A Biblical Framework for Encouragement: Church

The presence of the church in the world is intended to be a tremendous source of encouragement. It is for encouragement that we gather and it is encouragement that we are called to bring to the world.

The book of Hebrews tells us that encouragement is an important means of safeguarding one another and developing perseverance in the faith.

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But encourage one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13).

Daily encouragement is the remedy for the slippery slope of unbelief, hardness of heart and falling away from God. This slope is a reality for everyone one of us. I cannot count the number of times I have come to church on a Sunday morning with a rock for a heart. I have felt the slippery slope—the slide into unbelief and callousness. I have also felt the softening touch of God’s Spirit as brothers and sisters encourage me. We need each other. Encouragement is designed to smashScreen Shot 2016-08-01 at 6.03.45 PM the rock heart that can so easily overtake us.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul says to “encourage the fainthearted.” The word translated fainthearted means “little souled.” The idea is that our circumstances, pain, suffering and discouragements can deflate us, they can press in on us to such a degree that our capacity for hope dwindles.

Encouragement infuses hope into our hearts, it expands the walls of our soul again. It increases our capacity for hope once again. When we gather, when we encourage one another, when we communicate the gospel promises to each other again and again—this is what happens.

We need each other. This life of faith thing is a community endeavor.

 

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The News We Must Laugh and Be Glad Over

You have likely gathered by now that I love Martin Luther. I can’t stay away from his work because he can’t stay away from the gospel. His pastoral approach orbits around the cross and resurrection of Christ. Here is a great quote on what “good news” means and how it must make us laugh with joy.

“For ‘gospel’ [Euangelium] is a Greek word and means in Greek a good message, good tidings, good news, a good report, which one sings and tells with gladness. For example, when David overcame the great Goliath, there came among the Jewish people the good report and encouraging news that their terrible enemy had been struck down and that they had been rescued and given joy and peace; and they sang and danced and were glad for it [I Sam. 18:6]. Thus this gospel of God or New Testament is a good story and report, sounded forth into all the world by the apostles, telling of a true David who strove with sin, death, and the devil, and overcame them, and thereby rescued all those who were captive in sin, afflicted with death, and overpowered by the devil. Without any merit of their own he made them righteous, gave them life, and saved them, so that they were given peace and brought back to God. For this they sing, and thank and praise God, and are glad forever, if only they believe firmly and remain steadfast in faith. This report and encouraging tidings, or evangelical and divine news, is also called a New Testament. For it is a testament when a dying man bequeaths his property, after his death, to his legally defined heirs. And Christ, before his death, commanded and ordained that his gospel be preached after his death in all the world [Luke 24:44-47]. Thereby he gave to all who believe, as their possession, everything that he had. This included: his life, in which he swallowed up death; his righteousness, by which he blotted out sin; and his salvation, with which he overcame everlasting damnation. A poor man, dead in sin and consigned to hell, can hear nothing more comforting than this precious and tender message about Christ; from the bottom of his heart he must laugh and be glad over it, if he believes it true.” (Martin Luther, Prefaces to the New Testament, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960], pp. 358-59)

Around the Table with God

Jesus is God in the flesh. He reveals the heart, nature and intentions of God. When you read the gospel narratives through this lens everything changes. Read Mark 2:15-17 from this angle.

“Later, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus’ followers.) But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with such scum?’ When Jesus heard this, he told them, ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.'”

Who you eat with says a lot about you. Eating a meal is one of the most intimate gestures of human life. God chooses to eat with the broken, the outcast, the rejected, the lost and the sick. This is a God who lives in the fray. This is a God who is fearless in the face of pain and need.

The irony of the passage is in the two categories mentioned by Jesus. In reality, there is one category for humanity…the only difference is whether or not one embraces reality. In the words of Paul, “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10). God is saying to us all: come and sit at my table. He is a hospitable God.

