Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Helmet of Salvation – Eph. 6:17

So far the apostle has exhorted his readers to put on and take up the following items: the belt of integrity, the breastplate of righteousness, the boots of gospel peace which make us firm-footed in battle, and the shield of faith.  What else does a soldier need in combat?  Well, any solider would be incomplete without a helmet.  So the apostle goes on to say that the soldier of Christ is to take the helmet of salvation. 

Now, each of these items in the panoply of spiritual warfare stand for spiritual realities that are to characterize the believer in Christ.  The belt stands for the integrity of the Christian, the breastplate for his righteousness, and so on.  Here, in verse 17, the helmet stands for the salvation that we have in Christ.

There are a couple of questions we should ask of this text.  First, what exactly is the apostle referring to by “salvation”?  This might seem like an obvious question, but it does bear some reflection.  In the Bible, salvation has past, present, and future aspects.  The question then is to which of these aspects is the apostle referring.

Thus, when the apostle tells us that we are not saved by “works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit. 3:5), he is referring to that aspect of our salvation that is past.  There is a sense in which every Christian can say he or she is already saved.  We are saved in the sense that “there is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).  Forgiveness of sins is not something we have to wait for, but something which is granted immediately to everyone who believes in Christ as Lord and Savior.  We are “now justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:9).  Moreover, a new nature and new life is something which is already ours in Christ.

But there is also a present, ongoing aspect to salvation.  Salvation is not yet complete, and we have not only been saved, but we are also being saved.  This is how we are to understand a number of passages, such as Phil. 2:12, where the apostle tells us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.  In that verse, salvation is seen as a work in progress, something that is ongoing.  It is connected to past salvation in the sense that the beginnings of this ongoing work of salvation started when we first came to faith in Christ.  Paul also refers to this in Phil. 3, when, referring to himself, he says that he is not yet perfect, he has not yet attained to the resurrection of the dead (see verses 11-14).  No one can say that he or she is yet perfect.  We still sin while we are in these mortal bodies, and so we are always in need of sanctification.

But thank God, that is not all there is to it.  There is yet a future aspect of salvation, something which we all await.  In some sense, salvation will not be fully perfected until the Second Coming of our Lord, when he will raise the dead and judge all the nations.  So, for example, the apostle Peter writes that we are “kept by the power of God unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:5).  This is what the apostle is referring to in Rom. 13:11 when he says that “now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.”  When we look all around us, and we see the church divided and confused, sin abounding, and problems in every corner of our experience, we can be thankful that God has not finished the story of salvation.  The end of all this misery we live in will coincide with the beginning of an eternal rest of righteousness and peace.  It is only then that we will be finally and fully saved.  In the book of Revelation, it is when the enemy of God’s people, represented by Babylon, is overthrown, and God’s people finally delivered, that we read of a great multitude in heaven crying out, “Salvation, and glory, and honor, and power, unto the Lord our God” (Rev. 19:1). 

Again, the question is: to which aspect of salvation is the apostle here referring?  Well, since he doesn’t specify, I think it is best to take salvation here as referring to all aspects of it, past, present, and future.  A further reason for this is that you cannot take any of these in isolation.  What I mean is that if you have been truly saved by a work of the Spirit of God in your heart, then there will be an ongoing, present experience of that salvation in your life, and it will inevitably be consummated in the age to come.  There is no such thing as a saved person living with impunity in sin.  There is no such thing as a truly saved person living without the fruit of faith in their life.  And there is no such thing as a truly saved person who dies and goes to hell in the end.  All who belong to Christ will be fully and finally saved.  If you have been regenerated, you are being sanctified, and if you are being sanctified, you will persevere in holiness and be finally glorified.

These are important distinctions because there are all sorts of heresies that emerge from seeking to separate some aspect of salvation from the rest.  For example, those who want to separate past salvation from its present effects in the heart and life end up advocating for a form of easy-believism that discourages people from getting serious about the sin in their lives.  There are still folks around who claim that you can have Christ as your personal Savior, and yet reject him as your Lord.  There are others who claim you can be born again and yet bear no fruit in the life that might bear up such a claim.  Do you know what the Bible calls this kind of faith?  It calls it a dead faith, the faith of devils, a useless faith (see James 2).  True faith in Christ is a faith that works.  True faith overcomes the world; it doesn’t give in to it or imitate it (1 Jn. 5:4). 

Now it’s absolutely true that a believer can fall into sin, serious sin, and sometimes for long periods of time.  No one is immune.  If that were true, Paul would not have had to write what he is writing to the Ephesians here in chapter 6.  Let the one who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12).  Sin can come into our lives with serious and devastating effects, damaging our witness, destroying our relationships, and ending our ministries. 

However, I don’t think a true believer, someone who has been truly born again, will live their whole life in sin, bereft of the fruit of faith and holiness.  There are two reasons I believe this.  First, I believe it because the author of Hebrews notes that God knows how to discipline his children when they sin so that they bear the “peaceable fruit of holiness” (Heb. 12:11).  In other words, when a child of God sins, God disciplines them so that they will stop sinning and start obeying.  That is the clear implication of Hebrews 12.  The other reason I believe this is the fact that the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart is more powerful than the power of sin.  This is why the apostle John writes: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 Jn. 3:9, ESV).  Note the universality of that statement: “no one.  Note the power of the new birth: “he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.”  It doesn’t say he will not sin at all, but that he won’t keep on sinning – the work of God’s Spirit has more staying power than the power of sin, thank God!

Our Lord said it like this: “Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.  A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.  Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.  Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Mt. 7:17-20).

Another false idea that has been bounced around in the church through the centuries is this idea that you can be truly born again and yet finally lost.  I appreciate the fact that those who advocate this can point to many passages that warn Christians of falling under God’s judgment in the age to come.  One thinks of the passages in Hebrews, for example.  However, the problem with this view is that it again separates what God has joined together: salvation is a unity and should not be torn into the disparate pieces. 

How then are the warnings of Scripture to be explained?  Well, those who think a true Christian can lose their faith and end up lost forever don’t distinguish between saving faith and false faith.  But we have to make that distinction.  It is a Biblical one.  It’s what the apostle James is getting at when he talks about dead faith.  He is obviously not talking about someone who doesn’t “believe” anymore; rather, he is talking about a person whose faith doesn’t do anything, doesn’t produce fruits of holiness in the life.  It’s like the faith of devils: they certainly believe in God and Christ, have correct theology and so on, but they are damned.  That’s what we mean by false faith.  Someone can have this and really think they are a Christian and going to heaven, but they are without the kind of faith that saves.  It is to these that the Biblical warnings are aimed.

