I was using some discipleship material recently when I came across this introduction:
“Very few Christians have a plan for mastering the Scriptures… We master all sorts of complicated skills and accomplish major personal learning and development programs when needed in our life and work but remain at elementary levels of development in the Word. In this session, we will explore the importance of every believer developing a goal of mastering the Scriptures…”
I appreciate what the author of these notes is driving at but it’s the word ‘mastering’ that I find disturbing. Is the Bible like chartered accounting – a complicated skill or a series of principles to learn and master? If the Word is a hammer and a fire, if it is the very word of God at work in us who believe, if it is living and active, then surely the cry of Martin Luther is more apt:
“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.”
Surely we need to be mastered by the Word. And specifically by the Christ of the Word. Simon Manchester, speaking somewhat critically of his own Australian conservative evangelical constituency, warned us last year:
“I wonder if you’ve noticed an unedifying tendency… to focus on the Bible at the expense of Jesus… I do urge you to beware this trend. It’s not that we want to separate the text from the author or the text from the subject but if our [preaching], sermon by sermon, is always ‘about the Bible’ we may have missed the purpose of the Bible. And… I think it is more flattering to self to ‘talk Bible’ because we present ourselves as masters of the Bible with the ignorant masses listening to us. But no preacher is ever going to get up and say they’re the master of Jesus. And not only will we teach more reverently if we handle the Bible to see Jesus, we will also, I think, have the blessing of the Holy Spirit whose desire is to see Jesus glorified and not the guru at the front who is showing himself to be so clever. (EMA 2016)
So let’s seek, in our reading and our preaching of the Word to tremble, to find Christ, to be captured and mastered by him, to proclaim him, to see him glorified.
Posted in Bible, Church, Preaching | Tagged Simon Manchester | Leave a Comment »
In one sense the gospel is very simple.
Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (1 Pet. 3:18)
The gospel is solidly centred on the Cross of Christ with the chief end being fellowship with God. As J I Packer put it: ‘adoption through propitiation’ (Knowing God, p. 241). John Stott was spot on that the core of the atonement is Christ as our substitute – the great exchange. That is not a ‘model’ – that is the reality at the very heart of the atonement. All the (valid) ways of talking about the atoning work of Christ are perspectives on that truth or metaphors to describe it or roads that end up there.
So in one sense it is quite simple. Wonderfully. The Son of God is punished in my place that I might be a son of God. A three year old can understand that. But then when you get thinking about it theologically you find that it is actually quite complex.
I remember preparing for a talk on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 a few years ago. As part of my preparation I read quite a bit of John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ and a few other shorter papers. Suddenly I realised I was out of my depth in very deep waters. I started to wonder whether I really understood the gospel at all. Fortunately I did come out of the forest with something I was able to give to the student gathering but it opened my eyes to see something of how complex and deep the atonement is.
For example, how would you answer these questions:
- What role does the incarnation play in the atonement?
- What role does the resurrection play in the atonement?
- What role does the ascension play in the atonement?
- Did Christ die for everyone or for his elect?
- What was the most awful suffering for Christ on the Cross?
- How did that suffering deal with guilt, shame, law, wrath?
- How could God justly punish the innocent and justify the guilty?
- What was going on within the Trinity as Christ died? Who was punishing? Who was being punished? Was there a rupture in the Trinity? What was the role of the Spirit?
- Did God die?
- What were the chief ends/goals for which Christ died?
- How does Union with Christ relate to the atonement?
- How does faith relate to the atonement?
- How do the covenants of the Old Testament relate to the atonement?
- How does the theme of the glory and revelation of God relate to the atonement?
- How does the theme of wisdom relate to the atonement?
I am sure there are good and satisfying and wonderful answers to all these questions but my point is that they are not simple and some are very complex indeed. You’re not going to get a handle on some of these questions without a lot (perhaps a life time) of hard prayerful study.
