I have been a Reformed Baptist pastor for 10 years, and I have not fallen, nor am I aware of any problems in my life of the magnitude that would disqualify me from ministry. I struggle with worry and grumbling, but my sins aren’t of the notorious and ignominious sort. I hasten to add, however, that I am no less in need of God’s grace and forgiveness than someone who is disgraced in the eyes of the self-righteous crowd or disqualified in the eyes of the humble Christian crowd. We are all sinners, and we all desperately need continual supplies of God’s grace, which he has given us in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
Every sin deserves God’s wrath, but some sins receive different temporal ramifications than others. God has stipulated that those he has set over his flock must not be sinners of the blatant, notorious type (1 Tim. 3). Unfortunately, I am aware of several pastors who have become just that. In fact, some of the most notorious sinners I’ve ever known were at one time pastors. These men were disqualified for ministry, and they faded away in shame, leaving in their wake many hurting, confused and outraged people.
My question is a simple one: why? Why does this happen? Why can we all, no doubt, bring to mind several names and faces of pastors who lost their testimony and their ministry due to notorious sin?
I believe there are a multitude of reasons why pastors fall. Let me address only a few before focusing on one in particular.
First, there are many men who enter the ministry who have never conquered sexual sin in their personal lives. A man who has no self-control is fighting the Holy Spirit whose fruit always produces it. There can be no doubt: a person is a slave to whomever he obeys. People who habitually commit sexual sin are slaves to the devil and to the flesh. Such men enter the ministry already fallen; their later “fall” is just an exposure of what they are.
LACK OF DEVOTIONAL LIFE
Second, there are many men in the ministry who have never established regular devotional times. Such a person is fundamentally at odds with God, because God invites all Christians to meditate on God’s Law day and night. Many men have no interest in prayer. Such men are vulnerable to attacks from the enemy, and when temptation comes over and over, they cannot stand because their lifeline is cut, they have no spiritual power, for they simply don’t love God enough to maintain a relationship with him.
BAD MOTIVATIONS FOR MINISTRY
Third, many pastors get into ministry for the wrong reasons, so their motivations are either false or they are mixed. Some people become pastors because they think they’ll get peace, or money, or respect, or time, or power. They are in it primarily for supposed benefits. It is hard not to think of such men as completely ignorant of what pastoral life is really like. When ministry turns out to be full of disillusionments, they turn to what gives them pleasure, because that was what they were seeking to begin with.
LACK OF COVENANT SOLIDARITY
These and many reasons can be trotted out, but I would like to focus on one in particular. Often pastors fail because they and their families are victims of a lack of covenant solidarity, which subtly turns them from God.
What do I mean by covenant solidarity? I’d define it as a principle of unity among a congregation that isn’t derived from shared personality traits, mutual hobbies, or common interests, but rather is derived from a shared interest in and love for Christ. Covenant solidarity is “the tie that binds.” This Christ-centered form of relationship results in an undying devotion to those for whom he died. It is the lack of this covenant solidarity that is so damaging, not only to pastors but to all in the congregation.
What damage occurs when there is a loss of covenant solidarity? Or what if a church was founded originally on some other uniting principle rather than covenant solidarity? There are many dire results.
First, people gravitate to those of their own stripe and therefore cliques are born. Instead of being interested in all people who are in Christ, people who don’t love Christ first and foremost find some other uniting principle, which typically involves shared interests. It’s striking how petty friendships become when Christ is left out. People unite around baking, motorcycles, hunting, music, and games. People naturally seek to flock with other birds like them, and without a cause bigger than themselves, they simply follow their personal inclinations.
Second, People make their own happiness the primary reason to be in a church, and so schismatics are born: those who will dump a church because it didn’t “scratch their back” well enough. People in churches like this are insecure, especially the pastors. They instinctively feel that they have to perform or “be what others want them to be,” and therefore they fear rejection and are dominated by the whims and opinions of others.
