Results tagged “Sin” from Reformation21 Blog

Love the Sinner as You Love Your Sinful Self?

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Over the past week, I've seen more appeals to the second half of Matthew 22:39 than I've seen artist postcards in a hipster coffee shop. "Love your neighbor as yourself" (which is the second greatest command, according to Jesus) is now apparently the favorite verse of atheists, agnostics and liberal Christians alike. Without doubt, it should be one of the most greatly beloved truths for anyone who calls himself or herself a disciple of Christ. However, this command can only be properly understood in light of the previous two verses, its own textual qualification and the teaching of Scripture regarding the person and work of Christ. 

Recently, while reading through Augustine's "On Christian Doctrine," I stumbled across an enlightening section on self-love, loving other and loving God. Augustine wrote: 

"He is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that more which ought to be loved less, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves that less or more which ought to be loved equally. No sinner is to be loved as a sinner; and every man is to be loved as a man for God's sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself. Likewise we ought to love another man better than our own body, because all things are to be loved in reference to God, and another man can have fellowship with us in the enjoyment of God, whereas our body cannot; for the body only lives through the soul, and it is by the soul that we enjoy God."

If we endure the enigmatic language of Augustine's opening sentence, we come to what is one of the most profound thoughts on the relationship between the first and second greatest commandments. "No sinner is to be loved as a sinner," he wrote, "and every man is to be loved as a man for God's sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself." Augustine is walking back from the second great commandment to the first great commandment; and, in that way, is showing that we cannot properly understand the second great commandment if we do not rightly understand the first. 

We will surely find ourselves at a loss to properly explain what Scripture means when it says "Love your neighbor as yourself" if we do not have an adequate understanding of what it means when it says "Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind, soul and strength." To love the Lord with all of our being is to live as a creature in dependence on our Creator, to humble ourselves under His word, to acknowledge His infinite, eternal and unchangeable being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth, to seek to do those things that are pleasing in His sight and to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. It is the first and great commandment because we are, in all that we do, to seek to please God rather than men (Gal. 1:10). In short, man's chief end is "to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." 

Without doubt, a vital constituent of loving the living and true God is loving those made in His image. If we don't love our fellow image bearers, then, the Apostle says, "he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen?" (1 John 4:20). It is impossible for someone to prove that he is living for and loving God if he is not seeking to love his neighbor as himself. 

When, however, someone bandies about Matthew 22:39--irrespective of its subordination in the taxonomy of Matthew 22:37-39--he or she often goes on to misconstrue its theological and ethical meaning. The second great command is not, "You shall love the sinner as you love your sinful self." As Augustine succinctly put it: "No sinner is to be loved as a sinner." Rather, we are to love our neighbor "as a man for God's sake." This involves first realize that "God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself." When we fail to place these truths in their proper order there is no end to the sorts of evil that we will readily tolerate in ourselves and promote in others.

Of course, none of us has loved the Lord with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. None of us has loved our neighbor as ourselves as we ought. In fact, we are all pervasively depraved by nature (Eph. 2:1-4). A Christian is necessarily someone who confesses that he or she has fallen short--so very short--of the glory of God (Rom. 6:23). A Christian is one who flees to the only One who ever perfectly loved the Lord with all of His heart, mind, soul and strength--to the only One who ever perfectly loved His neighbor as Himself. Jesus fulfilled the first and second great commandments. Jesus took the punishment, in His own body at the cross (1 Pet. 2:24), for our failure to keep these two commandments. Jesus bore the wrath of God that we deserve for our failure to love the Lord and our neighbor as we ought. Jesus did not "love the sinner as His sinful self." The sinless Son of God incarnate loved sinners "for God's sake, God for His own sake, and God more than any man." It is only as we keep the Jesus of the Scriptures before our eyes that we too will learn to love the Lord and our neighbor in a way that brings glory to God and good to our neighbors. 

 


More Mercy in Christ than Sin in Us

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In his book The Bruised Reed, Richard Sibbes famously wrote, "We have this for a foundation truth, that there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us." Here is one of those oft repeated statements of Gospel assurance with which believers love to comfort one another. The context, however, is one that has been almost entirely overlooked. Sibbes actually wrote, "If we have this for a foundation truth, that there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us, there can be no danger in thorough dealing." In context, Sibbes was seeking to encourage believers to make a concerted effort to mortification of sin (i.e. thorough dealing). He wrote,  "A set measure of bruising [i.e. spiritual humiliation] of ourselves cannot be prescribed, but it must be so far as (1) that we may prize Christ above all, and see that a Savour must be had; and (2) that we reform that which is amiss, though it be to the cutting off of our right hand, or pulling out of our right eye." 

Many believers struggle with the assurance of salvation on account of their sin. The Westminster Confession of Faith, in the final paragraph of the chapter on "Assurance of Grace and Salvation"" (Ch. 18), states this so well:

"True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which wounds the conscience and grieves the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God's withdrawing the light of His countenance, and suffering even such as fear Him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never so utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the mean time, they are supported from utter despair."

John Owen, in his magnificent work on Psalm 130, set King David forth as the example of one who understood this soul-wrestling with God over his sin and longing for the assurance of God's love and favor. David understood, better than any, the multifaceted way in which God's grace worked in his life with regard to his ongoing battle with sin and his experience of a guilt-laden conscience. Owen wrote:

"Under the Old Testament none loved God more than he; none was loved of God more than he. The paths of faith and love wherein he walked are unto the most of us like the way of an eagle in the air,--too high and hard for us. Yet to this very day do the cries of this man after God's own heart sound in our ears. Sometimes he complains of broken bones, sometimes of drowning depths, sometimes of waves and water spouts, sometimes of wounds and diseases, sometimes of wrath and the sorrows of hell; everywhere of his sins, the burden and trouble of them. Some of the occasions of his depths, darkness, entanglements, and distresses, we all know. As no man had more grace than he, so none is a greater instance of the power of sin, and the effects of its guilt upon the conscience, than he."

Owen went on to set out seven soul-experiences from David's prayers in the Psalms. These serve as typical experiences of one who is already the object of the love and grace of God and yet who feels himself or herself "in the depths." 

1. The loss of the wanted sense of the love of God, which the soul did formerly enjoy. Owen explained: "A sense of God's presence in love is sufficient to rebuke all anxiety and fears in the worst and most dreadful condition; and not only so, but to give in the midst of them solid consolation and joy...This is that sense of love which the choicest believers may lose on the account of sin. This is one step into their depths. They shall not retain any such gospel apprehension of it as that it should give them rest, peace, or consolation."

2.  Perplexed thoughtfulness about their great and wretched unkindness towards God is another part of the depths of sin-entangled souls. "So David complains: Ps. 77:3, "I remembered God," saith he, "and was troubled." 

3. A revived sense of justly deserved wrath belongs also to these depths. "This is as the opening of old wounds. When men have passed through a sense of wrath, and have obtained deliverance and rest through the blood of Christ, to come to their old thoughts again, to be trading afresh with hell, curse, law, and wrath, it is a depth indeed. And this often befalls gracious souls on the account of sin: Ps. 88:7, 'Your wrath lies hard upon me.'"

4. Oppressing apprehensions of temporal judgments concur herein also; for God will judge his people. And judgment often begins at the house of God. 'Though God,' says such a one, 'should not cast me off for ever,--though He should pardon my iniquities; yet He may so take vengeance of my inventions as to make me feed on gall and wormwood all my days.' Ps. 119:120, says David, 'My flesh trembles for fear of You, and I am afraid of Your judgments.' He knows not what the great God may bring upon him; and being full of a sense of the guilt of sin, which is the bottom of this whole condition, every judgment of God is full of terror unto him."