To make a slightly different point, I have been getting very excited recently by the rich complexity of the ways in which the Bible tells the gospel. Just take Isaiah. Look at some of the different metaphors and imagery:
- Scarlet sins being washed as white as snow.
- Marriage, adultery, jealousy, divorce, wedding. God as husband. His people as the unfaithful bride. The prostitute is brought back as the faithful one.
- Darkness and gloom to light of dawn.
- God with us.
- Beauty of the LORD, ugliness of sin, the marred man, new beauty.
- The rock, refuge, shade from heat, refuge from rain.
- Justice, injustice, judgment, righteousness, guilt, law court. The true judge redeems through justice.
- Topography. Mountain of the LORD exalted. Hills flattened. Valleys filled.
- Sick battered body. Beaten bruised body. Disease. Healing.
- Joy and distress.
- Dishonour, shame, honour. Pride brought low. Humility exalted.
- Trees, bushes, stump, branches, vines. Growth, fruit, cut down, planting. Fertile to barren and barren to fertile land.
- Sovereignty. The zeal of the LORD, the unstoppable plan, decree, will of the LORD to judge and save.
- Architecture. City ruined and rebuilt.
- Kingship. Human kings, divine king. Bad kings, good king.
- Faith, trust, taking refuge in, relying on, looking to.
- Scattering and gathering.
- Eden. Curse to new Eden.
- Exodus. Parting of the sea, column of cloud and fire, way through the wilderness. New Exodus from Exile.
- Oppression and freedom. Removal of rod and burden of oppressor.
- Fear and comfort.
- Restlessness and rest.
- Populous places left deserted. Deserted places filled with life and people.
- Idols versus the true God. Idols smashed or thrown away.
- Fire, burning wrath, sacrifice.
- Warrior, battles, sword, bloodshed, victory, conquest.
This is not even an exhaustive list. The point is that each of these metaphorical schema are ways in which the gospel can be told – and is told in Isaiah. Each one is like a different palette of colours which Isaiah can use to paint the atonement. So he might use the blacks and browns and yellows and oranges of the darkness/light theme to show how the dawn of Christ has broken into the darkness and gloom of sin. And then he might turn to the greens of the horticultural palette to paint the gospel in terms of fruitless trees cut down and then a new branch growing up. And then he might take up the red and orange and white of fire/sacrifice to paint how the fire of judgment will sweep through but be absorbed by a perfect sacrifice. Sometimes (in fact often) he picks up two or three palettes at a time and blends imagery – e.g. of city and marriage and beauty and joy.
Let’s start to appreciate the beautifully complex way in which the Bible tells the gospel. Let’s not reduce it to ‘Christ died for you’ every time. Let’s preach the passage of Scripture in front of us and see how the atonement is painted there. Is it sacrifice? Is it law court language of guilt and justification? Is it warrior langauge of a hero overcoming our enemies? Let’s preach the gospel in the variety with which it is presented. Not only will that mean that we don’t need to fear that ‘preaching the gospel every week will be boring’ – we will also see how the Cross of Christ deals with all the multifaceted ugliness of sin and opens out into a multifaceted Christian life.
Posted in Gospel | Tagged atonement, Cross, Isaiah, John Owen, John Stott | Leave a Comment »
A lot has been written on the sanctification debate – how do we grow in holiness – and I haven’t got anything to add. My main conclusion is simply that it’s complicated… and yet our temptation is to try and find the silver bullet, the one thing that encapsulates everything that’s important to say about Christian growth and the fight against sin. Many of the books I’ve found most helpful on sanctification have tended to focus on one means or aspect of sanctification – perhaps future-focused faith or gratitude for the finished work of Christ for sinners – and those books are absolutely brilliant… until they start to suggest that this is the heart of the matter, the engine, the one thing you need to know.
