Results tagged “joy” from Reformation21 Blog

Affliction Evangelism

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"This light momentary affliction," Paul writes, "is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Cor. 4:17). Paul's use of the singular noun "affliction" in 2 Cor. 4:7 is intriguing. Paul doesn't say afflictions (plural), which would suggest periodic suffering in the life of the Christian. Nor, to all appearances, is he referring to some specific episode of suffering in his own life and ministry, though Paul's life and ministry certainly contained episodes of more concentrated difficulty. He seems, rather, to be making a point generic to all Christians (hence the "for us"). "This light momentary affliction," then, seems to be a reference to the entirety of the Christian's life on this side of eternity. The Christian's life in toto can be characterized as one singular "affliction." The whole thing is hard. The hardship of the Christian life doesn't preclude joy. Nor does it preclude any number of concrete pleasures in this life (family, friendships, craft beer, pillow fights, etc.). But the life of the faithful Christian will, as a whole, be difficult.

That's a hard pill for us as Americans to swallow. Our culture puts tremendous pressure on us not just to be happy -- to pursue happiness in the here and now at any cost -- but also to look happy. Hence selfies. Selfies exist, I'm convinced, not to preserve or trigger their subjects' memories of places visited, things seen, and experiences experienced, but to be posted to some form of social media in order to project a certain image of their subjects; namely, the image of fun, adventurous, and (above all) happy people. Paul's designation of life as an "affliction" invites us to abandon the very pretense our culture bids us maintain. Acknowledging life as difficult is both scary, because it pushes against the grain of cultural expectations, and liberating, because it invites us to stop pretending that everything's peachy all the time.

But why must life be so hard for Christians? Difficulty in life is typically attended by confusion on the part of those undergoing it. The question "why?" seems to follow inevitably in the train of suffering. There seems to be a logic to Paul's sequence: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair" (2 Cor. 4:8). There is, of course, the obvious response that life is hard for Christians because it's hard for everyone in consequence of the Fall. But Paul, in 2 Cor. 4:7-12, outlines a particular logic for the suffering that Christians' encounter, a logic that, if grasped, might help Christians endure in the midst of difficulty. The suffering Paul seems especially to have in mind in these verses is persecution as a result of efforts to share the Gospel. But the logic for suffering he outlines, I think, has applicability to other forms of hardship.

Christians suffer, first of all, because God delights to triumph in weakness. "We have this treasure in jars of clay," Paul writes, "to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." The treasure that Christians' possess and seek to share with the world is the Gospel and its fruits. But their efforts to share that treasure with the world generally reap trouble. Life as a clay jar ain't pretty (see 2 Cor. 4:8-9). It's not surprising, of course, that efforts to share the Gospel with others result in unpleasantness. The Gospel is an affront to those who would deny any absolute moral standard because they wish to live their lives without accountability or consequence. It's even more of an affront to those who would acknowledge an absolute moral standard, but insist upon their own ability to meet that standard. The Gospel, in other words, is offensive.

But God grows his kingdom through the means of Christian witness, however much attended by animosity from the world. There is, in fact, a correspondence between the manner in which God accomplishes salvation through the person and work of His Son and the manner in which he advances his kingdom through the application of Christ's work to elect sinners. God triumphed over sin, death, and hell through apparent weakness -- an apparently deluded man hanging on a cross, Rome's most despicable instrument of capital punishment. God brings sinners through faith into a share in Christ's kingdom through equally apparent weakness -- persecuted, perplexed, and suffering Christians, feebly testifying to the treasure that they possess and trying to share it with others. Jars of clay. Significantly for our theme, the weakness of the means (i.e., us) that God has chosen to advance his kingdom ensures that all glory and praise for the same will be returned to him in the final analysis. The "surpassing power" that brings fruition to the efforts of silly people proclaiming a silly message clearly "belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor. 4:7).

