Humility in Ministry

There is always the danger, after preaching well, of being too pleased with ourselves, especially when people tell you after the sermon how good your preaching was. The following words of Robert Murray M’Cheyne remind us of the danger of pride in the ministry and its consequences:

“Now, the Lord be your strength, teacher and guide. I charge you, be clothed with humility, or you will yet be a wandering star, for which is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever. Let Christ increase; let man decrease… If you lead sinners to yourself, and not Christ, Immanuel will cast the star out of his right hand into utter darkness.” (Andrew Bonar’s The Life of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990 reprint, p. 152-153)

Here then is what we should pray for if we are to be kept back from pride in the ministry:

“Now, remember Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone. Looking at our own shining face is the bane of the spiritual life and of the ministry. O for closest communion with God, till soul and body – head, face, and heart – shine with divine brilliance; but O for a holy ignorance of our shining. Pray for this; for you need it as well as I.” (ibid, p. 153; emphasis added)

Politics and the Pulpit

Since yesterday was Good Friday we had no office. With so much time on my hands I spent most of the day reading – mainly from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Buchanan’s Doctrine of Justification. I learned something valuable from Burke on keeping the pulpit politics-free. Politics is not really something I’m very interested in, so keeping it out of my sermons comes easy to me. Anyway, here’s the quote:

[P]olitics and the pulpit are terms that have little agreement. No sound ought to be heard in the church but the healing voice of Christian charity. The cause of civil liberty and civil government gains as little as that of religion by the confusion of duties. Those who quit their proper character, to assume what does not belong to them, are, for the greater part, ignorant both of the character they leave, and of the character they assume. Wholly unacquainted with the world in which they are so fond of meddling, and inexperienced in all its affairs, on which they pronounce with so much confidence, they have nothing of politics but the passions they excite. Surely the church is a place where one day’s truce ought to be allowed to the dissensions and animosities of mankind.

— Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Penguin Classics, 1986) p. 94

Foreknowledge and Predestination

Yesterday, I preached to a group of college students and young professionals during one of the regular Thursday evening meetings of the Campus Bible Fellowship-Bacolod City. Here’s essentially what I shared last night:

SOVEREIGN GRACE, SURE GLORY

 

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

(Rom 8:29-30 ESV)

Introduction: Grace is the Foundation of Glory

God has chosen certain people to experience eternal glory. This choice however is ultimately unconditional and sovereign; it is pure and sheer grace. The plan of salvation is grander than we think.

The foundation of glory is grace: the sovereign prerogative and initiative of God to show favor to the undeserving. It is truly grace precisely because it was unconditionally bestowed in eternity past, is being mplemented in time, and will culminate in eternity future.

 

Table 1: SALVATION

DETERMINATION

ETERNITY PAST

FOREKNOWLEDGE

PREDESTINATION

IMPLEMENTATION

TEMPORAL PRESENT

CALLING

JUSTIFICATION

(SANCTIFICATION)1

CULMINATION

ETERNITY FUTURE

GLORIFICATION

God desires to have eternal fellowship with human beings. That’s why he created them in the first place. That’s why he provided a way for them to be recovered after they fell into sin. And that’s why he’s working in their lives to transform their character so that they will be morally and spiritually fit to enjoy fellowship with him (i.e., “Be holy for I am holy.” “Without holiness no one will see the Lord.”) And that’s why he intends to give us glorified bodies that can no longer be touched by pain, sickness, old age – bodies like that of the glorified Jesus. By the way, this is what it means to be conformed to the image of God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ: it means to be like him in his holy character and like him in his glorified body. It’s all about God’es desire to have eternal fellowship with us.

 

But the question is:What moved God to do these things for us? What is the ultimate cause or foundation of his determination to do these great things for us? The answer according to our theme for tonight is grace. Grace is the foundation of glory. This appears simple enough, but actually it isn’t that simple, for the next question is: What is grace? The common answer to this question is: Grace is God’s decision or determination to bestow favor upon the undeserving. In this sense, grace is related to mercy. Grace is God giving you what you don’t deserve. You don’t deserve his favor; he gives it to you anyway. That’s grace. Mercy, on the other hand, is God not giving you what you do deserve. You deserve his wrath (because we’re sinners); he doesn’t give it to you. That’s mercy.

