Personal suffering and personal sin

Christians suffer. So does God cause His children to suffer as punitive judgment for their personal sin? Walter Kaiser today at CT explains why Job’s friends were wrong in saying ‘yes.’ On a similar note, Derek Thomas’ book, Calvin’s Teaching on Job (Christian Focus, 2004) is excellent here, too. As one of Job’s friends (Elihu) realized, suffering is God’s means of instructing (not judging) His children.

“… affliction serves several ends: it is ‘the true schoolmistresse to bring men to repentance’; it weans us from dependence on the things of this world; it provokes us to prayer. Significantly, afflictions are the voice of God and a sign of his providence. They are by God’s appointment; they are God’s ‘archers,’ his artillery. Afflictions are a part of God’s ‘double means’ whereby he humbles us (the other being his Word). Yet, at the same time, they are ‘stirred up’ by Satan. … afflictions show us our sins and cause us to flee in repentance. … Afflictions also drive us to desire more of God’s help, provoking us to return to him, by drawing us to him, taming us, and teaching us to pray” (Calvin’s Teaching on Job, 227-228).

Cross-centered obedience

tsslogo.jpgThe way I see it, the most delicate balance of the Christian life is in maintaining a Cross-centered perspective and pursuing personal obedience. Push a little too hard on the one side, I fall into self-righteousness and legalism, thinking God’s acceptance of me is rooted in personal obedience. This is spiritual suicide. Or I fall on the other side in thinking the Cross demotes personal obedience to the status of “minor importance.” This too is wrong.

In John 15:1-17 Christ gives us a radical alternative. Here He teaches us that the high calling of personal obedience presses us into the Cross-centered life. Let me explain.

Obedience and comfort

I’ll begin with a hypothetical. What if you somehow discovered that your friend was going to endure, over the next week, the most horrible experience of their life? They will learn another close and beloved friend has experienced a ghastly and painful death. What words today would you leave with your friend to prepare them for the coming pain?

My guess is that we would speak only words of comfort. We would weep with those about to weep. God is faithful, we would say. He will be with you. He will not leave you even in the darkest times.

I think we would agree that – on this brink of tragedy – it would be odd and out of place to call our friend to pursue personal obedience.

Yet on the brink of the crucifixion this is exactly what Christ does. As the disciples are about to forsake the Son and see Him crucified, Christ prepares them by calling them to pursue obedience and fruitfulness (John 15:1-17).

‘Abide in my love’

“Abide in my love” Jesus tells the remaining 11 disciples (v. 9). The Cross will forever exhibit the greatest expression of love ever displayed (v. 13). It’s here, on the Cross, that Christ gives His Body to be murdered to bear the wrath of God’s judgement as the Substitute. He will bear our guilt. He will bear our sins. The wrath we deserve will be redirected into the perfect Son. This is the greatest love. So rest, delight, dwell, find your life, “abide” in this love.

This is to say the spiritual life of the Christian is sustained by the Cross. “Abide in my love” is Jesus’ call to live and breathe and find all nourishment and life in the Cross. Paul says it well, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). The Christian life is now sustained “by faith” in the Cross of Christ!

All my righteousness before God and all my spiritual vibrancy derive from this love, this Cross!

Fruit for the Father

In light of the Cross I think it is natural (though not accurate) to de-value personal obedience. Quite the opposite! By giving us the spiritual life necessary, the Cross actually strengthens the call of Christian obedience.

For the Christian (those with “new life”) only abiding in the life-giving Cross makes fruitfulness possible! Previously, the sinner outside the Christ was nothing more than a dead branch seeking to bear fruit but dehydrated from all spiritual life. Christ is our life.

Tucked in verse 8 we glimpse at the very heart of the Trinitarian motivations behind the Cross. Jesus says His Father is glorified when we bear fruit. The fruitfulness of the saint is a direct growth from the life and nourishment of the Cross. Think of it this way: We bear fruit by abiding in the Cross, the fruit of the branches is plucked by the Son and then carried to the Father in a bushel basket as an offering of glorification from the Son to the Father. Here we see the profound motives of Christ to glorify the Father.

In this cycle of the saints feeding off the Cross and bearing fruit, of the Son plucking the fruit and offering His Father the glory, we see Cross-centered thinking and diligent obedience come together. It’s important that we fight the tendency to emphasize works over the Cross and the tendency to think the Cross makes obedience an optional or secondary pursuit.

The calling to pursue diligent obedience and bear fruit came packaged with a stern warning that fruitless branches are thrown into the fire (v. 6). So why the hard demands of Jesus to bear fruit? How can He get away with such strong words? Here’s why: His Cross can sustain the weight of these high demands.

The point!

Here is what I’m getting at. In light of the coming tragedy, Christ raises the bar of obedience and fruit-bearing expectations for His disciples. This is how Jesus saw fit to comfort His disciples in the coming storm! He knew the higher the bar was raised in personal obedience the deeper He would drive the disciples into Himself.

We cannot miss this: The high calling to pursue personal obedience will (graciously) press the saint into Christ and into the Cross. And this means, at a profound level, the Cross-centered life is compromised by laziness in the pursuit of personal obedience.

