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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Book Recommendation - The Gospel According to the Apostles

One of the books we’ve suggested repeatedly over the years is John MacArthur’s The Gospel Accordingto Jesus, an analysis of Jesus’ evangelistic ministry.  This was a book born out of MacArthur’s almost decade-long sermon series on the gospel of Matthew.  In it, he contrasted the easy-believism of contemporary evangelism with the gospel of repentance preached by Jesus.  If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it.  I consider it to be one of the most important books written in the 20th century.
What many people do not know is that MacArthur has also written a companion volume entitled TheGospel According to the Apostles.  While some might think of it as a sequel, MacArthur considers it a prequel, “a start-from-the-beginning approach to the subject it deals with.” In it, he lays out the doctrinal framework that was only hinted at in The Gospel According to Jesus.  This book details the apostles’ doctrine of salvation, showing that the gospel according to Jesus is also the gospel according to the apostles.   
That description may discourage some readers by implying that it is like a theological textbook or academic work.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is a passionate, readable look at the most essential of all Christian doctrines.   
As The Gospel According to Jesus was born out of MacArthur’s study of Matthew, The Gospel According to the Apostles was born out of practical questions raised by those who had read the former.  He writes:
“…I began to get letters from lay leaders asking for more on the subject. They wanted practical advice: How should we explain the gospel to children? What tracts are available that present the way of salvation fully and biblically?  They wanted help understanding their own spiritual experiences: I came to Christ as a child and didn’t surrender to Him as Lord until several years later. Does that invalidate by salvation?  They wanted spiritual counsel: I’ve been struggling with sin and lack of assurance for years. Can you help me understand genuine faith and how I can have it?  They wanted clarification: What about Lot and the Corinthians who lived in disobedience? They were still redeemed people, weren’t they?  They wanted simplified explanations: I don’t easily understand theological terminology like ‘dispensationalism’ and ‘soteriology.’ Can you explain the lordship controversy to me in plain English?
This book is for those people.”
In The Gospel According to the Apostles, you’ll find answers to the practical questions above in addition to many others, including:
·      What is cheap grace?
·      What does the “no-lordship gospel” teach?
·      What is faith and what does it do?
·      What must a person do to be considered righteous by God?
·      Do your works have any affect on your salvation?
·      What is sanctification?
·      How far can Christians go on sinning?
·      How can I be assured of my salvation?
While this is a theological book, it is intensely practical and even devotional.  I truly believe that easy-to-read doctrinal books like this one can serve as great devotional books as we think deeply about God’s application of salvation to our lives. 
MacArthur writes in the introduction,
“My desire is to present the case biblically, clearly, graciously, fairly, and in terms that every Christian can understand.  My approach will be to examine some of the key passages from the epistles and Acts that reveal how the apostles proclaimed the gospel and how they unfolded the truths of salvation to the early church… I think you’ll agree that the gospel according to the apostles is the same gospel Jesus preached.  I believe you’ll also be convinced that their gospel differs dramatically from the diluted message popular with so many today.”
In my opinion, this is the simplest and most biblically accurate explanation of the doctrine of salvation in print.  It answers all the questions.  It would be well-worth your time this Summer.  
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Truth About Complaining

