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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

How we need to hear (Heb. 5:11-14)

For many years, I read this passage as an exhortation to the Hebrew Christians to get more Bible knowledge into them. After all, does not the author say that “when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God”? (ver. 12). They need to be taught, there needs to be information transfer. That’s the problem – or is it?

Somehow though, when you go on to read what follows, this interpretation doesn’t seem to jive with the context. For example, while he complains that their state (which requires further teaching) makes it hard for him to teach them about Melchisedec (10-12), yet that is precisely what he does in chapter 7. Moreover, though he seems to say that they need further instruction in the ABCs of the faith (“first principles of the oracles of God,” ver. 12), he never seems to give them this instruction in the verses leading up to his taking up the theme of Melchisedec. He mentions some of the basics in just two verses (6:1-2) and then moves on – and he expects them to move on with him. Now if they really were deficient in knowledge, this is bad pedagogy on his part. You make up the deficiency in knowledge by imparting the necessary instruction. But again, there is no real instruction in the ABCs of the faith.

What is there? In chapter 6, beginning in verse 4 and extending to the end of the chapter, you have this shocking warning, a stirring exhortation, and a call to hope. It centers around verses 11-12 where the author appeals to them in this way: “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 inherit the promises.” That is very instructive. What is the purpose of an exhortation? What do exhortations do? They stir us up to put into practice what we already believe, while also motivating us to do so.

This indicates that the deficiency which is addressed in our text is not quite a deficiency in knowledge, per se. It is a deficiency in putting into practice gospel realities because they were not motivated to live in light of those realities. That is the problem.

There is a connection between 5:11 and 6:12 that is instructive here. The problem that has led to everything is that they were “dull of hearing” (5:11). That word “dull” is repeated in 6:12: “That ye be not slothful [dull], but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” He diagnoses the problem in 5:11 – dullness of hearing – and urges them to repent of that in 6:12. But note that the dullness in 6:12 does not arise from inadequate knowledge but from a failure to apply that knowledge. That’s what it means to be slothful. Ignorant people need to be taught; slothful people need a kick in the pants, which is precisely what the author does (in a manner of speaking).

You see this further in the analogy of milk and meat. Milk is for babies; meat is for the mature. But this is not unpacked in terms of the amount of knowledge, but in terms of its use. Milk is “for everyone that . . . is unskillful in the word of righteousness” (12), whereas meat “belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (13-14). Someone who is “unskillful” with the gospel [= word of righteousness] is unaccustomed to living by its principles and in light of its truths. On the other hand, the mature are those who have “by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” It’s really a question of application – they have not been applying God’s word to their lives. And why not? Because they are dull of hearing.

So why does he say they need to be taught? Doesn’t that point to a lack of knowledge? No, not necessarily. I think there is some irony here. He is saying that their dullness of hearing has made them no different from people who have never even heard the gospel, who don’t even know the basics. If you don’t apply the gospel that you know to your life – how is that really any different from someone who has never heard the gospel? Well, in terms of what you can see, there is no difference. Notice that the need to be taught is parallel with the need for milk (12). And we saw that their need for milk, which really is a way of talking about their spiritual immaturity, did not arise from a lack of knowledge but from a failure to use and apply what they already knew.

So the problem addressed in these verses is that the Hebrew Christians were dull of hearing, which led to a failure to apply God’s word to their hearts and lives, and this in turn led them to a failure to value what God valued (or a failure to discern the difference between what is good and what is evil). And of course that led them to the point of being on the brink of abandoning the Christian faith for something else. Which is a terrifying place to be, and we will be reminded just how terrifying that is in the next chapter. But if we want to avoid getting there, we need to repent of what will get us there in the first place, which is dullness of hearing – not hearing God’s word the way we ought.

This is what I want to talk about in this message: how to hear God’s word – or, how to avoid being dull of hearing. How do we do that?

