Not What I Used to Be

As Christians, the longer we are saved the greater the recognition of the desperate plight of our old nature and the utter futility of any attempt at holy living in our own strength. I was reminded of this recently in teaching a group of senior saints – many of whom have been saved for decades. In a discussion of Peter’s admonition in 1 Pet 2:12 to “to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul,” more than a few of these veteran believers lamented regarding their ongoing struggles and the all too familiar experience of needing to repent and seek forgiveness for recurring sins.

This same sentiment is conveyed in the puritan prayer “Confession and Petition” from The Valley of Vision.  The following excerpt is typical:

Holy LORD,

I have sinned times without number, and been guilty of pride and unbelief, of failure to find thy mind in thy Word, of neglect to seek thee in my daily life.

My transgressions and short-comings present me with a list of accusations.

Yet, for believers in Jesus Christ, this is not the final word. Rather, our daily struggles are to be lived in light of two important truths – the first of which is expressed in the next line of this same Puritan prayer:

But I bless thee that they [my transgressions and short-comings] will not stand against me, for all have been laid on Christ.

For those of us who know Christ as Savior, the glorious and amazing truth is that every sin we will ever commit has been laid on Him.  They have been nailed to His cross (Col 2:14; 1 Pet 2:24; 1 John 2:2) and paid for by His precious blood (1 Pet 1:18-19; Col 1:14, 22).  Moreover, this amazing transaction serves not as a license to sin (Rom 6:1, 2), but as a powerful motivation for holy living. The deeper one’s understanding of and embracing of the atonement—that is, the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross—the greater one’s appreciation and motivation to live a life that pleases Him. For the true child of God, the cross is not simply the starting point, as if it’s something we’re to grow beyond – it is the focus or culmination of the entire biblical storyline.  Even in the climatic final book of the New Testament, the cross takes center stage as it is only the slain Lamb who is worthy to take the scroll and begin to enact the horrific judgments of the Apocalypse (Rev 5:1-10).  As J. I. Packer rightly asserts, “The traveler through the Bible landscape misses his way as soon as he loses sight of the hill called Calvary,” or as declared by J. Knox Chamblin, “The Spirit does not take his pupils beyond the cross, but ever more deeply into it.”

It is a preoccupation, yea, an obsession with the cross and all that it signifies that will keep us from falling victim to the allurements of the world or to the desires of the flesh.  It is the flame of the cross that fuels the fire of our love for Christ.  For the Christian, the cross not only removes the penalty for sin (placing it upon our sinless substitute) but it empowers us to live above sin’s dominion and enslavement. It is in the shadow of the cross, with its abiding echo of “It is finished,” where Satan trembles – as he is powerless to touch any who abide therein.

The second critical truth to embrace in our ongoing struggle with sin is that, with the new birth and the indwelling of His Spirit, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence (2 Pet 1:3).  That is, the power to live morally upright lives does not come from within us, but from God. As believers, we are to appropriate that power in the ongoing daily struggles with the world, the flesh, and the devil (James 3:15; Gal 5:16-17; Eph 6:10-13). While perfect sinlessness will never be achieved this side of glory (1 John 1:8), progressive sanctification, as evidenced by the believer’s sinning less, can and should be (1 John 2:3-6; ).  The well-known testimony of John Newton speaks for itself:

I am not what I ought to be—ah, how imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be—I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be—soon, soon shall I put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection. Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”

May the Lord encourage your heart today through the grand and glorious truths of the cross and the sacrifice of His Son! May there be a renewed sense of wonder and awe at the power of the gospel and of its transforming power in the lives of those who embrace it.

Hezekiah’s Folly

Each time I read through the scriptural accounts of the life of Hezekiah, I am both challenged and convicted by the testimony of this godly king of Judah.  The impact of his life in the history of God’s people as detailed in three extended accounts within the OT (2 Kings 18-20, 2 Chronicles 29-32, and Isaiah 36-39) is extraordinary.  Hezekiah is clearly an exemplary king under whose leadership Judah experienced the favor and blessing of God. Since the division of the kingdom into Judah and Israel over 200 years earlier, no king had served God with greater devotion and passion than Hezekiah.  According to 2 Kings 18, he “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done.”  Even surpassing Asa and Jehoshaphat in commitment to Yahweh, Hezekiah “trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him.”