Third, when something other than Jesus Christ becomes the uniting principle in the local church, the church becomes fundamentally idolatrous. To put it simply, people are coming to church for other reasons than out of love for God. I tell my kids, “You aren’t coming to church to see and be seen. You are coming to church to sing to God, pray to God, give to God, and hear from God so that you can love God, worship God and obey God. Church is all about relating to God.”
When an entire church gets this, really gets it, a wonderful sort of harmony and tranquility enters, and the chaotic bustle and attempts at being the Great Personality fade away as everyone realizes there is only one answer, Jesus Christ, and they become content eagerly seeking him. The pastor then can function in his proper role. He can stop being a celebrity and start laboring at the task of feeding Christ’s dear sheep with Christ’s holy Word.
Pastor as Idol
Fourth, another result is that the pastor takes the brunt of the idolatry. He is the most public person in the congregation, and people tend to expect more from him. Often the pastor goes along with this state of affairs and is unaware that it is occurring, even as he wonders why he feels that he is drying up, struggling with fear, and can’t take comfort from God’s Word anymore. Try being the Great Personality around which the church must be unified, and you’ll see how soul destroying it is. When a pastor “goes off the deep end” it is often because the whole group had already been swimming in it for some time.
People as Idolaters
Fifth, another result is the hatred that springs up in idolaters' hearts when their idol fails to live up to their expectations. This is inevitable when the congregation has a principle of unity other than Christ. The numbers of people who have inexplicably turned on pastors because they didn’t show up to a sporting event, or because they didn’t let them teach Sunday school, or because they didn’t check up on them enough, or because they “seemed uninterested” in them, or because they didn’t go along with a peculiar vision for the church—the numbers of such people are surprising, though thankfully not overwhelming. Of course there are other reasons why people become angry at pastors, but in this sense they do so because they have an idolatrous expectation bound up in human religious leadership, and I assume that they are unaware of their tragic spiritual state. They think they are following Jesus, but they need to put God in his proper place in their lives. They need to repent of their idolatry.
The burden that this sort of idolatry places on pastors is enormous, even when they recognize that it is happening and when they consistently, day-by-day, deal with it correctly. The burden on their families is also enormous. And when it becomes too great to bear, the family unit ruptures, invisibly at first, but as relationships grow cold, the pastor has lost his God-given place of refuge in the world. If there is any weakness in his relationship with God, he’s bound to have all his personal weaknesses exploited by the enemy.
I believe that one reason pastors fall is a lack of covenant solidarity in the group. People aren’t united around Christ as the tie that binds.
The Pastor Is Not Christ
I once was in a class on the prophet Isaiah, which I took during my seminary years. The teacher was a very kind man, who was somewhat discombobulated all the time and yet still had something insightful to say every class period. I appreciated him, and apparently other people in class did too, to the level of idolizing him. One day he came to class looking positively oppressed, and after opening the class with prayer, he said something I’ll never forget. He looked at the class, commiserated with some people about their difficult situations, and then he said “I am not Christ.” His point was an obvious one. Nobody thought he was Jesus, and at first I wondered what he was getting at. Nevertheless, it became apparent that he needed to say it. There were people in class who were putting him on a pedestal. People expect far too much out of friends, teachers, and preachers. People expect things that only Jesus can provide: unfailing love, acceptance, security, total relational satisfaction, a heart large enough to feel all their woes. One of the signs of a godly pastor is that he doesn’t take too much on himself. The godly pastor knows who the true answer is, and he doesn’t try to be Him. When faced with the woes of a sin-cursed world, the godly pastor’s response is always “I care about you; I will pray for you; I’ll try to help you in whatever small way I can, but your answer is Jesus Christ as offered to you in the Bible. Go to him through Bible reading, prayer, good sermons, and the ordinances. He rewards those who seek him and will truly meet your every need.” Such an attitude not only points to the true help everyone needs, but it also avoids the trap of unbiblical idolatrous expectations that can literally drive pastors out of their minds and out of their pulpits.