But there is a further logic to suffering outlined in these verses, which is this: Suffering turns our lives into sermons. Suffering may or may not show us what we're made of (as the saying goes), but it will definitely show us and others where our hope, where our identity, and where our confidence lay. The suffering Christian, in other words, becomes a form of Gospel proclamation to the world. Feed a Christian to the lions, or give a Christian some incurable disease, and what do you discover? Someone who ultimately has more invested in the life to come than this present life. Someone who can face pain and even death with ultimate hope rather than despair. Strip a Christian of his job and livelihood and what do you discover? Someone whose identity is rooted less in a profession or job title than it is in the reality of God's love and Christ's work for him. Someone whose confidence rests in God's sovereign provision more than it does in a bank account. Soak the Christian in trouble and then wring that Christian out, and what will pour from that Christian is the Gospel in visible, lived, concrete form. What will pour from that Christian, in other words, is confidence that nothing this world throws at him/her can jeopardize his/her treasure, namely, the Gospel and all that it comprises, which is chiefly the prospect of eternity in God's presence (2 Cor. 4:17).

Paul makes it clear in the opening chapters of 2 Cor. 4 that one aspect of our calling as witnesses to Christ is to make "open statement of the truth" (i.e., open our mouths, and actually articulate the gospel to others.) In 2 Cor. 4:8-12 he makes it equally clear that "open statement of the truth" can be made with our lives in addition to our lips. "We who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you." Translation: We who are heirs of eternal life with God ("we who live") will regularly get the snot kicked out of us in life ("are always being given over to death"). But suffering has a purpose ("for Jesus' sake"). It puts our hope in Christ on full display to others. It turns our lives per se into a form of witness ("so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh").

Suffering is no fun, no matter how we gloss it. But seeing the opportunity that suffering affords to proclaim the Gospel with our lives may go some way towards helping us to "count it all joy when we encounter trials of various kinds" (James 1:2).

 

Hell's Horrors vs. Heaven's Happiness (Updated)

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Updated: response to Professor Helm below.

When we speak of grace, hell, heaven, etc., we must not merely speak in generalities, but as specific as the Scriptures allow us, which includes good and necessary consequences (Matt. 22:32). Someone may reference the horrors of hell or the happiness of heaven in a sermon but to little effect because they fail to explain why hell will be so horrible and heaven will be so happy. Even the popular idea that hell is "separation from God" is so misleading and wrong-headed that I'm amazed people still describe hell this way. It is quite the opposite: a God-hating sinner, who does not have a mediator, lives in the presence of a holy, righteous, and powerful God.

Christ spoke on hell more than anyone else in the Bible. But he did not merely talk about hell; rather, he also described hell (Matt. 10:28). The Scriptures don't just offer us generalities, but specifics. For example, consider the language of Luke 3:17, which ends by describing hell as an unquenchable fire. Elsewhere hell is described as a "fiery furnace" where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 13:42). Moreover, hell is a lake of fire (Rev. 19:20), an eternal fire (Jude 7), outer darkness (Matt. 22:13), blackness of darkness forever (Jude 13), and a place where "their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" (Mk. 9:44). 

What I want to do in this post is consider the torments of hell in relation to the joys of heaven from the perspective of "time." In doing this, we might be able to understand a little better the glories of heaven and the terrors of hell. True, hell is a punishment so great and heaven is a reward so wonderful that neither can be properly comprehended by our thoughts in this life. But how do we seek to join with Paul, for example, in persuading men because of the terrors of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:11)? Here is one way.

Time has a beginning and an ending for all creatures in this world. "Time began with the creature" is a truer statement than that which says, "The creature began with time" (Bavinck). Eternity, properly understood, belongs to God alone. The marks of eternity are: 1) there is no beginning; 2) there is no ending; and 3) there is no succession of moment. 

But Christians will receive "eternal" life (Jn. 5:24), and those who do not love the Lord Jesus with an undying love will receive "eternal" death (1 Cor. 16:22). There is another word used by Reformed theologians, going back to the Medieval tradition (e.g., Bonaventure), called "Aeviternity" (aeviternitas). Aeviternity has a beginning but no ending; it belongs to angels and humans. Eternity has no beginning, succession, or ending; it belongs to God alone (Ps. 90:2). This is an important distinction as we try to understand how our "eternity" differs from God's "eternity."

