How Can I Change?/Tools of the Trade (II)
From Gospel Translations
In the previous chapter we explored three of the primary tools—Scripture, conscience, and prayer—the Holy Spirit uses to accomplish our sanctification. Yet there are at least six important means remaining. In order to respond to the Spirit’s sanctifying work, we must familiarize ourselves with these other essential tools of the trade.
Self-Denial and a Life of Discipleship
A few years ago Fritos introduced an extremely hot Jalapeno chip. I tried to conceal my pleasure that, since the kids couldn’t stand them, I wouldn’t have to share.
At the store my children would ask, “Hey, Dad, why are we getting that kind? We don’t like them!” I know, thought I. That is precisely the point.
Within months, Fritos discontinued that flavor...no doubt on orders from above.
The famous Chinese Christian leader Watchman Nee once wrote, “Let us remember that the one reason for all misunderstanding, all fretfulness, all discontent, is that we secretly love ourselves.” I can only add that with some of us, it’s no secret. We may attempt to hide our selfishness, but it inevitably bubbles up to the surface. Far better to heed Jesus’ call and address this self-love directly.
Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” (Lk 9:23-24)
Each day in Christ’s school of discipleship holds fresh opportunity for self-denial. Why is this much-forgotten key to the Christian life so important? Because it overcomes selfishness, making it possible for us to love God and others.
One arena in which selfishness gets exposed pretty quickly is marriage. I have often said to my wife (only half facetiously), “Honey, it’s not that I don’t love you. My problem is that I just love myself more.” Fortunately, God provides us with a custom-fitted cross for the removal of such attitudes.
Don’t be fooled by the psychobabble that teaches we must first learn to love ourselves in order to become whole. Nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to love ourselves. We love ourselves too much as it is. In fact, we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt in almost every possible instance. We blame conflicts on others while flattering ourselves for having noble intentions. If we only extended to others the same grace we grant ourselves...what a wonderful world it would be.
When Jesus said one of the requirements for eternal life was to “love your neighbor as yourself,” he was not suggesting that self-love was in any way deficient. Rather, he was saying “love your neighbor as you (already) love yourself”—and that’s a whole lot of loving. But it will not come naturally. It may be one of the most unnatural things you ever do. Loving others comes only as we practice self-denial along the pathway of discipleship.
Self-denial and love intersect at the point of serving. Jesus gave us the supreme example by going to the cross on our behalf. That was the ultimate act of selfless service. But all during his life he put the needs and welfare of others before his own. Whether washing his disciples’ feet or feeding hungry multitudes, our Lord led by example. In Philippians 2, Paul could point to Jesus’ serving, self-denying attitude as one all Christians should emulate.
Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.... (Php 2:4-7)
Another book in this series, Disciplines for Life, discusses in detail the various biblical ways we may practice a life of discipleship. Spiritual exercises such as fasting, consistent prayer, and confession require effort. But they are well worth it, promising rewards now and in the life to come.
Trials Along the Way
It was one of Job’s counselors who accurately surmised, “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). That’s been our lot ever since the Fall. Many of those difficulties, of course, result from our own sin and foolishness. On more than one occasion I’ve traced a headache to tension caused by my own stubborn persistence in worry. When Clara and I experience friction in our marriage, more likely than not my selfishness is to blame. We shouldn’t be surprised when we suffer the consequences of our sinful behavior. However, the Lord can graciously use even these for our growth in godliness if we will repent and seek to learn from them.
But what about those trials—those Joseph scenarios— for which we are not responsible? It’s unlikely we’ll be sold into slavery by our family members, but there are times when others sin against us, or when we suffer afflictions just because we live in a fallen world.
Joseph saw the big picture. He recognized his eternal destiny and the destinies of those around him. Consequently, he was able to appreciate the way God sovereignly directed his life’s circumstances. As he told his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Ge 50:20).
