Sunday, September 25, 2011



I must confess that I was overjoyed when Pastor asked me to preach from this portion of Isaiah. If there is any one passage from the Old Testament that I have always wanted to preach from, it is this one. This part of Isaiah, often known simply as "The Suffering Servant", contains the very heart of the gospel.


It can be summed up very simply as this: "Jesus suffered and died for our sins." This is so basic that we sometimes forget it is what Christianity is all about. It's not primarily about becoming a good person, or finding peace in our hearts or strength to cope with the struggles of life. Yes, these things are part of our Christian life, but if you think about it, most other religions promise these things as well. The heart of Christianity is this: "Jesus suffered and died for our sins." It is important that we never forget this.

I will first start with a very brief overview of the entire passage, followed by a more detailed discussion of its main themes.


In the passage before us, Isaiah is painting a picture of the Messiah, the one whom the Lord would send to rescue Israel and establish an everlasting kingdom.

The vision of Isaiah

We don't know for sure how prophets received their inspiration from God, but Isaiah often speaks of the visions that he saw. In fact the first verse of this book begins with these words: "The vision of Isaiah, which he saw ..."

Imagine then, if you will, Isaiah receiving one of these visions while he is deep in prayer. God puts him right there, in spirit, seven hundred years in his future, as an eye-witness of the events leading up to the most important moment in all of human history – the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Messiah.

Now, Isaiah has one great advantage: As He witnesses Jesus being betrayed, put on trial, tortured and crucified, he also sees the spiritual reality behind all the events – that the truth of the matter was that Jesus was dying for our sins, something which those who were there, watching him die on the cross, were unable to comprehend until much later.

Moved by this vision, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Isaiah then proceeds to write a magnificent poem to describe in detail what he saw in his vision. The amazing thing about this description of Messiah is that it would be fulfilled in minute detail in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, seven hundred years after the prophet had penned his poem. The fact that one person so accurately fulfilled all the prophecies (not just in Isaiah but also elsewhere in scripture) is a testimony both to the trustworthiness of scripture and to the fact that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah.

Non-linear narrative

As I go through the picture which Isaiah paints for us, I want you to notice that he does not go about it in a chronological order in the way that most of us would. No, he does it instead in the form of flashbacks - going back and forth in time to weave a compelling story.

Without further ado, let's now see what Isaiah has to tell us about the suffering servant:


The first thing he declares is the grand finale – Jesus will be high and lifted up. This is what it's all about. The story of the gospel exists ultimately to show forth the love and mercy of God, so that the name of Jesus may be exalted.


Now, immediately after announcing that Christ will be highly exalted, Isaiah goes to the other extreme - he describes the lowest point in the life of Jesus. In verse 14 of chapter 52 we read: "His appearance was marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind." Isaiah sees Jesus being reduced to such a mass of bleeding flesh that he can hardly be recognized as human. Remember, in his mind's eye, he was there witnessing Jesus being flogged by the Romans. Anyone who watched the movie The Passion will find it hard to forget the scene where the nails in the whip become embedded deep in the flesh of our Lord, and the torturer has to give it a good yank to get it out, ripping out a large chunk of flesh in the process. Isaiah here gives us a good idea of the bloody pulp that must have remained of his face and body after the flogging.


There is a pause in the narrative, as Isaiah muses to himself: Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? Who's going to believe what I have to say about Messiah? Who could believe it, unless the Lord reveals his mighty arm, and gives him the faith to believe?


And then, in a flashback, Isaiah brings us back to the early childhood years of Jesus. He pictures Messiah as growing up before the Lord like a young plant, in the quiet little town of Nazareth, a root out of dry ground. Luke 2 tells us "the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and with the favour of God upon him." Yet he was unnoticed by anyone, for "he had no form or majesty or beauty that we should desire him." In other words, he had none of those qualities that bring forth men's admiration. We think of Prince William and Prince Harry, growing up in the public eye – good-looking, rich, famous, with royal blood. Jesus was not like that. He was poor and humble.


As Isaiah moves forward to the latter part of Messiah's life, he describes him as despised and rejected. Those in his own hometown sneered at him: "Is this not the carpenter's son?" He was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. He knew the pain of being betrayed with a kiss, and of being deserted by all of his closest friends.


Isaiah then comes to the heart of this passage. He declares the spiritual reality of what is happening to Messiah. Remember, in his vision he has the privilege not only of looking into the future, but also of being able to understand the true significance of what he is seeing.

The entire passage pivots around this word: "SURELY". Isaiah says here that SURELY - the real truth of the matter - is that he was bearing OUR griefs and carrying OUR sorrows.

See, those who saw Messiah being tortured and crucified were probably thinking in their hearts that surely he was being punished by God for some deep hidden sin. The Hebrew words translated as "stricken", "smitten by God" and "afflicted" all bear the connotation of suffering sent by God as judgment for sin. In the Jewish mind, there is an inseparable link between sin and suffering. If you sin, you will suffer for it, and therefore, if you are suffering, it must be because you have sinned.

BUT - Isaiah says - He was wounded for OUR transgressions; crushed for OUR iniquities. He was scourged, he was spat upon and beaten on the head, he was crowned with thorns, he was crucified for our sins, so that we could have peace with God and healing for our souls and our bodies.


Isaiah then continues with a description of the last hours of Messiah's life. We are taken to the scene of his trial. He was falsely accused and condemned - even though everyone could see that he was innocent. In all this he never opened his mouth to protest the injustice that was being done. Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. All he needed to do was to say the word, and his Father would immediately send twelve legions of angels to rescue him – but he did not. He willingly went to the cross.


And then he describes Messiah's death and burial. He was crucified between two thieves. The usual fate of those who were crucified is that their bodies would be taken down and thrown into Gehennah - the huge rubbish dump outside Jerusalem, to rot there. That's what the Romans planned to do with him – to make his grave with the wicked - but instead he was buried in a rich man's tomb – that of Joseph of Arimethea, who asked for his body after his death to give it an honourable burial. This happened in order that the scripture would be fulfilled.


The final image of Messiah which Isaiah paints for us is that of a triumphant conqueror. "He shall divide the spoil with the strong." Just as a victorious king divides the spoils of war with his generals, so Christ will divide the spoil with those who have triumphed with him. God has highly exalted Christ and given him victory over sin and death, and we who are in Christ share that victory.