DeYoung reminds us that there is not a singular motivation for holiness:
Jesus is the Great Physician… The gospel is always the remedy for the guilt of sin, but when it comes to overcoming the presence of sin, Jesus has many doses at his disposal. He knows that personalities and sins and situations vary… Jesus has many medicines for our motivation. He is not like a high school athletic trainer who tells everyone to “ice it and take a couple ibuprofen.” …The good news is that the Bible is a big, diverse, wise book, and in it you can find a variety of prescriptions to encourage obedience to God’s commands. (The Hole in Our Holiness, p. 56-57 emphasis added)
DeYoung then goes on to list 40 different motivations which, as he says, are not even an exhaustive list. So sanctification is a multifaceted thing. Partly because our sinfulness is horribly complex, partly because the gospel of Christ is beautifully complex.
So how does sanctification work? How does the gospel of grace relate to a life of obedience?
- It’s about being who we are. Identity.
- It’s about seeing the vastness of our debt and the costliness of our forgiveness and so forgiving others infinitely smaller debts.
- It’s about seeing in the Scriptures the beauty of Christ and being captured by that better vision.
- It’s about understanding and experiencing union with Christ. Growing in a marriage relationship.
- It’s about wanting to please the Bridegroom.
- It’s about a fear of the Lord.
- It’s about godly sorrow.
- It’s about joy.
- It’s about submitting to a Kingly Saviour Lord.
- It’s about knowing the sinfulness sin.
- It’s about tasting the goodness of the ways of God and the Law of Christ.
- It’s about waiting for Christ’s return, longing for him, hoping in a better and lasting possession and the work that springs from that eternity-focused faith and hope.
- It’s about living as a beloved child of God. Adoption.
- It’s about desperate dependence on the Spirit who alone can change us.
- It’s about doing all this together, as a community of God’s people, rebuking, correcting, encouraging, urging, praying, preaching, singing.
It’s about all these things and more. It’s complicated.
The more I think about this the more I wonder whether the answer isn’t simply to preach the Word – to go through the chapters of the Bible letting God tell us how to grow in Christlikeness. For example – why not simply preach through Ephesians 4-5? We would find there all sorts of different motivations and means and imperatives and gospel logic (including many of those listed above) that just come straight out of the text and flow and mesh together in a way better than any of us could put it. Or how about preaching a series through Leviticus or Ezekiel or Hebrews where we are taught deep rich truths about sanctification through imagery and language that is extraordinarily powerful. Why don’t we just let our holy (complex) God himself teach us how to become holy as he is holy?
Posted in Christian Life, Ephesians, Preaching | Tagged Kevin DeYoung, sanctification | Leave a Comment »
One area where I fear I can reduce the complexity of Scripture into soundbites is in the definition of sin. Certainly there is some value in teaching children some memorable soundbites – e.g. that sin is a three letter word with ‘I’ in the middle. But I’ve been struck recently by how multifaceted the sin problem is in the Bible and how important it is to see something of that complexity.
To go back to basics, look at Genesis 3 and ask the question (as we did with the iServe Africa ministry apprentices a couple of weeks ago) what exactly is this sin; what is at the heart of what is going on here and why is it so bad? And you get a lot of different answers, which are all true:
- It is disobedience. Transgression of a clear command.
- It is rebellion against God’s kingly rule and authority.
- It is unbelief in God’s word, goodness and judgment.
- It is wrong belief – in the words of the devil and in a false view of God.
- It is being deceived by the devil and coming under his power.
- It is (culpable) foolishness.
- It is turning from the Creator to the created for pleasure, wisdom, truth.
- It is discontent.
- It is coveting.
- It is an ungrateful spit in God’s face, trampling on his grace as a cheap thing.
- It is abdicating from the responsibility of being vice regent, steward and high priest, allowing a snake into the garden tabernacle.
- It is grasping at self-rule, self-sufficiency and denial of creaturely dependence.
Go on a chapter into Genesis 4 and there we find sin pictured as a kind of wild animal, crouching at the door, ready to spring and overpower a person.
