Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Carcasses of Christianity" - Joseph Alleine

This weekend was the Bolton Conference.

For those unfamiliar with this event, it is the annual conference sponsored by the New England Reformed Fellowship (NERF).

Three things draw me to this conference, which begins on Friday afternoon and ends on Saturday afternoon, every year.

First - the lineup of great speakers.  This year was no exception.  Dr. Greg Beale and Dr. Dale Ralph Davis spoke on themes particularly suited to their areas of study with clarity, passion, depth and practical application.  For Dr. Beale this consisted primarily of insights into the book of Revelation and the use of the Old Testament images in this final, and often mysterious, book of the Bible.  Dr. Davis taught on various aspects of reading and applying the Old Testament - both in private reading and in public preaching.

Second - I love the fellowship.  Seeing old friends and connecting again for a brief while is a precious part of this weekend treat. 

Third - I'll admit it - I always look forward to the book table.   

This year I picked up 3 treats which should keep me busy for a few months. 

"The World Conquered by the Faithful Christian" by Joseph Alleine was one of them.

It was shrink-wrapped - and thus I had little notion of what the real nature of the book was going to be like.  I new the name Richard Alleine (1611 - 1691).  He wrote An Alarm to the Unconverted, which is actually available online to read for free.  Having read that some time ago, I was pretty sure I would benefit from whatever this other work had to say.

So far, my suspicions were correct.

I'm only 40 pages into it, but already he is putting his finger in my eye and probing my heart - qualities in a book which are far too rare today.

His focus, thus far, has been on the dangers of worldliness.  It's so subtle.  The "world" (taken in its derogatory sense) works its way into the heart - deadening our faith.

We become, as he puts it so colorfully, "Carcasses of Christianity."

"More like shadows of Christians than like living Christians."

The world poisons our walk with the Lord.  Churches become cold.  Hearts become lukewarm.  "Though the name of religion is among us and upon us, yet the spirit of it seems to be greatly vanished away."

Worldliness is part of Satan's deceptive work in the world and in the church.  Alleine says "If the devil can only persuade men that the present good things are so good that there is nothing better and the present evil things are so evil that there are none greater, he will gain a great advantage."

I would be lying if I said this didn't hit me straight between the eyes.

His final warning in the section I'm reading runs so counter-intuitive to the way we tend to think.  He points out that Satan seems to be well-aware of our weaknesses.  He flatters us and tempts us toward those things that our flesh wants most.  If we want wealth - he loves to give it.  Applause?  He will see we are cheered and loved.  Power?  He will do all he can to hasten our progress to the top. 

With that in mind, Alleine says:

"Never suspect the devil more than when he pretends to do you a courtesy.  Whatever it is by which he usually pleases you, dread that as you would hell.  Mistake neither God's chastisement nor the devil's kindnesses   Be content that God should afflict you and cross you in your hopes and designs and be afraid when the devil pleases you.  Be convinced that Gods' smitings are a precious balm and the devil's soothings are stabs at your heart.  Fear not Satan's thunder and storms as much as his warm sun." 

And thus, once again the Bolton Conference has done me good.  I am thankful to those who give so much of their time and energy to make this conference happen.  It blessed me.  It challenged me.  And I hope, by the grace of God, it is changing me.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Infinite upon Infinite

The mathematical symbol for "infinity"
"Is not your wickedness great, and your iniquity without end?"
Job 22:5

I've been reading the biography of Jonathon Edwards by Iain Murray.  In it he records the following entry from Edwards' journal:

"I know not how to express better what my sins appear to me to be than by heaping infinite upon infinite, and multiplying infinite by infinite.  Very often, for these many years, these expressions are in my mind, and in my mouth.  'Infinite upon infinite...Infinite upon infinite!'  When I look into my heart, and take a view of my wickedness, it looks like an abyss infinitely deeper than hell."

Taken in isolation - one might quickly conclude that Edwards was a pretty melancholy man. 

But those familiar with his other writings, particularly his works on heaven, know otherwise.  In fact, it occurs to me today that the more infinitely unworthy I see myself to be - the greater my potential for happiness.


Consider this.

Who is happier? 

1)  The person moved from a position of $5 in debt to the opposite ($5 in the bank)


2)  The person moved from a position of $1,000,000 in debt to the opposite ($1,000,000 in the bank)

The answer is obvious I think.  The experience of person #2 is one of inexpressible joy.  The experience of person #1 is hardly worth noticing. 

Change the illustration over to a contemplation of heaven.

Who is the happier Christian on earth?

1)  The one who expects to move from a position of a few bothersome bad habits - to heaven without them?


