Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sing the gospel to ourselves

'St Ebbes 11:45 Service' photo (c) 2011, Jimmy and Sasha Reade - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/"Preach the gospel to yourself."

That phrase has become a popular one among evangelical Christians in recent years. Our church has heard me say it or something like it -- such as "Remind yourself of the gospel" -- numerous times.

In corporate worship, we -- as the church -- have the opportunity to remind ourselves of the gospel by singing it. In doing so, we are following a heavenly pattern. In the Revelation to the apostle John, the following is recorded:
And they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth" (Rev. 5:9-10).
The apostle John's vision showed those around the throne singing about the atoning sacrifice of the Lamb of God and its far-reaching impact. We will sing as one great choir about the cross-work of Jesus one day in Heaven, but we can do it now corporately on earth as the church.

Our church, Covenant Community Church in Fredericksburg, Va., had that privilege once again last Sunday. Among the songs we sang that explained the meaning of the cross of Christ and His gospel were "The Gospel Song," "The Precious Blood" and "Before the Throne of God Above."

Sometimes, the great truth of Jesus' atoning work as a substitute for sinners is summed up in only one or two lines. In my sermon, I cited one line from "Before the Throne of God Above" -- the words of which were written by Charitie Lees Bancroft more than 150 years ago -- that is at the heart of the Christian faith: "For God the Just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me."

As the church, we have hymns and songs from across the centuries -- by such writers as Charles Wesley and Horatius Bonar to Sovereign Grace Music and the team of Stuart Townend and Keith Getty -- that enable us to dwell on and proclaim the gospel and its benefits in corporate worship. For instance:

-- Wesley wrote in the 18th Century, "No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in Him is mine! Alive in Him, my living Head, and clothed in righteousness divine" ("And Can It Be?").

-- Bonar also wrote in the 18th Century, "Thy works, not mine, O Christ, speak gladness to this heart; they tell me all is done; they bid my fear depart" ("Thy Works, Not Mine, O Christ").

-- Townend and Getty wrote in 2001, "Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied; for ev'ry sin on Him was laid--here in the death of Christ I live" ("In Christ Alone").

-- Peter Gagnon wrote for Sovereign Grace Music in 2005, "Oh, the precious blood of Christ the crucified, it speaks for me before Your throne, where I stand justified" ("The Precious Blood").

These gospel-focused lyrics and many more call for us to remember the the gospel, to dwell on its meaning for us and to declare it to one another that we might worship the God of our salvation.

Yes, may we sing the gospel to ourselves.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Thinking about the sovereignty of God

How are we to think about God's sovereignty? The topic is often a difficult one among evangelical Christians. Differences on the issue, especially regarding His sovereignty in the salvation of human beings, can produce painful and even divisive consequences in the body of Christ.

The sovereignty of God has been on my mind recently because of what Linda (my wife) and I have been reading. We are using Robert Murray M'Cheyne's plan this year to read through the Bible. (See here.) Over the last couple of weeks, that plan has resulted in us reading the final quarter of Genesis about Joseph's suffering and exaltation, the first portion of Job and the letter to the Romans.

Here are some thoughts from these passages that came to my mind regarding the sovereignty of God:

-- God is not obligated to explain His sovereign decisions to His people.

God not only permits but even prompts Satan's actions against Job while limiting those actions. But God never provides an explanation to Job recorded in Scripture for why this happened under His sovereign rule.

In Rom. 9, Paul writes of God, "So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires" (v. 17). To this, the apostle says, "You will say to me then,'Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?'" (v. 18).

Paul offers no explanations for the "why" of God's sovereignty. Instead, he writes:
On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles (Rom. 9:20-24).
-- God's people may view their suffering through the lens of His sovereignty.

Joseph sees beyond the hatred of his brothers and the evil they did against him by selling him into slavery. He understands his humilitiation before his exaltation in Egypt as part of God's sovereign purpose. He tells his brothers:
Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. . . . God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God (Gen. 45:5-8a).
In the final chapter after their father has died, Joseph assures his brothers he will care for them: "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Gen. 50:20).

-- Knowing God is more important for His people than knowing the reasons for His sovereign decisions.