5. Prevailing fears for a season of being utterly rejected by God, of being found a reprobate at the last day. "Jonah seems to conclude so, chap. 2:4, 'Then I said, I am cast out of Your sight;'--'I am lost for ever, God will own me no more'...This may befall a gracious soul on the account of sin. But yet because this fights directly against the life of faith, God doth not, unless it be in extraordinary cases, suffer any of his to lie long in this horrible pit, where there is no water, no refreshment."

6. God secretly sends His arrows into the soul, that wound and gall it, adding pain, trouble, and disquietness to its disconsolation: "Ps, 138:2, 'Your arrows stick fast in me, and Your hand presses me sore.' Ever and anon in his walking, God shot a sharp piercing arrow, fixing it on his soul, that galled, wounded, and perplexed him, filling him with pain and grievous vexation. These arrows are God's rebukes: Ps. 139:11, 'When You, with rebukes, do correct man for iniquity.'"

7. Unspiritedness and disability unto duty, in doing or suffering, attend such a condition : "Ps. 40:12, 'My iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up.' His spiritual strength was worn away by sin, so, that he was not able to address himself unto any communion with God. The soul now cannot pray with life and power, cannot hear with joy and profit, cannot do good and communicate with cheerfulness and freedom, cannot meditate with delight and heavenly-mindedness, cannot act for God with zeal and liberty, cannot think of suffering with boldness and resolution; but is sick, weak, feeble, and bowed down.

Owen concluded the section on the soul-experience of believers in the depths of sin with this summary:

"Now, I say, a gracious soul, after much communion with God, may, on the account of sin, by a sense of the guilt of it, be brought into a state and condition wherein some, more, or all of these, with other the like perplexities, may be its portion ; and these make up the depths whereof the psalmist here complains."

While these are "the depths" that believers often find themselves in on account of their sin, they turn to the One to whom David said, "If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared." Concerning this appeal to God's mercy and forgiveness, Owen explained that believers must keep these things in view:

"1. The gracious, tender, merciful heart and will of God, who is the God of pardons and forgivenesses; or ready to forgive, to give out mercy, to add to pardon. 

2. A respect unto Jesus Christ, the only ἱλασμός, or propitiation for sin, as he is expressly called, Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2. And this is that which interposes between the gracious heart of God and the actual pardon of sinners. All forgiveness is founded on propitiation.

3. Actual forgiveness itself, as we are made partakers of it; comprising it both actively, as it is an act of grace in God, and passively, as terminated in our souls, with the deliverance that attends it. In this sense, as it looks downwards and in its effects respects us, it is of mere grace; as it looks upwards to its causes and respects the Lord Christ, it is from propitiation or atonement. And this is that pardon which is administered in the covenant of grace."

Believers, as we struggle in our souls for nearness to God, a restored sense of His favor and delight and new manifestations of His presence and power, we must learn to cry out to God from the depths--acknowledging God's holiness, our sin and rebellion, what our iniquities deserve and the great mercy of God in Christ that he continually shows us as we turn back to him from the depths. It is, in this way, that we will repeatedly experience in our souls the truth that there is "more mercy in Christ than sin in us"--as the Apostle boldly declared when he said, "Where sin abounded, grace did abound much more" (Rom. 5:20). 

The Savior at the Well

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"I am the woman at the well, 
I am the harlot 
I am the scattered seed that fell along the path 
I am the son that ran away 
And I am the bitter son that stayed

My God, my God, why hast Thou accepted me 
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty King? 
My God, my God, why hast Thou accepted me? 
It's a mystery of mercy and the song, the song that I sing." (Caedmon's Call)

As a young believer--having been redeemed by God out of a prodigal lifestyle--I wept nearly every time that I listened to Caedmon's Call song, "Mystery of Mercy." Having been redeemed by God out of a prodigal lifestyle, I found myself in solidarity with the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the prodigal son, Zacchaeus and the thief on the cross. I came to see, by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, that I was no better than any of them. In fact, I saw that I was worse than they were. I came to realize that convicting His people of their sin and making them aware of the judgment they deserve because of it it is one of the greatest gifts of God's grace.

I also quickly came to realize that many Christian authors used aspects of biblical passages about Jesus' mercy to the undeserving in order to promote an antinomian understanding of the Gospel. For instance, Brennan Manning emphatically stated--with regard to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11)--that Jesus "didn't demand a firm purpose of amendment" and "didn't seem too concerned that she might dash back into the arms of her lover" (The Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 167). Manning also suggested the following: 

"I don't think that anyone reading this would have approved of throwing rocks at the poor woman in adultery, but we would have made darn sure she presented a detailed act of contrition and was firm in her purpose of amendment. Because if we let her off without saying she was sorry, wouldn't she be back in adultery before sunset?" (The Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 173).

At the outset, I want to be clear that I stand firmly against those who teach that legal repentance and reformation is necessary in order for someone to come to Jesus--as if one needed to clean himself or herself up to make oneself acceptable to Christ. However, what Manning taught (from a disputed passage of Scripture, I would add) is not in keeping with the details of the text or the general manner of Christ's saving work in the lives of sinners. After telling the woman caught in adultery, "Neither do I condemn you," Jesus says to her, "Go and sin no more" (John 8:11). Having forgiven this woman of disrepute, Jesus called her to live out a godly life in keeping with the redemption that she had experienced by His grace. 

Of a somewhat different nature than Manning's misrepresentation of the woman caught in adultery is Sammy Rhodes' recent apology to members of the LGBTQ movement--in which he references Jesus' dealing with the woman at the well (John 4:1-30). While presumably seeking to draw attention to what a loving posture should be towards those who are engaged in sexual sin, Rhodes goes so far as to insist that Jesus "cared far more about sharing a drink with her than he did about her sexual choices." In doing so, Rhodes presents an inadequate picture of the Savior at the well. Additionally, by saying "We're all the woman at the well," Rhodes--perhaps inadvertently--leads us to believe that we are acting self-righteously, rather than in love, if we speak out against sexually sinful lifestyles. 

The Savior at the Well

In the first place, it should be noted that Jesus asked the woman at the well for a drink of water in order to teach her about her own spiritual thirst and His ability to quench that thirst by means of His redemption. Jesus didn't simply care about "sharing a drink with her." He wasn't on a night out on the town. In the second place--and vastly more significant--is the fact that Jesus cared deeply about speaking to the woman about her "sexual choices." This is clear from the fact that he told her to call her husband, told her that He knew that she had previously been married five times and that He knew that she was currently committing adultery with the man with whom she was now living (John 4:16-18). Uncovering the sinful hearts of men and women is one of the chief ways in which the Savior works in the lives of those He is redeeming in order to draw them to Himself. To downplay Jesus' use of the Law with the woman at the well is to dimmish the way in which the Gospel works in the lives of believers; it is to present a Jesus who is less than determined to save His people from their sin (Matt. 1:21). Jesus loved the woman at the well enough to tell her about her sexual sin so that she might see her need for Him. The most loving thing that we can do for others is to tell them about the Savior and about the sin from which they need to be redeemed by the Him. 

We see the importance of Jesus convicting the woman at the well of her sexual sin by the fact that John tells us: "the woman then left her waterpot" (a symbol of her empty life) and went her way into the city, and said to the men, 'Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?" This woman had spent the better part of her life seeking to satisfy herself with men--the very thing that Jesus revealed to her. However, having finally found eternal life and satisfaction in Christ, she went and told the men of the city, "Come see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?" She didn't go into the city and say, "I just met a really great guy who had a drink with me and didn't condemn anything about my sinful lifestyle." She told them that Jesus knew all about her sinful lifestyle. She said, "Come see a man who told me all things that I ever did." It was necessary for Christ to convict this woman of her sinful lifestyle and to show her the futility of it in order to help her see her need for Him and the redemption that can only be found in Him. 

