christianity

Why Weakness Should Drive us Godward

Weakness, moral and otherwise has a way of pushing us away from God. It certainly does not serve as a confidence builder when approaching the holy God of the universe.

Hebrews introduces us to a different perspective, an incarnational logic. Take a look at Hebrews 4:14-16.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

The call in this passage is to “hold fast our confession” and to “draw near” to God with confidence that we might know the help of grace when in need. Note what grounds  the call, what forms the foundation of this confidence.

Incredibly, it’s how God engages our weakness. The “for” and “then” of the text drive us to the central confidence giver in the face of weakness—a sympathetic Savior.

We do not have a mediator who lacks understanding, a stand-between ignorant of suffering, a high priest incapable of meeting weakness with grace. He is sympathetic (συμπαθῆσαι). This is a description of the God-man. This is the fruit of  the incarnation and cross—understanding and sympathy.

The NIGTC commentary on Hebrews states that “Christ’s earthly life gives him inner understanding of human experience, and thus makes him ready and able to give active help.”

The very thing that drives us away from God should push us toward him. Our weakness is always met by a gracious, understanding Savior who desires to provide help. He does not engage our weakness with condemnation, but kindness.

Through Christ even our weaknesses are transformed into an invitation to know his grace and mercy. They are the occasion for experiencing God’s help.

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The Remedy for Fear

If there is one thing that should strike fear in a heart it is the certainty of divine judgment and the potential of eternal punishment. In a sane person every other fear bows to this great terror. Accountability in the face of omniscience and holiness is a sobering reality.

The gospel of God is tremendous news as it drives to the heart of this deep concern. Judgment day is ripped out of the future and brought into the present when Christ goes to the cross in our stead. The cross is the courtroom. The verdict is condemnation for Jesus and righteousness for us. This is the gospel. He was our substitute. Judgement has happened.

Love motivated this saving work. It is God’s love that dispels all fear and replaces it with joyful confidence. Hear what John says about the matter in his first letter.

“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:16-19).

Fear is the prey of love. There is no peaceful co-existence between the two. Love attacks, fear runs. How mighty is the love of God! It assaults our fear and instills us with confidence for the day we fear most.

The love of God ensures that punishment is not in our future. His love is a static reality, it is fixed and unmoving. The cross stands as the objective reminder of God’s enduring love. Our grasp of that love, however, is often unstable and moving.

This is why John articulates the need to be “perfected” in our grasp of God’s love for us. The idea of perfection here is development, maturity or completion. As we grow into our grasp of God’s love in Christ our confidence also increases.

We must always distinguish between objective reality and our subjective experience. There is no condemnation present or future for those in Christ, judgement day has happened. That is a fixed reality, whether I feel like it or not.

I waiver in my faith. I doubt God’s promises. I question God’s love. My obedience is flawed. I do not always feel confident about judgement day. These are all part of my subjective experiences of faith. I waiver and how I feel about the gospel and judgement day moves. This does not change the settled reality, it simply speaks to my interaction with it.

The goal: move the subjective experience closer and closer to the objective reality. Confidence in coming day of judgement is an indicator that the objective and subjective are converging.

Not One Hint of Darkness

God is spirit (Jn 4:24). God is one (Deut 6:4). God is love (1 Jn 4:8 ). God is faithful (1 Cor 10:13). God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29). God is merciful (Deut 4:31). God is gracious (2 Chr 30:9). God is compassionate (2 Chr 30:9). God is judge (Ps 50:6).

God is….these character affirmations are prevalent throughout Scripture. They are invitations to explore and understand the nature of our God. John provides us with an important “God is” statement in his first letter.

“God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

John could have simply stated there is no darkness in God. His addition of “at all” (οὐδεμία) makes his claim more emphatic. The double negative communicates impossibility. There is no way, not one chance, no possibility of darkness residing in the character of God…none.

If we have ever concluded from the pain, suffering, and horrors around us that there is darkness in God we have drawn the wrong conclusion. There are horrendous things happening every day on this globe, undeniable evil, unspeakable pain and sorrow. These realities cannot be denied and must be looked squarely in the face.

We have to wrestle with these things from a biblical and theological perspective, absolutely we must. Nevertheless, 1 John 1:5 remains true, God is pure light. This must inform all of our thinking about the darkness we see in the world.

In the context of John’s letter the divine luminosity has another practical purpose. John see’s the light of God as the pattern for Christian living. We are called to walk in the light as he is in the light.

The presence of sin/darkness makes the call to walk in the light synonymous with a life of repentance. We will most definitely find ourselves wandering around in the darkness as Christians, falling into sinful thoughts and behaviors. If we deny this, we are deceived.