When things seem to go against us, we must realize our Father has a purpose in mind and is primarily interested in our response. As a matter of fact, it’s not too much to say God engineers difficulties in order to urge us onward in dependent trust upon him:
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Dt 8:2-3)
Who humbled and tested the Israelites, bringing them to a place of hunger? Was it Satan? No—it was God. Why? So they would know how much they needed an ongoing, vital relationship with him. Pause a moment to let this sink in: God is prepared to sacrifice your short-term happiness in order to achieve his eternal and gracious purpose in you. As a genuine Christian, you “must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Ac 14:22). Don’t confuse your Father’s loving discipline for cruelty or neglect.
Joseph learned what we all must learn: “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Ro 8:28). Not some things, or even most things. All things. Even in cases of rape or childhood sexual abuse or birth defects or terminal illness, the sovereign God always has a redemptive plan that will lead to his greater glory.
To understand Paul’s statement here, we must focus on God’s agenda, not our own. His purpose is that we be conformed to the image of his Son. Thus, hardships or injustices—though not seemingly favorable to us—qualify as “good” because they serve to make us more like Christ.
This is not easy to accept or understand. I wouldn’t fault you for asking, “But how can Paul claim that all things work together for my good? I see many things working for me, but many others that seem to be working against me.” Let me try to answer that with an illustration.
Before the advent of digital timepieces, a watch’s inner workings consisted of a number of cogs, some turning in a clockwise direction and others counter-clockwise. At first glance it might seem unlikely that anything useful could result from such an arrangement. But when the mainspring was wound, though the wheels turned in opposite directions, they all worked together to move the hands of the watch forward.
So it is with God’s providential ordering of the universe ...and of our lives. We need to realize God is so interested in our spiritual growth (sanctification) that he is willing to sacrifice our temporal happiness to secure eternal blessings for us.
It’s easy to be a Christian when things are going well. But in the heat of difficult circumstances, some doubt they will be able to maintain their allegiance to Christ. Often, as a young Christian, I would read of Peter’s denial of Christ and wonder if I would someday do the same. Perhaps you’ve had similar thoughts. The fact is, however, that Jesus prayed for Peter and through grace restored him to a place of great usefulness.
The reason we persevere as Christians is because God himself preserves us:
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (Jn 10:27-30, emphasis added)
It is hard to imagine a more emphatic and reassuring declaration of protection.
“The doctrine [of perseverance] declares that the regenerate are saved through persevering in faith and Christian living to the end, and that it is God who keeps them persevering,” writes J.I. Packer. God’s Word tells us that Jesus Christ saves “to the uttermost” everyone who comes to God by him (Heb 7:25 NKJV).
Thus, every Christian may have assurance that he or she will persevere, not because of any individual’s own strength or ability, but because God is faithful to preserve us.
The Place of the Law
Christians are often confused about the role God’s law has in sanctification. I’ve heard some people loudly proclaim, without any qualification, that the law has been done away with—and good riddance. And I’ve heard just the opposite from others whose agenda for reforming society includes the wholesale re-institution of Old Testament law, administered much as Islamic law is enforced in some fundamentalist Moslem countries today. As I see it, neither extreme does justice to the New Testament’s teaching on the subject.
Before we go any further, though, let’s clarify what we mean by “the law.” I’m indebted to theologian Bruce Milne for the following description:
By “law” is here meant the fundamental Old Testament moral prescriptions summarized in the decalogue [Ten Commandments]. Old Testament ceremonial laws have been superseded in the sense that Christ has fulfilled them; Old Testament social legislation ceased to be normative in the sense that the church has replaced the theocracy of Israel. Principles underlying both ceremonial and social laws have continuing relevance and application.
Milne’s definition represents the distillation of a great deal of closely reasoned theological study. It makes important distinctions between the use of the law now and the way it was applied during the Old Testament era. It also takes into account the utter significance of the person and work of our Lord, whose coming, though in accord with the law, resulted in a thoroughly new awareness of what that law means. Scripture shows the transition we’ve made from slaves of the law to sons: “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Gal 4:4-5).
Milne has effectively refuted the would-be reformers seeking to institutionalize Mosaic laws, but we still need to address those who consider the law null and void. Is the law an ongoing help or an outdated hindrance?