This post cannot hope to give all the reasons why pastors fall, but one reason is no doubt that many pastors are suffering from an idolatrous culture, in which they themselves may be complicit, and which makes something other than Jesus the tie that binds.
There are supposedly more people today who doubt God’s existence than ever before. I want to quickly highlight something I said in the last post:
“The human mind (even the collective human mind) is finite. It cannot know all things. It’s grasp of the universe is minuscule and always will be, considering the amount of data to be gathered. The human mind is ignorant, dependent upon the testimony of others, and susceptible to data manipulation and propaganda. In other words, it is an insufficient reference point. If we are to be confident that we have absolute truth, we need a Word from someone who knows all and cannot lie.”
On CNN two reporters said that the reason why so many people are doubting God’s existence is the availability of information on the Internet. In other words, as I said in the quote above, “Collective humanity.” These experts imply that religion is a provincial thing, and the more people have access to the evidence, the sooner they’ll shake off religion’s shackles. Religion, they imply, is the result of ignorance, and in our enlightened age, we’re seeing that the “man in the sky” is an ideological fossil. They even go so far to say that in fifty years, Christians will be nearly extinct.
My point is that if people are doubting God because of what they discover on the Internet, they’re putting their faith in ill-researched claims, opinions, and propaganda. Isaiah 2 says “Cease from man, whose breath is in his nostrils, of what account is he?” Trusting in mankind’s collective reasonings is a sure path to deception. Matthew 24 says “Many false prophets shall rise and shall deceive many.” Jesus predicted these times, and so did the apostles, “There shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts and saying “Where is the promise of his coming?”
I look into the heated faces of modern pundits and commentators, and I laugh that they want me to doubt Jesus based on their word. I’ll stick with the one whose Word never changes, thank you very much.
There are a lot facts that lead me to trust the Bible, and these facts are amazingly convincing. No other book has the credentials that the Bible has. Let me give you several factual reasons why I accept the Bible as the Word of my Lord.
Most importantly, the Bible claims to have its source in God. In essence, I believe it’s the Word of God because it says so. This sounds deplorably “circular” to many people. But the fact of the matter is that anytime you argue for your presupposition, you must depend on your presupposition. If a rationalist, who believes that man’s mind is the final arbiter of what is true or false, were asked, “Why do you believe that your mind decides what is true?” he wouldn’t be able to answer that question without using his mind. In other words, he’s being circular. There’s no way around it. To argue for your Reference Point, you must appeal to it. You’re bound to circularity.
But the biblical Christian has an advantage in the circularity game, because the human mind (even the collective human mind) is finite. It cannot know all things. It’s grasp of the universe is minuscule and always will be, considering the amount of data to be gathered. The human mind is ignorant, dependent upon the testimony of others, and susceptible to data manipulation and propaganda. In other words, it is an insufficient reference point. If we are to be confident that we have absolute truth, we need a Word from someone who knows all and cannot lie.
And that is exactly what we have in the Bible. It was “inspired” by the God who cannot lie (2 Tim. 3:16; Titus 1:2). Yes, men penned the Bible, but they “spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). This means that the Bible is not mere opinion. It came from the mind of an omniscient God, who can and does take into account all the facts. The Bible therefore deserves our supreme loyalty, because it is Truth in a world of full opinion. It is certainty in a world full of humans who disagree over what matters most. No matter how much collective humanity “progresses” into new ways of thinking, the Bible is a Rock that never changes.
You might say that based on my reasoning, you could justify any religious claim. Couldn’t the Mormons say “I believe the Book of Mormon, because it claims to be God’s Word?” You could argue that anyone making a claim to inspiration would have to be believed and that that’s preposterous. I agree. It’s preposterous. But the Book of Mormon actually claims it has errors in it (see “Mormon,” chapter 8, verses 12-17). And anyone who dares to claim that He speaks for God must demonstrate the proofs that God Himself tells us is evidence of a true prophet.
The proofs are total accuracy in prophetic predictions and total doctrinal agreement with the revelation that came before (see Isaiah 41:22-23 and Deuteronomy 13:1-3.
