“Establish the Work of Your Hands”

In Psalm 90:16-17 Moses prays,

 “May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children. May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands.

 Faithfulness in the service of Christ is a basic demand that our Lord has placed upon us all. We all have different abilities, but the basic demand is the same — use what opportunities and abilities you have for Christ. The results are likewise determined by God. But we know that it is through us that he has chosen to work, and a large part of the joy of Christian service is to see him bless our work in his good time. We pray, with Moses, that “the favor of the Lord our God will rest upon us,” and that he will “establish the work of our hands” as we attempt to serve him. This, we pray, will be our legacy.

 There was a man who by the 1930’s was already an old man. He was before my time, but I have heard of him on several occasions. His name was Ezra. I don’t even know his last name, but he was my grandmother’s uncle. Uncle Ezra was a faithful Christian who never married but had determined that he could be a witness for Christ to what family he had. And so he would often invite my grandparents to church.  One day he stopped by my grandparent’s house and invited my grandfather to go with him the next evening to the special meetings being hosted by his church. Grandpa was not interested, but he went — peace in the family, and all that, you know.

 During the sermon the guest preacher said something that caught my grandfather’s interest. He said, “Don’t think that just because you were sprinkled as a baby you are a Christian!”  I say it caught his interest — actually, it roused his anger. Grandpa was not a religious man, but he had attended a Lutheran church as a boy and was sprinkled as a baby. And now this preacher told him he was lost. How dare he?

 After the sermon, the pastor gave an altar call, and Grandpa stepped forward — but not with the best intentions. He wanted to argue with that preacher. Until midnight or better they went at it. “Don’t you tell me I am not a Christian!” “But what does God say?” the preacher replied, as he turned again to his Bible. And on it went. Very late that night God broke Grandpa’s proud will. For the first time in his life, he learned what it was to bend the knee before the Lord Jesus. He confessed Jesus as Lord and asked for forgiveness for his sins. Grandpa was wonderfully saved. God had blessed Uncle Ezra’s faithfulness in bringing my grandfather to hear the gospel preached.

 But that’s just the beginning of the story. As a result of all that, my grandmother was soon converted also. Then it was their children also — all six of them, eventually, including my father. Then it was their neighbors. And later the grandchildren. And then the great-grandchildren. Now these many years later, many from their family and their neighborhood have served as pastors, missionaries, deacons, Sunday School teachers, church youth leaders, and so on. At Grandpa’s funeral in 1988 I met several who had come to Christ from his witness. Grandpa, Grandma, their children and grandchildren, their neighbors, their friends — and from them all collectively, literally hundreds have come to know Christ.

  I thank God for Uncle Ezra. I am thankful for his faithfulness in service to Christ. God “established the work of his hands.” It is no overstatement of the case at all to say that the influence of my great-, great-Uncle Ezra lives on, and it lives on for Christ.

  Can you think of a better legacy than that?

 

The Revenge of Measuring Success by Results

I was sure that the long-standing practice by evangelicals and fundamentalists alike of judging success by numerical results had died a long overdue death in the 1990’s. My seminary education had instilled in me the commitment to judging my ministry as a pastor by the standard of whether it pleased God or not, that is, whether it was faithful to Scripture. Numbers mania had gone the way of the dodo by the late 1990’s.

Or so I thought. Pragmatism seems to have returned with a vengeance. In order to survive the ever-changing ministry environments of the past decade, many ministries seem to have made their peace with whatever changes of philosophy will keep their doors open.

To make matters worse, not many members seem to have noticed. Ministries that once prided themselves on their conscientious commitment to a thoroughly Scriptural philosophy and practice have overthrown all core values in a matter of a few years (or sooner). And those who challenge the turn to pragmatism find their protestations falling on deaf ears.