On the other hand, those who are truly saved, who have saving faith, are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”  Our Lord tells us, “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.  And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:39-40).  He goes on to say, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:44).  Again, hear the note of certainty in these verses: “I will raise him up at the last day.”  It’s not, “I hope to raise him up,” but “I will raise him up.”  Those who have been drawn effectually by the Father to faith in the Son will be finally saved.  That’s what our Lord himself said.  This is backed up by numerous other passages, such as Jn. 10:27-29 and Romans 8:37-39.  The elect will be finally saved.

Now this is different from those who say, “Once saved, always saved,” but who really mean, “Once made a profession of faith in Jesus, necessarily saved in the end.”  That is not what we are saying.  Again, we cannot separate the work of Christ in the heart from the life of the Christian.  This is why older theologians preferred to say, the perseverance of the saints.  Yes, the saints must persevere in faith and holiness in order to be saved (cf. Mt. 24:13).  But the point here is that they will, and that this certainty does not ultimately depend upon our own fickle wills but upon the power and promises of God our Savior.

“But,” you might say, “What difference does this all make?  These just seem like theological niceties, clever distinctions, and so on, but I don’t see how they can make me a better person or prepare me for spiritual battle.”  Well, that’s really our second question that we need to ask of the text.  The first was: What is this salvation of which the apostle speaks?  The second is: How do we appropriate salvation for spiritual battle and put it on like a soldier wears his helmet for combat?

It means that above all, we need to understand what we have in Christ; we need to understand our riches in Christ.  This is very important.  You need to understand your resources.  You need to know that you can meet the enemy and defeat him.  And that’s where salvation comes in.  Charles Hodge wrote in his commentary on this passage, “That which adorns and protects the Christian, which enables him to hold up his head with confidence and joy, is the fact that he is saved.”  We put on salvation like a helmet by understanding what it means to be saved in the first place.  It is because we are saved that we can meet the devil and his legions to begin with.  It is our salvation that has armed us, so to speak.  We need to know what weapons we have as saved people. 

The problem is that we can get discouraged in the battle, and begin to think we have far fewer resources at our disposal than we really do.  You can begin to get the Elijah syndrome.  That is, you can become paralyzed by the feeling that you are all alone in the battle and that you are having to do this completely in the power of your own strength and in the light of your own understanding.  And when you have made a few mistakes and when you come up short a few times, it’s easy to descend into this mindset.  And you become weary in the battle and you begin to think about giving up.  It’s a bad place to be: it’s incapacitating, debilitating, and paralyzing spiritually.

How do we get out of there?   First of all, you need to understand and really believe that when God saved you, he equipped you with everything you need to defeat the enemy.  That begins with his work in your heart.  It’s easy to look at our hearts and see them as the playgrounds of Satan and to forget that “greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4).  You are never alone, nor are you ever out-gunned, because there is never a day that the Lord is not working in you and through you.  It is true that you may be small and insignificant, that your talents may be small, and your reach limited.  But know that if our Lord could take a few fish and loaves of bread from the hands of a boy and feed five thousand people with it, he can bless you no matter how small you are. 

In this connection, the apostle Paul wrote, “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 of escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13).  God will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, and the reason for this is that he is there empowering you and equipping you.  How are we strengthened?  We are strengthened by the power of God (Eph. 3:16).  We are kept by the power of God (1 Pet. 1:5).  It was the power of God that saved you in the first place (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 2:5) and it is the power of God that keeps you there.  The apostle himself confessed that though he and his fellow workers were “weak” yet they were able to “live with [Christ] by the power of God” (2 Cor. 13:4).  Paul prayed for the Thessalonians that God “would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power” (2 Thess. 1:11).  God does not give us the spirit of fear, but of power (1 Tim. 1:7).

Of course, God’s power does not look like the power of the world.  It is a power in smallness, strength in weakness, just like the Lord.  Nevertheless, it is the power of God, a power that will overcome all that opposes it in the end.

Then we need to remember that God never gives up on his children.  We are surrounded every day by false promises and false people.  Our world is full of false hopes.  At the beginning of WW2, our troops in the Philippines really believed that their government would rescue them.  Nevertheless, they were left at the mercy of the enemy – not because their government wanted to leave them there, but because at the time it just couldn’t intervene.  But God never gives up on us; he never leaves us or forsakes us.  This is why the apostle was able to write that he was “confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until [bring it to completion at, ESV] the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).  God did not start a work of grace in your heart only to let it rot and go to waste.  It took to blood of his Son to begin that work, and you can be sure that he will not despise the value of his blood.

In the same way, the psalmist was able to pray, “The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O LORD, endureth forever: forsake not the works of thine own hands” (Ps. 138:8).  Note the confidence with which the verse begins: the Lord will perfect, or fulfill, his purpose for us (cf. ESV).  The reason why we can be sure of this is because his mercy and steadfast love endure forever, are never failing.  And thus the prayer, which does not arise out of doubt, but out of hope: “Forsake not the works of thine own hands.”

Thus, fundamentally, I see in this verse a call to hope.  This is a call to hope in the sure fulfillment and completion of that salvation which God has already begun in us.  Heaven is in the heart of every believer.  This becomes especially clear when we compare our text with a similar text in 1 Thess. 5:8, where the apostle writes, “But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.”  Here the apostle makes it explicit: that which is our helmet is the hope of salvation.  Thus, the primary focus of the Christian is on what God has promised us in the future.  Though we are not to forget the realities that are already true in us, we are to be constantly looking forward to the fulfillment of salvation in the age to come.

We can focus on the blessings of the age to come because we can be sure of the blessings of the age to come.  All the pain we endure in this age is temporary at best.  The blessings of the age to come are eternal.  We are not “saved” in this world in the ultimate sense of what it means to be saved.  Our salvation is closer than when we first believed, but we have not embraced it yet.  Our full salvation is yet future.  So don’t put your hopes on this world and this age.  God does not intend for you to.  To do so is to sabotage your hope.  That does not mean he will leave you alone in this age.  It does not mean he will forsake you.  It does not mean that there is one moment when his grace is withdrawn from you.  But it does mean that the fullness of the blessings of our salvation are yet to come.  And by God’s strength and power we can endure to the end because it is worth it.

This is the point of Hebrews 10.  The audience of that letter was on the verge of quitting.  So the author reminds them of the hope of salvation: “But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions; partly, whilst ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, whilst ye became companions of them that were so used.  For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.  Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward” (Heb. 10:32-35).  How do you endure the hard things?  How do you stay strong in battle?  By not casting away your hope, the hope of our final salvation – that we have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.  Put on the helmet of salvation!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Shield of Faith – Eph. 6:16

If you were a soldier in the first century, you would be subject to flaming arrows raining down from above.  Like the initial bombardment in modern warfare, arrows were used as a way to prepare the way for the following frontal assault by the infantry.  And as suggested in our text, often these arrows would be dosed in a flammable substance, set on fire, and then shot with the potential of not only piercing an enemy soldier but also setting him on fire.  It was a ghastly business.

