Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Gift of Accountability


Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)
It is a natural human tendency to avoid accountability.  We are rebellious at heart, we do not want to submit ourselves to others, and we do not want people examining our lives.  It could be said that it is the sinfully natural thing to desire spiritual autonomy. 
But this verse in Proverbs shows how unwise it is to isolate oneself from others.  It is completely self-centered – whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire – and it is foolish - …he breaks out against all sound judgment.
God gave the church to the church.  Ephesians 4:9-16 makes it clear that we are to be serving one another, building one another up in Christ, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  V15 shows that a vital component of our assisting one another toward growth in Christlikeness is “speaking the truth in love.”  It would make sense that if we are exhorted to do this for one another, we also need others to do this for us.   
In the post from last week, we saw that one of the crucial tools the Lord has given us to help us deal with our sin and grow in the Lord is our relationships in the church.  We need others to hold us accountable and speak the truth in love.  The more people we have around us who will love us in that way, the less likely we are to sin.  Conversely, the fewer people we have around us who will love us enough to confront our sin, the more likely we are to sin. 
This seems to be one idea behind an exhortation at the climax of the book of Hebrews in 10:24-27.  After explaining the certainty of our salvation in Christ, the writer writes: And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.
Why should we make it a priority to meet together? Because in the absence of stirring up one another to love and good works, there is the great danger of deliberately continuing in sin.  And therein lies a possible motive for those who shy away from any kind of accountability.  It may be that such a person wants to hide his sin so that it doesn’t have to be removed from his life.  It’s possible that such a person wants to continue in sin.
Another reason that someone may not seek accountability is that they think that accountability is only for the weak, “addicted,” or immature.  In other words, they consider accountability to be primarily for “serious” sin and “serious” sinners.  However, the New Testament would not support such a notion.  Of all the churches to which Paul wrote letters in the New Testament, the one considered the most mature was the one to which he made numerous calls for mutual accountability.  Indeed, it was to the Thessalonians that Paul wrote about such things.  Even though he acknowledged that they were already living lives pleasing to God, he exhorted them to “do so more and more” (4:1).  Toward that end, he wrote in 1 Thess 5:11, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up.”  Three verses later, he gave the fuller exhortation, “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” 
We find another strong exhortation toward accountability written to – of all people – a pastor in 2 Timothy 2:22: So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. What a compact, yet complete picture of our responsibility in sanctification – put off sin, put on righteousness, and don’t try to do it alone. 
If such things were written to a pastor and to the godly believers in Thessalonica, should we think that we have no need to be admonished when we are idle, encouraged when we are fainthearted, and helped when we are weak?  Should we think we can effectively flee from sinful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace all by ourselves without the help and encouragement of other believers who are pursuing the same things?  Scripture is clear – we need one another.  And as Proverbs 18:1 indicates, only a fool would deny that.
But let me give one caveat here.  Accountability is only as effective as we are honest.  Some believers think that merely having an accountability partner is going to protect them from engaging in grievous sin.  The truth is that there is nothing magical about having an accountability partner.  Many people in accountability relationships have shipwrecked their faith by still engaging in wanton sinfulness.  When this happens it is usually the case that while the person was meeting with an accountability partner, he or she was not being completely honest about their struggles.  So consider this – if you are in an accountability relationship in which you are not totally honest, you are not really in an accountability relationship at all.  Rather, you are in a deception relationship.  What we need is true biblical accountability where we do not hide our sin, but we seek regular help from someone we trust and in whose life we can offer the same kind of help.
I have the blessing of having numerous people in my life who love me enough to confront my sin and hold me accountable.  It has been an invaluable part of my spiritual growth and I would encourage everyone to surround themselves with such loving believers.  If you do not have any kind of accountability relationship, please approach one of the elders.  We would be happy to connect you with someone.  If you already have someone in mind, please take the first step and ask them to consider such a relationship.  This is an essential part of our sanctification.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can do this on your own. 
Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Warning Signs of Spiritual Danger