Similarly, look at a passage like Isaiah 1 and you find a complex description of the sinful state of the nation, using a range of different words and metaphors:
- Rebellion – especially grateful rebellion against a parent
- (Culpable) ignorance
- Forsaking, spurning the LORD
- Sickness and degradation
- Hypocritical religiosity
- Dirt, defilement
- Evil deeds, bloodshed, injustice
- Omission – especially of justice
- Resistance against the LORD
- Loving and chasing after evil and idols
Why is it important that we take account of this complexity?
- It stops us getting stuck on a single dimension of sin and stops us getting into needless controversies. Throughout church history and in different schools and traditions up to the present time there has been a tendency to reduce the complexity down to one particular aspect of sin. So for example, some parts of the Reformed tradition tended to emphasise sin as transgression of the law (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q14 (I know that other streams of the tradition were far broader)). In conservative evangelical circles we have tended to focus on rebellion (2 Ways 2 Live, part 2). In recent years many have rediscovered the importance of the categories of worship and idolatry and what is going on with the affections of the heart and how these themes can connect well in a post-modern culture. There has also been a huge renewed interest in defining sin in heavily relational terms – spurning God’s love. Others have returned to Augustine’s idea of sin as man curved in on himself or evil as negation/absence or to Luther’s emphasis on our condition as helplessly under the power of the devil. The problem is that these emphases often get set off against each other. The Reformed tradition (rightly) fears that sin as legal transgression and disobedience is in danger of being lost in what is sometimes rather mushy and man-centred talk of relationship and worship. Others assert (rightly) that the Bible’s strong themes of sin as spiritual adultery are in danger of being frozen out by a rather sterile presentation of sin as law breaking. Perhaps a way forward is to see that (almost) all these definitions have a biblical basis. Sin is pride. Sin is unbelief. Sin is idolatry. Sin is pushing away the grace of God in Christ. Sin is rebellion. Sin is slavery. Sin is a disease. Sin is straightforward law breaking. It’s complex. But let’s try to keep that complexity together and not just get fixed on one narrow definition.
- It addresses the whole person and the whole range of the human condition. Looking at all these different aspects of sin helps us to see how the Bible describes the totalness of our depravity – that every part of me is fallen: my affections are disordered and loving the wrong things; my will is unsubmissive; my behaviour is rotten and evil; my thinking is foolish and darkened. Also, seeing (and preaching) the whole range of descriptions of sin makes it more likely that some will stick on the hearers. We are all rebels but some of us know we are rebels more than others. We are all chasing the wrong things but some know that more than others. We are all law breakers. We are all idolators. We are all proud. We are all dirty. We are all deceived. But because of our different personalities and cultures and life histories it may well be that one or two of those descriptions will hit home harder than others. Ultimately, however, we need to know that all of those things describe the natural man and as we build up that biblical picture of who we are outside of Christ we get a true, 3D picture of our true state.
- It means being more faithful to the Bible. This is a key one if we want to be expository preachers. Instead of just seeing something about sin in the Bible and pouring in our favourite bit of systematic theology on sin, we need to stop and hear what this particular passage is telling us about sin. It may well be saying a few things (like Isaiah 1). We want to let the Bible speak – let God speak – and tell us what we don’t know and what we have forgotten about the darkness and depravity of sin in all its horrible colours and textures and tendencies and tragedies.
- It allows us to see the sinfulness of sin and the greatness of the atonement. Perhaps most importantly, seeing the complexity of sin allows me to see it for all its sinfulness. Each of these aspects of sin is immeasurably weighty – just ponder any one of them in relation to a holy God – but combined they are overwhelming and devastating. I am guilty. And foul. And a fool. I have offended my creator. And my king. And the fountain of life. But, wonderfully, this also makes me appreciate what Christ did on the cross all the more. As Jonathan Edwards and many others have noted, if we have small thoughts of our sin (we might say simple thoughts) we will have small thoughts of our saviour. He dealt with all of this multifaceted sin. He took the guilt and punishment. He cured the incurable. He washed us clean. He overcame the devil. He won back the prostitute and paid her dowry. He smashed our idols and pride and took us for himself. Which makes me think – maybe the atonement is complex too…
Posted in Preaching | Tagged complexity, Sin | Leave a Comment »
I vividly remember hearing the following warning 13 years ago:
If there is one mnemonic which irritates me more than any other it is the K.I.S.S. mnemonic – Keep It Simple Stupid. I want to say that I think that it is profoundly unhelpful. It has deeply penetrated many churches and their expectation of preaching. What it comes to mean is that everything has to be reduced to soundbite level: a few mantras that can be reassuringly reiterated and chanted in our songs and in our teaching. They tend to reduce the inexhaustible riches of Scripture… There is a cult of simplicity.