Speaking Out in Love

It has become commonplace in our day to hear Christians say things like, "We can't lead with condemnation if we are ever to reach our LGBTQ neighbors." Sadly, I have, on numerous occasions, heard those same words propagated within the ecclesiastical circles in which I minister. Contrary to this mantra, The Apostle Paul marched into the epicenter of idolatry and sexual immorality with a condemnation of sin in order to lovingly help men and women see the greatness of the grace of God in Christ (see Romans 1:18-3:26). In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul took his readers from plight to solution in order to convince them of just how unrighteous all men are by nature. The Apostle was not self-righteously condemning others; rather, he was showing them more fully the need that they have for Christ. In fact, the Apostle went so far as to single out homosexual sin as the highest form of idolatry in a world full of people who "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." After all, "Androgyny," as Jungian psychologist June Singer has noted in her book Androgyny: Toward a New Theory of Sexuality, "is the sacrament of monism." 

While the Apostolic writings on this point are clear (e.g. Romans 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11), it has become increasingly common to hear professing believers suggest that Jesus never condemned homosexuality. Anyone who reads the Scriptures honestly will find it a futile exercise to attempt to pit the ethics of Jesus against that of the Apostles. The Savior was crucified by the hands of men, in large part, because He exposed the sin that fallen man so desperately loves. Jesus said, "The world...hates Me because I testify of it that its works are evil" (John 7:7). In the days of His flesh, Jesus preached against all sexual sin under the general category of "sexual immorality" (e.g. see Matt. 5:32 and 19:9). We dishonor the holiness and majesty of God by refusing to mention God's condemnation of particular sin when seeking to speak to our culture. 

In addition to dishonoring God and His holiness, we do our fellow image bearers a great disservice if we present a Gospel void of the accompanying conviction of God's Law. No one will ever see their need for Christ until they come to terms with the fact that they are sinners deserving of judgment. In the church membership vows of the PCA, we ask those coming for membership, the following question: "Do you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?" Acknowledging that we are deserving of judgment for our sin is an indispensable part of being a Christian. The Holy Spirit works through the Law of God to convince us of the fact that we are "sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure." 

We have unique cultural challenges in our day--challenges that tempt us to be silent on the difficult truths of Scripture, challenges to fear man rather than God and challenges to allow sin to go unchecked. We all feel the temptation to want to make Christianity more palatable for the masses by taking away from our presentation of it whatever our culture deems offensive. There is something right about our need to be cautious about our own offensiveness. We should never want to be offensive by means of our personal tone or motives in presenting the Gospel to men and women; however, we must always recognize that the Gospel is necessarily offensive in that it--working together with the Law of God--exposes our sin and shows us that our only hope is in the message of the crucified and risen Christ. While we acknowledge that we are exactly like the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well, the prodigal son, Zacchaeus and the thief on the cross, we need not turn from telling others about the nature of sin and of the eternal danger that they continue to face in if they will not turn from it to the Savior who stands ready to forgive and cleanse His people by His grace. It is the most loving thing that we can do for our neighbors and fellow image bearers.  

Before I had my own email address (remember the good old days?), I warned in one of my Windows on the World that the internet would make pornography pervasive. Now we are living a depraved new world, in which sexually explicit material is the most common and most financially profitable content available on the internet. Sexual chat rooms abound, enabling people to commit virtual adultery with an almost limitless number of partners in the privacy of their own homes and offices. Sin has never been so simple. Pornography is one of the largest industries in America, and the more people are exposed to it, the more pornographic our mainstream media becomes. Once regarded as a shameful sin, porn has become the norm. 

The Problem of Pornography

Pornography diminishes our capacity for the human relationships God wants us to share for his glory. Sexual intimacy is designed to serve as the covenant cement that binds one woman to one man in a love relationship for life. But when our sexual experience is privatized through pornography, we treat sex as a means of selfish gratification rather than a joy to be shared with the man or the woman God has called us to love. When a single person uses pornography it stifles the growth of selfless love and makes it increasingly difficult to have other-centered relationships that build up the church and may lead to marriage. When a married person uses pornography it defiles the marriage bed, darkens the flame of romance, and destroys the partnership of prayer. But these are not the only problems with pornography. It is a secret sin, and therefore it isolates us from the spiritual community we need to grow in grace. It is a visual sin, and therefore violates Christ's command not to look at someone with lust in our hearts (see Matt. 5:28). And since it is often accompanied with masturbation, it is an intensely physical sin, and therefore more easily gains addictive control. 

Unless this sin is mortified--that is to say, unless it is put to death (see Gal. 5:24; Col. 3:5)--it will only intensify. Pornography makes greater and greater demands until finally it becomes a life-dominating sin. As one of the Puritans said, sexual pictures secretly convey poison to the soul. Now they are only a click away--a click that may eventually lead a man or a woman straight to hell. 

A Plan for Spiritual Change

What is God's plan for putting pornography to death? George Scipione says at least six things are needed in any effective spiritual strategy for dealing with this sexual sin [see George Scipione, "Is Porn Norm?" Evangelium , pp. 2-5]. 

The first is regeneration, or the new birth. This is essential to everything else. Unless we are born again, we do not have the Holy Spirit living in us, and we will be powerless in our struggle against sin. But when the Spirit is alive in us, we can begin to grow in godliness: "Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16). 

The second is renewed repentance and faith. When Christians feel guilty, sometimes it is all we can do to drag ourselves back to God. But God wants us to run straight back to the cross, believing that because Jesus died for our sins, we are fully forgiven--forgiven for as many sins as we have sinned. 

The third part of a spiritual strategy for dealing with sexual sin is a renewed mind. This is always God's plan for spiritual change: a transformed mind that leads to a transformed life (see Rom. 12:1-2). This mind may be fed by reading good Christian literature, but fundamentally it is formed by feeding on the Word of God. 

The fourth part is renewed obedience. It is not just our thinking that needs to change, but the way that we live. This means replacing the old habits of lustful sin with new habits of purity before God. Among other things, this means being wise about when and where we use various forms of electronic communication. If you can't be trusted not to look at sexual images, don't watch television when you are alone, keep your office door open, or do whatever else it takes to limit the temptation to sin (see Matt. 5:29-30). 

The fifth part is regular use of the regular means of grace. Some people always seem to be looking for some special method that will guarantee spiritual change. But the only means that God has given for our spiritual growth are the ordinary means of the word, sacraments, and prayer. If you want to make progress in your struggle with sexual sin (or any other sin, for that matter), spend more time reading your Bible, sit under the faithful preaching of the gospel, receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper by faith, and pray daily for Christ to take control of your thoughts and actions. 

Sixth is regular reporting to responsible shepherds. We are not designed to grow in godliness by ourselves, but only in community with other Christians. When we are struggling with sin--especially any kind of addictive sin--we need to share our struggle in the church. Do not be afraid: a good brother or sister will not condemn you, but encourage you in the mercy of Christ. When the struggle is intense, you may need daily or at least weekly accountability from a close Christian friend. In addition, it is always wise to make sure that a pastor or elder is aware of your situation for the purpose of prayer. Many Christians also find it helpful to meet with a counselor who is trained to help people who are in bondage to sexual sin. Good places to get help and resources include Harvest USA and the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF). 

