The Struggles of the Believer (Part Seven)

1 John 5:13

I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (CSB).

The second support is that of a changed life. We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did (1 John 2:3-6 NIV). To use our previous illustration, this is like showing you my wife and having her testify that we are married. If I claimed to be married, and no one ever saw my wife, you would rightly be suspicious of my assertion.

At this point we must be careful, because of what I’ll call “short-checklist morality”. When most people think of sin, they confine themselves to a few of the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments, like don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, and don’t bear false witness. They might add a couple other prohibitions to their list, but they assume that “holiness” concerns the avoidance of the items on their checklist. And they evaluate others the same way. For example, if homosexuality is on their list, they’ll be proud that they’re not and roundly condemn anyone with even homosexual tendencies. This short-checklist morality twists their own view of true Christianity and also what others think a true Christian is or isn’t. If they keep their short checklist, they assume that they have evidence of salvation. But that is not the changed life the Bible presents. I’ll explain.

  • The apostle John wrote: We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Clearly, this means the commands that tell of godliness for new covenant believers, but I’ll avoid explaining the reasons in this post. To be brief, this means what the Spirit gave as directives to us in all the Scriptures, but according to the age in which we live in redemptive history. These commands involve many prohibitions and many positive commands and instructions and godly wisdom and encouragements.
  • This means not only theoretical agreement, but also practical performance of what the Lord commands us: Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person.
  • This kind of obedience springs from love for the Lord. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. A person might say, “I never steal, and I love to tell the truth.” That’s nice. But if they don’t love God in the process, they have never actually obeyed, because love for God is indispensable for obedience. Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10 NIV).
  • We do not truly obey unless we model the character of Jesus Christ. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. In every act of obedience, he pleased the Father (John 5:30; 8:29). He rejoiced to please the Father, even in the most difficult time (Hebrews 12:2). This is the kind of life God the Father expects from us, too, a life that pleases the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:9; Ephesians 5:10; Colossians 1:10; 3:20; 1 Thessalonians 2:4; 4:1; 1 Timothy 2:3; Hebrews 11:6; 13:16; 1 John 3:22).

The apostle John tells us that we will be able to see a two-part witness of the reality of our salvation, and that this testimony is one of the three bases of assurance. If we lack this testimony, we have a serious crack in our assurance. There is the witness of love for other Christians. This is a witness to ourselves (1 John 3:14). It is also the witness to others (John 13:34-35). We also can see the witness of a holy life (1 John 2:29; 3:3; 5:4). We stop doing some things (1 John 3:8-9). We put sin to death (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5). We begin to do other things (1 Jn 2:29; 3:10). This is the process of continual renewal (Colossians 3:12-17; 2 Peter 1:5-11).

This makes a proper doctrine of spiritual growth so important. If you seek to become godlier in the wrong way, you may corrupt your assurance of salvation. We must avoid a common error—making our growth in grace a source of confidence before God. That is legalism, and the error of many in both Reformed and Fundamentalist circles. A truly growing godliness is the product of union with the risen Christ (Romans 7:1-6). Christ alone must be our joy and confidence! The holy witness is a sign of what he is doing in us by his Spirit.

Grace and peace, David

The Struggles of the Believer (Part Six)

1 John 5:13

I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (CSB).

Our current study is about the struggles that a real follower of the Lord Jesus can face. First, we established this fact and discussed the struggle with fear. In our previous two posts, we began to answer the question, “What should you do if you are not sure that you are saved?” Time only permitted us to give two answers. The first was to examine yourself to see if you are really a follower of Christ. We saw that the God requires a true repentance toward him and a true belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. The second was to realize that true believers might struggle about their assurance. So we presented three proofs that true believers do struggle about assurance, and then four selected causes that contribute to this struggle. The fourth cause was “cracks” in the pillars or bases of assurance. What they are, and what we must tend to is the subject of this and the next posts.

Learn the Biblical teaching about assurance. There are three bases or pillars on which your assurance (not your salvation!) rests. Suppose you asked me to prove that I am married to Sharon Ann Frampton. I could find a copy of the signed marriage license, or I could produce her to testify that I am married to her, or I could just smile and say, “I said vows of marital love to her and I heard her say vows of marital love to me.” That is what these three pillars or supports of assurance are like.

