“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”
– Romans 6:1-2
If our acceptance before God is based entirely on the righteousness of Christ, and consequently not on our performance, then why should we not sin? If we were just to let ourselves do whatever we wanted, wouldn’t that relieve a lot of pressure? And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that the reason we sin is because we enjoy it. So why not relax a little and get the best of both worlds?
There are many good and valid answers to this question. The one that’s most compelling to me is that when we sin, we don’t get the best of both worlds. When we sin, we force ourselves to miss out on the greatest possible experience of the greatest possible good. In its place, we get something that is both infinitely less valuable and that by its very nature keeps us from that which is best. Any way you cut it, that’s just not worth it.
God is infinitely more valuable than anything that is not God. He is our greatest possible good. And as a Christian, you get to experience this good through the most intimate of all possible relationships: God living through you. You cannot get any closer to God than that. You cannot experience God in any more significant way. To have God express Himself through you is the greatest possible way to get the greatest possible gift. That’s what it means to “walk in newness of life” (v 4). We get to do that! People who haven’t died to sin are “free in regard to righteousness” (v 20) – that is, they are free from life. All they get is what’s left over when life is taken out of the picture, which is a rotten deal.
Grace is God’s gift of himself to sinners. When we see that sin keeps us from what’s best, and that we have been freed from sin so that we can have what’s best in the most profound, personal, intimate way possible, then the idea that we should sin to increase grace becomes self-contradictory. Sin keeps us from enjoying what grace gives us. The nature of sin is such that you cannot enjoy both God and sin at the same time. When we’re faced with temptation, we’re faced with a choice: the easy, temporary, God-excluding pleasure of death, or the difficult, eternal, death-excluding pleasure of life.
What shall we say then?
Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.
– Ephesians 5:15-16
As we prepare to travel to Poland, I’m reminded of the lives that have been radically and unexpectedly altered during the last hundred years of that country’s history. I wonder how many Polish citizens – especially Jews – were taken totally by surprise when Hitler’s rampage overflowed into their country in 1939? How many successful businesses and comfortable lives were crushed without warning? And in how many ways were those people a lot like us?
The war in which our country is engaged is one that rarely touches most of us. For all practical purposes, we live in a time of peace. We’re free to come and go as we please, pursue our dreams, engage in business and pleasure, raise families, or travel the world (or explore it from home). And we generally expect things to stay that way.
But the fact is that we don’t know what our lives will be like tomorrow. We don’t know what our nation will be like tomorrow. That’s hard to grasp, living in a place where change generally doesn’t happen. I’m not espousing some kind of conspiracy theory, and I don’t really expect things to literally get turned upside down tomorrow. But history has proven over and over that things often change much more quickly and dramatically than people expect them to.
This reality could lead to paranoia, or it could lead us to a sense of thankfulness and dependence and urgency. We live in a time of unprecedented privilege and opportunity. Whether that changes six months from now or stays the same way for the rest of our lives, we’ll give an account for what we did with it. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required” (Luke 12:48). That’s us.
We need to ask the Lord for a healthy sense of our own mortality. Not one that will throw us into a panic, but one that will wake us up, that will allow us to live wisely. I think that’s what Moses was after in Psalm 90:12: “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” Only this kind of wisdom will allow us to make the most of our time. We need to remember that “the days are evil” even when the days are easy.
This idea of living intentionally and redeeming the time is one of the big ideas we’re hoping to communicate about parenting while we’re in Poland. That’s why the title we’re using for our parenting seminars is “Parenting on Purpose”. Please pray that we would both teach and learn about these things in helpful and refreshing ways. Thanks for partnering with us in this effort!
Today we launched a new site designed to help fight the desperate hunger problem in Haiti. The Jr. Highers at Community Christian School (where I get to teach the Bible class) have a bunch of creative ideas about how to raise both money and awareness with regard to this issue, and we’re hopeful that FeedHaiti.com will be a helpful tool in accomplishing that goal. Take a look!
“These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”
- John 16:33
Life is hard. We often have to endure physical, mental and emotional pain, and sometimes all at once. We want life to be easy, or at least to work. But life is not easy, and life is often messy. Just when you think you’ve got life figured out and neatly arranged for yourself, some unforeseen problem jumps out from around a corner and makes a mess of all your plans. And it’s usually not cancer or bankruptcy or your teenage son announcing that he’s pretty sure he’s a woman. Once in a while those big things come around and really nail us, but it’s usually something more subtle. And many times it doesn’t come from outside, but from within, which is why we don’t see it coming until it’s too late.