Next time, in part 3, we’ll begin delving into these two proofs, which God Himself tells us is evidence of His Word.
When you talk about Christianity with an unbeliever, the discussion depends on one main issue: authority. “Why should I believe what you say about spiritual matters?” a skeptic might ask. You must be ready for this issue by asking yourself some questions: Is the gospel true merely because you’re telling it to them? Is it true merely because you heard it all your life? Or is the gospel true because it comes from an all-knowing God who cannot lie?
But there’s the issue! Not everyone believes that the Bible comes from God. And when you’re talking with an unbeliever about spiritual things, they will often discount what you’re saying on this very ground: “You’re telling me things from the Bible, and I don’t accept the Bible.” Whether they tell you this or not, they’re probably thinking it.
How do you give the gospel to someone who rejects the fundamental presupposition of your whole life and worldview? You tell them why they too should believe that the Bible is the Word of God. You can do this in two basic ways: experientially or rationally.
Experientially means giving the gospel, while conscious of the fact that the unbeliever’s own experience validates many of its claims. Just give them the gospel, knowing that their own conscience will agree with a lot of what you say. This is powerful because it appeals to their own thoughts, which, no matter how deeply suppressed, agree with God’s Word. Which verses in the Bible agree with sinners’ consciences? Verses about sin, Christ’s Law, and judgment.
Press verses about sin. People know, deep down, that they are terrible sinners (Rom. 1:31). They have flashes of insight in which they see their hypocrisy in judging others when they do similarly evil things (Rom. 2:1). It is incredibly convincing to see the Bible deal honestly with us about ourselves. The Bible doesn’t whitewash our sin. It doesn’t flatter us. It condemns us for the cruel, gossiping, arrogant, limelight-loving, selfish beings that we know we are, if we’d be honest. This is incredibly convincing, because it shows people that the Bible is simply an honest book. Everyone else is trying to ignore or downplay sin. The Bible points it out, describes it, and condemns it. Read Romans 1-3. Illustrate verses on sin by sharing how convicted you were of your own sin when you got saved, and how you saw that your sin was heinous, not minor. Sin in the seed is essentially the same as in the full tree.
Press verses about Christ’s Law. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount nearly converted Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s main reason for not becoming a Christian was that He didn’t like Christians. But the teaching of Jesus haunted him, and it’ll haunt others too. There is special convicting power in those words: “You’ve heard it said ‘don’t murder’ but I say ‘don’t be angry.” Anger unrestrained leads to murder. Jesus demands a clean heart, not mere outward conformity. Jesus wants a heart of love, which genuinely cares even for those who hurt us. “Love your enemies.” This is unparalleled; all our hearts long for it, and the only thing that keeps us from it is ourselves. I once worked with a Bosnian Muslim who fought in Sarajevo in the early 1990s. This man had killed people on the other side, and the experience marked his personality. He was a very angry man. On one occasion, at work, another co-worker mocked my Muslim friend, who then came back to his workstation next to mine. He turned to me, and his large eyes were bulging and red with anger. He whispered to me through his thick accent that he wanted to “kill that guy.” I had been trying to witness to him for a long time, and I saw a perfect opportunity to bring conviction into his life. Even as he stewed in his murderous rage, I told him Jesus’ words about loving your enemy and doing good to those who despise you. I told him that Jesus has the right view of what we ought to be, not Allah. My friend’s eyes widened in shock at what I had told him, and he said “it is impossible to be that way.” But I saw the impact the words of Christ made upon him. No one can deny that the words of Christ call for a moral code that would bring unceasing peace on earth. It is the greatest moral code ever given, and it is crushingly convicting to see how far we fall short of it. Use Jesus’ Words to point out our need for what He did later: die for our sins.