Some (e.g., Bavinck) have also distinguished between extrinsic time and intrinsic time. We measure the motion of the earth, the heavenly bodies, etc., according to extrinsic time. Extrinsic time will cease in eternity.

However, there is also intrinsic time. This refers to our existence by which events have a past, present, and future. All created beings live in the realm of intrinsic time, and we cannot escape the fact of intrinsic time because we are creatures. 

As we think about time in eternity, and the manner in which we comfort the godly and warn the ungodly, preachers should remind their hearers that in hell it will feel as though there is only time - "slow" time. In this world, when we suffer, time seems to stand still. Even waiting in traffic or in a doctor's office, time does not fly by. We become more sensitive to the seconds. This happens when listening to poor sermons, too. 

However, in heaven, because we resemble Christ, and because we shall have joy unspeakable, we shall have a far different response to intrinsic time than the person in hell. Time flies by when you're having fun: imagine how time will seem to evaporate in heaven because of the joy that awaits us. Or consider the difference between speaking to your mother-in-law on the phone compared to when you were first courting your wife. For us a "year" will feel like a "second" whereas for those in hell a "second" will feel like a "year."

Moreover, in connection with this, consider:

1) As we enjoy heaven, our joy can only increase, not decrease. Knowing that our joy will not end only heightens the joy we will experience at that moment. One sadness in experiencing a joyful moment in this world is knowing that the experience is likely to end or change (e.g., this Belgium beer is almost finished). Not so in heaven. There will be no end to our joys, which will therefore cause us more joy in each successive moment. 

2) But for those consigned to hell, their despair will only increase, not decrease. As the creature in hell realizes more and more that he or she is suffering forever, the despair of eternal judgment can only increase. Hope has utterly vanished. In our sufferings here on earth, we always have the promises of God to look to (Rom. 8:18, 28ff.). But those in hell have no promises, and thus no hope, but only increasing despair. 

According to Thomas Goodwin, in hell the wicked will despair, for the "wretched soul in hell...finds that it shall not outlive that misery, not yet can it find one space or moment of time of freedom and intermission, having for ever to do with him who is the living God." The wicked will despair because there is no end to the wrath of the living God. For that reason, there will be perfect fear, because wicked souls in hell will not only be tormented by what they experience in the present moment, but also by what they will experience forever.

The only response of the creature in hell will be to blaspheme God. And because the creature blasphemes God, there can be no end to his/her punishment. God's eternity, coupled with the sinners perpetual blasphemy against God demand an eternal place of torment. 

Therefore, the concept of ever-increasing despair for all eternity, whereby the creature damned to hell can do nothing else but blaspheme a living, eternal God, gives us all the reason in the world to persuade men and women, boys and girls, to put their faith in the one who experienced hellish despair on the cross (2 Cor. 5).

If you really believe in the cross of Christ, then you have to believe there is a hell. If you believe there is a hell, then you are beyond thankful there was a cross for Christ.  

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I'm always happy to hear from my drinking buddy, Professor Helm. I think perhaps he reads a little too much into what I wrote. I actually (vigorously) stand with him on the society of resurrection bodies in heaven. "Solipsistic consciousness" is about the last thing I'd want to ever affirm about heaven, and still can't quite understand how my post lends itself to such an interpretation. What was my point? Simply this: Tasks in heaven will not feel "painful" - i.e., we will not suffer in our work or feel bored - because we are "cheerful laborers." 

Bavinck speaks of the "abundant and exuberant life of the cheerful laborer, for whom time barely exists and days fly by. From this perspective there is truth in the assertion that in hell there is no eternity but only time, and that the more a creature resembles God and is his image, the more he or she will rise above the imperfections of time and approach eternity." 