In this world, Jesus says, we have trouble. And I find that the primary source of my trouble in this world is something I can’t escape as long as I’m in this world. It’s me. No matter where I go, and no matter what circumstances I arrange for myself, there I am with myself, just waiting to mess up my life again. Other people help, but I am the primary source. Perhaps, if you look closely, you’ll find that your experience is similar. Maybe you can relate, as I can, with Paul’s complaint: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24)
And in addition to making life hard for myself, I often make life hard for others. I don’t want to, but somehow I manage to anyway. And that makes life all the harder for me. Especially when I don’t want to admit that it was my fault, or when I’m insistent on justifying it because I’m sure the person I’ve hurt has done even more to make life difficult for me. Sound familiar?
There may come a time in your life when you are crushed under this reality. If you’re anything like me, you don’t want life to be hard. You’re willing for certain aspects of life to be hard, provided they either end soon or make life easier in the long run. But what does your heart do when you consider the possibility that you may not get a long, early retirement in a peaceful coastal village with a tropical climate? And what if you realize that even if you do, you’re going to have to take yourself with you?
I don’t say all this just to turn us into a bunch of pessimistic navel-gazers. I say it to help us come to terms with what Jesus has promised us. Because sometimes coming to terms with the promise that life will be hard is the first step toward taking hold of the promise that Jesus connects with it. And we must never stop at the first promise. We must not simply become cold, joyless stoics, determined simply to endure life even if it kills us. Though we can’t make sense out of it all yet, we must keep looking to that greater reality that governs our present problems – Jesus has overcome the world, and he’s done it for us. So we can (and must) take courage.
These things he has spoken to us, so that in Him we may have peace.
Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
- Hebrews 13:7-8
When Scripture speaks of the faith that should motivate us to live for Christ, it speaks almost exclusively of a forward-looking faith. Backward-looking faith, including things like gratitude for past blessings, is important, as we will see. But when Scripture speaks of the kind of faith that should drive godly behavior, it almost always speaks of faith in what God has promised for the future. At the same time, Scripture speaks repeatedly about the importance of backward-looking faith, as it does even in this passage. And the connection between past-based faith, future-based faith and motivation is an important one. The only way we will live the kind of life God calls us to live is if we trust him for the future. And one of the most important ways to build trust in the future promises of God is by looking to the past. We look back for the purpose of looking forward.
In this case, the writer of Hebrews is urging us to look back on those who have benefited us spiritually by teaching the word of God to us. This can apply both to those who have taught us directly and to those who have handed the word of God down through past centuries. Whether we have known them personally or have been separated from them by many years, the lives of those who have faithfully taught the word of God have a powerful lesson to teach us.
But their lesson is not about them. Notice that we are not called specifically to imitate them, but to imitate their faith. Their conduct was a result of their faith, and we are to imitate that faith so that our conduct will be like their conduct, and will be used by the Lord to produce the same result. Look at what the writer says about them: their faith produced conduct which produced a result. We are supposed to consider the result, because when we see how valuable the result was, we will recognize the value of what produced it. The result was produced by a particular type of conduct, which was produced by a particular type of faith. And their faith is what we are supposed to imitate.
The question then becomes, what was so great about their faith? Was it, in some general way, their elevated ability to believe? Did they possess some kind of psychological or personal holistic superiority? Are they a particularly good example for us simply because they could rightly be described as people of eminent faith? To extend the question one step further, could we benefit in this way from the example of faith found in sincere Muslims or Hindus or atheists?
The simple answer is no, and the reason is simple. Faith has no value in and of itself. It is only as valuable as its object, and only as a way to take hold of its object. Faith could perhaps be described as a hand that takes hold of unseen things for us. If the unseen things of which it takes hold are valuable, then that faith is worthwhile. On the other hand, if it connects us to things that are either illusions or dangerous, then the faith itself is empty at best and destructive at worst. This is very important to keep in mind in a society where faith is treated as an unqualified virtue regardless of its object.