What then did a soldier need to defend himself against these flaming arrows?  He needed a shield.  And the bigger the better: the shield the apostle refers to here was almost as big as a door – four feet long and two and a half feet wide.  It consisted of two pieces of wood glued together and covered in hide.  The edges would be secured by a metal frame.  Sometimes before battle, soldiers would dip their shields in water for the specific purpose of reducing the effectiveness of an incendiary missile.  It was the perfect cover.

Just so, the apostle tells us that we too are exposed to our enemy’s fiery darts.  The enemy, remember, is Satan and his demonic hosts.  They are the ones firing these arrows at you.  The phrase “the wicked” in our text (KJV) should be translated “the wicked one,” and is a reference, not to people and certainly not to wickedness in the abstract, but to an evil, personal agency that desires nothing less than the ruin of every follower of Christ.  And his assault are every bit as fearful and deadly as a flaming arrow would have been to an exposed soldier in first century combat.

However, God has provided us with a shield.  I am so thankful that the Lord knows exactly what we need to withstand our spiritual enemy’s attacks in the evil day.  This shield is exactly what we need  You are to take it up.  It is not enough to have on the belt of truth, wear the breastplate of righteousness, and put on the shoes of gospel peace.  We are to put on the “whole armor of God” (13); we cannot decide which pieces we want to put on.  Unless we put on the whole armor of God we will be exposed.  This is why the apostle opens this verse with the words, “In addition to all these, take the shield of faith.”  The KJV, which reads, “above all,” is probably misreading what the apostle intended to say here.  It is of course true that faith is very important, perhaps even supremely important.  But the idea the apostle is seeking to get across here is that you must not stop with the aforementioned combat gear.  You must go on to take up the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.  You must have everything God has provided if you expect to stand in victory over your foe.  God has not given you extraneous pieces of equipment; he has given you exactly precisely what you need to withstand your enemy. 

But what are these flaming arrows?  What form do they take in the experience of the Christian?  Well, they can take many forms.  First of all, they can come in the form of attacks directly upon the mind and soul of the Christian.  Throughout history, believers have testified to the reality that the devil has suggested thoughts to their minds, blasphemous thoughts, evil thoughts, that cannot be explained only in terms of the mental processes of their minds.  It has come from without, but it has come in the form of a thought.  If you don’t think the devil can operate here, think again.  One of the clearest examples of this comes to us in the betrayal of our Lord by Judas Iscariot, and in John 13 we read this: “And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him” (2).  Here you have the devil putting a thought into the mind of Judas so powerfully that he acted upon it.  Now that does not leave Judas guiltless; he acted upon the thought.  But it was the devil who put it there to begin with.  Even so, the devil can suggest things directly to our minds; we don’t know where they came from, and suddenly we are dealing with fear or lust or shame or some blasphemous thought.  Perhaps more often than not, it is the devil who put those thoughts or feelings there.  It is an assault.  He is launching his flaming arrows at you.

Now some might think that Judas is an exception, since after all he was the son of perdition.  Maybe this can’t happen to true believers?  Think again!  Do you remember what happened to the apostle Peter right after his wonderful confession in Matthew 16?  Just a few short moments after he said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16), Peter rebuked our Lord when he warned them of his upcoming death.  To which our Lord responded: “But he [Jesus] turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense to me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (23).  What’s amazing about this passage is that our Lord addresses Peter and Satan at the same time.  Why?  Well, it seems to me that he did so because Peter was acting upon an impulse that was put there by Satan.  Again, this does not leave Peter unaccountable, but it does show that even true believers can act upon things suggested to them in their minds and hearts by the devil himself.  We are not immune from his attacks upon the mind.  This, after all, is spiritual warfare.

I think it is important to recognize our vulnerability in this area, because if we don’t, we are not likely to be as vigilant over our own hearts and minds.  That doesn’t mean that evil thoughts don’t originate in our hearts, or that every time an evil suggestion arises in our minds it comes from Satan.  But it does mean that he operates here, in the mind, and can attack us in our thoughts.  If we are aware of this, we are probably going to be more observant about what is going on in our hearts, guarding our hearts not only from the wickedness that is within, but also from the wicked one who is without and wanting in.  Christ knocks on the door, but so does Satan.  We want to let our Lord in; we want to keep Satan out.

But there are other ways.  The devil can get at us through outward afflictions as well.  He can attack us at the point of our health, at the point of our finances, or almost any other area where he thinks we might be vulnerable spiritually.  The devil knows that the soul and the body go together and that if you attack the one you effect the other.  I think of the woman our Lord healed in Luke 13, “a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years” (16).  Job is the clearest example of this.  Satan wanted to get Job to curse God, and the way he tried to get him to do this was to take away first his possessions, then his children, and finally his health.  Job never actually cursed God, but he came pretty close a few times!  In our day, we often never think of ascribing the work of Satan to a catastrophe that has interrupted our lives.  But if you are a believer, you should recognize that this is precisely the thing Satan does to get you to curse God and leave the faith.  All too often, we see tragically that this is exactly what happens.

And then if the devil can’t get at the saints through these avenues, he is not below stooping to persecution.  This is what the apostle Peter was getting at when he wrote, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).  Now, there is a broad application of this text to all the devil’s works against the saints.  But in the context, Peter is talking about persecution: “Whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren in the world.  But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered awhile, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you” (9-10).  The devil is behind every martyr’s death that has ever taken place, he is behind the imprisonment of every Christian, and he is behind the belittling and mocking of every follower of Christ.

It is true that people can hurt us, and hurt us badly; but we must never forget that behind the people hurting us – often not knowing what they are doing – is the devil, who does understand what he is doing.  It’s the reason our Lord called the Pharisees sons of the devil (Jn. 8:44).  It’s why the apostle John calls Cain, who slew his righteous brother, the son “of that wicked one” (1 Jn. 3:12). 

But the goal in every case is the same: to drive you away from Christ and to undermine your faith.  When Paul was writing his second letter to the Corinthians, he wrote about his concern about the false teachers which had infiltrated into the church: “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3).  To Peter our Lord gave a warning and an encouragement, both of which point to the goal of Satan to topple your faith: “Simon, Simon, Satan hath desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Lk. 22:31-32). 