2)  The one who expects to move from a position of INFINITELY ugly sin and sinfulness - to a heaven INFINITE holiness and love?

It is, it seems to me, the Christian who sees his/her infinite upon infinite sin that has the greatest potential for joy here on earth.  Edwards, I believe, knew that joy.  I want to know it too.

And this highlights for me the great tragedy of the modern gospel.  The modern gospel waters down the seriousness of sin.  And the consequence is harmful to unbelievers and believers alike.  The unbeliever sees nothing from which to be saved.  And the believer sees almost nothing worth waiting for.  Both individuals are left to get all they can from this life.  The unbeliever - because he does not fear hell.  The Christian - because he cannot love heaven.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Death with Dignity? Massachusetts Ballot Question 2


“I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asks for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.”
—from the Oath of Hippocrates

On Tuesday November 6, 2012 voters in Massachusetts will be doing more than choosing between Presidential candidates.  In fact, I suggest a far more weighty decision has been placed before us.  Popularly known as the “Death with Dignity” Initiative, or Question 2, this ballot question plunges voters into an emotionally charged and morally challenging debate. 

The proposal would allow terminally ill patients (defined as those believed to have less than 6 months to live) the right to request from a physician enough medication to end their life.   The request must come from a patient deemed competent to make such a serious decision.  The patient’s diagnosis and life expectancy must be confirmed by a second physician.  The patient must make the request both verbally and in writing, and includes a provision for a 15 day waiting period.  Currently just 2 other states (Oregon and Washington) have similar legislation. 

How are Christians to respond to this issue?  What is the Biblical way to approach this subject?  In what way should our faith inform our decision to support or oppose this initiative?  The following points are a few which come to my mind.

First, I am deeply concerned as a Christian with the issue of suffering and death.  Suffering surrounds us in this world.  The grim reality of death is inescapable.  The Bible explains that both these things are a radical and terrible distortion from God’s initial purposes in Creation brought about by sin.  Paul deals with this reality in great detail in Romans 5.  There he says that “sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men.”  I have known personally the difficulty of seeing a close acquaintance die from cancer.  I have spoken at the funeral of someone who died unexpectedly.  As a pharmacist I have dispensed hundreds of prescriptions to patients battling the pains and fears of terminal illness.  This is our present world.  In this world death, misery and suffering meet us around every corner.  Such miseries and tears cannot leave us unmoved or unsympathetic. 

Second, the desire to die when faced with the prospect of nothing but misery is not unnatural.  Take the case of Job.  He was a man whom the Lord Himself declared to be singularly Godly, “a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil (Job 1:8).”  But then, confronted with the loss of his children, his livelihood and his health – Job preferred death to life.  He said “May the day perish on which I was born…may that day be as darkness…why did I not die at birth (Job 3)?”  His suffering was intense and he wanted to die.   He said “Oh that I might have my request, that God would grant me the thing that I long for!  That it would please God to crush me, that He would loose His hand and cut me off (Job 6:8-9)!”  Jonah, the Lord’s prophet to Nineveh had a similar experience when he said "Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live (Jonah 4:3)!”  Those who find themselves in the midst of despair are not alone or unique when they feel or express a desire to end their life. 

Third, God Himself is concerned with our suffering.   The whole scope and history of God’s dealing with mankind displays His compassion for our circumstances and His purpose to deal with it.  He is concerned not merely about the terrible tragedy of physical suffering and physical death, but also with the far greater tragedy of spiritual suffering and spiritual death.  This dual concern - for both the physical and spiritual ruins of mankind – finds its greatest expression in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus Himself was not unconcerned with our suffering.  He wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11) and was moved with compassion at the death of a widow’s son (Luke 7).  But most significantly, He Himself endured the greatest of suffering and cruelest of deaths, in order to bear the penalty of sin for His people.  Hebrews 12:2 reminds us that “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.”  Peter tells us Christ “suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust (1 Peter 3:18).” 

Fourth, neither the degree of our immediate suffering nor the apparent hopeless before us, gives to us as God’s creatures the prerogative to end our lives.  Against the temptation to do so, as with any other temptation, the Lord makes His promise to believers that "No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it." (1 Corinthians 10:13)  The Christian and Biblical view of murder traces the heart of the issue back to the image of God in man.  The unlawful taking of life, either our own or others, is an assault upon God’s image within us.  Life is God’s to give.  He is the God who “gives life to all things (1 Timothy 6:13).”  And God expects us to honor that gift of life.   “The Lord is with those who uphold my life (Psalm 54:4).”  On the contrary, Proverbs 8:36 says “All those who hate me love death.” 