Carl Trueman, church history professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, and ever keen cultural critic, writes about the turn to pragmatism he sees:

This all takes me back to a question I have raised before: in a world where success is the ultimate sacrament of absolution, who is there with the credibility to call the successful to account?  Not the man in the small church.  Suspicion that he is motivated by envy will always undermine his authority in such a context.  And, if we are honest, envy will likely always be a part of the motivation for such criticism. I preach total depravity, after all, and it is also the one example where I can honestly say I consistently practice what I preach.  What pastor of a church of fifty does not want to be pastor of a church of five hundred?  The church I serve has ca. 90 on a Sunday.  Yes, I would love a few hundred more.  If we ever got to four hundred, I hope we would plant a church, as long as I did not have to drink zinfandel and grow a soul patch.  But yes, I would be lying if I said I did not have a twinge of envy at those whose ministries are – well, you know, successful.  I guess that is the word.

So what about the successful?  Will they point out the problematic excesses of the self-promotional culture which seems to pervade much of the modern conservative evangelical church?  One can only hope so; but history gives little cause for optimism on that score.  Nobody wants to bash the successful, for our culture assumes that that would be to identify with failure and mediocrity.

The psychology of success is fascinating: those who are successful often start as well-intentioned people; but increasing success almost always seems to bring in its wake an increasingly relaxed attitude to the rules, a fuzzier conception of right and wrong and an odd sense of entitlement whereby the successful come to think that, for them, the normal criteria of behaviour do not apply.  This incremental exceptionalism is reinforced by the failure of those who should check them from actually doing so.  It is almost as if, for all of us, success (and in church we typically mean numerical size and growth) is the ultimate criterion of truth and that therefore as long as it seems to be working, as long as it is popular, it must be true.  You can ape the Hollywood aesthetic; you can be increasingly vague on the hard teachings; but as long as the machine keeps working as it should, everybody is happy — or at least comfortable in their silence.

… As long as you pull in the punters, especially the young ones, as long as your name on the conference flier helps to sell tickets, and as long as your preaching is popular with the rising generation, those with the standing to state the obvious and do something about the excesses will generally not do so for fear of spoiling something which seems to be working as it should.  Indeed, you will enjoy the benefits of a powerful and heady perfume which gives the successful a high and hides the hollow reality from outsiders: the sweet smell of success.  You just can’t beat it.

And when it all blows up, you can be confident it will be nothing to do with anyone.  “Seriously, guv, I never even knew the man…..”

I think we would do well to consider.

Doctrine vs. Jesus? Some Musings on Sentimental Christian Pablum

 I’ve heard the song only a couple of times now, and so I can’t quote it exactly. But it’s message goes something like this: it’s not our interpretations that matter, it’s not our firmly held positions, it’s not the doctrinal points we argue over — “It’s still the cross!”

 The implication, of course, is that Christ’s cross is the center-piece of the Christian faith and its irreducible essential. And because the cross is so important, we should not fuss over such things as interpretations and doctrine. The cross of Christ — this is what is important, and this is what we are all about.

 What puzzles me is this: just how is that so? How is it that the cross of Christ is of central importance? And what does that mean? The fact is, there is no way to answer the question without giving interpretation and establishing doctrine — the very things that are said to be unnecessary! Clearly, it is not the pieces of wood formed into a cross that are essential to the faith. What is important is Christ crucified. But even that — Christ crucified — is virtually meaningless until we explain (i.e., interpret) precisely what its significance actually is.

 Now of course the significance of the cross is that in his death the Lord Jesus Christ offered himself to God as the substitute for sinners, standing in their place to make satisfaction for their sins. That is, his was the death of a penal substitute, and we who trust in him are freed from our sin and condemnation precisely because in our place he bore our wrath and endured our curse. This all is what the Bible makes a point to affirm for us over and again. But you see all of this is interpretation. It is doctrinal formulation. And such is essential to the Christian faith. It is unthinking and misguided to pit “the cross” against interpretation or doctrine, for apart from these “the cross” has no meaning whatever. In short, the song quoted above, for all its good intentions, is nonsense.

 For generations the church has been plagued by rising elements from within that decry the need of doctrine. We have had pietism and quietism and of course the run of the mill “Let’s just have Jesus” voices. “Why don’t we all just believe in Jesus and leave it at that?” Or, “It’s not doctrine that matters — life is what matters. Practical godliness and holiness are what are important!” But here we go again — what does it mean to believe in Jesus? Who is he? Why should we trust him? And what is godliness? And why is it so important? All this involves interpretation, doctrine, apart from which such well meaning assertions are meaningless and would reduce Christianity to nothing.