First is the support of the promises of God. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him (1 John 5:1 ESV). God’s promises call us to rest on his truthfulness (Titus 1:2) and his faithfulness (Lamentations 3:23). Being convinced by the Spirit, we trust in the Lord. Jesus said, “Everyone the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37 CSB; cf. John 3:16; 5:24). John is saying in 1 John 5:1 that we can know that we have been born of God because we believe that Jesus is the Christ.

  • In the inner person of every believer God the Holy Spirit has planted a deep conviction about God and his truth. There is something that happens inside the heart that provides a certain amount of certainty that there is a God and that his word is final authority. I think that this is what the Reformers meant when they talked about the assurance of true faith.
  • Though I doubt that any true believer can lose that certainty, it is obvious that most or perhaps all believers struggle with doubts and questions at some time, not so much about God’s promises, but about whether or not they trust the Lord. Since we are not perfect in understanding and our minds sometimes drift, sin can take advantage of our limitations and weaknesses to produce doubts about God and his word. At that point, we must ask for the Spirit’s help, pick up his sword (the word of God), and put those doubts to death.

Many new believers struggle when someone asks them, “How do you know that the Bible is God’s Word?” And when they cannot convince the skeptic, they begin to question their own faith. The apostle is advising us, “Take a look at the marriage license! Go back to whom you believe in—Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Exercise a fresh faith in him.”

As we grow in faith and understanding, we come to know a number of truths that contribute to our assurance. Let’s think of a few.

  • God’s power preserves his people. And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns (Philippians 1:6 NLT; cf. 1 Peter 1:5; Jude 1:24).
  • Christ’s blood has purchased our eternal salvation. The Lord Jesus entered the most holy place once for all time, not by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12 CSB).
  • We are in the risen and ascended Christ. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4-7 ESV).
  • We are sealed by the Spirit to the day of redemption. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30 NIV).

In this way, the truths that we nickname “the doctrines of grace” contribute to a full assurance. As we spiritually comprehend all that we have by the free grace of the gospel, we rejoice! Joy in the Lord leads us through struggles into peace and confident expectation.

Grace and peace, David

The Struggles of the Believer (Part Five)

1 John 5:13

I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (CSB).

In our series on the struggles of the believer, we are currently viewing the struggle of the believer regarding assurance of salvation. One of the great problems that anyone faces who dares to think about death and the afterlife is “How can I know that I will enjoy eternal life?” This points to the struggle of faith with a lack of assurance. What should you do if you are not sure that you are saved? First, we considered that we need to examine ourselves to see if we are really followers of Jesus Christ. If by the Holy Spirit we can claim to have put our faith in the Lord Jesus, we can still struggle. This leads us to the next reality.

Realize that true believers may struggle about their assurance. Here are three evidences that true believers do struggle about assurance or confident anticipation (hope) of eternal life.

  • The spiritual experiences of believers that are recorded in the Scriptures (Psalms 42-43; Ps 88; Isaiah 50:10). Notice how Peter spoke to this issue. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in y our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins (2 Peter 1:5-9 NIV). If a believer (they have faith because you cannot add to it unless you have it) fails to develop positive qualities of godliness, they will struggle with assurance! Sadly, for most believers in the west, their only concept of sin is doing what God prohibits (like telling lies, sexual immorality, or theft). They fail to see that the lack of godliness is also offensive to God. For this reason, in any spiritual struggle, if they consider sin, they only examine their life about breaking prohibitions. It is a defective, partially blind concept of what the Lord requires.
  • The exhortations to believers to draw near to God with a full assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:19-39). The long passage just mentioned should make our point obvious. Why would the Spirit guide the Biblical writers to encourage God’s people to have full assurance, if every believer has assurance? It would be unnecessary.
  • The existence of teaching in the New Testament Scriptures about how you may know that you have eternal life (1 John). If we assurance was identical with saving faith, you would only be told to believe. But the Holy Spirit provides us with evidences about the reality of our faith in the Lord.

Why do some believers have severe struggles with assurance of salvation? I have selected four causes that contribute to this struggle.