I think it’s important to have this perspective, because sometimes we look at the bad things in our lives and think of them almost as flaming arrows from God’s bow, as if God himself were the one shooting these painful missiles into our lives.  Now God certainly allows it.  And God certainly has a good purpose for allowing these things to happen.  Nothing happens to us that God has not already planned for.  We need to remember that.  But we must not think that God willingly afflicts us.  The devil does, however. We must not think that God is malicious, that he enjoys inflicting pain upon his people.  The devil does, however.  The bottom line is we must remember the reality of the devil when painful things happen to us, and that though the devil delights in bringing us harm, God does not, and permits it only because he is bringing something much better out of it that otherwise would not have happened.  In other words, if you are going to get angry, get angry at the devil, not at God.  The devil means it for evil, but God means it for good. 

Now why does God allow this?  What is the purpose of this?  We can’t say exactly what his specific purpose is in every case, but we can say that in light of Romans 8:28, God allows us to be attacked by Satan in order to bring us ultimate and everlasting good.  The sufferings of this present time are producing for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (Rom. 8:17; 2 Cor. 4:17).  It is the grace of God that the sufferings are only “for a moment,” but the weight of glory is “eternal.”  But it is also the grace of God that allows us to endure these sufferings so that we will also experience the weight of glory.  In other words, the Bible teaches that there are aspects of glory that we would never be able to experience in the age to come apart from the sufferings of this present age.  It’s why our Lord said about those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness: “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven” (Mt. 5:12).  That doesn’t make any sense unless the reward is somehow tied to the suffering.

But we don’t want to fall to the assaults of Satan.  The question then is, how do we wield the shield of faith?  It’s interesting that the purpose of the flaming darts of Satan is to destroy our faith – but our faith is the very thing that quenches the fiery darts of the wicked one!  How does it do this?

Well, first of all, we need to see clearly what the object of faith is.  As Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out in his sermon on this text, the cults will tell you to have faith in your faith, but this is not what Paul is exhorting us to do here.  What this really means is that they want you to work up to a feeling that something good is going to happen for you, whether it is healing or a new job or a new relationship.  It is blind faith in the ultimate sense, because there is no object for faith – it has been reduced to a psychological state of the mind.  But again, that is not what the apostle is telling us to do here – he is not saying that you are to have some unfounded confidence that everything is going to turn out for your best.

Nor is he saying that you should have faith in yourself.  That is the big lie our culture advocates these days.  “Have faith in yourself,” they say.  “You can do anything if you put your mind to it,” another blatantly false idea.  In any case, when confronted with a supernatural foe the last thing you should be thinking is how ready you are to meet Satan on your own.  The fact of the matter is that whoever you are or whatever you have experienced, you are no match for Satan.  He is in a different league altogether.  Putting you up against Satan is like putting a tee-ball kid in front of Nolan Ryan.  He’s going to smoke you every time.

The object of faith is not yourself nor a feeling; it is Jesus Christ.  True, biblical faith looks away from itself to Christ; away from our weakness and inadequacy to his strength and faithfulness.  And it is only when we recognize our need of him that he comes to deliver us from our enemy.  This is what our Lord was getting at when he told his disciples, “Abide in me, and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.  I am the vine, ye are the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (Jn. 15:4-5). 

This does not mean, of course, that we are to “let go and let God.”  But it does mean that our every effort in the struggle for righteousness is to be effected in the conscious dependence upon our Lord and his grace.  It is living out Philippians 2:12-13 and 1 Corinthians 15:10. 

It is living upon the one who has already defeated the devil.  When our Lord was confronted and tempted by the devil in the wilderness, our Lord stood fast and did not give in.  He chased away the tempter.  And ultimately, our Lord defeated Satan at the cross.  It is because of what our Lord did on the cross, that he foresaw Satan falling as lightening from heaven (Lk. 10:18).  What the seventy experienced, we can experience in measure: “Lord, even the devils are subject to us through thy name” (17).  I think of the demoniac, who was known by the name Legion, because there were so many demons residing in him.  But it took only one word from our Lord and they left and he was made whole (cf. Mk. 5:1-20).

When we trust in God, in our Lord, it is not so much that faith is our shield as it is the God who is the object of our faith.  This is a common theme in the OT.  Do you remember what God said to Abraham?  There he was, probably discouraged from the lack of a son and seeing no earthly way God’s promise was ever going to be fulfilled.  Then God comes to him and says, “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward” (Gen. 15:1).  We do not have to ultimately worry about what the devil is trying to do to us, what arrows he lets fly at us, because we have the God of the universe as our shield.  Nothing can get through him!  Truly, as the Proverbs put it, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe” (18:10).  Or, as the Psalm expresses it, “For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.  O LORD of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee” (Ps. 84:11-12).

The apostle John understood this well.  In his epistle, we read: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.  Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn. 5:4-5).  The people who overcome the world and the ruler of the world, are not those who possess a lot of self-confidence.  The ones who overcome are those whose confidence rests in the Son of God who never fails those who put their trust in him.  The protection faith in Christ affords is complete.  It quenches all the fiery darts of the wicked one.  Not some of them, not most of them, but all of them. 

Why does God tie the victory to faith?  Certainly not because faith has any magical powers latent in itself.  Faith is not some potion you throw at the devil.  Nor is it because faith makes us worthy of God’s intervention.  No – rather, faith is the victory because by faith we consciously look away from ourselves and towards the grace and power and sufficiency of God.  It is by faith that God is consciously glorified as the one who is our deliverer.  He could do it without faith.  He could save us without us ever knowing.  But God wants us to experience the joy and delight of resting in him.  He wants us to know him and to know him is eternal life and joy; but the only way we can know him is by faith, by looking away from ourselves and our idols and to him and him alone.

I used to think that God made me to be somebody.  But the older I get, the more I realize that God didn’t make me to be somebody but to know Somebody – himself, the God of the universe, through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  And that’s why he created you: to know him and to know him not only as your creator, but as your Savior, as your provider, as your deliverer, as your delight.  Resting in him, we find him to be a perfect shield, and find complete protection from all the darts and missiles of the evil one.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

War by means of Peace – Eph. 6:15

It at first might seem strange that the apostle puts the gospel of peace as part of the Christian warrior’s armament.  But this is what he does.  He exhorts the Ephesian believers to stand and wage war against our spiritual foes by the gospel of peace.  The KJV translates the verse this way: “and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace,” which is a very literal translation.  The ESV puts it this way: “and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.”

