Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Armor of God – The Christian Life is a Life of War

Last Tuesday I provided a summary of the Letter to the Ephesians and thus tried to put the latter half of Ephesians 6 in its proper context. In this entry I want to make a case for envisioning the Christian life as a life of war, and the Christian as a warrior. Let’s consider five texts.  

1. Ephesians 6:10-20. In this passage, the Apostle Paul uses the imagery of armor and weaponry. Why would he do that unless he intended for us to dress ourselves for war and fight? Can you imagine a marine taking the time to put on the whole armor of a marine and then just going to the grocery store to buy a gallon of milk? Wouldn’t that be absurd? You don’t need body armor, an M-16, a handgun, a knife, grenades, and mace to buy a gallon of milk!

However, you do need those things to fight a war or to stand up to an enemy, and the same holds true for Christians. The reason we need to put on the whole armor of God and take up the sword of the Spirit is not so that we can settle into a comfortable, middle-class American lifestyle. That would be as absurd as a marine getting fully outfitted just to buy a gallon of milk! No, the reason we need to put on the whole armor of God and take up the sword of the Spirit is so that we can engage in war. To be a Christian is to be a warrior, and therefore one of the main points of Ephesians 6:10-20 is that we must learn to rise up in Christ and fight with all our might!

2. Second Corinthians 10:3-6. The Apostle Paul writes, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.” Again, this language makes no sense if Paul is being merely metaphorical. However, he’s not being merely metaphorical and one of the ways we know that is how he describes his own life in 2 Corinthians 11:23-31:

“Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying.”

Friends, this is a description of a warrior, and so I say again that there is no way Paul is being merely metaphorical when he explicitly takes up the language of war. He means precisely what he says. Now, that doesn’t mean all Christians are called to go through the things Paul went through, but it does mean that all Christians are called to put on the whole armor of God and take up the sword of the Spirit and wage war according to the Spirit. To be a Christian is to be a warrior and therefore we must learn to rise up in Christ and fight with all our might!

3. First Thessalonians 5:1-11. The Apostle Paul writes, “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”

With these words, Paul is highlighting the urgency of the war we’re in, an urgency that arises from and is sustained by the reality of the coming Day in which Jesus Christ will return physically and visibly to this world. However, this time he will come not to make atonement for sins, but to judge all peoples and bring all things to their appointed end. Paul means for meditation on this Day to have at least two effects on our souls. First, he wants it to strike a rightful fear of the Lord into our hearts so that we will pursue holiness and Christ-likeness. Second, he wants it to grip us with a sense of the urgency of the war we’re in. It’s been so long since Jesus first came to the earth that we might be tempted to think he’s not coming back at all, or at least not in our lifetimes. But the truth is that the Lord always keeps his word, although he doesn’t work on our timetables. He could come back at any moment and we would do well to meditate on and feel the force of this fact.

Now, why would Paul raise these issues in this manner if the battle we’re facing is merely metaphorical? Why would he tell the Thessalonians that, since they’ve put on the helmet of salvation and the breastplate of faith and love, they are no longer subject to the wrath of God, which is the final and terrible cost of this war we’re in? Why would he go on to give them several commandments in verses 11-22, each of which is tantamount to an instruction for war? If Paul is not talking about an actual war in which Christians warriors in the Lord, then none of his words make sense.

Friends, in this text, Paul is trying to woo us off the bench and into the battle by helping us see the reality of the second coming of Christ. To be a Christian is to be a warrior and therefore we must learn to rise up in Christ and fight with all our might!

4. First Timothy 6:11-16. “But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen” (emphasis mine).  

Paul says many things to Timothy in these few verses, but it can all be summed up in these words: in light of the reality of Christ, fight the good fight of the faith! Do not be passive. Do not be timid. Do not be lazy. Do not be self-indulgent. Rather, put on the whole armor of God and be an aggressive Christian! Pursue the right things. Take hold of eternal life. Keep the commandments of the Lord unstained and free from reproach. Fight, Timothy, fight!