It is reasonable to expect that the God who understands us so well also is distressed by our sin. Therefore, press verses that teach judgment. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18). Explain that God is holy, sin is His arch-enemy, and He can tolerate none of it. It’s like poison to Him. He’s zealously pursuing a sin-free universe. “Cursed is everyone who continues not in all things which are written in the book of the Law” (Gal. 3:10). Illustrate the verses by referring to your own experience of conviction, when God was leading you to Himself. Remember the feeling of impending doom you had when you understood that you were being bad? Remember the feeling that the axe could fall at any moment? Remember your brokenness when you realized the pain you had caused others? Press upon them thoughts of judgment. It will resonate, though they may rebuff you.
Humanity is hard-hearted, but some people will hear the voice of their master in the verses you share. “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me” (John 10). Be “always ready” to support the gospel message by statements from the Bible that our own sinful hearts will agree to and, if the Spirit moves, bow to.
Next time, Why You Should Believe the Bible Is The Word of God, part 2.
The best book on apologetics is the Bible itself. Nearly every time I hear about someone objecting to a Bible verse, a close inspection of the verse often demonstrates that the person either misunderstood the text or had never read it. Once, I read a letter to the editor of our local newspaper claiming that it was inconsistent for Christians to object to homosexuality on the grounds that the Old Testament condemned the behavior. The Old Testament also condemns wearing clothes of mixed fabric and eating shellfish, the writer went on to say. So, the reasoning went, it is arbitrary to pick out one command and ignore the others. If we’re going to object to homosexuality, we’d better leave shrimp alone too. But a little cursory knowledge of the Bible comes in handy when facing such arguments. I wrote back and pointed out that some commands in the OT were ceremonial and others were moral, and one of the ways you know the difference is that the NT repeats the moral. The NT doesn’t repeat the ceremonial laws, because the ceremonial laws were symbolic of important principles and not meant to be eternal (see Colossians 2:16-17). The NT repeats the ban on homosexuality in Romans and 1 Corinthians. So Moses agrees with Paul, and it isn’t arbitrary to recognize the God-ordained obsolescence of the ceremonial law.
On another occasion, someone I knew claimed that most Christians were hypocrites because they believed in the death penalty and were not against warfare per se. His reasoning was that the Bible says “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” so all Christians should be pacifist. He was either trying to critique Christianity or point out the unworkability of the Bible’s ethical standards. I kindly pointed out that the Hebrew word for “Kill” in that passage means “murder.” I hadn’t taken Hebrew at that time, but I knew how to use a Concordance, and I was aware of that little fact, which happened to torpedo the guy’s argument. A little Bible knowledge can go a long way.
You can clear up matters for people too. Just read the Bible and notice what it says. The best place to start is the New Testament epistles. Read them and don’t stop studying them until you understand them and can talk informatively and with ease about each one. No kidding! What else should we expect when we live in a world full of objectors and when God tells us “Always be ready to answer anyone who asks you.” Real readiness, solid training, is what our times demand. Make it a long term goal to know, really know, God’s Word.
Are there other books that can help us? Absolutely.
Always Ready by Greg Bahnsen is a good primer on presuppositional apologetics, a very important school of thought that seeks to do apologetics without capitulating to unbelieving assumptions, such as the assumption that the human mind is the final arbiter of what is true and false. Presuppositional books tend to be more philosophical, but they raise important issues, and Bahnsen is the best place to start.
When Skeptics Ask by Norman Geisler is a compendium of categories (Questions about God, Christ, the Bible, Miracles, etc.) with answers. It’s quite helpful and bit better than many give it credit for.
Objections Answered (alternately titled Reason to Believe) by R.C. Sproul is a good short book; each chapter deals with a particular question such as “What About the Poor Native Who Never Heard of Christ?” “If There is a God, Why Is There So Much Evil in the World?” and “When You’re Dead You’re Dead! There Is No More!” Though Sproul’s chapters range from mediocre to excellent, the book is a good place to start for someone who is totally new to apologetics.
C. S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity is a classic and should be read by every Christian. It is fun, imaginative, readable, and informative. Stick with it, and your mind will be expanded. Lewis is good for beginners and veteran apologists.
