Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Only God Remained

Ray Ortlund post:  Only God remained, and to God they turned

“In Kiev, where I found myself on a Sunday morning, on an impulse I turned into a church where a service was in progress.  It was packed tight, but I managed to squeeze myself against a pillar whence I could survey the congregation and look up at the altar.  Young and old, peasants and townsmen, parents and children, even a few in uniform – it was a variegated assembly. . . . Never before or since have I participated in such worship; the sense conveyed of turning to God in great affliction was overpowering.  Though I could not, of course, follow the service, I knew from Klavdia Lvovna little bits of it; for instance, where the congregation say there is no help for them save from God.  What intense feeling they put into these words!  In their minds, I knew, as in mine, was a picture of those desolate abandoned villages, the hunger and the hopelessness, the cattle trucks being loaded with humans in the dawn light.  Where were they to turn for help?  Not to the Kremlin . . ., nor to the forces of progress and democracy in the West. . . . Every possible human agency found wanting.  So, only God remained, and to God they turned with a passion, a dedication, a humility, impossible to convey.  They took me with them; I felt closer to God then than I ever had before, or am likely to again.”
Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time: The Green Stick (New York, 1982), pages 258-259.

Our Growing Dependence

Tullian Tchividjian post:  Are Christians Totally Depraved?

Believe it or not, this is an important question. It’s not simply a theological question. It’s a theological question that has profound practical implications. Our answer will inevitably reveal our understanding of the gospel and reflect our understanding of sin and grace.
First things first: what total depravity isn’t.
Total depravity does not mean “utter depravity.” Utter depravity means that someone is as bad as he/she can possibly be. Thankfully, God’s restraining grace keeps even the worst of us from being utterly depraved. The worst people who have ever lived could’ve been worse. So, don’t read “utter depravity” into “total depravity.”
Well, if total depravity isn’t utter depravity, then what is it? As understood and articulated by theologians for centuries, the idea of “total depravity” means more than one thing.
On the one hand, total depravity affirms that we are all born “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1-3Colossians 2:13), with no spiritual capacity to incline ourselves Godward. We do not come into this world spiritually neutral; we come into this world spiritually dead. Therefore, we need much more than to reach out from our spiritual hospital bed and take medicine that God offers. We need to be raised from death to life. In this sense, total depravity means we are “totally unable” to go to God. We will not because we cannot, and we cannot because we’re dead.
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. (Romans 3:10-12)
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:7-8)
Salvation only happens when God comes to us.
When the Resurrection and the Life says “Lazarus, come forth”, the rest of the story does not depend on Lazarus. He can drag his feet all the way–admittedly, a hell of a thing to do–but he rises, no matter what. He just plain does… Jesus came to raise the dead. The only qualification for the gift of the Gospel is to be dead. You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to be wise. You don’t have to be wonderful. You just have to be dead. That’s it. (Robert Capon)
So, in the sense above, Christians are obviously not totally depraved. We who were dead have been made alive.
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…(Ephesians 2:4-6)
But once God regenerates us by his Spirit, draws us to himself, unites us to Christ, raises us from the dead, and grants us status as adopted sons and daughters, is there any sense in which we can speak of Christian’s being totally depraved?
Theologians speak of total depravity, not only in terms of “total inability” to come to God on our own because we’re spiritually dead, but also in terms of sin’s effect: sin corrupts us in the “totality” of our being. Our minds are affected by sin. Our hearts are affected by sin. Our wills are affected by sin. Our bodies are affected by sin. This is at the heart of Paul’s internal struggle that he articulates in Romans 7:
For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
The painful struggle that Paul gives voice to arises from his condition as simul justus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinful). He has been raised from the dead and is now alive to Christ, but remaining sin continues to plague him at every level and in every way.
Paul’s testimony demonstrates that even after God saves us, there is no part of us that becomes sin free–we remain sinful and imperfect in all of our capacities, in the “totality” of our being. Even after God saves us, our thoughts, words, motives, deeds, and affections need the constant cleansing of Christ’s blood and the forgiveness that comes our way for free. This is what J.C. Ryle was getting at when he wrote, “Even the best things we do have something in them to be pardoned.”
While it is gloriously true for the Christian that there is nowhere Christ has not arrived by his Spirit, it is equally true that there is no part of any Christian in this life that is free of sin. Because of the totality of sins effect, therefore, we never outgrow our need for Christ’s finished work on our behalf–we never graduate beyond our desperate need for Christ’s righteousness and his strong and perfect blood-soaked plea “before the throne of God above.”
The reason this is so important is because we will always be suspicious of grace (“yes grace, but…”) until we realize our desperate need for it. Our dire need for God’s grace doesn’t get smaller after God saves us–in one sense, it actually gets bigger. Christian growth, says the Apostle Peter, is always “growth into grace”, not away from it. Many Christians think that becoming sanctified means that we become stronger and stronger, more and more competent. And although we would never say it this way, we Christian’s sometimes give the impression that sanctification is growth beyond our need for Jesus and his finished work for us: we needed Jesus a lot for justification; we need him less for sanctification.
The truth is, however, that Christian growth and progress involves coming to the realization of just how weak and incompetent we continue to be and how strong and competent Jesus continues to be for us. Spiritual maturity is not marked by our growing, independent fitness. Rather, it’s marked by our growing dependence on Christ’s fitness for us. Because we are daily sinners, we need God’s daily distributions of free grace that come our way as a result of Christ’s finished work. Christian growth involves believing and embracing the fact that, even as a Christian, you’re worse than you think you are but that God’s grace toward you in Christ is much bigger than you could ever imagine.
Because of total depravity, you and I were desperate for God’s grace before we were saved. Because of total depravity, you and I remain desperate for God’s grace even after we’re saved.
Thankfully, though our sin reaches far, God’s grace reaches infinitely farther.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Praying Is Planting

