Sunday, December 16, 2018

Why you should love (the doctrine of) the Trinity – Matthew 3:13-17

Christianity is what is called a monotheistic religion.  That is, we believe in one God, as opposed to many gods, which is polytheism.  Many of the religions that the ancient Israelites interacted with, and were tempted by, were polytheistic.  Many regions would have their own tribal deity.  We are all familiar with the ancient Roman and Greek pantheon, featured for example in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. 

We are monotheists because Christianity grows out of the religion of Moses and the patriarchs.  One of the main features of the religion of the Old Testament is its emphasis upon monotheism.  The God who revealed himself to the patriarchs and the prophets is One: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4).  One of the recurring themes of the OT is the disheartening cycle of Israel forsaking the one true God for false idols, being punished, and then repenting and turning back to the true God, only to repeat the cycle again.  The danger of the corrupting influence of polytheism is highlighted again and again.

Jesus was a Jew and all the first Christians were Jews.  Every book of the NT, with the possible exception of Luke-Acts, was written by a Jew.  So it should not surprise us that Christianity is also monotheistic.  The apostle Paul, for example, wrote to the Corinthians, “For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:5-6).  Our Lord himself, when tempted by Satan to worship him, responded by quoting Deut. 6:13, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”  That is very clearly a monotheistic passage.

So why do we have a doctrine of the Trinity?

The short answer is that we have a doctrine of the Trinity because Jesus came.  Another way to put this in terms of the season we are in is that we have the doctrine of the Trinity because of Christmas.  I say doctrine, because the Trinity did not come into existence on Christmas day, but Christmas made the doctrine of the Trinity clearer than it had been under the old covenant, even though there are hints of a plurality in the unity of the Godhead even then.  The incarnation of the Son of God confronted men and women with the reality that God the Father has a Son and that this Son is more than a man merely anointed and appointed by God, but someone who shares the very nature of God himself.  It seems that this realization slowly dawned upon the apostles.  They went from saying, “What sort of man is this?” (Mt. 8:27) to the exclamation of Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28).

Very well, Jesus is God.  But Jesus is not the Father.  He is distinct from the Father, which can be seen in numerous places, like in our text, where the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John the Baptist is recorded, who “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him [Jesus]; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:16-17).  The early church fathers would tell people who wanted to learn the doctrine of the Trinity, to go to the Jordan.  In fact, here you have all three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all three present at the same time, and all three clearly distinct from one another.

Thus the doctrine of the Trinity is implied by the Biblical teaching that Jesus – the Son of God – is God and the Father is God and the Spirit is God and Jesus is not the Father or the Spirit, the Father is not the Son or the Spirit, and the Spirit is neither the Son nor the Father.  The question then becomes, how do you fit this into the other Biblical teaching that God is one?  For if the Father is God, and Jesus is God, and the Spirit is God, then it would appear that God is three.  How is it that God can be one and three at the same time?

Well, clearly, God cannot be one and three at the same time and in the same way.  That would be irrational.  And though we understand that there are limits to logic, this doesn’t give us the right to violate the laws of logic.  So it must be that God is one in one sense and three in another sense. 

But in what sense?  It took the early church a while to iron out the details, but eventually they arrived at the following solution: God is one in substance or essence and three in person.  Each person (Father, Son, and Spirit) shares the same substance.  They are all equally God in the sense that they mutually indwell each other in terms of the essence of the Godhead.  But they are also irreducibly distinct as persons sharing the same essence.  This is the doctrine of the Trinity.  Tertullian, who lived in the late second and early third centuries (A.D.), was probably the first theologian who used the words “Trinity” and “person” to describe the distinctions in the unity of the Godhead.  A lot of people have a problem with this because the word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible at all.  But what you have to understand is that Tertullian and those who followed him were using this kind of language, not to get around the Bible, or to invent something new, but instead to defend the truth of the Bible.  The problem is that if heretics use Biblical language, the only way you are going to be able to distinguish the truth from error is to use words not found in the Bible to clarify what the Bible actually says.  That is what Tertullian was doing.

You see, in his day, there were people who were advocating modalism, arguing that there is only one person in the Godhead who reveals himself in three different ways, like an actor wearing three different masks.  From this came the doctrine of patripassianism, or the idea that the Father suffered on the cross, because the Son is the Father.  One such a person who taught this was a Roman Christian named Praxeas, and Tertullian wrote a book to refute him around the year A.D. 210.  Praxeas was doubly noxious to Tertullian, because he opposed the Montanists (an early charismatic Christian sect), of which Tertullian was an adherent, and advocated modalism: “By this,” Tertullian wrote, “Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome: he drove away prophesy, and he brought in heresy; he put to flight the Paraclete, and he crucified the Father.”

Tertullian described the doctrine of the Trinity in these words: “All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”  There you have it: God is one in substance and three in person.  It is the inevitable consequence of believing all that the Bible says about God: there is one God, and the Father, Son, and Spirit are God, and yet distinct from one another.