The un-unequivocal answer to this question is...both. If we view the law as a means to right standing with God (justification), then we’ll be hindered from true sanctification as the Pharisees were. They failed to see law-keeping was never intended to justify us, not even under the Old Covenant. On the other hand, if we understand God’s purpose for the law, then it remains a useful tool in our pursuit of sanctification.
The law has always represented the character of God, reflecting his interest in holiness. And the Ten Commandments still serve as the effective summary of God’s moral and ethical expectations of the human race.
Let’s pose another fundamental question: Why did God give these “moral prescriptions” in the first place? If the law was never intended to justify us, what is its purpose?
To restrain evildoing. According to Scripture, the “lawful use of the law” serves to curb the spread of evil (1Ti 1:9-11 NAS). Because lawlessness threatens both individual godliness and society, some check on it is essential. In this regard God’s law corresponds to secular criminal law.
To show us our sin. “Where then lies the point of the law? It was an addition made to underline the existence and extent of sin until the arrival of the ‘seed’ to whom the promise referred” (Gal 3:19 Phillips). As the New English Bible puts it, the law was added “to make wrong-doing a legal offense,” that is, to make men clearly aware of the distinction between good and evil. Or as William Hendriksen states, “to bring about within his heart and mind an awakened sense of guilt.” J.B. Phillips expresses it well in his translation of the Bible: “It is the straight-edge of the law that shows us how crooked we are” (Ro 3:20). Once it has exposed our true nature, the law can accomplish its next crucial purpose.
To bring us to Christ. “Before this faith came,” wrote Paul, “we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed” (Gal 3:23). Trying to fulfill the law’s demands is a futile task. And that, in fact, is the very revelation the law is intended to bring. It exists to show us our sinful, weak, and desperate condition. “Therefore the law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24 NAS). Once we’ve battered our legalistic selves silly against the law’s unyielding demands, we will be ready “to turn to God and to his Son Jesus Christ for pardon and power.”
To serve as a guideline for godly living. Like guardrails along a highway, the law is designed to keep us from going off course. It also clarifies the course we ought to pursue. Torah, the Hebrew word for “law,” has several meanings, including “the sort of instruction a good parent gives his child.” God as our Father wants to spare us unnecessary difficulties. If we want to live smart, we’ll keep his law.
Once we come to Christ, our relationship to the law changes radically. Our motive for obeying its decrees is no longer fear but gratitude. When we realize that the God who created, redeems, and sustains us with unmerited grace is worthy of our joyful obedience, we will say with the psalmist, “Oh, how I love your law!” (Ps 119:97).
|3 Loving God’s law is one thing; loving Uncle Sam’s laws is another. Which of the following laws did you love before you became a Christian? How about now?||(Check all that apply.)|
|❏||Must not exceed the posted speed limit||❏|
|❏||Must report all taxable income||❏|
|❏||Must not sell alcohol to minors||❏|
|❏||Must wear a seatbelt||❏|
Those who consider the law outdated and irrelevant pose a number of questions worth answering:
“But hasn’t the law ended?”
Only as a means to righteousness. “Christ is the end [goal, completion] of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Ro 10:4).
“Didn’t Paul say we ‘are not under law’ (Ro 6:14)?”
It’s true that we are now under grace, not law, as the controlling force in our lives. But what Paul meant is that “we are no longer under condemnation because of our failure to keep the law.”
“Didn’t Jesus abolish the law?”
Not at all. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17). “What Jesus destroyed,” writes J.I. Packer, “was inadequate expositions of the law, not the law itself (Matthew 5:21-48; 15:1-9; etc.). By giving truer expositions, he actually republished the law.” Jesus clarified the spirit of the law, saying in effect, “No adultery, not even in thought. No murder, not even hate.”
It is the Christian’s great privilege to be free from the law. However, we must not interpret this as a disparaging commentary on the law. The fault is not with the law but with us; it is weak because our flesh is weak. But fortunately, what we were unable to do, God did for us.