Now, why would Paul speak to Timothy like in this way if he were not engaged in an actual battle? And why would the Lord have preserved these words for us if we were not engaged in an actual battle? To be a Christian is to be a warrior and therefore we must learn to rise up in Christ and fight with all our might!  

5. Second Timothy 4:6-7. These are among Paul’s last words to Timothy as he was nearing the end of his life: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (emphasis mine). Paul, as a faithful man of God, had come to the end of his life, and as he looked back over it and searched for words to describe it, what came to his mind was this: “I have fought the good fight!” Why? Because that’s the way a warrior thinks and speaks. That’s the kind of language a warrior uses when he reflects on his life. That’s the way a warrior inspires the next generations, namely, by humbly displaying himself as an example of the way they should live. And again, none of this makes sense unless Paul thinks we Christians are actually engaged in a war. Beloved, to be a Christian is to be a warrior and therefore we must learn to rise up in Christ and fight with all our might!

Some of you may be wondering why I’ve gone to such lengths to establish this point. I have two reasons. First, believe it or not, some Christians deny that we’re in a battle and that we must fight with all our might. They argue that Christ has done it all for us and that there’s nothing left for us to do but rest in him. Of course, there’s some truth to this but the work of Christ on our behalf does not mean that we have no part to play. Indeed, the Lord has clearly commanded us at several points to live as warriors and apply everything at our disposal for the sake of his glory and our salvation. In addition to the ones we’ve already considered, the Apostle Paul masterfully balances our part and God’s part in Philippians 2:12-13. I encourage you to slow down and truly savor this text.

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling [you do this, you take up the armor of God, you fight for it—but then verse 13], for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” So it’s true that God has accomplished all things for us in Christ and that he deserves all the glory for this fact. And it’s true that by his mercy he’s given us a part to play, so we must learn to rise up and fight.

The second reason I went to such great lengths to establish this point is because if what I’m saying is true, the implications of these things for our lives are far reaching and serious. If you are in Christ and you spend the next several weeks meditating on the teaching of Ephesians 6:10-20 with me, I cannot imagine that you will come to the conclusion that your life can remain as it is. Even if you’re already a stalwart warrior, even if you’re trained and skilled and practiced in the art of spiritual warfare, you’re going to find things in your life that need to be improved and shifted about or done away with. You will not be able to be remain true to the Word of God and remain as you are.

And if you’re on the opposite end of the scale—if you’re a lazy, self-indulgent, bench-warming, unskilled, flabby warrior, then this teaching is going to call for radical change in your life. This teaching is going to call you, unapologetically, to come out from the world, to take up your cross daily, to die to yourself, to enter into boot-camp, and to become disciplined and skilled and practiced in the art of spiritual warfare.

Now, most likely, the majority of us are somewhere in the middle of the scale between a stalwart warrior and a flabby warrior. This implies that Ephesians 6:10-20 will be both encouraging and challenging to us. It will strengthen us and call on us to change. It will enliven us and call on us to die to ourselves. It will affirm us and call on us to loosen our grip on money, possessions, habits, and even people that are near and dear to us.  

Friends, when a Pastor like me is compelled to call the people of God to difficult things like these because he’s trying to be faithful to the Word of God, he’d better do so carefully. He’d better guard himself against legalism and self-righteousness on the one side, and liberalism and fear of men on the other. He’d better stay close to the Lord by staying close to his Word. And in short, this is why I took so much time to establish the fact that the Christian life is war and Christians are warriors.

Now, as challenging as is this call, the good news is this: when we follow the will and ways of the Lord, we discover true joy in the Lord. When we choose to die to ourselves by the grace of Christ, we find the path to life in Christ. When we choose the narrow way, we find the broadest pleasures in Christ. So, by his grace and for his glory, let’s submit ourselves to his words in Ephesians 6:10-20 and allow him to transform us into the kind of warriors he’s destined us to be.

