Wednesday, December 31, 2008

One Resolution Every Christian Can Keep (Part 2)

In my last post, I gave a quick overview of how a Christian can grow more in godliness. It can be summarized in this: You must feed your faith and then live by faith. It all begins with growing more in your understanding of God’s love and care for you.

At this point, you may be tempted to say, “I already know God loves me,” and stop there. If that is what you are thinking, let me say this as kindly and gently as I can—you are clueless. You may have tasted a thimble of God’s grace, but there is an ocean to plummet. You do not have any idea just how deep it is. That is the “work” of sanctification. It is plunging into the depths of
God’s grace, swimming in it, and then living your life on the basis that it is real.

So, how do we go about this “work” of sanctification? We make good use of the means of grace that God has given to us. In order to make this practical, let me suggest there are two things that every Christian can do to grow. The first looks the same for all. The second is different for every person.

1. Resolve to participate in worship with the people of God every week, unless providentially hindered.

There is something profound, even mystical, about gathering with God’s people on the Lord’s Day. Even if the music doesn’t “move you” or you don’t learn anything from the sermon, there is something powerful about the corporate worship of the church that you cannot get anyplace else. The Spirit moves when the Word is preached, God is praised, when you hear the struggling saints around you singing and professing their faith, when you partake of the sacrament—God works through all of this in ways that we see and in ways that we do not notice. There is no substitute for this.

2. Resolve to meditate on God’s grace everyday.

This is where many Christians will say, “Oh, have a quiet time. I have tried that and failed so many times I don’t feel like trying again.” Let me suggest that there may be more than one way to skin a cat. Here are some suggestions for ways to incorporate a diet of grace in your life that can suit any lifestyle or level of discipline. By the way, when you fail at this (not if, but when), take a mulligan and start over. Failure is not fatal. Quitting can be.

Read a Daily Devotional
There are some wonderful devotional guides out these days. If you miss a day (or two, or week), don’t quit. Start back. Here are some that I recommend:

Holiness Day by Day, by Jerry Bridges

A Godward Life (vol. 1-3), by John Piper

For the Love of God (vo. 1-2), by D. A. Carson

Morning and Evening, by Charles H. Spurgeon

The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan Prayers, edited by Arthur Bennett

Knowing God’s Purpose for Your Life, by J. I. Packer

Read through the Bible in a Year

Follow this link to several Bible reading plans:

Read a Psalm a day

Take one hour a week to study a book of the Bible in depth

Listen to good MP3’s in your car, while working out at the gym, biking, hiking, etc.

This works great for me. I need to exercise and I need to grow in grace. So, I listen to good MP3s while exercising. Buffet your body and your soul at the same time. Here are some good resources. Most are free.

Read a good book on grace and holiness

If you are not a regular reader, commit to reading just two books this year. If you read regularly, why not read a book a month or every two months that will feed your soul? Here are some that I recommend:

  • Holiness by Grace, by Bryan Chapell
  • Transforming Grace, by Jerry Bridges
  • Rediscovering Holiness, by J. I. Packer
  • Desiring God, by John Piper
  • When You Don’t Desire God, by John Piper
  • The Prodigal God, by Tim Keller (short)
  • Dynamics of the Spiritual Life, by Richard Lovelace (long)
  • The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, by Walter Marshall (a bit challenging)
  • The Holiness of God, by R. C. Sproul
  • Holiness, by J. C. Ryle

Read a good book on prayer and spiritual disciplines

  • Praying Backwards, by Bryan Chapell
  • Pray with Your Eyes Open, by Richard Pratt
  • The Discipline of Grace, by Jerry Bridges
  • The Christian Life, by Sinclair Ferguson
  • The Fight, by Jerry White
  • Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, by Donald Whitney
  • A Hunger for God, by John Piper
  • Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, by Marva Dawn

Take a day or half-day off for prayer or spiritual refreshment

Plan to attend a spiritually nourishing conference this year

Attend a Spiritual retreat

  • Plan a personal retreat where you go away with your Bible, a good book, and a journal
  • A retreat with your church group
  • A retreat with a small group of friends

Listen to music that feeds your soul

Take an occasional break from your classic rock or favorite country station and pop one of these CD’s in. Here are some sources of good, worship music:

Get together with someone else for encouragement

  • Join or form a small group
  • Pick one night a week to share with your wife (or husband) what you are learning and to hear what she (he) is learning
  • Call a friend once a week and ask them what they are learning. Share with them what you are learning.
  • Pick one night at dinner to talk with your family about a spiritual topic.
  • Read through a book of the Bible with your family and discuss it over dinner (just a couple of questions to start)
  • Form or join an email discussion group

Final Practical Advice

What ever you plan to do, take active steps to implement your plan. If you don’t actually make a plan, then you are planning to fail. If it is important to you, you will plan for it. If it is not on your calendar, you are not planning. You are merely wishing, and wishing won’t do.

