What ever happened to grace?
Have you been wondering that lately?
It seems as if almost everyone has forgotten this little five letter word that author Philip Yancey has called our “last best word.” In fact, our experiences when interacting with one another both on social media and interpersonally often reflect the opposite of grace – harshness.
Now, I know that there are still plenty of displays of grace all around us, especially in our local community. But, would you not also agree that our society is becoming less and less characterized by grace, politeness, and good manners?
We jockey with one another for position. We tear each other down in order to elevate ourselves. We withhold forgiveness from those who have offended us. We hold others to impossible standards of behavior that we have no intention of meeting ourselves. We create fear in others to prevent our imperfections from being exposed. We do it all in some attempt to make ourselves feel better about our weaknesses and our failures.
This is what makes grace such an amazing word!
Grace is, in a biblical sense, the unmerited favor of God. It says that God loves and accepts you and me regardless of who we are, where we have been, what we have done, what we have not done, or where we are from. God loves us, provides salvation for us in Jesus Christ, and pours forth immeasurable blessings upon us.
John Newton wrote the most famous song about grace – Amazing Grace. Interestingly, his story of redemption began as the captain of a slave ship. His heart was arrested by the love, mercy, and grace of God and his life was transformed. After converting to Christianity, he renounced his former trade and worked tirelessly for the abolition of the slave trade. Near the end of his life, he wrote, “I’m a great sinner, but Christ is an even great Savior.”
God’s powerful and transformative grace enables us to be gracious to one another. Think about it. If you’re accepted by God, then you don’t need to elevate yourself over other people. Why? Because your identity is no longer found in relation to them; rather, it is rooted squarely in what God says about you. Therefore, you are free to be gracious, loving, polite, and forgiving to those you see daily.
Newton was right. Grace is truly amazing. We are much better off when we live in grace and extend it to others, for our world thirsts for it in ways it does not even recognize.
This article was originally written for and published in the Wednesday, June 24, 2020 edition of the Chester News and Reporter in Chester, SC.
From the beginning of March, we have been living in a continual crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of social distancing policies. All of our students missed out on the last three months of their school year while our graduating seniors missed out on many of the rites of passage that they had anticipated over the last 3-4 years. And, the events of the last two weeks with the death of George Floyd and it’s repercussions have increased our senses of uncertainty, confusion, and frustration. Each of these realities would have been challenging in and of themselves, but when combined they have created a cultural pressure cooker, which has caused me to consider the proper attitude to possess while dealing with crises.
As a Christian, my first inclination was to study the life of Jesus to examine how he dealt with crises. When I did, I found six attitudes in his life that I think we would do well to adopt when we face our own crises or walk with others through them. Here they are.
I’m convinced that a prayerful, listening, compassionate, gracious, righteous, and wise person is well suited to confront the challenges that this world presents. Attitude matters. It determines how we respond, the words we say, and the character we exhibit throughout our lives. Let us follow Jesus’s lead while walking through these current crises as well as those that are sure to come throughout the balance of our lives.
This post was originally written for the Wednesday, June 10 edition of the Chester News and Reporter in Chester, SC.
One of my favorite passages in the New Testament is Philippians 2:2-4. There Paul writes, “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
I think I like these words so much because of the way they focus on the virtue of selflessness and connect it to the life of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul challenges us to elevate others above ourselves and to do it in the same way that Jesus does it for us. He willingly sacrificed himself for each one of us. We are to do the same for one another. And, we are to do it out of love. That’s why Jesus did it!
This reminds me of a story I heard from a World War II Veteran named Roy several years ago. He was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium when a German explosive device rolled into his shallow foxhole. One of his fellow soldiers immediately dove onto the device to muffle its blow. As soon as he covered it with his body, it exploded. The blast killed the young soldier instantaneously. His sacrifice, however, saved the lives of Roy and the two other young men in the foxhole. I’ll never forget the emotion that welled up in Roy’s eyes and voice as he told that story of that heroic young soldier. He didn’t bat an eye. He did what had become natural to him. He sacrificed himself for Roy and the other men.
