Monday, December 13, 2021

How to think about apostasy (Hebrews 6:4-12)


John Murray notes that, “Experience, observation, biblical history, and certain Scripture passages would appear to provide very strong arguments against the doctrine which has been called ‘The Perseverance of the Saints.’”i How do you argue with that? There is no doubt that people walk away from a commitment to Jesus, and that sometimes the people who do so are the last ones you would have thought would have done so. But what are we to think about that?

We’ve already encountered this question in this epistle, but it bears reconsidering. It bears reconsidering because the author of Hebrews does so. This was a letter written to folks who apparently were – many of them, anyway – on the verge of apostasy. And so this is a theme the author will return to again and again. Here we are in chapter 6, and we are again faced with one of those warnings, a warning about the consequences of falling away from the faith.

What about people who fall away from the faith? As we begin to consider this topic, it’s important that we understand exactly what we are talking about. We’re not talking about Christians with doubts. Nor are we talking about believers who sin even egregious sins but who repent. Rather, we’re talking about people who consciously turn their backs on faith in Christ as he is presented to us in the pages of the New Testament. We’re talking about people who knowingly and with eyes wide open reject the message of the gospel after having seemingly embraced it.

One option is to say that these people were saved, but then lost their salvation. The thing that this position gets right is that those who reject Christ cannot be saved in any NT sense. For the apostle John (or possibly John the Baptist) puts it this way: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (Jn. 3:36). It’s not enough that you once appeared to believe, but that you continue to believe (these are present tense participles).

However, what this position gets wrong is the insistence that a person can lose their salvation. This is something the NT just does not teach. In fact, it teaches the opposite. Here is how our Lord puts it, speaking to some people who refused to believe in him, no matter what kind of miracles they saw: “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them [to] me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (Jn. 10:26-29). The first thing to note about this passage is that our Lord doesn’t say that they were not of his sheep because they didn’t believe – they didn’t believe because they were not of his sheep. In other words, our Lord is reminding us that being chosen by God before the foundation of the earth to be saved doesn’t depend ultimately upon our faith, but that our faith depends upon God’s choice of us (cf. Acts 13:48). So our perseverance in the faith is rooted, not ultimately in ourselves, but in God (cf. 1 Pet. 1:5), and this means that it is not possible for faith which is the fruit of the power of God in the heart to completely shrivel up and disappear.

But that is not all our Lord says. He goes on to say that his sheep will never perish and no one will be able to pluck them out of his or his Father’s hand. There is a double security here – Christ keeping his sheep and God the Father keeping his sheep, and with one purpose (Jn. 10:30). But this is a keeping that shows itself in perseverance. It is a keeping that is always manifested in persevering in the faith, for he says that his sheep will hear his voice and follow him. How do you know someone is one of his sheep? Well, it’s easy, isn’t it? Do they hear his voice and follow him? Do they believe on him and obey him?

This also answers another wrong approach to apostasy, which is that though those who are genuinely saved can never lose their salvation, nevertheless they can lose their faith in Christ. Or they can remain saved even as they bear no fruit for obedience in their lives. This is an extremely dangerous and unbiblical position. Again, our Lord does not allow that, because he says that his sheep will hear his voice and follow him.

What the Scriptures teach is that God’s people will come to faith and be saved, and remain saved, not irrespective of obedience but in a life of obedience, however imperfect this side of heaven (cf. 2 Thess. 2:13-14). And they will persevere in this.

Now let’s come to the text of Hebrews 6. This passage is often brought up as evidence against the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. For it talks about those who have every appearance of being saved but apostatize and yet are never renewed to repentance. In fact, we are told that it is impossible to renew them to repentance. What is this talking about? Is it talking (as I once heard a preacher argue) about God’s people who remain saved but who backslide so severely that they can never recover this side of heaven? Or is it talking about people who were once saved but then lost their salvation? I believe both of these takes on the passage are wide of the mark. So let’s consider carefully what is being said here.

What we want to do today are two things. First, let’s understand what this passage is saying – what is the message we are meant to hear? And then, second, how do we hear this in a way that we are meant to hear it? How do we hear it so that we don’t end up denying other doctrines, but at the same time hear it without watering down the impact it is meant to have? Finally, since we are in Advent Season – I haven’t forgotten that! – I want to show you the real connection passages like this have to what we celebrate in the coming of Christ into this world.

What we are meant to hear from this passageii

First of all, I don’t doubt that the people described in verses 4-6 are people who had been a part of the church and who had every appearance of being saved. They are people who have, at least outwardly, begun well. However, I think some folks make a mistake when they look at the descriptions given in these verses and conclude that they necessarily describe saved people. I don’t think so; these are necessary but not sufficient evidences of salvation, and I think the context bears this out.

One take that you sometimes hear from those who do embrace the doctrine of perseverance in its entirety is that the impossibility here is merely hypothetical. In other words, they say that the argument is basically this: if people who enjoyed such blessings were to fall away, then it would be impossible to renew them to repentance, but (so the argument goes) this can never happen. However, the problem with this is that it just doesn’t comport with the message being delivered here. These folks are being warned of the genuine consequences of apostasy. They are not being warned about something that can’t really happen!iii

The metaphor of the fields (7-8)

What does the context tell us? Before we look carefully at verses 4-6, go down to verses 7-8. In these two verses you have a metaphor of two fields. What they have in common is the rain that falls upon them; where they differ is in how they respond to this rain (one also thinks here of the Parable of the Sower in Mt. 13). One field produces good fruit and receives “blessing from God” (7), but the other field bears “thorns and briers” and so “is rejected and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned” (8).

It is important to remember that in the NT a tree that bears good fruit is always representative of a genuine believer, whereas a tree that consistently bears bad fruit is always representative of being lost and unsaved (cf. Mt. 7:15-20). How does this relate to the previous verses? Well, clearly apostasy – deconstructing the faith and abandoning Christ for something else – is bad fruit. It corresponds to the thorns and briers of verse 8. And it receives judgment from God, which corresponds to the impossibility to be renewed to repentance in verse 6. They will die in their sins. But again, the point is that the metaphor is a sure indication that the people being described in the previous verses are not saved. Did they receive blessings from God? Yes, many! And they are listed for us in verses 4-6. Just like the field in verse 8 received rain from heaven. But these folks are like that field also in another way; they didn’t end up bearing good fruit but bad fruit and as a result fall under the curse of God (not a place where God’s elect will end up, cf. Rom. 8:1!).

Better things that belong to salvation (9)

Then there is verse 9: “But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.” Here the author speaks of things which he is hopeful characterize his audience. These “things” have two qualities: first, they are better things, and second, they are things that accompany [or “belong to”] salvation. The question is, what are these things?

And better than what? It is often said that the comparison here is between salvation which is hoped for and the judgment which is threatened in verse 8.  But in Hebrews "better" is most often a comparison not between something bad and something good, but between two good things, but one of which is better than the other (see, for example, 7:19, 22; 8:6; 9:27; 10:34; 11:16, 35).iv So this indicates that we should be looking for good things in the context that these “things” are better than. And what things would that be, other than the blessings mentioned in verses 4-6? Whatever else we can say, it is a good thing to be enlightened and to taste of the Holy Spirit and the good word of God and the powers of the age to come.

However, they are not saving things in and of themselves, good though they are. For they are contrasted to “things that accompany salvation” in verse 9. This comparison indicates that you can possess all of the things listed in the context and yet not be saved. But what would the better things be? The context (esp. ver. 10-12) indicates that perseverance in the faith is the key identifier: “And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: that ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience [the word there is “endurance” or “perseverance”] inherit the promises” (11-12).

The Judas Christians (4-6)

With the context before us, let’s now come back to look at the individual descriptors in verses 4-6. Here we have people who “were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come.” In verse 6, since it says that it is impossible to renew them to repentance, it follows that they had also experienced repentance on some level. It sure sounds like this is a description of the genuinely saved!