Now people will say at this point, “The simple gospel is all we want to hear. We don’t want any complicated stuff. We don’t want doctrine. We don’t want to be stretched in our thinking.” All the teaching has to be kept easy and reassuring so we come out with our egos massaged… And so many of us pastors are tempted to go in that direction to ‘buy customer loyalty’ and keep everyone happy…
Now please don’t mishear me. I’m not asking for complexity and confusion. That is a very easy thing to produce. Lack of preparation won’t produce simplicity of the right sort it will produce complexity and confusion. It’s very easy to be long, confusing and perplexing. Nor am I advocating what people are pleased to call barren intellectualism. You know the adjectives: abstract, cerebral, impersonal. No I’m not advocating that because the Bible is never like that.
But brothers we do have to tackle, graciously, prayerfully but persistently the refusal to mature that is endemic in the evangelical church and characterises so many congregations and parts of our congregations… I wonder if sometimes it begins in the approach to evangelism which focuses on the ‘basic minimum’ idea. How little do you need to believe to be saved?
…But the Bible writers and their inspired manuscripts are not simple in the sense of superficial. They are not grasped without effort… Of course we want to be understandable. We want to be clear and lucid… but there is a cult of simplicity that is actually fatal to the growth and development of the church. (David Jackman, speaking on ‘The Enduring Word’ at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, London, 2004)
Peter Mead talks similarly of the need for preachers to aim for a simplicity on the far side of complexity. So instead of staying with a quick superficial simplicity on the near side (which will be very thin soup to offer God’s people), we need to head into the forests of complexity and explore the depths of Scripture and wrestle with (or rather be wrestled by) that complexity, before hopefully emerging out the other side with something clear and presentable but much more rich and deep and satisfying (like a good Thai dish – fresh, healthy, colourful, arresting, integrated, complex).
No short cut. We need to face up to the complexity and enter the forest.
Posted in Bible, Preaching | Tagged complexity, simplicity |
Over the last few months I’ve been very struck by a theme in the New Testament that I don’t think I’ve properly recognised before:
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:37)
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me (John 8:42)
If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (John 14:23 cf. 14:15)
Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15 cf. v16, v17)
…what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9)
If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. (1 Cor. 16:22)
Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. (Eph. 6:23)
Though you have not seen him, you love him (1 Peter 1:8)
I hold this against you: you have forsaken the love you had at first (Rev. 2:4)
The most wonderful gospel truth is not that we loved God but that God the Father loved us and gave his Son to be burnt up instead of us (1 John 4:10). And wonderfully, not only the Father, but Jesus himself loved us to death (Gal. 2:20) and loves us still (Rev. 1:5). Jesus loves me this I know…
But there is another, secondary truth which I fear I have downplayed in my concern to lift up the great gospel blessing of God’s love for us. That truth is that there must be a love for the Lord Jesus. Not a love for theology or a love for gospel ministry or a love for what Jesus brings with him, but a love for Jesus himself. This love is not mere emotion – there is an extremely common and tight connection drawn in Scripture between love and obedience – but neither can it be evacuated of feeling and affection. There is in love a desire for the presence of the other and a delight in the presence of the other (SoS 2:3,14; 3:1-2; 5:6-8; Psalm 27:4; 42:1-2). When my love has gone cold then there’s a big problem.
So I’m thinking this year…
How can I increase my love for Christ?
