Thursday, August 28, 2008
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.
Sorrowing I shall be in spirit,
Till released from flesh and sin,
Yet from what I do inherit,
Here Thy praises I’ll begin;
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Here by Thy great help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood;
How His kindness yet pursues me
Mortal tongue can never tell,
Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me
I cannot proclaim it well.
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
O that day when freed from sinning,
I shall see Thy lovely face;
Clothed then in blood washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransomed soul away;
Send thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day.
Words: Robert Robinson, 1758; appeared in his A Collection of Hymns Used by the Church of Christ in Angel Alley, Bishopgate, 1759.
Music: Nettleton, Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second, by John Wyeth, 1813
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
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1 Peter 5:1-11
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon him, because he cares for you. Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To him be dominion forever and ever. Amen.
The opposite of boldness is fear or anxiety. It's not surprising then that God not only calls us to be bold for Christ and his kingdom, but he also makes a provision for us to get rid of our fear and anxiety. Giving us courage and taking our fear are two ways of doing the same thing.
Today's text is not a direct call to boldness. It's a call not to be anxious. And so it's an indirect call to boldness and courage.
The Threat of Humility?
But there is something very unusual about this text. The threat in this text that tempts us to be anxious is not explicitly prison or injury or slander or plundering of property or loss of money. The threat is humility. Or to put it another way, the reason Peter deals with the problem of anxiety is because he is dealing with the problem of humility. Somehow the command for humility makes the command to cast our anxiety on God more urgent, more needed.
The Flow of Thought from Verses 5-7
Notice this in the flow of thought from verses 5-7. The chapter starts with a word to the elders of the church to shepherd the flock willingly and eagerly and without being motivated by money. Then the focus turns to the others in the church.
You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; [then to all the church] and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time . . .
Now right here comes the connection between this call for humility and the command to cast all your anxiety on God. The command for humility seems to cause anxiety to rise and so Peter deals with it.
The Punctuation of the Sentence
The NIV and RSV put a period at the end of verse 6 and make verse 7 into a new sentence. "Humble yourselves . . . Cast all your anxiety on him." But that break obscures the connection. The NASB and the KJV don't have a period because verse 7 does not start a new sentence in the original Greek. It is part of the sentence in verse 6 and continues with a participle: not, "Cast all your anxiety on him . . . ," but, " . . . casting all your anxiety on him."
"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on him because he cares for you." Not: "Humble yourselves. And cast your anxiety." But: "Humble yourselves . . . casting your anxiety."
Casting Your Anxiety on God Is Part of Humbling Yourself
The point is that casting your anxiety on God is somehow part humbling yourself. Casting your anxiety on God is crucial if you are going to humble yourself under God's hand and clothe yourself with humility toward each other. Casting your anxiety on God is not simply a separate thing that you do after you humble yourself. It's something you do in order to humble yourself, or in the process of humbling yourself.
There is something about humbling yourself under God's hand and humbling yourself before other people that makes casting all your anxiety on God necessary. Or to say it another way, there is something about casting your anxiety on God that makes humbling yourself under God and before others possible.
It looks like humility is a threat that causes anxiety. And if we are going to be humble with God and with each other, we are going to have to cast our anxiety on God. That's the connection between verse 7 and what goes before. "Clothe yourselves with humility toward each other and humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God by casting your anxiety on God."
Why Does Humility Create Anxiety?
But why does humility create anxiety? Why does humility take courage? Why do we need someone to take our anxiety away in order for us to be humble?
You can see the answer easily if you just start thinking of some examples of humility. What does it mean to be humble? It means, when you've made a mistake, admitting it and saying you're sorry. It means, when you are weak or sick or inadequate for a task, not being too proud to ask for help. It means doing some ordinary jobs and spending time with ordinary people and being indifferent to accolades.
In other words, in all its forms humility is the risk of losing face. Humility is the risk of not being noticed, not being appreciated, not being praised, and not being rewarded. Lowliness runs the obvious risk of being looked down on.