I’ve talked to many soldiers who would have done the exact same thing. Why? Because they were trained to put the needs and desires of others above their own. This is what all of us should be doing as well. Selflessness does not come naturally to any of us, but it can be developed in all of us through faith, intentional decision-making, and action. Pastor Tim Keller has said, “Selflessness is thinking of yourself less.” If we decide to do that, then we will consider others more highly than we do ourselves over time. And, I believe we’d be happier people and build a better society because of it. Don’t you?
This post was written for the Wednesday, May 27, 2020 edition of Chester News and Reporter.
Recently, I’ve been asked, “Why are most Christians calm in the midst of the pandemic and yet anxious to return to Church?” The answer to these two great questions is really simple: Our hope extends beyond death. You see, death is not the end of life for Christians. It’s the beginning of the rest of our lives in the presence of our loving, gracious, and powerful God. So, we’re not terrified of death nor its causes. Here’s why.
According to the Bible, Jesus of Nazareth lived a unique life from the time of his birth to his ascension into Heaven. He was perfect, died the death of a criminal, and rose from the grave. As Christians, we root our own personal stories of conversion in his marvelous story. He lived for us, died for us, and rose for us. This means that we died to this world when he died, and we gained eternal life when he rose.
Reflecting on this good news in 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul says that our future life with God after death is guaranteed by Jesus’s resurrection from the dead. This hope enables us to face any challenge with the calm that comes from an eternal perspective. This life isn’t all there is. There is one to come what will be far more wonderful.
At present we are weary and anxious since we cannot gather with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ for vigorous corporate worship, free of restrictions. You may ask why it’s so important to be present with one another when we have technological capabilities to stream services live or broadcast recorded ones online. Another great question. Here’s the answer.
Gathered, in-person corporate worship is special for the people of God. It is a union of heart, soul, and mind among those present as they commune with God and fellowship with one another in spirit and truth. During the worship experience, we praise the God who’s saved us, enjoy fellowship with him and one another, participate in the worshipping activity of heaven, and obey our Lord’s commands. So, a prolonged period of isolation which prevents us from gathering for worship is wearisome and soul-numbing simply because it keeps us from doing what we were created and redeemed to do: worship God together. This is why many Christians throughout the world are willing to take risks, sometimes major risks, to join with one another in corporate worship.
There you have it. Our eternal hope in Christ and deep longing to be in the presence of God and his people give us peace in these tumultuous days and a deep desire to worship God together. Our hearts are emboldened and our decisions are informed. We stand in the power of Christ.
This article was written for The Chester News and Reporter in Chester, SC. It originally appeared in May 15, 2020’s edition.
The sixth book of the Bible is the first of the twelve historical books of the Old Testament. These twelve books tell the story of Israel’s entry into the Promised Land of Canaan under Joshua’s leadership, their subsequent inhabitance of the Land during the time of the Judges and the transition of leadership from that of a judge to that of a king. Also, these books chronicle the division of the kingdom into rival kingdoms, the downfall and exile of each kingdom, Judean life during exile, and the eventual return of the Judeans from exile under Persian rule. All told, these historical books document a history of over 1000 years and tell Israel’s fascinating story with all of its ups and down, twists and turns.
The Book Bears His Name, but Did He Write It?
The book of Joshua is named after its leading character, but, we do not know its author’s identity. Jewish tradition maintains that Joshua wrote the narrative as an autobiography of his experience leading the Israelites into the Promised Land with his death narrative being the one big exception to his authorship. (He very well couldn’t have written that, could he?) However, no internal or external literary evidence exists that can substantiate this claim of authorship. Parts of the book do indeed claim Joshua’s own penmanship, but others tend to point an authorship of a much later date. Repeatedly, we find the phrase, “to this day,” in the narrative, which suggests a significant lapse in time between the events of the book and the book’s final literary form. Thus, the book’s author remains anonymous.