  • Some suck in error with their first spiritual breath because of a faulty evangelistic presentation or follow-up. Thank God that we are not saved by a clear, pristine theology but by Jesus Christ! Yet too many new Christians are taught errors such as the possibility of falling from grace that torment them for the rest of their lives. There have been many that God has saved though they heard seemingly less than adequate or correct presentations of the gospel. But the Holy Spirit made sure of one thing — they truly repented and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus finds his sheep in some strange places. Remember they were lost! Then he leads them on in his truth.
  • Some are never taught the difference between faith and assurance. You might see some who want to get saved every week, because they have had a struggle regarding their assurance. Thus you hear some preachers talk about “first time decisions”. Another problem is the false teaching that if you doubt, you are not saved. When I was a young minister, I saw a pastor do great damage to his flock by this error.
  • Some live their spiritual lives in an atmosphere of legalism or guilt manipulation. Beware of those who attempt to make you feel guilty in order to get you to serve God. Faith always works by love (Galatians 5:6).
  • Some have cracks in some of the “Biblical bases of assurance”. Next time, we will look at this in more detail.

Perhaps this is not your struggle, at least now. Even so, we all need to know what the Bible says about faith and assurance. Someday, we might have this struggle. Or perhaps there is a friend of yours that is struggling about this now. An excellent part of the Bible to read about this is the First Letter of John. Invest a week in reading it every day.

Grace and peace, David

The Struggles of the Believer (Part Four)

1 John 5:13

I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (CSB).

It is common in our day for those who do not believe to dismiss Christianity with a wave of the hand. We may get dissed many ways. “The Christian faith is no longer relevant. It may have been fine in a simple age, but these are complex times.” Others may say, “The Christian faith is too exclusive. This is the modern world of pluralism. Get with the system.” (By the way, it amazes me how anyone who pretends to claim to believe that all things are relative and all views have the right to be heard will deny that Christians have a right to proclaim what we believe! Postmodern thinking is littered with countless contradictions!) Others may say, “The Christian faith is simply a myth or fairytale. You need to look at the real world.” Perhaps some professing Christians do think and talk that way, but the faith of true Christianity says that though there is a future reward for the righteous, those who follow Christ now share in the benefits of Christ’s salvation. As the old hymn says, “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow — blessings all mine with ten thousand besides.”

What we want to see in this series of articles is that it is followers of Christ who actually look fully at the world and its problems. Authentic Christianity has no desire to play pretend games. People face life and death issues! Many suffer through the trauma of abuse and family problems, and hurt for the rest of their lives. Some are victims of violent crimes. All suffer disease, pain, grief and eventually death. Yes, life is very real! Genuine Christianity is willing to face these problems and to present God’s real solutions. Christianity does not ask, “Where do you want to go today?” It asks, “Where must you go today?” In fact, it is the non-Christian who is the escapist. The unbeliever likes to hear pleasant fantasies like “don’t think about death and the afterlife. Go for all the gusto you can get now.” Or, “do you have problems? Just take these drugs (legal or illegal) to escape your pain.” Or, “deny responsibility for your problems. Blame everyone else. Maybe if you hug yourself long enough you will feel better.”

In previous posts we wrote about the struggle that true believers can have with fear. Today, let’s think about a related issue: the struggle of the believer regarding assurance of salvation. One of the great problems that anyone faces who dares to think about death and the afterlife is “How can I know that I will enjoy eternal life?” This is the struggle of faith with a lack of assurance. What should you do if you are not sure that you are saved?

Examine yourself to see if you are really a follower of Christ. There is a place for this, because obviously no one can have assurance of salvation unless they are saved. Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Corinthians 13:5 NIV)

Some profess to be saved, but they have never been saved, for they have no knowledge of the Biblical gospel. Salvation is never by works (Ephesians 2:8-9) or by participating in religious rituals (Galatians 5:2-5). Salvation only comes when you trust Christ as your Lord and Savior. If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved (Romans 10:9-10).

Some profess to be saved, but they have never been saved, because there is some vital deficiency in their spiritual experience. They might be deeply religious but they lack the Holy Spirit.

  • Some have never had a true sense of need for Christ. They have no idea why anyone would need to turn from their sin and trust in Jesus Christ. They fail to see the glory of Christ.
  • Some have never become followers of Christ. And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34 ESV). Instead, they follow religion or their family traditions or their friends. Christ does not have first place in their thoughts, desires, and choices they make in their lives.
  • Some have never had a change of mind about sin. They do not see it as an offence against God, but as an allowable way of life. They have not repented (had a change of mind or world and life view about God, mankind, Christ, sin, and the way of salvation). Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 CSB).
  • Some have never trusted in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified and risen again as their only Savior. As Paul and Silas said to the jailer in Philippi, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31 ESV).

