The Spirit-empowered life

“Walk by the Spirit” Galatians 5:16

“Walk by the Spirit.” I daresay that you’ve heard of it by the hearing of the ear, but I wonder, have you seen it? Does it look like shaking with a seizure or losing all control? Does it sound like shouting in worship? No, walking by the Spirit is none of those things. It is a much more, shall we say, spiritual thing than those very bodily and visible activities I have just listed.

Moving onto what it is, we know that it is first of all a very necessary thing. It is the key to holiness (v. 16-24). It is most desirable, for in it is found the key to real spiritual power and joy and all sanctification. In other words, you need this today.

As to how it is done, thankfully Paul gives us a clue in verse 25. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” Do we live by the Spirit? If we are believers we do. How, then, did we receive this Spirit that we live by? Paul told us just a bit ago in this same letter: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:2). The implied answer is obvious. We live by the Spirit by hearing with faith.

How then do we attain the Spirit’s ongoing power on our little lives, a.k.a. walk by him? In the same way that we received his majestic presence in the first place: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:5). This is how we walk by the Spirit, by hearing with faith.

Work it out and you will see that sanctification is by faith alone. Indeed, the faith that sanctifies is never alone, and so we work out our salvation with fear and trembling through the obedience of faith. But we do so by the ongoing power of the Spirit of God attained by means of hearing with faith.

Very well. But, hearing what with faith? Well, that is the favorite theme of all God’s preachers and of all God’s inspired penmen and of the Spirit who himself inspired them and of the mature old widow upon whom his power rests: “Jesus Christ…crucified” (Gal. 3:1). Or, as Paul has it for himself, “The Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20).

Now you try it. Commune with the One who died and rose in your place to give you eternal life as a most free gift of God’s amazing love for you, a hell-deserving wretch. See if beholding him in all his free mercy does not supply you with great spiritual power to overcome the sin in your life today. And then you will know what it really means to live a Spirit-empowered life.

Seasons

“A word in season, how good it is!” Proverbs 15:23

Not everyone is fortunate enough to experience all four seasons in full force. In Minneapolis, it is true, old Jack Frost mayhaps overstay his welcome at times, but we are at least favored with real winter, and, more to the point, real fall.

The turning of the seasonal tides always reminds me of an old Nas lyric:

In a Lex watchin Kathie Lee and Regis
My actions are one with the seasons

You may hate all things pumpkin spice (it is, after all, that time of year) but, I daresay you can at least appreciate the love of things that are in step with the season. A fireside hot chocolate is out of season in July, but most delicious in December. One can hardly think of frosty lemonade in the haunts of January’s strength, but is there anything more refreshing in the blast of August’s humidity?

Well, when it comes to seasons, there is nothing so fitting as a word in season. What is a word in season? The first line of our verse offers some help: “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man” (Proverbs 15:23). The idea is that of an answer when it is needed. Thinking of what you might have said after the fact is no use at all, at least not to that conversation. It is the word in the moment, the fitting word, the answering word, that carries most weight, that is most good.

The Lord is faithful to send us words in season, or, to put it another way, at the times when we need them most. A good book is always good, but a good book read in season becomes nearly inspired. The same is true of sermons and even words from other believers. If you’ve been walking with Christ for any amount of time, I’m sure you have experienced this and can exclaim with Solomon, How good it is!

But, is there any way to improve our chances, so to speak, of finding words in season? There is, and it is really very simple. We must fill our hearts and minds with Scripture now. For, you see, if you have God’s word at the fingertips of your heart, the appropriate word will always be ready to present itself. We may even think of this as a way of taking dominion, ahead of time, over the various seasons of our lives.

Store up readiness for all seasons by storing the word of God in your heart today.

What Pastor Luke is reading: Richard Muller

Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, to be perfectly specific. Sounds like a mouth full—and it is—but I'm finding that it's really a head full. Muller is P.J. Zondervan Professor of Historical Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids and is a premier scholar on the theology and theological method of those who came after the Reformers. I would like to share three benefits I'm receiving from his work.

It's challenging

I'm used to reading Puritans like Owen and Charnock, but I'm not as used to the modern scholarly flavor of this kind of historical theology. It has been demanding, and I love that. It's making me think. It's making me reexamine my theological presuppositions. More than anything it's letting me know how very much I have to learn.