This authorial anonymity means that the books’ original audience and date of composition remains unknown to us as well. What we do know is that book’s original audience and date is inextricably tied to the date of the conquest of Canaan. Scholars have debated this date for years, but they have not been able to arrive at a consensus. Many favor a later date for the Exodus and subsequent conquest (1400 BC) while others favor an earlier one (1250 BC). The discrepancy in dating is largely due to two factors: the difficulty of determining accurate dates for archeological evidence and sites and the challenge of the accuracy of the number of years in that 1 Kings attributes to the time between the Exodus and the construction of Solomon’s Temple.
Does a Historical Book Have Theological Meaning and Value?
A common question regarding historical books, especially for us modern readers, is: Do historical books have present meaning and value beyond just telling a story. The Bible’s answer to that question is a resounding, “Yes!” Think with me for a moment about the previous five books of the Bible – the Pentateuch – and their meaning. For them meaning is found in the fact that they tell the story of God’s interaction with his people and their subsequent deliverance, obedience, and disobedience. Joshua is no different. It is a record of God’s dealing with his people and graciously fulfilling all his promises to them. But, Joshua’s value goes much deeper than that.
The great act of salvation history in the Old Testament is not the Exodus alone. It is the Exodus coupled with the conquest and inhabitance of the Promised Land. God did not simply promise to deliver his people from the land of bondage, from the house of slavery. He promised to bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of provision, a land of freedom, and a land of promise. The deliverance from the bondage cannot be separated from the inheritance of the land. And, the book of Joshua tells us the story of how the Israelites came to possess their inheritance by chronicling their conquest and distribution of the land. This should bring great comfort to our weary souls. God has promised not just to deliver us from sin, but to bring you into his eternal rest. And, it is all ours in Christ. Like the Israelites, our deliverance in Christ cannot be separated from our final inheritance with God in Heaven. Praise the Lord!
Joshua’s Story in Four Parts
The book of Joshua breaks down most easily into four parts. They are as follows:
One Final Point: This is War and It’s Holy
Many of us read Joshua and are struck with what appears to be a blatant prescription for genocide. God commands the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites, leaving none of them, including women and children. This certainly challenges our thinking that God is a just, merciful, and loving God.
Three things must be said in response to our concerns over God’s command and Israel’s obedience to it. They are:
The reason this drastic measure strikes us as fanatical, and even appalling, is that in the present era of salvation, God has poured out all of his holy wrath on the Lord Jesus Christ who represented all the unrighteousness and unholiness of sinful people on his cross. So, the ultimate Promised Land is cleansed of unrighteousness and unholiness through Jesus’s death. We call this a penal substitutionary atonement. We don’t bear the guilt of our sins; he did. We don’t suffer the just punishment of our sin; he did. We don’t earn our place in Heaven; he did it for us. Be thankful for this grace and read God’s command to Joshua to cleanse the Promised Land through this lens of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. It will take on a new meaning when you do!
The fifth book of the Bible derives its name from a phrase taken from its seventeenth chapter. The future kings of Israel were “to make a copy of this [God’s] Law” which was to be read all the days of his life so that he may learn to fear God by keeping all the words of the Law. Deuteronomy, then, is a repetition of God’s Law originally delivered on Mount Sinai and recorded in great detail in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
A Series of Addresses Arranged as a Treaty
Any brief, surface reading of Deuteronomy will reveal that the book contains a series of addresses delivered by Moses on the plains of Moab to the Israelites. He led them in a renewal of their covenant with God before they embarked upon the conquest of the Promised Land. With the first generation gone, Moses needed to instruct the current Israelites to avoid the sins of their parents and to commit to the Law so that God’s blessing would pour forth from his hand in the future. And, that’s what he did. In response, Israel reaffirmed her allegiance to God and her national commitment to keep His Law. Therefore, the book, though a collection of individual speeches, has been arranged in the form of an ancient treaty between a king and his people.