The mark of the Christian is not the absence of darkness/sin, but the persistent push toward the light/repentance. The Christian is miserable in the darkness and refuses to stay there. No darkness at all, this is the Christian’s aim—full confession, transparency and exposure before the Creator.

Kept by the Trinity

Assurance comes from turning our eyes away from our strength, our faithfulness and our obedience. Assurance happens to us as we focus our hearts on the activity and promises of the Triune God.

The certainty that “nothing” in the most exhaustive sense is capable of separating us from Christ’s love produces assurance (Rom 8:38-39). The promise that nothing and no one can snatch us from the hand of God creates assurance in us (John 10:28).

The book of Jude creates this assurance in us through the theme of keeping. Three times he uses the language of keeping. He bookends his entire letter with the promise that God will keep us. In the middle of the letter he calls on us to keep ourselves in God’s keeping love. Check out the three verses. 

  • “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1).
  • “But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 20-21).
  • “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24-25).

A few observations on these three passages.

  1. God’s choosing and loving is connected with his keeping. He keeps those who are called and those who are loved. We cannot separate these concepts. Those he loves, he keeps. Those he calls, he keeps.
  2. His keeping work entails the certainty that we will persevere to the end and stand before him on the final day without blame. Joy will mark the moment we stand before God at our death or at his return…great joy.
  3. We are called to keep ourselves in God’s love. This self-keeping is accomplished through the means of building ourselves up in the faith, praying in the Holy Spirit and waiting for the mercy of God at his return. Building, praying and waiting…this is how we keep ourselves in the keeping love of God.
  4. The keeping work of God is a Triune endeavor. Note that we are kept by God the Father in and through Christ. We are kept by God through praying in the Holy Spirit.  We are kept as we focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are kept as we wait for the return of Jesus. All three persons are at work keeping us until the final day.

Learning From Sinful Angels

We have a lot to learn from angels. They are a model of loyalty, service, reverence, worship, holy curiosity and strength. We do well to study the Scripture to better understand these brilliant creatures we will spend eternity with.

We have a lot to learn from fallen angels. They are a model of pride, disloyalty, rebellion, deception and sin. We also do well to study Scripture to better understand the nature of sin in our own souls, the weapons of our foes and the actions that will separate one from God.

In Jude 6 we are given a window into the transgression of the angels. Check out what the brother of Jesus who became his servant says about this.

“And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.”

The fall of the angels was fundamentally a rejection of their proper place before God. They had authority, they held a position of honor, they had a proper place in the presence of God—in their created nature and given vocation. They had a seat at the table.

Sin viewed from this angle is pushing outside one’s boundary. It is beliefs and actions that transgress God-given boundaries. The Creator sets the parameters of all created things. He tells the ocean, “thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed ?” (Job 38:11).

He tells the angels here is your place, here is your role, here is your authority to execute your vocation. The angelic rebellion was a rejection of the joy and freedom set by divine limitation. Rather than embracing the gift of existence and vocation they audaciously stormed the gates of heaven. Authors of the first coup the angelic host found slavery on the other side of their trespass.

Human transgression is made of the same stuff. My rebellion toward my Creator is no different. Like Adam and Eve before me I reject my creaturely limits. I reach outside my capacity and grasp for deity. I crave omnipotence. I claim omniscience. I attempt omnipresence. I determine morality.

Rather than embracing the freedom of creaturely limitation I transgress my parameters. A hardwired idolater, my heart is constantly striving to dethrone my Maker. Thank God for Jesus Christ! The only remedy for idol-ridden human beings, transgressing creatures, and trespassing image-bearers.

Remarkably God could have chosen to rescue fallen angels, but he did not. He came for us. The fall of angelic beings and their certain eternal destruction should create in us deep humility and rich gratitude. The writer of Hebrews captures this wonderful mercy.

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:14-17).

Praise be to God! He helps us! Mercy is the only explanation. He provides no help to the angels, he certainly did not have to provide help to humanity. The incarnation and cross was the form his help took. To accomplish our salvation “he had to” be made like us. There was no other way.

The “elect angels” (1 Tim 5:21) who have remained in their proper positions “long to look” into these matters of salvation. Their angelic curiosity is matched by their astonishment at the Creator’s humility and grace. It is angels who set the pace for worshipping the Lamb who was slain with fierce zeal (Rev 5:11-12). We have much to learn.

Justification and Equal Footing

It has been said that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. Calvary is the great equalizer. It is the demonstration of our sin. It is the demonstration of our righteousness. There we see our condemnation and our comfort, our judgment and our justification.