Anyone who does these things by faith will experience the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Anyone who is involved with pornography and decides not to do these things is pursuing his or her own destruction.


Ref21 Vault.jpg *This post first appeared on Ref21 back in August 2005. You can find the original post here

Navigating Dangers and Temptations in Ministry

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Throughout my twenty-plus years of following Jesus Christ and serving in His church, I have repeatedly seen pastors disqualify themselves for ministry. The moral failures of such ministers have led to confusion, pain, and even a crisis of faith for many. Of course, there are those who occupy a very public ministry who fail, but I have seen just as many, if not more, who crash and burn in smaller local churches. I have witnessed, first-hand, as denominational leaders, pastors, and Sunday School teachers entangled themselves in sin that could have been avoided. And whenever I see this happening, I am simultaneously saddened, frustrated, and scared. As our church continues to raise up, install or send ministers into pastoral ministry, I find the need to address this issue all the more pressing. Not merely the failure of public ministers, but the danger we all face as leaders. Do not be deceived, we are all tempted in ways that can bring far greater destruction to the glory and honor of Christ (not to mention to our family and church members) than we could imagine. The question is, how do we navigate the treacherous waters of such dangers as we seek to serve the church?

There is no simple policy that we can implement to protect us. No promises we make to our wives, nor any programs we install on our computers will save us. Only Jesus saves. But there are four principles that should guide us through the dangers and temptations connected to ministry. In fact, these principles are not only for leaders, but for all of God's people.

Stay Humble

"Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).

The real danger of sin and temptation is not so much in the world as it is in our own hearts. Every one of us is capable of grievous sin and rebellion. James reminds us that we are tempted not only by outside influences, but by our own desires which ultimately give birth to sin (James 1:14, 15).

The problem is not that we are ignorant of this truth, but that this theological truth has not sufficiently taken root in our hearts. We agree that it is theoretically possible to fall, but we don't believe it will actually happen to us. We convince ourselves that, for whatever reason, we are beyond the risk of losing our marriages and ministries. We aren't. You aren't. Knowing and embracing the frailty of our own souls is key to depending on the grace of God in all of life. Knowing that we must "take care" lest there be in any of us an evil, unbelieving heart" leads to humility. (Heb 3:12) And it is the humble who know their need of Christ's preserving grace and their hope in the midst of trials and temptations. Be humble, or you will fall.

Stay Safe

"Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil" (Ephesians 5:15-16).

The answer to avoiding sin is not in policies and protocols, but there is wisdom in arranging our lives strategically to avoid unnecessary temptation. 

One of my pastor friends never travels alone when speaking in other locations. He brings another man with him for mutual encouragement and accountability. This brother is a trustworthy and godly man, but he knows his heart and the world well enough to protect himself from even the possibility of danger. Another pastor friend of mine doesn't spend time alone with women who are not his wife. However, life doesn't always cooperate with our protocols, and he found himself in a situation that required him to drive a young lady home. Again, this is a godly man, and let's assume this was an upright lady. Nevertheless, in this situation he immediately phoned his wife to tell her what was happening, but she was unreachable. So he called me to let someone know. 

Staying safe doesn't mean avoiding all danger or secluding ourselves from real-life ministry, but it does require careful, thoughtful living. Living carelessly in the world with a sinful heart will eventually lead anyone into unnecessary temptation and potentially into ruin. I have seen men fall, but I have also seen men falsely accused. A humble heart will encourage us to stay safe.

Stay Honest

"Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another..." (James 5:16).

The person who cannot be honest with himself or others is the one who will live out a superficial faith that cannot weather the storms of temptation. We must know our own weaknesses, tendencies, and desires. Knowing our fruit sins (complaining, for example) is good, but discovering the root sins that feed the fruit sin (in the case of complaining, namely, the pride by which we convince ourselves that we deserve better) is more helpful to knowing ourselves and where we need to exercise care. 

Staying honest must go beyond ourselves to include others. Honesty with our spouse, friends, and leadership is one of the means God has given us to curb sin and kill temptation. As repenting, believing saints, we are called to confess our sins to one another, and encourage one another lest we find ourselves hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). Staying honest is both personal and communal, and it protects us from pretending we are okay when we are not, and performing as if all that matters is what is going on with us externally.

Stay Close

"Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you" (James 4:8-10).

The true essence of keeping ourselves from the danger of sin is staying close to God by faith in Christ. This is the ongoing work of communion, or abiding in Christ (John 15:1-5). Those who are actively seeking the things above, where Christ is, are those who are not distracted by the enticements of the flesh or the devil. 

Staying close to God is found in the exhortation to "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life" (Prov. 4:23). John Flavel once helpfully explained what it means to keep our hearts in his classic book, Keeping the Heart. He wrote, "By keeping the heart, understand the diligent and constant use of all holy means to preserve the soul from sin, and maintain its sweet and free communion with God."

We can preserve our souls from sin and maintain an experiential closeness to God through "all holy means", or what is commonly called "the means of grace." The ministry of the word, prayer, corporate worship, etc. are the means by which God exposes our sin, shows us our need for Christ, and increases our faith. Those who wander from God's means are far less likely to run to Him in their hour of need.

Christians fall (Prov. 24:16). Pastors fail. But much of our trouble can be avoided by remaining humble, living carefully, maintaining honesty, and drawing near to God. May His grace abound in each of us and protect us from the danger in the world, and the more subtle dangers that lurk in our hearts.


Joe Thorn is the founding and Lead Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, IL, and the author of Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself (Crossway/ReLit). He was a contributor to The Story ESV Bible and The Mission of God Study Bible. Joe is a graduate of Moody Bible Inst. (BA) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv). Joe blogs at joethorn.net He and his wife Jen have four children. You can find Joe on Twitter at @joethorn.

Grace and sin

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A number of pastoral issues have arisen recently which have brought home to me some particular truths and some particular emphases arising from them. Many of these situations are on the fringes of church life or outside it (though I sincerely hope that some of them might, under God's gracious influences, come within it in due course). How much we need to grasp spiritual realities with scriptural definition! It is a great distress to see how often false religion dismisses the former and degrades the latter, but even more grievous is to see professing Christians mishandle matters of central importance. (Please understand that these are not veiled critiques of events in the Christian stratosphere, but observations about concrete situations in local churches, or at least those places which call themselves churches. But you are wise, and may apply it.)

One area where this has cropped up recently is in the matter of grace, what Matthew Henry somewhere describes as "the free favour of God and all the blessed fruits of it." In common Christian parlance, grace seems to have become a catch-all noun to describe a certain kind of softness and carelessness with regard to sin. When acts and patterns of sin are exposed, we are encouraged to be gracious, but that grace is often not defined or ill-defined. When criticisms are made of certain acts and their actors, the rebuke is readily offered, "That is not gracious!" Grace, apparently, can ignore the sin that calls forth the critique, but not the sin of critiquing it!

So, for example, when there is gross sin in the church, we must show grace. When someone is acting wickedly, it is gracious not to condemn it. When a lie is told, grace will ignore the matter. When leaders fudge matters of righteousness, ignore God's truth, and expose God's flock to harms because they will not deal with transgressors, they are showing grace, and we must show grace by not charging them with any failings.

But this nebulous notion of grace is very far removed from the spiritual reality with scriptural definition that we find revealed and displayed in our Bibles. Gospel grace does not excuse or ignore or neglect sin. Gospel grace is never casual or careless with regard to transgression. Gospel grace, whether patterned in God or echoed in man, never pretends sin is not sin. Gospel grace does not expose the flock to harm because it will not identify error and heresy and defend against errorists and heretics, even in the name of love. Gospel grace suffers long, but it is not a disregard for iniquity that is dishonouring to God and dangerous to men. Gospel grace does not call evil good, and good evil; it does not put darkness for light, and light for darkness, or bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter (Is 5.20).