However, on closer inspection, no, it doesn’t. This is a description of people who were indeed professing Christians and who seemed to belong to the church. But we all know that professing to be a Christian and being a Christian is not always (unfortunately) the same thing. Here are people who were enlightened, who had received the knowledge of the gospel, who have come to understand and know the way of righteousness and then turn away from it (2 Pet. 2:20-22). They had tasted of the heavenly gift, and the good word of God, who had come, on some level at least, to a temporary appreciation of the gospel. Like Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8, who is said to have believed and was baptized (13), and yet the apostle Peter later warned him that he was in danger of perishing, and that he had “neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God” (20-21). Herod loved to hear the word of God preached by John the Baptist – right up until he had him beheaded in prison (Mk. 6:20).

These are also people who were made partakers of the Holy Ghost and who experienced the powers of the world to come – regenerated, right? Not necessarily. Remember, that miracles were performed in the power of the Spirit (cf. Heb. 2:4), and yet we know that not everyone who performs miracles in the name of Christ is saved (Mt. 7:21-23). Balaam prophesied in the Spirit, and yet there is absolutely no indication that this false prophet should be considered in the category of the saved (cf. Num. 24:2; 2 Pet. 2:15-16).

But what about the fact that these people had repented? To this we must say that there is such a thing as a repentance which is not the fruit of the new birth. Esau was said to repent (Heb. 12:17), but he was not a recipient of God’s saving grace. And here is where I think we must remind ourselves of the example of Judas Iscariot. Here was a man of whom it was said, “it had been good for that man if he had never been born” (Mt. 26:24). Now you can’t say that about a single person in heaven. And yet he is said to have repented (cf. Mt. 27:3). He was clearly enlightened, and tasted the good word of God, for he preached the gospel. He also was a partaker of the Holy Spirit and the powers of the age to come for he performed miracles and cast out demons. And yet he turned from Christ and betrayed him and gave his heart to the devil.

In other words, the people here described are Judas Christians. It is important to remember that Judas looked every bit like one of the other apostles. He didn’t have horns in his head and he didn’t cackle and ride on a broom like a witch. In fact, he looked so much like the other apostles that when our Lord basically told everyone that Judas was the one who would betray him, the others still didn’t see it! Even so, the people described in Hebrews 6 looked like Christians. They had every appearance of belonging to Christ. But when they walked away, when they rejected Christ and his gospel and crucified to themselves afresh the Son of God and put him to an open shame (Heb. 6:6), there was no more possibility that they could recover and be saved.

Now that doesn’t mean that genuine Christians can’t lapse or doubt or sin. Peter denied Christ at the same time that Judas betrayed him. But there was a great difference. Judas was a son of perdition whereas Jesus interceded for Peter. Judas’ apostacy was not given in a moment of weakness like Peter; he had been, after all, pilfering the money bag for some time. John says that he was a thief. Judas then sinned after much deliberation and with his eyes wide open, whereas Peter fell in a moment of weakness. And the repentance of the two was different. Judas had a worldly sorrow that produced death; Peter had a godly sorrow that produced a “repentance to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10).

So this passage is not about genuine Christians who lose their salvation (or some temporal blessing). It is about Judas Christians who look like genuine Christians for a while until they fall away and permanently reject the gospel. Such people will share in the end of Judas. And that is the danger of which we are warned in this text.

How we are meant to hear the message of this text.

So far I have tried to establish a couple of things. First, that this passage is a genuine warning against apostasy. Second, that this passage is fully consistent with a conviction that God’s elect can never lose their salvation. However, that leads to the following question. How are people who call themselves Christian, and who have every hope that they really belong to Christ and are elect, how are we to hear this text in the way it was meant to be heard? How is this supposed to land on us, how is it meant to motivate us and to what is it meant to motivate us?

The problem is this: how is someone who is elect meant to apply a warning against apostasy? How does that work, especially since the elect cannot lose their salvation? Now we know that the author believed that at least most his audience were genuinely saved even as he gave them this severe warning, for in verse 9 he calls them “beloved” and says that he was persuaded that they were in fact saved. Nevertheless, that didn’t keep him from warning them about the dreadful consequences of turning away from Christ. But should a genuine believer ever be motivated to persevere by the danger (which is an eternal danger) of falling finally away? I think so, and I think this is precisely the intension of this text. So how does this work?

First of all, let me just say that we are not to be motivated by believing something that is not true. In other words, the motivation here is not that the elect might lose their salvation if they don’t persevere. That’s not at all the thought process the reality of apostasy is meant to provoke. I am not to think, “If I don’t endure in the faith, I might lose my salvation; therefore, I should continue in the faith!” No, we are never encouraged to think that way or to be motivated that way. God never encourages his saints to persevere by believing a lie!

Rather, the thought process should be something like this: “How do I know that I am elect? How do I make my calling and election sure? I can’t look into the Book of Life and I don’t have a special revelation from God that I am elect. The only way I can know I am elect is through the witness of the Holy Spirit to his fruits in my life, and one of the main fruits of the Spirit’s work in my life is perseverance in the faith. Therefore, I must persevere, because if I don’t – if I apostatize and walk away from the faith after coming to a knowledge of the gospel as I have – then the Bible says there is no place of repentance for me and I will prove that I was never saved. And that is indeed a terrible and terrifying place to be. It is not a place I want to be. Let me therefore take courage and stand against the wiles of the devil. Let me with faith and patience inherit the promises. For there are no promises for those who do not persevere!”

In other words, the motivation is not that the elect might lose their salvation. The motivation stems from the necessity of perseverance, being as it is the evidence and fruit of the Spirit in the life.

What about assurance?

Now someone might respond to that and say, if this is really the case, then no one can have assurance at all, because if only those who persevere to the end are saved, then we can’t really know we are saved until we die and have persevered unto the end. Now that obviously can’t be true. For the NT clearly teaches that assurance is possible.

The problem with this thinking is that it fails to appreciate the fact that perseverance is not the only fruit of salvation; it is one, but it is only one. There are other fruits as well. The Bible talks about the witness of the Spirit in our hearts (Rom. 8:14-18), about the earnest of our inheritance (Eph. 1:14). As we are walking with the Lord in obedience to his word and in faith upon his promises, the Spirit witnesses with our spirits that we are the children of God. Assurance is something you can have now; and this is partly because it is not just a function of final perseverance.

No, it’s not as if we can’t have assurance until we come to the very end of our life and are still faithful. There are many things (love to God and his people, obedience to his commandments, and so on) that help us to make our calling and election sure (see a list of such things in 2 Pet. 1). The doctrine of perseverance doesn’t work as an exclusive test of our election, but as one of many tests. What this does mean, though, is that those who do abandon the faith prove they were never saved to begin with. This is what the apostle John was saying when he wrote, “They [the antichrists, the false teachers] went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 Jn. 2:19). And the doctrine of perseverance tells us that if we don’t remain a believer in Christ, the supposed evidences we thought we had were subterfuges after all.

But all this perhaps misses what ought to be the true confidence of the believer. At the end of the day, my main confidence ought not to be in myself but in God. The requirement of perseverance is only a problem for assurance if the decisive basis of perseverance is your own fickle will and weak heart. But it is not. The decisive basis of perseverance is not my will but God’s power: “who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:5). I am reminded of something that John Piper has said. He writes,

I often ask people, How do you know you will wake up a Christian tomorrow morning? The bottom-line answer is that God will cause you to wake up a Christian, or you won’t. God will be faithful. God will keep you. Everything hangs on the faithfulness of God to his promise: “Those whom he called . . . he also glorified.”v

What is our confidence? It is that God will remember his people, he will never lose sight of them, he will never let go of them. I think this is partly what the author is getting at in verse 10: “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.” God will not abandon his people, and because of that reality, they won’t abandon him either. I love the modern hymn, “He will hold me fast:”vi

When I fear my faith will fail 

Christ will hold me fast 

When the tempter would prevail 

He will hold me fast

I could never keep my hold 

Through life's fearful path 

For my love is often cold 

He must hold me fast

So how are we meant to hear this warning? We are meant to hear it as a full-throttled warning that those who deconstruct their faith after having come to the knowledge of the gospel and embraced it, cannot come back and will die in their sins. We are meant to be shaken by this reality and awakened to the necessity of perseverance. But most of all, it is meant to make us fly into the arms of Jesus Christ our Savior who holds his people fast and will not let them go.