And being looked down on is painful. Being unnoticed and unappreciated is painful. Losing face is painful. Being made little of is painful. And therefore humility causes anxiety. And the command to be humble under God and to be clothed with humility toward each other makes us anxious.
We Have to Solve This Anxiety Problem
So if we are really going to be humble, we have to solve this anxiety problem. If we are going to have the courage of humility and the boldness of lowliness, someone is going to have to take our anxiety away.
That's the point of verse 7: "Be humble by casting all your anxiety on God." The secret of humility is being able to cast your anxiety on God. Note the connection between humbling yourself under God's mighty hand in verse 6 and casting your anxiety on God in verse 7. God is the focus in both verses, and the connection is this: before you can put yourself humbly under God's mighty hand, you have to put your anxiety confidently in God's mighty hand.
There is a fearful cowering under the mighty hand of God for the rebellious and the proud. But that is not what Peter is calling for in verse 6. The humility Peter commands under God's hand is the peaceful, confident humility that comes because we have cast our anxiety on God with the confidence that he cares for us.
I love these two images side by side: humbled and lowly under the mighty hand of an infinitely holy and powerful God, and confident and peaceful because that very God cares for us and carries our anxiety. Before you bow down and step under him, cast the burden of your anxiety on him!
How Do You Cast Your Anxiety on God?
Now what does it mean to cast your anxiety on God? How do you do that?
Getting Help from the Same Word in Luke 19:35
This word "casting" in verse 7 occurs one other time in the New Testament—in Luke 19:35, in exactly the same form. It's Palm Sunday and the disciples have been sent to get the donkey for Jesus to ride on. Then verse 35 says, "They brought it to Jesus, and casting their garments on the colt, they set Jesus on it."
So the meaning is simple and straightforward: if you have a garment on and you want an animal to carry it for you, you "cast" the garment on the animal. In this way you don't carry it anymore. It's on the animal not on you. The donkey works for you and lifts your load.
Well, God is willing to carry your anxieties the same way a donkey carries your baggage. One of the greatest things about the God of the Bible is that he commands us to let him work for us before commanding us to work for him. "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). "Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you" (Psalm 55:22). "Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save" (Isaiah 46:4). "From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides thee, who works for those who wait for him (Isaiah 64:4).
God wants to be a burden bearer because it demonstrates his power and puts him in a class by himself among the so-called gods of the universe. "No one has seen a God besides thee, who works for those who wait for him." So throw the garments of your anxiety onto him. He wants to carry it.
Practically How Do You Do That?
You do it by trusting the second half of verse 7 very specifically in relation to your specific anxiety. The first half of verse 7 says, " . . . casting all your anxiety on him . . . " and the second half of the verse says, " . . . because he cares for you."
Here is where the rubber meets the road. How do you practically make the anxiety transfer from your back to God's back? The answer is: trust that he cares for you. Believe this promise. Trust him. It's a matter of practical trust.
That promise does not hang in the air. It is connected to a command and the promise is meant to show you how to obey the command. The command is, Cast your anxiety on God. The promise is, God cares for you. That means, he cares about the thing that has you worrying. He wants to be trusted for that.
Lay a Specific Anxiety on God
So often we trust God in the abstract. Yes, he is a trustworthy God. Yes, he can save sinners in general. Yes, he will work it all out, generally speaking, for my good.
But a text like this means, Lay a specific anxiety on God. Trust him specifically that he cares about that. Believe that he is God. His purposes cannot be thwarted. "I know that you can do all things, says Job, and no purpose of yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2).
When it says that he cares, it means he will not stand by and let things develop without his influence. It means he will act. He will work. Not always the way we would. He's God. He sees a thousand connections we don't see. The lost credit card might result in an evening of searching and take you away from a TV program that unbeknownst to you would have put a lustful desire in your mind and made prayer unappealing so that you failed to seek God's power and missed a golden opportunity to speak of Christ to a ready colleague the next day, which because of that lost credit card you did not miss. God sees a thousand connections we do not see.