I’ve about given up on talk radio.  Every time I turn it on someone is complaining about something.  Facebook is much the same way.  We don’t usually call it complaining, but replace it with terms and phrases like “venting” and “just sayin’.” 
But isn’t it interesting that what is so intolerable in others we find perfectly acceptable in ourselves?  Even as I find other people’s complaining distasteful, I have to admit that I complain, too.  And having access to my own heart, I can say something about myself that I can’t say with confidence about anyone else – I do an awful lot of complaining in my heart.  I think a lot of complaints that I never verbalize.  And though I can’t be sure, I suspect I’m not alone.
A word that the Bible uses for complaining is grumbling.  Even in English that word evokes a detailed picture of the concept.  To grumble is to express dissatisfaction or disapproval with something or someone.  We find it used in both testaments, with the first demonstration coming in the book of Exodus right after Yahweh brought His people out of the land of Egypt.
In Exodus 15, though the people have just been freed from slavery, they “grumbled against Moses” because the only water available to them was bitter.  So Yahweh miraculously turned the bitter water sweet (Exo15:24-27).  One chapter later, the people again “grumbled against Moses and Aaron” because there was no food to eat.  So Yahweh miraculously gave them bread and meat (Exo 16:1-14).  In the next chapter, there is another shortage of water and the people again “grumble against Moses.”  So Yahweh gave them water from a rock (Exo 17:1-7).
There are at least two things we should note about each of these passages.  The first is that the people had a very short memory when it came to Yahweh’s disposition to take care of them.  Their first occasion of grumbling came just after Yahweh parted the Red Sea and annihilated all the Egyptians who pursued them.  It’s safe to say that was a sign that He wanted to take care of the Israelites.  The other two occasions likewise followed episodes of Yahweh’s miraculous provision.  In other words, in spite of all that they had seen, the people did not trust that God cared for them and they did not believe that He would provide.  Their focus was placed exclusively on their unpleasant circumstances. 
Second, though in the people’s minds they were grumbling against Moses, the reality is that they were grumbling against God.  In ch16 in response to the grumbling about their hunger, Moses said, "At evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your grumbling against the LORD. For what are we, that you grumble against us? When the LORD gives you in the evening meat to eat and in the morning bread to the full, because the LORD has heard your grumbling that you grumble against him-- what are we? Your grumbling is not against us but against the LORD" (Exo 16:6-8).
Clearly Moses and Yahweh regarded the people’s grumbling as grumbling against Yahweh.  But how can this be?  Yahweh answers that question in Deut 8: “And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut 8:2-3). 
The people may have thought they were grumbling against Moses, but because Yahweh was the sovereign hand bringing about both hardship and salvation, their complaining about their circumstances was an expression of dissatisfaction with the very plan of Yahweh.  It was an implicit accusation that Yahweh was not wise and loving.  Yet, the text above demonstrates not only that Yahweh was sovereign over it all, but that He had a good purpose for everything He was doing.  He was seeking to teach them humility, obedience, and dependence upon Him.
All of this can be applied to our own lives.  Let’s think about this, but in the opposite order.  First, when you and I complain about whatever is uncomfortable in our lives, we might think that we are merely grumbling against our spouse or our employer or our government, etc.  But the truth is that because God is the sovereign hand bringing about every circumstance in our lives, all of our grumbling is grumbling against Him.  He regards it that way.  We implicitly accuse Him of a lack of wisdom and love when we grumble about what He has brought into our lives.  Further, we imply that we know better than He does what is best for us.  This is the exact opposite of humility.  It is pride.
Yet, what God wants to teach us in each situation is humility, obedience, and dependence upon Him.  He wants to teach us to trust Him with our lives.  He wants to conform us into the image of His Son, and He uses every circumstance in our lives to accomplish this (Rom 8:28-30).  When we grumble, we argue against His purposes, His methods, His wisdom, and His motive.
Second, when we grumble we demonstrate a remarkably short memory regarding God’s disposition to care for us.  How many ways has God shown that He loves us and has our best in mind?  If God gave His Son for us, how can we question His care for us in lesser things?  As Paul wrote in Romans 8:32, He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?  We could all give long testimonies about all the ways that God has cared for us over the years, yet when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, all of that history is forgotten and we begin to grumble against Him. 
So how do we deal with habitual grumbling?  Here are a few suggestions. First, daily rehearse the mighty works of God (Psa 77).  Make it a habit to remind yourself of all He has done in salvation history and for you specifically.  Second, thank Him for those things (Psa75).  Third, when you are tempted to grumble, remind yourself that God is sovereign, good, and wise; He knows better than you do what is best for you; and He is using these precise circumstances to make you more like Christ (Rom8:28-30).  Fourth, thank God for the situation about which you are tempted to grumble.  That’s not a typo.  Thank God for the situation about which you are tempted to grumble.  Ephesians5:20 instructs us to give thanks always and for everything.  We can do this precisely because God is sovereign and is forcing everything to work together for our good.  Everything. 
One common reply to such teaching is “but what if I don’t feel thankful? Aren’t I being a hypocrite if I give thanks without feeling thankful?”  I would answer that question with another question: what other commands in Scripture is it permissible to obey only when we feel like it?  We are commanded to give thanks.  And if we are struggling with feeling thankful, we should ask the Lord to change our hearts, but we shouldn’t wait until then to obey the command to give thanks.  I truly believe that the act of verbalizing thanks to God for a difficult situation and recognizing His goodness and wisdom in bringing it will go a long way toward softening our hearts about that situation.  In other words, if we submit to the Lord by giving thanks and believing the truth about Him, we will grow to have hearts of true gratitude.  It’s amazing how quickly the Lord changes our hearts when we just obey Him.
So powerful is the ability to live life without grumbling that Paul cites it as one of the primary ways that we shine as lights in this world (Phil 2:14-15).  May the Lord grant us the grace to recognize our grumbling for what it is and replace it with thanksgiving.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Sovereign, Comforting, Weeping Savior

Several of our members have either recently lost loved ones or have loved ones who are in dire health. When suffering comes our way, especially in the form of the death of a loved one, what can we find in Scripture that will help us to grieve in a way that honors the Lord?

There will always be the temptation to blame God for our pain, to think of Him simply as the unfeeling puppet-master who is moving history without a concern for those hurt in the carrying out of His sovereign plan. There is the temptation to be angry with God and to become embittered against Him.