The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it. (Proverbs 22:3)
I’ve heard the same question over and over recently: how do people fall into the really big sins?  Some of us have a hard time understanding how it is even possible for seemingly mature believers to give in to what might be considered life-altering sins like adultery.  How does that happen?
I think the reason we have a hard time understanding it is that we envision temptations to these kinds of sins coming out of nowhere, as if one minute a person can be living a life of complete faithfulness to the Lord and the next minute they are destroying their lives with an outrageous act of rebellion.  But this isn’t really the way it happens.  Big sins are usually the result of the toleration of long series of smaller sins.
(Is it really fair to categorize sins as big and small?  Some folks would say no, that all sin is the same.  And that is true in the sense that all sin is sufficient to condemn us to hell.  However, all sin is not the same in terms of temporal consequences.  The consequences of an unkind thought are not going to be the same as the consequences of murder.  This is demonstrated in the OT treatment of various sins.  There were some sins that were punishable by the death penalty and others that were not [Lev 20]. The NT echoes this by indicating that there are some sins that are more serious than others, like sexual sin or creating division in the church [1 Cor 5:1-13, 6:18; Titus 3:10-11].  This is the distinction I am making by using the terms “big” and “small.”)
The Bible teaches that our enemy is cunning (Gen 3:1; 2 Cor 2:11,11:3).  He’s no idiot.  He disguises himself as an angel of light to deceive us (2 Cor 11:14-15).  He’s not going to spook us with a temptation to a huge sin out of nowhere.  He will seek to lead us there slowly.  We could think of lesser sins as training wheels for the bigger sins.  We give in to relatively small things and those sins train us to tolerate sins that are a little more serious.  And those sins prepare us to tolerate bigger sins.  Sin is a progressive thing.  Slavery to sexual sin or compulsive lying or rampant gossip doesn’t happen over night.  We tiptoe into it slowly. 
And all along the way, there are signs warning us, “Hey! Look out! Danger!”  As the proverb above indicates, we are wise to see danger and hide from it. The Scriptures promise us that for every temptation we face, there is a way of escape (1 Cor10:13). When we sin, it is because we did not take advantage of that escape.  We saw the warning signs and intentionally walked right past them into our sin. 
The most obvious warning sign is the Holy Spirit convicting us of sin.  But are other warning signs?  Here are just a few:
(1) A gradual shift from a focus on godly influences to a focus on secular influences.  Sin degrades my appetite for truth. When I find myself not interested in godly influences the way I once was, but secular influences are taking up more of my time, it may be an indication that I am avoiding godly influences so that I can remain comfortable in some sin. 
(2) A progressive appetite for certain smaller sins.  This may not even mean giving in to those sins, but may just be a ramping up of the intensity and frequency of temptation to those sins.  That is a warning sign.  You need help. 
(3) A progressive tolerance for certain smaller sins.  By “tolerance” I mean actually giving in to the temptation and not repenting and seeking help.  If there is a sin in your life that used to be completely out of bounds, but with which you have now become accustomed and even comfortable, that’s huge red flag.  Your conscience is becoming insensitive and you are progressing toward bigger problems.
(4) A cooling of my pursuit of Jesus.  The Lord taught us in Matt 6:24 that no one can serve two masters.  A decreasing passion for Jesus is a sign of an increasing passion for some other god or sin. 
(5) A progressive difficulty spending time in the Word and in prayer.  This is tied closely to the previous one.  We all have days when we don’t feel like praying and when the Bible seems like its written in another language.  But a long season of dryness can be a warning sign that we are in spiritual danger.  There may be sin that is pulling us away from the Lord.  At the very least, these are times when we are more susceptible to temptation.
(6) Pulling away from meaningful fellowship and accountability.  We’ve heard it a million times, but that’s because it’ s true: God gave the church to the church to help the church be the church.  We need each other.  But sin likes to hide: For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed (John 3:20).  If we are avoiding other believers, it may be a sign that we are motivated to hide something. 
So, if you see one of these warning signs in your life, what should you do?  TELL SOMEBODY! QUICKLY!  Grab a brother or sister and tell them you need help fleeing from a certain sin or reinvigorating your walk with the Lord.  2 Timothy tells us that when we flee from sin and pursue holiness, we need to do it with others (2:22).  Sanctification is a team sport!  We must be in the Word and in prayer with others by our side. 
If you feel like you are entrenched in something or even in danger of heading down the wrong road, tell someone immediately.  The elders are always available and our church is full of believers who will encourage and help you.
We’re all capable of the worst of sins.  That’s why we need to pay attention to the warning signs and take advantage of the tools God has given us to combat sin.   