All of these need to understand the way of salvation, and then change their minds and trust in Christ! Here is the general way that God works to bring people to salvation. The Holy Spirit of God uses the Holy Scriptures and Christians and/or various events…

  • To confront people with the truth of the gospel or the truth about God and his ways.
  • To convict people of sin, righteousness, and the judgment to come.
  • To change their minds about God, themselves, sin, Christ, and the gospel.
  • To commit themselves to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. This involves what we call the “KAT” of true faith: knowledge, assent and trust. During my youth, I did not understand that true faith involved personal trust in the Savior.

So then, dear reader, are you a follower of Jesus Christ? Only if you know him will he give you assurance of salvation.

Grace and peace, David

The Struggles of the Believer (Part Three)

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise—in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? (Psalm 56:3-4 NIV)

Previously, we have thought on the believer’s struggle with fear. We have seen that fear is an emotion given by God. Sadly, sin twists what is a good gift for our preservation into a sinful fear that disrupts our fellowship with God and people. We also saw that we need to replace fear with faith in the living God. Next, let’s think of two other practical steps to take when we struggle with fear.

Resolve not to fear. To have a proper resolution requires a sound, practical theology. Who is this one I should trust in when I am afraid? I should trust in God. The resting place of faith is in God himself. The Christian does not look for a favorable turn in events, the successful application of a method, or an empty hope that the problem will just go away. No, he “gets God involved in his problem.” He says to the Lord, “Things look rather dismal here, Lord, but I know that you are able.”

The content of faith conforms to God’s revelation of himself in his word. We do not expect God to act contrary to himself or his ways, but we do look with certainty for the help that he has promised in the Holy Scriptures. This means that you and I must know what God has promised. We learn what God has promised by carefully reading and studying his word. God may graciously carry the young saint through situations, when the believer has not had opportunity to learn God’s promises and ways. But do not assume that he will do the same for those who ought to have attained some degree of spiritual maturity.

A proper resolution also requires self-control, which is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). Faith is not an exercise in passivity or inactivity. Faith is a conscious dependence to trust God and to do what he wants you to do. Consider Abraham (Hebrews 11:8-9, 11, 17-18). He believed God and did what God told him to do.

This means that you must “take charge” of yourself. You tell yourself, “There is more in this situation than my physical senses can perceive. God is with me, and he is holy, sovereign, good and wise. Therefore, I choose to depend on him whatever may happen.” George Mueller many times prayed to the Lord for food for his orphanage. He depended upon God to meet great needs.

Reevaluate your situation. Having faith in God does not require us to close our eyes or put our head in the sand. Believers are not little children who put their hands over their eyes and boldly proclaim to trouble, “You can’t see me!” Sight operates within the limits of this space/time material world. The rebel sinner refuses to see anything beyond what his or her senses can perceive. The unbeliever says to the believer, “Why pray? Why hope in God?”

Faith sees everything that sight does, but it also considers what is spiritual and eternal. The believer replies to the unbeliever, “You may twist my words, you may plot and conspire, and you may watch my steps, eager to take my life. But God is on my side and you have the greater problem.”

Having faith in God does require us to wait on God for his time of deliverance. Faith will calmly watch the problem worsen, because it knows that God will act. Think of Gideon trial as Israel’s leader. He watched his army shrink from 32,000 to 10,000 to 300, and then those 300 were told to prepare for battle with trumpets and torches. The public opinion polls probably said that Gideon and his army were going to get slaughtered, but they were wrong. But true faith is then at the place where the believer can glorify God. Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about a hundred years old) and also the deadness of Sarah’s womb. He did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, because he was fully convinced that what God had promised, he was also able to do (Romans 4:19-21 CSB).