However, at this point, you might be thinking to yourself – okay, but what does it matter?  It all seems very abstruse and abstract and difficult – and worthless.  W.G.T. Shedd reports one theologian’s opinion that “as he that denies this fundamental article of the Christian religion may lose his soul, so he that much strives to understand it may lose his wits.”  Well, we don’t want to lose our wits.  And if that’s the way you view the doctrine of the Trinity, you are going to have a hard time seeing why you should bother much about it at all.  Which brings us to the point of this message.  I want you to understand not only that the doctrine of the Trinity is Biblical, but also why it is important for you to believe it.  I don’t know about you, but for many years I embraced this doctrine without really understanding why it is so wonderful.  Of course, I understood it is important as it was connected to the divinity of Christ, but for me it was more of a doctrine to be defended than a doctrine to be loved.   A lot of people approach the doctrine of the Trinity like those awkward relatives we know we’re supposed to love but we’d really not rather sit by them at the table.  For me, this stemmed from two basic mistakes: one, I failed to properly appreciate what the doctrine of the Trinity is really teaching; and two, I failed to see just how central it is to all of Christian life.  My goal in this message and those following is to share with you how the Biblical teaching has corrected both these mistakes.  I want you to love it and to see just how central and crucial it is for you to believe it.

Where do we start?

Let’s begin by thinking about this: what would you say is the fundamental truth of the Christian faith?  Would you say it is the gospel?  As important as that is, it is not the starting point of faith.  Yes, we must believe it and we cannot be saved apart from faith in its message, and so the gospel is fundamental in that sense.  But the gospel presupposes some things, and one of the things it presupposes is a certain view of God.  If your view of God is the Islamic one, you will not believe the gospel.  If your view of God is a pantheistic one, you will not believe in the gospel.  So in that sense, what we believe about God is more fundamental than what we believe about the gospel (cf. Heb. 11:6).

Even the doctrine justification by faith, which Luther called the article of the standing or falling church, and which you might think is that which distinguishes Christianity not only from other religions, but also Protestantism from Catholicism and Orthodoxy, is not ultimately distinguishing, as I recently discovered to my surprise.  Michael Reeves, in his book, Delighting in the Trinity,[1]tells the story of a sect of Buddhism found in Japan in 1549 by the Roman Catholic missionary Francis Xavier, which believed in salvation by grace alone: “Simple trust in Amida, they held, instead of trust in self, was sufficient to achieve rebirth into the pure land.  If we call on him, they taught, then despite our failings, all his achievements become ours.”  In fact, Xavier identified this sect (Yodo Shin-Shu) with “the Lutheran heresy.”  Of course there are still vast differences between this “justification by faith” and the Protestant doctrine, but what makes those differences is ultimately rooted in very different views of God.

The fundamental doctrine is our doctrine of God.  It is the foundation of all other theological belief.  And because God is a Trinity, that means that the doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all other belief.  It is only as we get the doctrine of the Trinity right that we can with any justification say that we are Christian in any other point of faith and doctrine.  As Reeves puts it, “The Trinity is the cockpit of all Christian thinking.”

And it is important to begin, not with an amorphous concept of “God” but with the very distinctive Christian God.  One of the reasons we might have a problem with the doctrine of the Trinity, is that we don’t begin here.  And when we don’t begin here, we usually end up with an idea of God that is very different from the Biblical vision of God.  Have you ever noticed that the pagan gods of old looked just like the people who worshipped them?  This is the problem with idolatry – it is remaking God in our own image.  It is exchanging the creator God with a created thing.  If we don’t begin with what God reveals himself to be, we inevitably end up with a God looking very much like ourselves.  We have to begin with how God himself has revealed who and what he is, and since he has revealed himself to be a Trinity in Unity, this is where we have to start.  We don’t start with an abstract idea of a single person God and then, as Reeves puts it, try to stuff two more persons into the Godhead.  Rather, we start with the Trinity in Unity and go from there.

The Beauty of the Trinity

The idea of the Trinity is massively important for another reason.  Did you notice the way the Father introduces the Son to the world at his baptism?  “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”  This is immensely important.  It is important for the following reason: love cannot exist in a vacuum of fellowship.  And that means that love cannot exist apart from a plurality of persons.  This means that if God is unipersonal, he could not be loving in himself.  It would mean that love is something God would only have discovered once he created the world, but that before the world was created, he was loveless.  And that would mean that God is not love, contradicting 1 Jn. 4:8.  Because God is a Trinity, love is not something God discovered, it is something that he is.  He didn’t develop it once he created other beings, he has always been loving from eternity.

Now think about what it would mean for the other attributes of God if God could not identify himself in terms of love.  Think about sovereignty unattached from love, holiness and justice and power separate from love, and you get a God that is severe, untouchable, frightening, austere.  It would be hard to love such a God; in fact, it would be impossible.

Of course, love requires more than a plurality of persons.  You can have a room full of people who hate each other.  Additionally, there must be a bond of fellowship that unites.  And this is the way the Trinity is revealed to us; not just in terms of a plurality of persons but also in terms of a fellowship of mutual love.  For the gospel tells us by the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, God identifies himself to us primarily as a loving Father, and from eternity he is a Father first and foremost to his Son.  When he introduces his Son to us at his baptism, it is as “my beloved Son,” and you cannot have a Son without a Father.  When Jesus teaches us to pray, it is to “our Father” (Mt. 6:9).  In fact, one of the main points of the Sermon on the Mount is that we are to relate to God as Father.  And though it is not as clear in the OT, God identifies himself as a Father there, too (see Ex. 4:22; Deut. 1:31; 8:5; Ps. 103:13; Is. 1:2; Jer. 31:9; Hos. 11:1). 

But God did not begin to be a Father when the Son became incarnate.  The Son is the eternal Son of the Father, for the Father sent the Son into the world; he did not send him to be the Son, but he sent him who already was the Son (Rom. 8:3).  God the Father and God the Son have existed in an eternal fellowship of love.  What was God doing before the foundation of the world?  Jesus tells us: “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (Jn. 17:5).  “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:24).  What was God the Father doing before the foundation of the world?  He was loving the Son.  They have always existed together in a holy fellowship of love and glory.