Fight worldliness

Well, first of all, we need to repent of whatever it is that makes us dull of hearing. How do we get there? I think there are thousands of ways to get there. For the Hebrew Christians, it was persecution. It had worn them down. But it was not just persecution; it was the failure to interpret their circumstances in light of God’s promises. Instead, they had interpreted God and his gospel in light of their circumstances. Thus, they needed to be reminded of the hope that we have because of the gospel. They needed to say, with the psalmist, “Hope thou in God; for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God” (Ps 42:11).

But the more fundamental answer is that we become dull of hearing because we have capitulated to worldliness. What is worldliness? It is fundamentally the love of this world, where “world” encompasses all the values, opinions, and philosophies of humanity in rebellion against God. The apostle John reminds us in his first epistle: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lusts thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever” (1 Jn. 2:15-17). What is worldliness? It is that system of values that blinds us to the love of God by replacing it with other things. It is idolatry. It is desiring that which God forbids and loathing that which God loves. Worldliness is placing one’s hope in the present order of things instead of looking to that which is unseen and eternal.

David Wells in his book God in the Wasteland gives a good definition of worldliness that exposits for our day what the apostle was warning about in his. He puts it this way: “For worldliness is that system of values and beliefs, behaviors and expectations, in any culture that have at their center the fallen human being and that relegate to their periphery any thought about God. Worldliness is what makes sin look normal in any age and righteousness seem odd.” He then goes on to make this very perceptive observation: “Modernity is worldliness, and it has concealed its values so adroitly in the abundance, the comfort, and the wizardry of our age that even those who call themselves the people of God seldom recognize them for what they are."i This is the danger of worldliness. Rarely does it come right out and beckon you to abandon the love of God for the love of other things. It steals upon you unawares. It gradually gnaws at your heart and soul until it has replaced Biblical values with sinful and man-centered ones. Before long, you may still be going to church and reading your Bible, but you discover that you have become dull of hearing, and that gospel realities just don’t land on you the way they once did.

How do you know that you are entrapped in worldliness? As Wells put it, you know that worldliness has taken you when sin looks normal and righteousness seems odd. This is something we will all struggle with until the day we die because not only is the “world” in the Biblical sense of humanity in rebellion again God competing for the allegiance of our hearts, but the remaining sin in our hearts is an ally within of the enemy without and makes the arguments for worldliness so often seem very plausible. If we are not constantly fighting against it, we will inevitably fall before it.

The outcome of dullness of hearing, according to our text, is in contrast with the mature who can discern the difference between good and evil. In other words, dullness keeps you from valuing what God values. And yet, even though that is an outcome produced by dullness, I also think it is a condition that leads to this spiritual dullness. The values of this world and God’s values are not compatible. When once you give in to one you must release your grip on the other. As our Lord himself put it, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt. 6:24).

The point of all this is that this is a battle which is waged first and foremost on the level of the heart. We must resist anything which makes sin look normal and which makes righteousness look strange. That may mean changing some habits. It may mean that we don’t go certain places (whether physical or digital), or watch certain TV shows, or do certain things. Worldliness is caught more than it is taught. So we must social distance ourselves, so to speak, from those things which catechize our hearts towards the values of the world. Do not be surprised if this looks strange to the world – we should expect that, for if worldliness makes righteousness seem strange then it is going to look strange to the world. In fact, the apostle Peter affirms this in his first epistle: “For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries: wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you” (1 Pet. 4:3-4). So that is the first step to combatting spiritual dullness of heart: fight the temptation to worldliness.

Put yourself in front of God’s Word

We cannot benefit from that to which we are not exposed. If you never hear the Bible or read the Bible, you obviously are not going to reap the benefits which come from it. But here’s the deal: we can think that because we have read through the Bible once or twice (or maybe even more than that), or been to this or that conference or church meeting, or because we have many years of faithfulness stacked up in the past that we can now relax our commitment to hearing God’s word. Beware of this attitude. There is never a time when we can stop hearing God’s word without endangering our souls.