Finally, a Biblical view of suffering must always take into account that God, in His infinite wisdom, can use even the worst circumstances and suffering to bring about good.  The apostle Paul knew pain, suffering and sorrow.  Many times he was persecuted and brought near the point of death.  He was often alone and rejected.  He endured whatever he mysteriously calls his “thorn in the flesh.”  Yet in the end he could say “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).”  For all who turn to Christ, there is the assurance that their pain – however difficult to bear – is not meaningless.

In addition to these 5 concerns, it may also be worth pointing out that the American Medical Association and the Massachusetts  Medical Association oppose the idea of physician-assisted suicide.  To quote from the AMA Code of Ethics “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer. Instead of participating in assisted suicide, physicians must aggressively respond to the needs of patients at the end of life … in order that these patients continue to receive emotional support, comfort care, adequate pain control, respect for patient autonomy and good communication.

Conclusion:  The Christian is intimately concerned with and sensitive to the issues related to the “death with dignity” ballot question.  But our concern must begin by taking God’s idea of compassion first – compassion far more comprehensive and gracious than our own.  We uphold the efforts of all who seek to minimize suffering through medical interventions, but we also must object strongly to any legislation that contributes to our cultural attack on the image of God in man.  This law would seem to suggest that some lives, those of the terminally ill, are no longer worth living.  It contributes to an eroding appreciation for the value of life.  The Lord is not less concerned with the lives of those who are near the point of death.  The thief on the cross next to Christ was – if you will – terminally ill.  However, he did not have 6 months.  He didn’t even have 6 hours.  But Christ spoke to Him the words of life.  And that repentant sinner heard the good news from the lips of Jesus:  “today you will be with Me in paradise (Luke 23:43).” 

And we also believe, as Christians, that there is something worse than death.  This is a sobering thought, but it must enter our discussion of this issue.  Death is not really the end for anyone.  The Bible says "it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment (Hebrews 9:27).”  For those who put their faith in the Savior Jesus Christ there is something glorious on the other side of our suffering.  But for those who reject the Lord, there awaits something worse on the other side of death. 
Christ came to give life.  He said to Martha at the tomb of Lazarus “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.  And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.  Do you believe this (John 11:25-26)?”

Dear reader – Do you believe this?  

Friday, October 19, 2012

What I Believe...1-3-1

The older I get, the more I appreciate simplicity.  Achieving simplicity, however, is not easy.  I am fond of the quote attributed to Blaise Pascal (and others): "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time."

Rambling is easy.  Simplicity takes time and effort.  The goal of simplicity in writing is to maximize the number of things you do not say.  And so, with simplicity as a goal, I wish to express what I believe as a Christian.

  • I believe 1 thing about myself.
  • I believe 3 things about Jesus.
  • I believe 1 thing about the future.

That is the outline.  1-3-1.  I don't know how to reduce it any further.  And so, let me now explain what those things actually are.

I believe 1 thing about myself:  I am a sinner.  Of this fact I am utterly convinced and persuaded.  Both my own experience and the Bible confirm this time and time again.  Animals have instincts.  Their actions may be pleasant or unpleasant, but they can never truly be classified as right or wrong.  Man is different.  We are bound inescapably to an awareness of good and evil, right and wrong.  We call this the Moral Law.  I am obliged to keep this Moral Law.  But I don't.  And I know it.

I believe 3 things about Jesus:

     First:  He was not merely a man, but God in the flesh.  Jesus was God entering into the human world as a man.  No other conclusion adequately explains everything He did and said.   His birth and life fulfilled every prophecy that the Old Testament predicted.  The only rational explanation is this:  He planned it.  He was both the Author of the prophecies and their fulfilment.  His miracles, words and life confirmed He was God.  Add to this the fact that He actually claimed to be God.  Good men don't do this - unless, of course, it is true. 

     Second:  He died as a substitute for sinners like me.  The cross was a cruel, but not uncommon, instrument of death.  But Jesus' death was unique.  It was not an accident.  It was not a failure.  It was not, ultimately, a tragedy.  His death was a planned and purposed substitution - bearing the penalty for sin that sinners like me deserved.  Like the lambs slaughtered by the priests in the Old Testament as sacrifices for sin, so Jesus Christ died as a perfect, sinless sacrifice for all who would put their faith in Him. 

     Third:  Jesus rose again from the dead.  On the third day He rose.  Death could not hold Him.  God the Father accepted His sacrifice and acknowledged Jesus Christ to be precisely who He claimed to be.  The soldiers, whose lives depended on guarding the tomb, could not explain away what happened.  And so remarkable and convincing was His resurrection that His disciples, previously discouraged, were now willing to die preaching the good news of this truth to others.  And most of them did. 

