How Great Is Our God?

Last October Nancy and I visited a church  we’ve never attended before near our mountain retreat during our annual fall vacation.

The pastor preached a message from the book of Hebrews. He concluded from the numerous warning passages in places like Heb. 2:1-3 that believers in Christ can lose their salvation. Controversy notwithstanding and readily admitted, he outright dismissed the doctrine of eternal security placing the responsibility for our future destiny on our own heads.

From there we went immediately to the close of the service with the singing of Chris Tomlin’s tune How Great Is Our God. Normally I sing that song, which I enjoy very much, with passion and energy. After that message however I lacked the usual gusto. The preaching didn’t build my faith in God who keeps His own to the end but rather sought to dampen that faith. Hence my question mark at the end of this blog post title.

I have since recovered by revisiting the rest of Scripture by which we must interpret the warning texts in Hebrews, including chapters six and ten, considering them as means of grace God gives to help Christian’s persevere. For the overwhelming testimony of divine writ is that what God begins He completes (Phil. 1:6). He who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121). The One predestined, also calls, justifies and glorifies – note the past tense in Rom. 8:30 which speaks of future glorification so certain as if it has already taken place. Jesus refers to His own as doubly secure in His and the Father’s hands from which no one may snatch us (John 10:28-29).

Peter speaks of believers as those who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation to be revealed in the last time (1 Pet. 1:5). Jude calls us the kept for Jesus Christ (Jude 1) and ascribes blessing at the conclusion of his letter to Him who is able to keep us from stumbling and present us blameless before the presence of His glory (Jude 24).

The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith calls this doctrine the perseverance of the saints and states this from the Scriptures about it in paragraph two:

It is on no free will of their own that the saints’ perseverance depends, but on the immutability of the decree of election, which in its turn depends upon the free and unchangeable love of God the Father, the efficacious merit and intercession of Jesus Christ and the saints’ union with Him, the oath of God, the abiding character of the Spirit’s indwelling of the saints, the divine nature of which they are partakers and, lastly, the terms of the covenant of grace.  All these factors guarantee the certainty and infallibility of the saints’ perseverance.

Now if my friend in Idaho had preached something of that nature from the Bible during my visit last fall surely my singing of Tomlin’s tune would have been more robust as it normally is!

This day of days during each year I value the biblical doctrine of perseverance more than ever because I observe my spiritual birthday. Thirty-nine years ago today I professed Christ at age twenty in my Pennsylvania living room. I got up this morning all these years later still believing the gospel, still fighting the good fight, still running the race, still keeping the faith, not because of any resolve that resides in me but because of the keeping power of my great God in which I implicitly trust.

I look forward to declaring the same praise a year from now on my fortieth birthday should the Lord grant length of days.

Suddenly I have a desire to listen to some Chris Tomlin.

What We Need from OGC

On Sunday I shared what I believe OGC needs from Nancy and me and the rest of our officers and their spouses. For the next two years, arguably among the most strenuous in our history, the church needs us to stay the course. OGC needs us to persevere through the hard work, the late hours, the difficult conversations, the tough decisions. The buck stops here in terms of leadership responsibility and we can’t afford to weenie out just because things get hard.

But now let me turn the tables and suggest a few things we need from our covenant members. First, and foremost, we need your prayers. Pray for our staying power over the long haul. Lord willing, we will get through this season of building a facility and all the challenges that come with it. A new normal will arrive in due season. Pray we hold on and excel in our duties.

Second, we need your participation. Paul called the Philippians partners in the gospel (Phil. 1:5). That’s what we are. We need to partner together in service. It’s every hand on deck. Find a need and fill it. Sacrifice when you must. Let’s pull the load together. We need to partner together in giving, BOTH to the capital campaign/Each One, Seek One and to the general fund budget. On the latter we have been slipping of late. Chuck Mitchell will bring a report this Sunday during the offertory.

Lastly, we need your perseverance and patience. I’ve said all along that we and we alone in the history of this church get to do this stewardship of building a facility. It’s an enormous privilege that will bring multiple rewards. But the endeavor is not for the faint of heart or weak in knee. So join Nancy and me when necessary in having that little talk over the kitchen table when things get dicey: What OGC needs from us right now is to keep the oars in the water and keep on rowing.

How to Successfully Run the Marathon of Faith

This morning’s message by Kevin Wilhoit from Heb.12:1-3 is now on the web. You can listen to it here.

Kevin is a summer pastoral ministry intern at Orlando Grace working on his M. Div. degree at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando.

His proposition and main points are as follows:

Because we are weak and easily discouraged in our Christian life, we must run with endurance by embracing God’s provisions for perseverance.

They are two-fold.