Casting your anxiety on God means trusting him for handling this specific situation. If you believe that he cares (which is what the promise says), and believe that he is God, then your fears will be lifted.
The Connection with Prayer
There is one other thing to say about this act of casting anxiety on God, namely, the connection with prayer. Philippians 4:6 says, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God which passes all comprehension will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."
So 1 Peter 5:7 says, "Cast your anxiety on God by trusting that he cares for you." And Philippians 4:6 says, "Cast your anxiety on the Lord by praying and letting your requests be made known to him." The connection is simple. Trusting that God cares about your anxiety is expressed in prayer. Prayer is the trust turned toward God and spoken.
A Summer of Opportunities . . . and Anxieties
Which brings us now to our new summer adventure for the next hour of "praying the vision"—taking what we have seen of God and his will and turning it into prayer.
We have been talking about boldness and courage and risk-taking for some weeks. And we are planning a summer full of opportunities to do just that—sports outreach, inviting people to the Gate, survey teams, street witnessing teams, personal harvest appointments, bar ministry, drama outreach. Every time you humble yourself and love someone like this, you run the risk of losing face. What shall we do with this repeated threat of anxiety this summer?
We will pray, every Sunday morning for the next 12 weeks for 45 minutes as an extension of the morning service. And we will trust the promise of God—"I care about you . . . I love evangelism, and when my people call upon me together, I will pour out on them a Spirit of peace and power."
Ideas for Prayer:
- "With thanksgiving" (Philippians 4:6)—expressions of praise and thanks that God is sovereign over our anxieties and is wise enough and caring enough that we can entrust ourselves to him.
- Payers for humility and for more of the Spirit of the lowly, servant, risk-taking Christ (Philippians 2:3-8).
- Prayers for more faith in God's promises and that every binding obstacle to joyful trust would be overcome.
- Prayer for God to call people to all the outreach ministries on the insert to the bulletin; that we would cast our anxiety on God and hear his call.
- Broaden prayers out to the summer ministries of other churches and pray for the prosperity of God's kingdom in every fellowship where Christ is truly named.
Broaden further to pray for courage and humility on the front lines of world missions and that this summer would be a period of powerful advance for Christ and his kingdom in Africa and Asia and Europe and South America, as well as America.
By John Piper. © Desiring God. Website: desiringGod.org.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Give unto the Lord the glory due unto His name.'-Psalm 29:2
God's glory is the result of His nature and acts. He is glorious in His character, for there is such a store of everything that is holy, and good, and lovely in God, that He must be glorious. The actions which flow from His character are also glorious; but while He intends that they should manifest to His creatures His goodness, and mercy, and justice, He is equally concerned that the glory associated with them should be given only to Himself. Nor is there aught in ourselves in which we may glory; for who maketh us to differ from another? And what have we that we did not receive from the God of all grace? Then how careful ought we to be to walk humbly before the Lord! The moment we glorify ourselves, since there is room for one glory only in the universe, we set ourselves up as rivals to the Most High. Shall the insect of an hour glorify itself against the sun which warmed it into life? Shall the potsherd exalt itself above the man who fashioned it upon the wheel? Shall the dust of the desert strive with the whirlwind? Or the drops of the ocean struggle with the tempest? Give unto the Lord, all ye righteous, give unto the Lord glory and strength; give unto Him the honour that is due unto His name. Yet it is, perhaps, one of the hardest struggles of the Christian life to learn this sentence-'Not unto us, not unto us, but unto Thy name be glory.' It is a lesson which God is ever teaching us, and teaching us sometimes by most painful discipline. Let a Christian begin to boast, 'I can do all things,' without adding 'through Christ which strengtheneth me,' and before long he will have to groan, 'I can do nothing,' and bemoan himself in the dust. When we do anything for the Lord, and He is pleased to accept of our doings, let us lay our crown at His feet, and exclaim, 'Not I, but the grace of God which was with me!'
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
...for lessons to learn and history to remember...
...for leaders you place in office to guide and protect us...
