Monday, April 24, 2017

"Paul's View of Christian Ministry" (Colossians 1:24-29)



If there was ever a time that the Christian ministry needed to be defined and recovered, it is now. For there is much confusion in our day over the nature and the task of Christian ministry and of the Christian minister. 

In many places, the American church has wandered off the old paths of Christian discipleship and courageous preaching and are now more concerned with felt needs, cultural accommodation and numerical success. And of course, the only sure way to recover biblical ministry—or in the case of the Plymouth Church of Christ — to continue biblical, faithful, gospel ministry—is to look to God’s Word for wisdom. For apart from God’s Word, we are only left with our own wisdom. And, to be left with that is to be left in a dangerous place, in a place where there surely will be drift from our biblical moorings. 

Which is why I want to consider God’s words at the end of Colossians 1 and this sacred blueprint for Christian ministry. There are five points that emerge from the text: the gospel minister’s calling, the gospel minister’s suffering, the gospel minister’s message, the gospel minister’s aim and the gospel minister’s labor.

1. The Gospel Minister’s Calling

First of all, verse 25. Paul writes that he became “a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you to make the word of God fully known.” Paul begins this section by making it clear that his calling and stewardship were not from men but was ultimately from God. Let’s think for a few moments about this idea of gospel stewardship. Paul often described himself as a gospel steward. For example in 1 Corinthians 4:1 he describes himself and the apostles as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” In Ephesians 3:2, he refers to the “stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me.” What does Paul mean by this? Why is he describing himself in these terms? 

Well, first century readers would have been more familiar with this language than we are today. You see, every noble household in antiquity would’ve had a household steward. That is someone who was hired to manage the household. The head of the family would literally entrust the stewardship and care of his entire household to this person. It was a tremendous responsibility. Now, Paul is saying that he and all gospel ministers are stewards of God’s household. That is, called, set apart and equipped by God to exercise spiritual oversight in his church and dispense the riches of God’s grace primarily through the proclamation of the word of God and the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which are God’s appointed means of grace. One commentator describes the minister’s office as “administrator of spiritual riches.” 

Again, Paul writes in verse 25 that he became a minister “according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you,” now look there, “to make the word of God fully known.” The stewardship from God is not for the minister’s selfish gain. It’s not for elevated status. No, it’s given to the minister for the sake of the church. What I am doing here this morning is for the sake of the church: to make the Word of God fully known. And, here, we have this clear and indisputable mandate for every Christian minister, namely to preach the whole counsel of God, to courageously preach all of Scripture, every book, every chapter, every verse, every glorious theme that is set forth in the Word of God. As Paul will remind us in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for the people of God unto every good work.” As Paul was saying his tearful farewells to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, he declared, “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all for I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” Beloved, he held nothing back. Paul ignored no doctrine, even the less culturally palatable ones like sin and judgment and hell. The divine stewardship that was given to Paul and the divine stewardship that is given to every gospel minister is first and foremost to make the Word of God fully known. That is what as a congregation we are to pray for. That is also what you ought to come expecting to hear every Lord’s Day morning: the Word of God. That is why Paul charges Timothy as he does in 2 Timothy 4:1-5…

I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

The gospel minister is called to preach the Word of God. By doing so, he feeds and nourishes Christ’s flock and, by way of extension, carefully shepherds the flock that Christ purchased with his very own blood. He does it whether in season or out of season, even if the church does not want to hear it.

2. The Gospel Minister’s Suffering

And that leads to our second point: the gospel minister’s suffering. Look at verse 24 with me. Paul writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake. And in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” My friends, remember that Paul is writing this letter from prison. His opening word “now” is referring to his present circumstances. But, it’s not his circumstances or his present suffering that’s controlling his attitude. No. Look what it says. It says Paul rejoices. How, how can it be that he rejoices in these circumstances? How can he possibly rejoice as a persecuted prisoner uncertain of his future, facing the possibility of execution? Paul can rejoice because he rejoices in the Lord. Circumstances may change. Suffering will enter our lives, but the Lord is unmoved and his promises are always sure. And he’s trusting in those promises knowing that his sufferings are being used by God in the advancement of the kingdom and the encouragement of his own soul. Beloved, God’s purposes aren’t hindered by our sufferings. On the contrary, his purposes are often accomplished through our sufferings. 

Where do you turn when this kind of affliction comes into your life? Well, we turn to Christ, don’t we? That is what Paul did. Paul models that for us here, as a minister, in faith, relying on the promises of God, and he knew many thorny trials. He was stoned by his own countrymen, persecuted by Gentile Pagans, beaten and left for dead, flogged, shipwrecked, imprisoned, continually slandered and, not to mention, the burden of caring for all of the many new churches rested on his mind. But, Paul rejoiced in his sufferings for the sake of the church confident that God would ultimately use it for his own glory and for the blessing of the church. 

Charles Simeon, who was a great 19th century Cambridge preacher, was for decades persecuted by a large portion of his own congregation. Let me explain this one a bit. In the old days, there were family pews and they had keys and they would lock them and unlock them so people could get in or out. Well, the congregation didn’t want Charles Simeon to be called to their church but the bishop had appointed him to this flock so a large portion of the congregation locked their pews and would not come to church. And people couldn’t sit in the pews. And so literally, for ten years, pews were locked and people sat in the aisles of the church. A friend wrote him in the latter years and said, “How did you make it through all of those difficult years receiving so much persecution even within your own congregation?” He said this, quote, “My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering for Christ’s sake. When I am getting through a hedge and my head and shoulders are safely through I can bear the pricking of my legs. Let us rejoice in the remembrance that our holy head has surmounted all his suffering and triumphed over death. Let us follow him patiently. We shall soon be partakers of his victory.” 

Paul trusted in the promises of God in the midst of his suffering. Suffering as a minister would also help Paul to identify with his suffering people, enabling him to show greater compassion and empathy to his people as he ministers to them. And this is true as it relates to every gospel minister. John Newton once commented that “God appoints his ministers to be sorely exercised both from without and within that they may sympathize with their flock and know in their own hearts the deceitfulness of sin, the infirmities of the flesh, and the way in which the Lord supports and bears all who trust in him.” 

But, Paul’s suffering has an even deeper meaning—doesn’t it?—as it does for us all. Notice in verse 24 where Paul writes that through his suffering he is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the body his church.” Now, this in no way means that Christ’s atoning work is some way deficient, that his blood only partially redeemed us and that our suffering and the suffering of other Christians somehow helps pay for our redemption like some treasury of merits as the Roman Catholic church teaches. No, there’s nothing deficient in the sacrifice of Christ. Hebrews 10:12 says, “Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins and he sat down at the right hand of God.” In other words, Christ’s sacrifice is complete and perfect. 