As believers, we will come into situations of fear, as David did. Sometimes it will be due to our own mistakes and sins, like happened to David. But regardless of how we arrive at a fear-inducing situation, we must be ready to think and to act Biblically. That means that you must replace fear with faith, resolve not to fear, and then reevaluate your situation to give glory to God. In the same way, we must be gracious and considerate (Galatians 6:1) when we see other believers overcome by fear. We ought to help them in their struggle of faith, and not add wounds to their consciences. A bold faith should not be brusque or harsh with others. We can encourage others kindly and compassionately. May we learn to help others with the comfort that we have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Grace and peace, David

The Struggles of the Believer (Part Two)

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise—in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? (Psalm 56:3-4 NIV)

The first struggle of the believer we will consider is the struggle of faith with fear. What should you do when you are afraid? Do not be mistaken. You will have to struggle with fear. You are not yet in eternal glory. One of the issues that causes tension or a pull between opposites is what is called “the now” and “the not yet”. We are now richly blessed with all spiritual blessings (Ephesians 1:3), but since the Lord has not yet returned, we must wait in faith for the full realization of all blessings. For example, we continue to struggle with suffering (Ephesians 3:13), unity (Ephesians 4:3), communication issues (Ephesians 4:25-29), etc.

In this struggle, we must replace fear with faith in God. Fear can cripple us as we seek to walk with the Lord. However, the time of fear is the opportunity to exercise faith.

We need a godly view of fear, and by godly, I mean more than saying, “We should not fear.” Fear by itself is an emotion given by God for human preservation. Fear motivates us to seek protection from what may harm us. For example, we ought to fear God. Jesus said, “I say to you, my friends, don’t fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will show you the one to fear: Fear him who has authority to throw people into hell after death. Yes, I say to you, this is the one to fear! (Luke 12:4-5 CSB; cf. 1 Peter 2:17) We ought to fear God, because he is holy and almighty. But since he is also loving and gracious, we sinners may find refuge in Christ that God has provided. Fear is a problem when it hinders us from drawing near to God or from serving God and others in love. Consider again what Christ says in Luke 12.

The way to confront fear is to replace it with faith. When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. It is a mistake to assume that you can simply stop being afraid. Someone who merely quits being afraid is an unemployed worrier, who will fear again when another problem arises. “Faith is seen here as a deliberate act, in defiance of one’s emotional state” (Kidner). In other words, when fears starts to control, you choose to trust. You think on the overwhelming greatness of the Lord God. You realize that God is leading you through the present situation so that you may turn from your insufficiency to his all-sufficiency.

The replacement for fear is not merely faith, but faith in the living God. The whole phrase is crucial. When I am afraid, I put my trust in you (my emphasis). We should avoid saying trite phrases like “You just need to believe!” Biblical faith requires the proper object, who is the true and living God. And God must be approached through the Lord Jesus Christ. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father (Ephesians 2:18 ESV). David is not suggesting that faith by itself will deliver. The Bible never tells us to have faith in our faith. Instead, David instructs us to trust in God. Our faith must have an object that is worthy of trust. And God is worthy! “Only God is the object of Biblical faith… This simple truth can be an immeasurable help in the Christian life. Faith is not blind. It is not an ambiguous trust in some abstract entity. It is not a leap in the dark. God is the object of faith” (Matthews, Growth in Grace, p. 117).

Observe this in the life of Paul the apostle, as he neared the end of his earthly journey. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen (2 Timothy 4:18 NIV). He turned to the Lord in the midst of evil attacks. His confidence was in God, not in pleasant circumstances.

Grace and peace, David

The Struggles of the Believer (Part One)

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise—in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? (Psalm 56:3-4 NIV)

Please imagine the following scenes for a few moments.

  • See a Christian weeping in their living room — a dear spouse of many years has died. This person has been alone in sorrow for a few days, but now a Christian friend comes to visit. Knowing that the spouse was a believer, the friend offers the following words of consolation: “You shouldn’t cry like this! You should rejoice that their suffering is over. You’re acting like an unbeliever. Don’t you know that your spouse is with the Lord?” What is wrong with this picture?
  • See a Christian waiting for surgery or concerned because he might lose his job. A fellow believer senses his uneasiness after church and talks with him about his problem. The fearful follower of Jesus receives this counsel, “Why are you afraid? Don’t you know that God will take care of you? Have you forgotten Proverbs 3:5?” What is wrong with this picture?
  • See a Christian who has entered into temptation and then sinned. Everyone knows what she has done. She feels miserable, though she has confessed her sin. Some won’t talk to her in church. Everywhere she looks, she sees stares of condemnation. What is wrong with this picture?