What has this to do with Advent?

Now, has this anything to do with Advent? I think so: it is meant to remind us again that there is no hope outside of Jesus Christ and that is exactly what Advent tells us. Those who crucify him afresh and put him to an open shame, who reject Christ as Lord and Savior after professing faith in him, reject any hope of salvation. They will die in their sins because they have rejected the only one in whom salvation can be found. So when we walk away from Jesus, we walk away from hope, the very hope proffered in the advent of our Lord.

The perfect foil for apostates who came to profess the gospel and then rejected it is the apostle Paul. He says that he “was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13). Now Paul’s persecution of Christians was sinful; he is not denying that. But he was ignorant; he really did believe he was doing God a service. In contrast, the apostates of Hebrews 6 knew what they were rejecting. That is why Paul received mercy and these apostates have no hope of mercy. It is impossible to renew them to repentance because their unbelief wasn’t an unbelief of ignorance.

But what was the cause of Paul’s mercy? It wasn’t anything in himself; rather, it was the grace of God in the coming of Jesus Christ to do for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves: “And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (14-15). Advent reminds us that God has come into this world, not to make good people better but to give hell-bound people grace, grace that brings with it the forgiveness and freedom from sin and fellowship with God forever. This grace only comes through Christ, and in no other way: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17).

And the good news is that it was not just grace for Paul but for all who trust in Christ as Lord and Savior: “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (16). Let Paul be your pattern, and then let us say with him: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (17).

_______________________________________________________________________

i John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied. This is the opening sentence in his chapter entitled, “Perseverance.”
ii In my exposition of the text, I am following the exposition of this passage given by Wayne Grudem in Systematic Theology, 2nd edition (Zondervan, 2020), p. 979-984.

iii Philip Edgcombe Hughes makes this trenchant observation in his commentary, speaking of those who argue that this is merely hypothetical: “This is then taken as an indication that his warning about the impossibility of restoration for the apostate does not answer to reality and is little better than the invention of a bogey for the purpose of frightening them into being better Christians. But the end does not justify the means, and to resort to subterfuge and deception, and that too within so solemn a context, would be subchristian and incompatible with the whole tenor of the epistle. What, in any case, would be the point of warning them of the danger of apostasy and then assuring them that, after all, they are in no danger of falling into apostasy? Any such procedure would be self- defeating.” P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 1977), p. 212.

iv Heb. 12:24 might be an example where something good, the gospel, is compared to something bad, the word of Abel, because it called out for blood and judgment.

v https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/will-you-wake-up-a-christian-tomorrow 

vi https://sovereigngracemusic.bandcamp.com/track/he-will-hold-me-fast

Monday, December 6, 2021

Our Hope in the Coming of Christ (Luke 24:13-27)


This time of year in the Christian calendar is called advent, consisting of the weeks (beginning with the fourth Sunday before Christmas) leading up to the celebration of the birth of our Savior on December 25. Traditionally, it was not just a time, however, of thinking only about the first coming of our Lord, but also about his second coming. This perspective has been largely lost, and I think it is bad for the church that it has been lost. We are impoverishing our celebration of the Incarnation of Christ when we think about it in terms divorced from his Triumphant Return. For when we do this, we inevitably turn Christmas into a sort of sentimentalism instead of the courage-inspiring and hope-giving event that it really was.

So in order to help us think rightly in this season, I want us to consider what kind of hope our Lord’s birth was meant to give. And to do that, I want to take you, not to the manger or the to the fields in which the shepherds met the worshipping angles or to little village of Bethlehem, but I want to take you to a dusty road that led from Jerusalem to Emmaus. And I don’t want to take you to the day of our Lord’s birth or to the moments before he first came into this world, but I want to take you to the first few days after he was crucified. And I want us to put ourselves in the shoes (or should I say sandals?), not of Joseph and Mary or of the wise men or of the shepherds, but of Cleopas and his companion.

They were on this road when a stranger met them. We know the stranger was the risen Lord, but the text says that “their eyes were holden that they could not known him” (16). They had been talking over the events of the crucifixion and were obviously perplexed and visibly shaken and sad. They didn’t know what to think of it. So our Lord asks them, in order to draw them out in conversation, “What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?” (17). They are surprised he doesn’t know about what happened to Jesus, and so they put it to him in this way. They were talking, they said, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him” (19-20).

This alone would be tragic, and enough to call forth the sympathies of our hearts. But the fact that Jesus was a mighty prophet and miracle-worker who was crucified was not the reason they were in mourning. It was for this reason: “But we trusted [Gk, had hoped] that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, today is the third day since these things were done” (21). These words “we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel” puts the focus on why these men were sad and why their hopes in Christ had been crushed. These words show us what our hope should and should not be, and that is what I want to consider with you in this message.

The redemption of Israel

However, in order to understand the categories of what our hope should be, we need to get a handle on what these men meant by the redemption of Israel. For this was the object of their hope. They had hoped that Jesus was the one to do this, and his death had buried these hopes in despair. A dead Messiah doesn’t redeem Israel.

But what is this redemption? Well, to answer this question, we do need to go back before the birth of Christ to the birth of his predecessor John the Baptist. When he was born, his father Zacharias made this prophecy under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:67):

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David; as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began; that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; the oath which he sware to our father Abraham, that he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life. And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Lk. 1:68-79).

There are a number of features from this prophecy that point us to what it meant for Israel to be redeemed.

First, this redemption is an act of God: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath . . . redeemed his people” (68). It is not something we can do for ourselves. This is significant, for if Jesus is the one who brings redemption, then he is not just some prophet mighty in deed; he is the Son of God – he is the God of Israel.

Second, this redemption is something promised in the Scriptures: “as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets.” It was promised to the fathers (72), and in particular to Abraham (73). It is therefore something which needs to be understood in the categories given to us in the Bible. It is not something we get to decide what it is; we don’t get to decide how redemption is done or what constitutes it. For that we must look in the pages of God’s holy word.

One of the things promised in the Scriptures is that the redeemer would come from the house of David (69). No other redeemer or prophet or miracle-worker will do – he must be the son of Abraham and the son of David.

Third, this redemption brings salvation from the hostility of this world: “that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us” (71). Here we begin to see the comprehensive nature of this redemption. It is not a privatized or merely inward thing; it is something which involves all God’s people and their deliverance from suffering imposed upon them by their enemies. As a result, God’s people will be able to “serve him without fear” (74).

Fourth, this redemption brings salvation from bondage to sin: “in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life” (75). This defines how God’s people serve him – they serve him in holiness and righteousness. Any salvation that does not ultimately free God’s people from the defilements of sin is no salvation at all.

Fifth, this redemption brings salvation from the guilt and penalty of sin: “to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins” (77). God’s people are not only saved from the grip of sin; they are also saved from the guilt of sin, from its penalty and its power.

Sixth, this redemption brings salvation from the death and the grave: “to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (79). As a result, this redemption gives peace and hope.

Now remember that this is a prophesy uttered under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is not just Zacharias’ fallible stab at what he thinks is going to happen. This is not just a religious experience which he was trying to interpret in ways that merely reflected his human understanding of things. No, rather, this is revelation communicated infallibly through a Spirit-inspired priest. What we have here is God’s authoritative interpretation of what is meant by the redemption of Israel.