So if it doesn’t mean that Christ’s suffering is somehow deficient, what does it mean? Well, Paul is referring here to a close and profound identification that Christ has with his people, a fruit of mystical union with Christ so that when they suffer somehow and in some way they participate in the sufferings of Christ. It is not meritorious, but it is real. It’s a consequence of the believer’s union with Christ. Do you remember the Lord’s words to Saul on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Our union with Christ grants us the privilege of participating in the sufferings of Christ and thus humbling us, making us more dependent on him, making us more like him, and putting us on that glorious pathway that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ walked, namely the pathway from suffering to glory, from humiliation to exaltation. And, this is the way that we should think of our suffering, our sharing in the sufferings of Christ in this life is the prelude of sharing in his glory in the next. For Paul writes in Romans 8:17 that “we suffer with him in order that we may be glorified with him.” And any suffering that we do in this life is but a light and momentary affliction of the glory that awaits us. So be encouraged, my dear suffering friend, whatever it is you’re going through this morning. Be encouraged, dear friends, whatever suffering you may face in the future, and there will be suffering. May you take heart. And, may you look to Christ…for suffering certainly deepens our love for Christ and weans us off of this passing age, this world. 

3. The Gospel Minister’s Message

Thirdly, the gospel minister’s message. What should be the main message of the minister? What should be at the very core of his preaching ministry? Well, according to Paul, according to the apostles, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ and it has definition. It has content. This is the good news that Christ accomplished redemption for sinners by fulfilling all of the requirements of God’s law, the good news that Jesus satisfied God’s justice on the cross by bearing the very wrath of God in our stead, and by rising victoriously from the dead and one day returning to gather his people. The gospel is truth. It is a proposition. You are not the gospel, no offense; you are not the good news. I am not the gospel; I am not the good news. The good news is that Christ came and died for sinners. Look with me again in verse 25. Paul’s preaching this gospel. Paul writes that a stewardship was given to him from God in order to make the word of God fully known “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery which is Christ in you the hope of glory. Him we proclaim.” 

Notice what he says: “Him we proclaim.” Not moralism we proclaim. Not politics we proclaim. Not therapy we proclaim. Not cultural transformation we proclaim. Not ourselves we proclaim. But him! Him we proclaim! Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners, the eternal Son of God who took on human flesh who lived a perfect life for thirty-three years under the law and who died on the cross. Him we proclaim. The one that bled and died for our sins and who rose victoriously from the dead. Him we proclaim. Summing up his preaching ministry to the Corinthians, Paul wrote this, “And when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified.” It’s the offense of the cross that he preached, that the apostles preached. Paul preached the mystery hidden for ages now realized in Jesus Christ, the mystery that Gentiles too would be partakers of this glory, the riches of the glory of Christ and by engrafted into the covenant people of God that they, too, would be filled with the Holy Spirit, that holy deposit, that guarantee of future glory that they too would have the hope of glory at the return of Christ.

Charles Spurgeon once told his students that “we cannot afford to utter pretty nothings in our preaching.” Pretty nothings. He says, “This is the sum. My brethren, preach Christ always and evermore. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices and word must be our one great all comprehending theme. We are not called to preach philosophy and metaphysics, but the simple gospel. Man’s fall, his need of a new birth, forgiveness through an atonement and salvation as a result of faith. These are our battle ax and weapons of war.” 

4. The Gospel Minister’s Aim

And, this brings us, fourthly, to the minister’s aim. Did you notice that the minister’s aim in verse 28 is not simply to make converts or to gain church members. No, it is to make mature disciples. Once again, Paul states, “Him we proclaim warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” That’s the goal, beloved. That’s the goal: to make everyone mature in Christ from youngest to oldest. 

Paul’s aim in ministry is not simply to point people back to their justification without any real concern for their growth and godliness. No, his aim is to point people to Christ alone for their redemption and to teach them to walk according to his commands. He does not say that you must do these things in order to be a Christian. He says do these things because you are a Christian saved by grace through faith in him.

The gospel minister must aim for the spiritual maturity of everyone. Everyone. Did you notice this word that’s repeated in verse 28? Three times he repeats the word “everyone.” It’s emphatic here in this verse. Spiritual growth and maturity, beloved, are not for some elite portion of the congregation. It is my prayer that every one of you will grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. First and foremost, that you will believe the gospel and be saved. But, then, to grow in Him.

The gospel minister therefore aims for the spiritual maturity of every soul within the ranks of the church. He is called to courageously warn his flock of the dangers of the trinity of evil: the world, the flesh and the devil. Notice that the gospel has both warnings and instruction and this what will come from this pulpit to you. It is gospel ministry at its very core. It is for this that the gospel minister toils and struggles.

5. The Gospel Minister’s Labor

And, here, we come to our final point: the gospel minister’s labor. Look with me, finally, at verse 29. “For this I toil,” he says, “struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” 

Here is how Paul carries out his gospel stewardship. Here is how he able to rejoice in his sufferings. Here is how he is able to boldly and faithfully proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ from all of Scripture. Here is how he makes disciples and seeks everyone’s maturity and perfection in Christ. He toils and struggles for it in the strength of Christ. How can any minister do these things? Who is sufficient for these things? It’s the strength of Christ that fuels the ministry. You see that Paul says elsewhere that he can “do all things through Christ who strengthens him.” Let us notice here also that Paul is a hard worker. He’s a hard worker for the sake of the church. No one can accuse him of being a lazy country parson or a worldling in minister’s dress. The Greek verb that Paul employs here is agonidzomai. It’s where we get the English word “agonize.” Paul is agonizing in the ministry. He is toiling. He’s laboring and agonizing to the point of exhaustion over the spiritual condition of God’s people, preaching the Word, shepherding God’s people, praying for them, loving them at times to sheer exhaustion. 

Charle Spurgeon was once told, “You need to get some rest, sir.” And he said, “I will rest in heaven.” This should be the heart of every minister to labor and toil over the flock.

Paul’s toilsome labor and suffering for the sake of the church was motivated and fueled by his love for Christ. To the Corinthians he wrote, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). God gave Paul the strength to work hard at his ministry. Galatians 2:20 really sums up the two components in this human divine action: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.”

What is true of the apostle and the minister is true of every man and woman who bears the name of Christ. We have not entered into the business of evangelizing the city or the world until we have put our own lives into the business. What do you think God is calling you to do in ministry? In a world where everything revolves around yourself — PROTECT yourself, PROMOTE yourself, COMFORT yourself, and TAKE CARE of yourself —Christ comes into our lives and says CRUCIFY YOURSELVES!

Paul’s ministerial drive is a model for us all, is it not? We will never have an authentic, apostolic ministry unless we are willing to work to the point of exhaustion. Dear friends, the ministry of the gospel is a glorious thing. But we do not have to be an apostle or a reformer or a preacher to do it. 

Some years ago a woman in Africa became a Christian. Being filled with gratitude, she decided to do something for Christ. She was blind, uneducated, and seventy years of age. She came to a Christian missionary with her French Bible and asked him to underline John 3:16 in red ink. Mystified, the missionary watched her as she took her Bible and sat in front of a boys’ school in the afternoon. When school dismissed, she would call a boy or two over and ask them if they knew French. When they proudly responded that they did, she would say, “Please read the passage underlined in red.” When they did, she would ask, “Do you know what this means?” And she would tell them about Christ. The missionary says that over the years, twenty-four young men became preachers due to her work.

May God give our labors such fruit.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Psalm 108: A Warrior's Morning Song

     

My heart is steadfast, O God;
         I will sing and make music with all my soul.
      Awake, harp and lyre!
         I will awaken the dawn.
      I will praise you, O LORD, among the nations;
         I will sing of you among the peoples.
      For great is your love, higher than the heavens;
         your faithfulness reaches to the skies.
      Be exalted, O God, above the heavens,
         and let your glory be over all the earth.