Perhaps these three scenes are all too real for you, because you have been the mourner, fearful, or the believer overtaken by sin. In each case, the person needs to experience God’s overflowing grace. The law came along to multiply the trespass. But where sin multiplied, grace multiplied even more so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness, resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:21 CSB). However, the struggling believer instead experiences more guilt feelings because of their failure to perform as a — are you ready for this? — a perfect Christian.

Many errors have crippled the evangelical church for over a hundred years. We must always avoid the tendency to trace all weaknesses to one source and then apply a cure-all solution. Having said that, we should understand that both sinless perfectionism and psychological perfectionism have created an atmosphere of unreality in the church. No one is allowed to struggle because… well, after all it’s so easy to be perfect! The wrong idea is that a Christian only needs to have a “transforming experience” to lift them from defeat level to victory level. Then, they can live as perfect Christians. The problem is that no believer is perfect. Someone might try to sidestep this problem by claiming, “Look pastor, I know Christians aren’t perfect. Haven’t you read my bumper sticker that says, ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven?’” Well, yes I have read those bumper stickers. Leaving other matters aside for a moment, my question is, “Do you treat other Christians that way, as not perfect but forgiven?”

In order to help one another, we must accept the fact that Christians struggle, that we ourselves know how to struggle, and that we know how to help others who struggle. Our theme in this study is the struggles of true believers and how to help yourself and others in these struggles.

The writer of this psalm is David, the man after God’s own heart. Yet he wrote this psalm after one of the lowest points of his life. King Saul was intent on killing David, and so he had to run away. Strangely, David went to Gath in Philistia, the hometown of Goliath, whom he had killed in battle! (And you thought you made poor decisions!) The Philistines seized him, and he had to feign insanity in order to escape (1 Samuel 21:10-15). David learned from his sin and wrote this psalm to help others. Next, we’ll think on how he received help.

Grace and peace, David

A Pattern for Church Ministry (Part Five)

Acts 14:21-23

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church… (14:23a NIV).

It has been said that it is easier to criticize what is in place than to replace it with what is better. I agree! The Biblical way is to transform our ideas, attitudes, and actions according to the scriptures. How can a local assembly of believers transform their view of church structure and leadership?

First, we must transform our thinking about the church itself. It is not an organization but an organism. The church is the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, its members the branches of Christ the Vine, the brotherhood (brothers and sisters) of Christ, and so it is the living building of Christ. For easy recall, we can call these the “Five Bs of the Church” (Ephesians 5:23-24; 1 Corinthians 15:12-13; John 15:1-8; 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 1 Peter 2:4-5; etc.) Each of these metaphors speak of the church as a living organism. They are all Christ-formed and draw their life from Christ, (which is the reason I repeated “of Christ” in the above list.) Christ is the head of this living organism. He is also the head of the body, the church (Colossians 1:18 CSB). Observe very clearly that Christ is the head of the church, not a group of elders, bishops, or a pastor. Christ is the Chief Shepherd; elders merely shepherd God’s flock under Christ’s direction (1 Peter 5:1-4). A local church and its leadership must maintain this view of being a living body, vitally connected with Christ that apart from Christ can do nothing. The current organizational view of churches suppresses a proper focus of life with Christ. The sense of fellowship with the Ascended Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:1) should saturate all the meetings of local churches.

Second, we must be willing to listen to what the New Testament Scriptures actually say about church leadership. Here is an example. When it was made, the Authorized or King James Version was the best translation of the Bible that had appeared in English. It served English speaking churches well from the early 1600s to the 1950s. However, like any human product, the KJV had weaknesses. The one that concerns us now is that it was a political translation in places. King James I required that certain passages dealing with “church government” be translated to conform with his views of the church (hence, the translation “church” for the Scottish “kirk”, when the Greek is better translated as assembly or something similar.) For example, consider Philippians 1:1. Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons (AKJV, my emphasis). Compare to a better translation of this verse. Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to all the holy ones in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and ministers (NABRE, my emphasis). While most modern English translations have cast off “bishops” of the AKJV, they wrongly continue to use the transliteration (letter by letter) “deacons”. The subject of ministers is not the point in this post. But the continued use of a transliteration still hinders clear views of church leadership, and that is the point. It masks what the Spirit has breathed out in the Word. Strongly held church traditions dating back to at least the early 1600s make people refuse to discuss the actual meanings of elder and “deacon” and their interrelated functions in the local assembly. This must change.