Now I know that some folks (our dispensationalist friends, for example) will want to separate prophesies about Israel from prophesies about the church. But you can’t always do this; the New Covenant is a clear example. The New Covenant was given in terms of Israel and Judah, but it is clearly a covenant for the church (the Lord’s Supper is also a witness to this). As Paul will say to the Gentile Galatians, those who walk according to the rule of the gospel belong to “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). Those who are of faith are the sons of Abraham and inheritors of the promise made to him (Gal. 3:7). Thus, when Zacharias and the guys on the road to Emmaus speak in terms of the redemption of Israel, we are not wrong when we apply this to those who trust in and follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. These promises belong to us.

When we look at Zacharias’ prophesy, we will notice that this is not something which can be fulfilled completely in this age and on this planet where Satan now rules. This is a prophesy which will only be fully brought to pass when all the enemies of the people of God are destroyed. And when will this be? Again, the apostle Paul tells us: “For he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:25-26). In other words, redemption is fully realized when God’s people have through Christ defeated death in the resurrection of their bodies. Thus, Paul talks about “the redemption of the body” (Rom. 8:23) which will happen at the same time that this groaning universe will be freed from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. Salvation is not completed until the glorification of the saints (Rom. 8:30). Hence, when our Lord foretold his Second Coming to the disciples, he put it in terms of redemption: “And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh” (Lk. 21:27-28).

The prophesy of Zacharias points to this. Redemption is about salvation from our enemies and from death. It is a comprehensive salvation that involves salvation from all aspects of sin, from its penalty, power, and presence.

Now it is true that the disciples didn’t understand every aspect of redemption, but they knew that there was no redemption apart from deliverance from sin and death. They knew that redemption meant the coming of the kingdom and a new heavens and a new earth. Thus when they said that they had been hoping that Jesus was the one who was to redeem Israel, they meant that they had believed that Jesus was the one to usher in God’s kingdom and to bring salvation from the sin introduced when Adam and Eve rebelled against God at the beginning. And they knew that if he was dead, he could never bring this to pass. That is why their hopes were smashed.

Before we go further, let me ask you this: if Jesus had never risen from the dead, would the meaning of Christmas change for you? Because that is how things appeared to Cleopas and his friend. They would have gotten no comfort from the manger and the birth of Christ if he had never risen from the dead. For the fact that he appeared to be dead was the end of their hope in him. Now if the significance of Christmas doesn’t hinge on his resurrection and future coming, then I submit to you that you do not have a Christian view of the meaning of the event we celebrate on that day. We can only celebrate Christmas correctly when we share in the hopes that these men had. But it also means that we shed hopes that have no part in the redemption of Israel.

Christmas is not about a generic joy and peace that can be shared by everyone and anyone. It’s not about feeling good about everyone. It’s not about family get-togethers, though we ought to value our family. It’s about the redemption of Israel.

Our hope is not in this world but in the world to come.

The redemption of Israel was never expected to be accomplished along the lines of this world’s systems and structures. The hope was not for this world to get better; the hope was for a new world. Our Lord did not come into this world because it was good; he came into this world because it stinks, and it stinks up to high heaven. He came not to rearrange the furniture but to start over. “Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for a new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:13). That does not mean that we don’t try to make this world better by being salt and light where we are. But it does mean that our hopes are not pinned on this world as such. Our hopes are fixed on the age to come: “Looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Tit. 2:13).

Sometimes you hear the message of the angels repeated out of context: “On earth peace, good will toward men” (Lk. 2:14). This is made to be an assertion of some kind of general good feeling toward everyone. But this is not the meaning of the text. The peace is a peace which Christ will bring, and this is not peace for the world as it is. It is not a peace for everyone but for those who belong to Christ. It is a peace which will only come when sin in all its dimensions has been defeated: “These things I have spoken to you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). In the world as it now is we can expect only tribulation. How then comes the peace which is promised? It comes through the overthrow of this world, through our Lord overcoming the world by bringing in a new one in the age to come.

In other words, contrary to much of what passes as “Christmas spirit,” which is little more than a fondness for the good life in the here and now, the hope which the birth of Christ was meant to bring is a hope in age to come. And this would have of course been impossible apart from our Lord’s rising from the dead and coming again.

There is an important word here for us in the cultural currents in which we presently find ourselves. As more and more people jettison any semblance of Christian commitment, they are having to put their hopes elsewhere. Most often, these hopes are this-worldly in scope and content. And as a result, the hopes of such people usually end up landing in politics and political parties. And we see what happens when hope which should be in God and in the redemption which he brings in the world to come gets retooled for this-world-change through the agents of political agendas: you get angry and bitter and violent people. They are angry and bitter and even violent because they are hoping from people and political parties what only God can do through his Son and the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, even genuine Christians can get wrapped up in this. This happens when we forget that righteousness and peace will never be found before our Lord’s coming and kingdom, when we try to create with our own hands what only Christ can do.

Now I’m not saying that there is no place for politics or for trying to be agents for justice and righteousness in this world. Of course we should be salt and light in the here and now. But we do so without ever putting our hopes in this world. Our hope is in Christ and in the redemption that he will bring; our hopes can never be in the structures and systems of this world.

The Incarnation is not about little Timmy getting his Christmas wish. It is about the reality that Christ came to die upon a cross as a substitutionary sacrifice so that sin would be finished one day. It is about his ushering in through his death this reality: “And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: and they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:3-5).

We are impoverishing ourselves when we turn Christmas into a this-worldly thing. We are impoverishing ourselves when we settle for anything less than the complete reversal of the curse. As Isaac Watts put it:

No more let sins and sorrows grow 
Or thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow 
Far as the curse is found.

This is what Christ came to bring. This is the reason he was born. And this is what we are to hope in: the extension of the blessings of salvation in Christ “far as the curse is found.” Nothing less than that!

How are we to think about this world?

This doesn’t mean that we give up on this world, or retreat into little Christian enclaves and disappear from society. The point is that we can only view this world and its affairs rightly when we approach it from the perspective of eternity.

Think about what Cleopas said. He acknowledged that Jesus of Nazareth performed mighty miracles (Lk. 24:19). Jesus “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). He healed a lot of people. He gave hungry people food. He raised the dead. He gave lepers their lives back again. He cast out demons. I can’t imagine a more productive and fruitful ministry. These disciples knew that; they saw that. And yet their response was not, “We’re sad, but what a ministry! We’re sad, but at least a lot of people had their physical and psychological needs met.” That’s not what they said: despite all that, despite the power of Christ’s ministry while here on earth, his death left them hopeless. It’s as if it all counted for nothing – which in fact it would have, had not Christ risen from the dead!

What then was the point of all these miracles and demonstrations of God’s might in his Son? The point was not to make the world a better place. It was to point people to the coming kingdom of God. When John the Baptist came, he told people that the kingdom of God was coming (Mt. 3:2). Jesus himself went about “preaching the gospel of the kingdom” (Mt. 4:23). But the kingdom will not come in its fullness until Christ returns, for when the disciples asked the Lord after his resurrection when the kingdom would come, he didn’t tell them that it had already come but that when it should happen was none of their concern (Acts 1: 6-8). The fact that we are to continually pray, “Thy kingdom come,” is an indication that it has not yet come in all its glory (Mt. 6:10). And yet our Lord could say to people in his day, “The kingdom of God is [among] you” (Lk. 17:21).

