual and physical families. In the latter, spouses do not respect each other, children do not respect their parents, and parents do not respect their children either, for that matter. People have traded off respect in relationships for items of far less value, such as “personal space”. Instead of welcoming aunts and uncles, cousins and all the rest, people distance themselves from each other. But physical families are not today’s topic.

Our text in 1 Timothy requires respect to every person on every level of the spiritual family. This respect starts by vital recognition of each person as in Christ, as members of his body, and so of members of each other. A vital, spiritual union binds us together. Since we are in Christ, we are in the Father’s family as adult sons and daughters of God. Together we form a royal priesthood and are citizens in the Kingdom of God’s Son. So then, we must have gospel-formed opinions of each other. When we see the dignity of our shared position in Christ, we will look at each other with eyes filled with respect and embrace each other as fellow members of God’s family. This foundational bond will enable us to overcome all worldly distinctions, like ethnicity, educational attainments, economic levels, personality differences, and so forth. We will walk a new path together as family members in Christ, and we thus respect each other. When we respect one another, we will begin to reach out to each other in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT).

Do not hold yourself back from your brothers and sisters in Christ. They need your love, and you need theirs!

Grace and peace, David

The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Part Ten)

John 3:6

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (ESV).

Our subject is the work of the Holy Spirit in our regeneration or new birth from above. In this great action, he acts to renew us, so that we have a close relationship or friendship with the Holy God. In regeneration, the Holy Spirit conveys an image or likeness of the Begetter to the begotten (Colossians 3:10). As the first Adam begat a son in his image (Genesis 5:3), so by the Spirit the last Adam begets sons for God that bear his image (1 Corinthians 15:49). This image or likeness to God lies in two things:

  • It is conformity of spirit to God’s, which means a radical break from the rule of sin to the government of holiness or being set apart to God (Romans 6:17-18; cf. 1 Peter 1:15-16). This involves love (Romans 13:9-10; 1 Thessalonians 4:9) at the core. This is what caught the attention of the world as they looked at the early church. They said, “Look how they love one another!” To participate in my college’s athletic program, every team member had to read Schaeffer’s The Mark of the Christian and then sign a statement that they had carefully read it. God’s love ought to permeate our interactions with fellow Christians and reach out to those we seek to see become Christ’s followers.
  • It is having God’s glory set up in our hearts as our ultimate purpose, and as the measure of all our attitudes, affections and actions.

This image or likeness to God is what is meant by Peter’s statement (2 Peter 1:3-4). The regenerated inner person of the heart now has a disposition to seek God and righteousness as the unregenerate person sought sin and darkness. Have you found an attitude in your heart to seek holiness and the glory of God?

How does the Holy Spirit do this? He directly acts on the inner person of the heart. Frankly, the Holy Spirit does not tell us much about exactly how he produces new spiritual life. There is mystery here. All we can say is that he is the efficient cause. He produces spiritual life in the heart of a person dead in sin. “The Spirit gives birth to spirit” (3:6). “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (3:8).

The Spirit of God uses the Holy Scriptures to create new life. The word functions like seed in the heart (1 Peter 1:23). The Spirit adds his power to the living word of God and produces life. This is a deliberate action of God. He gives new life through the word of God because he has chosen to so act (James 1:18).

What happens when the Holy Spirit causes us to be born again?

  • He gives a new heart (inner person) and life. Ezekiel 36:26-27; Jeremiah 24:7; Ephesians 2:5-10
  • He gives the gifts of repentance and faith (Acts 16:14). Repentance is a gift of God (Ac 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim 2:25-26) and so is faith (Acts 13:48; 18:27; Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 1:29; 1 Timothy 1:14; 2 Peter 1:1). As Spurgeon said, “No Christian can lay his hand on his heart and say, ‘I believed in Christ without the help of the Holy Spirit.’”
  • He breaks the power of sin (Deuteronomy 30:6; cf. 29:4; Colossians 2:11; Romans 8:9; 6:22; Acts 26:18).
  • He opens our hearts to Christ and his glory (Acts 16:14; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Matthew 16:16-17; Ephesians 4:20-21; cf. Philippians 3:3ff).

The good result is that former rebels against God become his submissive, humble, trusting children. We live in newness of life.

Grace and peace, David

Our Conduct in Church

1 Timothy 3:14-15

I am writing these things to you now, even though I hope to be with you soon, so that if I am delayed, you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God. This is the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth (NLT).

The Bible is God’s word; it is God’s voice to us, to people. It speaks about God and mankind. God delivered it to us in human language and in human circumstances. These circumstances provided opportunities to talk to his people through all generations. In this letter, the Spirit spoke concerning our conduct in the church. As always, church in the New Testament does not mean “in a building” but “in our relationships with God and his people”, since “church” means “assembly” or “gathering” or “congregation”.