It's edifying

It is building up my faith. God's truth is exquisitely majestic and the great theological prowess of our spiritual forebears hunted down that glory in God's revelation. Great minds revolved the mighty themes of Scripture and produced pristine theological system. The wonder, the unsearchableness, the riches, the privilege of having the disclosure of the living God in Christ is being driven into my heart anew.

It's true

The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is his bride, and he has been faithful to sanctify her over the centuries. We've heard it ad nauseam, "We stand on the shoulders of giants," but it's true. We are not reinventing the wheels of truth and error in the year of our Lord 2018. No, we are building upon the Herculean excavations and Michelangelonian productions of many workmen gone before. We benefit tremendously from the Lord's work through them, his gifts to his church (Eph. 4:11).

What are you reading?

Cross-check: Real Bereans

"The Bereans cross-checked Paul hard." Such ran a popular meme I saw some time ago. It expresses our common understanding of the noble Bereans and their conduct. The idea itself is correct: we need to examine teachers by the word of God to make sure what they're saying is biblical. But it's the spirit of the meme, and of our common use of this text, that is wrong. I'd like to do some cross-checking of my own here, because we're cheating ourselves out of something noble and wonderful. Let's look at the text:

"The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so." Acts 17:10-11 

The Thessalonian Jews, with whom the Bereans are contrasted. were skeptical in the way we commonly mean.

They distrusted Paul. Their posture toward his preaching was one of skepticism and doubt. This should be our exact posture toward false teachers. Believers can smell when something is wrong, for "they do not know the voice of strangers" (John 10:5). It is then that we must, ironically, adopt a posture more similar to that of the Thessalonian Jews. A more suitable text for this is Isaiah 8:20: "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn." Indeed, cross-check false teachers hard with the word when they come with their mutterings.

The Bereans weren't skeptical. At least not in the way we mean.

What made the Bereans noble was how they received Paul's preaching. It's the vibe that I think we miss here. Their posture wasn't negative, it was positive. Their hearts readily drank up what he said: "They received the word [that Paul spoke] with all eagerness..." The Bereans sat under such mind-blowing gospel preaching that they had to pinch themselves with Scripture to make sure they weren't dreaming. Now that's a Berean of a rather different sort, isn't it? They cross-checked their disbelief hard with the cross of Jesus Christ in all of Scripture. 

No earthly prosperity or fleshly doctrine ever hits the hearts of believers in this way, but the eternal gospel of God's free grace to miserable God-hating wretches does. So be a real Berean. Sit under the the kind of preaching that makes you sift through the Bible every day to see if God's grace is really that amazing.

Spoiler alert: It is. 

30 by 30

"Ye have not, because ye ask not." James 4:2

It has become a proverb that the last thing we think to do in any situation is to pray. An emergency appears, calling us to immediate action, which we all too gladly answer without first going to God for help and counsel. There seems to be, running alongside of this, a corollary in regards to things that we need. We wonder why we do not have what we need or even righteously desire, and the answer is so easy that we miss it: We have not because we ask not.

I rarely get biographical in these meditations, but I am after all a pastor of a church whose website you are current perusing. This church happens to be called Redeeming Cross Community Church in Minneapolis, MN. We are like any other relatively new church plant: in need of grace and, quite honestly, grace in the form of numbers. We are unspeakably grateful for our members, and yet we also need more.

Rather than spend months wringing our hands over this need, we have decided to take direct aim at the problem with direct prayer to God. Specific prayer. To be perfectly honest, we have already experienced this sort of thing in the annals of our own history. A few years ago we began praying for ten new households to join the church. Much to our surprise (which unmasked our unbelief), both individuals and families started showing up to church. And then they kept coming back. And then they wanted to join. In fact, one of our elders came from this incoming group. We installed a nice group into membership some time later and rejoiced greatly. However, somewhere along the way, we stopped praying.