This may have been one of the faults of the Hebrew Christians. They obviously had some knowledge, for the Christology of this epistle is very high and the doctrines dealt with up to this point are rich and deep.  But they did not continue in this. They had become dull of hearing. They had stopped listening to the word of God as they should have.

The godly and blessed man is always defined by a commitment to God’s word: “But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night” (Ps. 1:1). In other words, if you want to be in a healthy spiritual condition, you must make God’s truth your daily diet. As the apostle Peter put it, “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby” (1 Pet. 2:2). And in our day we have no excuses here. Despite the secular culture we live in, we have such an abundance of access to God’s word: online, podcasts, blogs, books, audio CDs and DVDs, and on and on.

As we said last Sunday, it matters what we are listening to. We need to be hearing God’s promises and to take to heart the warnings of God’s word. It is only by doing so that we will persevere and grow as we ought. But you can only do this if you are intentionally putting yourself in front of God’s word. And if you don’t have time to listen to it, then you need to rearrange your schedule. There is one thing necessary, isn’t there? Remember what our Lord told Martha who was loaded down with the cares of this world and angry at her sister Mary for neglecting her duties because she was sitting at the feet of Jesus and hearing his teaching (Lk. 10:39). Coming to the Lord with her concern, and expecting the Lord to rebuke her sister, instead she found herself rebuked: “And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Lk. 10:41-42). Do we need to be rebuked as well?

Now, I want to add this. Listen to trusted teachers of God’s word, to those who are committed to the authority and truthfulness of the Bible. Listen to those who are committed to a Biblical view of God, man, and sin, who don’t preach their own views but give you truths which you can see are coming from Scripture. Hear God’s word preached (2 Tim. 4:1-4). There is something about preaching that we need – even preachers! God’s word is not just meant to be studied in an academic fashion. It is not just meant to be quietly contemplated. It is meant to be preached, to be authoritatively delivered in the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul told Titus, “These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority” (Tit. 2:15). Preaching does something that no other venue can do, and we impoverish ourselves when we downplay the importance of it in our lives and the life of the church. People who replace preaching with dialogue are not doing the church any favors. Consider that the book of Hebrews is essentially a sermon and was meant to be the means under God’s blessing of opening their ears and turning them from dullness. My friend, put yourself under God’s word preached.

Pray for enlightenment

We must not only put ourselves continually in front of God’s word, we must also pray for enlightenment when we come to it. This was the prayer of the psalmist: “Teach me, O LORD the way of thy statutes; and I shall keep it unto the end. Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart” (Ps. 119:33-34).

Why do we need to pray for God to give us understanding? Well, I think one reason God has done it this way is to remind us of our constant dependence upon him. There is also the reality of sin and the devil. Sin blinds us to the glories of God’s word. Satan blinds us to the glories of God’s word. This is certainly true of those who are not believers: “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Cor. 4:3-4).

But it is also true that the believer, who is constantly battling the temptation to worldliness and sin, needs to have his or her eyes enlightened in spiritual things so that when we read God’s word we profit from it as we should. It’s like the windshield on a car. It’s there to see through. But sometimes when you drive down the road it gets messy, and eventually if nothing is done, it can get impossible to see through. God has given spiritual eyes to those who believe, the windshields of the soul, but if we are not washing ourselves by the Spirit who enlightens us we will eventually find ourselves unable to see what we ought to see in God’s word. So pray and ask God’s blessing upon it.

Hear it with an attitude of humility and faith

It matters how you hear God’s word, not only that you hear it. In the parable of the sower (or better, the parable of the soils), in Matthew 13, we are told that the soils represented four different types of hearers and the seed represented the word of God. Of those four soils (hearers), only one was good ground and had a good heart. Of the other three, two received the word in some sense – but did not bring forth fruit to God. So it is not enough that we listen to it, but we must receive it in a spirit of faith and humility.