      Save us and help us with your right hand,
         that those you love may be delivered.
      God has spoken from his sanctuary:
         “In triumph I will parcel out Shechem
         and measure off the Valley of Succoth.
      Gilead is mine, Manasseh is mine;
         Ephraim is my helmet,
         Judah my scepter.
      Moab is my washbasin,
         upon Edom I toss my sandal;
         over Philistia I shout in triumph.”

      Who will bring me to the fortified city?
         Who will lead me to Edom?
      Is it not you, O God, you who have rejected us
         and no longer go out with our armies?
      Give us aid against the enemy,
         for the help of man is worthless.
      With God we will gain the victory,
         and he will trample down our enemies.

Psalm 108:1–13

One of the interesting things about studying the psalms is discovering that sometimes parts of them are drawn from other portions of the Old Testament, even from other psalms. Psalm 108 is made up of the endings of Psalms 57 and 60. In the earlier psalms David was writing under stress. According to the title of Psalm 57, David was hiding in a cave in order to escape from Saul, who was trying to kill him. The title of Psalm 60 refers to a time of war between David’s armies and the Edomites. The earlier psalms each begin by describing the perils David faced, then they end on a positive note of praise and hope for the future. It is these two endings that are combined in Psalm 108 to produce what I have called “a warrior’s morning psalm.” In this psalm the king begins his day by praising God. He is awake even before the dawn, asking God for help in his battles and trusting that God will soon give him victory over his enemies, particularly those in the fortified cities of the secure mountain stronghold of Edom, which is where the psalm ends.

A Morning Praise Song

The first thing the author has to say is that his “heart is steadfast,” or fixed. A few verses later we learn the secret of his stability. It is because God is a steadfast, or faithful, God, and the psalmist’s confidence is in him. Indeed, God is more than just steadfast. He is also a God whose love and faithfulness reach as high as the sky or heavens, which is a way of saying that they are infinite and thus beyond our full comprehension.

      I will praise you, O LORD, among the nations;
         I will sing of you among the peoples.
      For great is your love, higher than the heavens;
         your faithfulness reaches to the skies (vv. 3–4).

It is because God is faithful that the psalmist can also be faithful. Are we faithful in this sense? Are our hearts steadfast? Since the writer’s confidence is in God, rather than in himself, we are not surprised to find the opening stanza of the psalm calling for God to be exalted: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens, and let your glory be over all the earth” (v. 5). God is exalted above the heavens. His glory does fill the earth. The goal of history is that God might be known as God and be honored for it. Nothing will frustrate this worthy purpose of the Almighty. This verse is not a statement that God has or will be exalted. It is a prayer that he might be exalted, obviously in the king’s own circumstances. The world thrills when human beings are exalted, but those who know God rejoice when God is exalted, especially when they have the privilege of exalting him in circumstances that may be disappointing or hard.

A Prayer for Deliverance and Victory

The second section of the psalm contains a prayer to God to save, help, and deliver those who have been attacked, probably by the Edomites (v. 6), followed by God’s answer in the form of an oracle (vv. 7–9). The oracle follows so closely upon the appeal that we know faith has already won a victory, just as in Psalm 60, from which these words are taken. It is because God has spoken that the writer can have hope for the future and pray confidently for God’s help and deliverance. Faith must always be grounded in the Word of God.

A Prayer for Victory Over Edom

The final stanza is a prayer for victory over Edom, which is what has probably been in the psalmist’s mind from the first verse and is the occasion for this new composition. David had defeated Edom and made it a part of his kingdom years before. The account of David’s conquest is in 2 Samuel 8:1–14 (a parallel account is in 1 Chronicles 18:1–13), which says, “David became famous after he returned from striking down eighteen thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt. He put garrisons throughout Edom, and all the Edomites became subject to David. The LORD gave David victory wherever he went.” By the time of our psalm the Edomites had apparently regained power, and a new battle was pending. The psalmist asks in verse 10:

      Who will bring me to the fortified city?
         Who will lead me to Edom?

It is a good question. There were a number of well-fortified cities in Edom, the source of the country’s strength and great pride, but when the psalm speaks of the fortified city it can only mean Petra, the legendary, inaccessible, and apparently impregnable mountain stronghold of Edom. Petra is approached through a narrow cut in the limestone cliffs that winds inward for about a mile and is called a siq. The cliffs rise for thousands of feet on both sides, and in places the passage is so narrow that no more than two horses can pass abreast. A handful of brave men could defend this passage against an army, and even if the entrance to Petra could be breached, the defenders could retreat into the mountains surrounding the hidden inner valley and defend themselves from there. Only God could give victory over a fortress like that, and the writer knows it. So he cries to God, answering his own question:

      Is it not you, O God, you who have rejected us
         and no longer go out with our armies? (v. 11).

The only one who could bring the king into Petra and give him victory is God, so the writer acknowledges this fact and asks God, “Give us aid against the enemy, for the help of man is worthless” (v. 12). Will God do it? Being assured by the oracle recorded in verses 7–9, the psalmist is sure he will:

      With God we will gain the victory,
         and he will trample down our enemies (v. 12).

Two Conflicts, Two Victories

How can we take this psalm from its ancient setting and carry its value into our own time and beyond? There are two ways.

1. By gaining strength for our conflicts. You and I are not kings. We do not have military battles to fight. We have never seen an Edomite. However, we as Christians have spiritual battles. We are members of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, and our task is to advance his kingdom in this spiritually hostile world. The apostle Paul spoke of this battle in Ephesians, explaining that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Compared to the conquest of these hostile spiritual forces, the victory over Edom and the overthrow of its mountain stronghold Petra was easy. How can we gain this greater victory? Not by ourselves, or even with the help of other Christians. In this battle “the help of man is [truly] worthless.” We need God to fight with us and for us.

Therefore, we need to ask God for help, as the psalmist does. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2), and Jesus, expressing James’s words positively, said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).
One thing we can ask for is victory for the gospel.

Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, the one he could not remember but troubled him so much, was a vision of an enormous statue representing in sequence several of the powerful ancient kingdoms of this world: the kingdom of Babylon, those of the Medes and Persians and Greece, and finally the great empire of Rome. At the conclusion of the vision a rock “not cut by human hands” struck the statue and destroyed it and then grew up to become “a huge mountain” that “filled the whole earth” (Dan. 2:34–35). That rock is the Lord Jesus Christ, and the mountain is his kingdom, destined to triumph. If you are a Christian, you are part of that kingdom, and Christ’s kingdom is something you can labor and pray for confidently.

2. By trusting the warrior from Edom. In Isaiah 63 there is a dramatic scene in which a bloodstained divine warrior comes marching up the valley of the Kidron from the west toward Jerusalem. The cry rings out,

      Who is this coming from Edom,
         from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson?
      Who is this, robed in splendor,
         striding forward in the greatness of his strength?

The warrior answers,

           “It is I, speaking in righteousness,
             mighty to save.”

The prophet, looking down from the walls of the city of Jerusalem, then has another question, which he throws out to the warrior:

      Why are your garments red,
         like those of one treading the winepress?

The traveler answers,

      “I have trodden the winepress alone;
         from the nations no one was with me.
      I trampled them in my anger
         and trod them down in my wrath;
      their blood spattered my garments,
         and I stained all my clothing.
      For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
         and the year of my redemption has come” (Isa. 63:1–4).