Well, we are going to start praying again, and this time we're praying for 30 new members by December 30 (which happens to be the last Sunday on our present lease at Anthony Middle School). 30 by 30. This is not an ultimatum; it is the kind of specific request which we believe our most bountiful God delights in. Members, begin praying every day! Friends, would you please pray with us, that we might rejoice together in the Lord's amazing goodness to Redeeming Cross and to all of his churches? Indeed, start praying more specifically in your own life as well.

After all, it may very well be the case that you have not, simply because you ask not.

The Divine Spotter

"Like a father who looks upon his child in a difficult and dangerous business,—knows that he can relieve him when he pleases, but would willingly see him try his strength and cunning,—lets him alone until perhaps the child thinks himself quite lost, and wonders his father doth not help him; but when the condition comes to be such that, without help, he will be lost indeed, instantly the father puts in his hand and saves him. So deals the Lord Jesus with his house,—lets it oftentimes strive and wrestle with great oppositions, to draw out and exercise all the graces thereof; but yet all this while he looketh on, and when danger is nigh indeed, he is not far off." John Owen

I was deeply impressed by these words while reading a John Owen sermon last night. I would like to improve them to us with a comment or two.

Heavenly exercise 

Every trial that the Lord Jesus sends our way is by design. I think we all know that trials are intended by God to conform us to the image of his Son, but I wonder if we've thought about this in specifics. The trial is sent to bring forth fruit in us, the fruit of righteousness. In other words, trials are designed to isolate and exercise areas of grace that would otherwise go unworked and unstrengthened. 

This casts whatever struggle we face in its right light: it is a divinely designed workout, a heaven-sent sparring partner bearing the divine commission to expose and work our weakness. In this way the Lord is our personal fitness trainer to exercise us in specific godliness. Athletes understand working their weakness into strength; artists do as well. We, beloved, are God's soldiers, his workmanship. Perhaps you are lacking in patience, or kindness, or boldness. He is faithful to bring these graces into spiritual exercise and strength by sending you the very opposition you need. And by and by, through a life of battle, we are grown strong in his power.

The Lord stands by

But we need some leverage, some spiritual brace, in order to really trust ourselves to God's work in us, and that belt of truth to support us in trial is that he is always near to us. If we face real danger and real ruin, he stands by to save us. We are safe in his hand and under his tutelage; in fact there is no safer place to be. Rest assured that no matter the trial, he is with us and will strengthen us through it, and will deliver us from any real spiritual danger. There is no space for concern that he will work us to death; he will only work us into life and life abundant. Our heavenly spotter will not allow the weight of trial to crush us; thus we can safely throw ourselves into the exercise.

Owen applies this to the church, both universal and local. And this is the comfort for God's people: he will send us what whatever trials we need and nothing more. He is our heavenly watchman who will not suffer his cause to go untriumhpant in this world. His people will endure, and his local churches will be upheld by his mighty hand. He is not far off. In this we take great comfort, and in this we press forward into whatever he sends our way.

How to persevere in the faith

Long years are a better judge of our beliefs than a statement of faith, for the years are the statement spelled out in blood, sweat, and tears. I am less impressed with flashy theological knowledge than I have ever been. What I look for now—what I long for!—is a life seasoned by God's grace over the long haul. It is to me the true marvel of theology.

The author of Hebrews puts it for us like this: "You have need of endurance" (10:36). Who has need of endurance? We do. Every saint on this side of glory has need of endurance. I would like to answer our question—How can we persevere in the faith?—by putting two or three questions to our text:

What kind of endurance is this?

We might say it is endurance in obedience, for he immediately says, "so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised." We must carry out the will of God, which is our walking with him unto the end. This may come to the new saint with joy, because they are just perhaps finding their legs in the great race. Glory to God! The marathon to them is yet swift. But to the weathered saint, it is perhaps heard more as it should be: as a weighty and intimidating task, even an impossible one. This is the endurance we seek, and every true saint has felt their need of it.

What fuels this endurance?

Faith. It is faith that drives this impossible race. In fact, if we look more closely at the passage we will find that faith is the actual endurance. The obedience will take care of itself. It is a byproduct and fruit of saving faith.