There is one passage that calls to us in times like these, a passage that is profoundly comforting.
John 11 tells the story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus. It is an account that exposes three things: God has a divine plan in our suffering, God desires to comfort us in our suffering, and God desires to mourn with us in our suffering.

Most of us are familiar with the story. Jesus receives word from Mary and Martha that Lazarus, their brother, is very ill. In v5, the writer inserts a pivotal editorial comment, Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. This one sentence provides the foundation for our understanding God’s motive for all that He does in relation to our suffering in this life. When tragedy strikes, the evil one will undoubtedly tempt us to doubt the love of God. But that thought must be taken captive and made obedient to the truth of John 11:5. God loves us. Everything that He does in the lives of the elect is motivated by His love for them.

The next verse delivers something so profound that it warrants a day or two of solid meditation: So, when he heard that Lazarus was sick He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was. There is one word in that verse that blows the mind. It goes against everything that our human flesh assumes to be true. “So…” That word attaches vv5-6 together so that one verse becomes the reason for the other. Why did Jesus stay two days longer in the place where He was even after hearing about the grave illness of Lazarus? Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Of course, the understood result of Jesus’ staying where He was is that Lazarus would die. Jesus delayed so that Lazarus would die, because He loved Lazarus and his sisters.

What a monumental statement on suffering in the life of believers. God sovereignly brings suffering into our lives because He loves us. Now, our natural self-centered understanding of good tells us that if God loves us, He won’t allow us to suffer. But that is terrible theology. And if we look closely at this passage, we will see that God’s purpose in allowing us to suffer is benevolent in the truest sense.

When Jesus received word that Lazarus was sick, He replied, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” The true end of all suffering is that God would be glorified. But the question remains, in what way is that benevolent to us? We find the answer in v40, when Jesus says to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” What Jesus planned to do was to glorify Himself and in doing that He was going to display the glory of God to those who were suffering. And in His estimation, that gift was well worth the suffering that they were enduring.

Suffering in the life of the believer is always an opportunity to see more of who God is. The pain may seem unbearable, but if we will focus on Him and the truth that He allows us to suffer because He loves us, we will find in that pain some of the sweetest fellowship with God Almighty that we have ever known. But we have to believe, He said. We have to believe in His goodness, believe that He loves us, and believe that He is being glorified in our suffering. We would do well to understand that there is far more opportunity for God to be glorified in our pain than in our pleasure.

Not only does this passage tell of God’s divine plan in our suffering, but it also tells of His desire to comfort us in our suffering. Jesus says to Martha in v23, “Your brother will rise again.” Why would Jesus tell her anything? Why not just say, “follow me,” take her to the tomb, and raise her brother? Why take the time to have a conversation with her? Because Jesus desired to comfort her.

And in His comforting her, Jesus gave her a peek at the ultimate reason for her suffering – He revealed more of Himself to her: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (vv25-26). He comforted her by pointing to Himself and the glory that waited on the other side of the pain. Life waited on the other side of this death – life that can only be given by the Resurrection and the Life. And notice that in the midst of her pain, Martha was given the opportunity to affirm her belief in the Savior.

I honestly believe that the only true comfort available in this life is found in God Almighty. Paul writes in 2 Cor 1:3-4, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

God is the God of all comfort. There is comfort nowhere else. And we find throughout the Bible, and certainly in John 11, that God is a God who desires to comfort His people.

Finally, we find here that God desires to mourn with us in our suffering. v35 is one of the most famous in the Bible: Jesus wept. There are a number of proposed interpretations of this verse. Some say that Jesus wept out of anger at what sin had done to the earth He created. Others say that Jesus wept out of disappointment that those around Him failed to believe in Him. Still others say that He wept for joy at the work He was going to do on the cross.

But these interpretations are working way too hard. The text tells us explicitly why Jesus wept. vv33: When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled. He was troubled by their weeping, their suffering, so He wept. What we see here is Jesus weeping with those who weep. He was joining them in their pain. He was mourning with them.

All this, even though He knew precisely what He intended to do – raise Lazarus from the dead. He knew the joy that awaited. He knew the blessing they would receive in beholding His glory, yet He wept in their moment of mourning.

Is there any reason to think He doesn’t do the same with us? The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psa 34:18). God loves us and empathizes with us in our pain.

God has a divine plan in our suffering, He desires to comfort us in our suffering, and He desires to mourn with us in our suffering. If in our sorrow we can turn our focus to God and His character and the things we learn of Him in John 11, it will be possible to mourn in a way that honors and glorifies Him. Suffering is universal. It touches everyone at some point in life. But for those of us who are in Christ, even in our mourning we have hope. We exult in the hope of the glory of God (Rom 5:2).

Posted by Greg Birdwell