First, the example of numerous champions of faith in the past. Kevin made application as to the importance of reading Christian biographies to this end.

Second, the ultimate example of Jesus Christ and His supreme excellencies, the only motive and means for endurance. Kevin stressed the importance of savoring Jesus as more than an example from which we should just get tougher in dealing with encouragement; he pointed us to the power of the gospel in our everyday experience.

He closed with this quote from the Puritan, Matthew Henry:

“The joy of the Lord will arm us against the assaults of our spiritual enemies and put our mouths out of taste for those pleasures with which the tempter baits his hooks.”

May we all look to Jesus the founder and perfecter of our faith as we run the race set before us!

How to Be Certain Your Faith Is Certifiably Genuine (Part 2)

Today’s message is now on the web. You can listen to it here.

Here is the quote from Charles Spurgeon with which I led off in the message:

Assurance of your salvation will bring you “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding.” If you know that you are saved, you can sit down in poverty, or in sickness, or under slander, and feel perfectly content. Full assurance is the Koh-i-noor (Persian for “Mountain of Light” – a 105 carat diamond that was once the largest known diamond in the world) amongst the jewels wherewith the heavenly Bridegroom adorns his spouse. Assurance is a mountain of spices, a land that floweth with milk and honey. To be the assured possessor of eternal life is to find a paradise beneath the stars, where the mountains and the hills break forth before you into singing.

Here’s how I summarized this two part sermon on the genuine faith of the man born blind who was made to see by the light of the world, Jesus:

Genuine faith bears the marks of steadfast allegiance to Jesus – growth of insight, boldness of witness, perseverance through suffering, and admission of need. How do you stack up? When you examine your own faith, do these things present themselves as evidences as to its certifiable genuineness? If so, enjoy the Kohinoor of assurance of salvation and give thanks to God for His indescribable gift!

Next week, Lord willing, we move into John 10 and the Good Shepherd discourse, one of the most precious and beloved sections of Scripture to believers throughout the centuries.

Not Your Average State of Happiness

No question about it. The way James describes blessedness doesn’t fit the average American definition. Consider James 1:2-12.

2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. 9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. 12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

James promotes a living faith – a faith that works (see James 2:26). Genuine faith manifests itself in a lifestyle of wise speaking and acting in all of life’s facets. These verses in chapter one address how faith works to persevere under trial. He gives four principles to guide the believer.

First, reckon your joy (2-4). Count it all joy . . . when you meet trials of various kinds. We are to calculate the immense value of trials such that we delight, not in their pain, but in the profit they yield. What profit? For you know the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. We are to let steadfastness have its full effect that we might become spiritually mature. That’s worth delighting in. God uses trials to grow us in the likeness of Jesus.

Second, request your wisdom (5-8). If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God. Who doesn’t lack wisdom? We all do, particularly when it comes to how to navigate a trial so that we make the most of the opportunity to grow in Christ-likeness. So pray. Remember two things when you do. God loves to give wisdom (5b) and don’t doubt that fact for a second (6-8).

Third, release your wealth (9-11). Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation. One great source of trials in life comes in the form of money, either too little or too much of it. James levels the playing field for both ends of the spectrum by urging right thinking about wealth. If you are poor, exalt in your spiritual riches. If you are rich, remember it will all pass away. The focus needs to be on the spiritual, not the material. How important is that in these difficult economic times in which we live?

Fourth, relish your perseverance (12). That brings us back to his beatitude, Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial. There is a present benefit to steadfastness in trial as we saw in vv. 2-4. But there is a future, eschatological one as well. Those who persevere receive a crown of life in heaven! It goes to those who love God. And those who love Him keep His commandments even when it proves costly. They never abandon their faith.

Oswald Chambers gave this counsel:

Believe steadfastly on Him and everything that challenges you will strengthen your faith. There is continual testing in the life of faith up to the point of our physical death, which is the last great test. Faith is absolute trust in God— trust that could never imagine that He would forsake us.

And it is trust that often imagines how greatly He will reward us.

Take care that your pursuit of happiness is not conformed to the world but rather transformed by the renewing of your mind in passages like James 1:2-12.

Helpful Tools for Truth Acquisition

This morning I introduced part one of what will end up as three sermons with the same title from John 8:31-38: How To Be Certain Your Faith Is Not Fatally Flawed.

Jesus prescribes three tests for testing faith’s genuineness in vv. 31-32:

  1. Continuation in His word – If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.
  2. Acquisition of the truth – you will know the truth.
  3. Liberation from one’s sin – and the truth will set you free.

I made much of the connection between the first and second points. One glorious consequence of remaining in the word of Jesus, hearing and obeying it, is that we gain increasingly greater understanding of truth over and against falsehood.