And the Spirit is the bond of that fellowship of love.  You see it there at the baptism.  How is it that the Father communicates his love to the Son?  It is not only by declaring it, but also by sending the Spirit like a dove to rest upon his Son.  Just as God communicates his love to us by the Spirit (Rom. 5:5), even so the Father communicates his love to the Son through the Holy Spirit: “In that same hour he [Jesus] rejoiced in the Holy Spirit, and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth” (Lk 10:21).  Thus the apostle speaks of “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14).

But this Spirit is not some impersonal force; rather he is a person in his own right: he can speak and send (Acts 13:2,4), choose (Acts 20:28), teach (Jn. 14:26), be lied to (Acts 5:3,9), resisted (Acts 7:51), grieved (Eph. 4:30), and blasphemed (Mt. 12:31).  It is in the one Name that we are baptized; a name that is given by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).

So you see, God did not become loving.  He has always been loving.  God’s works in creation and providence and salvation are acts of love because that is what God is.  God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son (Jn. 3:16; 1 Jn. 4:9-10).  God overflows in love, first and foremost in the Trinity, and then outwards towards his creation.  And we can know that God’s love is not some temporary blimp on the screen of his attributes because love is an eternal and necessary part of who God is.  And it is important to see that it is the doctrine of the Trinity that guarantees this.

All this affects the way we relate to God.  In Christ, we do not relate to God primarily as our Ruler, though he is that, nor as Almighty, though he is that.  We relate to him primarily as our Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The pattern in Scripture, the order, is this: by the Spirit, though the Son, we approach the Father.[2]  “For through him [Christ] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18; cf. Rom. 8:14-17).  It’s important that we see this, because sometimes we can think of God as the One Essence and the Persons as somehow existing alongside “God.”  Rather, the one God is the Holy Trinity.  We don’t approach the “Unoriginate,” as Arius called God.[3]  After all, “With ‘The Unoriginate’ we are left scrambling for a dictionary in a philosophy lecture; with a Father things are familial.  And if God is a Father, then he must be relational and life-giving, and that is the sort of God we could love.”[4]

Now by saying that we relate to God primarily as Father, I’m not saying that we don’t believe that the Son or the Holy Spirit are lesser beings than God the Father – they are all properly God, equal in power and glory – yet there is an order in the Trinity.  You will notice in the NT that almost always when “God” is used, the word refers to God the Father.  This is not because the Son or the Spirit are not God.  After all, John tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1).  In Acts 5, we learn that lying to the Holy Spirit is the same thing as lying to God.  Rather, God almost always refers to the Father because there is a definite order in the Trinity.  Paul mentions this order in 1 Cor. 11:3, when he writes, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”  The Father loves the Son, and this eternal fellowship of love overflows in the sending of the Son to love the Church.  The Father sends the Son; it is never the other way round.  The Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son; it is never the Father or the Son proceeding from the Spirit.  But what all this means for us is that the Son of God worked for us and the Spirit of God works in us in order that we might be able to approach God the Father as our Father.  Thus Peter writes, “you call on him as Father” (1 Pet. 1:17).  It’s why Jesus told Mary, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn. 20:17).  It is precisely because of what Jesus has done for us that his Father becomes also our Father and this is a wonderful and amazing reality indeed.

Of course, some earthly fathers are mean and cruel.  We must divorce all such notions from our minds when we think of God as Father.  God is Father but he is not evil as we are (Mt. 6:11).  He is good; the OT refrain remains true: “the steadfast love of the LORD endures forever.”  The love that we are called to experience is the infinitely superior and pure love of the Trinity; it is not the selfish and overbearing and hurtful relationship that is sometimes expressed in broken and sinful families.  It is the love that the Father has towards his own Son.  There is nothing cruel or harsh or unkind or ugly about that love. 

And it is this love that we are called to demonstrate in our lives.  Why do you think that the first commandment is to love God and then to love our neighbor?  It is because the only way you can relate to God is by love since he himself is love, and thus the only way we can imitate God is through love.  The love that the Father has for the Son overflows in the Son’s love for the church, and that is to overflow in our hearts towards our spouses, our children, our friends and our neighbors.  The Trinity is at the heart of everything; not only as an important doctrine but as the basis of our ethic as well, the foundation of all doctrine and duty.

So you should love the doctrine of the Trinity.  But more than that, you should love the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit.  For it is possible to love a doctrine and fail to love the God of the doctrine, and we don’t want to do that.  We want to really love God; and to love God is to love the Father through the Son in the Spirit.  It is to be included in the eternal fellowship of the holy Trinity through Christ our Savior.  And there is no greater imaginable blessing than that.

[1] Many of the main ideas in this message are borrowed from this book.  It is the best book I have read so far on the doctrine of the Trinity.
[2] This point is repeatedly made in Robert Letham’s very helpful book, The Holy Trinity. 
[3] Delighting in the Trinity, location 253.
[4] Ibid., loc. 253.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Heart of the Matter: The Breastplate of Righteousness – Eph. 6:14

The idea of righteousness has fallen on hard times in our culture and even in the church.  These days, for many Christians the goal is not to be righteous but to be nice.  Unless, of course, you are talking about imputed righteousness and justification.  Then it’s okay to insist on righteousness.  But once you hint at the idea that Christians must be righteous in their daily behavior and thoughts and affections, then don’t be surprised when people begin to think of you as a legalist and a moralist.  And in our day and culture those are bad things indeed.