To summarize, right at the beginning, Christ is portrayed as high and lifted up and exalted. At the end of the passage, the same thing is declared - Christ is a triumphant conqueror over sin and death. And in between is an amazing prophecy, fulfilled down to the smallest detail in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, where we are told WHY Christ deserves to be exalted. It is because, even though he was God, he humbled himself and became a man - to suffer and die for our sins. He did this out of an amazing love for us, and in willing obedience to the Father, so that the glory of God's love and mercy could be made manifest.


The reason this passage resonates so deeply with all of us is that we are all familiar with suffering. We KNOW what the prophet is talking about when he says Messiah was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, because we ourselves know what it means to feel pain and grief and sorrow. We experienced pain the moment we were born, when the midwife spanked our bottom to make us cry and draw in our first breath of air. We are familiar with the pain of losing our loved ones, and of being despised and rejected.

Most of us would also have learnt along the way that our suffering is linked to our sin. When we were young children, we found out sooner or later that being disobedient or naughty – doing what we knew to be wrong – would lead to a painful experience: that of being punished by our parents. When we see bad things happen to others, don't we often think to ourselves or even say out loud that "this must have been a punishment from God."?

The Israelites knew this from bitter experience. It is believed that Isaiah wrote this poem while the Jews were still in captivity in Babylon. They had been addicted to the worship of idols, and they had been carried off to Babylon as a punishment for this sin, after ignoring many warnings from God. As a nation, they were suffering for their idolatry, and they knew it.

The idea that sin leads to suffering is not new. Right in the beginning, in the book of Genesis, God told Adam and Eve that they would suffer because they had sinned. To the woman he said, "I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children." And to Adam he said, "Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you."

We are also warned about the curse of the law. In chapter 28 of Deuteronomy, we read of the blessings promised to those who obey the law. But in the second half of this chapter, we read of the many curses that will befall those who are not careful to obey the commandments of the law. Here's a small sample: "The LORD will send on you curses on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken him. He will strike you with wasting disease and with fever and with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed. The LORD will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind..." And it goes on and on and on.

The ultimate curse which all of us face is death - spiritual death. The soul that sinneth - it shall die. Paul puts it another way: The wages of sin is death. Spiritual death is nothing less than the eternal separation of the soul from its creator and the source of all its blessings. Where there is separation from God, there can be no hope of any blessing or any mercy - only eternal pain and deprivation and darkness. And it is what all of us rightly deserve for our sin.

Think about all the ways that hell is described - it's all about eternal suffering! Our Lord Jesus himself describes it as being outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth; where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.


Now, if you ask anyone whether they think they would actually deserve all this, the most common answer would be: "No." I've gone around asking people if they would agree that all of us have sinned. They will usually answer "Yes - we're not perfect. We've all done things which we've known were wrong." But there is always an attempt to tone down the seriousness of sin by calling it a "moral failing" or "a bad decision". The general consensus is that we're not that bad. We don't deserve to go to hell.

But think about this: Whom have we all sinned against? We have sinned against Almighty God, the one who made the universe. He created us and therefore has every right to demand our complete love and obedience and worship, which we have failed to render to him from the day we were born. Those of us who are parents will understand the hurt and anger we feel when our children reject us and rebel against us. Can you imagine how God must feel when men despise him? Men whom he himself made from the dust of the earth and breathed life into.

Yes, he is a loving and forgiving God, but he is also holy and just. He hates sin, and has declared: "The soul that sinneth - it shall die." In order to be true to his own nature, he must punish sin.

And we have all sinned. Look at verse 6 of our text: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way." If this is the case (and it is) and if suffering is what we deserve for our sin, then all of us are in trouble. It would take an eternity of suffering in hell to repay our debt to an infinitely holy God!


None of us enjoy suffering, and would rather avoid it if we could. We instinctively shrink from the idea of hell, because we don't exactly relish the prospect of eternal suffering. That's why I think there is a certain madness to sin. We know deep inside that we will suffer for it and regret it infinitely (as DSK said), but we still go ahead and do it. As Bono once sang: "Sweet the sin, bitter the taste in my mouth." Sin deceives us – it promises pleasure, it promises to make us happy. And so we sin willingly because we fall for the lie that sin will make us happy. But pleasure is not happiness. We soon realize that sin may give us pleasure for a short time, but it can never make us truly happy. In the end it always brings pain and suffering.

We may be tempted to doubt this principle sometimes when we see the wicked prospering and never seeming to suffer in this life, or when we seem to be escaping punishment for our own sins, but rest assured - there will be a final day of reckoning. It is appointed for everyone to die once - and after that comes judgment.


I would like to move on now, and introduce you next to a very important concept: Substitution. The Jews were very familiar with this idea of sacrificing an animal as your substitute to satisfy the wrath of God.

We read about this in Leviticus chapter 4. If you became aware that you had committed a sin, this was how you would atone for it: You would select from your flock a bull or a goat that was spotless and without blemish. You would lay your hand on the head of the animal, symbolically transferring your sin and guilt to it. It would then be brutally slaughtered, and its blood would be collected into a bowl. The priest would sprinkle the blood before the Lord seven times, then pour the rest of it onto the altar. The carcass of the dead animal would then be burnt as a burnt offering. Then the priest would make atonement for you, and your sins would be forgiven.

The Jews understood this: "I deserve death for my sin. I deserve the consuming fire of God's wrath. But by the offering of this animal as my substitute, violently killed and consumed by the fire of God upon his altar, I hope to turn away the wrath of God from myself. May my sacrifice be acceptable to God."

But we are told in Heb 10 that the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins. The only acceptable substitute who could atone for my sin by being sacrificed on my behalf would be a perfect human being - one who had never sinned and perfectly fulfilled the righteous demand of the law - to love and obey God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength every moment of his life. Where in the world could I find someone like this who would willingly take my place and sacrifice himself for me?


This is where the good news of the gospel message comes in. The reason I have dwelt so long on our sin and the suffering it brings, is that unless we realize how bad the bad news is, we will never appreciate how great the good news is.

The bad news is that we have all sinned, and we stand under the curse of the law. We are all sinners, and we deserve to go to hell. I know you don't hear things like that very often nowadays, but I believe this to be true with all of my heart. But you know what? Knowing that I'm a hell-deserving sinner makes the good news of the gospel so much sweeter.

The fantastic news is that Jesus suffered and died for our sins. He took upon himself our sin and shame. He bore the griefs and the sorrows that were rightfully ours. He was bruised for our transgressions and was crushed to death for our iniquities.

If you find yourself yawning when you hear these words, it might be because you're not convinced of how bad the bad news is. But if, by the grace of God, you HAVE been convicted of the enormity of your sins, these words will be the sweetest words you could ever hope to hear.


