In Praise of “Wonderful Difficulties”

providenceToday I’m struck anew with how contrary to the world is the Christian life. I’m thinking specifically about how the world will almost without fail define the best way forward in life as the way of ease. That is, the path of least resistance is, by definition, the right path to choose.

Not so in God’s economy.

The Bible is full of reminders about how, in the call of God, things will be difficult rather than easy; complex rather than simple; strenuous rather than leisurely. Indeed, it’s not for no reason that the Bible often calls us to endure and persevere — conditions irrelevant for times of ease. (After all, no one “endures” a day at the beach.)

We get a powerful picture into why God orchestrates things this way when we remember Moses’ words of merciful warning to Israel in Deuteronomy 8:11-19:

Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.

Beware times of ease, Moses warns, for it is uniquely then when we are tempted to forget God (notice how Moses says nothing of the Israelites forgetting God in the “great and terrifying wilderness”). And the result of forgetting God is to “surely perish” (v. 19). Indeed, the stakes could not be higher.

So it is that God brings into our lives “wonderful difficulties” as a means of nurturing in us “God remembrance.” I call these circumstances “wonderful” because it’s God who brings them and his ways are always good. I call them “difficulties” because, well, that’s what they are — circumstances that are not easy and call for a deep dependence on God for his strength to endure. It is fitting that God would operate this way. God will have his people glory (i.e., depend) only in him knowing that this most exalts him and results in our eternal good (Jonathan Edwards captured this truth in the 18th century when he preached, “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence“).

Knowing this helps me rejoice in the wonderful difficulties God is using in my life to nurture in me a worshipful remembrance of him — the One in whose presence is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Cf., Psalm 16:11).

Where else would you rather be?

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Nothing But the Blood

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

~Isaiah 1:18

Snow_2015In the last 36 hours nearly a foot of snow has fallen on Louisville. “Welcome to your new home,” I said to my four school-age kids as they watched through the windows with excitement. For my kids there are few things better than the neighborhood being blanketed in white powder.

There is something particularly beautiful about this winter storm. It hasn’t come with strong winds or freezing rains, but quiet flakes falling gently to the ground. Our suburban cul-de-sac looks like Narnia with the promise of Spring around the corner.

But more than the physical attributes of this snowfall, I’ve been impressed with the perspective of my 7-year-old Michael. As he looked out through the kitchen windows he held up his arms and said, “He’s washed our sins white as snow.”

In the snow, Michael saw the gospel.

Of course, Michael proceeded to get excited about the other implications of the snowfall: sledding, snowball fights, and, of course, the cancellation of school. But I thank God that Michael has been given the grace to see what the snow ultimately points to: the glory of God in the face of Christ.

Thanks to my Michael there’s a song on my heart this morning — a song that sings of forgiveness and the promise of “all things new”:

What can wash away my sin? 
Nothing but the blood of Jesus; 
What can make me whole again? 
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know, 
Nothing but the blood of Jesus. 

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Marvelous, Infinite, Matchless Grace

[Thankfully I’m more amazed at God’s grace at the close of this year than I was at the beginning of 2014. But in 2015 I want to be increasingly stunned by God’s unmerited favor toward me in Christ. So at the dawn of a New Year, I’m revisiting some of the reasons why I love the grace of God. To help you do the same, here’s my list from a year ago. What reason(s) would you add?]

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This time of year is full of year-end lists. Everything from the top 10 or more books of the year, to movies of the year, to memories of the year. Well, not to be left out of the list mania, here’s my list of 10 reasons why I love the grace of God.

  • Reason #10: By God’s grace I believe (Acts 18:27).
  • Reason #9: I’m standing in God’s grace (Rom. 5:2).
  • Reason #8: I daily receive fresh doses of God’s grace (John 1:16).
  • Reason #7: God’s grace is sufficient for all my needs (2 Cor. 12:9).
  • Reason #6: God’s grace frees me from the tyranny of sin (Rom. 6:14).
  • Reason #5: By God’s grace I have spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6).
  • Reason #4: By God’s grace I can be appropriately bold (Rom. 15:15).
  • Reason #3: I have the daily privilege of growing in God’s grace (2 Pet. 3:18).
  • Reason #2: God’s grace is what builds me up in the faith (Acts 20:32).
  • Reason #1: God’s grace is free (Rom. 3:24).
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What Child is This?

The Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 35-37

Q&A #35

Q. What do you confess when you say: He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary?
A. The eternal Son of God, who is and remains true and eternal God, [1] took upon Himself true human nature from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary, [2] through the working of the Holy Spirit. [3] Thus He is also the true seed of David, [4] and like His brothers in every respect, [5] yet without sin. [6]
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[1] John 1:1; 10:30-36; Rom. 1:3; 9:5; Col. 1:15-17; 1 John 5:20. [2] Matt. 1:18-23; John 1:14; Gal. 4:4; Heb. 2:14. [3] Luke 1:35. [4] 2 Sam. 7:12-16; Ps. 132:11; Matt. 1:1; Luke 1:32; Rom. 1:3. [5] Phil. 2:7; Heb. 2:17. [6] Heb. 4:15; 7:26, 27.

