Resurrecting Paul’s Gospel In Our Day

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I was recently invited to a Christmas “service” at a local megachurch. The performance was at a professional caliber, except with cheap ticket prices. The musical performances, dances, light show, and transitions are smooth and polished. It was choreographed to perfection.

And they also talked about Jesus.

I put service in quotes because I think it was a service in all but name. I didn’t leave thinking that I had worshipped God. I was entertained and hyped up but I wasn’t invited to the throne of grace.

The sermon I heard told me that I am “inadequate” for a “transformed” life without Jesus. One of the pastors did mention a survey of Americans’ inflated perceptions of self-worth, showing us that we are narcissists. But that’s about as bad as the description of our condition got.

Consequently, the gospel I heard was a message that God can give me a purpose in life that will fulfill me. If I put my faith in Him then there will be so many more things that I can do. Yessss!

I’m sure that I was especially sensitive because I had been listening to R. C. Sproul sermons all year. I felt like an Amish person sitting through mass. With bad news that good who needs the gospel? I realized that we need a bestseller book that redeems the doctrine of sin. As I thought about it more I realized that we need to resurrect Paul.

Paul gives us a comprehensive and concise understanding of the gospel, especially in his letter to the Romans. He gives us the bad news of our condemnation and he also gives us the good news of His salvation, justification, and sanctification. If twitter was a microcosm of the U.S. you’d think that half the church has never read Romans 1. God is more of a therapist rather than a judge.

The most popular gospel today is a message of reconciliation for a broken world. We’re supposed to speak to gays, drug addicts, and skeptics and stress God’s love for them. The idea is that they will cling to the cross because they are so desperate for healing, peace, meaning, etc. Like the sermon I heard, it was about what you stand to gain.

But how can the unbeliever be prepared to respond to the gospel if he does not become aware of his guilt? We do live in a broken world and part of what makes people broken is that they find the gospel offensive. That includes people who know that they’re hurting, not just those who are in no need of a religious crutch.

Moreover, how can the church speak prophetically if it decides to tickle the ear rather than prick the heart? The prologue to John’s gospel tells us that the world is condemned because it has rejected the light. The church’s most important responsibility is to bear witness to that light and remind people that God will hold them accountable.

We need this gospel: a balanced message that carries the bad news and the good.

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When God Does Not Hear Your Prayers

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But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.

For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue hath muttered perverseness.

Isaiah 59:2,3

As I read through the chapters of Isaiah I am increasingly impressed with the development of this multi-layered prophecy. In chapter 54 the Lord reveals the future glory of Zion. In chapter 55 He invites the thirsty to taste the waters of eternal life. In chapter 56 He foretells the salvation of the gentiles. In chapter 57 He indicts the wicked and identifies with the contrite in spirit. In chapter 58 He calls His people to abandon their false worship and to draw near with their hearts. Now He tells them that their false worship does them no good.

More often than not you will hear people emphasize the importance of praying because God does hear your prayers, and that is true. But we want to be clear that it is not unconditional and absolute. The exception here is that the people were given over to all sorts of evil amongst themselves and so God withholds His protection and blessing.

The word “justice” is used in this chapter in two senses: one has to do with men doing the right thing and the other has to do with God’s judgment of Israel’s oppressors. The people neglected the former and thus God withheld the latter.

I believe this passage in verses 1-15 shows that the main challenge to approaching the Lord is our own evil nature. People are not battering the gates of heaven with passion. They are running to evil at full speed. We are the obstacles to our own reconciliation with God and He has to overcome our sinful natures in order to restore fellowship.

If you want to have your sinful cake and eat it too then do not be surprised when the Lord does not answer because He will not. In 1:15-17 of this book God warns the people that they are lifting up blood-stained hands in worship to Him and He will not even look at them. In Micah 3:4 God again says that He will not hear prayers from those who do ill. James also tells us that a double-minded man who prays will not receive anything from God.

This is a good time to mention that the problem is not so much what the people did not do but what they did do. Their prayers were not answered because they did evil, not because they did not do amazing things. God was not turning away because He was not impressed but because He was repulsed by their wickedness. These are the conditions under which you should not pray. The solution is simple: confess and repent and you will see the Lord reveal His power.

What is holding you back?  

 

Are You Listening To God?

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The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned.

The Lord God hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back.

Isaiah 50:4,5

This chapter in Isaiah gives us a multi-faceted look at Jesus and I want to highlight this aspect of Him as the child prodigy. He is the perfect disciple because He completely trusts and obeys the Lord God. That faith enables Him to hear and learn from the Father everything that He must do to serve Him.