...for friends dearly loved and truly missed...
...for your grace and protection...
...for all of your creation!
"Don't play games with the Bible. Be as careful as you can in handling the Word of God. And when you can't reconcile one true thing with another. Wait and pray and study and seek the Lord. In due time, they will be reconciled." ~ John Piper
(By John MacArthur)
The following post is adapted from a message John preached on a practical plan for overcoming personal sin.
The question is, “How do I kill sin in my life? How do I do it?” Let me give you some little principles — very basic and straightforward.
If you live by the Spirit and are headed towards eternal life because of your salvation, the Spirit in you gives the power to be killing the deeds of the flesh.
The question is, “All right, how do I do that? I agree that the power is there, that’s the bent of my life, that’s the way I am going. I want to see the Spirit do more and more of it. How do I get to that point? How do I gain that victory? How do I establish that habitual pattern? What do I do?”
1. Recognize the Presence of Sin in Your Flesh.
Do you know why most Christians are most commonly defeated by sin? I believe it is because their sin has so totally deceived them, that they never really get to the point where they honestly evaluate its reality. They are not dealing with the issue.
They spend so much of their lives justifying their sin as a personality quirk or a product of their environment. They sugar-coat their habitual sins as simply idiosyncrasies of individuality, or some prenatal predilection that their mother had, or whatever. People can become so good at denying the reality of sin that they don’t see it. As a result, they don’t deal with it because they don’t even recognize it for what it is.
Any kind of spiritual victory begins by identifying the enemy. It is the same old story, “If you don’t know what you are shooting at, how are you going to hit it?” How am I going to eliminate from my life what I don’t even identify as needing to be eliminated?
Sin is not only wicked, it is deceitful. And it’s there inside each of us. Believe me it is there. John Owen was right, he says of sin:
It has no doors to open. It needs no engine by which to work. It lies in the mind and in the understanding. It is found in the will. It is in the inclinations of the affections. It has such intimacy in the soul.
It’s there! But inevitably it’s covered up. As the Psalmist prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me” (Psalm 139:22). We must ask God to help us see our sinfulness, if we want to recognize it for what it is.
Don’t be deceived about how good you are. Believe me, your sin is there, and it is wretched and it spurts forth between the cracks of your supposed righteousness. It comes out in anger and bitter words, unkind thoughts, criticisms, self-conceit, lack of understanding, impatience, weak prayers, immoral thoughts, and even overt sins. You need to know your weaknesses.
Haggai the prophet, in chapter one of his prophecy, repeats the command, “Consider your ways! Consider your ways!” (vv. 5, 7). In other words, take a good deep look at yourself. First Kings 8:38 says, “Know the plague in your own heart.” And Paul in Ephesians 4:22 talks about deceitful lusts. From these and many other passages, the Bible makes the point: If you want to kill sin in your life, you must begin by examining your own heart to see the reality of what is there.
Check Pulpit Magazine for Part II.
Posted in Spiritual Growth
This is adapted from my new book, Atheism Remix: A Christian Confronts the New Atheists (Crossway Books), which has just been released and is available through your local bookstore or by clicking on the link or cover image above.
Monday, August 04, 2008
(by John MacArthur)
It was Martin Luther who said:
“The world at the present time is sagaciously discussing how to quell the controversy and strife over doctrine and faith, and how to effect a compromise between the Church and the Papacy. Let the learned, the wise, it is said, bishops, emperor and princes, arbitrate. Each side can easily yield something, and it is better to concede some things which can be construed according to individual interpretation, than that so much persecution, bloodshed, war, and terrible, endless dissension and destruction be permitted.
“Here is lack of understanding, for understanding proves by the Word that such patchwork is not according to God’s will, but that doctrine, faith and worship must be preserved pure and unadulterated; there must be no mingling with human nonsense, human opinions or wisdom.
“The Scriptures give us this rule: ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).”