Josh McDowell’s book Evidence that Demands a Verdict is a compendium of evidences for Christianity, and whether or not you agree with McDowell’s philosophy of apologetics, there’s stuff in it that is useful.
D. A. Carson’s The Gagging of God is excellent, as is almost anything the man has written. This is a big book and pretty hefty intellectually.
Many of these books I’ve listed are older, but the thing about apologetics is that the same old objections get trotted out every few years as though no one had ever thought of them before, so the older books remain useful. A newer book you ought to grab too is The Rage Against God by Peter Hitchins. Grab these few books, read them, take notes, let them lead you to Bible passages, use some of their points in conversation, and you’ll be well on your way to being someone who can “Be Always Ready.” It’ll take time, but few worthwhile things are done in a moment. People spend lots of time learning Spanish or getting their bodies into good shape. Godly Christians ought to give lots of time to obeying the clear command to “be always ready.”
Next time: Why you should trust the Bible as the Word of God
A popular way is to act as though being a Christian is a covert operation. Christians often fly under the radar, wear camo, and never talk to unbelievers about matters of faith. The farthest many Christians go is to give a religious card or tract, or perhaps assure someone that they are praying for them. They never explain the faith or answer people’s questions. Don’t want to seem too extreme!
I once heard a Sunday School teacher recommend a certain way of handling cultists who come to your door. He said that it is very powerful to listen to them and just tell them that you are praying for them.
Not to disparage cards, tracts or prayers, but I’ve never been a fan of the “easy (broad?) way.” God tells us how we’re supposed to live in a world full of skeptics: “Be ready always to give an answer to anyone who asks you for a reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Question: is God telling us to be covert? Is He telling us “just give a tract”? Or “don’t engage in discussion with people but just assure them that you’re praying”? Rather, isn’t He telling us to “be prepared to give answers to anyone who asks”? Isn’t God commanding us to learn the answers to the skeptics’ tough questions? Isn’t He commanding us to actually talk, discuss, and answer objections? Could it be that many, many Christians have simply disobeyed God by being undercover about faith?
Today, skeptics have more objections than ever. Secularists, liberals, cultists, and the average fellow are simply bristling with reasons why Christianity should be thought ridiculous. And all along God has been saying to Christians “Always be ready to give an answer.”
Always be Ready: Constantly prepared. Never slack. Never unsuited to the task. Never in an untrained state. To Give an Answer: Be ever-ready for the task of giving an answer, an “apologia,” or a reasoned reply to a skeptic. God insists that you be trained so that you can know how to answer in a reasoned, rational way. To Any Who Ask You for a Reason of Your Hope: No matter who asks, you need to answer. Someone might say, “OK, I’ll be trained and ready to answer, but I’ll be sure to never get in a situation where anyone will ask me something.” Is that what God means, “Be trained and ready but live covertly anyway”? I don’t think so. God doesn’t want to train warriors so that they’ll go into the playground and fiddle on the teeter-totter. Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Christ. Talk to people about the faith (Matt. 28:18-20).
Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we should know what we believe, why we believe it, and we should be primed and ready to talk about it with anyone. It’s redemptive living. Anything less is disobedience, and Christians who live in disobedience aren’t true Christians (1 John 3:8-9). Be obedient. Get trained. Get answers. Believe that there are good answers to get. And then talk to people kindly and cogently. Always be ready.
Next time: How to get trained.
Let’s see what Luther has to say this time.
“To entertain a true conception of Christ is important, for the devil describes Christ as an exacting and cruel judge who condemns and punishes men. Tell him that his definition of Christ is wrong, that Christ has given Himself for our sins, that by His sacrifice He has taken away the sins of the whole world.
“Make ample use of this pronoun ‘our.’ Be assured that Christ has canceled the sins, not of certain persons only, but your sins. Do not permit yourself to be robbed of this lovely conception of Christ. Christ is no Moses, no [mere] law-giver, but the Mediator for sins, the Giver of grace and life.