Giving and receiving correction

tsslogo.jpgsermon delivered on July 29, 2007
by Pastor Mark Alderton
Sovereign Grace Fellowship
Bloomington, MN

INTRODUCTION

We continue our series on topics that affect our fellowship – our life together – and which are vital to biblical and effective fellowship that builds up the church and the individuals in it. The topic of this message is correction.

Correction is another word for adjustment or changing course. It doesn’t have to be about sin. It can be about improving something like how a team is organized or how a person plays guitar. But the focus of this message is going to be about bringing correction to the sin in our lives, about moving from sin to obedience to God.

There are many, many things that could be said about correction – about methods of correction, about the different levels of correction like counsel, reproof and rebuke, and so forth. Our focus this morning is going to be on one thing: how to give and receive correction for sin in a hopeful and grace-motivated way. We’re going to learn how to speak into one another’s lives about our sin.

Now, most of us are probably not thinking at this point, “How excellent! We’re going to talk about how to confront sin in my life. I’ve been feeling the need to have more correction. Why don’t we have a whole series on this?!”

More likely the idea of correcting one another provokes a feeling somewhere between tolerance and dread, unless you’re hoping that someone else who is hearing this will be more open to your correction after this message.

We generally don’t like correction. We like to get it over with as soon as possible and would be glad to avoid it altogether. It can seem so unfriendly and oftentimes it is brought with sinful attitudes and we respond to it in similar fashion.

Well, by God’s grace we’ll have a more favorable and faith-filled understanding of correction after this morning. Correction does not need to be a bad experience. In fact it should not be. There is a way to give and receive correction in a hopeful and grace motivated way. The Scriptures show us how.

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Confessing Sin (1 John 1:8-9)

tsslogo.jpgsermon delivered on July 22, 2007
by Pastor Mark Alderton
Sovereign Grace Fellowship
Bloomington, MN

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[Along with Rick Gamache, Mark Alderton pastors a church in Bloomington, MN (suburb of Minneapolis). Mark is a very wise brother in Christ and gifted as an excellent expositor of God’s Word. This sermon on confessing sin is ‘lights out.’ Literally! About 20 minutes before the sermon began the electricity went out. Mark continued with the sermon in a dark and hot elementary school gymnasium without any amplification. The manuscript is too good not to post here on TSS. Mark graciously offered this sermon on confessing sin and another for tomorrow on his follow-up sermon on giving and receiving correction. These sermons are a tremendous blessing. Thank you Mark! – Tony]

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The topic of this text and this message is confessing sin. Or in other words, it’s about agreeing with God that we have done something wrong; that we’ve either done something he says we shouldn’t do, or failed to do something he says we should do.

We are addressing this topic because we’re in a series dealing with those things that affect our fellowship, our life together as a church. And sin affects our fellowship, especially unconfessed sin, so this is a matter of importance to us.

I don’t know what you think of the idea of confessing your sins to someone or why you would want to do that. I can tell you what I thought of it growing up.

I was raised with the understanding that to be right with God you needed to go every once in a while to a priest and confess your sins to him in a confessional booth. I’m not sure how these appointments were set up – I know I never asked for them. But they were pretty intimidating to me and I thought that I’d better have some pretty bold sins to confess or the priest would think I was hiding something, and I wanted to get through this as quickly as possible.

So I got a list in my mind, and at the confession I’d say sheepishly, “Well, father (that’s what we called the priest) …”

… I got angry with my sister and I hit her

… I hit a golf ball through the house window and lied to my dad that someone threw a rock at it, and…

… I stole firecrackers out of my dad’s dresser drawer and blew up an anthill

Then, if all was right in the world, he wouldn’t ask for too much else, and let me go fairly quickly with an assignment to do some penance to show that my sorrow for my sin was real.

That was my idea of confessing sin. I didn’t like it and I had no idea why I needed to do it other than that it was expected of me.

Now that may not be your exact experience (and I would be glad if it wasn’t because that’s not a biblical model), but you may have some of the same misunderstandings and temptations related to confessing your sins to others.

Perhaps you don’t think you have much sin in your life to confess. Or perhaps you think that your sin is just between you and God and there is no need for others to know. Or perhaps you don’t know about the blessings God promises to those who live a life of ongoing confession of sin.

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Confessing Sin and Receiving Correction

tsslogo.jpgIt’s overwhelming to count the number of Christian books focused on topics not explicitly biblical. Just on church leadership, the most popular books cover keys to increase attendance, tricks to design the best information cards, strategies to station greeters, and checklists for meeting the expectations of church visitors. However, it seems the greater challenge for the Church is excellence where the Bible is clear. Isn’t that what Mark Twain said?

Let me give you two examples.

When was the last time you confessed your sins to another Christian? That’s biblical (1 John 1:8-9). Or when was the last time you humbly received correction? That, too, is biblical (Heb. 3:12-13). Reformatting the information cards can wait.