It is interesting to speculate what the church would be like today if Martin Luther had been prone to compromise. The pressure was heavy on him to tone down his teaching, soften his message, stop poking his finger in the eye of the papacy. Even many of his friends and supporters urged Luther to come to terms with Rome for the sake of harmony in the church. Luther himself prayed earnestly that the effect of his teaching would not be divisive.
When he nailed his 95 Theses to the door, the last thing he wanted to do was split the church.
Yet sometimes division is fitting, even healthy, for the church. Especially in times like Luther’s—and like ours—when the visible church seems full of counterfeit Christians, it is right for the true people of God to declare themselves. Compromise is sometimes a worse evil than division. Second Corinthians 6:14-17 isn’t speaking only of marriage when it says,
Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord.
"One Word of Truth Will Outweigh the Whole World" -- The Death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn
(by Albert Mohler)
"One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world." Alexander Solzhenitsyn cited that Russian proverb in his 1970 acceptance speech as he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He did not deliver that speech in person, for he knew that if he left the Soviet Union he would never be allowed to return. Even after he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, his great wish and absolute determination was to die in Russia, the land and people of his birth.
Solzhenitsyn died in Moscow on Sunday, ending a life of 89 years -- one of the monumental lives of the twentieth century.
Few writers have exerted so great an influence on contemporary events. David Remnick of The New Yorker described Solzhenitsyn as "the dominant writer of the 20th century." As he explained, "Who else compares?"
He was born in 1918, the very year following the Soviet Revolution. That same year the Communist Party began to create an extensive system of political prisons and concentration camps known as "gulags." Solzhenitsyn would bring the reality of Soviet oppression to the world's attention through his writings, including a 300,000-word history of the camps, published as The Gulag Archipelago. As author Joseph Pearce reflected, "Thus it was that Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the Gulag Archipelago were born within weeks of each other, children of the same revolution."
Solzhenitsyn knew the Gulag Archipelago from first hand experience. He had been sent to the prison camp system after service as a Captain in the Soviet Army during World War II. In 1945 the Soviet spy system uncovered a letter in which Solzhenitsyn had criticized "the man with a moustache" -- Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. He served eight years in the system, and those years of political, physical, and spiritual oppression became the foundation for Solzhenitsyn's great literary and historical achievement.
A term spent in one of the most brutal prisons became the basis for his short novel. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Solzhenitsyn revealed not only the physical deprivation and spiritual degradation that marked the camps, but the coldly calculated methods by which the Soviet authorities sought to break the spirits of the prisoners.
Solzhenitsyn was released from the gulag system the very day of Stalin's death. He then became a teacher and used his time to write the books that would change the world. Some of these works had actually been written in prison, though Solzhenitsyn was forced to memorize his composed passages until he could write them down only after his release from the gulags.
Stalin's successor as dictator and First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, led a process known as "De-Stalinization" that provided a temporary opening in Soviet culture. Khrushchev wanted Stalin's murderous abuses to come to light and, when Solzhenitsyn's novella A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich came to his attention, he led the Soviet Presidium to allow its publication in an official literary journal. Other works by Solzhenitsyn then followed in print.
He quickly became an international literary sensation, compared to great Russian authors such as Dostoyevsky, Chekov, and Tolstoy. Writing in The New York Times, Michael T. Kaufman remarked, "Mr. Solzhenitsyn had been an obscure, middle-aged, unpublished high school teacher in a provincial Russian town when he burst onto the literary stage in 1962 with A Day in the Life of Ivan Denishovich."
In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In his undelivered acceptance speech, leaked to the world by friends, Solzhenitsyn defined the role of the author or artist as that of truth-teller against lies. The responsibility of the courageous author, he argued, "is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions." The Nobel committee cited his "ethical force" as the power of his literary achievement.
Nevertheless, when Khrushchev was toppled by Kremlin hardliners in 1964, the opening in the culture quickly closed. From this point onward, Solzhenitsyn was under constant threat and his writings were banned within the Soviet Union. In 1973, Solzhenitsyn allowed the publication of The Gulag Archipelago. The massive work had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union, but the KGB, the Soviet spy service, was closing in. Solzhenitsyn's typist, Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, hung herself shortly after her interrogation by the KGB. Solzhenitsyn then unleashed the work, which was quickly published around the world.