We can divide the book into five main sections. They are:
It’s Really About God
Though Deuteronomy is a story of Israel’s covenant renewal, it is really as story about God. He’s the central character who stands out as you read the book. Here are a few thoughts about him we can glean from Deuteronomy’s pages:
The fourth book of the Bible is Numbers. And, as its title suggests the book contains a lot of numbers. Two censuses of Israel’s population are taken and then seemingly countless other lists of a variety of things are recorded. But, is that really what the book is about? Is the book of Numbers really a compilation of technical lists? No. The book is a continuation of Israel’s history as the book’s Hebrew title – “In the wilderness” – communicates. This artistic and pictorial phrase sums the entire setting of the book. The Israelites move from Sinai into the wilderness of the Paran, up to Kadesh, and then through to the plains of Moab. Through the story of this geographic wandering, Numbers narrates the transition from the old generation of Israelites that left Egypt in the Exodus and sinned in the wilderness to the new generation that stands on the brink of the Promised Land. It presents us with a vision of new beginnings and hope.
A Purposeful Story Full of Truths
To adequately understand this book, we must remember the context in which it was written. It was recorded as the Israelites camped in the plains of Moab preparing to enter the Promised Land after their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The first generation of Israelites who had experienced firsthand the delivering power of God in the Exodus had died out as a result of their disobedience. The second generation of Israelites who had simply heard the stories God’s gracious deliverance were preparing to enter the Promised Land by the command of God with his promise of victory. Therefore, Numbers serves to call these second-generation Israelites to serve God as his holy arm in the conquest of the Promised Land and to avoid the failures of the previous generation by remaining faithful to God directives.
This story, then, reveals three main truths from which this second generation would have benefited. These truths are:
One Story in Two Parts
Numbers is a story with two parts. The first is about the generation of Israelites who rebelled against God and ultimately died under the judgment of God without seeing the Promised Land. And, part 2 is about the second generation of Israelites as God prepares them to enter the Promised Land, complete with promises of victory and his expectations of their holiness. The dividing line between the two parts is found between chapters 25 and 26. Chapter 25 ends with the Israelites contracting a plague that resulted from their continued idolatry, their worship of Baal at Peor, and their sexual impurity with Moabite women, which defiled Israel in God’s eyes. But, chapter 26 begins with a new beginning, a census of the second generation. At this time Israel was purged of the rebellious men and women of the first generation by God’s gracious judgment.
Does Numbers Prepare Us for the New Testament and Jesus? Yes.
Numbers carries on the themes seen throughout the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible. Three of them are:
The first generation of the Israelites rebelled against God, the God who had miraculously delivered them from Egyptian slavery. This could have led to the end of redemption history. God certainly would have been justified if he had he simply destroyed his people. But, as he showed with Adam and Eve and countless others, he refuses to abandon his people even in their rebellion and sin. He loves them and seeks them out to restore them in his grace. The principle character of the book of Numbers is the same principle character of the rest of the Bible – the Lord God himself. He keeps his covenant with his people, guides them through the wilderness, continues to provide for them, and remains personally involved in their covenant life because of his covenant love for them. This is but a foretaste of the way in which he will seek out his people in the Lord Jesus Christ. He not only does not abandon his children; he provides hope for them in the salvation offered by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Numbers continues the theme of holiness that we first encountered in Exodus. God requires his people to maintain holiness. He seeks to dwell with them. Therefore, they must be holy as he is holy in order to interact with him. This is a call for us to be obedient in our faith. God has provided the holy one, Jesus, through whom and in whom we have the blessing of his presence. But the call is to be holy as he is holy in Christ.