I expect to drink better (Belgium?) beer and better wine in heaven (alcoholic, of course), and I shouldn't at all be surprised if I have to actually make the wine myself in a vineyard. Without the curse (Gen. 3) on my labor, I expect both the wine-making and wine-drinking to be pure bliss! I also expect to enjoy the wine with my drinking buddy, and we'll both see how the time flies by. 

But, and let's not forget this: I was quite serious about the solemnity of hell. There is nothing entertaining about eternal perdition. 

Concerning mere happiness

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You will probably have seen the latest clip of Osteenian wisdom circulating on the interweb. A gleaming Victoria, cheered by the crowd and with husband Joel oozing agreement in the background, announces the following:
I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we're not doing it for God - I mean, that's one way to look at it. We're doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we are happy . . . that's the thing that gives Him the greatest joy this morning.

So, I want you to know this morning: just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship him, you're not doing it for God really. You're doing it for yourself, because that's what makes God happy. Amen? Let's open our hearts to him today . . .
Maybe we will pass on that amen, at least as Mrs Osteen fishes for it. Frankly, this is of a piece with the kind of tosh that we have come to expect from the Osteen stable. Responding, Al Mohler swung into action with a penetrating piece in which he concluded the following:
Mere happiness cannot bear the weight of the Gospel. The message of the real Gospel is found in John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." That is a message that can be preached with a straight face, a courageous spirit, and an urgent heart in Munich, in Miami, or in Mosul.
This troubled my friend David Murray, who replied with the following:
Whenever serious error arises, like the Osteens' Prosperity Gospel message, we're always at risk of framing our theology in opposition to the error rather than by taking it straight from the Bible. Reformed Theology re-forms the biblical message from the Bible; Reactionary Theology forms theology in opposition to an error. In doing so - whether it's in reaction to secular psychology, moralistic preaching, legalism, antinomianism, or the prosperity gospel - we run the real risk of going too far the other way and losing biblical vocabulary and concepts.

I don't want the Osteens' happiness. But neither do I want to lose true biblical happiness. I steadfastly refuse to let the Osteens' steal this beautiful biblical word from me or the Church. Instead, let's reclaim it and fill it with biblical ballast. By doing so we can surely out-happify the Osteens. And yes, that kind of happiness will pass the Mosul test.
David's first paragraph above is great. It is annoying, because he has said in a single paragraph what I had intended to develop into a blog post, but it is spot on. But what of this pursuit of a happiness that passes the Munich/Miami/Mosul test?

Perhaps the particular challenge lies in our definition of the word happiness, and it is a challenge which I think David begins trying to address in his post. As with so many of the problems with beset us, a large part of the difficulty has to do with the fact that we often use the same language, but we may be using it to communicate different things.

The word 'happiness' presents this problem in spades. I imagine that, when Dr Mohler employed it in his article critical of the Osteens, he was using it primarily to refer to crass, carnal happiness of the kind celebrated by La Osteen in her little outtake. It is clear that when Dr Murray employs it, he is wrestling to define the word biblically and so reclaim it for proper use. To do so, he freights it with an entirely different sense, what the Puritans and those in their stream might have called gospel happiness or blessedness, with its primary sphere of reference in a gracious God and his good gifts to the undeserving and ill-deserving creatures upon whom he has sovereignly smiled.

It is a problem that every preacher struggles with. When I speak, for example, of the blessed man of Psalm 1, I speak of one who is "truly and lastingly happy." Even then, I still need to define what is true and lasting happiness, and to do so with biblical notions and often with explicitly biblical language.