For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. (Ro 8:3-4, emphasis added)
We can sum up our discussion as follows: The law is still in effect and serves a valuable purpose, but through Christ our status under the law has forever changed. God’s role in our lives is now primarily that of Father, not Judge. When we sin we grieve him and are disciplined, but we are not disowned. His dealings with us are now the chastening love of a father, not the legal disapproval of a judge.
The Christian life is inescapably corporate. The idea of a holy man or woman apart from a holy church is foreign to the New Testament. And yet a large majority of Americans today think they can serve God just as effectively apart from the community of believers. In the words of one Gallup poll respondent, “I am my own church.”
One of the unfortunate consequences of American “rugged individualism” is an independent streak that keeps many from forming the lasting relationships that characterize the church. Resistance to commitment in the name of freedom results in stunted spiritual growth.
Then there is the fear that paralyzes people the moment they consider church involvement:
“What if they find out what I am really like?”
“Everybody but me has his or her life in order.”
“I’m not like everybody else.”
I’ve heard comments like these so often I can say with confidence that every church member has (or had) similar thoughts. The answer to such fears is that the church is composed of imperfect people who, with God’s help, are learning to follow him. No one has “arrived.” Are you imperfect? Great! You’ll fit right in.
Selfishness is another problem that keeps people isolated from the fellowship of the church. Some folks are just too into themselves to be bothered with caring about anyone else. But the simple fact is, we need each other. “One cannot claim to be a Christian,” writes Charles Colson, “and at the same time claim to be outside the church. To do so is at the least hypocrisy—at the worst, blasphemy.” Sanctification can only be worked out in the context of Christian community.
There is no substitute for the encouragement and admonishment that comes from faithful brothers and sisters in the church. The New Testament contains thirty “one another” passages showing the importance of shared lives. Besides, we all benefit from people who demonstrate faith in action, showing us how to be good husbands, wives, parents, friends, or workers. As mentioned in the previous chapter, taking part in a small group where you can know and be known is very important.
In addition to all this, it is to the Church that Christ has given the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Why? To equip the saints so the saints can fulfill the work of ministry to which they are called (Eph 4:11-13). God provides spiritual leadership for Christians within the local church. It is in the church that we receive pastoral care and are trained to serve. We may thank God for parachurch ministries and the good they do, but they are not indispensable. The Church is.
If you grew up attending church services, you are probably familiar with the sacraments. Though Christian traditions disagree on the number or practice of the sacraments, there are two—baptism and communion— that have always been regarded as distinctively Christian and central to the life of the Church. These two are equally essential in the life of each believer.
A sacrament is really a promise of God acted out before our eyes. We are told that our sins are washed away by the blood of the Lamb. But then we are invited to give evidence of our faith in that promise by following Christ through the waters of baptism. Likewise, we are promised eternal life and fellowship with Jesus, and then allowed to commune with him as we receive the Lord’s own supper.
There is no magic in these acts. Baptism does not make one a Christian. Rather, only Christians qualify to be baptized. Nor is saving grace imparted through communion. Yet Christ is certainly present by his Spirit as we remember his broken body and shed blood.
These ordinances have great value for our sanctification. They are vivid experiential reminders of the great truths of the Christian faith—our redemption through the finished work of Jesus Christ and our abiding fellowship with him until he returns for us. Or, as Sinclair Ferguson has put it, they bring “fresh realization of our union and communion with Christ. They point us back to its foundation and forward to its consummation in glory.” The sacraments keep these truths front and center, helping us maintain the firm footing essential for spiritual growth.
Worship and Praise
Recently I attended a conference on biblical counseling. Though the opening prayer was far from perfunctory, none of us were particularly moved. The next day’s session, however, began with worship. This time when the leader prayed before starting his message, verbal praise, lifted hands, and scattered “Amens” punctuated his every phrase. What was the difference? Worship had directed our hearts upward and softened us to the Spirit of God.