Who is this warrior? He is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, returning to Jerusalem after having subdued the hostile peoples of this evil world. This is a vision of the end of time, a vision that takes us to the kind of descriptions we find in the very last book of the Bible, Revelation. Here we see the sure punishment of the wicked and the certain vindication of those who trust God and look to him for their deliverance.

That day has not yet come. For the time being there are still hard times and defeats for God’s people. If the day of the vengeance of our God has not yet come, it is in order that God might show grace now to more people. In Peter’s day there were skeptics who were saying that because things seemed to continue as they have been from the beginning, there will not be a judgment. It will never come. “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation,” they mocked (2 Peter 3:4).

Peter answered, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God is delaying the ultimate working out of judgment until those whom he will call to faith in Jesus Christ come to him. Judgment is not yet; this is the day of God’s grace. But judgment will come. If you are not a believer in Jesus, God warns you to believe on Jesus now, while there is still time.

Monday, April 17, 2017

"Jesus Christ and Our Reconciliation" (Colossians 1:15-23)


This message was preached on Easter Sunday, 16 April 2017. You can listen to the sermon being delivered here. 
At the close of a worship service in Philadelphia a century ago, a man approached the preacher, Daniel Stearns, and said, “I don’t like your preaching, I do not care for the cross. I think that instead of preaching the death of Christ on the cross, it would be far better to preach Jesus, the teacher and example.”
Dr. Stearns replied, “Would you be willing to follow Him if I preach Christ as the example?” The man answered, “I would—I would follow Him.” “Then” said Dr. Stearns, “let us take the first step. Jesus did no sin. Can you take this step?”
The man looked confused. He replied, “No. I do sin and acknowledge it.”
“Well then,” said Dr. Stearns, “your first need of Christ is not as an example, but as a Savior”
My friend, all people are in need of a savior, even you! And as God’s Providence would have it, that is exactly what has been given to the world in the man named Jesus Christ. You see, in Jesus Christ, the world has gained a savior.

To appreciate this Savior, we must first go back in time to tell an old, old story. The hour was noonday, and Jesus has been hanging on the cross for many pain-filled hours. Before the cruel cross, he has endured a Roman flogging, the insult of the crown of thorns, and the jeers of the crowds. But here on the cross, suddenly, darkness falls on Calvary and “over all the land” (Matt. 27:45). By a miraculous act of Almighty God, midday becomes midnight.
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46, KJV).
Up to this point, the narrative of the crucifixion has focused on the physical sufferings of Jesus: but now, suddenly, after a long silence, comes this anguished cry from the depths of our Savior’s soul.

The words themselves are an Aramaic-tinged quotation from Psalm 22, and although Matthew and Mark both offer a translation for the benefit of Gentile readers, they clearly want us to hear the exact words that Jesus spoke. Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? You see, here, at his lowest ebb, his mind instinctively breathes the Psalter, and from it he borrows the words that express the anguish, not now of his body, but of his soul.

Why is our great High Priest crying in anguish like this? It is because He is entering Golgotha’s Holy of Holies without friends or comfort. The Son of God is alone on the cross, enduring what defies our imagination. Experiencing the full brunt of His Father’s wrath, Jesus cannot stay silent. He cries out: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” because this moment represents the lowest point of Jesus’ sufferings. Here Jesus descends into the essence of hell, the most extreme suffering ever experienced. It is a time so compacted, so infinite, so horrendous as to be incomprehensible and, seemingly, unsustainable.

Jesus’ cry does not in any way diminish His deity. Jesus does not cease being God before, during, or after this. Jesus’ cry does not divide His human nature from His divine person or destroy the Trinity. Nor does it detach Him from the Holy Spirit. The Son lacks the comforts of the Spirit, but He does not lose the holiness of the Spirit. And finally, it does not cause Him to disavow His mission. You see dear friends, both the Father and Son knew from all eternity that Jesus would become the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. And this is that moment!

But Jesus is expressing the agony of unanswered supplication (Ps. 22:1–2). Unanswered, Jesus feels forgotten of God. He is also expressing the agony of unbearable stress. It is the kind of “roaring” mentioned in Psalm 22: the roar of desperate agony without rebellion. It is the hellish cry uttered when the undiluted wrath of God overwhelms the soul. It is heart-piercing, heaven-piercing, and hell-piercing. 

Jesus is expressing the agony of unmitigated sin. All the sins of the elect, and the hell that they deserve for eternity, are laid upon Him. In His hour of greatest need comes a pain unlike anything the Son has ever experienced. When Jesus most needs encouragement, no voice cries from heaven, “This is my beloved Son.” No angel is sent to strengthen Him; no “well done, thou good and faithful servant” resounds in His ears. The women who supported Him are silent. The disciples, cowardly and terrified, have fled. Feeling disowned by all, Jesus endures the way of suffering alone, deserted, and forsaken in utter darkness. 

And don’t miss the significance of this moment: every detail of this horrific scene declares the heinous character of your sins, my friend!

Why would God bruise His own Son in this way (Isa. 53:10)? It is not because the Father is malicious or vindictive. The real purpose is punitive; it is the just punishment for the sin of Christ’s people. 
“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
You see, Christ was made sin for us, dear believers. Among all the mysteries of salvation, this little word “for” …this little preposition “for”…”FOR God has made Jesus to be sin, this Jesus who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him…” This small word “for” illuminates our darkness and unites Jesus Christ with sinners. It tells us Christ was acting on behalf of His people as their representative and for their benefit.

With Jesus as our substitute, God’s wrath is satisfied and God can justify those who believe in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). Christ’s penal suffering, therefore, is vicarious — He suffered on our behalf. He did not simply share our forsakenness, but He saved us from it. He endured it for us, not with us. In Christ, you are immune to condemnation (Rom. 8:1) and to God’s anathema (Gal. 3:13) because Christ bore it for you in that outer darkness. Golgotha secured your immunity.

Any questions we might have about God's love and provision for us should began with, "If God did not spare His own son..." (Rom. 8:32). Which brings me to a brief reflection upon that marvelous Son in Colossians 1:15-23.

THE FATHER’S RECONCILING PLEASURE (vv. 15-20a)
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.
Who is this Son? He is most supreme expression of God in this world. He is the one who is supreme over all creation. Not only is He Creator, He is the Sustainer of the Universe. He is the firstborn from the dead, in other words, the first in rank of those Resurrected. Because of this He is Head over His church. 

Furthermore, Paul tells us that God the Father found pleasure in having “all his fullness dwell in him”—in Christ. Colossians 2:9 says it even more explicitly: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” “Fullness” means that the totality of divine power and attributes is in Christ. In other words, “The whole fullness—the full fullness”—is there. In Jesus Christ is the “exhaustion of God.” Theologian S.D. Gordon once said, “Jesus is God spelling Himself out in language that man can understand.”

Do you understand what this means, dear friend? This means that we need look to no one except Jesus for the full revelation of God’s character. As we see him in the Gospels and hear him faithfully preached, we can know what God is like. 

But not only that, but of this Son, Paul tells us that it was God’s pleasure “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (v. 20a). In other words, everything in the universe will be reconciled through the Son Jesus Christ except that which rejects him.