The landscape of the cross never changes. Obedience and sanctification do not lift us above others. Missionaries, pastors and full-time ministers do not stand on higher ground. The Christian of 50 years is not positioned to look down on the new believer.

Peter helps us understand the common ground of the cross. In his second letter he addresses his readers: “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:1). If anyone were to have higher footing it would be the apostles. Peter dismisses the notion.

It is the righteousness of God applied to us through Christ that creates equal standing. It does not matter who we are, what we have done, what we do or who we become…all have merited condemnation and all who believe receive a righteousness outside of themselves.

Craig Blomberg understands this radical conception of grace to unravel any notion of varying rewards in the kingdom of God. He wrote an article in JETS titled, Degrees of Reward in the Kingdom of Heaven?

In the article he states, “the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ ought to liberate believers from all such performance-centered conceptions of the Christian life. An important step in that direction would be to jettison this misguided and discouraging doctrine of eternal rewards that distinguish one believer from another.”

Blomberg points to Martin Luther as a champion of such an understanding of justification. “Martin Luther often shied away from speaking of Christians even standing before God’s judgment seat, preferring instead to call it his mercy seat. It was a bar of judgment only for unbelievers.”

Blomberg points to Luther’s sermon, ‘The Sum of the Christian Life’ preached in Worlitz on November 24, 1532. As always, Luther is rich with gospel understanding and application.

“If we are ever to stand before God with a right and uncolored faith, we must come to the point where we learn clearly to distinguish between ourselves, our life, and Christ the mercy seat…. The man who can do this will be the justified man. All the others operate with a feigned faith. They talk a lot about faith but they mix things together, as a barkeeper mixes water and wine, by saying if you live in such and such a way God will be gracious to you, and they turn the mercy seat into a judgment seat and the judgment seat into a mercy seat…. Therefore, keep these two widely separated from each other, as widely as ever you can, so that neither can approach the other. See, if that is the way faith were preached, men would be justified and all the rest; a pure heart and good conscience through genuine, perfect love, would follow. For the man who through faith is sure in his heart that he has a gracious God, who is not angry with him, though he deserves wrath, that man goes out and does everything joyfully. Moreover, he can live this way before men also, loving and doing good to all, even though they are not worthy of love…. This is the highest security, the head and foundation of our salvation.”

Respect & Gentleness: Two Critical Evangelistic Postures

Gospel witness is privilege and imperative. Called to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us from darkness to light we are ambassadors for Christ. Peter reminds us that the medium of the message is very important. He puts in front of us two critical evangelistic postures that need emphasis.

“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15).

Gentleness should mark the sharing of our faith with others. To grasp this important posture and character trait we need to look at the original language and the New Testament examples of it.

The Complete Word Study Dictionary of the New Testament says this about the Greek word translated as gentleness (πραΰτης).

“Praǘtēs, according to Aristotle, is the middle standing between two extremes, getting angry without reason, and not getting angry at all. Therefore, praǘtēs is getting angry at the right time, in the right measure, and for the right reason. Praǘtēs is not readily expressed in English (since the term “meekness” suggests weakness), but it is a condition of mind and heart which demonstrates gentleness, not in weakness, but in power. It is a balance born in strength of character.”

The Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament defines gentleness as “a quality of gentle friendliness, as strength that accommodates to another’s weakness, consideration.”

Gentleness is not a lack of power, it is not weakness. It is strength under control. It is power employed for the sake of others. It is discernible in balance. It is a close cousin to humility. It is welcoming and hospitable. It is intimate with kindness and well acquainted with self-control.

The New Testament utilizes the language of gentleness around 30 times. Gentleness is a quality of God (2 Sam 22:36, Ps 18:35, Is 40:11) manifest most clearly in the person of Christ (Matt 11:29, 2 Cor 10:1). It is also characteristic of the Holy Spirit who works that same quality out in us (Gal 5:23).

It is a posture necessary to walk worthy of our calling (Eph 4:2, Tit 3:2, 1 Pet 3:4). It needs to be present when correcting a brother/sister who is straying into sin (Gal 6:1). It is the indicator of true wisdom (James 3:17). It is the mark of good ministry (1 Thess 2:7) and good pastors (1 Tim 3:3).

Respect is clear and more directly carries over into English. The word for respect (φόβος) is often translated as fear, reverence or honor. It speaks to holding another in high regard, to treating with dignity, and valuing highly. In the context it may refer to our reverence for God in our sharing or to the dignity we grant everyone with whom we share. Both are true and may be contained within the text.

Respect and gentleness are a compelling duo in evangelism. When emphasizing how we share and defend our faith Peter pulls these two characteristics center stage. Together they create parameters that ensure that the gospel alone is the only stumbling block for those hearing the message (1 Cor 1:23).