Most Christians would probably say that they want to know the will of God but the same number probably cannot say that they are listening to Him. Yeah, God has a plan for us but we’re really concerned about accomplishing all of our goals. We already have a list of priorities that dictates our decisions.

For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak.

And I know that his commandment is life everlasting: whatsoever I speak therefore, even as the Father said unto me, so I speak.

John 12:49,50

Jesus did not pursue His own agenda in life. He did not make decisions based on what made sense. He did not pursue a career. He did not waste His time learning who He was. The Father already had a purpose and plan for Him and Jesus pursued it. Moreover, Jesus understood that obeying God’s will was much better than doing His own thing.

Do you trust that God’s will for your life is worth all of the sacrifices you will have to make? Or would you rather be “successful?” You do not have to find a purpose in life because you already have one. The only question is: when will you stop rebelling and start fulfilling it?

And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.

John 8:29

That is not hyperbole. Jesus always did that which pleased the Father. Not most of the time—all the time. That is what we must work towards in our life. We won’t know what real living is until we start to live for God’s pleasure.

Justified: In Real Life

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He is near that justifieth me; who will contend with me? let us stand together: who is mine adversary? let him come near to me.

Isaiah 50:8

In this chapter we see a contrast between sinful Israel and the obedient Servant of the Lord. One of the differences is that the Servant, who is Jesus, knows His standing with God. He completely trusts in the Lord.

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Romans 8:1

This confidence in God’s grace and justification extends to followers of Christ. We now have the same privilege of being acceptable in God’s eyes because of Christ’s righteousness. This is absolutely crucial to remember if we are going to resist the accuser of the brethren.

We must also keep in mind that God desires to justify us and bring us near to Him. He is not looking for a way to trip us up and cause us to fail. He is not stern and mean like some grumpy old man. He is fierce to the wicked but He is tender to any who call on His name. He keeps no one at arm’s length but He does welcome us with open arms.

Israel’s Sin And Jesus’ Obedience

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Thus saith the Lord, Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement, whom I have put away? or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.

Wherefore, when I came, was there no man? when I called, was there none to answer? Is my hand shortened at all, that it cannot redeem? or have I no power to deliver? behold, at my rebuke I dry up the sea, I make the rivers a wilderness: their fish stinketh, because there is no water, and dieth for thirst.

I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make sackcloth their covering.

Isaiah 50:1-3

The opening part of this chapter describes the sinful nature of Israel. She has gone astray and has the audacity to think that it was God who abandoned her. But we shouldn’t be disappointed or surprised because this should sound familiar.

We often do the same thing with God when our life is a mess. When everything is going well we forget about God and when it falls apart we get impatient with Him and expect Him to fix it. Why is God good sometimes but so harsh at other times?

But God is always faithful and He never changes. We’re the ones on the roller coaster and that’s why it looks like He’s moving.

I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make sackcloth their covering.

The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned.

The Lord God hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back.

I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting.

For the Lord God will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed.

He is near that justifieth me; who will contend with me? let us stand together: who is mine adversary? let him come near to me.

Behold, the Lord God will help me; who is he that shall condemn me? lo, they all shall wax old as a garment; the moth shall eat them up.

Who is among you that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God.

Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow.

Isaiah 50:4-11

With this passage we see the contrast between sinful Israel and the obedient Servant, who is Jesus. He is truly the Servant of the Lord because He listens to the Father and does whatever He commands.

This contrast shows us that only Jesus can be the perfect example of what it means to live by faith. It shows that the law cannot save or bring life, as Paul writes in Romans 8. Only a perfect man can meet a perfect standard.

Moreover, by God’s grace we can, through Jesus, be the servants that God seeks. Jesus repeatedly called us to drop everything and follow Him. Jesus is the way that shows us how it is done. Will you be the sinful traitor or the obedient servant?

God Is Not Finished With You

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Thus saith the Lord, Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement, whom I have put away? or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.

Isaiah 50:1

God’s faithfulness is a source of comfort and hope and a reason why we praise Him. It is also a very difficult and painful lesson to learn. The reason it is so painful is because you realize how much God will allow you to endure and it will be more than you ever considered.

He will take you through the worst case scenario and let you spend more time in it than you want. You will go past what you think is your breaking point and then some. All the while, though, God is making His arrangements for you. Soon enough you see His hand at work through a major breakthrough.

This part of the prophecy in Isaiah is for Israel in exile but was written when they were still in the land and dwelled carelessly. They did not trust God and they had yet to go through the painful lesson to learn that God is faithful. For the Jews in Babylon who were desperate for a reason to be hopeful this was a prophecy that was too good to be true. It sounded nice but it was just unbelievable.