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Jeremiah's Example of Persistence


Ever grow tired of doing right when you don’t see any results from your efforts?  It happens in a myriad of circumstances.  Many of us have fought long and hard to overcome a besetting sin, but when we fall again we want to just throw in the towel.  Or we’re motivated to do our job with integrity at work, but when that is not rewarded we are tempted to pull back and coast.  Some have rocky marriages, so we put much effort into changing, but when our spouse doesn’t reciprocate we are tempted revert to our old habits. 
We pursue obedience, looking for some temporal good to come from it.  But what about when that doesn’t happen?  How do we persistent in doing good when there seems to be no benefit?
The prophet Jeremiah knew exactly what it feels like to go all out and see nothing in return.  When God called him to be a prophet to the people of Judah, He told him to warn the people about impending judgment for their idolatry and to call them to repentance.  And God warned Jeremiah that things were not going to go well for him.  It wasn’t just that the people would be reluctant to listen or that it would take years and years for Jeremiah to see anyone repent and return to the Lord.  It would be much worse than that.  God said, “they will fight against you…” (1:19).  The people would actively work against Jeremiah. 
Now, what would happen if Jeremiah was motivated completely by results?  What if Jeremiah’s faithfulness was dictated by how quickly his preaching brought about repentance in his hearers?  Well, the book of Jeremiah certainly wouldn’t be the longest prophecy in the Bible.  It might have been a chapter or two.  Actually, it might not have extended beyond one chapter since chapter one is where God guaranteed that Jeremiah’s preaching would not result in the repentance of the people.  If results were all that mattered, Jeremiah might have never even opened his mouth. 
But for Jeremiah, the repentance of the people was not the objective.  Obedience was the objective.  For him, success would not be defined by the temporal results, but by his faithfulness to do what the Lord commanded.  That’s not to say that there were never times when Jeremiah wanted to quit or that Jeremiah was a machine, completely unaffected by the responses of the people.  He grieved for the people because of their sin and impending doom (8:18-22).  He mourned the day of his own birth because of how difficult it was to persevere under the abuse of the people (15:10).  He suffered physically, being beaten and imprisoned by his own countrymen (20:1-2).  He was even sentenced to death for prophesying in God’s name (26:1-15).  Faithfulness to his calling was not a cakewalk by any means. 
So what kept him going? There were a couple of things.  First, Jeremiah knew that he was owned by God.  The Lord’s first words to the prophet were, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (1:5).  The Lord had marked Jeremiah out as a special instrument before his birth.  He belonged to the Lord. 
There is a sense in which Yahweh purchased all of the Israelites when He redeemed them from Egypt.  For that reason, they were to live as His servants: For the Israelites are My slaves. They are My slaves that I brought out of the land of Egypt; I am Yahweh your God (Lev 25:55 HCSB).  Jeremiah was all the more a servant of God in that God chose him out of all of Israel to serve as His prophet.  This sense of ownership compelled Jeremiah to serve the Lord even when it was difficult and painful.
We too belong to God and exist as His servants.  We read in 1 Corinthians, You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1Cor 6:19b-20 ESV).  We have been bought with the blood of Jesus Christ, becoming freed from sin and enslaved to righteousness (Rom6:17-18).  Therefore, we are to obey simply because we belong to God.  We should joyfully pursue obedience that He might be glorified in us (Matt 5:15-16; 2 Cor 12:9; Col 3:17). 
The second thing that compelled Jeremiah to persevere was the fire of God’s word burning inside him.  In 15:16, he said to the Lord, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts.”  Even when Jeremiah wanted to stop speaking in the Lord’s name because of the severity of his persecution, he could not: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak anymore in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (20:9).  The word of God drove him forward to persist in obedience.
We too are called to use the Word of God as fuel for our obedience.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly (Col 3:16).  When Paul wrote to the discouraged and weary Timothy, he called his attention back to the word:
 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it
 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
 (2Tim 3:14-17 ESV)

Paul reminded Timothy of the value of the word—it equips us to do what the Lord has called us to do.  Reading and re-reading the Bible keeps the things of the Lord fresh on our minds and makes it far easier to remember to Whom we belong and how graciously He has saved us from the penalty of our own sin.  It keeps alive in us a longing for holiness and shows us how to progress toward it.
Sometimes we may feel too weary to continue in faithfulness.  We need to be reminded of Jeremiah and what propelled him to continue to serve the Lord.  We need to remind ourselves that we have been bought with a price and therefore exist for the glory of God.  We need to fasten our attention to the Scriptures.  If the word dwells in us richly and we view ourselves as servants belonging to the Lord, zealous that He would be glorified in all that we do, temporal results or the lack thereof will not determine our level of persistence.  Obedience for the glory of God will remain the objective.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Reminded to Remember