Both of these aspects are summed up in the way the apostle Paul describes the reception of the word by the Thessalonian Christians: “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God, which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (1 Thess. 2:13). How should we receive God’s word? Not as the word of men. We must be convinced that this is God’s word if we are to receive it rightly. And that will mean coming to it in a spirit of humility – for who of us are in the position to dispute with God? And it means coming to it in a spirit of faith – for surely God’s word of all words is worthy of our trust. And when we come to it in this way, it will do in us as it did in the Thessalonians, it will effectually work in us who believe.

It also means being convinced that God’s word is not only necessary for spiritual growth but also sufficient for it. It means believing that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). For if we think we can get by without the instruction and nurture of God’s word, we will. We ought to feel our desperate need for the Bible and its truth.

Apply its truths to your life

As we noted earlier, the main problem with the Hebrew believers was not that they had never heard the basics of the faith or even more advanced instruction. Rather, it is that they were unskillful in the word of righteousness. They were not using it; they were not applying it to their life. Oh may we not be like the auditors of the prophet Ezekiel: “And they come unto the as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness. And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not” (Ezek. 33:31-32). Let us beware of mistaking an enjoyment of good preaching or good theological books with an actual application of it to your life.

The fact that the Bible warns against this again and again means that this is not an isolated or infrequent problem (cf. Mt. 7:24-27; Jam. 1:22-27). It is so easy to hear God’s word – or even to preach God’s word to others – and yet do nothing with it. It is not merely having God’s word but keeping it that is important: “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward” (Ps. 19:7-11). Do you want the reward of the word? Then you must keep it.

To be dull of hearing is one of the most fearful conditions to be in. Those who remain in this condition are in grave spiritual danger, and are exposed to God’s judgment. Those who do not repent and die in their sin, as our Lord put it in John 8, have no hope either in this world or the next. But here is the tragic thing about it. To have God’s word in front of us and to ignore it – that is tragic. For there is nothing more valuable than God’s word in this world and the saints have always understood that. “More to be desired . . . than gold” (Ps. 19:10). It is true, it is sound, it shows us God and the way to God in Christ.

And that is the main reason why God’s word is so precious. Paul could speak of the “unsearchable riches of Christ” which he was ordained to share with others (Eph. 3:8). In Scripture, God is mainly speaking to us about his Son and by his Son (Heb. 1:1). The overarching theme of the Bible is not how we make ourselves better but how God has intervened in the person of his Son to bring about the forgiveness of sins, the renewal of our nature, and restoration of fellowship with God. That is the gospel and it is what the Bible is all about. We are to hear this and not to be dull of hearing. We are to receive this message with a repentant and believing heart for God’s saving and gracious promise is to all who believe in God’s Son.

God’s word is here in our language, speaking in our tongue the things of God. But alas, just as it was on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, there are some who will say, “we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God” and others who say, “These men are full of new wine” (Acts 2:11, 13). Where are you this day? Do you see that the Scriptures are in fact the Word of God and tell you about “the wonderful works of God”? Or do you look at them and just see in them the babblings of intoxicated men? My friends, let us hear the word of God. Let us not be dull of hearing. Let us repent of our embrace of the values of the world, let us put ourselves in front of God’s word, let us pray for eyes to see and ears to hear, and come at it with a spirit of faith and humility, applying its truths to our lives. May God make it so in each of us.

i David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), p. 29.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

A Posture of Obedience (Heb 5:9)

In our last time together, we considered the meaning and the doctrinal implications of Heb. 5:9. The main doctrine that is being preached in this verse is that obedience is a necessary fruit of genuine Christianity, and that you cannot justifiably say that you belong to Christ or are a participant in his saving blessings if you are living in total neglect of his authority over your life. But as I continued to think about this, I realized that more needs to be said. It’s one thing to say that obedience is a necessary fruit of the Christian life. But that begs the question: what does obedience to Christ look like? How do we actually apply this to our lives, especially given the fact that we are still sinners? To answer the question, how do we obey Christ is essentially to answer the question, how do we deal with the sin in our lives? This is what we want to deal with this morning.