How? I think the Transfiguration of Christ gives us an indication. In every single instance in the gospels, the account of the Transfiguration is preceded by our Lord saying that some of his disciples would not taste death until they had seen the kingdom of God come in power (cf. Mt. 16:28; Mk. 9:1; Lk. 9:27). Then Peter, James, and John went up on the mountain and saw the Transfigured Christ. It was a preview of the coming glory of Christ in the fulness of his kingdom. In the same way, the miracles of Christ were the inbreaking of the future kingdom into the present. They were not just wonders, they were signs, signposts pointing people to the kingdom of God in which God’s power would no longer allow things like sin and suffering. They were not meant to give people hope that this world could be a better place, but that God is going to bring in a better world where such things do not exist.

In the same way, the Christian is meant to be a wonder, a sign, to a world in darkness (cf. Ps. 71:7). We are lampposts in a world which is shrouded in the night of sin. We are miracles of the power of God who has given us life in his Son. We are meant to show the goodness of God as much as we can to as many as we can. So we are not to retreat from this world. We are to be in the world, even as we are not of it (Jn. 17:16-18). We too are to go about doing good. But we do good, not out of hope in this world, but as pointing people to the next.

This is how the NT argues. Hence Paul exhorts Timothy, “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not high-minded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:17-19). How do you motivate the Christian to do good in this world? You motivate them with Biblical motivation when you have them do good out of their hope in the age to come, by laying hold on eternal life. Not to try to create a Utopia in this world, but by being pointers to a future world in which righteousness dwells.

So how do should our hope be inspired in this Christmas season, as we ponder the coming of Christ into this world, to be born of a woman, made under the law? We are to see the incarnation of Christ as the promise of redemption from the curse, the rescue of Israel – God’s people – from sin in all its dimensions, a redemption and rescue that can only be fulfilled in the future physical resurrection of our bodies in a new heaven and new earth. And we have great reason to hope for that. For Christ has come, died, and rose from the dead. Having come once, can we doubt that he will come again? He will come. And so we say, as we love the Lord born in a manger, “Even so, come [again], Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).

Sunday, November 21, 2021

For his mercy endureth forever, Ps. 136


The refrain “for his mercy endureth forever” is one of the most common refrains in the OT, and it is certainly the main reason given for why we should give thanks to God. “O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever” (1). Now technically, the flow of thought in the text interposes God’s goodness between our thanks and his mercy. I think the thought is this: we thank God for his goodness toward us. But how can we expect God to be good to us? And the reason for this is that the mercy of the Lord endures forever. That is the idea. So that at the end of the day, it is God’s mercy which secures the good which secures our thanksgiving.

Since this is the signal reason given for rendering thanks to God, I think it is worthwhile in this season of thanksgiving in our nation to pause and reflect upon this. Certainly, our giving thanks should be instructed and flavored and directed by the teaching of the Scripture. Let us therefore consider the goodness and mercy of God and how it ought to create in us thanksgiving to God. First, we want to consider all the ways in which God is good to us. Second, we want to grasp how it is that God’s mercy is the reason why we can expect good from God and that it is why we do in fact receive good from him. Finally, we want to see how these realities ought to create in us hearts full of thanksgiving.

For he is good.

The apostle James tells us, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (Jam. 1:17). On the other hand, God cannot be tempted by evil, neither does he tempt any man (13). This is because God is good and does only that which is good (Ps. 119:68). When our Lord came to earth, the apostle Peter described his ministry in this way: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed by the devil; for God was with him” (Acts 10:38). The Lord Jesus, the Son of the Father, does what his Father does: all their works are intrinsically and manifestly good.

Now in the Psalm that we are considering, there are three main areas in which God shows his goodness and mercy: in creation (4-9), in redemption (10-24), and in providence (25), although this latter category is really inseparable from the previous ones. For God is working out his plan of redemption in history, bringing about his redemptive will through his works of creation and providence.

In Creation

Verses 4-9 deal with creation. These are God’s wonders (4): making the heavens by his wisdom (5), stretching out the earth above the waters (6), and in making the sun, moon, and stars (7-9). By the way, one of the really dumb arguments you hear nowadays is that the vast, seemingly uninhabited expanse of space, occupied as it is with millions of planets with no life, is somehow an argument, not only against God’s goodness, but against the wisdom and being of God altogether. But this is a very man-centered argument and only makes sense if you assume that God is supposed to only create stuff that we could use. On the contrary, the vastness of an unreachable space is not an argument against the wisdom of God, but according to the psalmist, it is an argument for God’s wisdom and power! “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1) and it is the blindness of modern man that we cannot see that. If God is infinitely and incomparably great, could we have expected less than the heavens that we see?

But the heavens not only tell of God’s greatness and wonders, they also tell, according to the psalmist, of God’s goodness and mercy. The physical creation does exist for our good. God has placed the sun and the moon at just the right places to give us the seasons and the tides. He has given us the earth and the flora and fauna upon it. Even the unreachable heavens are there for our good – how much of human flourishing has come about from looking up into the heavens? How much joy and pleasure there can be from just looking up into the Milky Way Galaxy on a clear night!

We need to be reminded of this. God is not someone separated, as the old Gnostics believed, from the physical creation. He is the creator. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” – everything that there is (Gen. 1:1). The dirt and the grass and the trees and the flowers, the animals and men, are all created by God. And in the end, God is not going to do away with the physical creation, but is rather going to renew it in a new heavens and a new earth.

In fact, the apostle Paul warns us against those who forbid to marry and command to abstain from certain types of food, “which,” he says, “God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:3-5). Did you hear that? Every creature of God is good. And the idea here is that it is good for us – don’t miss that! We are to enjoy the gifts of God’s creation.

Now of course we can turn these things into idols. We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to replace God with the creature, as Paul warns in Romans 1. That is why we receive these things with thanksgiving and remind ourselves that all these things are gifts from God. And this ought to remind us that God is the greatest of the gifts, for the Giver is greater – infinitely so – than the gifts themselves.

In Providence

What are God’s works of providence? I like how the old Shorter Catechism answers that question: “God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions.” God preserves his creation, holding it in being, and governs all that takes place in his creation.

In order to truly understand and appreciate God’s providence, you have to understand its pervasiveness. It’s not as if God interposes himself here and there, at this time and then at that time. Rather, God is active in all that happens, and nothing can happen in this world apart from his will. Now, I’m not saying that God creates the moral evil in this world. God is holy and cannot do that. However, even the moral evil that happens, happens because God purposefully permits it to happen for eternally holy, wise, and good reasons. Nothing takes God by surprise: “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Isa. 46:9-10).

In Psalm 136, you see the pervasive providence of God. He smites the firstborn of Egypt and brings about the plagues and rescues his people from slavery. He is the one who commands the Red Sea to part and overthrows Pharaoh’s army in the midst of it. He is the one who led Israel through the wilderness and gave them victory in battle. He is the one who “giveth food to all flesh” (Ps. 136:25), from the sparrow in its nest to the lion on the hunt to the farmer plowing his field – to idiots like me who are so reliant upon the grocery store. God is everywhere in the pages of Scripture because he is in fact everywhere. And he is everywhere for the good of his people: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). How do we know that all things work for our good? Because God’s providence – his “purposeful sovereignty” as John Piper puts it – is everywhere, working in all things for his glory and the good of his people.

My friends, God works for the good of his people. And we are not to think that we are on our own until we die and reach glory. This world is God’s world, as the hymn puts it, “This is my Father’s world.” He is doing good to you in a million ways, both seen and unseen. And even in the hard things, the very hard things, God is acting for your good. We may not see why, but we can be sure that God will not let one drop of suffering or softness come into our lives if it is not for our good and his glory.

In Redemption

In verses 10-24, the psalmist is highlighting the redemptive story of Israel, how God brought them out of Egyptian slavery and into the Promised Land. But this is but a picture of a much greater redemption story, not a story about earthly bondage and temporal rescue, but a story about bondage to sin and Satan and how God through his Son saves his people from their sin: “For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7).