If you will forgive what is probably considered by many to be an arch-heresy, it is one of the enduring problems with the classic formula for Christian hedonism, the notion that God is most glorified by us when we are most satisfied in him. Despite all warnings and definitions, this formulation carries the constant danger of locating the glory of God in human satisfaction. One of the reasons why it does so is because - again, in the face of all attempts to prevent it - most us of wrestle with a selfish and shallow and deceptive heart that constantly defines satisfaction in terms of our own human appetites and desires. As has been noted before, in the wrong hands this formula, with the recasting of the first question and answer of the Shorter Catechism, becomes an excuse to focus on self-satisfaction rather than God-glorification. At a popular level, it is sometimes understood to suggest that it is not possible that God should be glorified unless I am also being immediately satisfied, that if I am not being satisfied then God cannot be glorified. This has become, for some, a test of action, and it is not one that makes the glory of God the chief end of man, but swings the focus to where it does not belong--on the desires and appetites of the creature. While I do not wish again to enter the debate as to whether or not this formulation is inherently slanted toward the creature rather than the Creator, it does underline the need for definition, and to take such language in the sense in which it is intended. In fact, I was amused to read the tweet of one well-known chap who wanted a certain lady to know the following: "Victoria Osteen: God's glory and your joy are at odds." Well, they may be, but that is certainly a strange declaration to come from the Desiring God stable! The whole issue lies in the name that is attached to the front of the tweet, and the presumed sense which she attaches to the concepts of divine glory and human joy.

So, as the whole Osteen circus makes plain, the first problem to address lies in that presumed intended sense. It seems very clear from the context that we are here in the realm of that "mere" crass, carnal happiness which cannot, as Dr Mohler points out, bear the weight of the gospel. In exposing such nonsense for what it is, we must not only critique the sense (or lack of it), but - if we are to reclaim the word - we must do so by constant and careful definition. To deal with this matter properly, we must bring it into the realm of true and lasting happiness, the sphere of divine blessedness, that stable and abounding joy that is yoked to God's inherent excellences. Only this happiness passes the proposed tests. This is where Dr Murray has his work cut out for him. In defining happiness, joy and blessing biblically, we are again fighting an age-old battle. We must put and keep something - something that we constantly and instinctively wish to identify in our own terms - in the words and sense of the Lord Almighty, the great Creator and glorious Redeemer. We are reaching for notions that God has defined, notions which we are tempted to wreathe in the thoughts of the fallen creature but which we must recover as the battling redeemed.

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.

The Man of Joy

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If creation provides the basic mold filled by redemptive re-creation (Is 45:18; Rev 7:9; 1 Cor 15:45), and if human fathers with their children, however finitely or imperfectly, image God as the Father of His children (Matt 7:11; Heb 12:7), then many who have welcomed a new life into the world--as I had the tremendous joy of doing last week--have perhaps experienced a faint replica of the joy of heaven as countless chosen sons are reborn and brought to glory (Luke 15:7; Is 62:5). 

Of course, even the highest earthly joys can hang by a thread. The same hospital delivery room has seen many tears of heartache, too. But the Christian's joy, present by faith now (2 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:8) but one day destined to be full by sight (Ps 16:11; Matt 25:21), is everlasting.  Bound up with our eternal inheritance, the joy that flows from the exalted Christ to the saved sinner is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (1 Pet 1:4).  It is the kind of joy that the Spirit infused into Christ's human soul when He contemplated His Father's saving wisdom (Luke 10:21). And it is the kind of joy that sustained Christ's earthly pilgrimage precisely because, as Warfield writes, "He came as a conqueror with the gladness of the imminent victory in his heart."  This joy of the Savior, he goes on to say,

"was not the shallow joy of mere pagan delight in living, nor the delusive joy of a hope destined to failure; but the deep exultation of a conqueror setting captives free. This joy underlay all his sufferings and shed its light along the whole thorn-beset path which was trodden by his torn feet. We hear but little of it, however, as we hear but little of his sorrows: the narratives are not given to descriptions of the mental states of the great actor whose work they illustrate. We hear just enough of it to assure us of its presence underlying and giving its color to all his life. If our Lord was 'the Man of Sorrows,' he was more profoundly still 'the Man of Joy.'" (Warfield, The Emotional Life of our Lord)

Speaking of sorrow and joy, which dimension of Christian living is the more profound among the Christians you know?


Fearless Leader

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Ligon Duncan has published a book called Fear Not, the compilation of several address he gave recently on the topic of death and dying at First Presbyterian Church, Jackson.