The Gulag Archipelago is a work of non-fiction, revealing the massive and murderous nature of the Soviet regime. The work could not be refuted. Soviet propagandists attempted to label Solzhenitsyn a "traitor" to the Soviet Union -- a move that only served to demonstrate the veracity of Solzhenitsyn's central claims. The Soviet Union was embarrassed before the watching world, but Soviet authorities had reached the breaking point and Solzhenitsyn was expelled in 1974, soon followed by his wife and three sons.
In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn explained why the story had to be told:
"We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to repress others. In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations."
American diplomat George Kennan, himself one of the chief architects of American policy during the Cold War, would describe The Gulag Archipelago as "the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times." The Times of London went so far as to speculate, "The time may come when we date the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union from the appearance of Gulag."
Solzhenitsyn would outlive the Soviet Union by seventeen years. He died on Sunday of complications from heart disease at age 89. As he had declared when he was expelled from his homeland in 1974, he died on Russian soil.
He was a man of contradictions or, as Joseph Pearce argues, a man of paradox. In any event, he was a man of great moral vision who revealed the brutality of the Soviet regime and contributed greatly to its collapse. Edward E. Erickson, who wrote two major works on Solzhenitsyn, argues that the key to understanding Solzhenitsyn is Christianity -- the Russian Orthodox faith that framed Solzhenitsyn's worldview. Erickson argued that "in a day when secular humanism flourishes among the cultural and intellectual elite, he holds fast to traditional Christian beliefs."
Indeed, Solzhenitsyn railed against the secularism and spiritual weakness of the West, even as he took refuge in Cavendish, Vermont for the years of his exile. In his famous 1978 Harvard University commencement address, "A World Split Apart," Solzhenitsyn pointed to the moral and spiritual crisis in the West. He declared that America's experiment with democracy was being undermined by secularism:
However, in early democracies, as in the American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God's creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were -- State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man's sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.
He was a man of massive courage and literary ability -- a central character of the twentieth century. He was a moralist to the core, affirming human dignity against Communist oppression and Stalin's murder of millions. Even so, he carried on an affair with the woman who became his second wife and the mother of his sons. He seemed ungrateful to America, but he also saw what many Americans, blinded by historical optimism, could not or would not see in the weakness of the West.
He returned to Russia a prophet, but also a man who seemed strangely out of his times. In his case, a great life of the twentieth century lingered awkwardly into the twenty-first. Nevertheless, his great courage and his literary achievement remain a tribute to the human spirit. Even more, Solzhenitsyn's moral vision serves as a reminder that Christianity alone provides an adequate grounding for human dignity.
When asked once about the force of his writings, Solzhenitsyn explained: "The secret is that when you've been pitched head first into hell you just write about it." The world was changed because he did just that.
Sunday, August 03, 2008
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You have wearied the LORD with your words. "How have we wearied him?" you ask. By saying, "All who do evil are good in the eyes of the LORD, and he is pleased with them" or "Where is the God of justice?" "See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. "So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me," says the LORD Almighty. "I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed." (NIV)
It does not say in verse 2 that he is like a forest fire, or like an incinerator's fire. It says that he is like a refiner's fire. A forest fire destroys indiscriminately. An incinerator consumes completely. But verse 6 says, "I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed—you are not destroyed."
A Word of Warning and a Word of Hope
He is a refiner's fire, and that makes all the difference. A refiner's fire does not destroy indiscriminately like a forest fire. A refiner's fire does not consume completely like the fire of an incinerator. A refiner's fire refines. It purifies. It melts down the bar of silver or gold, separates out the impurities that ruin its value, burns them up, and leaves the silver and gold intact. He is like a refiner's fire.