The reason why the mention of peace in this context might seem strange to us is because there are two different types of peace, one of which is in fact antithetical to waging war.  This would be external peace, peace in our circumstances, a cessation of hostilities between warring parties.  But there is no peace for the Christian in that sense.  There will never be a day when we will not have to fight our enemy, the Devil.  There will never be a day when we will not have to resist the world and the flesh.  As the hymn puts it: “Ne’er think the victory won,/ Nor lay thine armor down;/ The work of faith will not be done,/ Till thou obtain the crown.// Fight on my soul, till death/ Shall bring thee to thy God;/ He’ll take thee, at thy parting breath,/ To his divine abode.”[1]

Nor does the gospel give that kind of peace.  Our Lord himself cautioned us once and for all against falling into that frame of mind: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt. 10:34).  Following Christ does not mean we will have peace in this world. 

But there is another type of peace that is completely consonant with the outward confusion and clamor that comes with the din of war.  It is inner peace, and this is the peace that our Lord gives, that the gospel gives: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33).  Here you have two promises: a promise of peace and a promise of tribulation.  They don’t cancel each other out.  However, the peace that our Lord gives is a peace that enables us to endure tribulation.  A submarine at the depths of the ocean is being pressed upon by the force of the water bearing down upon it in all directions; but if it is made right, it will withstand the pressure.  Even so the Christian is a person who has been engineered by the grace of God to withstand the pressures of the world which call it to capitulate.  The irony is that if we give in, if we stop fighting, we will achieve a sort of peace.  But it would be a false peace, a peace with the world that does not last.  It is the inner peace that Christ gives that enables us from giving up for a false and temporary external peace and that enables us to keep fighting.

I think this is what the apostle is referring to here in our text.  Though some have taken it to mean that we are to be ready to share the gospel at all times, I don’t think that is what the apostle is referring to here, though I agree with the sentiment.  We should always be ready to share the gospel, ready to give an answer to those who ask about the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15).  But here the apostle doesn’t say that we are to have a readiness to proclaim the gospel, but that we are to have a readiness which is given by the gospel.  It’s not a readiness for the gospel, but a readiness of the gospel.  To put it another way, the gospel here is not the object of the readiness or preparedness of which the apostle speaks; rather, the gospel is the source of that readiness and preparedness.  He is saying that holding to the gospel of peace makes us ready to stand and fight our spiritual foe.

Now the question is, what is the connection here between the boots the warrior puts on and the readiness given by the gospel of peace?  It is thought that the apostle here is referring to the caliga, which was a sort of boot worn by the Roman soldier “with soles made of several layers of leather averaging 2 centimeters (3/4 inch) thick, studded with hollow-headed hobnails.”[2]  His footwear enabled the Roman soldier to march long distances as well as giving him sure-footedness in the battle.  Of course what you wear on your feet depends on what you are doing.  I remember once working cattle with the Shafer boys wearing sandals, and deciding very quickly that that was a mistake.  The same thing applies here: you wear combat boots into battle, not flip-flops. 

Good shoes on your feet give you two things: mobility and sure-footedness.  They enable you to move and move quickly; they also enable you to move without falling down.  Now I know the overarching command here is to stand (ver. 14), but we shouldn’t take that to mean standing still.  Rather, the apostle means something more along the lines of standing tall, or standing firm.  It is the opposite of falling down and becoming an easier prey for your enemy.  And you are never going to be able to stand without good footwear. 

To sum up, I think what the apostle is getting at is this: the readiness here, associated as it is with the combat boot the soldier wore, is a reference to our readiness to stand firm and stand tall.  No one is prepared to fight if they can’t stay on their feet in the battle.  So I think the readiness and preparedness here is specifically tied to one being prepared to stand on their feet.  In fact, in the LXX, this word (“preparation” or “readiness”) was used with the meaning of an “established place, foundation” (cf. Ezra 2:68; Ps. 89:14).[3]  Thus, the NEB translates this verse, “let the shoes on your feet be the gospel of peace, to give you firm footing,” which I think gives the sense of this verse very well. 

David, in Psalm 18, speaks about how God helped him in battle, and his words underline the importance of being sure-footed in battle.  He writes, “God . . . equipped me with strength and made my way blameless.  He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights.  He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.  You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand supported me, and your gentleness made me great.  You gave a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip” (Ps. 18:32-36).  I think that is similar to the idea in our text: when you put on the gospel of peace like boots on your feet, you will be ready to stand so that your feet will not slip.

Now how does the gospel of peace do that?  Before we answer that question, we need to think about what is meant by the gospel of peace.  The gospel, of course, is the good news that Jesus God’s Son has come and made peace between God and man, and between man and man (Eph. 2:11-22).  “For he himself is our peace, who has made both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.  And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (2:14-17).  The peace here is both subjective and objective.  It is subjective in the sense that hostility is removed and it is objective in the sense that the thing (sin) that separated us from God has been removed by the atoning sacrifice of our Lord.  The gospel is the gospel of peace in the sense that it is about peace and it brings peace: peace with God and peace with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever their background or nationality. 

But the Bible makes it clear that this peace ought to result in the tranquility and quietness of heart that rests in our being at peace with God.  Our Lord said to his disciples and he says to us today, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn. 14:27).  God is a God of hope who fills our hearts with joy and peace through believing the gospel so that we abound in hope through the power of the Spirit (Rom. 15:13).  The peace that comes from the gospel is not a peace that we simply have like money in the bank, it ought to be a peace that permeates our souls and enriches our lives.  It ought to be a peace that fills us with joy: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom also we have access by faith into the grace where we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1-2, KJV). 

Now how does this play into the battle?  Why is this important?  The point is this: you will never stand strong and stand firm if you do not have that inner confidence that comes from being at peace with God, a peace which only the gospel can give.  You don’t want soldiers on the battle line that go to pieces.  A soldier can be fully equipped but unless he is filled with confidence and courage he will never last.  Even so the Christian needs that confidence which only comes through peace with God. 

We don’t want to be fearful; we want to be courageous.  We want to stand firmly, not fall easily.  But my point is that you fight fear and gain courage by being at peace – and for the Christian this is rooted in our being at peace with God before anything else.  This is what the apostle implies when he tells us “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).  How do you fight fear and anxiety?  You fight it by taking your burdens to the Lord, and he gives you peace.  Fear is replaced and removed when peace from God fills its place.

So what this tells me is that if I want to stand firm and not run away out of fear, I need to have that inner confidence and stability that is the fundamental characteristic of a man who is at peace.  And if I want to have this peace, the only way I am going to get it is by going to the gospel, the gospel of peace.  Let the gospel fill you with peace.

How do we let the gospel fill us with peace? Well, by understanding what the gospel says and appropriating it by faith.  Consider the following points: these apply to all who are in the battle, who are following Jesus as Lord and you wear his armor and bear his name.  All who are in Christ can rightfully apply the truths of the gospel to themselves.

