God, be merciful to me, a Pharisee!

Did Paul preach the gospel of Jesus? That was the question Dr John Piper sought to address last night at T4G in a message that became one of my personal conference highlights. The sermon manuscript and audio (forthcoming) can be found here. At one point Piper connected the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9–14 (his main text) and Paul’s words in Philippians 3:4–9. It’s quite interesting to read the two accounts together:

Jesus (Luke 18:9–12):

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’

Paul (Philippians 3:4–6):

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Jesus (Luke 18:13–14):

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Paul (Philippians 3:7–9):

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.

Paul preached the gospel of Jesus–and it was this gospel that changed his life forever.

Believe ye that I am able to do this?

blind-smIn a culture where the loudest chatter over the topic of “faith” often happens in debates between theists and atheists/agnostics over the existence of God, and certainly helped along by a postmodern religious pluralism, the Christian faith suffers from dangerous generalizations. Faith, for example, can come to be defined as the mere ontological belief in the existence of God and nothing more. That God exists is certainly true, but we mustn’t stop here. Even the demons believe in God’s existence, but this truth only causes them to quiver off into the shadows.

At one point during the life and ministry of Christ a pair of blind men approached Jesus for healing. After approaching Him, Jesus asked the two blind men, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” (Matthew 9:28-30). Yes, they said. And they were healed, healed because their faith expanded beyond a conviction of God’s existence. They trusted in Jesus’ sufficient power to heal their blindness.

In this brief account of two blind men, and from what I see elsewhere in scripture, biblical faith presupposes need. It presupposes my spiritual blindness. It presupposes that I understand the despair of my sinful condition. It presupposes that I understand God’s angry wrath that rests upon up and all sinners alike. It presupposes that I need One to become a curse for me. It presupposes that all my religious works to appease God constitute a pile of dirty laundry at the feet of His perfect holiness (Isaiah 64:6). I must come to a place of honesty about my helplessness. I need a Savior.

To believe that God exists is a great thing, but this is not the saving faith of the New Testament. Saving faith must also believe that God has initiated activity necessary for my good (Hebrews 11:6). Genuine saving faith anticipates the activity of God for me. And this is why saving faith must move beyond faith in an existing God, it must cling to a moving God. True faith trusts in the actions of God, looks for the coming hope, and rests in the Savior’s healing work on the cross. I need God to act for me, on behalf of me, upon me. I need Him to shine light into these spiritually blind eyes. I need Him to remove my guilt. I need Him to heal my spiritual blindness.

Do I believe Jesus is capable and sufficient to accomplish all this for me? The “yes” is my saving faith.

Faith in Jesus. Sight of Jesus.

Through his works, Puritan John Owen has become for me a reminder of the glorious person of Jesus Christ. Whatever we comprehend of Christ by faith now is but a mere outline of the glory of His person. Owen’s subtle reminders—and sometimes not-so-subtle reminders—turn my eyes to gaze upon the glorious person of Jesus Christ and to anticipate the day I’ll see him face-to-face. In other words, the cross should point our gaze heavenward, to set our minds above, where Christ is.

In the 12th chapter of Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, Owen argues that the gospel message is a telescope that makes Christ visible, but provides us only with an imperfect outline of the glory of the person of Christ. This obscurity is due, not to the gospel’s lack of clarity, but due to the limits of faith and due to our personal sin and weakness. Owen uses this to stoke anticipation in us for the day when our faith in Jesus will be replaced by the sight of Jesus’ pure glory.

If I understand him correctly, Owen is telling us that to if we rightly understand the gospel, it will fuel in us a heartfelt desire to see Jesus. Owen seems to be saying to me, “Tony, don’t merely rejoice in justification and the wonderful doctrines of the gospel and all the benefits of Christ’s death. Look in closer. Look for Jesus. Rejoice in Him, and anticipate the day you will see Him with your own eyes.”

Hear directly from Owen:

———-

John Owen:

The view which we have of the glory of Christ by faith in this world is obscure, dark, and reflexive. So the apostle says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “now we see in a mirror dimly,”—“through” or by “a glass, in a riddle,” a parable, a dark saying. …

The shadow or image of this glory of Christ is drawn in the gospel, and therein we behold it as the likeness of a man represented unto us in a glass; and although it be obscure and imperfect in comparison of his own real, substantial glory, which is the object of vision in heaven, yet is it the only image and representation of himself which he has left, and given unto us in this world. But by this figurative expression of seeing in a glass, the apostle declares the comparative imperfection of our present view of the glory of Christ.

But the allusion may be taken from a telescope, whereby the sight of the eye is helped in beholding things at a great distance. By the aid of such glasses, men will discover stars or heavenly lights, which, by reason of their distance from us, the eye of itself is no way able to discern.

And those which we do see are more fully represented, though remote enough from being so perfectly. Such a glass is the gospel, without which we can make no discovery of Christ at all; but in the use of it we are far enough from beholding him in the just dimensions of his glory. …

But here it must be observed, that the description and representation of the Lord Christ and his glory in the gospel is not absolutely or in itself either dark or obscure; yea, it is perspicuous, plain, and direct. Christ is therein evidently set forth crucified, exalted, glorified. But the apostle does not here discourse concerning the way or means of the revelation of it unto us, but of the means or instrument whereby we comprehend that revelation. This is our faith, which, as it is in us, being weak and imperfect, we comprehend the representation that is made unto us of the glory of Christ as men do the sense of a dark saying, a riddle, a parable; that is imperfectly, and with difficulty.