Christ redeemed us by becoming a curse for us, as he hung upon that tree. He received in himself all of the wrath that was due to us because of the curse of the law.

Like the animal upon whom sin and guilt was transferred by the laying on of hands before it was slaughtered, its blood poured out as an offering and its body burnt as a sacrifice so that God's righteous wrath would be turned away, so our sins were transferred to Christ (and his righteousness transferred to us) and he was led away like a lamb to the slaughter.


Remember how Jesus prayed so earnestly in Gethesemane - "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me."? What was our Lord Jesus dreading so much that he could sweat great drops of blood as he prayed in agony to his Father? It wasn't just the thought that he would suffer and be put to death by the Romans in the most cruel way that has ever been devised in the history of mankind. What do you think was in that cup he was referring to? Revelations 14 tells us: "They will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur, and the smoke of their torment will go up forever and ever, and they will have no rest, day or night."

The cup of God's eternal wrath is reserved for all those who do not believe in Jesus. But for those of us who do believe, Christ has already, as our substitute, emptied this cup on our behalf. It was filled to the brim with the unleashed fury of almighty God against all the sins of the elect from all eternity. And Christ put it to his lips, he opened his mouth and he drank all of it - until the cup was empty. And when he had done this, he said: "It is finished!" He tasted death for us, so that we might have life.

See what Isaiah says about this, in verse 22 of chapter 51: Thus says the LORD, who pleads the cause of his people: "Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the dregs of the cup of my fury you shall drink no more."

Christ's willing sacrifice

Christ sacrificed himself willingly. He says so in John chapter 10: "I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord." Now follow me closely here. Look at verse 10 of Isaiah 53: It was the will of the Lord to crush him. And what does it say at the end of that verse? The will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. In other words, if it was the will of the Lord to crush him, then he would willingly, obediently let it happen. It was his meat and drink to do the will of his father. And we see this in verse 7: He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

He sacrificed himself out of obedience to the will of his father, but he also did it out of love for us. Remember Gal 2:20? The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.


The question each of us must ask ourselves is this: Do I believe this?

Unless we believe the message of the gospel, it will not apply to us. Heb 4:2 tells us that the word that we receive must be mixed with faith in order to benefit us.

Ask yourself: Do I really believe that Jesus suffered and died for MY sins? Did he bear MY grief and carry MY sorrows? Was he wounded for MY transgressions and pierced for MY iniquities?

If your honest answer is "Yes, I do believe this", then, my friend, you have passed over from death to life. You have been redeemed from the curse of the law. And this is the promise we have in Romans 8:1: There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Every time we sin, we don't need to go around looking for a poor bull or goat to sacrifice. We can point - by faith - to the sacrifice that was made 2000 years ago and rejoice that the perfect lamb of God was slain, as our substitute, once and for all. Our great high priest has already made atonement for us, and our sins have been forgiven. And not only that, look at what it says right at the very end of our passage: "He makes intercession for the transgressors." Notice that it is in the present tense!

I am reminded of Paul's boldness in Rom 8:33,34: "Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies us. Who can condemn us? Christ Jesus is the one who died (isn't that what this passage is all about?) - more than that, who was raised - who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us." When Satan accuses us before God, Christ, our precious Saviour, is there, saying: "But I shed my blood for their sins!"

Do you believe this? Are you counting on it? Have you put all your money on it? The atonement which Christ made for our sins was full, perfect and sufficient for all of our sins. There is no sin that was not atoned for. And yes, even after you believe in Christ with all of your heart and you are saved - you will still sin! But Christ has paid for those sins as well. Not that we now have liberty to sin freely – God forbid! We should live as those who are free from the bondage of sin. But that is another sermon for another day.


The message of revival

The title of today's sermon is this: What is the message of revival? The answer is very simple. The message of revival is the message of the gospel, and the message of the gospel is that Jesus suffered and died for our sins. Are we praying for revival? Do we really want to see our church grow? It will not happen if we do not preach the gospel. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. When the gospel is preached, the Holy Spirit will be at work – changing hearts and convicting them of sin, and granting faith and repentance - and it is only this that will lead to changed lives.

This is the message that is ours to deliver. This is the good news that is ours to declare to the world - that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He did this as our substitute, and redeemed us from the curse of the law.

Conclusion: Preach the gospel!

Last week, Pastor was sharing about how God has been greatly blessing all the outreach programs in our church. I was greatly encouraged by the report. I would like to challenge all of us (and that would certainly include myself) to go one step further:

Preach the gospel. Tell people about it - not just those who attend our outreach events, but anyone and everyone whom you have any dealings with - family members, neighbours, colleagues, business associates, fellow students. Warn them (in the kindest way possible) that they are hell-deserving sinners, and that unless they believe that Jesus suffered and died for their sins, they will perish. But tell them also that if they do believe in him, they will not perish but have eternal life. That's fantastic news, isn't it? But, you see, how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching the gospel to them?

Preach the gospel - knowing that there will be many who will reject the message. "Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?" The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. If you are rejected, don't take it personally - you are only the messenger, after all. They are not rejecting you, they are rejecting the only one who can save them. And if it still hurts inside, remember - our Lord himself knew what it meant to be despised and rejected by men.

Preach the gospel - and do it for the glory of God. Remember - the ultimate purpose of the gospel is to show forth the glory of God's love and mercy, and so that the name of Jesus may be exalted.

Preach the gospel - praying and trusting the Holy Spirit to open hearts and minds. Acts 16 tells us that it was the Lord who opened Lydia's heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. Let's not depend on our ability to befriend people or impress them with our lifestyles, or to persuade them with words of wisdom. Rather, let's just proclaim the message of the gospel as simply as we can, in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. Think about it: when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, all they did was simply to go out and proclaim the gospel and 3000 were added to their number that day. It was the power of the Holy Spirit convicting the hearts and minds of those who heard the gospel being preached that made the difference.

We must preach the gospel! How tragic if the people we are reaching out to come to the conclusion that we are such a warm friendly church full of very nice people, but in the end they never get to hear the gospel that will save their eternal souls! How sad if they went away, after hearing our testimonies, thinking that all Christianity is about is how God helps us in our troubles, and heals us of our illnesses, and blesses us. Yes, he does! And we can and should praise God for all these things, but how heartbreaking if they fail to hear about the greatest blessing that God has given us – Jesus suffering and dying for our sins.

Let our first priority always be to communicate the message of the gospel. As Paul told the Corinthians: "I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures." In fact, he went so far as to say: "I determined to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ and him crucified."