Indwelling in 2 Timothy: Gospel Faithfulness

2 Timothy 1:4 states the following, “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”

Paul’s letter to Timothy is concerned with doctrinal fidelity and gospel centrality in the pastoral context. Paul practices what he preaches as he passes on what he has learned to faithful men (2 Tim 2:22).

Paul is making a disciple of Timothy. He opens his letter with a lofty exhortation grounded in the rich truth of indwelling. In essence he states, “Timothy you have been tasked with protecting the message of the God-man who has come, died, and rose for our salvation. The Holy Spirit dwells in you and this is how you will accomplish your task.”

The Spirit takes up residence in believers for many reasons. In this text, his permanent residence in Timothy is connected to faithful ministry.The Holy Spirit is devoted to safekeeping the message of Christ. This means he is strongly opposed to any false doctrine that would challenge the claims of Christ’s person and work.

His indwelling work aids the pastor by infusing the same passion and devotion to doctrinal faithfulness. The Spirit protects the “good deposit” in and through the leaders of the church.

One important implication of this truth is that the Spirit will labor within every believing individual to insure they hold fast to the central claims of Christianity.The Spirit is fully aware that salvation depends on sound doctrine. Trusting a very specific individual who has done a very particular work is a salvific necessity.

Yet again the doctrine of indwelling is pastoral in nature. This time, however, we learn how indwelling equips and empowers the pastor for his unique task and calling.

Luther: Meditating on the Cross

Luther loved to preach on the benefits of the sacrifice of Christ. If you read through his sermons you will quickly find that he consistently pressed the gospel into the hearts of his hearers. In a sermon on the cross he states this about the value of meditating on the work of Christ.

“Whoever meditates thus upon God’s sufferings for a day, an hour, yea, for a quarter of an hour, we wish to say freely and publicly, that it is better than if he fasts a whole year, prays the Psalter every day, yea, than if he hears a hundred masses. For such a meditation changes a man’s character and almost as in baptism he is born again, anew. Then Christ’s suffering accomplishes its true, natural and noble work, it slays the old Adam, banishes all lust, pleasure and security that one may obtain from God’s creatures; just like Christ was forsaken by all, even by God.”

Luther goes on to explain that the act of meditating and grasping the implications of the cross are divine gifts. It is by grace that we understand grace, according to Luther.

“It is impossible for us profoundly to meditate upon the sufferings of Christ of ourselves, unless God sink them into our hearts. Further, neither this meditation nor any other doctrine is given to you to the end that you should fall fresh upon it of yourself, to accomplish the same; but you are first to seek and long for the grace of God, that you may accomplish it through God’s grace and not through your own power.”

In Luther’s view, meditation must lead to application. We must take the truths of Christ’s cross and impress them into our souls. We must rest our faith upon the promises of God. In this sermon, Luther calls his listeners to connect their faith to the explicit promises of forgiveness and justification.

“Cast your sins from yourself upon Christ, believe with a festive spirit that your sins are his wounds and sufferings, that he carries them and makes satisfaction for them, as Isaiah 53:6 says: ‘the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all;’ and St. Peter in his first Epistle (1 Peter 2:24): ‘He bore our sins in his body upon the tree’ of the cross; and St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21: ‘Him who knew no sin was made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.’ Upon these and like passages you must rely with all your weight.”

The more I read Luther the more I appreciate his ability to probe the depths of the cross-work of God and bring his hearers along with him.

After Darkness, Light: The Gospel in Poem

I have spent the last few days thinking and thinking on the theme of God breaking through darkness with light. We see this thought woven throughout Scripture and finding ultimate expression in the gospel. Here is a poem that attempts to capture the gospel angle on light conquering darkness.

The Gospel and Sex

I was doing some research for a project on the topic of marriage. The project required some work on a theology of sex within the confines of marriage. As I researched, I came across this quote by Tim Keller which spurred me on to read more from him on the issue.