Among our great privileges as Christians, none is greater than the privilege of worship. Its power to restore perspective can hardly be overestimated. How easy it is in this fallen world to “get out of tune,” to lose touch with the greatness and mercy of God. Self-confidence on one hand and discouragement on the other can keep us from seeing our exalted Lord. But when we begin to worship...when his Spirit lifts our eyes to behold again the majesty and wonder of God...we are brought back into contact with eternal realities. Also, in magnifying God we invariably humble ourselves, and that puts us in a perfect position to receive grace. We would each do well to echo the hymn writer who said, “Come Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing your praise.”
Psalm 95 provides us with a wonderful pattern for worship and an understanding of its role in sanctification:
Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song...Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts... (Ps 95:1-2,6-8)
After inviting us to sing, shout, thank, and extol, the psalmist urges us to bow in worship. He also warns us not to harden our hearts when we hear God’s voice. The connection is not merely coincidental: God frequently speaks to our hearts as we worship. He tells us of his majesty, his sovereignty over our lives, his providential care for us, and many other wonderful things. He may also reveal specific areas where we need to change or venture into new realms. If we fail to listen, or if we harden our hearts as Israel did so often during her wilderness wanderings, we risk God’s displeasure and discipline.
As a pastor, I am keenly aware of the struggles people face throughout the week, and of my own limitations in helping them. But when we gather as a church to worship on Sunday mornings, I see how consistently God uses these times to shepherd his people. The discouraged, the lonely, and the fearful all find God’s strong and tender hands there to uphold them as they worship him.
I don’t think there is a more effective pastoral strategy for helping people than leading them into the place of worship where God himself can minister to them. In the place of worship, lives are changed.
- What is one especially sacrificial thing you’ve done for someone else?
- “We love ourselves too much as it is,” says the author. (Page 70) Do you agree or disagree?
- Describe one trial you experienced which ultimately turned out for good.
- What specific benefits may result from trials you are facing right now?
- Did this chapter change the way you think of the law? Explain.
- What was the law never intended to do? (Page 75)
- In response to your invitation to attend church, your neighbor says (with just a trace of arrogance), “I am my own church.” How would you answer?
- Read aloud the quote by John Piper on this page. Why are obedient lives a natural byproduct of worship?
Disciplines for Life by C.J. Mahaney and John Loftness (Gaithersburg, MD: Sovereign Grace Ministries, 1992)
Trusting God by Jerry Bridges (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1988)
The Body by Charles Colson and Ellen Santilli Vaughn (Dallas, TX: Word, Inc., 1992)
Desiring God by John Piper (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1986)
In the Shadow of the Cross: Studies in Self-Denial by Walter J. Chantry (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1981)
- ↑ Watchman Nee, The Release of the Spirit (Coverdale, IN: The Sure Foundation, 1965), p. 16.
- ↑ A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1982), pp. 22-23."
- ↑ Walter Chantry, The Shadow of the Cross (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1981), p. 7.
- ↑ Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1991), p. 182.
- ↑ D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans 8:17-39: The Final Perseverance of the Saints (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), pp. 169-170.
- ↑ Sinclair Ferguson, The Christian Life (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), p. 174.
- ↑ J.I. Packer, Concise Theology (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), p.242.
- ↑ Bruce Milne, Know the Truth (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1982), p. 153, note.
- ↑ R.C. Sproul, “The Law of God” in Tabletalk, April 1989.
- ↑ William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1968), p. 140.
- ↑ J.I. Packer, The Ten Commandments (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1977), p. 12.
- ↑ Ibid., p. 16.
- ↑ Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989), p. 225.
- ↑ John R.W. Stott, Men Made New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1966, 1984), pp. 65-66.
- ↑ J.I. Packer, The Ten Commandments, pp. 17, 18.
- ↑ Charles Colson and Ellen Santilli Vaughn, The Body (Dallas, TX: Word, Inc., 1992), p. 70.
- ↑ David Powlison, Dynamics of Biblical Change, course syllabus (Laverock, PA: Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, 1993), p. 5.
- ↑ Sinclair Ferguson, Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, Donald L. Alexander, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), p. 74.
- ↑ John Piper, Desiring God (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1986), p. 66.