Why is this important? It becomes important in the relationship between “pastor” and “elder”. I think that many would hold them to be equivalent based on Acts 20:17, 28. From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church… Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God… (NIV, my emphasis). Then what happens in contemporary North American churches is “interesting” (in the negative sense of that word).

  • The elders and members of a church want a (usually) seminary trained man to be “the pastor” to handle the preaching of the word and other “pastoral and administrative” duties. They want a “senior pastor” or “lead pastor” who will be “the face of the church”. They may hire other “pastors” to handle other aspects of pastoral work, such as youth pastor, counseling pastor, visitation pastor, small group pastor, women’s ministries pastor, etc., if the church is large. While the lead pastor and the elders are theoretically equals, the senior pastor is the man everyone looks to for vision, leadership, and the Sunday morning preaching.
  • Depending on the doctrinal beliefs, spiritual gifts, skills, personalities, and spiritual maturity of the pastors and the elders, they can have a more or less harmonious relationship. If the church is “successful” (an increasing number of “nickels and noses”), it is in everyone’s best interests to make it work. “Success” can mask the wrong underlying ideas, attitudes, and actions until a crisis comes.
  • When something does go wrong, the blame game starts. In a larger church, it is easy to blame the staff and dismiss the assistant pastors, since they are not the face of the church. If there is a moral failure of the senior pastor or a power struggle between him and the elders, a church has very serious problems. It is rare to resolve such power struggles in a godly manner. Either the senior pastor or the elders must leave the church. Which happens is a matter of personalities, their popularity in the church, and their ability to manipulate people.

Next time, I want to talk more about pastors and elders and the biblical idea of leadership. However, I don’t want this post to end on a negative note. I am very glad that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of the church! As one who served for thirty-five years as a pastor, I rejoice in what the Lord does for the good of his people through the Holy Spirit and the Bible. He loves his church dearly, and he wants the churches to welcome him back as their functional Lord (Revelation 2-3). This will require transformation of the structure of local churches. Healthy organisms require healthy structures. We need better ideas of church leadership than the contemporary board room model, which produces power struggles. The transformation can happen as leaders and members understand what the Lord has actually set up for the leadership of his people.

Grace and peace, David

Psalm 70 (Part Two)

But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who long for your saving help always say, “The Lord is great!” (70:4 NIV)

We continue our study in Psalm Seventy. David next prays against his enemies three times. There was nothing wrong in David doing this, since he was asking for justice. The apostle Paul makes a similar statement in 2 Timothy 4:14. However, there is a different perspective that we learn in the new covenant. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:43-45 NIV). The Lord Jesus wants us to be merciful people.

Verses two through four do show the character of the ungodly, especially in their attitude to the people of God. They want to kill and to ruin and to abuse those who love the Lord. See Romans 1:29-31. They are filled with all unrighteousness, evil, greed, and wickedness. They are full of envy, murder, quarrels, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, arrogant, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful (CSB; cf. Romans 3:13-16).

David provides an insight about their end. Yes, they appear to be winning now, and they think that they are! But their end will be shame and confusion and disgrace. For all eternity they will be disgraced while God’s now disgraced people will be exalted (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). The ungodly may rejoice now and say, “Aha! Aha!” But their glory will be turned into shame. They settle for far too little.

David turns the psalm in another direction and offers two requests for the godly. First, let us notice two characteristics of the godly.

  • They seek the Lord. Notice the contrast with the malicious quest of the wicked (70:2). All God’s people know the Lord—all know the Shepherd’s voice and come boldly and personally to the Holy One as Father. But it is also true that we are on a lifelong spiritual adventure of knowing Him who is gloriously infinite. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (Philippians 3:10 NIV).
  • They love God’s salvation. There are three senses in which this is true. They love it in the sense of delighting in it. The wicked do not share this delight. They love the way of salvation—that it is a way of grace, not works. They love the Savior (Isaiah 62:11; Luke 2:25-32; 1 Peter 1:10-11).