Though God does not explain to Job the reasons for his great suffering, He does reveal Himself to Job in a fresh and powerful way (Job 38-41). Job responds not with more questions but with confession of God's greatness and his own sin:
I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. "Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?" Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. "Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me." I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.
-- God's people can rest in His sovereign decisions.

In an important paragraph about God's sovereignty, Paul provides this reassurance that God is committed to the benefit of His people: "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8:28).

From just these truths about the absolute sovereignty of God, may we -- as His people by His grace -- rest in the recognition that all His sovereign rule brings into our lives is for our good and a great blessing of those sovereign acts can be a fuller knowledge of Him.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

My favorite idol redux

I preached last Sunday on I Corinthians 10:1-22, which includes the fleeing of idolatry as a major theme. In reviewing old posts for another reason, I ran across the post below from about 18 months ago. I think it acts as an appropriate follow-up to the sermon earlier this week.
I am my favorite idol.

And likely you are your favorite idol.

Let me explain why I even decided to write such things in a blog post. It began yesterday morning.

It is an interesting phenomenon -- though it should not be a surprising one -- that a five-minute walk from Washington's Union Station to the office at which I work can provide insights into sin and the gospel. As I normally do, I was walking on a sidewalk past a federal judiciary building. It is a wide sidewalk, but it is not wide enough for four people to walk side by side or pass each other.

Two young ladies were walking toward me, still giving me enough room to pass them without stepping onto the dirt or grass. Another young lady decided to pass them as I approached. She was in a hurry. She had her ear buds in and was paying attention to her phone. She seemed determined to get around them at that moment and appeared convinced someone would yield to her. I did -- stepping onto the dirt to my right.

Now, I have yielded to numerous people before -- both males and females -- on the sidewalk around that building when it was necessary. And I certainly believe men should put ladies before themselves. Yesterday morning, however, I was struck by the sheer self-centeredness of what I had just observed.

For this young lady, it was all about her. Her needs -- or desires -- were uppermost in her mind, and the world at that moment was to bend to her. She was both an idol and an idol worshiper in one package.

Yet, I realized quickly, the same is true of me -- and of you. It may not be manifested in the same way or to the same degree, but it is in us. We inherited this "it's-all-about-me" spirit from our father, Adam. Afflicted with this common heritage, we are absorbed with idol worship. By nature, we do not humble ourselves before the one true God. Instead, we genuflect most often before ourselves -- worshiping ourselves and placing our desires at the center of the universe.

Wonderfully and stunningly, God extends grace to idol worshipers. He saves them from their self-centeredness, self-importance and self-worship -- making them true worshipers of the only One worthy of worship. He does this by mercifully opening our eyes to who He is and who we are, then enabling us to cast ourselves upon the Savior from sin.

Sadly, we still can be self-centered self-worshipers at times, even as those who have tasted of the greatness and glory of knowing the only God.

What is the remedy to self-worship? A major part is reminding ourselves of the gospel.

How do we do that? We look at God. We look at ourselves. We look at what He has done.

We remind ourselves of the greatness, glory and holiness of God. We remember the sin nature that indwells us. We proclaim to ourselves the unmerited favor we have received. We preach to ourselves the perfect life and totally acceptable death of Jesus in which is our only hope. We declare to ourselves His righteousness – and no merit of our own -- is our ground of acceptance before the Holy Judge. We profess Christ’s sacrifice is completely sufficient to pardon us of all our sins. We humble ourselves before the God who has humbled Himself to rescue us from a fully deserved condemnation.

In preaching the gospel to ourselves, we also see others – especially our brothers and sisters in Christ – in the correct light. We remember that we, as recipients of grace, are to be bestowers of grace to others. We love them, particularly other Christians, in a way that shows their interests are more important to us than our own. We dwell not on their shortcomings but on the demonstrations of grace in their lives. We rejoice in what God has done and is doing in their lives.

We turn away from our “it’s-all-about-me” idol worship to worship the One who put our interests before His own, and we sacrificially serve others made in His image.

We will still encounter self-worshipers on the sidewalks of life, but hopefully they will decreasingly be us.