Indeed, Hezekiah’s kingship was unparalleled in the history of Judea, serving as a reminder of the reign of King David and perhaps even foreshadowing a greater king to come. He restored temple worship, was the first to remove the high places, and even destroyed the bronze serpent which Moses had made in the wilderness – as it had become an object of worship. When facing certain defeat at the hands of the mighty Sennacherib of Assyria, Hezekiah trusted God (albeit, after an initial capitulation to the demands of this pagan ruler) and experienced one of the most dramatic deliverances in Israel’s history. Finally, in the midst of a critical illness with an accompanying pronouncement of sure and imminent death, Hezekiah’s prayer moved the God of heaven to heal his sickness and add fifteen years to his life.  Moreover, as confirmation that the LORD would fulfill his promised healing, Hezekiah was given a miraculous sign through the unnatural movement of a shadow.  Surely, Hezekiah would serve as a role model of faith and obedience for generations to follow!

Yet in the end Hezekiah suffered from the most basic and deadly of human sins—pride and self-centeredness. When approached by envoys from pagan Babylon, Hezekiah not only welcomed them, but he showed them his treasure house – foolishly revealing the extent of his wealth to a nation intent on conquest and plunder. The one whose faith in Yahweh had stood so firm against the mighty assault from Assyria now foolishly drew attention to himself as if he was somehow responsible for the deliverance and corresponding prosperity that he and Judah now enjoyed. The same Hezekiah who previously cried out, “So now, O LORD our God, save us, please, from his [Sennacherib’s] hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O LORD, are God alone” (2 Kings 19:19), now appears more concerned that the kingdoms of the earth know of Hezekiah’s prominence than of Yahweh’s glory.  Notice the record of Hezekiah’s pride as he was quick to show the Babylonian envoys “all his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them” (2 Kings 20:13). While he previously boasted only in the power of his God, Hezekiah now sought to impress others with his own earthly treasures.

In what is certainly a tragic twist of irony, Hezekiah’s foolhardy display of self-centeredness mirrors the very attitude previously evidenced by Sennacherib – one which was quickly and decidedly condemned by God.  Note the words of this powerful and egotistical king of Assyria: “With my many chariots I have gone up the heights of the mountains, to the far recesses of Lebanon; I felled its tallest cedars, its choicest cypresses; I entered its farthest lodging place, its most fruitful forest. 24 I dug wells and drank foreign waters, and I dried up with the sole of my foot all the streams of Egypt” (2 Kings 19:23-24). While we’re not surprised by the arrogant words of this ungodly pagan ruler, the prideful display by one of Judah’s most celebrated kings leaves us with a sobering challenge. Like Hezekiah, we are all prone to seek attention and accolades for ourselves. The insidious sin of pride can rear its ugly head in many ways – even camouflaged under the banner of ministry or service for Christ. The flight from spiritual prosperity to self-promotion is all too often full with Christian passengers vying for first class.  The elation that accompanies God’s good hand of blessing can quickly degenerate into an attitude of self-centeredness if we take our eyes off the One from whom all blessings flow. The last chapter in the life of Hezekiah is a sobering reminder that “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov 16:18).  There is no room for arrogance, egotism, or self-aggrandizing in the life of the spirit-led servant of the Lord (Eph 4:1-3; Phil 2:3; 1 Pet 5:5).  May we who serve Christ not repeat Hezekiah’s folly but rather make our boast in the Lord (2 Cor 10:17-18) – the One ‘from whom and through whom and to whom are all things’ (Rom 11:36).