Perhaps a different example would be helpful. Imagine yourself using a metal detector on a beach, when all of a sudden the device begins responding to something. You begin to dig, and the beeping grows louder. Suddenly, two feet or so under the sand, you hit something solid. After some effort, you unearth a large, flat metal box, clasped tightly shut. You take it home, and as carefully as possible, you loosen the clasps. The box is shut in such a way as to be completely airtight, and when you finally open it, what you find amazes you. It is a large painting – a portrait – of a somber looking old man sitting in a straight-backed chair. At the bottom of the portrait is the signature – “Whistler”. Some eager phone calls to art galleries confirm that you have evidently unearthed a work long thought to have been lost: Whistler’s Father. The painting is perfectly preserved, and is virtually priceless. You are the first person to have seen it for at least a hundred years. (And as far as you know, you are the first person in history to have found something of significant value while searching a beach with a metal detector.)
What would you do? What would people think of you if you were to call an art gallery and offer to put yourself on display with your metal detector? A sufficiently avant-garde gallery might be interested for the sheer absurdity of it, but what would a normal gallery really be interested in? Not in you as the finder, or in your metal detector as the tool by which you found it, but in the treasure itself. And this is the way it works with faith. Like a metal detector, faith has the potential to connect us with great hidden treasure. And like a metal detector, faith is only valuable if it actually accomplishes this. The superiority of faith over a metal detector is a question of degree. The treasure to be apprehended by faith is infinitely more valuable than a priceless work of art.
This story reminds me of a comedian who thought it would be fun to bury metal objects on the beach with things like “you’re a loser” or “get a life” written on them. Faith is similar to a metal detector in that it has the potential to connect us with unseen treasures. On the same token, if a metal detector points us to a tin can with “you’re a loser” written on it, or perhaps to a land mine, such a device would be either worthless or hazardous. It is only worth what it gets for us. And it works the same way with faith.
And all this fits with exactly where this passage points us. The faith of those who taught us about Christ was great, but not because they were simply great people of faith. Their faith in Christ was great because Christ is great. Their faith in Christ produced service to Christ, which produced a result empowered by Christ. To phrase things as Jesus did, their abiding in him produced lasting fruit (John 15:4-16). This is abundantly clear from verse 8. The reason we are to look back on the lives of faithful believers and imitate their faith is that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”. The Jesus who was faithful and sufficient and merciful and holy and wise and loving in the past for men like Abraham and Paul and William Tyndale and John Newton is the same Jesus who will be all those things for you and me today and tomorrow and forever. Consider the results of their conduct, and imitate their faith in him.
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel, for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal; but the word of God is not imprisoned. For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.
- 2 Timothy 2:8-10
Paul, conscious that he is very near to the end of his earthly life, is writing to Timothy about what motivates him to endure his difficult circumstances. He is imprisoned as a criminal, which would have been frustrating at multiple levels. We don’t know exactly what form this imprisonment took – he could have been in a rat-infested dungeon, or he could simply have been chained to a soldier under house arrest. Either way, this is something we would prefer to have changed. But even more frustrating than his physical condition would have been the limitations his condition placed on his ability to advance the gospel. How much can you really do when you’re in chains?
Yet Paul understands that even though he is severely restricted by his imprisonment, the word of God is under no such restrictions. It will both go where the Lord wants it to go and do what the Lord wants it to do. It cannot be held captive. In fact, God had even used Paul’s imprisonment to advance the gospel (Phil. 1:12-14). And once God’s word is sent out, it has power to break through otherwise impenetrable walls to both reach and change peoples’ hearts. Hebrews 4:12 reminds us that “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
The fact that God’s word is not imprisoned drives Paul to “endure all these things”. And he includes in this statement of endurance a paradoxical idea. He says he endures all these things “for the sake of those who are chosen”. It’s clear enough in Scripture that God has chosen some for salvation from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4); but the problem is with the way we naturally respond to this. If God is so completely and unchangeably in control of this, why would we bother to exert any effort or make any sacrifice to be involved with the process? Why would we endure anything, if our lack of endurance won’t change either God’s plan or his ability to execute it?
But Paul doesn’t demand an answer that question. In fact, he is energized by the fact that he is privileged to participate in the infallible plan of God. He is not paralyzed by the mystery. Instead, he is energized by the opportunity.