So being nice has become a substitute for being righteous.  But it’s not the only substitute: more and more it seems that people (especially in the evangelical subculture in the West) are confusing righteousness with spirituality.  The problem is that what many people think of as spirituality is only skin-deep.  You can do all sorts of “spiritual” things, like pray and meditate and read your Bible, but if that’s all your spirituality is, then you are really not that spiritual at all.  In other words, even if your goal is doing these things on a regular basis in your life, then you are not really spiritual.  Having as your goal feeling spiritual is even worse.  Unless your acts of devotion and spirituality lead to personal righteousness, then the fact of the matter is that you have sold your Lord for thirty pieces of silver.  In other words, many have mistaken something flashy for devotion to Christ and traded Christ in for the flashy thing (in this case, so-called spirituality).

What then is righteousness?  I think R. C. Sproul was right when he defined it as “doing what is right in the sight of God.”[1]  It is doing what is right.  But that’s not all – it is doing what is right in the sight of God.  That is crucial.  John the Baptist’s parents are a good example of this: “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Lk. 1:6).  Where you get the standard for right and wrong really matters.  The world has its standard for what is right and wrong.  There are a bunch of spiritual and religious organizations and groups that have their standards for what is right and wrong.  But unless it is rooted in God’s word, unless that standard is set by God himself, then it is not really righteousness at all.  That is why when Paul commends the Scriptures to Timothy, he puts it like this: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  Where do get the instructions for righteousness?  In the word of God, the Scriptures.  And it is a complete instructional record; by reading and applying God’s word to our lives we become complete and thoroughly furnished unto all (not just some) good works.

But is this what Paul is referring to by the breastplate of righteousness?  Some think Paul is referring primarily to the righteousness of justification.  For example, Hodge argues that if this refers to our righteousness, this is a problem because “this is no protection.  It cannot resist the accusation of conscience, the whispers of despondency, the power of temptation, much less the severity of the law, or the assaults of Satan.”  Hodge considers the apostle to be referring solely to the righteousness of God which is imputed to us at the moment of faith.  So the question is, is Paul referring to our righteousness which we live out in our daily lives, or is Paul referring to God’s righteousness which he imputes to us through faith?

Personally, I don’t think we have to choose here, for the following reason: the righteousness of justification is the ground for the righteousness of sanctification, and when you have the former it inevitably produces the latter.  In other words, having a righteous standing before God is inseparable from living a righteous life before God.  A righteous status before God produces a righteous life before God.  It is true that we are not justified on account of our works – our personal righteousness is not what justifies us before God.  But it is also true that the justified man or woman will pursue personal holiness and righteousness in their lives.  As the Reformers put it: we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.  Justifying faith is not a dead faith, but a faith which produces good works.

If you have a hard time believing this, then listen to the logic of the apostle: “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.  For he that is dead is freed [justified] from sin” (Rom. 6:6-7).  The logic is this: it is inevitable (knowing this) that the Christian will not serve sin because (for) the Christian (he that is dead) has been justified from sin.  Justification leads to sanctification.  Thank God it is not the other way round.  But if you are consistently not living a sanctified life, that’s pretty good evidence that you have never truly been saved and justified to begin with.

Now it is true that if our justification – our acceptance before God – depended on our personal righteousness, we would all be doomed.  There would indeed be no place for hope or assurance.  However, if Paul is commending personal righteousness here in our text, this would not mean that he is implying that our righteousness is the basis of our justification.  Moreover, as we’ve been arguing, justification does not make sanctification irrelevant or unnecessary.  It is absolutely true that a Christian who is living an unholy life is exposed to the assaults of Satan in ways that a righteous man is not. 

Now I think the apostle is almost certainly referring to our personal righteousness here.  Yes, it does assume imputed righteousness.  But the exhortation here is to personal holiness and righteousness of life.  The reason I take this point of view is that when the apostle refers to the righteousness of justification, he generally refers to it as the righteousness of God (cf. Rom. 3:21-26; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9), to distinguish it from our own personal righteousness.  However, there is no such distinction here in our text: it is just “the breastplate of righteousness,” not the “breastplate of the righteousness of God.”  Clearly, Paul does not mean justification every time he uses the word righteousness, and so it cannot be assumed unless the context makes that clear.  Earlier in this epistle, “righteousness” does refer to our conduct and manner life; recall that in Eph. 4:24, the apostle wrote that we are to “put on [same word as in Eph. 6:14] the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (then see the following verses which flesh out how this is to look in the daily life!).  Then, in Eph. 5:8-9, we are reminded that we were at one time in darkness but now are to walk as children of the light, “for the fruit of the light is in all goodness and righteousness and truth.”  Again, this refers to righteous behavior not to a righteous status.

So God not only wants you to be justified and forgiven, he wants you to be sanctified and holy in your life.  That is what the apostle is calling us to in this verse, under the imagery of the breastplate.

The breastplate was very important for the soldier.  The breastplate consisted of metal armor that covered everything from the neck to the thighs, both front and back.  If you didn’t wear this into battle, you were severely exposed to the enemy.  It protected some of your most vital organs.  It was absolutely essential; you would not be able “to stand” without it.  For the Christian, righteousness is like that breastplate.  When we live in righteousness, we are ready to withstand in the evil day; without righteousness of heart and life, we are exposed.  Christian, God is calling you to be righteous.  He is not calling you to be nice.  He is not calling you to be “spiritual.”  He is calling you to put on the breastplate of righteousness.  It means living a life that is pleasing to God, whatever the world thinks about it.  It means following his word, even when the world tells you to do the very opposite.  It means selling out completely to the lordship of Jesus Christ over your life.  It means holiness in thought and word and deed.  It means living by the Book.