My dear friends, if you've ever wondered what Good Friday or Easter or the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about, you find it here in the main point of this verse in Colossians: these things are ultimately about the reconciliation of sinners to God. And of course, don’t mistake God’s goodness in this gracious provision: in every reference to reconciliation between God and man in the New Testament, we note that it is God who takes the initiative. In other words, reconciliation to God is an explicitly one-sided process! He does virtually everything. All we have to do is respond.

The problem so often is that we as people do not respond. Rather, we often reject. Dear sinner, be warned this morning that if you have rejected Jesus Christ, you will bear the full weight of punishment for your sins upon the event of your death. This life, perhaps even these few moments now, are the only chance you have to be reconciled to God. Indeed, it is the Father’s will that you be saved in Jesus Christ!

THE FATHER’S RECONCILING METHOD (vv. 20b, 22a)

But how, we now ask, is this reconciliation possible. As we look to our text in Colossians, we see that the Father’s method of reconciliation is seen in two parallel clauses from verses 20 and 22: “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross”; “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death.” Simply put (but gravely put) this morning: God’s method is the death of Christ. 
It is said that years ago in a western city a husband and wife became estranged and chose to separate. They moved away and lived in different parts of the country. The husband happened to return to the city on a matter of business and went out to the cemetery to the grave of their only son. He was standing by the grave in fond reminiscence when he heard a step behind him. Turning, he saw his estranged wife. The initial impulse of both was to turn away. But they had a common-hearted interest in that grave, and instead of turning away they clasped hands over the grave of their son and were reconciled. They were reconciled by death!
Our personal reconciliation took nothing less than the death of God’s Son; but his death and its effects went far beyond any human death.
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation … God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:19, 21)
Jesus bore the separation of sin so reconciliation could take place. He made “peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (v. 20). “[H]e himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). As Dorothy Sayers once put it, “Whatever the answer to the problem of evil, this much is true: God took His own medicine.” The Cross is the ultimate evidence that there is no length the love of God will refuse to go in effecting reconciliation.

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

It is God’s pleasure to give you all things. My friends, would you respond to Him? Is God moving salvation in your soul this very moment? Will you trust your very life to Jesus Christ and nothing else today?

THE FATHER’S RECONCILING PURPOSE (vv. 21, 22)
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.
When a great seventeenth-century Christian woman and encourager of God’s servants, Lady Huntingdon, invited one of her friends, the Duchess of Buckingham, to hear George Whitefield preach, she received this reply:
… It is monstrous to be told, that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting; and I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.
My friends, Paul’s pronouncement that we are “alienated from God … enemies … [with] evil behavior” may sound a bit harsh to us too, but it is terribly true. All it takes is a brief look at the daily news to find out what is really there in the heart of mankind.

Humanity’s condition is terrible, but God’s reconciling purpose (Paul says) is “to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (v. 22). While the Scriptures paint the darkest possibilities for man apart from Christ, they also give us the highest, noblest vision of man known to any religious conception anywhere! When you are reconciled to Christ, you will be presented before him as holy, without blame, and beyond reproach. You become a “co-heir” of Christ’s promises (Romans 8:17) and you will remain eternally glorious and holy. If you have been reconciled, this is your position before God right now, and it will be increasingly true in our life as we grow into his image in sanctification.

Fellow-believers, in light of our reconciliation we ought to do everything in our power to be practically blameless and holy in this life. We must become what we are in the Lord. We must submit ourselves ever more completely to the “God who works in you” (Philippians 2:13). Practical holiness should be our life’s business.

My friends, if you are in Christ, let this Easter be an invitation to renew your faith. Just as we see nature greening all around us right in the beauty of Spring, let your love for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit grow too. 

Above all else, persevere and continue in your faith! The gospel will help you to persevere!

THE FATHER’S RECONCILING CONDITION (v. 23)
… if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
It is imperative that all of us be reconciled to Christ. Without reconciliation we will remain adrift on the cold seas—alienated from God, from creation, and from others, though we may wish otherwise. God wants to reconcile us. He enjoys reconciling. His Son endured the Cross “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). What God has in mind for us is the greatest vision ever conceived for any mortal. There is only one thing to do, and that is to say yes.

The Cross of Jesus Christ and the empty Tomb of Easter make this possible. Christ’s resurrection, which in fact we celebrate every Sunday and Lord’s Day, is the Victory-day, the V-Day of the church. Without it, the church has no reason to exist. Without it, Christianity is only an empty form and custom at best. 

My dear friends, Christianity is in its essence a resurrection religion, for the resurrection is no appendix to our faith; rather, it is “THE faith” and is “OUR faith.” Jesus’ resurrection is to our faith what water is to the ocean and what blood is to our bodies. The best news the world has ever heard came from a graveyard: “He is not here, for He is risen, as He said.” Let us humble ourselves, and praise God with all our heart for the death and resurrection of His Son. After all, the Cross and the Empty Tomb, are the two hinges, as Martin Luther put it, on which the door of our salvation swings open.

Monday, April 10, 2017

"Paul's Prayer for the Church" (Colossians 1:9-14)


The following article was first delivered as a sermon on Sunday, April 9th. You can listen to the audio of this sermon here.

If you could wish anything for a new Christian believer, what would it be? What would you want for them, hope for them,…pray for them?

Perhaps you would pray that they would find a solid, Bible-believing church? Or that they might have a strong prayer life or good devotional times? Perhaps you’d pray that they would grow in holiness as they set out on the Christian life? Perhaps you would pray that they would live by the Spirit and not by the flesh? Or that they would grow in sanctification? ALL of those would be good things. 

In Colossians 1:9-14, we are going to be treated to a kind of “master class” (if you will) on what the Apostle Paul once prayed for a brand new church and a brand new group of disciples that have just come to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. 

And BOY OH BOY do they need prayer! Times are exciting; energy is up; enthusiasm at a high point, and yet suddenly it seems before the Colossian church can even have its first potluck together, Satan is already out and about plaguing these new believers with insidious lies and false teaching. These false teachings had a handful of problems as we mentioned last week. First, the false teaching encouraged the believers to strictly observe OT laws and ceremonies - drawing them back into the Old Covenant.

Secondly, it laid an emphasis on a special, secretive knowledge that left the Colossians wanting more than Christ, more than the Gospel. Thirdly, the false teaching involved even the worship of angels —teaching which suggested angels are mediators between us and God. And FINALLY, at its most corrosive, the teaching denied the deity of Christ —and as we will see next week on Easter, this false teaching will call forth one of the greatest declarations of Christ’s deity found in scripture, the incredible Christ Hymn of Colossians 1:15-20.

So, Paul prays for the Colossians. But this is a prayer for us as well! Like the Colossians, we live in a day of false teaching, too. In fact, the list of false teaching plaguing to contemporary church goes on and on. For example:
  • that Jesus Christ was not God, that He was not resurrected from the dead, that He is not Lord over all. 
  • that Salvation is found in all the world’s religions, rather than solely in Jesus Christ. 
  • that the Bible contains not the very words of God and is not the only infallible rule for faith and life.
  • that people are not created in the image of God, and that they were not created male nor female. In fact, it is this false teaching that has led to the death of 57 millions babies since the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 and has led to the absolute confusion of the modern transgendered movement. 
  • The list goes on and on…

And so Paul prays for the church, and his prayer is a beautifully constructed tapestry of intercession, which makes a perfect model for the fabric of our own prayers. His example tells us how to pray for two of the most dire needs in the church today — the first KNOWLEDGE and then RIGHT CONDUCT in our lives as Christians. So let me invite you to pay close attention to the scriptures today as Paul prays for the church…

1. Paul Prays that God will fill us with a Knowledge of His will.
“For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding;…” (Colossians 1:9; NKJV)
Here we see Paul’s primary petition for this new church…and we see his primary petition for us! And what is that petition? We see it’s a petition for knowledge. But note, not just any knowledge…he prays that we will be filled with a knowledge of — whose will? Yes! God’s will.