So let's be like those Isaiah describes in verse 7 of chapter 52:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace, who proclaims news of happiness, who declares salvation.

Let's tell everyone the good news that Jesus suffered and died for our sins.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Living by faith

Sermon given on 20 Mar 2011.


In the last few months, our focus has been on the theme of "Discipleship". The first thing that usually comes to mind whenever we hear this word is a list of how-to's: How to pray, how to grow spiritually, how to draw near to God and so on. In fact, when I was first given this topic to preach, that's the kind of list that went through my mind.

As I thought and prayed about what I should say, I realized that it is critically important for us to understand the very foundation upon which we are called to be disciples.

Imagine if we went through our whole lives doing all the things which we thought disciples should be doing, and we thought we were doing a good job. And then on the last day, Jesus turns to us and says: "Depart from me, I never knew you, you workers of iniquity." What a shock that would be!

Yet Jesus warned us that we should build our foundation upon the rock and not upon sand. How do we make sure that we have done this?

Believing, not just doing

I would like to put to you that being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ is more about having FAITH in what Christ has DONE for us, than about what we are to DO as disciples. To put it simply, it's more about BELIEVING, than it is about DOING.

You see, in talking about discipleship, we always face the danger of losing sight of the Gospel. The Gospel isn't about learning how to be good or finding peace and happiness or being able to deal with the troubles we face in life. Our main problem is our SIN, and the Gospel is simply the proclamation that Christ has paid the penalty for the sins of those who believe in Him, and has given to them His perfect righteousness. Christianity is a "DONE" religion. God has done everything that is necessary to secure the salvation of those who belong to Him. All we need to do is to believe.

Work OUT your salvation, not work FOR your salvation

Yes, no doubt, as Christians, we are to PURSUE holiness and to DO the good works which the Father has prepared beforehand for us to do (Eph 2:10). But these come AFTER we have been saved – they are the FRUITS of our salvation. We must never confuse the FRUITS with the GROUND of our salvation, which is faith in Jesus Christ alone. Whatever we do as disciples - whether striving for holiness, preaching the Gospel or caring for the poor - we must remember that we do these things not in order to get to heaven, but because we are already going there. Discipleship is about working OUT our salvation. It is never about working FOR our salvation.

Please turn with me to Gal 2:19,20, which is our text for today.

For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Before I get into the text itself, I would like to briefly comment on the background to the book of Galatians.

The letter to the Galatians was written by Paul in response to a crisis being faced by the church there. A group of false teachers (the Judaizers) had come from Jerusalem, and they were teaching that it was necessary for the Gentile believers to be circumcised. Mind you - they were not saying that you didn't need to have faith in Christ. You had to have faith in Christ BUT you also had to obey the Law of Moses, which included circumcision.

This was absolutely contrary to the core of the Gospel message - that we are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ and not by obeying the works of the Law. In other words, all we need to be declared righteous in God's eyes is to believe in Jesus Christ, and nothing more.

Paul rebukes Peter

In Gal 2:11 we see Paul describing how another group of Judaizers had arrived in Antioch with their false teachings. Peter, who had until then been eating freely with the Gentile believers, stopped doing so, because he knew that according to the Law of Moses, Jews should not be eating with Gentiles, who were considered unclean. Don't forget - this was the same Peter who had been told by God in a vision three times not to call unclean what God has called clean. Yet he was somehow afraid of these Judaizing teachers, and wanted to please them. Peter's fear of man overcame him, just as it did when he denied Christ three times. His hypocrisy was so great that it began to affect the other Jewish believers, including Barnabas. They began to follow his example of not eating with the uncircumcised Gentile believers.

When Paul saw what was happening, he rebuked Peter in front of everyone, because what was at stake was no less than the integrity of the Gospel. The doctrine of justification by faith alone is laid out by Paul in Gal 2:16:

We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.

This is such a crucial doctrine that Martin Luther calls it "the article by which the church stands or falls", and it was the main reason for the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

Paul now comes to our text for today. Let's examine it line by line.

For through the law I died to the law so that I might live to God

What does Paul mean by this statement?

Well, if anyone could have been justified by the works of the law, it would have been Paul. After all, he was "a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to righteousness under the law, blameless." Outwardly anyway.

But Paul considered all of this as rubbish, compared to "the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ as my Lord, and obtaining the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ."

Dying to the law as a means of justification

After trying all his life to become righteous before God by obeying the Law, Paul finally realized that he had failed miserably. The Law which said "Thou shalt not covet", convicted him of the covetousness within his heart - he knew he was guilty, and he knew God could see it, even if no one else could. And so he died to the Law in the sense that he gave up on it as a means of being justified before God. He knew it was impossible. It was the Law convicting him of his sin that led him to this conclusion. This is why he says it was THROUGH the Law that he died to the Law. And it was only in dying to the Law in this way that he could finally live to God.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was very much like Paul. Trained as a lawyer, he saw very clearly that he was rightfully exposed to God's wrath. He knew that the greatest commandment was to love God with all his heart, soul mind and strength. Yet he confessed: "You ask me if I love God? I hate God!" This was because he only saw God as a strict and righteous judge out to condemn him, and he knew that he was rightfully condemned. His guilty conscience tortured him day and night, and he tried to soothe it by living a very strict lifestyle as a monk. Now, in those days, monks would whip themselves to show penance, and he is said to have whipped himself until he became unconscious. In fact, he declared that "if ever a man could have been saved by becoming a monk, it would have been I." But he knew deep in his heart that it was all in vain.

In the preface to his commentary on Romans, he writes:

"It is one thing to do the works of the law and quite another to fulfill it. The works of the law are the things we try to do (in our own power) to obey the law. But because in doing such works the heart hates the law and yet is forced to obey it, the works become completely useless. The law is spiritual, which means that no one can satisfy it unless everything he does springs from the depths of the heart. To fulfill the law means to do its work eagerly, lovingly and freely, without the constraint of the law; it means to live well and in a manner pleasing to God, as though there were no law or punishment."

Martin Luther knew, as Paul did, that he could never truly fulfill the Law from the depths of his heart in the way that God demanded, because he couldn't help but rebel against the Law. That's why when God revealed to him the true meaning of Rom 1:17: "The righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, The righteous shall live by faith.", it was as though, in his own words, "he entered Paradise itself through open gates". He realized that this verse was describing not an active righteousness which God demands of man, but the passive righteousness which is given as a free gift to all those who have faith in Jesus Christ. All that's needed for us to receive this righteousness is to believe. When Martin Luther realized this, he, too, died to the Law, and he found that he could finally live to God.