  • Put your chosen activity on your calendar. Make it an appointment. If you wait for free time to do it, you will never do it. This may be the single most important step.
  • If you are using a devotional guide, podcast, CD’s, book, etc… order whatever it is today. Do not wait until later. Go online at the first opportunity and get the materials you need.
  • If you are planning on attending a conference, or taking a spiritual retreat, schedule the time off right away. Register for the conference today. Take active steps right now to succeed.

One Resolution Every Christian Can Keep (Part 1)

“I wish that I was half the man I wish that I could be.” That is a memorable line from Andrew Peterson’s song, Mountains. I love that line because it expresses my heart so well. While none of us will achieve the perfect state in this life, every Christian can die more and more to sin and live more and more to righteousness. So, why don’t we resolve together to do just that? Let’s resolve in 2009 to become more conformed to the image of Christ.

You say that you have tried that and failed. Me, too. If your goal is to be perfect in 2009, you will fail again. However, while you will not attain total Christ-likeness this next year, you can become more Christ-like. You can become a lot more like Jesus. If you are a Christian, I can assure you with full confidence that you are not the exception to the rule. You can grow in godliness.
In pursuing holiness, we must be careful to avoid two equally destructive errors. The first error is simply sitting back and hoping that God changes you. After 40+ years of walking with Jesus, including 20+ years of pastoral ministry, I can assure you, that will not work. No one drifts into godliness.

The other error is what Bryan Chapell calls “Sola Bootstrapsus.” That is when you to try to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps through will power and self-discipline. Many Christians have tried or are trying this and it is corrosive to the soul. It will either cause you to feel crushed by your own sin or, even worse, turn you into a self-righteous religious jerk. Heaven knows we don’t need any more of those.

For those who think they can sanctify themselves, I remind them of the words of the old Puritan, Walter Marshall: “Men show themselves strangely forgetful, or hypocritical, in professing original sin in their prayers, catechisms, and confessions of faith; and yet urging on themselves and others the practice of the law, without the consideration of nay strengthening, enlivening means; as if there were no want of ability, but only of activity.”

To put it into contemporary language, Marshall is saying, "you are terribly deceived if you think that your problem in sanctification is that you aren’t trying hard enough. You not only lack the activity. You also lack the ability."

There is a third way: sanctification by grace through faith. Like the passive person who wants God to change him, this method of sanctification means depending solely on the work of the Holy Spirit. Like the bootstraps Christian, this, too, takes discipline. Yet, here it is an active discipline of dependence on Christ. That means you are making active use of the means of grace, not as a work by which you reform yourself, but as a means to grow in your understanding of grace and the majestic beauty of Christ.

To put it simply, you must discipline yourself daily to meditate on the grace and beauty of Christ, to understand that you are fully loved and accepted by Him, that you are not under condemnation, but under the reign of grace, that God has a future for you that is far greater and far more pleasurable than anything sin or this world offer you, indeed, have the Holy Spirit living in you, transforming you into the image of Christ. Because you have the Holy Spirit, and that you do indeed have the power to say “no” to sin and “yes” to godliness.

Therefore, you can grow in godliness by growing in grace. To do this, you must feed your faith and then live by faith.

Let me close with another quote from Walter Marshall: “Slavish fear may extort some slavish hypocritical performances from us, but the duty of love cannot be extorted and forced by fear, but it must be won, and sweetly allured by an apprehension of God’s love and goodness towards us.” Therefore, let us resolve to grow more in are understanding and wonder of God’s love and goodness towards us.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

More on the Rick Warren Controversy

A lot of conservative theologians have chimed in on the controversy over Rick Warren giving the Invocation at President-Elect Barrack Obama's inauguration. Some have been rather snarky, taking unnecessary pot shots at Pastor Warren, which is both unhelpful and unfortunate.

One blog post that I did find helpful was Carl Trueman's Goodbye Larry King, Hello Jerry Springer. Professor Trueman demonstrates how Christians will always be outsiders in the world. At the same time, we do not have to be the hatemongers the world says we are. It is a short post. Hope you find it helpful.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christianity in America

As Ameican Christians, we have an awkward relationship with the culture around us. We are citizens, but we are also aliens and strangers. Ultimately, our citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet, we are also called to live as good citizens here. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God told the Jews to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7). We, too, should seek the peace and prosperity of the cities in which we live.

However, in seeking to bless our city and our country, we are caught up in a dynamic tension that is deeply embedded in our culture and history as Americans. On the one hand, there is the notion that America was founded as a "Christian" country. As a result, there are some who believe we should fight to recover our Christian heritage, grab the levers of power, and make sure that all the non-Christians here live by our rules. After all, if God is God, then the rules of biblical morality are not our rules--they are not mere social constructs--but are laws invested with divine authority.