Our Father, thank you for causing us to know and calling us to fight with all our might by your strength and for your glory. Persuade us with your truth, empower us by your Spirit, and cause us to become what you have destined us to be in Christ. We praise you for how you will transform us, for we ask this in the powerful and patient name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Some Pastoral Implications of Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will

Over the last two Saturdays I’ve written a little bit about Jonathan Edwards’ famous treatise, The Freedom of the Will. I’ll leave it to you to go back and read those entries, and here I will draw out some pastoral implications thereof.

The Apostle Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

I cannot comment at any length on this passage, but the meaning of it is obvious enough. If the will is to be free to choose the highest actual good, the mind must be transformed. And the only way that the mind will be transformed so that it accords with the will of God, is if it be saturated with the Word of God. This saturation takes place by the will of the Father, the finished work of the Son, and the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit, as he uses his people to infuse his people with the knowledge of his will and the desire to do it.

This process is often called discipleship which, like sanctification, may be defined as the process by which believing persons are transformed into the image of their Savior, Jesus Christ. At Glory of Christ Fellowship (GCF), we seek to guide people through the process of discipleship in four distinct ways which we call proclamation, teaching, counseling, and equipping. 

By proclamation we mean that we declare the good news of Jesus Christ to those who do not believe, and thus included in this stage is local evangelism and mercy-ministry, as well as foreign missions. By teaching we mean that we seek to instruct new and seasoned believers to observe everything that Jesus commanded. By counseling we mean that we seek to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly so that we may teach and admonish one another with all wisdom. Thus, counseling for us has a broad application to the life of the church which at times calls for more focused, personal, and intense attention. Finally, by equipping we mean that we seek to impart certain skills for particular ministries, so that each member of the body of Christ can play the part he or she was designed to play, by the will of God, for the glory of God, and for the edification of the church.

Although we have a process for discipleship at GCF, I must hasten to say that we do not trust in our process to bring about the desired effects, namely, the transformation of the minds and hearts of sinners so that they will grow into the fullness of what it means to be saints and, like their Savior, do the will of God from the heart. This is a work that can only be accomplished by the will of the Father, the finished work of the Son, and the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

But what Edwards has helped me to understand with more depth of insight is just how necessary the word and will of God are to the process of sanctification. If the primary pastoral issue facing the men and women in the church—including the pastors—is moral inability, then the primary solution is the regular, accurate, passionate, and authentic teaching and application of the Word of God to the life of the church, by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

And while I could write a book about the pastoral implications I see in this one work of Edwards, I must say that the implications of his thinking for the place of the Word in the life of the church outweighs them all. We simply must have some practical means of renewing the mind so that the will can be free, and it seems to me that the Word of God administered by the Spirit of God is the primary means. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Bible Memory Tip: Use Visualization to Memorize Stories

Last Thursday I shared a basic approach to Bible memory that I’ve used for many years with success and much blessing. I encourage you to go back and read that if you missed it. Over the next several Thursdays, I want to share with you a variety of tips on Bible memory, the first of which is this: when you’re memorizing a story, visualize the flow of the story to help you recall the details of the text.

For example, this winter and early spring, I’m trying to memorize John 13-17, the Upper Room Discourse. So far, I’ve committed chapter 13 to memory and I’m currently working on chapter 14. As I began this blessed and daunting journey, I first read John 13:1-11 out loud several times. Before trying to memorize the details of these verses, I wanted to get the flow and catch the tone of the story. And as I read, I slowly pictured each movement and pondered every word. Then, as the Lord helped me enter into the story through his words and by his Spirit, I began to employ the approach to memorization I shared last week, and in just two days I had memorized verses 1-11, and in another four days I had memorized the whole chapter.

So, let me close this blog out by simply quoting John 13:1-11 and encouraging you to spend some time reading these words and visualizing every aspect of them. Then, when you feel like the Lord has escorted you into the story through his words and by his Spirit, try memorizing one or two verses and see what happens. The Lord might surprise you and lead you to memorize the whole thing!

Whatever the case, I encourage you to heed this counsel: when you’re memorizing a story, visualize the flow of the story to help you recall the details of the text.

1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’ 7 Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.’ 8 Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’ 9 Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10 Jesus said to him, ‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.’ 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, ‘Not all of you are clean’” (John 13:1-11).