I have been crucified with Christ

In verse 20, Paul says: "I have been crucified with Christ." What does he mean? Well, remember that he has just said that he has died to the Law. And so in this verse, Paul is explaining HOW he has died to the Law - by being crucified with Christ.

In other words, he is saying that when Jesus Christ was being crucified on the cross, he, Paul, was hanging right there with Him on that cross - not literally, of course, but he was indeed there in a very real, spiritual sense, being united with Christ by faith.

And when God was pouring out His wrath on His Son who was hanging on that cross, it was as though He saw Paul hanging there. The wrath that was being poured out was rightfully meant for Paul (and for all of us), but it was poured out on Jesus.

And when Christ finally died on the cross - as far as God was concerned, Paul also died on the cross. And we, all of us who are united with Christ by faith, have also been crucified with Christ and died with Christ on that cross. The debt that we owe to God, the penalty due to us for our unspeakable sin against an infinitely good and holy God, the God who created us and blessed us with life – that debt has been paid in full by our Lord Jesus Christ. He suffered and died in our place.

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me

Paul goes on to clarify that although he has been crucified with Christ, he still lives. And yet it is no longer the old Paul who continues to live, but Paul the new man, who is united with Christ. It is Christ Himself who now lives His life through Paul.

Now, Paul is not saying he's a zombie. He is still Paul of Tarsus, with his intellect, his personality and all of his faculties intact. The only difference is that he is now no longer in charge. He has been bought with a price - he is not his own. He has a new master. He is now being led by the Holy Spirit who is changing him into the image of Christ - to think and act like Christ in everything he does.

This is what Paul means when he says that Christ lives in him. And this is the characteristic of every single person who belongs to Jesus Christ - that the Holy Spirit lives in us, and leads us.

The life I now live in the flesh

The "flesh" refers to the corrupt desires within us that are at war with the desires of the Spirit (Gal 5:17). The fact is that as long as we live here on earth, we will continue to sin because of our fallen human nature. No doubt, in Christ we are new creatures, but the remnants of our old nature still remain to trouble us.

There is a striking illustration of this in the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. We are told that as he walked out of the tomb, he still had his hands and feet bound with linen strips. They probably still bore the stench of his rotting flesh. Although he had been given new life, the remnants of his old life, the reminders that he was once dead in his sins, still clung to him and bound him. They still had to be removed, layer by layer, before he was completely free.

It is the same with us after we have come to Christ. Although we have been born again, our old corruptions still cling to us, and the rest of our lives will be a continual process of eradicating the old man - of subduing the desires of the flesh and being made more and more like Christ.

As we grow in our Christian lives, God will reveal to us more and more how sinful we really are, and this will humble us, as we see ourselves for who we are. At the same time, as the Holy Spirit continues to work in us, we can expect to sin less, because we are no longer under the dominion of sin. But we will never, on this side of heaven, become completely sinless. Paul's struggle in Romans 7 testifies to this. The process of sanctification will not end until we are glorified - that is, until the day we die, or when Christ returns. But we can rest assured, as the Bible promises, that He who began this good work in us will bring it to completion.

I live by faith in the Son of God

Paul says that the life he now lives in the flesh, with all its weaknesses and failings and sinfulness, he lives by faith in the Son of God. This is an echo of Habakkuk 2:4 - "The righteous shall live by faith." - a verse which is quoted at least three times in the New Testament.

What does Paul mean when he says he lives by faith? Remember the context of Galatians, and especially chapter 2, and the burning issue being discussed, which is that we are justified by faith alone and not by works of the Law. So, if we are to take this verse in its proper context, we must conclude that Paul here is talking about living by faith in Christ as opposed to living by the Law. In other words, instead of spending his life trying to live up to the Law in a vain attempt to be righteous before God, he lives the rest of his life by faith - simply trusting in the perfect and sufficient work of Christ to justify him.

True saving faith

We are to live by faith in the Son of God. But what IS faith? Faith is not simply believing that God exists and that a man named Jesus died on a cross two thousand years ago.

True saving faith is a gift from God, whereby we find ourselves believing the Gospel when we hear it being proclaimed, and personally trusting in it for our salvation. The Holy Spirit Himself will bear witness within our hearts that what we read in the Bible is true. It will lead us to abandon all hope in any other way of salvation, including and especially by our own works of righteousness.

Let me try to illustrate this. Have any of you ever had to be rescued from the top of a ski mountain? I have. I won't bore you with the details of how and why I needed to be rescued. But let me tell you how the rescue is done. They have this modified sled which functions as a stretcher. It looks like a shallow bathtub, and you're supposed to get into it, and lie down inside it. Then they make you put your arms by your side, and strap you in tightly so that you can't move around. It's kind of like being in a coffin. Then you're supposed to lie there without doing anything except to put your full trust in your rescuer while he safely brings the stretcher all the way down the ski slope to the base of the mountain.

To me, that's what true saving faith is. To commit myself entirely into the hands of Jesus Christ and refrain from my own works-righteousness, trusting that Christ and Christ alone will bring me safely home.

Who loved me and gave Himself for me

Paul knew Christ loved him, and that was the basis of his faith in Christ. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. If you can't trust someone who lays down His life for you, then there's no one you can trust.

Notice also that Paul doesn't say "I live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us." No. What does he say? He says: "I live by faith in the Son of God who loved ME and gave Himself for ME". Saving faith is an intensely personal thing.


We now come to the application. You may ask, what has all this to do with discipleship? As I said at the very beginning, it has everything to do with discipleship. Since we are justified by faith and not by works, we should live by faith and not by our works.

Co-operating with God?

Some people have the mistaken idea that coming to Christ and becoming a Christian is only the entrance ticket into a life of discipleship. After that, we have to work really hard, cooperating with God to make sure we keep our faith and don't lose our salvation. Did you know that this is the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church - that you must have works as well as faith in order to be saved? That is exactly what the Judaizers were teaching! And that's why there was a Reformation - to redeem the original doctrine found in the Bible - that salvation is by faith alone and not by works. We may not be Roman Catholics, but sometimes we forget that and start to think that we must supplement our faith with works.

Discipleship is NOT about cooperating with God or partnering with God in order to be saved. Remember what I said right at the very beginning - Christianity is a "DONE" religion. The works of the flesh can add nothing more. Paul puts it this way in Gal 3:2-3:

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?