Certain tools must belong in your toolkit if you hope to grow in your knowledge of the truth. It is not enough to read the Bible, though that certainly is essential to what Jesus means when He says we must abide in His word as a test of genuine faith. We have to get our arms around the meaning of His words and grasp the truth contained within them.

Along the way several extra-biblical helps can aid in one’s understanding of the truths taught in the Bible, truths that serve to set us free from the bondage of sin.

Some, not all, you can access online. I have sought to provide links below where this is the case.

Here are my suggestions for helpful tools for truth acquisition as a follower of Jesus Christ. More exist for sure, but these seem basic to  me.

First, you need a solid one volume commentary of the Bible. Puritan Matthew Henry’s complete and unabridged work can be accessed here. You don’t want to rely on a commentary to do your own study, but you definitely want to check your work by comparing it to a solid teacher either from the past or today. If you can afford it, John MacArthur’s New Testament Commentaries are now available. But here’s a tip. Much of those works come right from his sermons that you can access here. The same is true of John Piper’s sermons here. Save yourself some bucks. Calvin’s commentaries are online too here.

Second, make sure you have a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia at your disposal. You can access ISBE, a classic for cultural and historical background study, here. For example, if you wanted to learn more about Abraham and the significance of his reference in John 8:33, you could look up his name in the encyclopedia and have a wealth of information about him at your finger tips.

Third, invest in a one-volume systematic theology. Wayne Grudem’s is among the best for accuracy and readability. However, if you can’t afford that option, you still have online hope. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion can be found here. You don’t get a helpful index with this masterpiece by the reformer, but you will be reading one of the all time great digests of truth that has ever come from the pen of man. This year I am reading through this work a paragraph at a time as part of my devotions. It is a must read for the reformed follower of Jesus.

Fourth, utilize a devotional guide. I love Ligonier’s TableTalk. After using this resource for a year now, I am amazed at how much truth this little booklet crams into each monthly installment. It is the first thing I open each morning as I approach the Lord for communing with Him. You will find a daily reading and themed articles each month that will greatly contribute to the increase of your truth quotient.

Fifth, make sure you include some reading from the saints of the past. You can get absolutely free Free Grace Broadcaster from Mount Zion Bible Church in Pensacola, Florida. Every quarter they publish a booklet of largely Puritan writings on different subjects. Order your subscription or read online here.

Sixth, books, you’ve got to read books! As I mentioned this morning, books change your life. They bring truth to life. I can’t even begin to tell you how often God has brought a book across my path that He has used to further my sanctification in a significant way. I have referenced often recently J. C. Ryle’s classic Holiness as a book I am currently digesting. Guess what? You can get it online too here! Reading good, solid, extra-biblical literature that opens your eyes to the truths of the Scriptures will make a huge difference in your life.

Seventh, go to conferences. God shows up at meetings that honor His name and teach His truth. Ligonier Ministries holds their annual conference every year right here in Orlando. How sweet is that! No travel costs. No hotel costs. Pack your own food if you need to save even more money. Register early like Nancy and I did and you will get the benefit of early bird pricing. This year’s conference theme is Tough Questions Christians Face.The lineup of speakers will knock your socks off. Take a vacation day or two and go to Ligonier. You can learn more about this year’s conference here.

No doubt there are more. Faithfully attend church and the preaching of the word. Utilize the 9:30 equipping hour. Get into a growth group. Attend the 1689 Confession tutorial class every other Wednesday (see the events calendar on the website) or listen to the classes online on our website.

If it is true that acquiring the truth in greater degrees of understanding is a mark of true discipleship, then let us be a people who are rabid for truth and as crazy about accumulating tools to that end as the carpenter is for stocking his toolkit with nothing but the very best equipment!

How Not To Die in Your Sins

Today’s message came from John 8:21-30. You can listen to the audio here.

Here’s how I summed up the flow of the passage:

The only way to be certain that you don’t die in your sins is to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, God’s Son, the one and only “I am.” The content of that faith to be genuine must include four things: His going to the Father, His coming from the Father, His speaking for the Father (validated in the cross and its consequences) and His closeness with the Father.

At the conclusion of the message I made application from the text for believers in terms of how to avoid becoming hardhearted. The condition of the Jews in John 8 chills the reader to the bone in the fact that some so highly religious could actually be so far from the truth. Here are the six principles I gave for avoiding hardness of heart.