- Consider how far you have fallen (Rev. 2:5) – This will involve first looking through the spiritual wedding album, remembering the “devotion of your youth” (Jer. 2:2) and then acknowledging the slide – “followed worthless idols and became worthless” (Jer. 2:5) – the stupid double sin – “forsaken the spring of living water, and have dug cisterns, broken cisterns” (Jer. 2:13) – and the disgusting spiritual adultery of forgetting the Bridegroom, giving lip service and pretend-repentance while really loving and running after others (Jer. 2:20-3:10). I need to recognise the tragedy and outrage of this fallen and debased state. As Richard Sibbes puts it, I need”to be first sensible of spiritual wants and misery. The passover lamb was eaten with sour herbs; so Christ crucified, relisheth best to a soul affected with the bitterness of sin.” (Third Sermon on the Song of Songs).
- Repent (Rev. 2:5) – As Peter Mead has shown, repentance is a relational thing – it is a turn from God-hating and, crucially, a turn to God himself. In Jeremiah, amazingly, after horrific spiritual adultery, the LORD Bridegroom says:
“‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord,
‘I will frown on you no longer,
for I am faithful,’ declares the Lord,
‘I will not be angry forever.
Only acknowledge your guilt—
you have rebelled against the Lord your God,
you have scattered your favors to foreign gods
under every spreading tree,
and have not obeyed me,’” declares the Lord.
“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. (Jer. 3:12-14).
So repentance will mean acknowledging/confessing my guilt and idolatry and adultery and returning to the incredibly forgiving, faithful-to-his-covenant Bridegroom.
- Behold Christ in the Word – “Do the things you did at first” (Rev. 2:5). What are those first things? Well it could include a lot (probably most of the points below) but the very first thing we did was to look to Christ. “Behold the Lamb of God!” To put it another way, the first thing we did was to hear the word of Christ (Eph. 1:13; 4:22; 5:14 Col. 1:6). To hear is to see (Gal. 3:1). “Show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely” (SoS 2:14). I need to search the Scriptures to see the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:6). I need to have that heart burning experience of the Emmaus road disciples as they saw Jesus not physically but in the (OT) Scriptures he opened to them (Luke 24). I need to dwell on awesome portraits of Christ like those in the Book of Revelation. I need to be dazzled by the Scripture pictures of Christ as creator, king, warrior, Holy One, radiance of the glory of God. Before even considering God’s love towards us, God’s people “first see that God is lovely, and that Christ is excellent and glorious, and their hearts are first captivated with this view” (Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections).
- Savour his love – “your love is more delightful than wine.” (SoS 1:2). As Sibbes puts it, “love draws love” (First Sermon on the Song of Songs). This unconditional love which embraces the prodigal and the prostitute and the leper. This covenant love which unites me with the Son of God so that “My beloved is mine and I am his” (SoS 2:16). This sacrificial love with sweated in the garden and endured the searing pain of Godforsakenness. This love which actually, amazingly, genuinely desires and delights in the object of salvation (SoS 1:15; 4:1-14; 5:2; 7:1,10); which sees us as ‘lovely,’ ‘flawless,’ ‘overwhelming,’ ‘captivating’ (4:7; 5:2; 6:5; 7:5; 8:10) and actually wants to be with us for eternity (John 17:24). To the extent that we experience this extravagantly loving forgiving embrace, to that extent we love Christ (Luke 7:47). And we best come to experience this love corporately – “together with all the saints” (Eph. 3:18).