And just as the story of Israel’s redemption was not primarily about deliverance from Egyptian bondage, but rather about God taking them as a people for himself (16; cf. Exod. 19:3-6; 20:1-2), even so the story of the redemption purchased by Christ is not primarily about God getting us out of addiction or debt or sadness or one of the many other symptoms of begin fallen and sinful people living in a fallen and sinful world. Rather, it is primarily and fundamentally about God making us a people for his own possession (Tit. 2:13). It is, as the apostle Peter put it, for this reason: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but quickened by the Spirit (1 Pet. 3:18). As it is put in the terms of the New Covenant, “I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be my people: and they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb. 8:10-12).

The greatest of all gifts is God himself. Every other good is there to be enjoyed, yes, but fundamentally to point us to Christ from whom all blessings flow. And every good is only properly enjoyed in relation to God. This is one of the reasons why it is so important for us to understand that God is independent of his creation – he does not depend upon it for his being or his joy or fulfillment or whatever. The creation depends upon God, not the other way around. Where then does God get his joy? Not from creation, but from within the eternal fellowship of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit. But here is the amazing thing: through salvation, which only comes through the redemption accomplished by Christ upon the cross and for all who receive it by faith, we are out of sheer mercy and grace ushered into the very fellowship and love of the Trinity. If the Bible didn’t say it, I wouldn’t dare to, but there it is in John 17, where our Lord prays to his Father: “And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world” (22-24). Which means that our greatest joy can only come from immediate fellowship with God. But this is what happens for redeemed sinners; it’s what the apostle John celebrates in his first epistle (1 Jn. 1:1-10). This is the greatest good, the summum bonum.

For his mercy endureth forever.

Now these are tremendous blessings. But the reality of our sin interposes to threaten our enjoyment of these goods. How can we have any expectation that God will bless us with good? This is where this part of the verse is so important: God’s mercy endures forever, that’s why. This tells us something about God’s heart that encourages us to expect to receive good from him.

What is mercy? It is lovingkindness to the miserable, to the destitute. Now I know that many modern versions translate this word differently here. For example, the ESV puts “steadfast love” for mercy. And I do think that’s an excellent translation. However, “mercy” still gets at the heart of the meaning of the Hebrew word. In any case, it was translated “mercy” (eleos, Gk.) in the Septuagint by the Jewish community in Egypt in the second century before Christ, and I figure they probably knew a thing or two about Hebrew.

There are at least two sorts of people that this Psalm speaks to, people who may have lost all hope that they could see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

The first is the person who sees their sin and the weight of the guilt and understands that they deserve nothing but the judgment of God. And this is right! For sin brings upon us the just wrath of God. Thus the awareness of our sinfulness and our corresponding guilt can prevent us from feeling that we could ever receive good from God. Now redemption in any meaningful sense is redemption from sin: from its penalty, power, and presence. But still, we can wonder if we can hope for redemption from sin. Could it be that we are too far gone, that we have messed up too much? Could it be that there is no hope for me after all? Can I in fact be redeemed?

Now this is where we need to hear our text. God shows mercy and mercy is something given to the ill- deserving and undeserving, not to those who think they have it together. Mercy is for those who, like Jacob, say: “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies [same word as in Ps. 136], and of the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant” (Gen. 32:10).

But how can we know that we can receive God’s mercy,? For the reality is that God’s mercy is not indiscriminate. In other words, we shouldn’t look at verses like this and think that I am automatically going to get mercy because that’s just the way God is. That’s not what the Bible says. The apostle Paul writes, quoting from the book of Exodus, “For he [God] saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Rom. 9:15). God is sovereign in the dispensing of mercy. Mercy is not something owed to you or me or anyone. Mercy can only come in the form of grace freely given. I don’t think it’s for no reason that when Paul greets the churches in his epistles he almost always wishes them both the grace and the mercy of God, for they naturally go together.

The answer is that God has made it very clear in the Bible that his mercy is on all those who belong to his Son. In other words, we don’t have to wonder on whom God will show mercy because he’s told us. God’s mercy comes to us freely through Christ and in Christ: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved;) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-7). Which brings us to the question: how do you know that you belong to his Son? And the answer is: do you trust in him? For Paul goes on to say, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (8-9). We become possessors of the righteousness of God in Christ through faith. In other words, the mercy of the Lord that endures forever is not for everyone but for those who have put their faith and hope in Christ.

This is the best of news because this means that we do not make ourselves worthy of God’s mercy but we receive it as a gift on the basis of the righteousness of Christ.

Mercy is for sinners who hope in Christ. Mercy is for those who have made a wreck of their lives. Mercy is for people who are ashamed of themselves and just want to hide from everyone. Mercy is for people who feel worthless. Mercy is for people like King David, whose sin made him feel dirty and miserable. But he called out for mercy and God gave it to him: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:1-3).

But there is no mercy outside of Christ, no hope apart from him. If you insist upon meeting God on your own terms and not in Christ, go for it; but I can guarantee that it will not end well for you. The only hope for sinners is for people to approach God’s throne saying, as in the words of the hymn:

Nothing in my hands I bring, Simply to thy cross I cling. Naked come to thee for dress, Helpless look to thee for grace Foul I to the fountain fly: Wash me, Savior, or I die.

But mercy also points us to the fact of our fragility. You don’t have mercy on those who have it together. You have mercy on people who are falling apart, who don’t have it together. People who are hurt and sad and broken from any number of causes are often what we would consider to be the proper objects of mercy. The psalmist refers to God’s mercy on Israel when they were in a “low estate” (ver. 23).

So this text also addresses the person, who, though a follower of Jesus, yet whose life has become a graveyard of hopes because of all the difficulties and disappointments they have had to navigate. As a result they are broken. They are tremendously aware of their fragility and their need for mercy, but they are losing hope that there is mercy and goodness for them. They want to be able to say, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life” (Ps. 23:6), but they have stopped believing that it is possible for them.

What does the Bible have to say to this person? It says that the mercy of the Lord endures forever. Not just that it exists, but exists forever. Your suffering cannot outlast God’s mercy. For suffering saints, it tells us that no matter how from together to apart our lives have become, we should never give up hope in the mercy of God. It doesn’t matter how bad things have become, it is no indication that God’s mercy has expired for you. His mercy is forever. In other words, we can be tempted to think that God has abandoned us. But the fact that the Bible says that God’s mercy endures forever should keep us from going there.

Now we know that this does not mean that if you have enough faith, the suffering will just go away. That is not the way it works. The way we should arm ourselves against despair with this verse is to remind ourselves of three things. First, that our misery will end in mercy. And when it ends, it will end forever in incomparable glory. Our suffering doesn’t just end; it ends in glory (Rom. 8:18). This is mercy, great mercy, everlasting mercy. With the psalmist, every believer can say, “Hope in God, for I shall yet praise him” (Ps. 42). Why? Because God’s mercy is forever. Second, that the sufferings of the present time are working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:18). For the believer, even though the sufferings we endure are not good in themselves, yet they are producing good for us, eternal good, and this is again great mercy. Third, that in all that we go through, God is towards us in a posture of mercy and steadfast love, not judgment. I think one of the mindsets that we can easily fall into is the mistake of thinking that God is against us. But my friend if you are in Christ that is impossible. God is everlastingly for you and nothing can be successfully against you. God is merciful; his steadfast love endures forever. Let us not forget that. Let us not misjudge our Father in heaven.

If you belong to Jesus today, this verse should prevent you from living in fear – from fear that God will one day take away his mercy from us. No, he will not, for his mercy endureth forever. We are not intended to go through life afraid that our Father is going to leave us behind or stop loving us. He will not. His ways toward us are mercy, mercy in every gift which we should enjoy, and mercy in every trial from which we should grow and learn.