On the account hereof we may say at present, how little a portion is it that we know of him! How imperfect are our conceptions of him! How weak are our minds in their management! There is no part of his glory that we can fully comprehend. And what we do comprehend,—there is a comprehension in faith, Ephesians 3:18,—we cannot abide in the steady contemplation of. For ever blessed be that sovereign grace, whence it is that He who “commanded light to shine out of darkness has shined into our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of his own glory in the face of Jesus Christ,” and therein of the glory of Christ himself;—that he has so revealed him unto us, as that we may love him, admire him, and obey him: but constantly, steadily, and clearly to behold his glory in this life we are not able; “for we walk by faith, and not by sight.”

Hence our sight of him here is as it were by glances, liable to be clouded and blocked. “Behold, there he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, looking through the lattice” (Song of Solomon 2:9). There is a great interposition between him and us, as a wall; and the means of the discovery of himself unto us, as through a window and lattice, include a great instability and imperfection in our view and apprehension of him. There is a wall between him and us, which yet he standeth behind. Our present mortal state is this wall, which must be demolished before we can see him as he is.

In the meantime he looketh through the windows of the ordinances of the Gospel. He gives us sometimes, when he is pleased to stand in those windows, a view of himself; but it is imperfect, as is our sight of a man through a window. The appearances of him at these windows are full of refreshment unto the souls of them that do believe. But our view of them is imperfect, transient, and does not abide—we are for the most part quickly left to bemoan what we have lost. And then our best is but to cry, “the heart panteth after the waterbrooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before thee?” When wilt thou again give me to see thee, though but as through the windows alas! What distress do we ofttimes sit down in, after these views of Christ and his glory! But he proceeds farther yet; and flourishes himself through the lattices. This displaying of the glory of Christ, called the flourishing of himself, is by the promises of the Gospel, as they are explained in the ministry of the Word. In them are represented unto us the desirable beauties and glories of Christ. How precious, how amiable is he, as represented in them! How are the souls of believers ravished with the views of them! Yet is this discovery of him also but as through a lattice. We see him but by parts, unsteadily and unevenly.

Such, I say, is the sight of the glory of Christ which we have in this world by faith. It is dark, it is but in part. It is but weak, transient, imperfect, partial.

—John Owen, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ. Chapter 12. Works 1:374-389.

10 Reminders re: Gospel Faithfulness

Ten notes about gospel faithfulness, a collection derived from Galatians 1:6-10:

1. Gospel faithfulness is required of the entire church, not merely its pastoral leaders.

2. No matter how religious we claim to be, no matter how close to the truth we reside, no matter how recent our conversion, sinners are all prone to an unintentional replacement of the gospel with a counterfeit.

3. According to Paul, we can relax our grip on the biblical gospel suddenly and dreadfully easily (ταχέως).

4. To add anything to the gospel is to desert the gospel.

5. To add anything to the gospel is to have a “no-gospel.”

6. To modify the gospel is an act of defection from God.

7. The content of the gospel is unchanging and “embodies a core of fixed tradition which is normative so that no preaching deviating can be called ‘gospel’” (Fung).

8. No authority—not even an angel from heaven—has the right to modify the gospel because “the authority of the gospel resides primarily in the message itself and only secondarily in the messenger” (Fung).

9. A divine curse (ἀνάθεμα) is threatened against teachers who—in claiming to preach the gospel—have deviated from its biblical, Apostolically-defined, substance.

10. Faithfulness to the genuine gospel requires that our hearts be freed from the chains of man-pleasing, in order that we might serve Christ. We cannot serve Christ with an adjusted gospel.

Whiter Than Snow: Meditations on Sin and Mercy

9781433502309Surely one of the most valuable gifts God has given the church are surgeons of the soul. Men capable of cutting with the sharp edge of scripture, separating the outward surface of the torso, cutting through the muscle and spreading the chest, looking for the most dangerous problems, those not obvious on the outside, surgeons with determination to find the source of a deep root, a deadly problem found in the now exposed heart, a sin that can be cured only through precise wisdom and the sober application of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And if you can find one of these surgeons—one who knows his way around the deep inner workings of the heart, one who can scale to the very heights of the glorious gospel, and one who is a gifted communicator, able to write his words carefully for the benefit of us all—you have uncovered a gem.

Paul David Tripp is one of these treasures.

In his book Whiter Than Snow: Meditations on Sin and Mercy (Crossway, 2008), Tripp has written for us, partly in prose and partly in poetry, 52 brief devotional pieces that cover the scope of Psalm 51—covering the many contours of David’s sin with Bathsheba, and the experience of God’s grace in light of David’s sin. If you are brave enough to go under the surgeon’s knife, Tripp will guide you to see the darkness of sin at work in your own heart, before skillfully applying the restorative grace of the gospel.

There are a number of excerpts I want to share, but the one that I return to most often is a poem that recounts the ministry of Nathan in confronting David for his sin (see 2 Samuel 12:1-15). In part Tripp writes:

…Just a humble prophet
Telling a simple story
A sinner with a sinner
Not standing above
Alongside, together
Wanting to be an instrument
Hoping to assist a blind man to see
But no trust in self
Speaking calmly
Speaking simply
And letting God
Do through a familiar example
Painted with plain words
What only God can do
Crack the hard-shell heart
Of a wayward man
And make it feel again
See again
Cry again
Pray again
Plead again
Hope again
Love again
Commit again
To a new and better way.
(p. 63-64)

Tripp’s poem is a beautiful epigraph upon the granite of Nathan’s legacy. And a video of the author reading from this chapter is available online. Enjoy:

Title: Whiter Than Snow: Meditations on Sin and Mercy
Author: Paul David Tripp
Boards: paper
Pages: 154
Topical index: no
Scriptural index: no
Text: perfect type
Publisher: Crossway
Year: 2008
Price USD: $12.99 / $8.96 at Westminster
ISBNs: 9781433502309, 1433502305