Gospel grace always faces and addresses sin, though it does so in a gracious way. If you want a seasonal example, think of that just man, who did not want to make the woman he loved a public example, despite what he was legitimately persuaded was the growing evidence of heinous sin, and "was minded to put her away secretly" (Mt 1.19). Grace took no delight in parading sin, but it did not pretend that it was not (as far as could reasonably be determined) sin. When Joseph was enlightened concerning the reality of the situation, would he not have been relieved that he did not have an immediately ungracious response, and make of Mary the most public example he could? Grace prevents us making errors born of harshness, and allows for the easy correction of mistakes.

Remember that fervent love is commanded among the saints, a love which will cover a multitude of sins (1Pt 4.8 cf. Prv 10.12), but consider that such love recognises sin as sin and chooses that, for good and proper reasons, it will be discreet in dealing with it or covering it. Again, to quote Matthew Henry, this love "inclines people to forgive and forget offences against themselves, to cover and conceal the sins of others, rather than aggravate them and spread them abroad." We read that "the discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory is to overlook a transgression" (Prv 19.11) - he decides, as appropriate, that this transgression is not something that needs to be dealt with immediately and publicly, though he still recognises it as transgression, and there may come a time when a pattern of transgression requires him to stop overlooking and start acting. We do not pull one another up on every slip of deed and word, but take account of our frailties and failings as sinful creatures, creatures with remaining sin even as redeemed men and women. This is the grace of God as Father, who is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust" (Ps 103.8-14).

Notice here the hints at the greatest expression of grace: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in coming into the world to die on the cross for his wretched and sin-wrecked people was at once the clearest recognition of sin and the highest expression of mercy. God did not pretend that there was no sin; he saw it more clearly than we ever shall, but put it away by the sacrifice of Christ Jesus. The cross is at once the revealing of the sinfulness of sin and the demonstration of the graciousness of grace.

Gospel grace does not revel in the public exposure of sin and aggressive shaming of sinners, like a church boasting of how many cases of corrective discipline it has handled recently. But neither does it sweep sin away as if it were of no moment. True gospel grace, patterned in a gracious God and echoed in gracious men, always faces sin head on. It is patient and kind, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, but it is also fiercely committed to the glory of a God who is holy and to the good of those who are called to be holy just as he is holy. It calls sin sin, and it considers the nature, occasion and consequences of any particular sin and responds appropriately.

Grace is not, then, an excuse to downplay or dismiss sin as if it were of no consequence, to go on neglecting to deal with it. Grace does not make sin of no account. Grace is the most honest in dealing with sin. Grace always takes account of sin, it looks sin in the ugly eye and - one way or another - it puts it away, sometimes at great cost to itself, dealing fairly and even tenderly with those in whom that sin is discerned, as occasion demands.

Grace, ultimately, is Godlike. It is not a commodity, a mere thing, but an expression of the heart of God in Christ Jesus his Son. If we would have a pattern for gospel grace, we must find it in Christ crucified. Bring all sin into the light of the gospel, put all sin under the shadow of the cross, and there you shall find wisdom in how to deal with it. Deal with it graciously, but deal with it you must. There is nothing gracious about pretending otherwise.

'Who do I say that I am?'

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"Be holy, for I am holy" ~ 1 Peter 1:16

One of the most difficult things to do is tell the truth...about ourselves. The church prides itself on being a bastion of truth in a world of lies, yet her members often forget that they cannot preserve the truth unless they first preserve it about themselves. One of the ways we can discern whether we are preserving the truth about ourselves is by taking note of our verbal habits, those patterns of speech we adopt that describe who we are - especially in relation to God and each other. These patterns of speech about ourselves reveal our hearts and whether we are primarily seeking affirmation of where we are - by others and by God - or whether we are seeking to become more like God.

I took note of these patterns of speech in a video that recently received a lot of attention on the internet called "We are the Church" (watch here: http://vimeo.com/109153388). It was noteworthy for many because it deals with those professing to be 'the Church' who self-identify as 'gay', 'queer', and 'trans'. Those combinations alone will always stir discussion. But beyond the self-applied labels drawn from our current sexual lexicon, the way the individuals in the video described (rather than labeled) themselves, in relation to God and others, is reflective of certain verbal tics that many church-goers - whether liberal or conservative - have adopted. 

If you watch the video you will note the tenor of the descriptions: "I am received"; "I experience grace and community"; "I am loved"; "I am fed"; "I am...the Church." These are good things, of course, but can become toxic when not held together with other, equally good things. Noticeably absent are Christian notions of sacrifice, repentance and hope for change. In fact, in the tone of these men and women is a tinge of 'I dare you' to consider it even appropriate to talk about change and what that might entail, other than change from societal and ecclesiastical constraints that we can smirk at in light of the "freedom" of the Gospel. 

The contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor has been keen to point out the shrinking frames of reference we employ to understand and articulate our identity. Having abandoned more universal notions of "human nature", we seem satisfied to describe ourselves only in terms of ourselves and our chosen tribe (see his Sources of the Self). Taylor calls this "the flattening of modern consciousness". The modern self is the expressed self, Taylor says, where we describe ourselves based upon what we find significant. This is usually done by a personal disentanglement from the sticky webs of birth and historic communities, and a conscious re-entanglement with like-minded souls who will accept and affirm us as we express ourselves. I would suggest we often do the same while speaking with a Christian accent. 

Accordingly, the Gospel becomes about receiving forgiveness for all the ways society, the church, and I beat myself up, so that I can better live my authentic self in community with other authentic selves in the name of Christ. Or, the Gospel becomes about a "hamster wheel" of personal sin and forgiveness that never draws us out into considering what life might be like "in Christ", where we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to crucify our "fleshly selves" (Galatians 5:24) and sacrifice an immediate sense of personal meaningfulness for the greater goal of strengthening the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12). 

The tragedy of layering over our expressive self with Christianese is we cut ourselves off from the hope for change we find in God. Hope can only be found when we talk about ourselves in light of God. 

The ability to speak the truth about ourselves is fundamental to our ability to worship God. This is the wisdom behind frontloading a worship liturgy with confession of sin, because before we lift high the name of God we must hold low the name of our self. In the presence of God we must forsake our self-imposed expressions of who we think we are, and let Scripture 'read' us and define our state. When the Spirit presses the Word on our hearts, we are led to genuine repentance of our sin where we are able to consider the good news of the Gospel and our exclusive identity in Christ. 

Calvin famously wrote that the knowledge of self and knowledge of God are intertwined to the point that sometimes we do not know where the one begins and the other ends. Knowing ourselves to be sinners opens us up to knowing the grace of God that rushes into our sin, even flowing down into and softening the hardened trenches dug deep in our hearts by the force of sexual habit. Knowing God to be a forgiving God encourages us to know ourselves as sinners - yet with hope. The intertwined knowledge of which Calvin speaks is an ever deepening knowledge that, rather than leaving us in a state of complacency or despair, charges us with hope in the midst of our sin - hope that the same grace which announces our forgiveness will change us into the image of the Holy One we worship.

As we learn to tell the truth about ourselves as Christians we need to infuse our words with such knowledge. When we do so together, as the Church, we become a place of truth as well as hope. Instead of affirming ourselves into a standstill, our descriptions become doorways through which the work of the Holy Spirit draws us up to God through Christ. 