Nevertheless the prophet was hopeful and his faith was based on the passage in Psalm 22:27-29. God comforts those who are being scorned as they continue to serve Him faithfully, as did the remnant under Babylonian rule. He reminds them, and us, that He will have the last laugh and we will be rewarded for enduring to the end.

You will know you’re trusting God because it feels like your life is unraveling. Nothing is happening the way you had planned or hoped. You may even be greatly suffering. God has not forgotten you and, in fact, He is preparing something glorious for you. As with Daniel in chapter 10 of his book, there may be a delay in answering the prayer that was immediately heard but it’s only a delay. The more bitter the pain the more sweet the victory.

What Is A Disciple Of Christ?

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If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.

Luke 14:26, 27

Jesus demands total commitment when He calls us to be His disciples. That means everything we do must please Him. It also means that everything we do has to be in obedience to His teachings. Our highest loyalty has to be to Him.

I need to point out that when Jesus says we must hate our families He is not talking about extreme animosity. The Greek word translated hate actually means to love less. We are to love our families, friends, and our very lives less than we love Jesus.

I never appreciated the significance of this commandment before I had begun to put my trust in The Lord in a practical way. I realized that my family was as much of an obstacle to serving The Lord as any temptation. It was eye-opening to realize that those who are believers in Christ, though they be well-intentioned, will lead you astray.

We see an example of this from Jesus’ own life in the gospel according to John:

Now the Jews’ feast of tabernacles was at hand. His brethren therefore said unto him, Depart hence, and go into Judæa, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest. For there is no man that doeth any thing in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou do these things, shew thyself to the world. For neither did his brethren believe in him. Then Jesus said unto them, My time is not yet come: but your time is alway ready. The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil. Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast; for my time is not yet full come.

John 7:2-8

Another example comes from Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana, where He turned water into wine:

And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.

John 2:3,4

Our loved ones often offer solutions derived from their own clever minds rather than encouraging us to be faithful. They assume, like the world, that there is a formula for solving problems or achieving goals and we need to simply follow it. Sometimes we have to give God a little help.

Jesus, however, calls us to wait on the Lord. We are supposed to follow His example of going places, doing works, and saying things only when God commands us. Jesus knew that the Father would provide everything He needed at the right time and entrusted everything to His care. He concerned Himself with being obedient to how God commands us to live through His word.

You probably have family and friends who are telling you what you need to do to get a job, to marry the right person, or to be happy. Unless it is their responsibility to provide you with it you need to take what worries you to God in prayer. If you need something then you should be harassing God about it every day.

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Under the Mosaic covenant the Jews had to bring animals sacrifices to offer God but as disciples of Christ we are the sacrifice, a living sacrifice offered up daily. I think that when Jesus said He testifies that the works of the world are evil He was doing so by the way He lived, completely surrendered to the will of God at every moment. The way of the world is to do what you think is right when you want to do it but Christ’s is to do what the Father wants when He wants us to do it. That’s what it takes to be His disciple.

God’s Yoke Is Easy

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Bel boweth down, Nebo stoopeth, their idols were upon the beasts, and upon the cattle: your carriages were heavy loaden; they are a burden to the weary beast.

They stoop, they bow down together; they could not deliver the burden, but themselves are gone into captivity.

Hearken unto me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, which are borne by me from the belly, which are carried from the womb:

And even to your old age I am he; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you.

Isaiah 46:1-4

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30

Are you anxious or stressed? Well then, stop weighing yourself down carrying those idols.

The difference between my good and bad days is whether I have truly sought the Lord, especially in the morning. On a bad day I am doing what I think is important, which doesn’t sound bad except that the problem is I invariably end up stressed and frustrated.

It’s not that I only have problems on bad days and none on good days but that the same problems that I face on a good day become unbearable. It’s only a matter of time before my cunning only gets me so far. The harder I try the faster I get nowhere. That is the price for serving Mammon.

Adam and Eve could not stand the shame of being naked when they first sinned. Martha, when she was slaving away in the kitchen, could not handle the burden of all her cares and snapped at Jesus. All sin offers is a life of unbearable cares followed by the worst kind of death, one that leads to condemnation.

In these chapters of Isaiah (between 40 and 50) God talks much of liberating Israel from captivity which was brought about by their betrayal of the Lord. Paul later writes about how we were slaves to sin before Jesus set us free. Now that we are free we are the servants of God.

The difference between God and idols is that we have to carry our idols but God offers to carry us. God does not weigh us down with a burden that cannot be lifted. Jesus offered His yoke which was light.