The author says, "Do not throw away your confidence, which has great reward." (v. 35). Confidence is synonymous with faith here, and so we see that it is faith that brings the reward. "The will of God" that promises reward in our verse then appears as it really is, faith, or, confidence. You see, it is faith. He quotes Habakkuk, through whom God says, "my righteous one shall live by faith" (v. 38). He again says, "We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve theirs souls." (v. 39). This is the perseverance that counts.

Have the promises of God lost your confidence? Has your heart begun, ever so slightly though it may be, to doubt that God's word is exactly as he says? The exhilaration of conversion is far behind, and you have settled into what is likely an outwardly very normal life. Perhaps the towering mountain of countless days that stand between you and the finish line have begun to shake your confidence in the God who has promised to get you through to the end. You see, we have great need of endurance.

How to strengthen our confidence in God

The inspired author of Hebrews knows how to strength our confidence in God. He proceeds immediately to one of the most beloved chapters in the Bible: what has been called The Hall of Faith. Saint after ancient saint is placed before us for the consideration of our souls. And their lives all bear one commonality: they were declared righteous by faith in the coming promise of God, who is Christ, and they endured in this faith. They only saw his coming from afar, but they saluted him nonetheless, and went down with their nose to the east.

You may stoke the smoldering flame of your weakening confidence with the lightened coals of Abel and Noah and Abraham. Sarah is there to teach you a thing or two about real faith in the midst of doubt. Moses did great feats, slaying the dragon of worldly pleasure for the treasure of suffering with Christ, for he believed. All of these, and an Old Testament more, are here to encourage us. Did God let any of them down?

And not only this, but we have all the New Testament saints to consider as well. Visit Paul and Silas in their dark dungeon and stand in amazement as they sing mighty praises. What fueled this wonder? For the more adventurous types, go sailing with Luke and suffer shipwreck in a world without satellite or radio. Serve the saints with Lydia and walk on water with Peter. You see, there are worlds of faith in which to spark our weakening faith to flame.

And not only this, but we have each other. Talk to believers and ask them about God's fulfilled promises. Talk to old saints about the long years of faithfulness; ask them if they've ever seen the righteous begging for bread. Talk to the brand new believer about the powerful promises of God to forgive sin and embrace all who flee to Christ as his own children. I challenge you to come out of these strange encounters of the faith kind discouraged.

And so, this is how we persevere in the faith: TOGETHER.

What is family worship? And how to start doing it.

Family worship. It has a nice puritanical ring to it, doesn't it? That's what I like about it. But the Puritans didn't invent family worship; God did.

What is family worship?

Family worship is a nickname for the biblical truth that fathers are to be spiritual leaders in their homes. They are both to wash their wives in the word and bring their children up in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Family worship facilitates these things.

While family discipleship should happen as we go here and there together (Deut. 6:7), there is great value in dedicated time together before God. A gifted minster and teacher in our own day has gone so far as to say that family worship is the most important thing he does.

How to start doing it

Family worship sounds intimidating but it really isn't. It consists of four or five simple elements that any of us can begin to practice immediately. It will be awkward at first, but you and your kids will quickly fall in love with it.

1. Read the word.

Start in Genesis, or start in Matthew. Or start anywhere. Read through books of the Bible, a chapter a day or so. Pray before you read and ask God to teach you.

2. Talk about the word.

If anything stuck out to you as you read, talk about it. Ask your wife if anything stuck out to her. Ask your kids if they have any thoughts or questions. Sometimes we talk for a few minutes; sometimes we don't talk much at all. 

3. Pray together.

Pray in line with the chapter you just read. Pray for God to apply its truth to your hearts, and form your children by it. Take requests. Here is also a great opportunity to keep consistent requests before God. It is wonderful to be able to tell people, "We are praying for you as a family."

4. Sing.

Keep it simple. If you have little ones you may begin by singing the doxology. You are free to introduce other songs or spice it up with Psalms. 

5. Catechism. 

Some folks do catechism with their kids during family worship; others do it separately. There are wonderful first catechisms to begin working through with your children (we use the Prove It Catechism). It's a great discussion piece as you are out and about or just sitting around. These truths will stick with your children for life.

Ten minutes or so later, and that's it! There is a desire in you as a Christian man to lead your family spiritually. Family worship is a simple and most excellent way to begin; it also serves as a launch pad for doing so in all your family life. If you are a single mother, this is a perfect way for you to lead your children as well. Do it after dinner, do it before bed. In any case ...