Rev. D. Blair Smith is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a doctoral student in patristics at Durham University. He's currently a research visitor at the University of Notre Dame

Calvin takes as given the historicity of Adam and Eve and the events surrounding their creation and fall. He rebukes, on this score, the 3rd century theologian Origen and "others like him" who -- finding little of value in Adam and Eve's historical personages -- "took refuge" in allegorical interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. Such interpretation generally discovered nothing but moral(istic) import (in medieval technical terms, a tropological meaning) in the events depicted in these chapters.

Yet Calvin has no qualms whatsoever about discerning in our first parents' rebellion and God's response to the same a pattern which finds expression in every subsequent generation of rebels-without-good-cause doing their rebel thing against God. In other words, a careful consideration of Adam's sin and God's response to it has much to teach us not only about Adam's sin and God's response to it, but also about our own sin, our efforts to evade culpability for sin, and God's work of exposing sin for what it is and then dealing with it far more effectively that we ever could.

What might we learn from Adam's response to his own sin? We learn something about our persistent efforts to evade responsibility for what we've done and, when such evasion proves unsuccessful, to make satisfaction for our guilt on our own terms. 

Efforts to evade culpability for sin generally involve a fair bit of finger-pointing at others. Thus Adam points his finger first of all at God and tries to blame him for his dire situation. Discovered by God in the garden (vs. 9) after trying to hide himself among the trees (vs. 8), Adam names his nakedness, rather than his crime, as the reason for his reluctance to face God. It was, of course, God himself who created Adam "starkers" (as my wife would say); thus, Adam's naming of his nudity as the source of his shame was essentially an attempt on his part to "transfer to God the charge which he ought to have brought against himself." It was, in other words, an effort to root "the origin of evil in nature," and so to make God -- the author of nature -- morally responsible for Adam's shame and everything which informed it.

When asked more pointedly whether he had broken God's commandment (vs. 11), Adam merely doubles down in the blame game, simultaneously putting forward "his wife as the guilty party in his place" and advancing yet another "accusation against God," inasmuch as Eve "had been given [to him] by God." Eve, for her part, learns a quick lesson from Adam: "[Eve] is not struck dumb" (as she should have been by the gravity of her guilt), "but, after the example of her husband, transfers the charge to another; by laying the blame on the serpent she foolishly, and indeed impiously, thinks herself absolved."

So it goes with each of us: "We also, trained in the same school of original sin, are too ready to resort to subterfuges of the same kind," ultimately daring even to blame God for the sinful desires which we indulge. But our own finger-pointing is "to no purpose," Calvin reminds us, "for however much incitements and instigations from other quarters may impel us, yet the unbelief which seduces us from obedience to God is within us; the pride which brings forth contempt is within." 

Even more futile than Adam's attempts to evade culpability is his effort to deal with his shame by cloaking himself with "a girdle of [fig] leaves." "There is none of us," Calvin comments, "who does not smile at [such] folly, since, certainly, it was ridiculous to place such a covering before the eyes of God." 

Yet our own efforts to deal with our guilt often prove more laughable than Adam's. Calvin insightfully identifies the simple passage of time as one of the more flimsy cloaks we seek to cast over our sin and culpability. The more minutes, hours, and days that intervene between us and our transgressions, the less we feel the sting of guilt for what we've done. And so we delude ourselves into thinking that God, like our own forgetful consciences, is actually appeased by time. "By an oblivion of three days' duration, we imagine that we are well covered." Unfortunately for our delusion, God transcends time, and so our criminal actions and our guilt are ever present (tense) to him. Time may heal certain wounds between human parties, but before God, time proves just a futile as a pair of fig-leaf undies for covering our guilt.

From God's response to Adam's sin we gain insight into what God continually does with sin (and, in that process, sinners), first naming it for what it really is, and then dealing with it through the atoning work of his own Son.

Calvin discerns a two-part movement in God's response to Adam's sin; God first convicts Adam, and then consoles Adam. God convicts Adam by coming "nearer" to him and -- both literally and metaphorically -- drawing him out, "however unwilling and resisting," from "the tangled thicket of trees" where he has hidden himself. The exposure of Adam ultimately consists in God's reminder to him of that single explicit command given to him when the garden of delights was entrusted to his care. 

Thus God's commandments ever serve to convict sinners of their guilt: "In the same manner we also are alarmed at the voice of God, as soon as his Law sounds in our ears." In most cases, of course, genuine admission of guilt requires sustained exposure to God's Law. "We snatch at shadows, until he, calling upon us more vehemently, compels us to come forward, arraigned at his tribunal."

Having humbled and convicted Adam by means of his Law, God consoles Adam with the good news of One who would come to reverse the fall and its catastrophic consequences, and through his perfect obedience to God's Law and suffering for sin provide a covering far more substantial than fig leaves for Adam's guilt and shame; a covering, indeed, which God himself would prove unwilling and unable to penetrate with his gaze. God consoles Adam, in other words, with the promise of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, who in due course would fulfill God's law and suffer death in the stead of Adam, Eve, and every subsequent sinner willing to place his or her confidence solely in him.

Jesus Christ was named rather obscurely to Adam and Eve (in the midst of God's rebuke of the Serpent) as "the seed of the woman" who one day would crush the Serpent's head (vs. 15). "Certainly in that [promise] the remission of sins and the grace of eternal salvation is contained." The precise woman in view in this prophetic text is not, Calvin argues, the Virgin Mary (contra Roman interpretation), but Eve, who "being first deceived... had peculiar need of consolation." 

The "seed" who would triumph over sin and all its consequences is, of course, Jesus Christ, who crushes the Serpent's head in his death and resurrection. But it is not him alone. Noting the collective sense of the word "seed" (i.e., descendants), Calvin discovers in Genesis 3.15 an additional promise that every believer who joins himself or herself to Christ will, in him, equally triumph over the Serpent (and so over sin, death, and hell), and thus be restored to eternal fellowship with God. Genesis 3.15 contains, then, nothing short of the promise of one whose work would eradicate the guilt and shame of every person willing to take off his or her fig leaves and put on the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.

In sum, while Adam is, according to Calvin, a genuine historical person, there is also a genuine sense in which Adam constitutes a symbol of every man (and woman). Adam's sin and God's response to it serve as a (prophetic) picture of every individual's response to his or her guilt and God's own, more radical response - namely, that of bringing the sinner to the depths of despair by confronting him or her with his Law, only to raise the sinner to the highest peaks of hope by consoling him or her with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his sin-atoning work.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.

Calvin thinks none too highly of persons who covet the lives of pigs and dogs. It seems to have been a considerable problem in his day; he refers in his comments on Genesis 3 to the "well-known complaints" of persons who consider the lot of "swine and dogs" (porci et canes) in life preferable to their own. 

Upon encountering Calvin's passing condemnation of such individuals, I initially felt a bit nervous. I can't recall ever having coveted the life of a pig, but -- I confess -- I have cast an envious eye upon my dog on occasion. It's not so much his diet (primarily whatever scraps "fall" from my daughters' plates) or routine (napping, playing, eating, napping again, etc.) that spark jealously in me, though the latter does seem rather desirable. It's more the reality, or at least my sneaking suspicion, that he ranks ever so slightly higher than I do in my wife's affections, even on my best days. I can't really blame my wife; our dog is rather endearing, even if at times annoying. I, on the other hand, am not endearing at all, and am almost always annoying.