The problem with us is that we so easily turn discipleship into a performance-based affair, and start to introduce KPI's for ourselves – key performance indicators. We make resolutions and set spiritual goals and try all sorts of man-made methods to achieve them in our own strength. We follow every spiritual fad that comes along (Promise-Keepers, Holy Laughter, the Purpose Driven Life), hoping that it will give us the secret of spiritual success, and allow us to live the so-called "Victorious Christian Life". And when we fail, we feel bad about ourselves and think that we have disappointed God, and (worst of all) that He somehow loves us a little less.

Have we forgotten what the good news of the Gospel is about? God showed His love for us in that while we were yet SINNERS, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). God's love for us is eternal and does not change! It does not depend on our spiritual performance as disciples! It never has and it never will. It is by grace that we have been saved through faith!

Why are we so prone to fall into works-righteousness? It is because of the pride that exists in our fallen human nature. We would like to think that there is at least a little something we can contribute to our salvation, a spark of goodness in us. The problem is, we have too high a view of ourselves, and too low a view of God's perfect standard of righteousness. We refuse to acknowledge the fact that we are hopelessly fallen and utterly ruined in the presence of a holy God, and can do nothing to save ourselves.

Let's say you're standing before the Great White Throne on Judgment Day, and God asks you: "Why should I let you into My heaven?" - what would you say?

Do you know that in a survey, a large majority of those who identify themselves as Christians gave replies which pointed to some form of works-righteousness? "I've tried my best to be a good person. I've never hurt anyone. I've always loved my neighbour as myself. I've served God faithfully in the church all these years. I've been a faithful witness for God. I've led a Purpose-Driven life."

When we, as Christians, depend on works-righteousness to become acceptable to God, we are in effect "nullifying the grace of God", as Paul says in Gal 2:21. And we are insulting God, because if righteousness could come through works, then Christ died for no purpose.

The truth is (as it always has been) that we are only acceptable to God when we are covered by a righteousness that is not our own, the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. To live by faith is simply to remember this truth throughout our lives.

The problem of sin in our lives - "simul justus et peccator"

We all struggle with sin in our lives. Anyone who claims to have reached a state of sinless perfection contradicts what the Bible says in 1 John 1:8:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

There is a certain "tension", as Pastor puts it in an earlier sermon, between the life lived "in the flesh", and the life lived by faith.

Martin Luther had a phrase to describe this state in which a Christian lives: "simul justus et peccator" - "Righteous, and at the same time, a sinner."

On the one hand, the fact is that we are miserable sinners – always being tempted by the devil and our own desires, and often falling into sin. On the other hand, because of our faith in Jesus Christ, we are justified - we are regarded as perfectly righteous in God's sight. Let me emphasize that we have no righteousness of our own. It is only because we are in Christ, and Christ is in us, that God regards us as having the perfect righteousness of Christ. I might add that we should be very bold, even boastful, about this righteousness we have in Christ, because it is a perfect righteousness that saves perfectly. We have no need to be modest about it.

And so this is what a Christian is - simul justus et peccator - a miserable sinner, yet at the same time, perfectly righteous in the sight of God through faith in Jesus Christ. To live by faith is to remember this, and rejoice in it.

But how does this translate into practice? Well, being in the flesh means that we sin a thousand times a day, whether we realize it or not. And when we sin, Satan (who is described as "the accuser of the brethren"), tries to destroy our faith (which is the most precious thing we have). He does this by accusing our conscience: "Are you sure God still loves you? Are you sure you're good enough for Him? You've disappointed him, you know. You've betrayed him, after all he's done for you. I know your dirty thoughts. I saw that nasty thing that you did just now."

To live by faith is to immediately confess our sins when we become aware of them, and to repent. It is to wholeheartedly agree, when Satan accuses us: "Yes, I am guilty. I'm a miserable sinner, and I know it!", and THEN turn to Christ by faith, trusting that He has already paid the price for all of our sins once for all - past, present and future – because, if you think about it, all of our sins were in the future when Christ died on the cross for them. By faith, we can boldly proclaim the promises in Rom 8:

If God is for us, who can be against us? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who can condemn us? Christ Jesus is the one who died for us, who is at the right hand of God interceding for us.

Looking to Jesus

To live by faith is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ crucified. We must never forget the Gospel - we must preach the Gospel to ourselves every day and rejoice in it!

No doubt, we are to be ever mindful of our sins, and mourn them, that we may remain in a humble state of mind. But we are also to rejoice daily in the fact that God's mercy is greater than our sins!

Trusting in God's providence

To live by faith is also to trust implicitly in God's providence. The word "providence" does not merely mean that God provides for our physical needs such as food, clothing, shelter and so on. Indeed, He does supply all our needs - all the blessings we enjoy in our lives, for which we should daily give thanks.

But He is the One who also sends trials and tribulations - to refine our faith. He inflicts pain on our physical bodies - to humble us and remind us that we are but dust. He takes away our possessions - to wean us from the love of this world. He allows our loved ones to disappoint us and to hurt us - in order to drive our souls to find fulfillment and satisfaction in Him alone. And yes, He sends earthquakes and tsunamis - to compel us to seek our safety in Christ alone, and to teach us to have compassion and to weep with those who weep. All these things are also part of God's providence.

The Bible tells us in Rom 8:28:

All things work together for good to them that love God.

The good that is spoken of here is our greatest good – being with Christ in heaven. Living by faith is to believe that whatever happens to us is planned by God for our own good. So whether I'm stuck in a traffic jam, or I've just lost my job, or I've just been diagnosed with cancer – whatever situation I find myself in – I can know with full assurance that this is exactly where my loving heavenly Father wants me to be, and that it will work out for my ultimate good.

Now, like many things in life, this is easier said than done. When the crunch comes, when our faith in God's providence is being tested: I can tell you - it will not be easy. That's why we have to cling by faith to God's promise in 1 Cor 10:13: There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.

God's promises

To live by faith is to believe all the promises in the Bible concerning the perseverance of the saints: That no one can snatch us out of His hand, or separate us from His love. That He will finish the good work which He began in us, because He Himself is the author and finisher of our faith. That Christ is at the right hand of the throne of God interceding for us, and that He is able to keep what we've committed to Him against that day.

There is a wonderful assurance that comes when we trust in Christ alone for salvation, because we know that He will never fail us. If we were to depend on our own righteousness, we could never have that assurance. We could only hope that our pathetic best would be good enough for God – but that's only wishful thinking - and we know it.


One last thing: Does this mean we can forget about seeking holiness and obeying the Law of God? After all, if Christianity is a "DONE" religion, why bother trying to be holy?

Well, what does the Bible say? It says:

"You shall be holy, for I am holy."