  1. Care about not becoming hardhearted. Hebrews 2:1-3 pleads that we play close attention that we not drift away for how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?
  2. Stay in close proximity to the word of Jesus through reading, study, meditation, and listening to it preached. The Jews’ fault was they couldn’t bear to hear his word (John 8:43).
  3. Don’t just hear the word of Jesus but hear it so as to obey it. Refuse to be a hearer only but also a doer (James 1:22-24).
  4. Be quick to repent when the word of Jesus comes with power and convicts you of sin. As quickly as possible agree with God about the nature of your sin, confess it,  and determine to change. Being slow to repent grieves and quenches the Spirit in your life.
  5. Pray for God to give you continually a soft heart and not allow you to become hardhearted. Jesus exhorted us to watch and pray that we may not enter into temptation (Matt. 26:41).
  6. Daily exhort others as well as receive exhortation from others to avoid sin’s deceitfulness (Heb. 3:12-13). This is particularly true if you live a secret life in any sin area. You must know and be known if you are to avoid becoming hardhearted. Sin loses its power when we bring it out of the darkness and into the light (1 John 1: 5-7).

May the Lord grant us grace to persevere to the end that we might not die in our sins but go to be where He is, with the Father in the kingdom heaven.

Reflections on My 37th Birthday

Spiritual that is. December 14, 1972, Berwyn, PA, 10:30 AM. The man came to my house and preached the gospel to me. I believed and was baptized. While the ride has been wild, to say the least, I have never once looked back. For that  I am most grateful.

My gratitude for getting to be this old in Jesus recently got a jolt of intensity thanks to Facebook. An old prof from seminary found me through the friends network. I emailed him to get caught up. He commented how good it was to hear from a former student noting his joy whenever he discovers someone who has gone on with the Lord over time. “More often than we would like that doesn’t happen,” he said.

To what should I or any aging believer attribute staying power in the spiritual life? There can be only one answer for surely there is nothing particularly devoted about my flesh. The amazing keeping power of God alone keeps one persevering toward the finish line. Consider verses like 1 Peter 1:3-5 for example:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (emphasis added).

Or Jude 1 where the writer calls us kept for Jesus Christ and in v. 24-25 where he concludes his letter with this doxology:

24 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, 25 to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen (emphasis added).

So I appear thus far to be among the kept of God. That makes me a blessed man. By God’s grace I, the kept of God, intend to go on keeping myself in His love (see Jude 21) unto my 40th, 47th, and whatever7th birthday He may allow should I enjoy length of days.

I’ve got my eye on the reward. I am one day closer to hearing, I trust, Well done good and faithful servant! I long to finish well. The vision of the end I imagine is not unlike this lovely section of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress:

After this it was noised abroad that Mr. Valiant–for–Truth was sent for by a summons, by the same party as the others. And he had this word for a token that the summons was true: ‘The pitcher was broken at the fountain’ (Eccl. 12:6). When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then said he, ‘I am going to my Father’s house; and though with great difficulty I have got here, yet now I do not repent me of all the troubles I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles, who will now be my Rewarder.’ When the day that he must go home was come, many accompanied him to the riverside, into which, as he went down, he said, ‘O death, where is your sting?’ And as he went down deeper, he cried, ‘O grave, where is your victory?’ So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

Trumpets. I really like trumpets.

A Nasty Trick

More like a dreadful scare actually.

I thought I had oral cancer again.

Two months ago a sore developed in my mouth on the same side where tongue cancer hit four years ago. After it didn’t go away for two weeks, I played it safe and made an appointment with my ENT to check it out. This week I saw him for the third time. No sign of the thing anywhere.  Your mouth played a nasty trick on you, he said.

We’re not sure what it was. I might have accidentally bit my cheek. It could have been a canker sore. Turns out after radiation treatment of an area in the mouth, sores like that don’t heal near as fast as with normal tissue. I didn’t know that. Now I do. Lesson learned.

I have to admit, it really scared me. Even the prospect of an early-stage lesion in my mouth brought back horrible memories of surgery and treatment. I can hardly describe the roller coaster of emotions I rode until the doctor pronounced the no-cancer verdict. I kept it a secret from Nancy until I knew for sure. I couldn’t bear to subject her to the same kind of anxiety we went through the first time while we waited for a diagnosis. When I finally told her I fought back a flood of tears at the backlog of feelings and the waves of relief.

Phew. That was a close one. But a nasty trick? No way. I’m a child of the King. My Father loves me with undying, lavish love. He promises me that all things work together for my good (Rom. 8:28), not just cancer scares, but actual bouts with the dreadful disease.

I know who sent the sore. And He meant it for my good. It reminded me that the battle with unbelief and war against fear will go on until my dying day. Only one strategy will do in the face of dreadful scares. Philippians 4:6-7 says,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Are you mistaking the presence of some adversary or trial as a nasty trick when in fact God has so ordained your circumstances so as to test your faith and strengthen your endurance (James 1:2-4)? Slay the giant of anxiety with relentless spears of prayer and know the peace of God guarding your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.