How so? Well, Paul uses the Greek word ‘pleroo' translated as “filled.” ‘Pleroo' means to be “completely filled.” It means to be “totally controlled”. In other words, Paul prays that we will have not just an inner impression or a shallow feeling of what God wants for us through His word, but rather that we’ll have a deep and thorough and pervasive knowledge of the will of God.

From the apostle Paul’s perspective, a deep, growing knowledge of Christ and God’s will is of the greatest importance for our spiritual lives. In fact, it is dangerous to lack this knowledge!

Time and again, the Bible warns of the danger of a lack of knowledge. Proverbs 19:2 says that “it is not good for a person to be without knowledge.” We note that it was for lack of knowledge that Israel went into exile (Isa. 5:13), and God says in Hosea 4:6, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” First Corinthians 14:20 warns us, “Do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature.” Ephesians 4:13–14 tells us that lack of knowledge produces “children tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.” Ephesians 4:18 describes unbelievers as “being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them.”

Now, it’s just any old garden-variety knowledge that God is concerned with. Notice back in Colossians 1:9 that Paul prays that we “will be filled with knowledge of God’s will…<NOTE>…in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.” You see, God’s intent is not that you and I will become a kind of storehouse repository of biblical facts and minutiae. God’s intent is that we will know depth fully His revealed truths, particularly as revealed in the word of God! That we will be able, by the Spirit’s empowering presence in our lives, to accumulate and organize principles from scripture and then apply those biblical principles to our daily lives. 

Now, let’s ask the question: How do you do this? How may you be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding?

First, you must pray for this filling as Paul is doing. Pray it for yourselves and your brothers and sisters in this church.

Second, you must desire this knowledge of God’s will. In Hosea 6:3, we find this imprecation of the great prophet, “Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord.” Dear friends, we must desire the knowledge of God’s will.

Third, we must always depend upon the Holy Spirit. Why is that? It’s because it is through the Spirit that we know the things God has revealed to us. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 2:10-12,
“But God has revealed [the things of God] to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.” (1 Corinthians 2:10-12). 
My friends, if you are in Christ, you have the Holy Spirit of God indwelling you, teaching you, and guiding you…

Finally, dear friends, if you would know the will of God, you must study the scriptures. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17,
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17; NKJV)
You see, the scriptures of God are enabled by God to meet all the needs of your Christian life, your ministry, your needs as a follower of Christ. 

Well, perhaps you say, “Oh mercy, here goes a preacher goes again hammering away about the value of God’s word, pushing me once again to read it, to study it, to meditate upon it…oh my, how many times have I heard this song and dance!?

My friends, I make NO APOLOGY for convicting you of the necessity of devoting yourself to the study of God’s word every day. There are far too many irresolute preachers in pulpits today that seem to be ashamed of God’s word and who mainly purvey a kind fortune-cookie theology week. after. week…to the great detriment of their congregations, who starve for the unadulterated word of God.

Those who flock to such pulpits will find that in the day of trial, when the hot rays of a bleaching tribulation sets in, that the platitudes and shallow teachings will but add fuel to the fires that overtake them.

David writes in Psalm 1…

Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3; NKJV)

As a young Christian, the great preacher Harry Ironside visited an old, dying man named Andrew Fraser, who could barely speak above a whisper. After a few words of introduction, Fraser said to Ironside, “Young man, you are trying to become a preacher of Christ, are you not?”

Ironside replied, “Yes, I am.”

“Well,” the older saint whispered, “sit down a little, and let us talk together about the Word of God.” Fraser proceeded to open his well-worn Bible, and until his strength was gone, simply, sweetly, and earnestly he opened up truth after truth as he turned from one passage to another, in a way that Ironside’s own spirit had never entered into them.

Before Ironside realized it, tears were running down his face, and he asked Fraser, “where did you get these things? Could you tell me where I could find a book that would open them up to me? Did you learn them at college or seminary?”

Ironside said later that he would never forget Fraser’s answer. “My dear young man, I learned these things on my knees on the mud floor of a little sod cottage in the north of Ireland. There with my open Bible before me, I used to kneel for hours at a time, and ask the Spirit of God to reveal Christ to my soul and to open the Word to my heart, and He taught me more on my knees on that mud floor that I ever could have learned in all the seminaries or colleges in the world.”

A Bible that is falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t. My friends, do you treasure the revealed will of God? Do you delight in the very words of God? Do you meditate on them both in day and night? I pray that you do. This brings me to my second and briefer point...

2. Pauls prays that we will walk and conduct our lives according to God’s will
“…that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:10-14; NKJV)
If I were to summarize Paul here, he’s saying “what’s the use of this knowledge of God’s will if you don’t DO something with it?” You see my friends, Paul sees an absolute connection between knowledge of God’s will and your conduct.

A profound knowledge of God should profoundly affect our walk in Christ. In fact, the ultimate evidence of knowing God’s will is living in a manner that is pleasing to God.  How are you doing with this? How’s your Christian walk? How did you do this week? James tells us in his great letter to not just be HEARERS of God’s word but be DOERS of God’s word too!

My friends, don’t be discouraged. Maybe you are struggling to walk worthily right now. The good news is that God has not left us to our own resources, our own strength to walking the worthy walk. Paul wrote to the Galatians…
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which 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; NKJV)
In other words, Christ dwells in us in the person of the Holy Spirit. He will help us walk worthily. As Pauls says, because of God’s strengthening presence by the Spirit in our lives…

v. 10 We can walk in a worthy manner…bearing good fruit…and increasing in the knowledge of God

v. 11 Because of the Spirit and the knowledge of God’s will we are strengthened in all might and power. We can face trials with patience and joy.

v. 12 By the Spirit we can give thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light.

My friends, don’t be discouraged - God is with you! And I am praying Paul’s pray for you, for me, for our church. 

Of course, you might ask, “How can you be sure that any of this will come to pass?”

May answer to you comes in verses 13-14, to bring out text to a close. This is ALL possible because God has redeemed you in Jesus Christ!
“He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14; NKJV)
It is all possible because God the great Father of Mercies has…delivered us…conveyed us into His kingdom…redeemed us…and forgiven us” in order to do it all!

It was not due to anything we have done. It is all a work of our heavenly father who is constructing a masterpiece in you. Thus Paul prays that we will give thanks to God…constantly.

Dear friends, pray for the both the knowledge an conduct of your fellow believers this week. If our church is growing in the knowledge of Christ and His will, and walking worthily of Him, we will do great things for the Master. Let us commit ourselves to Paul’s prayer for the church this week.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Is Penal Substitutionary Atonement an Immoral Doctrine?


No, but it is a biblical one. 