Now, I’m not saying these two disciplines are easy or popular. They are not. It’s far more comfortable to circle the theological errors in other groups. And when it comes to popularity, publishers know a book on these topics would flop. Confession and correction rub the cat the wrong way. They are too painful to be popular.

Speaking of pain, have you ever stepped on a nail? I mean really stepped on one. Out of the blue, you’re walking along, minding your thoughts and then – silence! – you feel the odd sensation of the nail entering the bottom of your foot. Youch! (My foot just curled in reaction to writing that sentence.) The worse part is the expectation that someone now needs to pull the nail out. (Now my hands, both feet, jaw and forehead are all tense.) I think removing a nail is the most agonizing part of it all. But the nail must come out for healing to begin.

So it is with sin. Spiritual health demands sin be pulled out of our hearts. Despite the painfulness of confessing sin and receiving correction, this is the Christianity once for all delivered to the saints.

How we style the welcome cards is a matter of preference. Whether we confess sin and receive correction is a matter of faithfulness.

Our forefathers understood the depth of remaining sin. As you saw earlier today in the brilliant quote from Horatius Bonar, we may think we sail on a calm and sinless ‘wine dark’ sea. But it only takes an icy blast of trial to awaken the old man and churn the mud of sin – the idolatry, anger, self-centeredness – that remains in our heart. Puritan Richard Sibbes warns us too. Let Rome say she cannot err. But let us who know better be aware of our black hearts and proneness to sin.

The battle of mortification continues throughout our lives. Confessing sin and receiving correction is the appropriate awareness of our sinful condition. Because sin ever remains in our hearts, our confession of sin and openness to correction never ends.

So I invite you to join me this week as we conspire to boot that wicked old man overboard in our seafaring pursuit of holiness.

The icy blast of trial awakens the old man

The icy blast of trial awakens the old man
by Horatius Bonar

We are not at all persuaded that there is so very much evil in us. We do not know ourselves. Our convictions of sin have been but shallow, and we are beginning to imagine that the conflict between the flesh and the spirit isice.jpg not so very fierce and deadly as we had conceived it to be. We think we have rid ourselves of many of our sins entirely, and are in a fair way speedily getting rid of all the rest.

The depths of sin in us we have never sounded; the number of our abominations we have never thought of marking. We have been sailing smoothly to the kingdom, and perhaps at times were wondering how our lot should be so different from the saints of old.

We thought, too, that we had overcome many of our corruptions. The old man was crucified. It seemed dead, or at least feigned itself to be so in order to deceive us. Our lusts had abated. Our tempers had improved. Our souls were calm and equable. Our mountain stood strong, and we were saying, ‘We shall never be moved.’ The victory over self and sin seemed, in some measure, won.

Alas, we were blind! We were profoundly ignorant of our hearts.

Well, the trial came. It swept over us like a cloud of the night, or rather through us like an icy blast, piercing and chilling us to the vitals. Then the old man within us awoke, and, as if in response to the uproar without, a fiercer tempest broke loose within. We felt as if the four winds of Heaven had been let loose to strive together upon the great deep within us. Unbelief arose in its former strength. Rebelliousness raged in every region of our soul. Unsubdued passions resumed their strength. We were utterly dismayed at the fearful scene.

But yesterday this seemed impossible. Alas, we know not the strength of sin nor the evil of our hearts till God thus allowed them to break loose.

It was thus He dealt with Israel; and for this end He led them into the desert. “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart” (Deu. 8:2). Their desert trials put them to the proof. And when thus proved, what iniquity was found in them! What sin came out which had lain hidden and unknown before!

The trial did not create the evil: it merely brought out what was there already, unnoticed and unfelt, like a torpid adder. Then the heart’s deep fountains were broken up, and streams of pollution came rushing out, black as Hell. Rebellion, unbelief, fretfulness, atheism, idolatry, self-will, self-confidence, self-pleasing – all burst out when the blast of the desert met them in the face and called Egypt to remembrance with its luxurious plenty. Thus they were proved.

Even so it is with the saints still. God chastens them that He may draw forth the evil that is lying concealed and unsuspected within. The rod smites us on the tenderest part, and we start up in a moment as if in arms against God. The flesh, the old man, is cut to the quick, and forthwith arouses itself, displaying all of a sudden much of its former strength. When it was asleep we did not know its power, but now that it has been awakened, its remains of strength appall us.

It is not till the sea is ‘troubled,’ that ‘its waters cast up mire and dirt.’ When all was calm, there seemed naught but purity pervading it, and ripple folded over ripple in the still brightness of its transparent green. But the winds break loose, the tempest stirs its lowest depths, and then all is changed. Thus we see it in the saints. When calamity breaks over them like a tempest, then the hidden evils of their hearts awaken. Sins scarcely known before display themselves. The heart pours out its wickedness. Hard thoughts of God arise. Atheistical murmurings break out and refuse to be restrained.

– Horatius Bonar (1808-1889). Taken from The Night of Weeping and The Morning of Joy (Chapel Library) pp. 57-60. Also found in The Night of Weeping: Words for the Suffering Family of God found in The Life and Works of Horatius Bonar CD-Rom (LUX publications: 2004), pp. 36-37.