I believe that it is necessary to do this, because there are all sorts of wrong ways to implement the Biblical call to obedience. Let me put it to you in the words of a hymn that we sing:

From rocks of pride on either hand, From quick-sands of despair,
O guide me safe to Canaan’s land, Through every latent snare.

We need to be rescued from pride on the one hand, and from despair on the other, and these are both temptations to which we are prone, though we may tend more to one than the other. Let me show you what I mean.

First, we can seek to apply the exhortations to obedience with an attitude of pride. What does this look like? Well, I think the best illustration of this comes from our Lord’s description of the Pharisees of his day: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Mt. 23:27- 28). The Pharisees were proud (one thinks of another description, that of the Pharisee and the publican in Luke 18:9-14, which ends with the words, “for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”), and this pride worked its way out in their religious life in a shallow and superficial obedience. The problem with pride is that keeps you from being honest with yourself. It keeps you from coming to grips with the evil that is there in your heart. And so instead of seeking righteousness in the inward man, we end up being satisfied with external obedience and a rotten heart. Pride glosses over inner sin and is satisfied with an external display only.

This is dangerous because this is obviously not what God is looking for. He looks at the heart. This is what I think is behind our Lord’s words in Mt. 5:20, “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” He is not saying, as some argue, that unless you are clothed in the righteousness of Christ that you will not be saved – true though that is! What he is saying is that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is only external and God expects and demands more than that.

An attitude of pride is dangerous because it warps things. It warps our understanding of the true condition of our own heart and glosses over the evil therein. And it warps our understanding of the demands of God’s law by reducing it to a razor-thin veneer of external religious busyness without ever dealing with obedience at the level of the heart. You can see how these two things go together. Reducing the call for holiness to external obedience clearly helps us to evade the corruptions of the heart. And on the other hand, an unwillingness to come to terms with inward sinfulness inevitably leads one to define obedience in terms of outward duty only.

Where does this pride come from? I think it comes from the fundamental problem in the human heart: our tendency to worship ourselves rather than God. And this inevitably means that when we hear verses like Heb. 5:9, instead of looking away from ourselves and to the grace of God for the power and strength to obey, we begin by looking at ourselves and saying, “I can do this!” And that is really bad, because it not only robs God of the glory, but in order to keep up the charade, you will have to ignore the true state of your heart as well as the true depth and breadth of the call to holiness.

So that is one temptation we are faced with when we hear a call to obedience and holiness. But that is not the only temptation. As the hymn puts it, we are not only in danger from “rocks of pride,” but also from “quick-sands of despair.”

Here’s how this works. A person hears the call to obey Christ, and he or she thinks, “How can I do that? I’ve got so much corruption in my heart! I’ve failed so much! It’s impossible!” And they sink down in despair. This person is almost the opposite of the prideful person we’ve been describing above, although we shouldn’t think this person has no problem with pride. But it is different, because whereas the Pharisee won’t deal with the inward corruption of the heart, the despairing person can’t get away from the corruption of the soul. They are obsessed with it. They look within and that’s all they can seem to do.

Well, if you’re only looking inward, and you’re being honest, there is not going to be a lot of hope there. I know that a lot of folks say that Romans 7 doesn’t apply to the Christian, but I disagree. These are the words of the apostle Paul in the present tense: “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh), dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not” (Rom. 7:18). No wonder that we can often identify with the apostle’s mournful cry: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24).

So that is another danger we want to avoid. There is no hint in the New Testament that the call to holiness is a call to despair. Nor is it a call to pride. We need to avoid both. The question is: how? That’s what we want to consider together today.

The way I want to approach this is with the phrase a posture of obedience. The word “posture” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a conscious mental or outward behavioral attitude.”1 I used this phrase in my sermon last Sunday, and I think it’s a helpful way to look at the Biblical teaching on obedience in the life of a Christian.