As Christians, we are called to be holy. The wonderful reality of the Christian life is that God Himself puts in us a desire to become holy. He changes us so that the desire to fulfill the Law springs from the depths of our hearts eagerly, lovingly and freely, as Luther puts it. In Ezek 36:26-27 we read:

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you, and I will cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

This change of heart - this "heart transplant" - is a work which God Himself does. It is not anything that we can achieve on our own.

When God has changed our hearts, our new hunger to fulfill the Law will not lead to instant holiness (there is no such thing as instant holiness), but it will energize us to press on to reach the goal. And as the Holy Spirit works in us, we will find ourselves slowly but surely being changed into the image of Christ. Again, this will not be an easy process, and we will experience many setbacks as we struggle to overcome our selfish, sinful desires. Without the Holy Spirit, it would be a hopeless endeavour. And that is why we need to live by faith - believing that God will keep His promise and will finish the good work He began in us.

Justified by faith alone

I hope that by now, you have come to a better understanding of this passage. If you remember nothing else, remember this: We are justified by faith alone and not by works, and therefore we are to live by faith. To live by faith is to keep our eyes on Jesus and preach the Gospel to ourselves every day. It is to place our souls entirely in the hands of Christ alone and to trust in God's providence for our lives.

As we strive to be faithful disciples, let us make sure that we have built our foundation upon the rock, which is faith in Jesus Christ, and not upon the sand of our own works. Let us live the rest of our lives by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave Himself for us.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

This world is not my home

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
(Col 3:2)

I have my earthly father to thank for instilling in me a yearning for heaven with an old Jim Reeves tape which I must have played hundreds of times, until the tape wore thin. I loved the tunes, and did not realize that I was imbibing the message at the same time.

I do realize there isn't much of the gospel in these songs. Much of it is maudlin sentimentality and in fact, there is even more than a hint of universalism. Nevertheless it does point to an other-worldliness which is to be found only in true saints.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Heb 11:13-16)

And so, without further ado, here is today's Jim Reeves nostalgia fest.

This world is not my home I'm just a passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore

Oh Lord you know I have no friend like you
If heaven's not my home then Lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore

I have a loving mother just over in Gloryland
And I don't expect to stop until I shake her hand
She's waiting now for me in heaven's open door
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore

Oh Lord you know...

Just over in Gloryland we'll live eternally
The saints on every hand are shouting victory
Their songs of sweetest praise drift back from heaven's shore
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore

Oh Lord you know...

When my way groweth drear
Precious Lord linger near
When my life is almost gone
Hear my cry hear my call
Hold my hand last I fall
Take my hand precious Lord lead me home

Precious Lord take my hand
Lead me on let me stand
I am tired I am weak I am worn
Through the storm through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord lead me home

When my work is all done
And my race here is run
Let me see by the light Thou has shone
That there city so bright
With the Lamb as the light
Take my hand precious Lord lead me home

Precious Lord take my hand...

Some glad mornin' when this life is o'er I'll fly away
To a home on God's celestial shore I'll fly away
I'll fly away oh glory I'll fly away
When I die hallelujah by and by I'll fly away

When the shadows of this life have flown I'll fly away
Like a bird from prison bars has flown I'll fly away
I'll fly away oh glory I'll fly away
When I die hallelujah by and by I'll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then I'll fly away
To a land where joy shall never end I'll fly away
I'll fly away oh glory yes I'll fly away
When I die hallelujah by and by I'll fly away

I have lived a life of sin in this world I'm living in
I have done forbidden things I shouldn't do
I asked a beggar along the way if he could tell me where to stay
Where I could find real happiness and love that's true

Across the bridge, there's no more sorrow
Across the bridge, there's no more pain
The sun will shine across the river
And you'll never be unhappy again

Follow the footsteps of the King till you hear the voices sing
They'll be singing out the glory of the land
The river of Jordan will be near, the sound of trumpets you will hear
And you'll behold the most precious face ever known to man

Across the bridge...

I have heard of a land
On a faraway strand
'Tis a beautiful home of the soul
Built by Jesus on high
There we never shall die
'Tis a land where we never grow old.
Never grow old, never grow old
In a land where we'll never grow old
Never grow old, never grow old
In a land where we'll never grow old.

When our work here is done
And the life crown is won
And our troubles and trials are o'er
All our sorrow will end
And our voices will blend
With the loved ones who've gone on before.
Never grow old, never grow old
In a land where we'll never grow old
Never grow old, never grow old
In a land where we'll never grow old...

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Smelly cheese

During my family holiday to Europe, I had visited a Christmas market in Paris with my daughter, and we had come across a delightful fromagerie (a shop which specialises in selling cheeses and cured meats). There was one particular goat's cheese which my daughter and I took a particular liking to, and we had bought a piece of it. The lady who sold it to us warned that it was a very strong cheese, and indeed it was. The aroma was wonderful and filled the entire hotel room that night as our entire family savoured the cheese and a piece of similarly aromatic cured ham. We couldn't finish it and packed it away.

A couple of days later, I noticed the same aroma filling the tour bus, and realized that my children had taken some out to eat. I also noticed, with alarm, many if not all of the other passengers wrinkling their noses up in utter disgust, and those closest to where my children were sitting were furiously fanning their noses. Some of them looked pretty close to vomiting. I realized that what my family considered "ambrosial" was in fact much closer to "scatological" with respect to the noses of others around us.

I scrambled to the back of the bus where my children were sitting, and wrapped up the offending source of the smell with no less that three layers of plastic bags, tying each one securely with an airtight knot. Even then, I suspect it took more than half an hour for the lingering smell to slowly abate.

As I settled into my seat with a sigh of relief and embarrassment, I remarked under my breath to my wife seated beside me that this reminded me of 2 Cor 2:14-16:

"Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life."

The good news of the gospel is a marvellous aroma to us who are being saved. We have been given grace to see the wretchedness of our sinful condition and our desperate need for salvation, and the revelation of Christ meeting that need by His death on the cross is a sweet fragrance to us. It gives us hope where we have no hope.

On the other hand, to those who have not seen their need of Christ, the gospel is horribly offensive. It stinks. To suggest that a man does not have any righteousness of his own, that he is a sinner destined for hell, and that there is nothing he can do to save himself, that all his good works count for nothing, stirs the self-righteous to indignation. Surely there must be something good in me! Surely I must have done something good! To state plainly what the Bible says - that those who do not believe in the Son of God are already condemned - can arouse an extremely disproportionate response of anger. I have experienced that personally myself. And yet we must remember never to remove the offence of the cross - the central truth of the gospel that only faith alone (but not faith which is alone) can justify.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

I'd rather have Jesus

The songs you learn in your youth stick with you...