Mark Batterson:  Day 20

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.
I Corinthians 3:6
Toward the end of his life, Honi the Circle Maker was walking down a dirt road when he saw a man planting a carob tree.  Always the inquisitive sage, Honi questioned him, “How long will it take this tree to bear fruit?”  The man replied, “Seventy years.”  Honi said, “Are you quite sure you will live another seventy years to eat its fruit?”  The man replied, “Perhaps not.  However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”
This incident led to an insight that changed the way Honi prayed.  In a moment of revelation, the Circle Maker realized that praying is planting.  Each prayer is like a seed that goes in the ground.  It disappears for a season, but it eventually bears fruit that blesses future generations.  In fact, our prayers bear fruit forever. No expiration date!  Even when we die, our prayers don’t.  Each prayer takes on a life, an eternal life, of its own.  I know this because of the moments in my life when the Holy Spirit has reminded me: the prayers of your grandfather are being answered in your life right now.  My grandfather died when I was six!  His prayers did not!  Like a carob tree planted in the ground, our prayer seeds will bear fruit long after we are long gone!
The Circle Maker revolves around 3 mantras: Dream Big, Pray Hard and Think Long.  It’s the last one that is so tough in our quick-fix culture. Almost every prayer we pray has anASAP attached to it.  Let me introduce a new acronym: ALAT.  Quit praying as soon as possible prayers and start praying as long as it takes prayers! We tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in two years, but we underestimate what we can accomplish in ten years!  If you dream big without thinking long you’re headed for a head-on collision with disappointment.  For the record, it is prayer that helps us both dream big and think long!
Drawing prayer circles often feels like a long and boring process. It’s frustrating when you feel like you’ve been circling forever.  You start to wonder if God really hears, if God really cares.  Sometimes His silence is deafening.  We circle the cancer. We circle our children.  We circle the dream.  We circle the sin.  But it doesn’t seem to be making a difference.  What do you do?  My advice: think long.
Circle for seventy years if you have to!  What else are you going to do? Where else are you going to turn?  What other options do you have?  Pray through.
We live in a culture that overvalues fifteen minutes of fame and undervalues lifelong faithfulness.  Maybe we have it backwards?  Just as our greatest successes often come on the heels of our greatest failures, our greatest answers to prayer often come on the heels of our longest prayers.  But if you pray those long and boring prayers, your life will be anything but boring.  The seeds will bear fruit.  God will give the increase.
For free resources or discounted copies of The Circle Maker, visit www.thecirclemaker.com.

