Obligatory Thanksgiving Post

Ah yes, Thanksgiving. I feel about it how the old round preacher felt about Christmas: there is certainly no religion in the keeping of Thanksgiving Day, as a holy observance, but yet we are, with the Spurgeon, glad for the extra day together afforded to families by it. On this account, to adapt his own phrasing, I could wish there were 20 Thanksgiving Days.

The giving of thanks is an exotic plant that only grows in its native soil: a heavenly heart. The giving of thanks is the mark of the child of God, just as ingratitude is the mark of Satan’s own little ones. It is that badge of dishonor given to them by the apostle: “they did not…give thanks” (Romans 1:21).

Fear not, I will not be giving you the salutary observe Thanksgiving spiritually (for this is true of all things, after its own fashion), nor its sister-exhortation, Make everyday a Thanksgiving. Rather, I simply want to observe that you are either a thankful person or you are not. No amount of exertion on your end of things can produce it, just as no amount of, shall we say, inaction can squelch it. It is either there, or it is not, because you are either it, or you are not it.

Take this week to examine whether it is so with you. How fares it with your soul? For it is the proof of nothing less than your eternal destiny, in whatever direction that may be. You are either a recipient of God’s free gift of eternal life to sinners through the blood of his Son Jesus Christ, or you are not. Secure for yourself the blessed status of giver of thanks by trusting in Jesus today.

The Parable of the Good Augustinian

The Good Samaritan. We’ve heard the parable countless times. What does it mean? Modern interpreters know for a fact that it is simply an illustration of the lawyer’s sin and failure to keep the law, which—I dare say some would teach—if he does, he will inherit eternal life. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Ancient expositors of the New Testament thought very differently about this popular passage. Augustine gets picked on for his exposition of it by several modern manuals on the craft, but Augustine’s reading did not begin with himself, and was certainly no attempt at novelty. We may well call it the patristic reading, for we find it in men who went before him, such as Origen (some of my readers were instantly triggered just now) and Irenaeus. Their interpretation was simple: Jesus is the good Samaritan in the parable.

What can we say about the parable? Perhaps a bit of context. It is an illustration of the second table of the law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27). A lawyer asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ answer was that he must keep the commandments: “Do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10:28), a clear expression of the principle of works given to Adam and echoed in the Mosaic law. The lawyer then asked, “Who is my neighbor?” (v. 29).

Jesus went on to illustrate the commandment with the parable of the good Samaritan. He proves to the lawyer, who wants to work his way to heaven, that he does not love his neighbor and therefore will not inherit eternal life—at least if he means to rely on his own works to do so (and we think he means to do just that: “desiring to justify himself” v. 29). The foreign Samaritan in the parable does, however, love his neighbor.

I’m reading a book on hermeneutics right now called The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: From the Early Church to Modern Practice. In my reading today the author explored Augustine’s interpretation of this parable, which I read intently, with a thought here or there about the outlandish nature of all that the old saint saw in Jesus’ words. But, if you follow me on social media, you may know that this morning I posted a picture of this book with the comment that in three sentences this guy convinced me of the patristic reading of the parable of the good Samaritan. It all clicked for me. Many other sentences have done mightily, but they did not attain to the three. They are as follows:

“Second, although Jesus could have illustrated the command of neighbor love in a number of ways, the parable that he presented is clearly a rescue story, a story about salvation. This choice carries significant consequences for interpretation. In a day when all Christian interpreters agreed that the scope of Scripture is Christ, it would not require a great hermeneutical leap to imagine the rescuer, the savior, in this story as Christ.” (p. 88)

Well that took me straight to glory and I do believe I love the Lord Jesus more now than I did this morning when I opened that book. He is indeed the eschatological good Samaritan who kept God’s law perfectly, attaining eternal life, and did so in a marvelous saving act of love for his dying neighbor—me!

Paul's professional appearance

“See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” Galatians 6:11

Is there any communication tool quite like sarcasm? Oh how some of us love the ironical spirit, and I daresay, have even channeled the singing of its muses. For it is so effective. I suppose it is an example of ad absurdum, in which device the absolute ridiculousness of the opposing view is marched publicly to open shame. Those who decry the practice know that God himself would never partake of such low methods.

In any case, this is the very sense in which I mean to say Paul’s professional appearance. For he had none. There was nothing about Paul’s appearance or manner that said cleric to those around him. When he was arrested in Jerusalem he was mistaken for an Egyptian revolutionary (Acts 21:38). He didn't even look like a Roman citizen, let alone a holy man. He had not, apparently, donned “the uniform.”

I think this lack of professional appearance (for we have made the ministry a matter of professionalism) is also seen in the text before us. Paul, as scholars believe, struggled with poor eyesight. It was perhaps a remnant of his blinding conversion experience. In any case, he did not benefit from the advances of modern optometric science and was left to face the world with a blurred sight which could not have been more perfectly contrasted with the razor spiritual vision he possessed.

Well, as I said, his poor eyesight seems to rear its blurry head in the verse before us. For the large letters of his own hand were not simply a devise to show the Galatians how very serious he was—a role which the letters do seem to play within the text—but their cause seems to be his inability to see small and more professional letters. Whether he hand wrote the entire letter himself or simply penned the farewell section, the fact is that Paul’s penmanship was less than professional. He wrote in the wild though undoubtedly more artful hand style of a graffiti artist.

Now think about this. Here is Paul, penning one of his parts in the greatest Book ever written, the Book of books itself. Do you suppose that ancient or modern scholars would look upon this crusty manuscript with awe and wonder? Would anything about its physical appearance scream “THIS IS FROM GOD”? Certainly nothing about it would even whisper “cleric.” And yet here it is in all its God-breathed exquisiteness.

The lesson for us is simple. Do we have eyes to see God’s real working and power? Or are we enslaved to the earthly categories of the elementary principles of the world, that which we can merely see and hear? Paul condemns these bankrupt categories in this very letter, even as he defies them in his own personal appearance and in the script of his own hand. In the end, I think Paul’s appearance was really just that of a normal person.

Does this mean we should not be excellent in what we do? Certainly not. We are constrained to be so. But excellence is, after all, a relative term. Let us be excellent where it counts, and where there is liberty or even impetus to break the worldly categories of what ministry is “supposed to look like,” then with God’s help we will not yield in submission to them for even a moment.

Let us be real spiritual people who have spiritual sight to see God’s glory where and how it really exists.

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.