- Savour his name – “Your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the young women love you!” (SoS 1:3) Notice the logic. The reason for the love is the fragrance of the Name. You know how you feel when the name of your best friend comes up in conversation. “The very naming of a good man casts a sweet savour” (Sibbes, First Sermon). How much more so of Christ. How sweet the name of Jesus sounds… As John Newton, that hymn’s author, explains, the ‘name’ stands for the whole person (Rev. 3:4,5). “The name of Christ includes the whole revelation concerning him, who he is, what he has done – all that we read of his love, his power and his offices make a part of his great and glorious name. The soul that is taught by the Word and Spirit of God to understand a little of these things receives such a sense of love and joy that the very sound of his name is sweeter than music to the ears, sweeter than honey to the taste.” (Newton, Sermon on SoS 1:3) So I would do well to return regularly, as many Scripture authors do, to the great declaration of the Name in Exodus 34:6-7. I would do well to delight in this character of our God as it is unfolded in the stories of Scripture. I would do well to meditate on the great ‘names’ of Christ in the Scriptures – The One Who Sees Me, The Shepherd, The Bridegroom, The Friend of Sinners, The Banquet, The Light of the World, The Life. And I would do well to listen most to the supreme declaration of the Name at the Cross. Newton again: “The precious vessel that contained this precious ointment was broken upon the Cross – the savour of his name, his love, his blood, poured out from every wound [in] his sacred body. See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingling down… When we desire a new savour of this ointment, let us turn our eyes, our thoughts to Golgotha. To behold him by faith as he hung bleeding and dying, with outstretched arms inviting our regards and saying, ‘See if any sorrow was like to my sorrow.'”
- Sit under Christ-ful preaching – “Everything that bears the name of preaching – if it does not diffuse the knowledge of this good ointment [the fragrance of the name of Christ] – is dry and tedious, unsavoury and unprofitable.” (Newton, Sermon of SoS 1:3). As Sibbes’ says, preachers, as the friend of the Bridegroom (John 3:28), are to “woo for Christ, and open the riches, beauty, honour and all that is lovely in him” (Sibbes, Second Sermon). Often I can’t, on my own, get my heart excited about Christ, but, in the company of God’s people, with a preacher opening the Scriptures and wooing for Christ, jabbing his finger in the Bible and saying “Look at this thing about Jesus; isn’t he amazing?!” – then I get excited about Jesus. And that seems to be the way God wants it to be.
- Partake in the Lord’s Supper – This is the other main, regular means of grace alongside the ministry of the Word, whereby I feed on Christ in my heart by faith with thanksgiving. This is where I’m reassured (as I recently read in a reformed confession I think) that as surely as the bread is pressed into my hand, so Christ has been given to me; as surely as I am receiving the wine, so surely Christ’s blood was shed for me and atones for all my sins. As Carl Trueman (if I remember rightly) describes it, just as in our marriage we live together and have a continual love relationship with our spouse but we still make special ‘dates’ where we can meet together and express our love for one another and grow in our love for one another and be reassured of our love for one another, so the Lord’s Supper is the time and place Christ has ordained as our ‘date’ where he promises to specially meet with us and reassure us of his love and inflame our love.
- Sing of Christ – As many have noticed through the ages, music and song have a special ability to express and inflame the affections. It is notable that the Song of Songs is… well a song! One of the best things for my soul is to be in the congregation of God’s people as we sing to one another and sing to God true words about Jesus. Let’s make the most of the songs that have been written down the ages and more recently that do what the Song of Songs does – address either ‘the friends’ or the Bridegroom and tell of His goodness. How sweet the name, When I survey, I stand amazed, There’s not a friend, Soon and very soon, Sovereign Grace, Emu…
- Praise Christ – “We rejoice and delight in you; we praise your love more than wine.” (SoS 1:4) As C.S. Lewis would say, the latter (the praising) completes and increases the former (the rejoicing and delighting). As the beloved enumerates the specific, superlative, wonderful attributes of the Bridegroom (SoS 5:10-16) – her joy and love is increased. This works not only in prayer-praise and in song-praise but also in witnessing-praise to unbelievers. Have you ever had that joy of sharing with someone how wonderful Jesus is and as you do that you start thinking, Yes – this really is true – Jesus really is wonderful! Even if the other person wasn’t helped, I go away with a deeper appreciation of the good things I have in Christ (Philemon 6).