It does say FIRE. And therefore purity and holiness will always be a dreadful thing. There will always be a proper "fear and trembling" in the process of becoming pure. We learn it from the time we are little children: never play with fire! And it's a good lesson! Therefore, Christianity is never a play thing. And the passion for purity is never flippant. He is like fire and fire is serious. You don't fool around with it.
But it does say, he is like a REFINER'S fire. And therefore this is not merely a word of warning, but a tremendous word of hope. The furnace of affliction in the family of God is always for refinement, never for destruction.
Four Questions About This Text
Now, to unfold this text, let me ask four questions, and point you to their answers in the Scripture in the time we have.
- Who is like a refiner's fire?
- Why must he be like a refiner's fire?
- How can we experience his fire as refining and not consuming?
- What is life like in the refiner's fire?
Verse 3 gives the answer. As I read it, look for three individuals.
Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
Three Individuals Mentioned
The first individual mentioned is "I"—"Behold, I send . . . " This "I" is identified at the end of the verse: "Says the Lord of hosts." The speaker is Jehovah, God the Father.
The second individual mentioned is Jehovah's messenger who prepares the way. "Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me." Who is this? Well the New Testament quotes this very verse to identify John the Baptist, the one who came to prepare the way for Christ (Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27).
But you don't have to read in from the New Testament that this is a kind of prophet whom God would raise up in the last day. It says in Malachi 4:5, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes." So the first messenger mentioned in 3:1 that God will send to prepare his way is a kind of Elijah or one like Elijah. That is why Luke 1:17 says that John the Baptist went before Jesus in the Spirit and the power of Elijah.
The third individual mentioned in verse 1 is "the Lord who comes to his temple." "And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight."
The Identity of the Third Individual
This is another messenger, different from the first. Who is this person? Three things point to the divine Son of God and Messiah.
- He is called "Lord"—a term that Malachi would not apply to Elijah or John the Baptist. This person is someone greater.
- The temple is said to belong to him: He will suddenly come to "HIS temple." Of whom could you say that he is the owner of the temple of God?
- This person seems to be almost identical with Jehovah, not only because Jehovah's temple is his temple, but also because he seems to take the place of the word "me" in the first half of the verse. It says, "Behold, I send my messenger [Elijah=John the Baptist] to prepare the way before ME . . . " But then he switches without any difficulty and instead of saying, "And I will suddenly come to my temple," he says, "And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple." It looks as though "me"—Jehovah—is virtually interchangeable with this other person called the Lord, who owns the temple of God.
So when verse 2 goes on to say, "But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears, for he is like a refiner's fire," I conclude that it is talking about the Son of God who came to us in Jesus Christ.
2. Why Must He Be Like a Refiner's Fire?
The answer is implied in the word itself. He must be a like a refiner's because we need to be refined.
We Need to Be Refined
We were created in the image of God with the potential to reverence God and trust him and obey him and glorify him, but we were born in iniquity and in sin did our mothers conceive us.
We are shot through with the impurity of rebellion and unbelief, and we fall short of God's glory again and again.
You can prove this to yourself in many ways. For example, you can notice how readily your heart inclines to those things that will show your strengths to other people, and how resistant your heart is to communion with God in solitude.
So we are impure by nature and by practice. But God will have no alloys in heaven. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." And yet he will have someone in heaven. He will have a redeemed people. His banquet hall will be full. And therefore he must be a refiner's fire. If he were only a forest fire, heaven would be empty. If he were only an incinerating fire, heaven would be empty. And if he were no fire, heaven would be empty.
Why God Won't Abandon Impure People Like Us
But how do we know heaven will not be empty? Or to put it another way, how do we know that God will not simply abandon impure people like us? We don't deserve salvation? Why are we not simply consumed? Why does Christ come as a refiner's fire and not a forest fire?
Verse 6 gives the answer? "For I the Lord do not change; therefore, you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed." But by itself that doesn't make sense. What if God were changelessly bent on being a forest fire? What if he were changeless in unrelenting wrath? What sort of changelessness is it that guarantees that we are not consumed?