Primarily, we need to understand and believe that God is for us.  This is what the gospel tells us: Christ came and made peace between us and God, so that God is no longer hostile toward us.  He is no longer your enemy; he is your Father through the Son.  The apostle writes, “If God be for us, who can be against us?”  And then note how this expostulation is explicitly tied to the gospel: “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:31-32, KJV).  God is for us freely and fully through his Son and this is the only way God will be for anyone. 

Now it is easy to believe this in the abstract.  But that is not what is called for on the battlefield of life.  There are a million things that rise up in our lives and threaten us and our prosperity and earthly happiness and comforts, and we are often ready when they take place to think that God has abandoned us or that he hates us or at least doesn’t care about us.  We tend to tie our inner peace to our material happiness.  Like Job, we take our earthly successes as signs of God’s approval.  And when he takes it away, we think we are the subjects of his displeasure.

We need to hear the logic of the apostle.  We tend to measure God’s love by his gifts.  That is partly right.  But the problem is that we measure his love by the wrong gifts.  God doesn’t mean for you to measure his love by earthly trinkets, but by the supreme Gift of all – the gift of his Son.  The logic of Rom. 8:32 is that since God has already given you his greatest gift, he will therefore not withhold from you “all things.”  The giving of the Son for you is the greatest proof that he will withhold nothing that is for your ultimate happiness and joy.

So what I need to believe, above all, is that no matter what happens to me in this life, I cannot measure God’s smile by my earthly successes and comforts.  Indeed, Paul goes on to write of tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and peril and sword (Rom. 8:35) – and he says that these cannot separate us from the love of Christ.  And they do not separate us from his love, not by their absence, but in spite of their presence: “nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us” (ver. 37).  He is for us; no one and nothing can be successfully against us.

Think about what it means that God is for us.  First of all, it means that God loves you and desires your company.  The God of heaven and earth wants to be with you!  He thinks about you!  And not just every now and then, but all the time.  Isn’t that what David said in the Psalm?  “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!  How vast is the sum of them!   If I would count them, they are more than the sand.  I awake, and I am still with you” (Ps. 139:17-18).  The God of the Bible is not some distant deity who just bears with his creatures.  God created us for fellowship with him.  Surely there is nothing so elevating in the world as that.  No matter what other people might think of you, if you belong to Jesus Christ, then God wants you to be with him.  You may be hated by everyone on Facebook, but if God loves you, what does that matter?

Second, it means that God is for you in particular.  We need to meditate on the particularity of God’s love.  Sometimes, people so emphasize God’s general love for mankind that they end up watering down the special and particular love that he has for those who are his chosen people in Christ.  Hear, for example, the way Paul puts it: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20, KJV).  “Who loved me.”  Can you say that?  Do you believe that?  Not that God loves everyone and so of course he loves me; but rather, God loves me with a love that specific to me.

When you read about the men and women in church history who were the boldest in the faith, you will often hear that what made them bold, was an assurance of the love that God had for them through Christ.  They did not need to fear anything, for they fully believed that God was for them, and that whatever happened it would be for their good.  They stood firm in the fight of faith because they were filled with the peace that comes from believing the gospel truth that in Jesus Christ God is for us.

Third, it means that God does not hold any of your sins against you.  Now, if we don’t repent of our sins, God is certainly willing to get your attention through the megaphone of pain and suffering.  And in this life, our sins often do come with a price.  Forgiveness of sins doesn’t mean that we escape all the consequences of our sins, at least in this life.  This is not a call to treat sins lightly or indifferently.  But it does mean that our sins can never dampen God’s love for us, not once, not ever.  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). 

We say we believe in salvation by grace.  We sometimes treat God, however, as if salvation were in fact by our works, and think of God’s love to us waxing and waning depending on the measure of our sanctification.  And though, like any good parent, God is not indifferent to our obedience (because our happiness is in large measure dependent on our holiness and he does want us to be holy), nevertheless, we must never think that our relationship with him depends on our works.  We are not just justified by faith at the beginning of our walk with God, but throughout the entirety of our lives.  God does not take into account your goodness or holiness when it comes to your relationship in his family; instead, he accepts us fully and completely because of what Jesus Christ his Son did for us and in our place.

Again, this does not mean that good works do not have a place; they are certainly necessary evidences of God’s work in the soul.  If we lack the evidence for a relationship with God, we have not reason to claim the relationship.  But neither should we confuse the evidence with the ground of our relationship with God.  Good works are not the ground of our justification, and we need to be careful that we are not trying to over and over again win God’s favor by being good enough.  You can’t do that, and you don’t have to do that.  Christ has already been good enough for you and he has already fully paid the debt you owe to God by shedding his blood for you on the cross.

Finally, it means that whatever happens in this life, you are the heir of immeasurable joy in the next: “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).  We may suffer with Christ now, but we will be glorified in the age to come (Rom. 8:17).  Isn’t it interesting that this is the word that God chose to describe your future state?  Glorified!  Full of glory!  Another way it is described is, “heirs of God and fellows heirs with Christ.”  Nothing in this world can even come close.  Bunyan was right to describe those who neglect the joys to come for the pleasures of this world as “muckrakers.” 

So take the gospel of peace and find firm footing.  And if you do not find yourself as yet in the bonds of the gospel, hear what our Lord says: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30).

[1] Hymn by George Heath, 1781.
[2] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker, 2002), p. 842.
[3] Ibid.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Experiencing God as Trinity

When the Nicene Creed was formulated in A.D. 325, the Holy Spirit was barely mentioned.  Later, at the Council of Constantinople in 381, the Church saw the need to be more specific about the nature and worship of the Spirit of God.  It is instructive to read the Creed in its entirety:

I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets.  And one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  Amen.[1]

We should note that the Church was careful not only to postulate the full deity of Father, Son, and Spirit, but also the ways by which they related to each other.  Thus the Father, as Father, begets the Son and the Son is begotten of the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.  We should see these descriptions (begotten, proceeding) as eternal acts by which the Persons in the Godhead are distinguished.  The Son was not begotten at some very distant point in time, but from eternity.  The Spirit did not begin to proceed from the Father and the Son at some point, but did so from eternity.  It is probably not wise to try to fully understand exactly what is going on by this divine begetting and proceeding; but it is helpful to maintain these distinctions because they remind us that the three Persons in the Godhead are not three undistinguishable Divine Triplets, but are actually distinguishable from one another.  The Father is not the Son nor is the Son the Father; neither would it ever do to call the Son the Father or vice versa.  Neither could the Spirit be called the Father or the Son.