Extraordinary No-Names

In the book entitled, Unnamed: Unsuspecting Heroes Singled Out by God, author Chris Travis notes how God often chooses to use unsuspecting, even unnamed, individuals to accomplish significant tasks in His service.  To be sure, there are many unnamed heroes in the Scriptures – from the unnamed Egyptian princess who rescued the baby Moses (Exod 2:5-6) to the unnamed centurion who, wishing to save Paul’s life, thwarted the soldier’s plan to kill the prisoners (Acts 27:42-43). In a recent read through the OT, I was impressed with the contribution of one “extraordinary no-name,” the unnamed servant of Abraham in Genesis 24 who God used to secure a wife for Isaac.  While some suggest this servant may be Eliezer of Damascus, the individual who Abram contemplated making his heir nearly sixty years earlier (Gen 15:2), there is no explicit textual warrant within Genesis 24 for such an identification.  What we can conclude from this chapter is that this individual, an unnamed servant, is in many respects the unsung hero of this milestone event in the life and progeny of Abraham.  As this and other accounts in Scripture indicate – unnamed or unknown does not mean insignificant to God and His service.

As the Genesis 22 opens, we find an elderly Abraham continuing to experience the blessings of God, yet concerned that his son Isaac might take a pagan Canaanite woman for his wife. To avert such a possibility, Abraham entrusts to this servant the responsibility of finding a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s own relatives in northern Mesopotamia.  While at one level this unnamed servant was merely carrying out his master’s request, the manner in which he does so is noteworthy.

Beginning with his humble submission to Abraham’s authority (v. 9) and a prayerful dependence on the Lord (vv. 12-14, 42-44), this unnamed servant exhibited a host of admirable qualities.  Within this one chapter of Scripture, we see evidenced: his foresight and thoughtful inquiry as to potential obstacles (v. 5); his creativity in formulating strategy (v. 11); his timeliness, resourcefulness, and preparedness for action (v. 53); his earnest desire for God’s steadfast love to be upon his master (v. 12); his prompt action upon discerning God’s working (vv. 15-17, 45-46), yet patience in waiting upon the Lord (v. 21); his worshipful gratitude for God’s provision (vv. 26-27, 52); and his courage in countering potential resistance to carrying out his master’s desire (vv. 55-56). While unnamed and perhaps unknown outside of Abraham’s household, this hero of the faith is quite extraordinary in his service – both to his master Abraham and to his LORD. He faithfully fulfilled the commission that had been committed to him.

In the above mentioned book Unnamed, author Chris Travis considers eight unsuspecting heroes of the Scriptures under the respective category headings: unexpected, unclean, unpolished, unworthy, underestimated, uncertain, unnoticed, and unranked.  Most of us who know and serve the Lord undoubtedly relate to one or more of these generally inauspicious designations and go through life relatively unknown and effectively unnamed.  Yet, the life of Abraham’s unnamed servant is a powerful reminder that God works His great plan through common everyday individuals who sincerely desire to use their God-given talents and gifts in His service.  What may appear as simple ordinary tasks, when done from a heart of service, are, in fact, quite extraordinary because of the One we serve (Matt 25:40).  May the Lord grant us grace so that, like Abraham’s unnamed servant, we may one day hear, “Well done thou good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21). In God’s eyes, ordinary no-names become extraordinary when they faithfully serve the Master.

New Testament Use of the Old Testament

No subject is perhaps more important for the understanding of the Christian faith than the New Testament use of the Old.  Considering the one thousand or more quotations and/or allusions to the OT in the New, this topic represents one of the most complex and challenging areas of biblical studies. Indeed, Jesus and the NT writers apply the OT in diverse, fascinating, and, at times, remarkably innovative ways. For example, why does Matthew 2:18 view Jeremiah 31:15 as a prophecy of Herod’s slaying of innocent babies, while Jeremiah’s words obviously relate to the Babylonian invasion of Judea? How could Matthew interpret Hosea’s prophecy, “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” as applying to Jesus, when the OT prophet clearly understood this as speaking of Israel?  Moreover, does the NT writers’ use of the OT evidence a fundamental continuity or discontinuity between the two Testaments and what are the practical implications for teaching and preaching?

For answers to these and related questions, come join Dr. Huss for an engaging journey through the Scriptures as we consider how Jesus and the NT writers understood and applied the OT Scriptures.

NT775/NT775TM New Testament Use of the Old Testament taught by Dr. Al Huss will be offered July 18-22, 2011. Class size is limited, so interested students are encouraged to sign up quickly before the class fills up. See the full Summer 2011 Schedule as well as the Registration form for more information and details.