It is covenant-keeping changelessness. According to verse 1 the Lord comes as "the messenger of the covenant." The reason Jesus is a refiner's fire and not a forest fire is because God made a covenant. And Jesus is the emissary of that covenant. He confirms it and seals it with his blood. So his blood is called in Hebrews 13:20, "the blood of the everlasting covenant."
The book of Malachi began with a statement of how the covenant began. "'I have loved you,' says the Lord. But you say, 'How hast thou loved us?' 'Is not Esau Jacob's brother?' says the LORD. 'Yet I have loved Jacob!'" (1:2). This is what never changes—the free and sovereign choice of God to save sinners. "'I have loved you,' says the Lord . . . 'And I the Lord do not change. Therefore you are not consumed.'" Therefore, Jesus is a refiner's fire and not a forest fire.
3. How Can We Experience His Fire as Refining and Not Consuming?
Verse 5 makes it clear that when God comes, not everyone will be refined. Some will be consumed.
Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.
This is not the work of refinement, but the final judgment of condemnation. It is ever clearer in 4:1,
For behold, the day comes burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.
So when the Lord comes, some are refined and some are consumed. How can we be sure to experience the fire of God as refining and not consuming?
What the Answer Cannot Be
Notice very clearly what the answer cannot be! The answer cannot be: get rid of your own sin. If you got rid of your own sin, you would need no refining. Refining is for sinners! You can't answer the question, How do I qualify to get refined? by saying, Get rid of your sin! That's what refining does—it starts to burn up your sin? But how, then, does a sinner qualify to have his sin burned up? If it takes the merciful fire of God to destroy the rebellion of sin, what can a man do to have that mercy?
The Answer of the Whole Bible
And the answer of the whole Bible is: trust in the purifying mercy God! Or to put it the way Malachi puts it again and again: fear God—which means mainly fear to dishonor him with unbelief. Fear the irreverence of distrust. Fear the impulse to jump out of the refining fire of mercy into the forest fire of judgment because it looks cooler. Trust the goodness of God. Believe that his ways are the ways to infinite joy. Don't doubt his expertise as a Refiner.
He knows the time for joy, and, truly,Will send it when He sees it meet;When He has tried and purged thee duly,And finds thee free from all deceit.He comes to thee all unaware,And makes thee own his loving care.
The way to experience the fire of Christ as refining and not consuming is to trust his promise to bring us through the fire to endless joy. Salvation is by grace through faith in the purifying mercy of God.
4. What Is Life Like in the Refiner's Fire?
The most important thing to say is that it is a life of confidence in God. And the foundation of our confidence is this promise: The furnace of affliction in the family of God is always for refinement, never for destruction. "I the Lord do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob!" Which simply means that life in the refiner's fire is a life of trust in the unchanging, purifying love of God.
And perhaps the next most important thing to say is that there is no painless path to heaven. Why? Because Jesus said, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." And it is no more possible to become pure painlessly than it is to be burned painlessly. Purity comes through the refining fire. And the fire has two forms: one is the fire of affliction and the other is the fire of intentional self-denial.
The Fire of Affliction
We see the first fire, for example, in
1 Peter 1:6-7, "Now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold, which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."
James 1:2-4,"Count it all joy, my brethren when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."
Hebrews 12:5-10, 14, "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord . . . for the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives . . . If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children . . . he disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness . . . Pursue holiness without which no one will see the Lord."
The Fire of Intentional Self-Denial
And the other form of purifying fire is the fire of intentional self-denial. We see it for example in
Matthew 5:29-30, "If your right eye causes you to sin pluck it out . . . and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away."
1 Corinthians 9:27, "I pommel my body and subdue it."
Romans 8:13, "If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live."
Unshakable Trust in God's Purifying Fire
What is life like in the refiner's fire?
More than anything else it is the unshakable trust that all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.
And on the path to purity and heaven the other truth is this: no pain, no gain.
Both things are true: the Lord is like a refiner's fire; and a refiner's fire is a fire.
By John Piper. © Desiring God. Website: desiringGod.org