If it is hard to understand how these acts of begetting and proceeding could be eternal, C. S. Lewis helps us out when he asks us to imagine the following:

Imagine two books lying on a table one on top of the other. Obviously the bottom book is keeping the other one up-supporting it. It is because of the underneath book that the top one is resting, say, two inches from the surface of the table instead of touching the table. Let us call the underneath book A and the top one B. The position of A is causing the position of B. That is clear? Now let us imagine-it could not really happen, of course, but it will do for an illustration-let us imagine that both books have been in that position for ever and ever. In that case B's position would always have been resulting from A's position. But all the same, A's position would not have existed before B's position. In other words the result does not come after the cause. Of course, results usually do: you eat the cucumber first and have the indigestion afterwards. But it is not so with all causes, and results.

Lewis goes on to say that

God is a Being which contains three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube contains six squares while remaining one body. But as soon as I begin trying to explain how these Persons are connected I have to use words which make it sound as if one of them was there before the others. The First Person is called the Father and the Second the Son. We say that the First begets or produces the second; we call it begetting, not making, because what He produces is of the same kind as Himself. In that way the word Father is the only word to use. But unfortunately it suggests that He is there first-just as a human father exists before his son. But that is not so. There is no before and after about it. And that is why I have spent some time trying to make clear how one thing can be the source, or cause, or origin, of another without being there before it. The Son exists because the Father exists: but there never was a tune before the Father produced the Son.[2]

This analogy could, of course, be applied equally to the relation of the Spirit to the Father and the Son.

Now the language of begetting and proceeding is not something that theologians cooked up; it is the language of Scripture.  If you have a Father, who have a Son who is begotten of the Father.  In other words, the names Father and Son don’t mean much apart from the ideas of begetting and being begotten.  This is important because not only is this language Scriptural, but it guards us from the false idea that the Son is created; he is begotten not created.  If he had been created like we are, he would not share the very nature of God, but since he is begotten not created, he is God from God, Light from Light, sharing the very substance of the Father.  To contrast, we may be made in God’s image and we may be adopted as sons and daughters into the family of God, but we do not share the nature of God as Christ does; we are made, not begotten.

What about the procession of the Spirit?  When we say that what distinguishes the Spirit from the Father and the Son is that he proceeds from the Father and the Son, we are using the language our Lord himself gave us in John 15:26, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”  The Spirit is sent from the Father through the Son (cf. Jn 14:26) precisely because he has always been the one who eternally proceeds from the Father.  As we have noted before, the Spirit is the bond of love and communion between the Father and the Son, and in redemption, the love of the Trinity overflows to include sinful men and women.

Now what’s the big deal about all this?  The big deal is that the way we see God affects how we relate to God.  Because God is a Trinity, we relate to him as a Trinity.  Our experience of God does in fact depend on our theological understanding of God.  But it is also true to say that the Church’s theology of God is a result of the Church’s experience and worship of God.  The Church has experienced God as Father, Son and Spirit, and therefore renders to each the worship due to God.  And since the Father, Son, and Spirit are all objects of the worship of the Church, they are seen to be equally and fully God. 

As we have already noted in a previous message, this experience is a product of the incarnation of the Son of God.  The purpose of the coming of the Son was to reconcile sinful men and women to God his Father, so that he becomes our Father also.  The one to whom we are reconciled is God – the Father is God.  But the Son of God, as the Son, shares the nature of the Father and so is fully God, equal with the Father in power and glory.  As such, he too is an object of the worship of the Church.  All throughout the NT, the Son is worshiped: our Lord himself said that “all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father.  Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father” (Jn. 5:23). 

Finally, the Spirit is to be honored as the Father and the Son are to be honored.  One of the clearest proofs of this is the fact that the unpardonable sin is a sin against the Holy Spirit (cf. Mk. 3:29).  If all blasphemies against God (ver. 28) can be forgiven, but not the sin against the Spirit, then it seems clear that the Spirit must be himself God and ought therefore to receive the same honor and worship that is due the Father and the Son.

But again, though they are all three equally worthy of our worship and honor, yet we don’t relate to each Person in exactly the same way.  Over and over again in Scripture we see the following pattern: by the Spirit, through the Son, we approach the Father.  By the work of the Spirit in us, because of the work of Christ for us, we are able to approach God the Father as our Father.  We see this in the following passages.  “For through him [Jesus] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18).  “To those who are elect exiles . . . according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (1 Pet. 1:1-2).  “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). 

Another way to put this is that the Father planned salvation, the Son purchased salvation, and the Spirit applies salvation.  “But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13-14, KJV).  And so the Father is the one who is the originator of the plan of salvation, the Son is the one who is the mediator of salvation, and the Spirit is the one who is the applicator of salvation.  This order in the way God saves us surely stems from the order that has eternally existed in the Trinity itself.  From eternity, the Son is the Word of God, the expression of the Father; the Spirit is the one who freely and joyfully executes the will of the Father and the Son.

How does this affect the way we relate to God?  Well, from our perspective, it means that our movement towards God the Father must begin with the work of God the Spirit in us.  According to Scripture, we are not born into the world as a tabula rosa, but as descendants of Adam, bend inwards towards ourselves and outwards away from God.  Or, another way to put it, we are born (not become) dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-3).  It is fitting that it is the Spirit of God who undoes the work of spiritual death upon the soul since the Spirit is the original giver of life: “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created” (Ps. 104:30).  The word for “Spirit” in the Bible is the same as “wind” or “breath” and so we should probably see a reference to the work of the Spirit in Gen. 2:7, “then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living creature” – especially given the way the creation narrative begins: “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2).  The Spirit created life originally, and he recreates the life, both physical and spiritual, that men lost when they rebelled against God.  He beautifies and brings order out of chaos; he does the same thing to the spiritual and moral chaos into which we have descended, bringing life and restoring the image of God in man.

Therefore, Paul writes, “You … are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Anyway who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:9-10).  “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6).  It’s important to emphasize, however, that we have life because we have the Spirit.  Without the Spirit there would be no life.  And he doesn’t just give us life, he gives us himself which results in life.

In fact, this giving of the Spirit results in more than life, life abundant, and this is because the Spirit doesn’t just give us spiritual gasoline to get us down the heavenly road, but he introduces us to something infinitely more valuable: the fellowship of the Father and the Son.  Thus, our Lord himself put it this way: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.  … In that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you.  Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.  And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jn. 14:16, 17, 20, 21).  We can experience the love of the Father and the Son precisely because of the ministry of the Spirit in us.

Which, by the way, is another proof of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, for if he were less than God, or if he were just a force, it is hard to see how he could usher us into the very fellowship of the Godhead.

It also means that if we are truly indwelt by the Spirit, who is the bond of love between the Father and the Son, we too will truly love the Father and the Son and the Spirit.  And not in a merely intellectual manner, but in a way that produces holiness of life and conduct.  We will keep our Lord’s commandments, not because we have to but because we want to.  You become what you love, and if you love God you will become increasingly like God, which is the essence of godliness.