Give thanks unto the Lord

Let us therefore gives thanks. Give thanks for all his good gifts: in creation, providence, and salvation. Give thanks to him because his good gifts are not anchored in our worthiness but in his grace and mercy. The one thing that could separate us from all God’s good gifts is our sin, but that has been everlastingly dealt with in Christ, so that if we have received his righteousness by faith, we receive with it all God’s mercy and grace.

Let us give thanks for everything (1 Thess. 5:18), knowing that there is nothing that is happening apart from God’s good and holy and wise purpose for us. Let us give thanks at every moment, knowing that rivers of God’s mercy never run dry. My friend, God is good. This is not a cheap appellation, but an eternal reality in Christ. And the good he will do to us is a blessing that makes rich without any admixture of sorrow and regret (Prov. 10:22). Every gift is safeguarded, not by our merit but by his mercy. Every gift is sweetened and secured by the grace of God in Jesus.

Can you give thanks to the Lord in this way? Can you have this confidence? All who entrust themselves to Christ as Lord and Savior may do so and may join the psalmist and say with hearts overflowing with true joy and gratitude, “Give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever.”


Monday, November 15, 2021

Let us go on unto perfection (Heb. 6:1-3)


God does not want you to remain stagnant in your Christian life. Rather, we are to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). We are by “speaking the truth in love” to “grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:15). There ought to be progress in the spiritual life of the believer, and when there is not, it ought to cause us to examine ourselves. In fact, the apostle Peter says that we are to be constantly adding to ourselves the Christian virtues of faith and virtue and knowledge and temperance and patience and godliness and brotherly kindness and love, “For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure, for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall” (2 Pet. 1:8-10).

Note what he says. If we aren’t adding and growing and abounding, we will be blind, lacking spiritual discernment. Does that sound familiar? It’s exactly how we are warned in Heb. 5:12-14. Moreover, Peter goes on to say that by doing these things “ye shall never fall;” that is, will not stumble and fall into sin. It is not by maintaining our ground but by gaining ground that we are most likely to be preserved from falling into sin. I don’t know how many battles have been lost because an army did not press forward early on to gain the high ground, leaving it to the enemy. Spiritual growth is a sign of spiritual health; those who are not growing are more vulnerable to the assaults of the devil. It was when King David stayed home from the battle that he sinned his great sin. My friends, let us not stay where we are but go forward into battle, armed with the whole armor of God. Let us grow, let us go onto spiritual maturity.

The point is that this is necessary for our spiritual health and safety. Spiritual immaturity is not okay; it is dangerous. Those who are not spiritually mature will be unskillful in the word of righteousness (5:13) and will therefore be unable to “discern both good and evil” (14). They will make unwise and sinful choices. They will be like “children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Eph. 4:14). On the contrary, we need to “come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

This is why the author of Hebrews is pressing this to his readers: “Therefore, leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection” (Heb. 6:1). Why? The “therefore” at the beginning of the sentence points us back to 5:11-14, where he is confronting them over their dullness of hearing and their apparent immaturity in the faith, a result, as we saw, of not applying God’s word diligently to their lives. If they don’t go on to perfection (here, “perfection” is a reference, not to sinless perfection, but to spiritual maturity), they will remain immature and exposed to the danger of falling away from the faith.

Immaturity, in other words, is not just the failure to be a better Christian. It is not just a spiritual state that lacks the discipline and courage and joy and holiness of the more mature believer. It is, rather, a state in which we are vulnerable and exposed to sin and Satan, and as a result in danger of falling away from the faith. We know this is the danger in consideration here because this is exactly what the author will go on in the next verses (6:4-8) to warn them about.

There is such a thing as a “simple faith” that is good. For example, we sing the hymn, “O how sweet to trust in Jesus:”

Oh how sweet to trust in Jesus, 
Just to trust his cleansing blood 
And in simple faith to plunge me 
‘Neath the healing, cleansing flood.

I like that hymn, and I love the sentiment expressed there. “Simple faith” there is good because it is a reference to the fact that we are trusting solely in Jesus, not in anything else. It means that the eye of faith is simple in the sense that it is entirely aimed at the person and work of Christ.

But there is a kind of simple faith that is not good. If our faith is simple in the sense that we have never gone forward from “the principles of the doctrine of Christ,” then we are living in disobedience to God’s intention for us as his people. If our understanding and experience of the faith and of the God of the Bible is the same as it was 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, then something is wrong. This is not good; it is exactly what we are being warned against in this text.

What are we being exhorted to advance from? Well, we see it in verses 1 and 2: “not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” This is what is meant by “the principles of the doctrine of Christ,” or, as another translation puts it, “the elementary doctrine of Christ” (ESV). In other words, we are not to stay in elementary school, we are to go on to more advanced learning and experience. But what is he referring to exactly?

Well, when he says, “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,” we are reminded of their conversion to Christ. When Paul preached the gospel, and urged men and women to be converted to Christ, he tells us that he testified “both to the Jews and to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Now it is true that faith here is not explicitly said to be in Christ, but you cannot trust in God apart from Christ. And, after all, these are the elementary principles of the doctrine of Christ, so faith in such a context implies trust in Jesus Christ.

Second, when he says, “the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands,” we are reminded of their public initiation into the faith through the symbolic acts of baptism and the laying on of hands. Now this term “baptisms” has provoked much consternation in the commentaries because the term here is not the normal word used in the NT for baptism, and also because it is used in the plural. However, remember that this is a letter written to Jews, who were used to many different kinds of ritual cleansing rites (see Heb. 9:10, where the same word is translated “washings” referring to cleansing rites in the law of Moses), so when they were taught about Christian baptism, they would have had to be taught about the difference between Christian baptism and these other types of ritual cleansings (which explains both the plural and the more general term used). You actually see this happening in Acts 19, when the apostle Paul has to teach some Jewish disciples the difference between John’s baptism and baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 19:1-7). Incidentally, you also see Paul laying hands upon these disciples (Acts 19:6) after baptizing them in the name of the Lord Jesus.

The third element to the elementary principles of the doctrine of Christ is the “resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” In this we are reminded of their fundamental change, not only of life but of perspective and purpose. Paul says that apart from the resurrection from the dead, our faith is vain (1 Cor. 15:12-20), so certainly instruction in this would be part of any elementary teaching. We not only turn from a godless past, but we also turn to live in hope of a certain future. The description of the conversion of the Thessalonian Christians is a perfect illustration of the first and third couplets in our text: “ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9-10).

But the point here is that every one of these things refers to beliefs and actions that we take at the very beginning of the Christian life. But we are not meant to stay where we began! Now of course, “leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ” does not mean to leave them behind. These are foundational truths (ver. 1), and you don’t leave the foundation behind but build upon it the superstructure of the Christian life. It simply means that we don’t stay baby Christians, but that we grow and mature in the faith.

Very well, that is the purpose of this text. But it leaves us with the following question: how do we grow in maturity? How do we grow in the faith? That is what we want to consider next.

There is something for you to do.

We know there is something for us to do because the text is a call for us to go forward, to leave behind a state of spiritual immaturity. And in verse 3, which we will consider in more detail in a moment, we read, “And this we will do.” There is something for us to do.

What? For one thing, we need to know what we are aiming for. What does it mean to be spiritually mature? Primarily, it means that we are becoming Christlike in our character. This is the goal of God’s saving purpose, according to Romans 8:29: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” Certainly, any definition of spiritual maturity has to take this as its main goal, since it is God’s goal in our salvation. Also, we have already looked at Paul’s words in Ephesians 4, where he says that the aim of the ministry is to build up believers “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” Christ, not culture, is the standard by which we are to grow. This is the reason why the apostle Peter says that we are to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18), for it only as we come to know Christ more fully that we will become more like him. And how do we come to know Christ more fully? By his word, for it is in his word, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, that he both speaks to us and reveals himself to us.