“An Eye for an Eye” and the Sanctity of Life

While Christians generally recognize the biblical mandate of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as part of the Old Testament Law, I suspect that most do not normally identify it with its original context—the sanctity of life, specifically that of a pregnant woman and her unborn fetus. I for one was recently surprised to read the following from Exodus (coincidently, the day after Sanctity of Life Sunday):

22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exod 21:22-25 ESV)

How remarkable that this first mandate from God of proportionate retribution of an eye for eye is in the specific context of injury to a pregnant woman and/or her fetus from men who are engaged in a brawl. If she and/or her fetus are harmed (through premature birth or a miscarriage), God demands punishment of “life for life, eye for eye, and tooth for tooth, etc.” Notice that there is no restriction on this penalty—such as, only to late term pregnancies or in cases in which the baby was determined to have no major birth defects!

The interpretive challenges of these verses notwithstanding (see any number of good commentaries for details), the message is clear—God values the lives of both the mother and the unborn child. The life in the mother’s womb is of equal value to the life of the mother. This, of course, is because God is the ultimate author of all life.  Moreover, the innate worth of each human being (born or unborn) is grounded in the fact that they are created in the image of God (Gen 9:6). The continuing devaluation of human life in our society through the shameful atrocity of abortion (as well as growing receptivity towards euthanasia) stands as a direct affront to the Creator of life. The life of the unborn is precious to God and the taking of that life through abortion is sin in the eyes of the righteous Judge before whom all will one day stand.

Interestingly, as detailed in Douglas Stuart’s commentary on Exodus (NAC, 2006), the attitude expressed toward the value of an unborn fetus varied throughout Ancient Near East (ANE) cultures as evidenced by ANE law codes—with some (e.g., the Middle Assyrian Laws) actually requiring the exchange of a life for the loss of the life of a fetus. Others, such as the Babylonian Hammurabi’s Law, imposed a fine of ten shekels for the loss of a fetus. Remarkably, the pagan Babylonians placed more value on the life of a fetus than the laws of most countries do today!  For the God of Israel every life in the womb was precious and anyone who caused harm or death to that little one was to be punished—an eye for an eye.

Several additional remarks are warranted. First, the above comments should in no way be understood as promoting or justifying individual acts of violence on abortion clinics or physical assaults on abortionists. Such acts are to be categorically condemned.  The OT law of retribution or lex talionis, which was intended to impose proportionate penalty for physical injury, was part of Israel’s legal system for the nation (notice the involvement of a judge, v. 22). It was not intended to encourage vigilante justice. The fact that the law of our land does not value the life of the unborn does not justify individual acts of retribution. Remember that the responsibility of protecting life and the enactment of capital punishment, when necessary to do so, have been given to government (Rom 13:4), not individuals.

Finally, I would be amiss when dealing with such an emotionally charged topic to not proclaim the message of forgiveness that is offered through Christ to any who have had, performed, or encouraged abortions. The wonderful message of the gospel is that Christ’s death on the cross accomplished the just retribution for our sins—all of them. Through personal faith in Christ and Christ alone one need not fear “an eye for an eye,” even in regard to violations of God’s law on the sanctity of life.

 

Nobody’s Perfect, But…, Part 2

Returning to the issue of blamelessness and Dean Shriver’s book, Nobody’s Perfect, But You Have to Be, one of the book’s numerous strengths is its reminder of the emphasis past generations have appropriately placed on ministerial integrity.  The following are a series of its quotes from notable voices of the past whose words are worthy of our careful consideration.

And let the luster of thy life be a common school of instruction, a pattern of virtue to all, publically exhibited like some original model, containing in itself all beauties affording examples whence those who are willing may easily imprint upon themselves any of its excellencies … For when the life is illustrious, and the discourse corresponds to it, being meek and gentle, and affording no handle to the adversaries, it is of unspeakable advantage.