Our Help

Jason DeRouchie post:  Psalm 121: What It Means That Yahweh Is Your Guardian

Psalm 121 is a treasure of promise for the suffering believer, whose “help comes from theLord ” (verse 2). After personally celebrating Yahweh’s guardianship in verses 1–2, the psalmist turns to give assurance to others in verses 3–8. He declares the nature of God’s guarding role in verse 3–4: “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”

The Perseverance of the Saints

I was surprised to find that the word combination depicting the stumbling step in verse 3 is never used in Scripture of physical falling. Rather, all four of its other occurrences employ it figuratively for someone who is (or anticipated being) overcome by divine judgment (Deuteronomy 32:35), personal sin or weakness (Psalm 38:16[17]), or enemy oppression (Psalm 66:994:18). When the psalmist declared, therefore, “He will not allow your foot to slip,” he was most likely speaking of the perseverance of the saints.
The psalmist is not promising the absence of pain or even failure. But he is promising that, amidst seas of adversity, the elect will remain upheld, not because of their own doing, but because of the preserving hand of God. No one can snatch God’s sheep out of his hand (John 10:27–30), and the one who has justified will never again condemn (Romans 8:33–34). What mercy! What promise! The sure confidence we have today that we will remain with God tomorrow is God himself. Thank him. Remain dependent on him. Plead for his sustaining grace.

He Watches Over Our Souls

Along with ensuring our perseverance (verse 3a), the Lord ’s guardianship also means he is constantly watching over our souls (verses 3b–4). The Hebrew of verse 4 suggests a development from what precedes. Whereas verse 3 suggests “your Guardian” will notslumber now, verse 4 stresses “Israel’s Guardian” will never slumber nor sleep. God “gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2), and we are able to rest only because we know God never does. “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary” (Isaiah 40:28). Yahweh is always awake, always aware, and always watching over his children.
Do not put your hope today in yourself, for were it not for God, you would surely slip. But because of his ever-sustaining mercy, your faith will remain. As asserted in Psalm 94:16–18: “Who stands up for me against evil doers? If Yahweh had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence. When I thought, ‘My foot slips,’ your steadfast love, O Yahweh, held me up.”
It is the steadfast love of the Lord that sustains. It never ceases but it is replenished every dawn (Lamentations 3:22–23).

Look to Your Guardian

Whether your sleepless nights are filled with tears and prayers, diaper changing, or paper writing, God is with you with all the energy and grace you need. Don’t forget him. Look to him at any hour –– in the light or in the night. Yahweh’s guardianship means that he ensures our perseverance. He constantly watches over his own.
Jason DeRouchie is the Associate Professor of Old Testament at Bethlehem College and Seminary. He's also the editor and contributer to What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About (Kregel: forthcoming 2012) and co-author of A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (B&H Academic, 2009).