I suspect Calvin would have some significant words of reproof for me on this score (both for being envious and for being annoying). Upon closer reading of his rebuke of swine-and-dogs-coveters, however, I'm not sure that my envy of Oakley (our dog), if viewed in relation to its roots, is really the kind of thing that was worrying him. That rebuke occurs in the midst of reflection upon "the number and nature of those evils" which humankind has brought upon itself by its defection from God. Calvin observes that many persons, with a view towards the difficulties that human sin has introduced to human experience, prove "unable to restrain themselves from raging and murmuring against God," professing among other things "that God has acted more mercifully to swine and dogs than to them." Thus they fail, Calvin observes, to "refer [their] miserable and ruined state... to the sin of Adam as they ought," and they "fling back upon God the charge of being the cause" of said evils.

Calvin's accusation against such "raging and murmuring" men is, ultimately, one of blasphemy more than one of envy. His particular concern with how persons relate the consequences of human sin to God requires further note, but first it may be useful to categorize such consequences of Adam and Eve's sin as Calvin sees them. 

1) Human sin entailed consequences, first of all, for human nature. Corruption resulting from Adam's sin infects every faculty of the human soul of every natural child of Adam; "no part is free from the infection of sin." The "mind" in particular, from which all affections and decisions flow, has been made subject to "horrible blindness, contumacy against God, wicked desires, and violent propensities to evil." Calvin is keen to point out that the "whole perverseness of our disposition" is "adventitious" (not to be confused with advantageous); i.e., human beings, prior to the fall as such, knew nothing of such "perverseness" in their inner persons. Perversity attached itself to human nature at a specific point in time; it is not, therefore of the essence of what it means to be human.

2) "The earth [was] cursed on account of the sin of man," thus becoming "that scene of deformity which we now behold." Such "deformity of the world... ought by no means to be regarded as in the order of nature, since it proceeds rather from the sin of man than from the hand of God." Under the rubric of "deformity of the world" belongs "inclemency of the air, frost, thunders, unseasonable rains, drought, [and] hail," as well as "diseases" and (sinful) human activities which serve to further destroy, rather than cultivate, the world entrusted to humankind.

3) Sin has introduced "strife, troubles, sorrow, dissensions, and a boundless sea of evils" into human relationships. Calvin offers as a particular case study of this point the institution of marriage: "It has happened by our fault, and by the corruption of nature, that [the] happiness of marriage has, in a great measure, perished, or, at least, is mixed and infected with many inconveniences." (Calvin, interestingly, had nearly a decade's experience of marriage when he wrote these words. He spoke of his late wife in other contexts as his "best companion" and "faithful helper." It appears, nevertheless, that he could remember the occasional spat or rough patch from his married years.)

4) Most seriously, sin has brought about "alienation from God," who created human beings in his own image and endowed them with every good gift from the first moment of their existence. "Alienation from God" is, in fact, that very "death" which God promised to Adam and Eve as the consequence of transgressing his law. In Calvin's view, then, the cessation of breath and brain waves constitutes the culmination but not the substance of death. The "life of man without God," being "wretched and lost," is the experience of death in its truest sense.

So, to return to pigs and dogs: Calvin's concern is that, in experiencing these consequences of sin on a day to day basis, we give blame where blame is properly due. He recognizes within us a tendency to immediately credit God for whatever ills -- perverse inclinations, ruined relationships, disease, death, etc. -- befall us, when in truth we should consistently credit ourselves for the same. It was, after all, we -- in solidarity with Adam -- who turned our backs on God, thereby inviting such ills into human experience. 

It seems to me that, somewhat ironically, it is Reformed Christians -- Calvin's heirs, if you will -- who might be most prone to do exactly what Calvin here denounces, that is, wrongly credit God, rather than human sin, for the inward perversity and outward deformity they experience in life. It is Reformed Christians, after all, who are typically quickest to recognize and (rightfully) assert that all things happen in accordance with God's perfect will (Eph. 1:11). And there is, to be sure, great comfort to be had in the knowledge that God has decreed and providentially rules over even the sin and evil in our lives. But ordering and providentially ruling is not the same as causing, and we must be careful -- even as we find comfort in God's sovereignty over every detail of our lives -- not to be guilty of laying upon God "the charge of being the cause of all... our evils." 

If anger at God, rather than trust in God, is our default response to troubles in life, we may be guilty of that very act of blasphemy which Calvin decries, even if pigs and dogs don't immediately figure into our outlook. And if, moreover, we're busy blaming God for whatever evil we encounter in and around ourselves, we miss the opportunity -- indeed, the responsibility -- to engage in "humble confession of our fault, [and] to bewail our evils," even while we rest and take comfort in the knowledge that absolutely nothing in our lives lies outside of the sovereign control of the one who never causes, but rather provides the ultimate answer to, sin and all its consequences.

Aaron Denlinger is blogging a series of reflections based on Calvin's Genesis Commentary. Catch up with the series here, here, and here.
When my wife and I moved into our house in the early spring, the two trees in the back yard were charming, their trunks splitting and winding like strands of hair, their leaves just beginning to bud. From what we could see, they added allure to the property, which was complemented by the rest of the quiet town. I had taken a few field environmental classes as a high school student, but I couldn't identify what kind of trees they were.

Then came the chestnuts--not the auburn, gem-like spheres you see in glass bowls on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens, but the green, needle-covered threats that hang stealthily above your head when you're mowing the lawn. I didn't give them too much thought while the majority of them clung to the branches, but when they started to fall, they needed to be gathered, and the gathering was painful. Even through leather gloves, you could feel the sharp pricks of the shell if you handled it more firmly than you would an egg. But that wasn't, I came to find, the worst of it.

Continue reading on Place for Truth

Text link - http://info.alliancenet.org/placefortruth/chinese-chestnuts-a-reflection-on-sin#.U62d141dVDI

The road to joy

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I have just returned from a very pleasant week of fellowship and ministry among the Reformed Presbyterians in Northern Ireland. It was my privilege to preach at the Knockbracken Bible Week, as well as at a men's meeting beforehand, and to the students at the Reformed Theological College during one of the days.

My appointed topic in Knockbracken was the joy of salvation. I was only able to develop it briefly, considering it first against the backdrop of the curse, then looking at justification both in terms of the forgiveness of sin and the granting of righteousness, then on to what it means to be called sons of God, then finally the unfailing God who is the eternal portion of the saints.

Though I had not particularly planned it, there was a particular theme which developed along the way. As the week advanced, I emphasised repeatedly the truth that our sense of the blessings of God is grounded not just in what we have been saved to but also in what we have been saved from. So our appreciation of the blessings in Christ are in large measure proportionate to our sense of the curse from which he has delivered us. The joy of sins forgiven will be commensurate with our grief at sins committed. Our delight in peace with God will hinge in large part on our sense that we have been at enmity with him. We will most appreciate being called sons of God when we recognise that we were by nature children of wrath. It is because our flesh and heart fail that there is sweetest relief in an unfailing God as the rock of our hearts and our portion forever.

Your entry into and experience of joy depends, then, largely on your honesty before God and with yourself and others. That begins with honesty about our misery, our sin, our rebellion, our nature and our weakness. It is only when we face these facts that we will begin to find corresponding peace with and delight in God known in Christ Jesus. As sinners - even as saved sinners - there is nothing to be gained by denying or downgrading the depth of our past and present deeds and needs. Rather, our guilt and weakness is the very backdrop against which the grace of God shines most brightly. The bitterness of our sin and frailty makes the sweetness of divine mercy all the more distinct.

That also means that it is incumbent upon ministers of the gospel to make plain what it means to be without God and without hope in the world, to be under the Lord's wrath and curse on account of our sinfulness of nature and sins in deed. There is no need - we might say, little possibility - for exaggeration. Such honesty not only drives sinners out of themselves to Christ, it also means that there will be a deep and true appreciation of the mercies of God in Christ, with all corresponding joy. Such honesty keeps the saints humble in themselves and close to God, conscious of their blessings in him alone. And all this while securing the glory of God as it brings to light the greatness of our so great salvation.