I believe 1 thing about the futureA Day of Judgment is yet to come.  If this is not the case, then the world we live in makes no sense to me.  Those who do wrong often seem to get the furthest ahead.  Those struggling to do what is right often suffer for it.  Cruel misfortunes seem to fall randomly upon our race.  If all our hope is tied merely to this life, then life is ultimately meaningless.  There is no right or wrong.  Life would be, to quote Shakespeare's famous line in Macbeth "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."  But this life does mean something.  I know it does.  And I think we all do.  Life is significant.  What we do and what we believe matters.  Right now, in fact, counts forever.

That is as simple as I can make it.  I'm sure others could do better.  Maybe if I had more time...I could too.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Great Judgment Morning

Was reading the words of this Southern Gospel song this morning as part of my devotions.  I believe the musical arrangement is attributed to Charles Tillman (1861 - 1943), though the words themselves originated in a poem he found.

Here is the fourth verse:

The moral man came to the judgment, But his self-righteous rags would not do
The men who had crucified Jesus, had passed off as moral men too.
The soul that had put off salvation, "Not tonight; I'll get saved by and by
No time now to think of religion!"  At last they had found time to die.

The final two lines struck me. 

They remind me of Christ's parable of the rich man who could think of no better use of his time, than to make greater provision here on earth for all his treasure.  Jesus, describing the man, said:

"And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”" (Luke 12:19-21, ESV)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Modern Preachers & the Bible Buffet

The problem with most modern preaching can be stated, sadly enough, with this simple image.  The preacher stands before the Word of God as a hungry child stands before a beautiful buffet.  With no restraints whatsoever he is allowed to pick and choose the dishes he wishes to deliver.  The problem with such preaching is easy to discover.  As with the child at the buffet, his plate is likely to be filled with all the things that make him smile, while avoiding most scrupulously the things less appealing (though probably beneficial) to his body.  He contends that he is faithfully preaching God's Word, for everything he says comes from the provisions of the buffet, but it fails miserably to represent the intended healthy balance and beauty designed by the Great Chef. 

The Gospel is a balanced meal.  It contains on the one hand the gentle invitations and genuine sympathies of a good God who does not delight in punishments.  Christ is presented as a sufficient Savior - and the Cross a testimony of His rich provision for our complete forgiveness for all who believe in Him.  The Lord beckons men with the promises of better things: Living water, Answered prayers, Eternal life.  All this, and much more, are at hand for the person in the pulpit to please his hearers with. Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." (Isaiah 55:1)

But there is another side.  The God who woos is also the God who warns.  The same Lord who holds forth the promise of Heaven also threatens with the prospects of Hell.  The free provisions of the Gospel are always coupled with the unswerving and unbending demands of the Law.  The joyful prospect that some can be saved is always compared in Scripture with the dreadful reality that most will not.  The beauty of holiness is always contrasted with the real stench of sin.  Paul says to those who persist in unbelief  "But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed." (Romans 2:5)

This is why the real problem of modern preaching is so hard, at first glance, to discover.  The problem is not so much with what IS said, but rather with what is NOT said.  Dessert is fine when consumed in its proper proportions.  Wine is wonderful when moderation is maintained.  But the problem with modern preaching is that it leaves the hearer's soul fat and drunk on Bible promises, while dying from spiritual malnutrition for lack of a balanced meal.  The modern pulpit no longer warns about the dangers of unbelief, nor does it convict comfortable Christians who persist in soul-destroying sins.

And let's be fair.  We who sit in the pews are equally to blame.  We "vote" (if you will) for the type of preaching we demand by our faithful attendance (or lack thereof) every Sunday.  We may agree in our hearts that a more balanced Gospel, the true Biblical Gospel, is what our generation truly needs.  But as long as we tolerated the textual truffles and chocolate covered content week after week, we tell the church leadership what we really prefer.

I need a balanced Gospel. Like G.K. Chesterton once quipped, I want "a religion that is not only right where I am right, but a religion that is right where I am wrong."  My soul needs this kind of preaching.  I need my eye poked and my heart prodded with the truth.  I need a ministry that does not fail to bring "the whole counsel of God" to bear upon my life.  Buffet-style, pick-what-you-please  preaching will never do this.  Balanced preaching is not something merely to be "liked" on our social media platforms.  It is literally a matter of life and death.  May the Lord give us the courage and wills to insist upon it.