“We know this. Yet in conflict with the devil, when he scares us with the Law, when he frightens us with the very person of the Mediator, when he . . . distorts for us our Savior, we so easily lose sight of our sweet High Priest.
“This is why I am so anxious for you to get a true conception of Christ out of the words of Paul: “Who gave himself for our sins.” Christ is no judge to condemn us; He gave Himself for our sins! He does not trample the fallen but raises them! He comforts the broken-hearted.”
Excellent thoughts indeed. If you’re tempted to think, “all this is too good to be true,” remember Romans 5:1–“Being therefore justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And Romans 8:1–“There is therefore no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” And Hebrews 10:14–“By one offering Christ has perfected forever them who are sanctified.” It’s true. Luther is right. Christ’s sacrifice is perfect, and it deals with all our sins, every one of them, and there is nothing that can cause God to go back on the full pardon that He has bestowed in the Cross. Now, “the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing” these things (Rom. 15:13).
The great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther was asked which books of his were worthy to be passed on to subsequent generations. He had written dozens, but he replied “only two.” His children’s catechism, and his Commentary on Galatians.
I’ve been reading his commentary, and it is fantastic. Very few writers really exult in the Gospel of Christ like Luther does. Consider the following quotation, which continues the theme from my last post.
“Let us equip ourselves against the accusations of Satan. . . If he says ‘You will be damned,’ tell him: ‘No! I flee to Christ who gave Himself for my sins. In accusing me of being damnable, you are cutting your own throat, Satan. You are reminding me of God’s fatherly goodness to me: God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. In calling me a sinner, Satan, you really comfort me above measure.’ With such heavenly cunning we are to meet the devil’s craft and put away from us the memory of sin.”
There is a lot in that quote, so I will let it stand alone and add more in a later post. For now it is enough to note that reminders of sin only remind believers that Christ died for those sins. Christ’s atonement is so effective, it is supposed to quiet our conscience once for all (Heb. 10:14 and context). And, needless to say, those who fully embrace such a powerful salvation will desire to spend their lives serving the One who loved them so. Godly living will then be motivated by love, not fear (1 John 4:18). So when the Devil casts your sins in your teeth, tell him he is cutting his own throat . . . :^)
More to come from Martin Luther . . .
First, How can we gain forgiveness for our sins? Paul answers “Christ gave Himself for our sins.” These words are a thunderclap of protest against any idea that we can gain God’s love by doing good works. If our sins could be removed by our own efforts, why did Christ need to die? Since He did die, it stands to reason that our sins cannot be put away by our own efforts.
Second, just how terrible are our sins? They are so terrible, that the whole world could not make amends for a single sin. If Christ had to “give Himself for our sins” then our sins are so vicious that it took the torture, death, and alienation of the Son of God to deal with them! So much for making light of sin. . .
Third, how much comfort can be found in the words “Christ gave Himself for our sins”? Sin cannot harm believers in Christ, because He has overcome sin by His death. Forget works salvation, which robs God and Christ of the glory that belongs to them alone! Take comfort in the word “our.” Christ gave Himself for our sins. Don’t refuse to a have anything to do with God until you have made yourself worthy by good deeds, as though your sins were a small matter, easily taken care of by good works! Christ gave Himself for our sins. This means your sins are no mere trifles. But also, you are not to despair over them. Learn to rely on the truth that Christ did not die for small sins or imaginary sins but mountainous sins, not for a few sins but for all sins, not for sins that are easily discarded but for sins that are stubbornly ingrained.
Fortify yourself against despair. Say with confidence: “Christ the Son of God was given not for the righteous but sinners. If I had no sin I wouldn’t need Christ. No, Satan, you can’t trick me into thinking I am holy. I am all sin! My sins are not imaginary but they are sins against the First Table of the Law: unbelief, doubt, despair, contempt, hatred, ignorance of God, ingratitude towards Him, misuse of His name, neglect of His Word, and they are sins against the second table: dishonor of parents, disobedience to government, coveting of others’ possessions. Granted I have not committed murder, adultery, theft, and similar sins in deed, but I have committed them in the heart, and therefore I am a transgressor of the Law of God. Because my sins are multiplied and my own works are a hindrance, therefore Christ the Son of God “gave Himself for my sins.” To believe this is to have eternal life.