- Accept suffering as a means of refining love for Christ – God is sovereignly working to perfect us and the older authors (like Cranmer, Sibbes and Newton) recognise that much of that will be through the painful pruning of difficult circumstances. Through suffering he will work to loosen our grip on and weaken our affections for the passing things of this world that we might reach more for and rejoice more in Christ. What is required of us is an acceptance – a patient endurance (2 Cor. 1:6; Heb. 12:7) rather than an impatient rejection; a trust that this is a means of God inflaming my love for Christ.
- Be around people who love Jesus – I find this one of the most helpful ones. You’ll have noticed how the corporate, churchly dimension intersects almost all of the points so far. We grow in love for Christ among others who love Christ. As in the old illustration of a coal placed in the fire with glowing coals – the warmth and burning of others stirs me up to glow. To change the metaphor, the Proverbs speak of one man sharpening another. Often we think of this in terms of critical thinking but it is also true of love for Christ. Sibbes talks of “that which hinders the sharpness of the [spiritual appetite], that dull and flat the edge of it… and take away the savour and desire of heavenly things.” The evil and cold banality of the world and the company of those who have no interest in Christ dampens our love for Christ like a wet blanket. On the other hand the “company… of such as ‘labour for that blessed food that endures to life eternal’ provokes” us to a sharper appetite and greater feasting on Christ. I need this every day (Heb. 3:13) and especially need to make use of the Sabbath pattern to meet with God’s people and delight in him together.
- Pray – Perhaps this should be the first point. We need the Spirit of Conviction that we would see how far we have fallen. We need God himself to grant us repentance (Acts 3:26; 11:18). Otherwise, like the people in Jeremiah’s day we will not repent, we cannot repent (Jer. 13:23). We need the Spirit to remove the veil and open our eyes to the glory of God in the face of Christ in the pages of Scripture (2 Cor. 3-4). We need to pray that God would enlarge our hearts, give us new desires and new taste buds to crave and enjoy Christ. Sibbes notes from SoS 4:16 that unless the Spirit of God blows on us we do not even want to pray for more of Christ. So let us pray desperate prayers for greater love for Christ – come to his Word and come to church praying for our love to be inflames – knowing that even that desire to pray is a gracious gift and token of his love.
Posted in Christ, Christian Life, Jeremiah, Prayer, Preaching, Song of Songs | Tagged C.S Lewis, John Newton, love for Christ, personal project for 2017, Richard Sibbes | 1 Comment »
“I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse” (Song of Songs 5:1)
Christ is our brother, and the church, and every particular true member thereof, is his sister… He became our brother by incarnation, for all our union is from the first union of two natures in one person. Christ became bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, to make us spiritually bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.
Therefore let us labour to be like to him, who for that purpose became like to us, Immanuel, God with us (Isa. 7:14 ); that we might be like him, and “partake of the divine nature,” (2 Pet. 1:4). Whom should we rather desire to be like than one so great, so gracious, so loving?
Again, “Christ was not ashamed to call us brethren,” (Heb. 2:11) nor abhorred the virgin’s womb,” to be shut up in those dark cells and straits; but took our base nature, when it was at the worst, and not only our nature, but our miserable condition and curse due unto us. Was he not ashamed of us? And shall we be ashamed to own him and his cause?
…Again, it is a point of comfort to know that we have a brother who is a favourite in heaven; who, though he abased himself for us, is yet Lord over all. Unless he had been our brother, he could not have been our husband; for husband and wife should be of one nature. That he might marry us, therefore, he came and took our nature, so to be fitted to fulfil the work of our redemption. But now he is in heaven, set down at the right hand of God: the true Joseph, the high steward of heaven; he hath all power committed unto him; he rules all. What a comfort is this to a poor soul that hath no friends in the world, that yet he hath a friend in heaven that will own him for his brother, in and through whom he may go to the throne of grace boldly and pour out his soul (Heb. 4:15-16).
[Richard Sibbes, Second Sermon on the Song of Songs]
Posted in Song of Songs | Tagged Christmas, Incarnation, Richard Sibbes | Leave a Comment »