See Yourself as the Daughter of the Creator

LifeToday Bob Hamp post:  God Got On His Knees

She hated herself, almost as much as she hated him. She had not always been the hating type. She had once been gentle and kind, but life had not been gentle and kind to her. Today, she hated that she had followed one more time. She had followed her fear, instead of her heart, and she had followed this man into this room, because of another set of empty promises, and smooth words. But all the kindness went away as soon as she had consented.
Once he had heard her “yes” he looked at her differently. Suddenly his touch was not so much about her, as it was about him. He became rough with her as he led her into the back room. Moments ago, he had seemed so attentive, and almost thoughtful. It had all shifted when she nodded her head to his proposition. It was clear that when their encounter ended she would never see him again. That’s not what his words said earlier, but his actions and tone spoke louder than his words ever had.
He began roughly pulling at her clothing, and bodily moving her into a position of submission and weakness. She gave in, her heart breaking again into little pieces as she silently refused to stand up for herself. Her body and her heart were dying hundreds of tiny deaths, and she choked back everything that was true about herself. How had she ended up here again? But she knew the role she was supposed to play, and she gave in to the actress who had betrayed her before.
This painfully familiar scene had played out before, and here she was again. Each act was familiar, and she knew her lines all too well.
Suddenly it all shifted. Light broke into the darkness of the room, and loud voices accompanied the crashing of the door as a group of men broke into the room, each one speaking, shouting. Oh no, please God! What was happening now? This was not part of the act. Things were quickly getting out of control.
A group of men surrounded the two of them while they were yet partially dressed. Hands grabbed at them both, shouting insults and orders. These were older men, and they were dressed in strange clothes.  Was that the robe of a priest on the man standing in the corner? Wait, all of them were dressed in religious robes and garments. Some were quoting scripture passages, with venom in their voices. Who were they and what were they doing here?
One of the men grabbed the man who moments ago had been grabbing at her. He pulled the man close and began to speak gruffly into his ear. He pushed the man away, and he began to run. He ran out the door and quickly disappeared.
Now she was alone with these men. All strangers, all dressed in the religious attire of her people. She glanced up occasionally. She saw their eyes; none of them were friendly, none of them were kind. In their eyes was death, and it fed the slow death that had already been eating at her soul. Some looked at her with scorn. Some looked at her in her partially dressed state, and she could see that look that men have when they look at her, a mixture of lust and contempt. She looked at their eyes, but couldn’t bear it for long. The look in their eyes made her feel so small and weak.
She heard their conversation, but their words didn’t make sense to her.
“Where is he now?” one asked.
“I understand he is nearby. Someone said they saw him in town just a few hours ago,” another murmured.
Clearly they were not referring to the man they had just sent fleeing into the sunlight, but she had no idea who they were discussing. It seemed their conversation was in many ways more about this man than about her, but who? She would soon find out, because several of them grabbed her and began to drag her out of the house.
“Oh please God,” she thought to herself, “please allow me to at least cover up! I can’t go out there half uncovered like this.” But she didn’t dare speak. These men clearly intended harm. She knew that the law of her day gave them the right to kill her. Not just kill her, but to pummel her with stones until she died. Could this be why they had broken in? To kill her? Was the man they were talking about the one who would have power over her life or death? Fear shot up into her throat.  The shame she was feeling already was swallowed up in the sudden realization that she could die today. She began to think to herself that maybe she deserved it.
She was aware that they were approaching a great crowd, and the men pushed their way through. Her fear and shame was magnified as the multitude began to turn and notice her. At the center of the crowd was a man. This seemed to be where they were taking her.
They threw her at his feet, and the dread began to choke her like a hand around her throat. She saw a pair of sandals and the strong legs of the man, but she dared not look up. They began again to hurl accusations at her and quote the law. This was it. They had brought her here to die. The rage and anger in all the voices was tangible; she could feel the weight of it. They wanted her dead. Their voices had death in them.
“Master,” they finished. “The Law says she should die. What do you say?”
They finished speaking and the silence hung heavy in the air. The crowd murmured uneasily. All the eyes turned toward this man. She was certain that he was the one who would decide her fate today. She was afraid; no, terrified, but she had to look up. She had to see who this man who held her life in His hands.
With what might be her last ounce of courage she looked up into the face of her judge, and her breathing stopped. Like the other men’s eyes, His gaze was a shock to her system, but for a completely different reason. He was looking at her. He was not looking at her body, He was not looking at her nakedness and shame. He was looking right back into her eyes, and she was seized by the stark awareness that He saw her. She wanted to hide again, but this time because she felt that He could see right through her. She felt that He could see every dark corner of her heart, and His gaze never wavered.
But even that was not the thing that seized her. The thing that paralyzed her lungs and her heart was not the intensity of His gaze, it was the fierce and piercing kindness with which He looked at her.
She was half-dressed, fresh from the bedroom of a stranger. She had been thrown roughly into this public square, and her story laid out for her neighbors and these strangers to hear. He could see in her heart every bit of the hatred; the fear, the loathing of herself and others. And He…well… He…He loved her. She could feel it, and this made her squirm even more than the shame she had felt. At least the shame was something she felt she deserved; but this?
“Well, Jesus, what do you say?” a gruff voice pushed again.
Jesus? Oh no, Jesus! This was not just a man, this was the Man. This was the man that the entire countryside had been talking about. Not just a man, but many said He was the Messiah, the Son of God. Now she had to look away. The fierceness and intensity of the sheer love in His eye had overwhelmed her; and now, what if this was God she was looking at? Her eyes fell.
And then He knelt. In front of her, God got on His knees. He moved towards her and not away. He lowered Himself to the ground where she lay in guilt and dirt. His silence was terrifying but His nearness was somehow comforting. He breathed deeply. She thought she saw a drop of water hit the ground. A tear?
A long and weighty silence passed as He ran His fingers through the dirt. He was mingling in the same dirt that stained her. She looked again at His eyes. He seemed much more concerned with her than with the pressure of the crowd.
He continued to look at her, and she realized something. His gaze seemed to do something different to the death in her soul. His eyes seemed to inject life right into the place where death was screaming at her. In fact, the death from the other men’s gaze seemed to shrink back in the face of Jesus’ unrelenting eye contact. Something in her settled down. It almost seemed as if something left her. His look filled her with peace, and she almost felt…clean.
Then He stood and looked at the crowd with the same unmoving look. He walked right up to the man who had led this mob, looked him unwaveringly in the eyes and said, “If one of you has never sinned, you throw the first stone.”
The air changed. She felt the weight of accusation physically move from her body. Men and women alike turned their gaze from her and Jesus. Many began to walk away, looking down.
His attention was already back to her. He reached down and took her hand, and helped her stand to her feet. His eyes still firmly fixed on hers, looking deep into her heart, He asked, “Where did they all go?”
She wasn’t sure if He meant the men and women in the crowd, or the screaming voices accusing her in her head. Both were gone.
“They are gone,” is all she could say.
He looked at her. He saw her. He knew Her. He had somehow cleansed her, and sent away those who would have killed her. He looked at her with the most powerful eyes in existence.
He looked at her and said, “Go, and stop surrendering to the weight of your past. Stop giving in to the actress who betrays you. Stop backing down when you could stand up for your heart. Stop believing that your experience has determined who you really are. Stop seeing yourself as a slave and see yourself as a daughter of the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Go and sin no more.”
And somehow she knew. His Words had made it so.