I recently read these thoughts in Martin Luther’s “Commentary on Galatians,” and they are only slightly condensed and edited for this blog. It was refreshing to see Him standing so firmly in the truth of the Gospel. He has taken his stand on the fortress of Grace and is triumphing in it (Rom. 5:2). Even for Christians it is easy to allow a works mentality to slip into their lives, as though they gained grace by faith but must maintain it by works (Gal. 3:3).
Let Luther’s thoughts on Paul’s wonderful Gospel reorient you and keep you from trying to clean yourself up before you’ll come to God. Doing so is like saying you want to wash up before going to the washtub. Christ is the fountain for cleansing, and there is no cleansing apart from Him. Anytime you are grieved for your sin, turn away from it and come to Christ, confessing it, and trusting His blood to do what He says it does: cleanse you from all unrighteousness. And then take your place at Luther’s (and Paul’s) side there on that fortress of grace and start trumpeting the triumph of the cross with them.
More to come . . .
This requires time, lucidity, and heightened observation skills. If your life is one big time-crunch, if you’re so tired your brain feels like a crater surrounded by fragments of once-coherent thoughts, you just won’t be able to pull it together, and you’ll have to be content wading in the shallows. Bible study often requires life-style changes and a careful management of one’s personal energy and time.
Once you’ve gotten yourself under control and clear-headed, read a passage and look for repeated words, phrases, or ideas. Let’s consider the book of 1 John as a test case. When you read through this book, you’ll keep coming across similar statements indicating that we shouldn’t take it for granted that a person who claims to be a Christian is in fact a Christian.
“If we say we have fellowship with him and yet walk in darkness . . .” (1:6) “If we walk in the light . . .” (1:7), “If we say we have no sin. . .” (1:8), “Hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (2:3), “whoever keeps his word. . .” (2:5), “He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness” (2:9), “If any man love the world . . .” (2:15), “if they had been of us . . .” (2:19), “Every man that has this hope in him purifies himself” (3:3), “in this the children of God are manifest” (3:10), “We know that we have passed from death unto life because . . .” (3:14).”
This is just a sampling of such statements in the book. One time I counted over 40, but there are even more than that. The theme of 1 John is “Tests of a Living Faith,” or “how to know if a person’s profession of faith is genuine.” First John functions in the Bible as a “personal assurance manual” because it shows you the unmistakable marks of God on a person’s life. In fact John says the purpose of his book is: “These things I have written to you that believe that you may know that you have eternal life” (5:13).
With this knowledge of the book, you can read 1 John as it was intended to be read. Sit down and note all the ways God wants you to test your profession of faith. Another way to think of it is “Find all the spiritual goals God has for you.” Each “test” is also a spiritual goal that God has for you. Or you could think of it as what it means that “God is continuing the good work He has begun.” In the New Covenant God’s commands become promises. If you are a believer in Christ, then sin shall not have dominion over you. As John says in chapter 5, “Whoever is born of God overcomes the world.” It’s a promise that you will have substantial victory, though not perfect victory. Nevertheless, substantial victory!
What does that victory look like? Go back through the tests again! Each test of a living faith is also an area in which God is working in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure. Each one of those tests is also a promise of God to any believer. It’s as though God whispers to you through the Spirit, “Pick up the Sword which is the Word and resist your spiritual enemies, and I will be with you, and I will vanquish your foes beneath your feet.”
Makes me want to go and read 1 John again . . .
Go read it and underline every test of a living faith. Then, each time you underline, pray to God that He would by His grace work into your life the virtue that underlies each test. He’ll never turn away those who come to Him that way.
Noticing repeated words, phrases, or ideas is one of the most simple and helpful Bible study principles around. Go read the parable of the sower as another example and note the repeated word “hear.”