God’s word cannot be kept inside stone walls or outside of them. It is not imprisoned. It has power that cannot be withstood by any force. And God has chosen that his word should reach the hearts of certain people. He has made an unalterable decree that people would be reached by an unstoppable power. And we get to be a part of that. We get to be on the winning team, and experience the power of the grace of God firsthand as we see it change lives. Let’s embrace both mystery and opportunity, and endure all these things for the sake of those who are chosen – whoever they may be.
Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you, ” so that we confidently say, “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me? ”
- Hebrews 13:5-6
The love of money is a dangerous thing. If we were to make a list of the sins we consider the most serious, love for money might easily be left off that list. Compared to the “big” sins, this one seems fairly mundane to us. Yet the love of money is insidious. Like carbon monoxide, it can kill you before you even recognize its presence. It can “plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9). Judas serves as a graphic example of this reality.
We know that in order for harmful desires to be defeated, they cannot simply be suppressed. They need to be replaced by something superior. In this passage, the replacement for the love of money is “being content with what you have”. And we have a lot. Even with all of the financial stresses that most of us deal with, God has supplied us materially with far more than we actually need to survive. He has provided us with many good things to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17).
But is that what is meant here by “what you have”? Is he giving us the same talk that we give our kids about how thankful the starving kids in Liberia would be to have a fraction of what we’ve got? If he is, we’re left with a serious problem. The problem lies in the fact that all that stuff can be taken from us, and that if it is taken from us, the instruction to be content with what we have still stands.
So do we have a foundation for contentment that will remain in place even if our material possessions are stripped from us? We do, and the writer of Hebrews makes it clear what he’s intending: we are to be content with what we have, “for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you’”. In other words, what we’re called to be content with is God. And not only is God infinitely superior to every earthly blessing we have, but He has also promised that He will never be taken from us.
When we take hold of the fact that our one infinitely superior Treasure can never be taken from us, contentment will be established and fear will be destroyed. For if God is for us, what can anyone else do to us? They can take away many things from us, but only those things which will soon be taken from us anyway. They can take our money but not our treasure, our house but not our home, our head but not our life. They cannot separate us from the love and grace of God, which He will put on display by showing kindness to us in Christ forever (Ephesians 2:7).
A voice says, “Call out.”
Then he answered, “What shall I call out?”
All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
When the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.
Get yourself up on a high mountain,
O Zion, bearer of good news,
Lift up your voice mightily,
O Jerusalem, bearer of good news;
Lift it up, do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
- Isaiah 40:6-9
Woven through Isaiah 40 are the corresponding themes of man’s frailty and God’s sufficiency. Verse 8, which we so often see on pretty little plaques in people’s hallways, takes on much greater significance when we recognize what is being referred to by the statement “the grass withers, the flower fades”. It’s not talking about grass and flowers; it’s talking about us! “All flesh is grass” (v 6); “Surely the people are grass” (v 7); even the greatest figures in humanity are scarcely able to take root in the ground before “He merely blows on them, and they wither” (v 24).
This is not good news for those looking for the typical kind of self-esteem. But there is better news available to us – namely, that God offers His sufficiency to us. We see this in verse 9 with the proclamation that was to be proclaimed from the top of a mountain: “Here is your God!” This is the answer to all our problems, the provision for all our needs; and yet how reluctant we often are to accept this as our solution. I want to look to myself for the answer. I want to be self-sufficient, because that will allow me to be self-governing. But grass is not self-governing, no matter how much it would like to be.
When we find ourselves attempting to practice self-dependence, and God puts us in a situation that’s beyond our personal capacity to handle, it’s easy to assume that God is not being fair. If God expects me to handle a given situation in a way that’s pleasing to Him, and I can’t see how it’s possible for me to do that (either because I can’t figure out the proper method or because I lack the strength to do it), I can easily develop the sense that God is calling me to do something that is impossible – which would, of course, be unreasonable. But what I need to recognize is that it’s only impossible in one sense, and that it’s altogether possible in another sense. I simply need to be humble enough to take hold of that other sense, by taking hold of the supply that God offers me.