Second, maturity means pursuing all, not some, of the virtues that make us Christlike. Thus we are told to put on the “whole armor of God,” not just one or two pieces (Eph. 6:11, 13). It means manifesting all the fruits of the Spirit in our lives: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22-23). And this means that we hold the virtues in harmony and balance (the word “perfection” carries the idea of perfect harmony), so that we hold them in the right proportions. It is great to be courageous, but if it is not tempered with longsuffering and gentleness, you are probably going to be more of a curse than a blessing to the church. Another way to put this is that our holiness should be attractive, as Paul puts it to the servants in Titus 2: “that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (10). In Psalm 96:9 we are told to worship the Lord in the “beauty of holiness.” Holiness is beautiful and attractive; so should we be in our character.

Third, it means more of what we already have. We are not to be content with where we are at, but to aim at more consistency in the practice of the virtues, practicing them more often and more fully. As the apostle Paul put it to the Thessalonians, “But as touching brotherly love, ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another. And indeed ye do it toward all the brethren which are in Macedonia: but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more” (1 Thess. 4:9-10).

Further, it means that the practice of the Christian virtues becomes more and more natural to us, so that we are not “unskillful” (5:13) in applying the word of righteousness to our lives. Not that we need to put in less effort, but that the practice of piety becomes more and more the first thing we do rather than something that we only become aware of later. Let me give you an example. Suppose you encounter a difficult person; it is an easy thing to become angry. Of course, as a Christian, we are to put that away. But the reality is that it is not natural to respond with gentleness and kindness – and yet what we are saying is that as we grow in grace, it should become more and more natural for us to respond that way, especially since our nature has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. In other words, what is natural for us should be determined by a changed nature, a nature that is being renewed after the image of God (Eph. 4:24).

Now we achieve this by the means of the word of God, as we pointed out last time. These Hebrew Christians were not mature because they were not applying God’s word to their lives. Hence the emphasis in this letter on the word of God. It is that by which the “man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:17). But we have to be intentional about it.

We depend ultimately upon God for success.

However, what we do is not the whole story. I don’t think it’s a mistake that the Beatitudes, another great catalog of Christian virtues, begins with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). Why do you think that is? The ancient philosophers put courage as the greatest of all virtues, but our Lord puts poverty in spirit! How countercultural! He is saying that the first and primary virtue is that we recognize our inability to make ourselves good. This seems to be not only countercultural but counterproductive. Why tell people who are being called to be different from the world that they can do nothing in themselves?

The reason is because ultimately it is not us but God who is the reason for any good that is in us. Grace is at the heart of sanctification. Christian character is very different for that reason from what the world calls us to do. The world begins with man and what he can do. But the Scriptures begin with God and what he can do, because we are sinners and therefore incapable in ourselves to do anything good.

There are two things standing in our way. One thing that stands in our way is the fact that we are not just sinners because we sin, but that we sin because we are sinners. In other words, as the apostle Paul put it to the Ephesians, we are dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1). We are incapable in ourselves to take one step toward God because we are so in love with our own self-sovereignty. We are in our hearts rebels towards God. Or as Paul put it to the Romans, “the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8). Being “in the flesh” is not something you have to become – it is what we are all by nature. By nature we are children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). We cannot please God and we cannot keep God’s law – not that we can’t ever do anything good before we are born again; what the apostle is saying is that at the bedrock of our nature is a heart of rebellion against God and all that we do, even the so- called good things, are done from a heart of self-will and self-pleasing. And that is not acceptable to God. Even the sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord (Prov. 15:8; 21:27).

The other thing that stands in our way is the guilt of our sin. Because God is holy, he will not always pass over our sin. He must punish it. And since we are all sinners, we are all therefore exposed to the just and holy wrath of God. No amount of good works can undo this; our sin must be punished. The problem is even worse than this might seem to suggest, however; for not only are we all exposed to God’s judgment, but the reality is that none of us can pay the penalty our sins deserve. There is just no such thing as doing more good works than you are supposed to do. In fact, our Lord put it this way to his disciples: “when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded of you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do” (Lk. 17:10).

What then can we do? Well, it is what the author of Hebrews is pointing us to. He is pointing us to Jesus Christ as God’s high priest, the one who mediates before God for us, and the only one who can bring a sacrifice that will purge our sins. He is therefore the only way to God. He alone is the author of eternal salvation (Heb. 5:9). He is the way and the truth and the life; we only come to the Father through faith in him, not trusting in our merits but in the merits of the Son of God, Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:6).

The life of virtue, according to the Scriptures, does not therefore begin with human will-power or human effort. It begins with realizing our own sinfulness, our poverty of spirit, and coming to God relying on his grace and mercy bestowed, not on those who are worthy, but on those who are united by faith to Christ and his worthiness. Our ability to please God does not come from within ourselves, but comes to us as a gift of grace to those who are justified by the righteousness of God in Christ.

And this is all according to God’s sovereign grace. I know that this is very unpalatable for self-centered man, but it is what the Bible tells us. This is why the author of Hebrews, after calling on them to go on to maturity, says, “And this will we do, if God permits” (Heb. 6:3). We will pursue holiness and virtue if God permits; we will go on to perfection if God permits. In other words, it is God who is ultimately and decisively the reason why anyone can go onto perfection. By the way, it’s interesting that actually the literal rendering of verse 1 is “let us be carried onto perfection,” for the verb there is passive, not active. Even our own effort is in dependence upon God. It’s not as if we do some and God does some, but that our success in any spiritual endeavor depends upon God’s grace in and through all our actions and efforts. God is working and we are working in one and the same event.

Now it’s very important that we don’t take this to mean that God keeps people from pursuing holiness! This is not what is meant, “if God permits.” It’s not as if we are to imagine someone trying to do what is right and God keeping them from it. The reality rather is that we all by nature are pursuing what pleases us, not what pleases God. We are all idolators by nature; our hearts are idol- factories, as Calvin put it. And God did not and does not have to save anyone. We are all justly condemned. As the hymn puts it, “If my soul were sent to hell, thy righteous law approves it well.” What the phrase, “if God permits” means, then, is that it is owing fundamentally to the sovereign initiative of God, an initiative grounded solely in free grace and mercy, that is the reason why anyone can be converted and then go on to spiritual maturity.

How we put these two things together.

And that means that as we go forward, as we seek to advance in the holiness, we do so trusting in the mercy and grace of God. We do so like Paul, who wrote, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the live I now live in the flesh I live by faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). My friends, this is the best of news, for if you are honest with yourself, you will realize just how truly poor in spirit you are. But if what we are saying is true – and the Bible says that it is – then that means that we are not at the mercy of our own resources. Instead, we have the resources of God’s infinite grace that strengthens us to grow to spiritual maturity. It’s why the apostle wanted believers to know “what is the exceeding greatness of his power to usward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:19-20). Why is it important to know that? So that we never think we will ever be put in a situation where we cannot go forward in obedience to God. “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).

My friend, where are you this day? Have you yet to repent of your sins and turn to God through faith in Christ? Turn to him this day, for there is no way forward except by beginning right here. “For other foundation can no man lay that that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). On the other hand, has this foundation been laid in your life? Well, then, what are you building upon it? How advanced are you? Have you been a Christian these many years and yet there is little more than a bare slab as evidence for it? If that is true, then according to this text, you are vulnerable. You need to go on to maturity. Don’t stay where you are, but grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is one of the reasons for the church. It’s why the ministry exists, but it’s also why each of you have been given spiritual gifts – not just for your benefit but for the benefit of others. So let’s not be satisfied with “mere Christianity” but go onto perfection, trusting in God’s help and grace as we do so. May God make it so.


The Two Mountains (Hebrews 12:18-24)

How do you convince Jewish Christians to remain faithful to Christ, when they are under tremendous pressure to abandon their faith for a Jud...