In David’s requests for the godly we can see the essence of a true relationship with God. It is to exalt God’s name. It is to rejoice and be glad in the Lord (Philippians 3:1; 4:4; Romans 14:17-18). Why do we rejoice in the Lord? We do because he is the greatest good. To know him is to know true happiness.

  • God is the universal A person may have a number of excellent qualities, but God has all excellent qualities.
  • God is unmixed Every earthly pleasure has some gall mixed with the honey, but God is perfect.
  • God is satisfying Fresh joys come from him constantly (John 7:37f).
  • God is delicious “There is a certain sweetness about God’s person which delights, nay, rather, ravishes the soul.” 1 Pt 1:8
  • God is superlative There is none like him. Is 40:18,25
  • God is eternal He lasts forever with no change.

David speaks of the saint’s lack of merit as a reason that God should answer. “Poverty and necessity are very good pleas in prayer to a God of infinite mercy…” (Henry). We should remember that when we are weak, they we are strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Here is the proper perspective of Romans 8:37. Yes, we are “more than conquerors”, but it is “through him”.

Compare the first and the last verses with Psalm 139:1, 23-24, where the perspectives are reversed. Prayer in both places is based on what we know of God’s character, whether as Omniscient or as Helper.

Grace and peace, David

Psalm 70 (Part One)

Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me (70:1 NIV).

This psalm is very similar to 40:13-17. There are just a few minor alterations. Compare the similarity between Psalms 14 and 53. Both Psalms 40 and 70 are ascribed to David, who probably took the last section of Psalm 40, modified it, and set it forth to God’s people as a brief prayer for help (cf. Mt 13:52). There is a time to repeat truth. In addition, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. To write to you again about this is no trouble for me and is a safeguard for you (Philippians 3:1 CSB). In fact, there are times to highlight a part of former teaching and use it for a particular purpose.

Many evangelicals are accustomed to freestyle prayer, but we must remember that it is not superior to praying a set form of words. When I was young, I was taught that to repeat prayers was wrong, that it was something done only by people that called themselves Christians but weren’t. Many arguments were used for this that aren’t worth repeating. The attitude of the heart and faith is far more important than whether or not we are original. Jesus himself prayed the same words over again, and on at least two occasions gave the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

This psalm is characterized by a sense of urgency (70:1, 5). God knows that though he is eternal, we are bound by constraints of time. Here the Holy Spirit inspires words that plead for a quick answer from the Lord. Here the children urge God the Father to hurry! However, we should balance this by some other thoughts.

  • We may need to wait humbly before God in order to gain understanding. Consider the experience of Daniel the prophet. In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three full weeks. I didn’t eat any rich food, no meat or wine entered my mouth, and I didn’t put any oil on my body until the three weeks were over… “Don’t be afraid, Daniel,” he said to me, “for from the first day that you purposed to understand and to humble yourself before your God, your prayers were heard. I have come because of your prayers. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me for twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me after I had been left there with the kings of Persia” (Daniel 10:2-3, 12-13 CSB). Sometimes the laborious wait is God’s route to blessing.
  • We may need to wait because God has other plans he is working out before he can bring about our desired answer. Think of Jesus delay when he heard that his friend Lazarus was sick. Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was (John 11:5-6 ESV). Why did Jesus wait? He knew God’s plan to do a greater miraculous sign for the glory of God—the raising of Lazarus from the dead. God may not be doing something as dramatic in our lives, but we ought to trust his timing. I had someone complain to me a few times (yes, this happened more than once) that God always seemed to answer her prayers at “one minute to midnight”, and she didn’t like his way of doing that. We ought to rejoice whenever God answers! We are often unwise, impatient, even demanding children. Perhaps God simply sees the need to teach us patience and humility.
  • We may wait expectantly because God can do his work swiftly. Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you… Your sun shall no more go down, nor your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended. Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I might be glorified. The least one shall become a clan, and the smallest one a mighty nation; I am the Lord; in its time I will hasten it (Isaiah 60:1, 20-22 ESV).

David knew that he needed God to be involved in his life, so he asked God to save and to help. His example of faith shows us to abandon self-reliance. Quit trying to be the problem-solver in your life! Believers know that we need the Lord to lift us up and do what we are unable to do. Since the saint is alive to God, he understands that God is able to act in history and to carry out a rescue operation. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 4:16 NIV).

Grace and peace, David