Start family worship today!

What Pastor Luke is reading: The Works of John Owen

'Whenever I return to read Owen I find myself at least in part wondering why I spend time reading lesser things." In these few words I think Sinclair Ferguson has gathered up the sentiments of all who have spent serious time reading the Prince of Puritans. There are racier, more colorful, pithy penmen, but there is none who is more substantial. If theology is art, John Owen is a stark realist, producing vivid, I almost said living, writings. 

Anyone who knows me knows I'm an Owen head. There is no doubt he was one cool cat, strolling from his firearm-stocked apartment in thigh-length Spanish boots and freshly powdered hair. A dangerous dandy, it seems. He saw the ups and downs of that older world and of the Puritan era. His bride Mary bore eleven children, ten of whom died in infancy. He served as chaplain to Protector Cromwell and delivered sermons to high officials from the midst of political upheaval.

The complete works of John Owen stretch 24 sizable volumes, including his massive commentary on Hebrews and perhaps an Arkenstone among the many gems of his works, what is commonly called his Biblical Theology, which mined the material from which later men like Geerhardus Vos matured the theological discipline by that name. While he is most well-known in our day for his Mortification of Sin, a most excellent and mature, experiential, searching work, his Glory of ChristCommunion with God, and Exposition of Psalm 130 are truly remarkable. Word counts would fail to speak of The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, A Dissertation on Divine Justice, Animadversions on 'Fiat Lux', and even A Review of Annotations of Grotius. Heavy-sounding titles; heavy indeed, and filled with light. 

I have skipped around a bit in my reading of these old books and recently picked up volume 8 which is a compilation of sermons delivered on various occasions. I'm reading slowly and meditatively. By spending time with Dr. Owen over the years, my grasp of the administration of God's grace has been mightily enlarged and enriched. In my opinion, young preachers--indeed, Christians of all ages--can make no greater theological investment in their lives and ministries than to buy and read Owen's works. For Christ-centered, gospel-saturated, Spirit-empowered, even-handed, mature-minded experiential Christianity, Owen is second to none, save the inspired penmen themselves. 

Tolle lege!

Slipping through the cracks: What is local church accountability?

God is in the habit of making technology serve the interests of his Son. The invention of the printing press seems calculated almost entirely to make Luther's Theses go viral. The onset of the internet seems another wave in this trend, as it has been mightily used to give voracious expositional preaching a wider listenership--and with the arrival of online video streaming, a wider viewership as well.

I would hardly minimize the exquisite fruit that has come of it. I myself owe much to the preaching of men I've never met. However, while these resources serve as great supplements to the spiritual health of believers, they can never, by themselves, be the full course meal of heavenly nourishment that God has prepared for you and I.

Preaching itself was primarily designed to take place at the local church level, where the preacher, to one extent or another, knows the people he's preaching to. As we've said before, preaching becomes more exactly the word of God to his people when it takes place within these communities, also known as local churches.

Another way of looking at this is to say that, in the local church ideal, no one slips through the cracks. You can rock out to Paul Washer sermons all you like but at the same time be living in sin (yes, even such a shocking arrangement is possible). However, you cannot be a real member of a local church and do so. This brings us to the importance of accountability within the church.

One of our Lord's parting commands was as follows: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another." John 13:34. This one another language hits a keynote that is carried through the New Testament and expresses the ever-important idea of the community of God's people. That's what we are.

In fact, if you trace out the one another commands in Scripture, you will find that it is quite literally impossible to fulfill them if you are not part of a local church. Every such apostolic command comes to us within the context of a local church, for that is to whom the great majority of Letters were written. These commands to love one another (that is in fact what they all come to in the end) help protect the individual believer from slipping through the cracks. Speaking the truth to one another, stirring one another up to good works, admonishing one another, all of these prods of grace (and many more) come not only from the pulpit but from the community itself (Ephesians 4:15, 25; Hebrews 10:24; Colossians 3:16). This aspect of accountability will serve not only to steer you out of sin but also encourage you to press forward, taking hold of the eternal life to which you have been called.

Do you, dear friend, have such accountability in your life?