Chrysostom, in his Homily on Titus

God sent His Son into the world to be the light of the world in two ways, viz. By revealing his mind and will to the world, and also by setting the world a perfect example. So ministers are set to be lights, not only as teachers but as examples to the flock, 1 Peter 5:3. The same thing that ministers recommend to their hearers in doctrine, they should also show them an example in their practice.

Jonathan Edwards, “The True Excellencies of a Gospel Minister “

Take heed to yourselves, lest you exemplify contradictory doctrine. Beware, lest you lay such stumbling blocks before the blind that you occasion their ruin. Beware, lest you undo with your lives, what you say with your tongues. Beware, lest you become the greatest hindrance to the success of your own labors. It hinders our work greatly when other men contradict in private what we have declared to them publically about the Word of God.  This is so because we cannot be there to contradict them and to show their folly.

But it will much more hinder our work if we contradict ourselves. If our actions become a lie to our tongues, then what we may build up in an hour or two of discourse can be demolished with our hands in a week. This is the way to make men think that the Word of God is merely an idle tale and to make preaching appear no better than prating. For he that means as he speaks will surely do as he speaks.”

17th Century Puritan Pastor Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor

You must have holiness; and dear brethren, if you fail in mental qualifications (as I hope you will not), and if you should have a slender measure of the oratorical faculty) (as I trust you will not), yet depend on it, a holy life is in itself a wonderful power, and will make up for many deficiencies; it is in fact the best sermon the best man can deliver.

C. H. Spurgeon, Letters to My Students

As appropriately concluded by several of its reviewers, Nobody’s Perfect ought to be required reading for all ministers and ministerial students.  In so doing, may our lives daily evidence the transforming power of the glorious gospel message.

 

Nobody’s Perfect, But…, Part 1

In his letter to Titus, the apostle Paul challenged his young protégé: “show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned …” (Titus 2:7-8a, ESV). Peter, likewise, exhorted the elders throughout Asia-Minor to “be examples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:3, ESV).   God’s Word is eminently clear that the life of the minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ must emulate the message of that very gospel.

In preparation for a workshop entitled “Who Me, Blameless?” that I will be presenting at our Feb 22-25 Advancing the Church Conference (ATC), I recently read a deeply challenging book entitled Nobody’s Perfect, But You Have to Be (Baker, 2005). Author Dean Shriver’s central proposition is well summarized in the book’s subtitle – “The Power of Personal Integrity in Effective Preaching.”  Shriver rightly argues that while all believers’ lives are to be characterized by integrity, for pastors integrity is everything. Acknowledging that there has only ever been One truly perfect Preacher, Shriver underscores the importance of integrity in preaching.  He introduces the all-important topic by defining integrity as “the state of being whole or undivided,” noting that we as preachers demonstrate integrity when unity exists between the truth we proclaim and the lives we live. He rightly asserts [pg. 16]:

Integrity is crucial to our preaching. Integrity is more crucial than a well-crafted introduction. It’s more crucial than smooth delivery. In preaching, integrity is always more crucial than technique because all the oratory skills on earth can never transfuse spiritual power into a sermon bled dry by a preacher’s own contradictory life.

Shriver, of course, is not negating the importance of sermon preparation and delivery, but rather putting them in the larger context which includes the oft-overlooked condition of the delivery vessel.  Or as appropriately asserted by noted author E. M. Bounds [Power Through Prayer, 69], “We are not saying that men are not to think and use their intellect. But he who cultivates his heart the most will use his intellect the best.”

Through examining specific areas of the preacher’s integrity, Shriver provides practical and challenging insights by which to evaluate one’s own life and ministry.  The areas addressed (with a chapter devoted to each) include: above reproach (or blameless), humility, contentment, fidelity to God’s Word, courage, purity of life, purity of mind, and temperance.  As an aside, I will argue at next month’s ATC workshop that the clear scriptural directive for pastoral leadership begins and ends with one non-negotiable – the aspiring pastor must be “blameless.”  While the workshop will unpack the numerous qualifications for pastoral leadership as detailed in 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1, I will argue that “blamelessness” is not one among equals but is, in fact, the governing lens through which all the other qualifications are to be read.

In the next part of this post I will document some of the great voices in church history on this issue of integrity.

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