Those who “grow weary and tired” and who “stumble badly” (v 30) are called to wait for the Lord. The question is, how long? Sometimes the answer is, until your point of absolute need. God often doesn’t supply our need until we actually need it, lest we continue to operate under the mistaken assumption that we devised a way to have our needs met. It is only when we have walked through a situation with the conscious knowledge that we are personally insufficient to handle it, that we are maximally free to recognize God’s sufficiency in our weakness, and to reflect the glory to Him.
Our tendency is to either see ourselves as tireless, strong and immortal, or to become despondent when we experience our own frailty – to say either “I can do it”, or “I can’t do it”. Neither of these statements is sufficient in itself. Each, left on its own, will dishonor God.
Our hope is not in man, who is grass. But there is hope for man in God. We are frail, weak and temporary. But God’s strength can make us into something useful. Our hope is in God’s transfer of His tirelessness to us.
We see in this passage the picture of an incomprehensibly powerful, conquering sovereign who merely blows on the rulers of the earth and they wither like grass, and who counts the nations as nothing in comparison with Himself; and interwoven with these descriptions of absolute sovereignty are promises that He will direct that power wholeheartedly toward the benefit of His people.
It scares me, on the one hand, to consider what the next impossible-for-me situation might be. When will the next tragic death happen? When will I next be faced with a counseling situation that’s out of my league? When will my wife reveal to me something in my life that needs to change? When will the pressures of family, ministry, education, and the details of life next pile so high that my calendar simply won’t fit them all? When will one of these items slip, and create major problems?
Life is intimidating, and I am insufficient in myself to handle it. And yet I do not ultimately lack access to the sufficiency, because God promises to provide it for me. Maybe not when I want, or by the means I want, but when I really need it, and by means which will reflect most effectively the source of the supply.
Scripture is full of examples of individuals called on to do things for which they felt personally ill-equipped. Jeremiah’s response to God’s call on His life was “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” God’s response to Jeremiah was that his personal capacity was not the issue. God directed his life, and God would supply what he needed. An even more profound example is found in Moses’ call to return to Egypt. Moses objected and/or excused himself from this call at least four times in the course of his conversation with God. And his constant objection had to do with himself. God never corrected Moses’ sense of personal inadequacy; rather, He promised over and over to be adequate for him. On the one hand, I can’t imagine arguing with a miracle-working burning bush; on the other hand, I’m sure I do similar things all the time, and on the same basis that Moses used. With him, I am called to look away from myself to the One who is sufficient to supply the otherwise impossible.
For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.
– 2 Corinthians 5:14-15
Who are you living for? Or to rephrase it for English teachers, for whom are you living? Either way, when you make decisions about how you’re going to spend the next twenty minutes or the next twenty years, whose priorities drive those decisions? Do you make those decisions with a conscious awareness of the fact that you belong to someone other than yourself?
In our culture, possibly more than in any other, we bristle at the idea of being owned by someone. We’re not used to absolute authority. In our world of at-will employment and no-fault divorce, we’re unaccustomed to permanent relationships that require us to serve another without condition. But Scripture makes it clear that we are in just such a relationship. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 describes this by telling us that we are not our own, because we have been bought with a price.
Much could be said about the fact that we are owned by Christ. But for now, it is worth simply considering the fundamental fact that we belong to Him and not to ourselves. We are not volunteers or independent contractors or employees. In the happiest imaginable way, we are His property. Therefore, His will takes absolute precedence over our own.
This passage makes it clear that this relationship has been brought about by Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf. Christ’s work for us should result in our living for Him, and it’s important to understand just how these two things are connected. Our motivation to live for Him is not simply a matter of gratitude, but of ownership. It’s one thing to serve someone who has paid your debts. It’s another thing to serve someone who has purchased you.
It is also important to remember that while Christ’s will is the ruling principle in our lives, we are still called to make real decisions. We don’t have every required step of our lives listed out for us. But we are to make those decisions in light of the priorities of the One to whom we belong, and to whom we will each give an account.
And what is the central priority of that One? It is love – first to God, and then to man. So this living for the One who died for us is another way of describing the idea of being controlled by the love of Christ. Christ died and rose again for us, so that we might be united to His death and resurrection, and might as a result live a life that is subject to His universal rule. In other words, a life controlled by the love of Christ.
May we prayerfully pursue this life together by the power of His Spirit and His Word.