I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands,
I’d rather be led by His nail pierced hand.

Than to be a king of a vast domain
Or be held in sin’s dread sway,
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.

I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause;
I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause;
I’d rather have Jesus than world-wide fame,
I’d rather be true to His holy name.

Than to be a king of a vast domain
Or be held in sin’s dread sway,
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A prayer on Reformation Day

Dear God,

Thank you that on this day so many years ago, you caused Martin Luther to post his 95 theses that launched the reformation which reclaimed the truth of your glorious gospel.

Thank you for the gospel of your son Jesus Christ, revealed through scripture alone, which proclaims that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to your glory alone.

Thank you for your gifts to your church through the ages - the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, whom you have given "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes."

Thank you for Paul and John and Peter and James. Thank you for Augustine and Martin Luther and John Calvin. And in our day, thank you for RC Sproul and John MacArthur and Paul Washer and so many more I have no time to mention.

Thank you for the technologies which you have, in your providence, created through the ages. Thank you for the printing press in the time of Martin Luther. Thank you for mp3 sermons, for the internet, for blogs and youtube and facebook today. Thank you that through these, your elect in all ages and throughout the world are being brought to the knowledge of your true gospel, and saved from the lies of the devil.

Thank you that you are continually reforming us individually, so that though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self, transformed by the renewing of our minds, may daily grow more and more into the image of Christ.

Lord, at the same time, you know that many of the evangelical churches which bear your name have fallen into apostasy and gone back to Rome and idolatry and lawlessness, and the love of many has waxed cold. The gospel that we preach is not the true gospel of your son Jesus Christ, and the God we proclaim is not the one true God.

For the sake of your glory, and the glory of your son Jesus Christ, let your gospel be preached - let there be a new reformation, so that your name may be great among the nations, and that all may know that you are Lord. Let many sons be brought to glory. May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of his suffering!


Friday, October 15, 2010

The word of faith – meditations on Romans 10:4-10 and Deuteronomy

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.

But the righteousness based on faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) or "'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. (Rom 10:4-10)

I had a little epiphany as I read this passage one morning. I had been puzzling over its meaning for some time. Why was there such an emphasis on confessing with the mouth? Wasn't that a "work" that went against the tenet of sola fide (justification by faith alone)?

I suddenly realized that Paul was speaking as a Hebrew would, even though he was writing in Greek. His sentences are constructed as Hebrew parallelisms!

If you look at verse 10 first, and then verse 9, it will be easier to see what I mean. One believes with the heart and is justified; one confesses with the mouth and is saved. To believe with your heart is the same thing as to confess with your mouth - one inevitably follows the other. Verse 9 essentially says the same thing - to confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord is to believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead. The result of this is to be saved. Again, in verse 10, we see another parallelism - to be justified is to be saved, and vice versa.

Was Paul trying to say that you need to do TWO things to be saved? To believe in your heart AND THEN confess with your mouth? No. He was emphasizing the point that these were one and the same thing. This would have been quite obvious to the early Christians in the Roman Empire. Caesar demanded emperor worship, and anyone who refused to confess Caesar as Lord would be put to death. A true Christian who believed in his heart that Jesus is Lord would confess with his mouth that Jesus is Lord (and not Caesar), even on pain of death. This would be certain evidence of the genuine faith in his heart. To paraphrase James: faith without confession is dead. Jesus himself said: "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks."

The word of faith

Now, WHAT is it that we are to believe in and confess? It is "the word of faith" that was being proclaimed by Paul and the apostles. What is this "word of faith"? It is all that the name of Jesus stands for - the fact that he is Lord, that he was crucified (bearing our sins upon the cross), died and was buried and rose again. These things (and many more) are encapsulated in the term "word of faith", which is, of course, nothing other than what we call the gospel! Believing (and consequently confessing) it results in salvation!

We see, therefore, that "confessing the word of faith" has nothing to do with what the "Word of Faith" movement terms "faith confession" - where you make a "positive confession", exercising faith to believe what you have just confessed, which will then generate power to make it come true. The faith that is exercised becomes a "force" that can be manipulated ("Use the force, Luke..."). If God comes into the picture at all, it is only because he is obliged, by the faith exercised, to make the wish come true.

At its best, this is simply wishful thinking. At its worst, it's New Age mystic occultism disguised as Christianity. There is essentially no difference between this and a witch uttering an incantation to cast a magic spell, only in this case the magic word isn't "Abracadabra" but things like "claiming victory / taking authority / binding the spirit of [insert whatever you like] / command blessing - IN THE NAME OF JESUS." Those who do this without thinking would be well advised to heed the words of Matt 7:22-23.

But I digress...

The gospel according to Deuteronomy

When I looked up the scripture Paul was quoting in verse 6-8, I realized that there is so much of the gospel revealed in Deuteronomy.

"For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it." (Deu 30:11-14)

It's difficult to think of this passage applying to the Law of Moses, which is impossible for any person to fulfill perfectly. The Law demands not just perfect obedience, but wholehearted perfect obedience performed out of a pure love for God! Not one of us has fulfilled the first and greatest commandment (Deut 6:5) for a single second in our lives – to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. We simply can't do it.

But here it says the commandment is not too hard, and we can do it. The word is near us, in our hearts and in our mouths (does that sound familiar?) so that we can fulfill the commandment. There are echoes of this in the New Testament. Jesus himself promised:

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Mat 11:30)

And the apostle John declares:

For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. (1Jn 5:3)

What is this word that is so near us, in our hearts and in our mouths? It is the word of faith, the gospel. To fulfill the commandments of God does not require heroic works of righteousness, equivalent to ascending to heaven or descending into the abyss - it simply requires faith in what the gospel preaches. In Romans 10, Paul substitutes "Christ" for "the word", for indeed Christ is the word. It is he who is near us in our hearts, whom we confess with our mouths. It is he who is the gospel. It is he who is the end (fulfillment) of the law.

But how? How does the word get near to our hearts and our mouths? How can we possibly obey the commandment to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength - we, who are dead in our sins and trespasses, and whose very nature is enmity against God?

One word: Regeneration.

Here are the familiar passages which we all know and love:

And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deu 30:6)

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Eze 36:25-27)

Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." (Joh 3:5-8)

And what is the result?

I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart." (Psa 40:8)

I delight in the law of God, in my inner being. (Rom 7:22)

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more." (Heb 8:10-12)

Praise the Lord!

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