Bob Hamp is the author of “Think Differently, Live Differently” and an Executive Pastor at Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas. Used by permission from Destiny In Bloom.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Not Punishment But Proclamation

Jon Bloom post:  If We're Going to Be Skeptical, Be Skeptical of Our Perceptions

There he sat, the scum of society on the footstep of heaven on earth, begging the condescending mercy of pious passersby going in and out of the temple. Enough mercy today and he could eat.
This man was blind. He had been born that way. And it was his own fault. As a fetus this man had sinned in the womb against the Almighty. Either that or his parents had sinned and brought a curse upon him. Whichever it was, he was suffering a just punishment.
Those who had been righteous fetuses walked by and sometimes dropped a coin in his hand. This would merit them even more divine favor.
You see, in the law and prophets God had not explained exactly why one sinful person suffers more than another sinful person. So theologians had deduced that a person’s suffering must result directly from a specific offense(s) against God.
Interestingly, Job’s three friends1 had reached the same conclusions about Job’s suffering. Only God had rebuked them, “you have not spoken of me what is right.”2 He was poised to deliver a similar rebuke.
Jesus’ disciples had learned from the theologians. So seeing the blind man on the temple steps triggered their curiosity: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
God the Son stopped and looked at the man. Then he gave an answer that would turn their theology on its head and affect the futures of millions: “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
Okay, let’s catch our breath.
Jesus restated: God made this man blind3 in order to demonstrate his power in him. The purpose of this man’s disability was not punishment but proclamation. It’s just that no one knew it until that day.
And when Jesus spoke these words, he understood their full implications. He knew what this moment of proclamation had cost in the currency of this man’s pain.
All those years the man and his parents had labored under a perception that God had brought his judgment upon them for an unknown reason. All those years they had endured insults, indignities, injuries, poverty, loneliness, and isolation. How many were his tears? How many his prayers for mercy? No hope for an education. No hope for marriage. His only vocational option: begging.
And, according to Jesus, this was God’s plan. Was it worth it? We shall see, if God wills.
After his world-shaking statement, Jesus made the man see! In that moment everything changed. See the power of the Word! Light shown into dark eyes. A brain that had never processed optical stimuli was given immediate ability to interpret a visual world.
But even more revolutionary in its repercussions, the man went from being perceived as the object of God’s wrath to being the object of God’s kindness! And everyone discovered that God’s purpose in his blindness was to let the Light of the world shine.
So was it worth it — all the suffering? It all depends on what God gave him in return.
God so loved him that he gave his only Son so that by believing in him, this man would not perish but have eternal life.4 What this man received beyond his miraculous physical healing was the far more miraculous forgiveness of all his sins and eternal life in God’s presence where full joy and pleasures never end.5 Such a gift would be worth a thousand blind lifetimes.
Let us be very careful in interpreting God’s purposes in suffering. The man born blind reminds us that our perceptions and God’s purposes can be very different, even opposite. If we are going to be skeptical, it’s best to be skeptical of our perceptions.
And he reminds us that when Jesus finally reveals the real purposes, we will find them more glorious than we ever dreamed, and his reward so overwhelming that there will be no trace of bitterness, only overflowing gratitude.
1Job 2:11: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar
3Exodus 4:11: “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?’”