So what does this mean, practically?  Well, first of all, it means that if you would see the kingdom of God, you must be born again, which, according to our Lord, is the work of the Spirit (Jn. 3:3-8).  It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh profits nothing (Jn. 6:63).  We have to be washed by the regenerating and renewing influence of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5).  You don’t need bandaging, you need life.  You don’t need educating, you need to be recreated by the Spirit.  This is not the work of man, but the work of God.

But the Spirit doesn’t regenerate and then hand over the car keys.  The apostle Paul tells us that if we would have any power over sin, we must mortify it through the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:13).  All of sanctification, from beginning to end, is a work of the Spirit.  We cannot do it in our own strength.  We must look away from ourselves to God, specifically, to God the Spirit.  That doesn’t mean we don’t do anything, but it does mean that we recognize our absolute dependence upon the work of the Spirit in our hearts on a daily basis.  You and I will never outgrow our need for the indwelling and sanctifying influence of the Spirit of God.

This year, many of you have probably made at least a few resolutions.  If they will do your soul any lasting good, they will be aimed at increasing godliness in the coming year.  Well, the forgoing considerations ought to warn you against doing any of this in your own strength.  If you do so, you will eventually either wear out or wear thing.  Do it all in the power and grace of the Spirit.

But fellowship with God is not just a “spiritual” thing; it is impossible apart from the work of the Son of God.  In fact, the Spirit comes to us now as the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9-10); he mediates the presence of the risen Christ.  All that he does on earth, he does in the name of Christ and for his glory: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it unto you” (Jn. 16:13-14).  The Spirit is not out making a name for himself; he is out applying the work of Christ to the elect.

We cannot relate to God in anyway except as enemies, unless we come to God through the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  As the apostles put it, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  Or, as our Lord testified, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). 

Why is this?  Remember that we are dead in sins.  All our sin is a result of an inward aversion to the true and living God.  We may pet the dog, help the old lady across the street, and pay our taxes, but in our hearts we by nature hate God.  And because we hate God we have no chance to ever inherit eternal life in his presence.  As a result we have accrued a debt that no human being can pay.  Therefore, the only way we can have eternal life is if God himself takes our sins upon himself and purges them.  That is exactly what happened through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the God-Man who bore our sins upon the cross and suffered the punishment we deserve in order that all who believe might have eternal life. 

No mere man could do this.  But it requires a man to do  it.  Therefore, the only solution to our plight can only be found in the only God-Man to have ever walked this earth and accomplished redemption, Jesus Christ. 

How do we relate to God?  Through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  But how do we relate to Christ?  How do we make something that was done by another two thousand years ago my own?  The answer of Scripture (the word of the Spirit) is that we become connected to the saving benefits of Christ by faith: by surrendering ourselves completely and fully to Christ, by trusting in him, by resting alone in his grace and his forgiveness and his redeeming work.  The apostle Paul assures us, “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” (Rom. 10:9). 

This is entirely counterintuitive to the way we think we should relate to God.  Most religions tell you that you can only relate to God through your good deeds, by effort.  But the gospel says that we relate to God, not through our deeds but through the death of another, Jesus.  We don’t do it by looking inwardly but by looking outwardly, away from ourselves and toward Christ.  We don’t do it by inspecting the balance of good to bad deeds, but by resting in the one who took all our bad deeds upon himself and gave us his righteousness instead.  We don’t do it by hiding our sins and covering them up but by confessing them: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). 

And the redemption is complete.  There is no sin that is not paid for, no guilt that is not covered, no past that can ever raise its head to haunt us again: “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).

Our Lord is not the Spirit and the Spirit is not the Lord.  But they are on a mission together.  The Spirit applies the work of Christ to those for whom he died.  We relate to God by the Spirit through the Son; by the Spirit as the one who brings us life; through the Son as the one who gave his life so that he would become to us the resurrection and the life.

And as we face a new year, the only way we should do so is as those who are the redeemed of the Lord.  We must learn to find our identity in Christ, not in our work or our accomplishments, but in Christ who has made us sons and daughters of God.  Because of what Christ has done, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater that the greatest of the sons of men.  Our past may not be what we wanted, and our future may be a big question mark, but in Christ everything is sure, we are justified and fully accepted before God. 

And so, through the work of the Son and Spirit, we are brought near to God the Father.  It is an amazing thing to be able to relate to the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God Almighty as our Father.  We no longer relate to him merely as a creature, though we will always be that.  We no longer relate to him only as Master and Sovereign, though he is that and we rejoice in this reality.  But more than all that, God is our Father and all the love that a father has for his children is but a faint shadow of the love that God has for those who belong to his Son.

It is important that you and I know how to relate to God the Father as Father, not just as an indefinable “Person” in the Trinity.   He is revealed to us as Father for a reason and one of the reasons is that you will take advantage of this relationship as a child of God.  It is important that we don’t come to him with the fear that a mere servant has, but with the love and affection and trust that children have for parents who truly care for their children.  Through Christ, we are not fulfilling the terms a contract but are enjoying community with the family of God and with God himself, Father, Son, and Spirit.

Do you struggle with the fear of inadequacy?  That you are not enough, that you don’t have what it takes to be a good parent or student or coworker?  That you cannot conquer those old habits and lusts?  Then come to God the Spirit and mortify your lusts through him.  Come to him for the power to live out the place in which God by his providence has put you.  He is full of power for those who are weak (Eph. 3:16).

Do you struggle with the fear of guilt and rejection?  Do you feel hopeless, that you can never measure up or be good enough, either before men or (especially) God?  Then come to God the Son and find your sins gone forever, never to be brought up or mentioned again.  Come to Christ and know that it doesn’t matter whether or not you are good enough because he has been good enough for you.  He is the perfect redeemer of the world.

Do you struggle with the fear of uncertainty?  Do you fear the unknown, the risks, the burden of an ambiguous future?  Then come to God the Father, and know that your Father already knows the future, and that he is completely sovereign over it.  He will exercise all his goodness and his wisdom and his power for your good and his glory (Rom. 8:28).  And this includes “bad” things.  Terrible as certain events might be, and which we might justly fear, they are not impediment to God, who will take those things and create beauty and joy and good that would never have existed without them. 

We need not fear, for our God is the God of the Bible, who reveals himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Rather, let us cast our cares upon him, for he cares for us.  “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

[1] This translation of the Creed is given in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994), p. 1169.  The phrase “and the Son” was added later (filioque).
[2] This is from Lewis’ book Mere Christianity, Book 4, Chapter 4.

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