Here’s what I mean by this, first negatively and then positively. By “a posture of obedience” I am not describing sinless perfection. I am not saying that the Biblical commands to obey mean that unless I am doing this perfectly then I am not a Christian. What I am saying is that a Christian is someone whose overall outlook and basic attitude is one of imperfectly but consciously pursuing holiness in the fear of God. And although we certainly ought to have perfect obedience as our aim, that doesn’t mean that we will ever be perfect this side of heaven. As I said last time, we will never be able to say this side of heaven that we have become the Beatitudes, but we certainly ought to be saying that we are becoming the Beatitudes, however slowly that process is taking place.

Let me say it again: no Christian can say that they are without sin. The Bible gives us no grounds upon which to say that. In fact, it says the opposite. It tells us that we are to ask forgiveness every day for our sins (Mt. 6:12). The apostle John wrote, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8). And, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him [God] a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:10).

So posture does not mean perfection. Rather, posture points us to the overall pattern of our lives. However, the question presses in upon us: how do we evaluate our obedience in light of the sin in our hearts and lives? Do we conclude that because we sin we are not Christian? Do we conclude that since everyone sins, it’s no big deal? That I shouldn’t be concerned about the sin in my life? Do we respond with pride and think that we’re okay, no matter how much we sin, or do we respond with despair and throw in the towel? Are we supposed to be constantly doubting our salvation because of the remaining sin in our lives? Surely there must be a better way. And there is, and the Bible helps us to navigate between the twin dangers of pride and despair. Here are some questions that I think can help us maintain the posture of obedience in a Biblical, humble, and hopeful way: where are we looking, what are we doing, and to what are we listening?

Where are we looking?

One of the main obstacles to the pursuit of holiness is looking for motivation in all the wrong places. In particular, I’m talking about where we are looking for motivation and inspiration in dealing with the sin in our lives. What drives our response to the sin in our lives? Are we motivated by a merit-based mentality or are we motivated by love of God toward us in Jesus Christ? We should never look to our obedience as the ground of our acceptance with God. Rather, we look solely to Christ and to the grace of God in him. This is a dangerous thing because it can lead to both pride and despair. Those who take a superficial view of the demands of God upon us will end up proud. On the other hand, those who take a more realistic look at themselves will end up in despair, for they will soon realize that there is no way any of us can commend ourselves to God on the basis of our goodness.

But this is not where Scripture tells us to look. We are not to look to ourselves, but to Christ. Remember what God says to us through the prophet: “Look unto me and be ye saved, all the end of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” (Isa. 45:22), and that means there is really nowhere else to look. We are not to look to ourselves out of pride, nor are we to look in ourselves and despair.

In particular, we are not to be motivated by our works but by his grace. This is how the apostle Paul consistently argues. In Romans 1-11, he unpacks for us the glorious gospel of grace. It is about the righteousness of God, the grace of God, the power of God, the purpose of God for us. And then he gets to what some might call the “practical part” of the epistle. How does he begin? This way: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1). What are the mercies of God? They are contained in the gospel which tells us that we are not justified on the basis of our works but on the basis of the righteousness of God in Christ freely given to those who believe. That’s what ought to motivate you. Are you? Am I? Am I motivated by the mercies of God in the life of obedience or am I more motivated by the demands of the law which I am desperately trying to live up to and therefore merit God’s favor thereby?

You see it in other writings of Paul as well. Ephesians 1-3 are all about God’s sovereign purpose of election, Christ’s saving redemption, and the Sprit’s work in our hearts, raising us from a death in sin and giving us good hope through grace. When we get to the second half of the epistle, again the “practical part,” he begins it with these words: “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called” (Eph. 4:1). Note that word “therefore.” It is there to point us back to chapters 1-3. We are to be motivated by what God has done, is doing, and will do for us in Christ, in whom every spiritual blessing is found (Eph. 1:3).

One indication that we are looking too much to ourselves instead of the grace and love and mercy of God as the primary motivators in sanctification, is that we have become fixated on our past. My friend beware of looking too much to your own past. When we become obsessed with the past, it is probably because we’re trying to weigh whether or not we have messed up too much for God to save us. But this means we are trying to relate to God on the basis of merit instead of grace. This is not the Biblical way to look at it. For there is no sinner too far gone that God cannot save him or her. There is no amount of sin that can make you unfit for grace. For it is still true that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20). Grace did and it does.