As I mentioned before, this is not a promise of a care-free life because it is full of troubles. But Jesus has overcome the world and so we do not have to fear. All we have to do is lean back and let Him carry us. His grace is sufficient to for us to be strong and courageous as we serve Him.

I think this song is just right for the topic, Lay My Burden Down.

The “God” Delusion

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They have not known nor understood: for he hath shut their eyes, that they cannot see; and their hearts, that they cannot understand.

And none considereth in his heart, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say, I have burned part of it in the fire; yea, also I have baked bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh, and eaten it: and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? shall I fall down to the stock of a tree?

He feedeth on ashes: a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand?

Isaiah 44:18-20

There is an instinct towards worship but because of sin that worship is given to things that are not worthy. We were created to worship the Lord in the beauty of His holiness. As a result of the fall we look for a substitute in place of God and turn to idols, both physical and intangible. That inborn, God-given trait is used towards perverted purposes that God never desired. Paul sheds some light on the topic:

For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,

And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.

Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:

Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

Romans 1:20-25

Idolatry’s deception is that it blinds us to the self-evident fact that we are worshipping something of our own creation. People used the same wood to fuel a fire and make an idol that they worshipped as god. It should have been pretty clear that it could not be a representation of a god that has created the world. But we choose to be deceived and God hands us over to be blinded and unreasonable. The cycle continues from blindness to further deception and back again. It’s not that we do not know who God is but that we do not want to acknowledge Him.

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This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind,

Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart:

Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.

Ephesians 4:17-19

We should not be deceived, even as followers of Christ, that we are immune to this problem. Paul has to admonish the Ephesians against it because they are susceptible to the temptation to live a pagan lifestyle, else it would not be necessary to make such a warning. Wherever we see idolatry we can be sure to see delusion, blindness, and lack of understanding. Also, wherever see idolatry we may also see sexual perversion. It is almost as if there is a straight line from idolatry to sexual depravity.

As believers in Jesus we have the privilege of worshipping the living God. It is a privilege to live and walk in the light, as He is in the light. We now enjoy liberty after having been set free from captivity to sin. Our eyes have been opened and we have been brought from death to life. Living without knowing and acknowledging the Lord is like when a machine begins to operate without any input from the operator. We recognize that as a machine that is out of control and dangerous. How much worse it is when we do it. Because we know God we can live the life we were meant to live because we know who created us and gave us our purpose.

You Can’t Impress God

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At the heart of the gospel is salvation by grace alone. God redeems us for His sake and not because of our own merits. It is an amazing grace that fills me with tremendous gratitude and comfort. It is reassuring to know that I do not have to perform for God. This isn’t a job with a performance review at the end of a probationary period. Yet, I often abuse that grace and try to make up for it by earning God’s favor rather than asking for forgiveness and repenting.

This people have I formed for myself; they shall shew forth my praise.

But thou hast not called upon me, O Jacob; but thou hast been weary of me, O Israel.

Thou hast not brought me the small cattle of thy burnt offerings; neither hast thou honoured me with thy sacrifices. I have not caused thee to serve with an offering, nor wearied thee with incense.

Thou hast bought me no sweet cane with money, neither hast thou filled me with the fat of thy sacrifices: but thou hast made me to serve with thy sins, thou hast wearied me with thine iniquities.

I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.

Isaiah 43:21-25

Israel is a perfect example but we can substitute ourselves to clearly see the problem. They are God’s chosen people to be His witness to the world but they do not acknowledge Him as their king. When the Lord says that He has not burdened them with sacrifices He is referring to their 70-year exile during which they did not make such offerings. However, He says that Israel burdened Him with their iniquities. It’s a raw deal for God, always. He wants their heart but they keep Him at arm’s length and abandon Him. They continually forget that He wants to bless them. They also forget that He didn’t choose them because they were so impressive but because it pleased Him.

We can easily bring this down to a personal level. God has created me for His glory and praise and yet I often fail to remember His grace towards me. I often betray Him by going off and doing what I want to do and ignoring Him. That line in the hymn says it perfectly: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” I am so easily beset by sin and tempted to remove my guilt by doing something to deserve God’s grace again. But God isn’t interested because He blots out my sins for His own sake. He made that choice on His own, not because I was able to sweet-talk him.

There is a risk that people will pervert this truth by using it as a license to sin and Paul explains why that’s wrong in Romans 6. We don’t have to sin in order to experience the wonder of God’s grace. The longer you live the more humble you become as you realize how many transgressions God has forgotten. It fills you with wonder to know that the Lord is so willing and eager to forgive and move forward.