The Israelites prepared, failed, and then prepared again for the holy war in Canaan. This reminds us of the ultimate battle of the holy war between Heaven and Hell through which Christ will win the new heavens and the new earth. Christ began the last battle with his life, death and resurrection. He continues this battle by the preaching of the gospel and through the church today. And, he will complete the war when he returns. Don’t lose heart. Christ is supreme!
Numbers asks a Final Question
As we read the last sentence of chapter 36, we notice that the story of Numbers is incomplete. The future of Israel is in question. Will the second generation be faithful and so receive the blessed promises of God? Or, will they follow in their parents’ steps and rebel against God and thus receive his just judgment? That’s a question each follower of Christ has to answer for himself or herself. Will I be faithful to the call?
 Reformation Study Bible (NIV).
On our (Chester ARP Church’s) journey through the Bible this year, we will read many passages that will clearly and wonderfully reveal the loving, holy, and just character of God. In fact, we believe that every word of the Bible is given to us for that exact purpose. Charles Spurgeon once preached, “from every text in the Bible is a road to Jesus Christ,” and since Jesus is the purest manifestation of God (John 1:18; Hebrews 1:1-2), the Bible, in its entirety, the glory and character of God by telling the story of Jesus.
The passage we read (or, are planning to read) today in Exodus 33-35 is a wonderful example of this truth. As I read it, I was struck by several things it reveals to us about our God. First, he is a forgiving God. You will remember that chapter 33 follows Exodus 32 where we find the story of the Israelites worshipping the golden calf they made while Moses was on the top of Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God. Their idolatry angered the Lord, which caused him to prepare to leave them to fend for themselves without his ever-present provision. But Moses interceded with God on their behalf and plead for his forgiveness. God graciously forgave them because he’s a forgiving God.
Second, God is a gracious God. The end of Exodus 34 contains the great story of when Moses asks to see God in his glory. Perhaps, his faith was weak. Perhaps, he needed some encouragement to continue to lead these hard-headed people through the desert and into the Promised Land. Perhaps, he was just curious as to what God’s glory looked like. Whatever his reason was, he asked to see God’s glory and God graciously obliged. Moses’s life was transformed instantly as he saw the glory of God pass before him.
Third, God is an orderly God. Exodus 35 begins a section of the Bible, which continues throughout the whole next book, Leviticus, that tells us of the particular and orderly way in which God prescribed for his Tabernacle to be built and records the meticulous law he gave to the Israelites to govern their lives, their worship, and their morality. We can’t read these chapters without seeing that God is a god of decency and order (1 Corinthians 14:40), who holds his people accountable to a standard of belief, behavior, and worship. In his being, God is a god of order and expects the same from the people who bear his name.
As you read these chapters you may find some other things more applicable to your life than these I’ve mentioned, and that’s ok. There are many lessons we can learn from them as the Holy Spirit illuminates our hearts and minds while we read. These three aspects about God’s character, however, struck me powerfully this morning.
May the Lord add his blessing to you as you read his word to get to know him more and more fully everyday. Happy Reading.
Pursue Christ. Elevate Others.
What’s up everybody?
On Sunday we talked about how Psalm 50 tells us that thankfulness needs to be cultivated in our lives because it is not natural to us. Here are a few suggestions from Jerry Birdges’s book The Practice of Godliness to help you cultivate a habit of thankfulness:
May the Lord bless you richly in his grace. Pursue growth and practice thankfulness.
…We have to let God be God. His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8) and we’ll never fully understand the mind of our sovereign and good creator. We have to trust him with our lives to work out all things for his glory and our good. We walk by faith in Christ and commit ourselves to sharing the gospel with other people so they can have the opportunity to place their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as well…
We had a lively conversation during our Bible Study on Wednesday morning as we studied Westminster Shorter Catechism Question #20, which asks, “Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?” The answer is: “God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.”