The ecstasy and joy of sex is supposed to be a foretaste of the complete ecstasy and joy of total union with Christ. The moment we see Christ face to face …. we will be naked, yet so delighted in [our nakedness that] we will be unashamed …. The Lord God will look at us through Jesus and say, ‘I love you.’… Great sex is a parable of the Gospel—to be utterly accepted in spite of your sin, to be loved by the One you admire to the sky.

The quote, “great sex is a parable of the gospel” blew my mind. It pushed me to dig deeper. I tracked down an article that Keller wrote titled: The Gospel and Sex. The article was so well written and helpful that I wanted to reproduce a section of it here for you to read. Take a look and let me know your thoughts. To me, this is just another brilliant example of how critical it is to view life through a gospel lens.

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Sex Procreates: The Politics of Sex

Sex is sacred because, with God, it co-creates a new soul. Sex propagates the human race (Gen. 1:28). Its purpose is not merely for the building up of a family name. The purpose of sex is to create families of disciples, to establish new kingdom communities. And, ironically, the main way we learn this is through the Bible’s remark- able attitude toward singleness.

Christianity, unlike most traditional religions or cultures, holds out singleness as a viable way of life. Both Jesus and the apostle Paul were single. Jesus spoke about those who remained unmarried in order to better serve the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:12). Paul says singleness is often better for ministering as a sign of the coming kingdom (1 Cor. 7:29–35). One of the few clear differences between Christianity and Judaism is the former’s entertainment of the idea of singleness as the paradigm way of life for its followers. . . . Singleness was legitimate, not because sex was thought to be a particularly questionable activity, but because the mission of the church was such that “between the times” the church required those who were capable of complete service to the Kingdom. . . . And we must remember that the “sacrifice” made by the single is not that of “giving up sex,” but the much more significant sacrifice of giving up heirs. There can be no more radical act than this, as it is the clearest institutional expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family, but by the church (Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, p.189–90).

Therefore, we are to choose between marriage and singleness not on the basis of whether we want the personal happiness and status of a family but on the basis of which state makes us most useful in the kingdom of God. Both singleness and marriage are necessary symbolic institutions for the constitution of the church’s life as the historic institution that witnesses to God’s kingdom. Neither can be valid without the other. If singleness is a symbol of the church’s confidence in God’s power to effect lives for the growth of the church, marriage and procreation is the symbol of the church’s understanding that the struggle will be long and arduous. For Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of their hope . . . that God has not abandoned this world (Hauerwas, 174, 190).

See, then, how different the Christian prohibition of extramarital sex is from the traditional one? In traditional cultures premarital sex was taboo but so was singleness, because the family and the propagation of its economic and social status were idols. The Christian prohibition of premarital sex is clearly different in its inspiration, because singleness is now considered a viable alternative. In traditional societies premarital sex was forbidden because it undermined the family. In Christianity it undermined the kingdom. Why? First, sex outside of a marriage covenant undermines the character quality of faithfulness, which builds community.

The issue is not just whether X or Y form of sexual activity is right or wrong, as if such activity could be separated from a whole way of life. Rather such questions are but shorthand ways of asking what kind of people we should be to be capable of supporting the mission of the church. . . . Chastity, we forget, is not a state but a form of the virtue of faithfulness that is necessary for a role in the community. As such, it is as crucial to the married life as it is to the single life (Hauerwas, 194-195).

Second, we abstain from extramarital sex in order to witness how God works in the gospel. God calls his people into an exclusive relationship, a marriage covenant, and to give him anything less in return is unfaithfulness. “By our faithfulness to one another, within a community that requires, finally, loyalty to God, we experience and witness to the first fruits of the new creation. Our commitment to exclusive relations witnesses to God’s pledge to his people, Israel and the church that, through his exclusive commitment to them . . . people will be brought into his kingdom” (Hauerwas, 190-191). So although it is common to hear people say, “Sex is a private affair and no one’s business but my own,” it is not true. How we use sex has significant community and political ramifications.