Remember what our Lord said to those who rebuked him for ministering to the publicans and sinners, these people on the margins of society, the despised, those who were considered too far gone. But these are the ones that Jesus brought into his kingdom. And his response to those who rebuked him was this: “They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Mt. 9:12-13).

Then we have the testimony of the apostle Paul, a man who had been a persecutor and a murderer of God’s people. But God saved him and made him one of the foremost apostles. Remember how he put it? “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” (1 Tim. 1:15). Now Paul wrote this under the inspiration of the Spirit, and so I take it to mean that he really was the chief of sinners. And if that’s the case, there is no one in this audience who can say that Christ can’t save them because they are too bad. In fact, Paul goes on to say this: “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). Even if you feel yourself to be worse than others, that doesn’t matter for God saved the chief of sinners and did it as a pattern. In other words, this is not a rare thing; it is what God normally does. Do you believe that?

It is hard to please God and pursue holiness when you think he is against you. But the only way we can truly have confidence that he is for us is if we really believe that all our sins can be forgiven, not on the basis of our goodness but on the basis of the grace of God toward us in Jesus Christ. It is freeing to realize that the only sins we will ever fight as children of God are forgiven sins. Think about that! It’s as the hymn puts it:

He breaks the power of cancelled sin, He sets the prisoner free.

His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me.

If we really are looking to Christ alone for our salvation and our acceptance with God, we won’t become proud and superficial and hypocritical like the Pharisees, nor will we become despairing and hopeless.

What are we doing?

The next question is: what are you doing right now with the sin in your life? We should neither ignore it out of pride, nor should we despair over it. The proper response to sin is to immediately confess it and repent of it. That is what obedience is: it looks like repentance from sin and faith for cleansing on a daily basis. When you get up in the morning, you believe the promise of God toward you in Christ and repent of your sins. As you go through the day, you repent and believe. And when you go to bed at night, you repent and believe. You confess your sins daily. This is very important: it doesn’t matter how many times you have messed up or how many times you have had to confess the same sin. It doesn’t matter how successful you have been in the past or unsuccessful. The answer is still the same: you need to confess your sin to God and then repent of it.

The point I really want to make here is that a life of obedience to Christ does not mean perfection; it means a lifestyle of faith and confession and repentance. It doesn’t mean that you have to have gone 40 days without any big slip-ups in order to qualify for walking in the light. Let me remind you again of these very important words in 1 John: “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1:6-7). Do you hear that? Walking in the light doesn’t mean you are without sin because in that case we wouldn’t need this ongoing cleansing from our sin! Now clearly, it also doesn’t mean that we are living in sin, or walking in darkness, as it is put in verse 6. It means that our fundamental posture is towards the light, and that means that we are constantly availing ourselves of the cleansing that is in Christ – and that means repentance and faith.

Then there is verse 9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God does not say that if we sin, we are out of the game. Instead, he says that if we confess our sins, he will forgive us and cleanse us. That is the promise.

It is important for us to understand this because otherwise we are going to end up in despair if we are honest with ourselves. But the presence of sin in our lives is not a reason to despair: it’s a reason to repent and come to Christ anew for cleansing and forgiveness. As we just saw in 1 Jn. 1:9, confessing our sins is a part of walking in the light. It’s important for us to hear that. It saves us from pride because it reminds us that confessing sin is a normal part of the Christian walk, and it saves us from despair because it reminds us that confessing sin is a normal part of the Christian walk!

What then is the difference between walking in the darkness and walking in the light? I think the primary difference is our fundamental attitude (posture) toward God and our fundamental attitude towards sin. If we are walking in the light and not in the darkness, God is the one we want most to draw near to, he is the one we want to have fellowship with. Those who walk in darkness are not wanting fellowship with God, they are trying to hide from him. They are trying to hide their sins from him. Does that describe you? Are you trying to hide from God and your sins from God? That is not obedience. But if you are willing to be honest with God, if you can say with the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24), if you are truly confessing your sins and seeking cleansing from them and repenting of them, then you can say that you are walking in the light.