I’ve had conversations with numerous folks in the church regarding the bombardment phenomenon.  It refers to times when the Lord hits you from all sides with the same message.  Perhaps the Sunday sermon is on the same theme as an article you read or a topic you discussed with a friend.  Then a couple of days later, one of the preachers on the radio is teaching on the same theme.  Then you pick up the Bible and randomly happen upon the same teaching.  It’s as if the Lord is bombarding you with one message in a concerted effort to get your attention, teach you something, or offer you comfort. 
I’ve had a bombardment recently that I’d like to share with you.  We’ve been studying 2 Peter on Wednesday nights and one of the themes in the book is the importance of remembering.  After spending the first part of the first chapter exhorting the readers to pursue specific godly qualities, Peter writes:
12 Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. 13 I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, 14 since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. (2Pet 1:12-15)
Peter believed it was so important for the readers to remember these qualities that he dedicated himself to spending the last days of his life reminding them and reminding them so that they would never forget.  He did this “though you know them and are established in the truth that you have.”  In other words, great familiarity with the truth did not dissuade him that actively remembering these things was essential.
This fixation on reminding the readers is evident throughout 2 Peter.  In chapter 2, to encourage them that God would judge the false teachers and rescue the godly, Peter reminded them of three different OT examples of God doing those very things.  God was faithful in the past and He’ll be faithful in the future.  Don’t forget. 
Then in chapter 3 he writes: This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles…(2Pet 3:1-2).  Peter’s desire to remind them extended back to his first letter to them, presumably 1 Peter.  There is no other purpose for these two verses than to communicate, “Hey! It’s super important that you remember!” 
Throughout 2 Peter, when the apostle isn’t talking about reminding them, he’s reminding them! 
Now, if that was the only avenue through which I was receiving that message, I would probably heed it, but in a bombardment its never one avenue.  It’s been a while since I’ve listened to John MacArthur so I listened to his most recent podcast over the last couple of weeks.  Providentially, he was preaching through 2 Peter 1 a sermon series entitled, “RememberingWhat Not to Forget.”  In it, MacArthur jackhammered away at the same idea – the importance of remembering.  It’s been an amazing series.  I highly recommend it.
Yet another avenue of bombardment was the passage we studied together last Sunday morning (Matt 16:13-20), in which Jesus gently rebuked the disciples for their failure to remember His past works and live accordingly.  Also, I have been moved to read 2 Timothy repeatedly this week.  In it, Paul seeks to stir Timothy up for continued faithfulness in ministry by reminding him of his spiritual heritage, his upbringing in the Scriptures, and the mystery of the gospel.
Okay, I get the hint.  I need to remember.  But remember what?  What is the object of our remembrance?  Well, in each passage involved in this bombardment the object of remembrance has been truth about the Lord, ourselves, and what He calls us to.  In 2 Peter, the apostle reminds the readers to pursue holiness, to remember the predictions of the OT and the commandments of the NT, and to remember that the past faithfulness of the Lord means He’ll be faithful in the future.  In MacArthur’s series, he referenced many OT passages in which the people were exhorted to remember the Lord and His past works.  In summary, the object of remembrance is the truth and how we should live in light of the truth.
What is the means of our remembrance?  What is the tool that helps to refresh our memories about the Lord and how we should live?  Consistently, the Word is held up as the primary means of our recalling important truths.  In 2 Peter 1, after detailing his own commitment to refresh the readers' memories, Peter calls their attention to the “prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention.”  Then there is the reference to his own previous letter, “stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles.”  In other words, Peter wants them to be reminded by returning to the Old and New Testaments.
For those of us who have read the Bible for years, it can be tempting to think that we know the Word pretty well and therefore do not need to re-read it over and over.  The apostles thought differently.  In addition to the exhortations from Peter already mentioned, in 2 Tim Paul calls Timothy to continue in the Word, noting its power for sanctification.  He calls Timothy to this even though Timothy had been raised in the Scriptures (2 Tim 3:14-15).  He also charges him to continue to preach the Word.  Psalm 119 is filled with the idea that continual intake of the Word is essential for spiritual health.  Knowing the Word does not change the fact that we need to be reminded of it constantly.  As Peter wrote, I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth…  We need to be committed to a constant stream of biblical truth no matter how well we know it.
What is the effect of our remembrance?  According to Peter, we are stirred up by way of reminder.  We are energized and eager for action.  We are motivated to obey.  That is what we saw in our message on Sunday.  In Deuteronomy 7-8, the people were reminded of Yahweh’s actions in the past to motivate them to obey Him in the present and future.  2 Tim3:16-17 teaches that the Word of God is the tool He uses to make us like Christ, ready for good works.  It is simply the case that when we are devoting time to remembering –  that is, spending quality time reading and meditating on the Word – it is easier to walk in faithfulness.
I’ve been bombarded and wanted to share it with you.  It's a crucial reminder: we’ve all got some remembering to do.

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