Penal substitutionary atonement, the idea that Jesus Christ died in the place of sinners (more specifically, the elect) and bore the punishment that should have been ours in order to appease the wrath of God, is an idea that has fallen on hard times, particularly within the heady realms of academic theology. To get a flavor for penal substitutionary atonement, here's a helpful bit from Martin Luther's lectures of 1535 on Galatians:
Gal. 3:13. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written: Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree. 
Paul guarded his words carefully and spoke precisely. And here again a distinction must be made; Paul’s words clearly show this. For he does not say that Christ became a curse on His own account, but that He became a curse “for us.” Thus the whole emphasis is on the phrase “for us.” For Christ is innocent so far as His own Person is concerned; therefore He should not have been hanged from the tree. But because, according to the Law, every thief should have been hanged, therefore, according to the Law of Moses, Christ Himself should have been hanged; for He bore the person of a sinner and a thief—and not of one but of all sinners and thieves. For we are sinners and thieves, and therefore we are worthy of death and eternal damnation. But Christ took all our sins upon Himself, and for them He died on the cross. Therefore it was appropriate for Him to become a thief and, as Isaiah says (53:12), to be “numbered among the thieves.” 
In short, He has and bears all the sins of all men in His body—not in the sense that He has committed them but in the sense that He took these sins,. committed by us, upon His own body, in order to make satisfaction for them with His own blood. Therefore this general Law of Moses included Him, although He was innocent so far as His own Person was concerned; for it found Him among sinners and thieves. Thus a magistrate regards someone as a criminal and punishes him if he catches him among thieves, even though the man   V 26, p 278  has never committed anything evil or worthy of death. Christ was not only found among sinners; but of His own free will and by the will of the Father He wanted to be an associate of sinners, having assumed the flesh and blood of those who were sinners and thieves and who were immersed in all sorts of sin. Therefore when the Law found Him among thieves, it condemned and executed Him as a thief.
Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 26 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 276–278.
The idea currently fashionable as an understanding of Christ's death -- that it was a representative act in which believers participate -- has become an uncontroversial axiom in biblical scholarship and Christian theology. But the idea of penal substitutionary atonement has become highly contested. In other words, that Christ died in our place, instead of us to satisfy the wrath of God has been hotly debated in the academic realm (though surprisingly not as much in the church, though liberal Protestants have paid more attention to this than others and some have eliminated hymns accordingly). 

The Australian churchman Peter Carnley once wrote that the idea of Christ dying in our place is not part of the orthodox Christian faith. This view of the cross, he argued, leads to a picture of God "of a morally repugnant kind, whose Son becomes the hapless victim of his Father's righteous anger."

British thinker Steve Chalke emphasizes the point that the death of Christ has to do with a form of "cosmic child abuse" where God "suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son."

We have good reasons to reject such statements!

First, such theological criticisms neglect the obvious fact that the death of Christ is not that of a third party but is the self-substitution of God.

Second, and in line with the first point above, Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice in line with His own will. To give two examples from the letter to the Galatians, the Son "gave himself for our sins" and "loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 1:4; 2:20). 

Third, and admittedly more subjective, is that argument that it is all very well and good to caricature penal atonement theory as cruel, violent, and unjust but this is not how millions and millions of Christians throughout church history have understood it. The message of penal substitutionary atonement has brought hope, forgiveness, peace of mind and heart, and power for living to multitudes of ordinary men and women.

Further, let us consider the biblical backgrounds and textual support for the doctrine (in as brief a way as possible):

The Old Testament Sacrificial System

Christ’s atoning death must also be seen against the background of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Before Christ’s atoning death it was necessary for sacrifices to be regularly offered to compensate for the sins that had been committed. These sacrifices were necessary, not to work a reformation in the sinner nor to deter the sinner or others from committing further sin, but to atone for the sin, which inherently deserved punishment. There had been offense against God’s law and hence against God himself, and this had to be set right.

The Hebrew word most commonly used in the Old Testament for the various types of atonement is כָּפַר (kaphar) and its derivatives. The word literally means “to cover.” One was delivered from punishment by the interposing of something between one’s sin and God. God then saw the atoning sacrifice rather than the sin. The covering of the sin meant that the penalty no longer had to be exacted from the sinner.

It should be noted that the sacrifice had an objective effect. Sacrifices were offered to appease God. Job’s friends, for example, were instructed to bring sacrifice so that God would not deal with them according to their folly. God had been angered by the fact that they had not spoken of him what is right (Job 42:8). Further, a sacrifice was offered as a substitute for the sinner. It bore the sinner’s guilt. For the sacrifice to be effective, there had to be some connection, some point of commonality, between the victim and the sinner for whom it was offered.

Several other factors were necessary for the sacrifice to accomplish its intended effect. The sacrificial animal had to be spotless, without blemish. The one for whom atonement was being made had to present the animal and lay his hands on it: “he must present it at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.… He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him” (Lev. 1:3–4). This bringing of the animal and laying on of hands constituted a confession of guilt on the part of the sinner. The laying on of hands symbolized a transfer of the guilt from the sinner to the victim. Then the offering or sacrifice was accepted by the priest.

While the legal portions of the Old Testament typify with considerable clarity the sacrificial and substitutionary character of Christ’s death, the prophetic passages go even further. They establish the connection between the Old Testament sacrifices and Christ’s death. Isaiah 53 is the clearest of all. Having described the person of the Messiah and indicated the nature and extent of the iniquity of sinners, the prophet makes an allusion to Christ’s sacrifice: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6). The iniquity of sinners is transferred to the suffering servant, just as in the Old Testament rites the sins were transferred to the sacrificial animal. The laying on of hands was an anticipation of the believer’s active acceptance of Christ’s atoning work.

The New Testament Teaching

The Gospels

The New Testament is much more detailed on the subject of Christ’s atonement. Consider first our Lord’s own testimony regarding the nature and purpose of his death. Although Jesus did not have a great deal to say about this death during the first part of his ministry, toward the end he began to speak about it quite explicitly and clearly. These teachings were not elicited by chance questions from Jesus’ disciples or challenges by his enemies, but were delivered purposely, at his own initiative.

Jesus had a profound sense that the Father had sent him to do the Father’s work. He declares in John 10:36 that the Father had sent him into the world. In John 6:38 he says, “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” The apostle John expressly relates the sending by the Father to the Son’s redemptive and atoning work: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). The purpose of the coming was atonement, and the Father was involved in that work. The point in stressing that the Son was sent by the Father is to make it clear that the Son’s work is not independent of, or in contrast to, what the Father does. Nor was the death of Christ a punishment administered by an impassive judge on an innocent third party. The Father was personally involved, for the penalty fell on his own Son, whom he had voluntarily sent and who had voluntarily gone.

Jesus had a powerful conviction that his life and death constituted a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. In particular, he interpreted his own life and death as a clear fulfillment of Isaiah 53. At the Last Supper he said, “It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment” (Luke 22:37). He was citing Isaiah 53:12, thus identifying himself as the suffering servant. His frequent references to his suffering make it clear that he saw his death as the primary reason for his having come. He plainly told his disciples that the Son of man must suffer many things, be rejected by the religious authorities, and be killed (Mark 8:31). Even early in his ministry he alluded to his suffering by speaking of the time when the bridegroom would be taken away (Matt. 9:15; Mark 2:19–20). And indeed, upon descending from the mount of transfiguration, at one of the high points in his ministry, he said, “In the same way [like Elijah] the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands” (Matt. 17:12).