Q&A #36

Q. What benefit do you receive from the holy conception and birth of Christ?
A. He is our Mediator, [1] and with His innocence and perfect holiness covers, in the sight of God, my sin, in which I was conceived and born. [2]
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[1] 1 Tim. 2:5, 6; Heb. 9:13-15. [2] Rom. 8:3, 4; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 4:4, 5; I Pet. 1:18, 19.

Q&A #37

Q. What do you confess when you say that He suffered?
A. During all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end, Christ bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. [1] Thus, by His suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice, [2] He has redeemed our body and soul from everlasting damnation, [3] and obtained for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life. [4]
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[1] Is. 53; 1 Tim. 2:6; 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18. [2] Rom. 3:25; 1 Cor. 5:7; Eph. 5:2; Heb. 10:14; 1 John 2:2; 4:10. [3] Rom. 8:1-4; Gal. 3:13; Col. 1:13; Heb. 9:12; 1 Pet 1:18, 19. [4] John 3:16; Rom. 3:24-26; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 9:15.

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Advent, Life, and Death

Advent is at once about life and death. It’s about life in that we celebrate the first advent of Christ into the world. Indeed, the eternal Word–the One who is the way, and the truth, and the life–took on flesh and dwelled among us (Cf., John 1:14; 14:6).

But the first advent of Christ also implies death–the death of us. This is what Jesus meant when he said in Luke 9:23-24, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Jesus says, in effect, that the one who follows him will die to self daily. In other words, our priorities, agendas, calendars, and concerns are to be in accord with Christ’s.

This is how the apostle Paul understood the Christian life: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Paul’s understanding of what happened to him on that fateful day on the road to Damascus was nothing less than death–death to self and his sinful pattern of existence. And it was a death that needed to be allocated daily which is why Paul declared to the Corinthians, “I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31).

This death, however, was not an end in itself. Paul died to self so that he might live to God in Christ Jesus. We are called, after all, to be a living sacrifice (Cf., Romans 6:11; 12:1).

All of this could be summed up by the simple yet profound statement made by John the Baptist at the close of his earthly ministry and the dawn of Christ’s, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). And this is my prayer for Immanuel this Advent season: that we would shine brightly as we collectively live for the increase of Christ.

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Advent Longing

Weihnachtskugel - HintergrundThis coming Sunday marks the beginning of the Advent season. I love this time of the year. Beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas, the church since the fourth century has celebrated the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ by focusing attention on the Old Testament promise of His coming, the realization of the promise in His Incarnation, and the blessed hope of our Lord’s Second Coming. Advent is designed to nurture in Christ’s church humble reverence and joyful longing. 

Like last year, I am planning a special pulpit series for Advent. I’m calling it, Advent Longing. Throughout Advent we will consider the revelation of Jesus Christ (John 1:14-18), the triumph of Christ (Colossians 2:13-15), our shameless hope (Romans 5:1-5), and our heavenly home (Philippians 3:20-21).

We will also bring back our Advent wreath with the four candles around the outside of the evergreens and the one white candle in the center. The Advent wreath is a beautiful symbol of the everlasting life that came when the Light of the World entered our sin-darkened existence.

As I type I’m listening to a wonderful rendition of one of my favorite oratorios, Handel’s Messiah. With heavenly beauty, Handel takes us through the Old Testament longings for Messiah (e.g., Behold, a Virgin Shall Conceive) to the wonder of the Incarnation (e.g., For Unto Us a Child is Born) to the horror of the cross (e.g., Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs) to the matchless power of the resurrection (e.g., Hallelujah) to the glorious Second Coming (e.g., The Trumpet Shall Sound). By the end Handel knew that everything in us wants to proclaim “Amen” to the glory of God!

Advent declares to the world the wonderful truth that Messiah has come. Indeed, God is with us. And so with humble reverence and joyful longing we sing, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20) and make all things new.

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On the Blessing of Baptism

“Since Jesus commanded His church to baptize (Matt. 28:19), we would expect that there would be a measure of blessing connected with baptism, because all obedience to God by Christians brings God’s favor with it. This obedience is specifically a public act of confessing Jesus as Savior, an act which in itself brings joy and blessing to a believer. Moreover, it is a sign of the believer’s death and resurrection with Christ (see Rom. 6:2-5; Col. 2:12), and it seems fitting that the Holy Spirit would work through such a sign to increase our faith, to increase our experiential realization of death to the power and love of sin in our lives, and to increase our experience of the power of the new resurrection life in Christ that we have as believers. Since baptism is a physical symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ and our participation in them, it should also give additional assurance of union with Christ to all believers who are present. Finally, since water baptism is an outward symbol of an inward spiritual baptism by the Holy Spirit, we may expect that the Holy Spirit will ordinarily work alongside the baptism, giving to believers an increasing realization of the benefits of the spiritual baptism to which it points.”

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Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, pp. 953-54.

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