On the other hand, we clearly live in a pluralistic society. Demanding that non-Christians embrace Christian values and behaviors when they have not embraced Christ seems wrong-headed and counterproductive. It distracts us from our God-given mission.

For example, take the issue of public prayer (prayer in public schools, high school football games, Baccalaureate services, etc.). Do we really want to insist that a Muslim/Hindu/Atheist/Cult member teacher lead our kids in prayer at any of these events? Do you want a Muslim/Hindu/Atheist/Cult member to lead your child in prayer at any of these events? Some seek to avoid these religious distinctions by praying "generic" prayers that are simply addressed to a generic god. Yet, this is the worst of all possible solutions. It implies that the god of all religions is the same god, that we can have real fellowship with people who hold to a different religion. This sort of civil religion is syncretism of the worst sort. Of course, we could insist that all public prayers be Christian prayers, but I don't think that will fly, nor do we want to force non-Christians to join in our worship when their hearts are not in it.

Another example is the on-going Christmas wars. Do we really want to insist that non-Christians wish us a Merry Christmas, and then punish them through boycotts when they do not? As Christians, we have a much higher calling than insisting on our "right" to be wished a merry Christmas. Instead, we should have the passion of Jesus to see these people come to know the Christ of Christmas. In our culture warrior mentality, we seem to have lost sight of our mission. Our mission is not to insist on our rights. Our mission is to proclaim the good news of Christ to a lost and dying world. Rather than getting angry over our loss of "rights", we should weep over the world's lostness in sin.

Still, the issue is more complicated than what I have written so far. While we live in a pluralistic culture, the dominant powers of this culture believe that biblical Christianity is a cancer that needs to be removed. For example, recently Senator Obama announced that Rick Warren would give the invocation at his presidential inauguration. The outcry is deafening. Why? Because Pastor Warren is pro-life and believes that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Because he holds these biblical views, he has been called anti-women's rights, homophobic, and a hater of gays and lesbians. According to some of his opponents, Mr. Warren and his ilk (that includes all Bible-believing Christians) are what is wrong with America.

Another example is the recent Newsweek article that claims that the Bible supports gay marriage. I don't expect Newsweek to endorse biblical values, but this was nothing more than a hatchet job on the Bible. There are a number of excellent critiques of it here, here, and here.

All of this leads us to a very practical questions: How do we live as Christians in a pluralistic society without compromise and without engaging our culture with worldly tactics? Instead of making the post longer, let me link you to a few articles that articulate a biblical way of engaging our world. I highly recommend all of these.

Taking the Swagger Out of Christian Cultural Influence by John Piper

Evangelical Manners by Richard Mouw

No Need to be Nasty by Joel Belz

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Recommended for Christmas

Books are always a great Christmas gift. Not only can you show your appreciation for someone, but you also can help them grow in knowledge and grace. Here are a few books that you might consider buying for a friend, family member, or even yourself this Christmas season:

1. Holiness Day by Day, by Jerry Bridges. This is a wonderful book for the person in your life who doesn’t read whole books. It is also a great selection for those who want a daily devotional. I was a Jerry Bridges fan long before coming to Village Seven. Getting to know him has only increased my admiration. Holiness Day by Day takes selections from a number of Jerry’s previous books and puts them in a daily devotional. Preaching the gospel to yourself everyday is essential to spiritual growth. This book will help its reader do just that.

2. The Prodigal God, by Tim Keller. Keller’s sermon on the parable of the two sons (normally called the parable of the prodigal son) is his most famous sermon. In The Prodigal God, he expands on it a bit. This is a celebration of grace that will be helpful to both the legalistic “older brothers” and the libertarian “younger brothers” in your life.

3. Reason for God, by Tim Keller. Next to his sermon on the two sons, Keller is known for his sound apologetic sermons that speak to post-modern people. This takes some of those great themes and puts them all in one book. The book has had phenomenal success and would be an excellent gift for those who have questions about the Christian faith or those who simply need their faith strengthened.

4. The ESV Study Bible, published by Crossway Books. Calling this a study Bible is sort of like saying Everest is a tall mountain. This is a study Bible on steroids. It is very well done, has loads of articles and information. Even more, if you buy it, then you also get access to it all online. That way, if you have the internet, you have the ESV Study Bible. As a side note, when the ESV first came out, I greeted it with a yawn. While more literal than the NIV, it did not seem as readable. My first impression was that it was not much an improvement on the New American Standard (NAS), which is what I have always used in my personal study. However, two years ago, I switched from using the NAS in my study to using the ESV. More and more, I have grown to love it. I believe this will be the translation that all serious Bible students will use for the next generation.