All this brings us to the following question: why should you be concerned with becoming more and more holy?  Some people have the idea that holiness is only for the super-spiritual, or super-saints.  There is even the idea that you can have too much holiness.  However, such attitudes are incompatible with the life to which we are called in Scripture.  If you want to be counted as a disciple of Jesus Christ; if you want to rightfully consider yourself “an heir of salvation and purchased of God,” then you must be holy.

Justification and the forgiveness of sin, as important as it is, is only a means to an end.  We are justified and forgiven so that we might enjoy fellowship with God and be conformed to the image of his Son.  But what does it mean to be conformed to the image of God’s Son?  Surely it mostly means being righteous as he is righteous: “If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him” (1 Jn. 2:29).  Justification makes sanctification possible, and sanctification is completed in glorification.  So we shouldn’t think that holiness and becoming righteous is only incidentally important for the people of God.  It is part and parcel of our future salvation.

But wanting heaven is not really a good reason to be holy.  All sorts of people drop out of the race for holiness who wanted heaven.  They wanted heaven but not its holiness and so they give into the pressures of this world to conform.  The real reason anyone perseveres in holiness is because they love God and his Son Jesus Christ.  They want heaven because they want God.  But if we want God we will be holy (cf. 1 Pet. 1:13-16).  Dying is gain because to live is Christ (Phil. 1:21).

So this message is for those who love God.  I want to give the one who loves God reasons he or she should pursue holiness and righteousness of life.  If you don’t love God, this message is not for you, because if you don’t love God you will never be holy.  After all, the first commandment is that we love the Lord our God with all our hearts and souls and minds.  If you don’t start there, you can’t even begin to be righteous in the sight of God.  Your heart needs to be changed first, so that you are no longer at enmity with God.  You need to be born again; you need to be regenerated by the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit.  You don’t need to be holy; you need life!

But if you are born again, if you do love God and his Son, then you should want to be holy.  The reason is very simply that God wants you to be holy.  Everything he has done and is doing is to make you holy.  Do you love God?  How could it be that God’s great desire for you could be at odds with your desires?  If we love God, we will love what he loves.  We will want to have communion and fellowship with him.  All this is impossible without holiness and righteousness of heart and life.  So let me show you that God the Trinity wants to make you holy and righteous and that this is his great design for your life.  If you really believe that, and if you love God, then you will want to join God in his radical pursuit for your holiness.

So first of all, know that God the Father’s purpose in election and predestination was to make you holy.  Remember what Paul said in chapter 1?  “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love” (1:4).  Note that holiness and love are not only not incompatible, they are actually inseparable.  If you love God, you will be holy.  “If you love me,” our Lord said, “keep my commandments.”  But here in Eph. 1:4, we have God’s great design and purpose in saving you.  It was to make you holy.  It was not merely to forgive your sins.  It was not merely to save you from hell.  It was not to take your problems in this life and make them go away.  Rather, it was to make you holy before him in love.  From all eternity he was planning this for you.  To not appreciate this, as if we were some kid getting socks for Christmas, is to show that we have no true understanding of what God is all about in the first place.

Second, the reason why Christ came to die and accomplish redemption was also so that you should be holy.  Of course we should expect this, because God the Son came to do God the Father’s will: “I came not to do mine own will, but the will of him who sent me” (Jn. 6:38).  And since God’s will was to make us holy, this must also be the purpose of Christ in dying for us: our Savior Jesus Christ “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people [a people for his own possession, ESV], zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:14).  Think about it: when Christ was hanging on the cross, bearing your sin and your punishment, he was doing that so that you might be purified, rescued from lawlessness and zealous for good works.  It was of course the most loving thing to do, for sin ruins us – not only in the future in the wrath to come, but also in the present.  So the apostle writes to the Galatians, that our Lord “gave himself for your sins, that he might deliver us from the present evil world” (Gal. 1:4) – not just deliver us from a future evil world (like hell) but from this present evil world.  One of the wonderful effects of the atonement is to rescue us from the clutches of sinful and God-denying choices and desires and to make us godly in this world.

Third, the design of the Holy Spirit in giving us spiritual life in the new birth is to make us righteous men and women.  Today, we think of “being born again” as a simple decision someone makes.  But the Bible makes it very clear that much more than that is going on when a person is born again.  It is not a simple act of the will, but a mighty working of the Holy Spirit in the human heart, giving us spiritual life and turning us from haters of God to lovers of God.  Jesus told Nicodemus, “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” (Jn. 3:7-8).   Earlier, John had written that those who believe on Christ are “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13).  It is a work of God in the heart, giving us new life (Eph. 2:1-10).

Those who are born again are “in the Spirit” and not “in the flesh.”  Paul explains the difference between these two states in Romans 8:5-9.  Those who are not born again, who are still in the flesh, mind and desire the things of the flesh (think Gal. 5:19-21), they are carnally minded, they are hostile to God and not subject to his law, and cannot please God.  On the other hand, those who are born again, who are in the Spirit, mind and desire the things of the Spirit (think Gal. 5:22-23), are spiritually minded, are subject to God’s law and want to live lives that are pleasing to him.  This is not just incidental to the working of the Spirit in the heart: it was God’s design all along.  For the prophet Ezekiel writes, “A new heart . . . and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh [not the same meaning as “flesh” in Romans 8, obviously].  And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments and do them” (Ezek. 36:26-27).