  We must understand that Christianity is built on propositional truth. It is distinctively a creedal religion. It is much more than that, of course. But to Christianity creed is basic. It rests on certain truth claims. There are certain propositions which are held up as true, apart from which there is no Christianity at all. Moreover, these truths have implications. And the claim of Scripture is that all this God has revealed in his Word for his people to learn and to believe earnestly in order to worship him and live before him aright. And so God commands us to “study” and “meditate” on his Word, “rightly dividing” it according to “the pattern of sound doctrine” the apostles have given us. Indifference to this Word — indifference to its truth claims — cannot in any way be said to be godly or noble. It is, in fact, anti-Christian.

 What God calls us to is not to shun interpretation. He calls us to interpret his Word carefully and faithfully. And what today’s churches need is not less doctrine but more doctrine — an ever increasing exposition and understanding of God’s precious Word. It his here, in interpreting God’s Word, we learn of a cross and a Christ of the cross, of a resurrection and a salvation for sinners fully accomplished and freely offered, of a coming judgment, and of a infinitely amazing and loving God who has done for us in his Son what we could not do for ourselves.

No, so far from shunning interpretation, we must relish it thankfully and pursue it worshipfully.

 

To Lose a Sense of Sin Is to Lose the Gospel

To speak of sin by itself, to speak of it apart from the realities of creation and grace, is to forget the resolve of God. God wants shalom and will pay any price to get it back. Human sin is stubborn, but not as stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way. Moreover, to speak of sin by itself is to mischaracterize its nature: sin is only a parasite, a vandal, a spoiler. Sinful life is a partly depressing, partly ludicrous caricature of genuine human life. To concentrate on our rebellion, defection and folly–to say to the world “I have some bad news and I have some good news”–is to forget that the center of the Christian religion is not our sin but our Savior. To speak of sin without grace is to minimize the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the fruit of the Spirit, and the hope of shalom.

But to speak of grace without sin is no better. To do this is to trivialize the cross of Jesus Christ, to skate past all the struggling by good people down the ages to forgive, accept, and rehabilitate sinners, including themselves, and therefore to cheapen the grace of God that always comes to us with blood on it. What had we thought the ripping and writhing on Golgotha were all about? To speak of grace without looking squarely at these realities, without painfully honest acknowledgement of our own sin and its effects, is to shrink grace to a mere embellishment of the music of creation, to shrink it down to a mere grace note. In short, for the Christian church (even in its recently popular seeker services) to ignore, euphemize, or otherwise mute the lethal reality of sin is to cut the nerve of the gospel. For the sober truth is that without full disclosure of sin, the gospel of grace becomes impertinent, unnecessary, and finally, uninteresting.

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans, 1995), 199.

Also, a friend sent this hymn:

Smitten, Stricken, and Afflicted

Stanza 3

Ye who think of sin but lightly,

Nor suppose the evil great,

Here may view its nature rightly,

Here its guilt may estimate.

Mark the Sacrifice appointed!

See Who bears the awful load!

’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,

Son of Man, and Son of God.

 

Stanza 4

Here we have a firm foundation,

Here the refuge of the lost.

Christ the Rock of our salvation,

Christ the Name of which we boast.

Lamb of God for sinners wounded!

Sacrifice to cancel guilt!

None shall ever be confounded

Who on Him their hope have built.

Ask Ye What Great Thing I Know?

Ask ye what great thing I know,

That delights and stirs me so?

What the high reward I win?

Whose the Name I glory in?

Jesus Christ, the Crucified!

 

Who defeats my fiercest foes?

Who consoles my saddest woes?

Who revives my fainting heart,

Healing all its hidden smart?

Jesus Christ, the Crucified!

 

Who is life in life to me?

Who the death of death will be?

Who will place me on His right,

With the countless hosts of light?

Jesus Christ, the Crucified!

 

This is that great thing I know;

This delights and stirs me so;

Faith in Him Who died to save,

Him Who triumphed over the grave:

Jesus Christ, the Crucified!

 

by Fred G. Zaspel (2002)

Written in response to Johann Schwedler’s “Ask Ye What Great Thing I Know?”

 

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