Sex Delights: The Dance of Sex

Further, sex is sacred because it is the analogy of the joyous self-giving and pleasure of love within the life of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in a relationship of glorious devotion to each other, pouring love and joy into one another continually (cf. John 1:18; 17:5, 21, 24-25). Sex between a man and a woman points to the love between the Father and the Son, as well as that between Christ and the believer (1 Cor. 11:3).

Despite 1 Corinthians 7, which explodes the romanticist views of sex as strictly personal fulfillment, the Bible rather baldly and openly celebrates the delights of sex. Sex is supposed to be wonderful because it mirrors the joy of relationship in the Trinity and because it points to the eternal ecstasy of soul that we will have in heaven in our loving relationships with God and one another (Prov. 5:18–20; Deut. 24:5).

The role of the woman throughout the Song [of Solomon] is truly astounding, especially in light of its ancient origins. It is the woman, not the man, who is the dominant voice throughout the poems that make up the Song. She is the one who seeks, pursues, initiates. [In Song 5:10–16] she boldly exclaims her physical attraction. . . . Most English translations hesitate in this verse. The Hebrew is quite erotic, and most translators cannot bring themselves to bring out the obvious meaning. . . . This again is a prelude to their lovemaking. There is no shy, shamed, mechanical movement under the sheets. Rather, the two stand before each other, aroused, feeling no shame, but only joy in each other’s sexuality (Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, Intimate Allies: Rediscovering God’s Design for Marriage and Becoming Soul Mates for Life, Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1999, p.253–54).

Sex is, then, an important part of what Lewis calls the “great dance.” According to Lewis, all of God’s reality— from the stars and solar systems to the act of sexual intercourse—form an ongoing, dynamic dance, in which “plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed” (C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, New York: Macmillan, 1968, p.217).

Sex Unifies: The Ceremony of Sex

Third, sex is sacred because it constitutes a covenant renewal ceremony. The original purpose of sex was to “become one flesh,” meaning a complete personal union. Sex creates deep intimacy, oneness, and communion between two people (Gen. 2:24; 4:14). In the Bible oneness is not simply a matter of emotion but is always the creation of a covenant. Romanticism considers emotional happiness to be the main condition for marriage; if there is interpersonal happiness, sex is warranted, and then comes marriage. But when love dies, it is also allowable to walk away from the marriage. In the biblical view, however, the main condition of marriage is a binding covenant. In the romantic view, sex is self-expression; in the biblical view, sex is self-giving.

The Bible is full of covenant renewal ceremonies. When God enters into a personal relationship with someone, he is not so unrealistic as to think that mere emotion can serve as the basis for it. He knows that human emotions come and go and that there needs to be something binding to provide consistency and endurance. So God requires a binding, public, legal covenant as the infrastructure for intimacy. It is far easier to be vulnerable to someone who has bindingly promised to be exclusively faithful to you than to someone who is under no obligation to stay with you for more than one night. Thus God demands covenants. But even that is not enough. He regularly gets his people together to reread the terms of the covenant, remember the history of his acts of grace in their lives, and recommit themselves through renewal of the covenant.

The ultimate covenant renewal ceremony is the Lord’s Supper. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper renews the covenant made at baptism; through the breaking of bread and the pouring out of wine it reenacts the selfless sacrifice of Jesus to us. In addition, in the receiving and eating of the sacrament it reenacts the giving of ourselves to Jesus. We reenact the total commitment and oneness we have in Christ as a way of renewing and deepening that oneness.

In the same way, marriage is a covenant, one that creates a place of security for vulnerability. But though covenant is necessary for sex, sex is also necessary for covenant. The covenant will grow stale unless we continually revisit and reenact it. Sex is a covenant renewal ceremony for marriage, the physical reenactment of the inseparable oneness in all other areas—economic, legal, personal, psychological—created by the marriage covenant. Sex renews and revitalizes the marriage covenant.