Our teacher, Buzzy Elder, did a good job unpacking the answer in three parts – God’s motivation for his salvation, the subjects of his salvation, and his method of salvation. We were encouraged to hear that God chooses to save his people (us) from their (our) sin and its effects out of his own pleasure and that he accomplished this salvation through the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, our Redeemer.
As Buzzy prepared to move on to Question #21, someone asked the question, “Well, who is actually saved?” I thought, “Here we go” and chuckled a little. Buzzy answered the question well and then led lively discussion about the doctrine of election that resulted in varying degrees of confusion, frustration, clarity, and concern among the group.
A Hard Line
The Doctrine of Election is one of the most discussed — even rejected — doctrines of the historic reformed faith. I believe this is because it forces us to draw a hard line between the just and the unjust, between those who are being saved by grace through faith and those who aren’t. We simply don’t like to think in such black and white terms.
Absolute religious truth offends our modern sensibilities. Whether we realize it or not, we have all been shaped by the philosophies of contemporary American civil religion, which teach that all men, women, and children are relatively good and walking in the same ultimate direction. Religion’s role is therapeutic in that it helps its adherents to feel happier, more relaxed, fulfilled, and healthier. Thus, no one religion is better than any other, for they all fulfill the same function: to help an individual get farther down the road to where we are all going.
The Just and the Unjust
But there is a difference between the just and the unjust, isn’t there? The Bible clearly distinguishes between those who profess faith in Christ and those who don’t (Matt. 7:13-14). Those who do (Christians) are just and those who don’t (Non-Christians) are unjust. The just and unjust aren’t going to the same place; they aren’t walking in the same direction. The just will receive eternal life with God and the unjust will receive eternal destruction.
Does this mean that Christians are inherently different than non-Christians? No. We are all the same. We have been created equally in the image of the same God. And, we have all sinned against our universal creator, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “for we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” – his holy standard (Romans 3:22-23). So, what makes the difference between the just and unjust? Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ made possible by the grace of Almighty God does. The just have trusted the Lord Jesus Christ and thus been made right before God through his life, death, and resurrection, while the unjust have not trusted Jesus and so remain unreconciled to God in their sin.
Therefore, we’re all equally guilty before God in our sin with our rebellious hearts, but God freely chooses to redeem his chosen people in his grace. And, he has the authority to do it however he wants to do it. He can redeem all, none, or some of those who’ve sinned against him simply because he is God. That is his prerogative, and it cannot be taken from him.
Let God Be God
Because we understand that salvation is God’s sovereign prerogative, our objection to the doctrine of election isn’t theoretically with God’s authority to save whom he wishes; rather, it is with our often precarious experience of his salvation in this life. We typically express our concern in two questions. First, there is the question about us personally: How do I know that I am elect? The answer is simple: If you have placed your faith in Christ and repented from your sins, then you are elect, for only those who are elect will be converted to faith in Christ. If your testimony is that you have been saved and transformed by grace through faith, then you are counted among the elect. In this sense, the doctrine of election is a doctrine of assurance (Eph. 2:1-10).
Second, there is the question about other people – our friends, our family members, people all over the globe. Are they elect, and if they are, how do we know it? The answer is two-fold. If they have placed their faith in Christ and repented of their sins, then they are in the number of the elect. Plain and simple. But, if they haven’t placed their faith in Christ, we don’t know if they are elect or not. God hasn’t published a list. However, we do know that they will never know the joy of salvation unless they are told of the good news of Jesus Christ in the gospel and are given the opportunity to place their faith in him and repent of their sins. In this sense, the doctrine of election is a doctrine of motivation for Christian missions (Rom. 10:14-17).
In conclusion, we have to let God be God. His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8) and we’ll never fully understand the mind of our sovereign and good creator. We have to trust him with our lives to work out all things for his glory and our good. We walk by faith in Christ and commit ourselves to sharing the gospel with other people so they can have the opportunity to place their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as well, all the while holding fast to the biblical truth that “God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life…”