The great purpose, then, is to present proper conduct with God and his people. First Timothy is not about church government or rules for church order. It concerns how you and I are to share life together and with God. What makes this letter so volatile in the contemporary church is the obsession of many with themselves and their opinions rather than believing submission to what the Spirit plainly said through the apostle. The same self-obsession leads many to ignore the family values of life together in the church. (Read especially chapter five.) This letter deserves fresh, multiple readings of its text, putting aside study Bibles, commentaries, and church manuals, until we have listened together to the text, and have attained a submissive attitude toward its teaching.

As we listen humbly, we will hear teaching about what the church is. As has often been said in various forms, we must know what we are in Christ before we can practice life in Christ. In our text, we discover three ideas about the church.

  • We are the household of God. We are God’s family. He is the Father, we his children. He is the leader and sets the values, ideas, aims, mission, attitudes, and kindred spirit of his family. He tells us how we are to treat each other (5:1-2). Matters like faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness have a high priority in God’s household (6:11; cf. 1:4-5). The Father wants all to sense that such gospel-formed attitudes and actions are to be felt and experienced by all.
  • We are the assembly of the living God. He is life itself, and we are alive in Christ with him. The church is a gathering of life, of spiritually alive people with the living God. The church is organic by nature, not institutional. It is people sharing life, not trying to lead a successful religious business. Life is valued more than profit or loss. Since we live in this fallen world and still sin, God and we know that this life will be messy and challenging, but it remains life shared with the living God.
  • We guard the word; we are the pillar and foundation of the truth. We firmly hold to its teachings, passing them from person to person, and from generation to generation. Truth matters because we know it is the way of salvation to all the people groups of the earth (2:4). We also proclaim the truth to others. We use it to evangelize or “fish for people” (Mark 1:15). To put it this way, we know our mission and how to accomplish it with the help of the Holy Spirit.

This weekend as you meet with God’s people, seek to imbibe and to spread these values. Listen to your Father’s voice, follow the Father’s Son, and worship by the Father’s Spirit. Enjoy the reality that you are in the assembly of the living God! Share his love with others in his family.

Grace and peace, David

Plans and Contingency Plans

1 Timothy 3:14-15a

I am writing these things to you now, even though I hope to be with you soon, so that if I am delayed, you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God (NLT).

God our Father wants us to live as adult sons and daughters of God. He has put us into union with Christ, has given us the Spirit and the word of God, has joined us to others in Christ, has given us freedom in Christ to serve him for his glory, and he has told us our mission in this world. Our Father expects us to make proper use of all these gifts in our journey through this world. While we cannot make absolute plans (only God can do that), he does expect us to make wise plans and to carry out them out wisely. We cannot accomplish goals unless we plan how to achieve them. As has been said, “If you aim at nothing, you will probably hit it.”

The apostle Paul made plans for his ministry. He was commissioned by the Lord to serve him (Acts 26:16-18), and to do everything he had to plan; for example, he planned for the Gentile churches to give a sizable financial gift to their Jewish brothers and sisters. It took years to carry out that plan, but it did happen. At other times, he planned to visit people, but he was unable to do what he planned (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:12-2:4).

In our text, Paul wrote to Timothy about a visit he wanted to make to Ephesus (cf. 1:3). In these few words, we can hear Paul speak about his plans.

  • When he wrote Timothy, he spoke in terms of what he hoped to do. He wanted to be with his friend and coworker. If Paul was with him, there were many things that they could discuss in detail about the current situation in the Ephesian church and the best way to minister in those circumstances. A personal visit would also provide face-to-face encouragement. It is good to talk with our friends in difficult situations. Paul hoped for an ideal outcome.
  • Yet Paul knew he might be delayed. Here is one of the mysteries of the giving of the word of God to us. The Spirit would give direct information and instruction about many things, but he did not give knowledge about everything. Paul wanted to visit, but he didn’t know whether or not his visit would be delayed. The inspiration of the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit guaranteed that the finished written product would be God’s word, but it did not convey extraneous information to the human writer. Paul could give teaching about elders and ministers earlier in the chapter, but he couldn’t tell Timothy for sure when he could come. James wrote that we must have a humble before God attitude about our plans (James 4:13-15).
  • What Paul wrote was his contingency plan, if he was delayed. Timothy needed help immediately, but Paul wasn’t sure he could provide it personally. So, he did the next best thing with the technology available to him. (Paul and Timothy did not have cellphones or the internet.) But his letter was in God’s plan part of the word of God that we need. God used a human weakness for his glory and our good.

So then, let us make wise plans, plans to help and encourage others. But let us not be discouraged if we are hindered in our plans. This requires faith in God. But let us also make contingency plans, in case roadblocks get in the way. Don’t get downhearted; God might be doing something bigger and better through our second choice.

Grace and peace, David

The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Part Nine)

IMG_4158John 3:6

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (ESV).

Last in our series of articles about the Holy Spirit, we considered from the Scriptures our need of the Holy Spirit’s work. We saw that it was necessary to lift us from a focus on religious performance to a proper evaluation of Jesus Christ as Lord. This is necessary, because on the most basic level of our being, humans naturally are dead in sin. We saw five characteristics of spiritual deadness, and how that necessarily involves spiritual inability: the eight spiritual actions that fallen, natural humans cannot do.