Jesus saw his death as constituting a ransom. Without specifying to whom the ransom was to be paid, or from whose control the enslaved were to be freed, Jesus indicated that his giving of his life was to be the means by which many would be freed from bondage (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). The word λύτρον (lutron—“ransom”) with its cognates is used nearly 140 times in the Septuagint, usually with the thought of deliverance from some sort of bondage in exchange for the payment of compensation or the offering of a substitute.

Christ also saw himself as our substitute. This concept is particularly prominent in the Gospel of John. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). He was, of course, stating a principle of broad application; he was commending to his disciples that they show to one another such love as he had shown them. But inasmuch as he was speaking on the eve of his crucifixion, there can be little doubt of what was on his mind. Certainly he was thinking of the substitutionary death that he was soon to undergo.

There are other indications that Jesus saw himself in the role of a sacrifice. He said in his great high priestly prayer: “For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified” (John 17:19). The verb here is ἁγιάζω (hagiazō), a term common in sacrificial contexts. C. K. Barrett says, “The language is equally appropriate to the preparation of a priest and the preparation of a sacrifice; it is therefore doubly appropriate to Christ.”

John the Baptist’s statement at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry carries similar connotations—“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The apostle John also records Caiaphas’s sneering remark to the Sanhedrin: “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:49–50). The point of interest is not the attitude of Caiaphas, but the deep truth Caiaphas had unknowingly spoken. Jesus would die not merely in the place of the nation, but of the entire world. It is noteworthy that John calls attention to this remark of Caiaphas a second time (18:14).

Jesus had a profound sense that he was the source and giver of true life. He says in John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” The giving of eternal life is here linked to both the Father and the Son. We can receive this life through an especially close relationship to the Son, which he also symbolically referred to as eating his flesh.” In John 6 he speaks of “the true bread” (v. 32), “the bread of life” (vv. 35, 48), “the bread that comes down from heaven” (v. 50). He then makes clear what he has been talking about: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (v. 51). To have eternal life, we must eat his flesh and drink his blood (vv. 52–58). Jesus saw a definite connection between our having life and his giving his life for us.

To sum up what Jesus and the Gospel writers said about his death: Jesus saw a close identification between himself and his Father. He spoke regularly of the Father’s having sent him. He and the Father are one, and so the work that the Son did was also the work of the Father. Jesus came for the purpose of giving his life as a ransom, a means of liberating those people who were enslaved to sin. He offered himself as a substitute for them. Paradoxically, his death gives life; we obtain it by taking him into ourselves. His death was a sacrifice typified by the Old Testament sacrificial system. These various motifs are vital elements in our construction of the doctrine of the atonement.

The Pauline Writings

When we turn to Paul’s writings, we find a rich collection of teaching on the atonement, teaching that conforms with what the Gospels say on the subject. Paul also identifies and equates Jesus’ love and working with that of the Father. Numerous texts can be cited: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19); “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8); “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man” (Rom. 8:3); “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). Thus, like the Gospel writers and Jesus himself, Paul does not view the atonement as something Jesus did independently of the Father; it is the work of both. Furthermore, what Paul says of the Father’s love, he also says of the Son’s: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14); “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:2). The love of the Father and that of the Son are interchangeable. George Ladd comments: “The idea that the cross expresses the love of Christ for us while he wrings atonement from a stern and unwilling Father, perfectly just, but perfectly inflexible, is a perversion of New Testament theology.”

Having said this, however, we must note that the theme of divine wrath on sin is also prominent in Paul. It is important to realize, for example, that Romans 3:21–26, a passage about the redemption God has provided in Jesus Christ, is the culmination of a process of reasoning that began with the pronouncement of God’s wrath against sin: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:18). God’s holiness requires that there be atonement if the condemned condition of sinners is to be overcome. The love of God provides that atonement.

Paul frequently thought of and referred to the death of Christ as a sacrifice. In Ephesians 5:2 he describes it as “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” In 1 Corinthians 5:7 he writes, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” His numerous references to Christ’s blood also suggest a sacrifice: there was “a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (Rom. 3:25); “we have now been justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:9); “In him we have redemption through his blood” (Eph. 1:7); we “have been brought near through the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13); he has reconciled to himself all things, “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20). Ladd has pointed out, however, that there was very little actual shedding of Christ’s blood as such. While there was a loss of blood when the crown of thorns was put on his head and when the nails were driven into his flesh, it was not until after he had died that blood (mixed with water) gushed forth (John 19:34). So the references to Christ’s blood are not to his actual physical blood per se, but to his death as a sacrificial provision for our sins.

The apostle Paul also maintains that Christ died for us or on our behalf. God “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32); “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8); “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:2); Christ became a “curse for us” (Gal. 3:13); he “died for us” (1 Thess. 5:10). Later in this chapter we will inquire whether Christ’s death was merely for our sakes, that is, on our behalf, or actually substitutionary, that is, in our place.

Finally, Paul regards Christ death as propitiatory, that is, Christ died to appease God’s wrath against sin. In fact, there are passages in Paul’s writings that cannot be satisfactorily interpreted if we deny that God’s wrath needed to be appeased. This is particularly true of Romans 3:25–26. In the past, God had left sins unpunished. He could conceivably be accused of overlooking sin since he had not required punishment for it. Now, however, he has put forth Jesus as ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion). This proves both that God is just (his wrath required the sacrifice) and that he is the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus (his love provided the sacrifice for them).

The numerous passages that speak of the wrath (ὀργή—orgē) of God against sin are evidence that Christ’s death was necessarily propitiatory: Romans 1:18; 2:5, 8; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:4–5; Ephesians 2:3; 5:6; Colossians 3:6; and 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2:16; 5:9. So then, Paul’s idea of the atoning death (Christ as ἱλαστήριον—hilasterion) is not simply that it covers sin and cleanses from its corruption (expiation), but that the sacrifice also appeases a God who hates sin and is radically opposed to it (propitiation).

There is of course much more that could be said, but let me close with this: the implications of substitutionary atonement. The penal substitutionary theory of the atoning death of Christ, when grasped in all its complexity, is a rich and meaningful truth. It carries several major implications for our understanding of salvation:

1. The penal-substitution theory confirms the biblical teaching of the total depravity of all humans. God would not have gone so far as to put his precious Son to death had it not been absolutely necessary. Humans are totally unable to meet their own need.

2. God’s nature is not one-sided, nor is there any tension between its different aspects. He is not merely righteous and demanding, nor merely loving and giving. He is righteous, so much so that sacrifice for sin had to be provided. He is loving, so much so that he provided that sacrifice himself.

3. There is no other way of salvation but by grace, and specifically, the death of Christ. It has an infinite value and thus covers the sins of all humankind for all time. A finite sacrifice, by contrast, cannot even fully cover the sins of the individual offering it.

4. There is security for the believer in his or her relationship to God. For the basis of the relationship, Christ’s sacrificial death, is complete and permanent. Although our feelings might change, the ground of our relationship to God remains unshaken.

5. We must never take lightly the salvation we have. Although it is free, it is also costly, for it cost God the ultimate sacrifice. We must therefore always be grateful for what he has done; we must love him in return and emulate his giving character.

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).