Many today - even in the church - want a gospel that has no shadows, but the good news exists and makes sense only in the context of the bad news. If we want the sick to run to the doctor seeking the right medicine, we need accurately to diagnose the disease and provide the prognosis. Repentance is the heart-cry of the sinner who has come to see his sin as God sees it, and mourns accordingly. Faith is the whole-souled casting of oneself upon Christ as we confess that there is no hope in anyone or anything else. Christ's atonement is not therapy for the lightly troubled. It is life from death. That life is all the more valued and its Giver all the more exalted when the awful nature of death is properly appreciated. Everyone seems to want joy, but few seem ready to pay the price of sorrow beforehand.

It is the darkness of the night that makes the dawn precious. It is the torment of pain that makes relief so sweet. It is the misery of sickness that makes recovery so valued. It is the grief of lostness that makes being found so wonderful. It is the emptiness of self that makes the fullness of Christ so delightful. It is the horror of the curse that makes the blessing of salvation so great. It is the weight of sin's burden that makes its removal so overwhelming. It is the pain of rebellion that makes peace so dear. It is the distance of being cast out that makes the nearness of being drawn in so enticing. It is the frailty of the creature that throws the might and mercy of the Creator and Redeemer into sharp relief.

There are no short cuts to such joy. We should not seek them or offer them. Preach the truth to bring sinners to an end of themselves and to send them to Christ. Face the truth that strips you of all hope outside of God's gracious provision. Then run to the Lord Jesus and find in him all that you will need for salvation, in time and for eternity, and there you will find joy indeed.
I was glad to see some some constructive dialogue in the comments section of Tullian Tchividjian's reply to my critique of his article on total depravity and Christians.  Let me say at this point (even though I look forward to the day when such statements are not necessary) that: 1) I bear no ill will to Tullian nor was I launching a personal attack against him; 2) I wrote an article expressing concern about something he had written, not heresy charges in a court of the church; and 3) it has been my impression that the whole point of blogging is to stimulate useful thinking among Christians.  This is why I engaged in a public response to a public article rather than private dialogue.  

Being something of an internet veteran, I was not surprised, however,  to see that it took only three comments to Tullian's reply for one of his supporters to accuse me of sin.  I hope in this response to allay such concerns and hopefully to advance constructive dialogue further.

Hidden in the heart

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We are repeatedly warned that the interweb, not least Google (other search engines are available), is changing the way we think, the way we remember. Tech gurus tell us that no longer do we remember information, we remember where to find it. So, for example, rather than remembering the kings and queens of England, we remember the webpage (or kind of webpage, or way of finding the [kind of] webpage) that supplies us with that information. As a result, no doubt the bit of our brains that deals with such stuff is atrophying at a fair rate of knots, shrinking to some withered non-functionality and waiting to be replaced by smartphones with memories more capacious, better stocked and more readily searched than our own. Alongside such brain-wastage goes an inability to concentrate, an attention span that is degenerating to a point which might make a goldfish wince. Indeed, it is at the end of a paragraph like this that I wonder how many people have already given up because - despite the scintillating prose! - I haven't got to the point yet.

So, let us crack on: I imagine that some readers who have made it this far are - like me - shaking their heads and confessing that, yes, our capacities are shifting if not altogether shrivelling. We no longer remember phone numbers - they are in our contact listings. We no longer remember names of children - we look them up when we go to visit. We no longer remember directions - we switch on our satnav and GPS systems. We may struggle more than we used to in following a train of thought over pages of text, tracing a theme developed over the course of a book, recollecting that data that our lazy brains tell us we can find more easily with a quick text-search than by storing it in our own memory banks for easy retrieval.

And there is one crucial area in which this particularly bites on the believer. It has to do with the Word of God, and it is eminently practical.

In Psalm 119 the psalmist cries out, "Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against you" (Ps 119.11). It comes in a stanza in which he is expressing a heartfelt desire for holiness, a determination to seek and serve the Lord and to walk in humble and joyful obedience to his commands.

My point is this: one of the consequences of the internet-trained brain seems to be an inability to hide very much - not much of the Word of God, to be sure - in our hearts. That results in a crippling weakness in the battle for godliness.

If you want to, test yourself. What do you do, where do you look, when you want to find "that verse," you know, the one on the tip of your tongue? Do you flick to BibleWorks or Logos, pull up some Scripture text on your e-platform and do a quick search? Was it ever stored in your heart? Are you looking merely for a reminder, or have you become so accustomed to ready accessibility and easy search that you no longer bother storing it in your heart, unconsciously succumbing to the suggestion that since it's right at your fingertips you don't need to worry? Have you forgotten how to remember?

How long was Christ in the wilderness? Forty days and forty nights. (You know the batteries on pretty much any device have died by then.) What state was he in? Desperately hungry and thirsty. Who came to him? The arch-enemy, the Adversary. What were flung at him? A series of pointed and powerful temptations striking at his very identity and destiny. And what did the Lord do, without the help of any electronic aids or ready-references? He dug into the depths of Deuteronomy to bring forth three perfectly-forged weapons with which to smite the foe, three mighty "Thus says the Lord" declarations which shattered Satan's assault and sent him from the field a beaten foe. The word was hidden in the Saviour's heart, and he did not sin against God.

Look more closely, and you understand what that means. Satan takes and twists Scripture to make his perverted case. The Lord Christ not only knows enough to see through those corrupting quotations, but he has upon his holy lips the fruit of a heart in which the Word of God is thoroughly hidden, the truth stored up in order to be brought forth as occasion demands in order to keep him from sin and in the path of righteousness.

What of you? You have one primary offensive weapon with which to do battle against sin: "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Eph 6.17). Can you afford to have that potent blade wrapped up in the electronic cobwebs of some computer programme when you need it for the fight? Do you not know from bitter experience that you do not have time to draw the sword from the depths of your electronic device when Satan comes roaring in against you? You need it sitting in your hand, you need it stored up in your heart ready for immediate deployment when the enemy comes upon you unawares. To use a more modern metaphor, you cannot afford to wander this battlefield with all your ammunition stored at the bottom of your backpack; you need your weapon locked and loaded at all times.

If we are to be holy we need to hide the word in our hearts, and that means a deliberate commitment to memorisation and meditation. It means a refusal to allow our brains to be trained by the world, a resistance to the laziness that the interweb can breed in our all-too-susceptible minds; it means a commitment to holiness that is willing to re-train and develop the faculties of our hearts contrary to the trend and tendency of the age in which we live, and to make sure that we pack into the armoury that array of weaponry necessary for the constant fight against ungodliness, temptations within and without. We must love that truth, know that truth in its sense and substance, in its particular words and phrases, understand it as a treasure and as a weapon, and learn how to use it in the combat with sin.

I am not saying that the interweb can only be a tool of the devil. I am saying that he knows how to use the tools available, to trick us into taking off our armour and to train us to put down our weapons. We cannot afford to be ignorant of his devices.

So, if we care about holiness, we will not allow our memories to atrophy and not permit our concentration to wither. We will focus our eyes on the text and fill our hearts with its store of good things, ready to be brought forth as occasion demands. Temptations will rush upon us. As so often, they might come with a "Has God really said . . .?" or a "Hasn't God said . . .?" We, like our Saviour before us, must be ready to bring forth the fruit of those labours of love, and draw out of the armoury of the heart a telling "Thus says the Lord, . . ." and so keep from sinning.