 

Well, does this mean that most Christians now understand what “grace” means? I don’t think so. That’s because if you ask them what grace means in practical terms, most of them will probably say, “Grace is about God saving me from my sins and giving me eternal life as a result of my having put my faith in Christ and not as a result of my good works.” Now what’s wrong with this statement? Actually this statement is biblically sound as far as it goes. It’s actually in line with Eph. 2:8-9 and John 3:16. So where’s the problem? The problem is it does not go far enough. It fails to exhaust the meaning of grace. In other words, it’s incomplete. It doesn’t take into account verses such as our text, as well as Eph. 1:3-7, 11-12 and II Tim. 1: 9.

 

The problem with the common understanding, the popular view which we have just considered, is that it seems to make God’s decision to be gracious dependent on our decision to accept or reject God’s offer of grace towards us. In which case, when you think deeper about it, the ultimate cause of our salvation, of our experience of glory someday, is no longer God’s grace but ourselves. God’s grace is no longer the foundation of glory because it is now conditioned on our decision to accept or reject it.

 

To be sure, from our point of view, we do have the power as well as the responsibility to accept or reject God’s grace. In fact, there’s a verse which says, “Do not receive the grace of God in vain.” (II Cor. 6:1). So to say that God’s decision to be gracious to us depends on our decision to accept or reject his offer of grace is correct as far as it goes. But once again it doesn’t go far enough. It sees things only from man’s point of view. It fails to see things from God’s point of view. In other words, it’s short-sighted. The fact of the matter is our decision to accept God’s grace is itself a product of grace. Underlying our decision to receive God’s grace is grace itself. It is God’s grace which moves us to receive God’s grace (c.f., Jer. 31:33; 32:38-40; Ezek. 36:22, 26-28, 32, 36b; John 6:65).

 

Now, I have spent all this time trying to lay the foundation for a proper understanding of grace because you won’t be able to understand our text for this evening unless we are clear that God’s grace, i.e., God’s decision, and not our decision, is the foundation of glory. Having done that it is now time to expound our text.

 

Overview of the Passage

There are a number of things we must note by way of overview of the passage before we expound each of the divine acts mentioned therein.

 

The Sovereign Prerogative and Initiative of God

 

Note first of all that the passage talks about the sovereign prerogative and initiative of God. Foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification and glorification are all divine acts. It is God who foreknows, it is God who predestines, it is God who calls, it is God who justifies, it is God who glorifies. Man’s activity is not in view here. Man is in view here only as the object or beneficiary of God’s acts, but the initiative here belongs to God.

 

The Use of the Past Tense

 

Note, next, the use of the past tense. It is understandable that foreknowledge and predestination are in the past tense because these are acts of God in eternity past. On the other hand, we may be excused for thinking that calling and justification are also in the past tense because there are some at least who have already been called and justified and in their case these acts also refer to past events. But it is a cause for wonder why glorification is in the past tense because this divine act is something that will still occur in the future during the resurrection of the saints and the second coming of Christ. What then is the explanation for referring to glorification as if it were already past? The answer to that is in God’s mind the whole plan of salvation, as well as its component acts, is as good as completed. In God’s mind it is absolutely certain that those whom he has foreknown and predestined will be glorified so much so that one might as well refer to them as having already been glorified! The point here is the element of certainty. This whole series of divine acts constitutes an unbreakable chain, with each divine act serving as an individual link in the chain. If one link breaks the whole chain is broken. For the chain to remain unbroken each and every link must be unbreakable. But the whole point of using the past tense is to emphasize the fact that the chain is unbreakable, that those who are predestined are as good as glorified. It is absolutely certain that none of the predestined will be lost. It is absolutely certain that all of the predestined will be glorified.