Fourth, it is God’s design in his word.  The Bible everywhere calls you to pursue holiness and righteousness of life.  “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).  “But thou, O man of God, flee these things, and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.  Fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:11-12).  In his next epistle to Timothy, Paul writes, “Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22).

This is true of every part of God’s word.  The history of Scripture gives us examples of what happens when we are not righteous (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11), and how God blesses the godly man and woman (think of Noah, Abraham, David, Daniel, etc., and Heb. 12:1).  The doctrine gives us the foundation and motivation for living godly lives.  The doctrine of Ephesians 1-3 makes the application in Ephesians 4-6 plausible.   Romans 1-11 precedes Roman 12-16.  And on and on.  The promises of God’s word are there to motivate us to holiness and righteousness.  “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).  It is no wonder then that the psalmist reasons, “How can a young man keep his way pure?  By guarding it according to your word” (Ps. 119:9).  It is simply impossible to truly value God’s word and then live by the devil’s advice.

Finally, it is God’s purpose in his providential leading in our lives.  God is not in heaven merely watching your life unfold.  No, he is working in you, with you, and all around you, so that “all things work together” for your good (Rom. 8:28).  The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, and he is no stranger to it.  He shepherds his sheep even now.  Christ is the good shepherd.  And so, when we stray, God is able to bring us back.  Often, he does this by disciplining us – and although such discipline can take a multitude of forms, its goal is always the same: to make us more holy.  This, for example, is the point of Heb. 12:5-11. 

So all that God is doing, from eternity past to eternity future, is to secure your holiness and righteousness.  If God is that intent upon it, surely you should be intent upon it as well.  If you love God you will love holiness and hate evil (cf. Ps. 97:10).  It is what he is: God is light and in him there is no darkness whatever (1 Jn. 1:5).  We kid ourselves if we walk in darkness and yet claim to have fellowship with him.  As the Puritan Gurnall put it, not everyone who hangs around the court speaks to the prince.  Not everyone who claims to be a Christian has real fellowship with God.  If you are for real though, if you are wearing the belt of truth, then you will know something about walking in the light.  You will not make it something you tack onto your main purpose in life; you will make it your main purpose in life.  Pursue righteousness – be holy as God is holy!


Monday, November 5, 2018

Ephesians 6:14 – The Primacy of Integrity

The Christian is in a battle.  The believer is engaged in spiritual hand-to-hand combat (Eph. 6:12), and our souls are at stake.  The devil wants to destroy your faith – and though it is not possible for the faith of the elect to be finally destroyed (1 Pet. 1:5), yet he can do great harm to the saints if they are not careful.  Peter denied Christ.  Let the one who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12).  We need to “take heed.”  Beware of presumption.  Beware of the attitude that you can get through life unscathed without any preparation for the battle that is waging all around you.

You might say that in verses 10-13, the apostle is reminding us of the battle, making us aware of the war we are waging, its intensity and its difficulty.  He is calling us to stand, to defend our ground, and to repel the attacks of the wicked one.  But you are not going to stand if you aren’t even aware of the battle, and so he calls this to our attention. 

But then you need to be prepared for the battle.  You need to go through basic training, so to speak.  You need to become familiar with the weapons with which you will fight the enemy, what they are and how to use them well.  That is what the apostle is doing in the verses before us; he is preparing us for the battle.  He is laying out in front of us the armor that we are called to put on, describing it for us and showing us in some sense how to use it in the battle.  In verses 14-17 we have Christian basic training.

As we begin to look at each piece of armor, we first of all need to remember that God is the one who has provided each piece of armor for us.  We may infer a couple of very important truths from this fact.  The first truth is that every piece of armor is important for that battle.  God is not going to send you into battle with a weapon or piece of armor unless you are absolutely going to need it.  Now I am told that some of our soldiers overseas are angry because it has been decreed that they wear certain pieces of body armor that they feel are not necessary; it only slows them down and in that sense makes them more vulnerable to the enemy.  But we should not ascribe such folly to God; he will not demand any piece of armor that is not absolutely necessary.  And therefore it is stupid for us to pick and choose what we want to go into battle with; if we want to be successful, we have to have on the “whole armor of God” (ver. 13), not just part of it.  Every verse here is important, every weapon and piece of armor is necessary.  We can’t just pick up the sword of the Spirit, we must also have the shield of faith.  We must have everything if we are going to withstand in the evil day.

And so to that end, I want to consider each weapon and piece of armor separately; to give each its own consideration.  I think that is important in order that we truly understand how all this works together to enable us to stand against the wiles of the devil.

There is another inference from the fact that God is the one who supplies the Christian’s arsenal.  It is the fact that we can be sure that what God supplies us, if used properly, will inevitably lead us to victory over the evil one.  It may be true that the devil is powerful and smart and cruel; but it is also true that God is sovereign even over the devil, and that he knows the devil better than he knows himself.  God knows your enemy, and therefore he knows exactly what you need to stand and overcome.  We would therefore be foolish not to take what our Lord gives us to defend ourselves and fight for him.

So this morning let us consider the first part of verse 14: “Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth,” or, as the ESV puts it, “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth.”  This is one of the first things a Roman soldier would have done; it was done before any other piece of armor went on.  He needed the belt to gather together his tunic beneath the armor.  The breastplate fastened to the belt, and it was also the place from which the soldier would hang his sword.  So the belt was not just something you put on for looks, it was foundational and essential for the entire panoply of armor the soldier wore into battle.

Paul uses the imagery of the belt for truth.  We are to put on truth like the soldier put on his belt.  But what does the apostle mean by this? 