The question is not what have you done or what are you going to do; the question is what are you doing right now? Are you dealing with your sins or are you ignoring them and hiding them? Oh, may God give us the heart of the Psalmist, who said, “I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies. I made haste, and delayed not to keep thy commandments” (Ps. 119:59-60).

Do you see how this posture combats both pride and despair? It combats pride because you cannot foster a lifestyle of confession and repentance without coming to terms with your absolute and constant need for God’s free and sovereign grace. And it combats despair because taking this posture means that the answer to our sin is not to give up hope but to come anew to the throne of grace, confessing our sin and turning from it in the real and steadfast hope that God will forgive and cleanse.

To what are we listening?

What is guiding us as we lean into the task of obedience to Christ? What are we listening to? Well, we need to be listening to Scripture, rather than our own hearts. We need to be listening to the word of God rather than a world in rebellion against God. And that means we need to hear both the warnings and the promises in Scripture and hold them together in our minds. We must hear the warnings in light of the promises so we don’t despair. But we must also hear the promises in light of the warnings so we don’t presume. Now I don’t deny this can sometimes be difficult! But it is necessary.

Here’s what I mean. There are warnings all over the Bible that tell us that if you abandon a commitment to Christ and never come back, you were never truly saved to begin with and that you can expect future judgment. The book of Hebrews is filled with such warnings. We saw some of them in chapters 2 and 3, and we are about to come face to face with another one in chapter 6. The writer will return to the warnings against apostacy in chapter 10. So this was clearly something they needed to hear, and since God has inspired Hebrews and preserved it for us, these are warnings we need to hear, too. But we should also recognize that alongside the warnings are all these amazing and wonderful promises that foster hope. What this tells me is that we need to hear the warnings with the promises and not one without the other. For example, Hebrews 6:1-8 which is a frightful warning is followed by Hebrews 6:9-20 which is one of the greatest hope-giving and comforting passages in all the Bible!

But how do we do this? I am to hear the warnings so that I understand the seriousness of sin and the reality of judgment against those who do not obey Christ. If I take them seriously, I am not going to play around with sin, I am going to flee from it, as Scripture tells us to do again and again. But if I only hear the warnings and don’t remember the promises, I will get a warped view of God and a warped view of myself. I will end up with a warped view of God because then I will only see God as judge and not as Savior. I will only see his severity and not his mercy. As the apostle Paul puts it in a different place, we are to behold both the goodness and the severity of God (Rom. 11:22). I will also end up with a false view of myself because I will end up thinking that it is up to me to avoid judgment and make it to heaven. But this is false, of course. God is a God of grace and we are people in need of grace.

So I take warnings at face value, but I also am looking to the promises, promises which are promises of grace and help and strength. The promises remind me that God gives what he requires. The promises remind me that God will not suffer me to be tempted beyond what I am able (1 Cor. 10:13). The promises remind me of what God has done, is doing, and will do for me in Christ Jesus. The promises remind me that salvation is not a matter of works but of free grace. We are reminded that in Christ God’s throne is a throne of grace and that we are invited to come boldly to this throne and there to expect help and mercy (Heb. 4:14-16). We fight pride and presumption through the warnings, and we fight despair and hopelessness through the promises.

This is what obedience looks like in the lives of imperfect and struggling sinners saved by grace. These are not perfect people. These are not even people who only sin little sins. But these are people who can say with John Newton, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still, I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.” How do we obey Christ in this world? How do we deal with the sin in our lives? We do so by steering away from the temptations to pride and hopelessness. And we do that by looking to Christ and to God’s free grace to us through him. We do it by a lifestyle of faith and repentance. And we do it by trembling at the warnings and rejoicing in the promises.

And no matter how many setbacks we have had, we continue forward. We say with the apostle Paul, “Not that I . . . am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12-14, ESV).

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