If that was all that the Bible said, we should all weep in despair. But God also tells us in his word that there is good news. What we cannot do for salvation, God has done in Christ, and the Holy Spirit has been sent to apply the benefits of Christ’s saving work to his people. In other words, what we must now come to understand is regeneration or the effective grace of the Holy Spirit. The Father planned salvation, the Son purchased it, but it is the Holy Spirit who applies what was planned and purchased to our hearts.

The doctrine of regeneration is always important to the church. Listen to the following words of Thomas Goodwin, president of Magdalen College, Oxford University, spoken in the early 1650s.

“Let us see…this necessity of the new birth.  We are fallen into times in which the thing and doctrine of it is forgotten and laid aside, in which there are multitudes of professors, but few converts, many that seem to walk in the way to life, that never came in at the strait gate.  There is a zeal amongst us to advance this or that reformation in religion, and it hath been all the cry.  But, my brethren, where is regeneration called for or regarded?  We have seen the greatest outward alterations that ever were in any age, kingdoms turned and converted into commonwealths, the power of heaven and earth shaken: but men, although they turn this way and that, from this or that way, from this opinion to that, yet their hearts generally turn upon the same hinges they were hung on when they came into the world.  In this University of Oxford we have had puttings out and puttings in, but where is putting off of the old nature and putting on the new?  Where do we hear (as we had wont) of souls carrying home the Holy Ghost from sermons, of their being changed and altered, and made new, and of students running home weeping to their studies, crying out, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’  This was heretofore a wonted [familiar] cry.  Conversion is the only standing miracle in the church, but I may truly say these miracles are well nigh ceased; we hear of few of them” (Thomas Goodwin, The Work of the Holy Spirit in Our Salvation, p. 157). With slight modification, we could write the same words today. We need to have the same burden again. As Jesus said, “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’”

What is the new birth from above? First of all, it involves a washing and renewal. He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). When the Holy Spirit enters a human heart to cause the new birth, he encounters a cesspool of corruption that is deeply offensive to him. For this reason, he immediately performs a washing of the soul to remove the pollution of sin he encounters. At the same time, he renews the heart or causes spiritual life to begin. Where sin once reigned in death, now grace reigns in righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:21). We might say that this corrects our negative condition, but what of a change in the positive sense? This the Spirit of God also produces in the new birth. Next time, we will consider the newness of life he creates.

Grace and peace, David

The Circus Is Closing

DSCN0617Luke 9:57-62

When I read the newspaper yesterday, I was surprised to hear that after 146 years Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus will close its show forever on May 21. A circus used to be a big deal in entertainment. I remember that a small Ringling circus used to travel through our area in Ohio, and I went to see it once. The only time I was ever at the greatest show on earth was when Sharon’s cousin took our family when our children were young. An era of entertainment has closed. My granddaughter will not be able to see a circus. She and others will not know the meaning of a phrase like “someone ran off to join the circus.”

Regardless of any sentimental regrets people might have about that circus closing, there is another circus that I wish would close as soon as possible. That is the circus held every Sunday in American churches. This past week I received a postcard that a new circus, oops, I mean “church”, is opening nearby. It proudly proclaimed that it would feature a really good band. If that won’t bring in religious consumers shopping for spiritual entertainment, then what will? Remove the bands and children’s programs from most churches and you will have removed the main reasons for the assumed success of those churches. Replace the inspirational talk by the “lead pastor” with sound, Biblical teaching, and most of the rest of the crowd will disappear also.

The worship and mission of churches in America is far removed from the Lord Jesus Christ. Listen to how he interacted with some who wanted to be his disciples (learners). As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62 ESV).

The Lord Christ was not desperately gathering people. He did not seek a loose attachment to him. He certainly did not offer entertainment. Observe how he rebuffed certain types of supposed followers.

  • Jesus did not accept people who merely said that they would follow him, even if their words appeared to commit to him (9:57-58). He taught that the life of faith was not about personal convenience. It required sacrifice. The “circus church” allows people to attend when convenient; it strives to put on a good enough show that people won’t find it convenient to miss.
  • Jesus did not accept people who failed to commit to his supremacy (9:59-60). He demanded first place above other relationships. The “circus church” excuses people for activities with family and friends, but hopes that they can convince them to join the weekly shows, at least occasionally. Everyone wants high attendance for Christmas and Easter programs.
  • Jesus did not accept people who looked for other opportunities (9:61-62). He demanded firm commitment. The “circus church” lets people play around, trying to keep them interested in attending weekend programs, while giving them a pass on godly behavior and commitment to Christ.

Let me stress that I don’t want churches to close. But I pray that they will shut down the circus and return to Jesus Christ and his mission. I doubt this will happen, because they know that they will lose many who attend their weekly religious entertainment programs. The local leaders have counted the cost of their church following Christ and do not want to endure it, or they do not want to follow the Lord themselves.

Each one of us ought to examine ourselves. Do I really want to follow Christ on his mission of being a disciple myself and making disciples? Or do I merely want some weekend religious entertainment. It’s time to end the circus and to begin discipleship.

Grace and peace, David