Some say that the apostle is referring to the truth of the gospel.  Charles Hodge says that it means “truth subjectively considered; that is, the knowledge and belief of the truth.”  Now though I agree with Hodge that the belief of the truth is absolutely essential to our warfare, yet I don’t think that is what the apostle is referring to here.  I believe that Paul is referring to integrity, or truthfulness in the inward person.

There are a couple of reasons why I think this.  First, because Paul does refer explicitly to God’s word in verse 17, as the sword of the Spirit.  Certainly, this would involve the knowledge and belief of the truth as well as applying it to our lives in concrete and specific ways.  So it would seem strange that the apostle would repeat himself and refer to the same thing more or less under the imagery of different parts of the soldier’s panoply. 

The second reason why I don’t think he is referring to the truth of God’s word is also the reason why I think he is referring to integrity and sincerity.  The apostle, who was steeped in the OT, surely got many of his ideas straight from the prophets.  So, for example, the prophet Isaiah used the same type of imagery for God as a warrior for his people: “And he saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor: therefore his arm brought salvation unto him; and his righteousness, it sustained him.  For he put on righteousness as a breastplate, and an helmet of salvation upon his head; and he put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloke” (Isa. 59:16-17).  This is so close the apostle’s words in Eph. 6 that it is impossible to imagine that he was not thinking of Isaiah when he wrote them. 

Now it is true that Isaiah 59 does not refer to a belt of truth, but listen to what Isaiah said much earlier in his book (speaking of the Christ, 11:2): “Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins” (11:5).  Now it’s interesting that the Septuagint translates the word “faithfulness” with the same Greek word behind the word “truth” in Ephesians 6:14.  Since it’s widely agreed among scholars that the apostles were familiar with the LXX, it’s not hard to believe that Paul was probably thinking of Isa. 11:5 when he wrote Eph. 6:14.  In that case, he is not thinking of truth as something you believe but truth as something you are.  God is true in Isa. 11:5 in the sense of faithfulness; that is, he is true to his word.  He does not say one thing and then do another.  It describes who he is.  So in this verse in Ephesians 6, Paul is calling us to be men and women of integrity, who are what they say they are. 

Of course, the basic definition of truth is that which corresponds to reality.  In Phil. 1:18, Paul contrasts “truth” with “pretense.”  To put on the belt of truth then means that you are for real, that you are not pretending, that your profession matches your intention, that you are not something other than what you profess to be.  It means you are sincere.  And in this context, it means being true to Christ as our Captain and Lord.  One of the complaints Hodge made against seeing this in terms of integrity is that this would make it “a natural virtue, and does not belong to the armour of God.”  But this argument loses its force when we recognize that it is not just integrity in general that is called for, but integrity in the sense of our commitment to Jesus Christ. 

In other words, as we put on this armor and gird ourselves for war, we are claiming to belong to Jesus Christ.  To put on the belt of truth means that we are in truth what we say we are.  We do not put on the armor of God and then fight for the devil. 

One of the things I enjoy about our university commencements is being able to observe the commissioning of men and women into the army as newly minted second lieutenants.  As part of the commissioning ceremony, they raise their right hands and repeat an oath.  In that oath, they promise to support and defend the Constitution and that they “will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;” furthermore, that they “take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.”  In some sense, that is what the apostle is calling us to do here.  By putting on the belt of truth, we are promising to wear the uniform of Christ “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion” and that we “will bear true faith and allegiance” to Christ.  Do you?

In order to answer the previous question, we need to ask and answer another question: how do we live out a life of integrity in the service of Christ?  What is involved?  Well, I think at least three things are involved.

First, it’s a matter of counting the cost.  If we are going to wear truth like a belt, if we are going to be men and women of integrity, we are going to have to count the cost of following Christ.  We are going to have to consider what’s involved in serving him in this world. 

It’s the easiest thing in the world (at least, in the West) to call yourself a Christian.  Anyone can do that.  But that does not mean you are a Christian.  Just putting on the uniform doesn’t make you a soldier, you have to be willing to follow your Lord into battle.  Even so, there are lots of people who call themselves Christian but they don’t really understand what it means to be a Christian; they haven’t counted the cost. As a result, they are not what they claim to be; they are not true to Christ. 

To put on the belt of truth, you need to understand everything that’s involved in following Christ.  It’s not just a matter of saying a prayer and getting baptized and then everything’s fine.  We need to understand that there is a cost to following Christ, and unless you are willing to endure the cost, you cannot be a Christian.  Isn’t this what our Lord himself said?  “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.  And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:26-27).  In that same text, our Lord goes on to illustrate his meaning with two stories, one about a man who wants to build a tower, and another about a king who wants to make war with another king.  The point of both stories is that you have to sit down and figure out whether or not you have the will and resources to complete the task.  The reason why so many people who start out as Christians, but who end up jettisoning their faith, is because they never really understood all that would be involved.  They liked the heaven part and the forgiveness part, but they don’t like the self-denial part, and the humility part, and the repentance part, and the persecution part.

From time to time we are reminded how painful the cost can be.  This weekend, seven Coptic Christians were killed when their buses were fired upon by Islamic militants.  And this is just one story out of many these Christians could tell.  They live in a country where they are routinely discriminated against, where their children and wives are kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam, and this has been their reality for over a thousand years.  Or I think of the husband and father who was serving Christ as a missionary in Cameroon who was shot in the head this week and killed.  I think of his family, and am reminded that we live in a world where it is often not only not easy to be a Christian but very painful to be a Christian.  Are you willing to pay the price and bear the cross?

In the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses is giving instructions to the Israelites on how they are to go into battle, he gives the following interesting directive: “And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say, What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted?  Let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren’s heart faint as well as his heart” (Deut. 20:8).  In other words, the Lord didn’t want men on the battle line who were afraid because fear and panic spread like a disease and can instantly cripple an army.  Instead, he wanted men who were fully aware of the danger they faced and were willing to face it.  He wanted men who were true.  It wasn’t enough to be on the battle line.  You had to be willing to embrace the battle and all the hardship that went along with it.  That’s putting on the belt of truth.  You’ve counted the cost; you know what it means to follow Christ, and you willingly embrace it with all your heart.  Do you?

Second, it’s a matter of guarding the heart.  To be true to Christ, we have to be the same inside as well as outside.  It was the damning sin of the Pharisees that they were “like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”  Our Lord went on to say, “Even so, ye also outwardly appear righteous unto me, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Mt. 23:28-28).  King David contrasts with the Pharisees because, even though he sinned greatly, when he repented, he repented thoroughly.  You can see it in his prayer of repentance to God in Psalm 51, when he prays, “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom” (Ps. 51:6).  Therefore, he goes on to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (ver. 10).  Truth in the inward parts –that is what God desires. 

If we fall and fail to stand, almost certainly the reason behind the fall is to be looked for in the heart.  Someone who falls into open sin probably began to nourish that sin secretly in the heart a long time beforehand.  That’s why the Scripture tells us to “keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues [springs, ESV] of life” (Prov. 4:23).  Your heart is the battleground and the battle will be won or lost there.

Therefore, to be a soldier of the Lord is more a matter of being than of doing.  God commended the church of Ephesus for doing a lot of things, but then went on to rebuke them because they had lost their first love (Rev. 2:1-7).  They evidently had forgotten to be Christian because they were so busy doing Christian things.  People can do all sort of things for God when their hearts are far from him.  But such service is worse than useless.  The warfare that we are waging, remember, is mainly spiritual and therefore must be fought on a spiritual basis.  As Paul puts it to the Corinthians, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5).  It’s a matter primarily of taking our thoughts captive for Christ.

Another way to put this is to ask the question: where is our ultimate loyalty?  When it comes down to it, who will you follow?  If you desire something very strongly but know it is not God’s will, are you going to do it anyway?  Or are you willing to crucify your sinful affections for the sake of Christ?  Our whole culture teaches that you should be true to yourself, and that means you should follow your every desire and whim.  Christ teaches us to be true to him.  Who will win?  Are you willing to order your affections so that Christ and his will and word are preeminent?  That is what it means to put on the belt of truth.

Third, it’s a matter of keeping our word.  What I mean by this is that we follow through with our commitments to Christ.  King David put it this way in his fifteen Psalm: he describes those who will abide in God’s tabernacle and dwell in his holy hill; in other words, he describes those who have fellowship with God.  He designates the godly man as “he who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart . . . who swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Ps. 15:2, 4).  Here is a man who has made a commitment to the Lord; it will cost him something, but he follows through.  That man is true.

It’s not enough to make great professions of faith and commitment to Christ.  The godly man or woman, the man or woman who is true, will do what they say they will do for the Lord.  Their life is not one of unfulfilled wishes for the Lord, but one in which they put into practice what they know to be true and profess to be true.  They know prayer is important, so they pray.  They don’t merely say that prayer is important, they don’t just praise prayer, they pray!  The same with the Scriptures.  They don’t just acknowledge that the knowledge of the Bible is important, but they read and memorize and meditate upon the Word of God. 

Do you follow through?  Or is your life one of fits and starts?  Look, God does not want sprinters; he want marathon runners.  He wants men and women who are committed, who take the truth of God’s word and make it a part of their life.  He wants men and women who don’t just say and not do, but who do what they say is true.

Now we must ask the final question: why should we do this?  Why put on the belt of truth?  After all, to some this might seem more trouble than what it’s worth!  So let me end by giving you three reasons why it is worth your while to fight in God’s army and to strap on this belt of truth.

Reason 1: God is God, and you are not.  He ought to be and is worthy to be obeyed and worshipped and served.  He deserves your total commitment. 

Reason 2: God is true.  He is faithful to his word to us.  He can be trusted.  He never lets them down who put their trust in him (Rom. 10:11).  Those who trust in him will never be ashamed.  How can we not be true to him when he is unswervingly faithful and true to us?  In contrast, the devil is a liar and the father of lies.  For us to hold back anything from God is to give it to the devil.  How could that be worth it when the devil only wants to bring your harm?  When Satan comes, then comes the evil day (Eph. 6:13). 

Reason 3: God is good.  He sent his Son to die for the sins of those who put their trust in him, and to give them an entrance into everlasting glory and joy.  Whatever sufferings we are called upon to endure in this world, we can be sure that they are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18).  When Christ rose from the dead, he broke the power of sin and death for his elect.  When God is so good to us, how could we not give everything to him?  We have every reason to be true, to be men and women of integrity, to be fully committed to him who is fully committed to us in Christ.

So let us strap on the belt of truth.  Let us be faithful to Christ, let us be true to him.  Let us go forth into battle without any reservation of heart and soul; indeed, “let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach.  For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.  By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name” (Heb. 13:13-15).

Why you should love (the doctrine of) the Trinity – Matthew 3:13-17

Christianity is what is called a monotheistic religion.   That is, we believe in one God, as opposed to many gods, which is polytheism....