 

Co-extensive Number of People in View

 

Note also the number of people involved as objects of the divine acts in this series of acts. If it is certain that all those who are predestined will not fail to be glorified, it follows as well that all those who are called will not fail to be justified, in the same way that all those who are justified will not fail to be glorified. In other words, the number of people in view in the one act is also the same number of people in view in all the other acts. The number is co-extensive all throughout. To introduce the possibility that some of those who are predestined, for example, will nevertheless fail to be glorified is fatal to the unbreakable character of the chain of salvation, and destroys Paul’s intent in using the past tense, which is to convey the idea of absolute certainty that none of the predestined will be lost (cf. John 6:37-39; Rom. 8:38-39). The number of people in view in all of the divine acts is co-extensive.

 

Exposition Proper

Having done with the overview, I now proceed to the task of expounding the divine acts mentioned in our text. However, I will no longer discuss so much glorification, calling and justification for lack of material time. Besides, as far as glorification is concerned, I have already explained what it is when I discussed a while ago God’s desire to conform us to the image of his Son so that we may be spiritually and physically fit to enjoy fellowship with him forever.

 

Predestination

 

Instead of following the sequence laid down in our text I shall for the meantime skip foreknowledge and proceed instead to predestination. What is predestination? Our text says God has predestined those whom he foreknew to be conformed to the image of his Son. We already know what conformity to the image of Jesus is. It simply means glorification, which is the culmination of salvation. Predestination is therefore predestination unto glory or predestination unto salvation, because to be glorified is to be saved to the uttermost. Predestination therefore means that God in eternity has fixed or determined the eternal destiny of some people. He has determined even before he created the world that a certain number of people will eventually be saved and will reach glory without fail.

 

Now I mentioned predestination first because actually – and don’t be surprised by this – almost all Bible-believing Christians believe in predestination. Almost all Bible-believing Christians are in agreement that the Bible does teach predestination. There are just too many verses in the Bible about predestination,so that it would be next to impossible to miss it. In other words, as to the fact of predestination it would be safe to say that in general there is no disagreement among Christians.

 

Foreknowledge

 

So why is it that predestination is such a controversial topic among Christians? The controversy has to do with the reason for predestination, i.e., the basis for predestination, rather than with the fact of predestination.The most common view among Christians with respect to predestination is that God predestines certain people to be saved and eventually to be glorified because he foresaw that they would believe in his Son and receive him as their Lord and Savior. And they cite as their basis for this view the words of our text, “Those whom he foreknew he predestined.” The controversy then among Christians regarding predestination is not really about predestination per se. The controversy rather is about the meaning of foreknowledge as the basis of predestination. Does God predestine you because he knew beforehand that you would believe and receive Jesus Christ as your Savior? And is this what foreknowledge really means?

 

You will immediately see then that the issue of the correct interpretation of foreknowledge is crucial to the correct understanding of predestination. But more importantly, our understanding of foreknowledge will affect our understanding of grace.

 

For a number of reasons, together with many great Bible teachers of today, such as John Piper, John MacArthur, D.A. Carson, J.I. Packer, John Stott and a host of others, I do not agree with the common understanding of foreknowledge, at least as far as Rom. 8: 29-30 is concerned. I agree that foreknowledge generally means God knowing things beforehand and events before they occur. However, as far as our text is concerned, foreknowledge as a basis for predestination does not refer to God’s foreknowing that some will believe. For the sake of clarity I will refer to the common view as “foreseeng.” I will reserve the term “foreknowledge” for something else, which I will explain in due time. Here now are the reasons for my disagreement:

Firstly, if God’s decision to predestine some to glory were based on his foreseeing that some will decide to believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, then once again the foundation of glory becomes no longer grace, no longer God’s decision, but our decision. And, as a consequence, the glory for our salvation will no longer belong to God alone.

 

Secondly, the text does not say anything about God foreseeing our faith. What the text says is: Those whom he foreknew…” In other words, it is not the faith of certain persons which he foreknew but the persons themselves. To make things clearer, let us take for example the case of Jeremiah. The Lord said to Jeremiah in Jer. 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” Clearly, in this example, what God foreknew was not Jeremiah’s faith but his person.

 

Thirdly, many careful students of the Bible have noticed that the word “knew” is in a number of significant instances used as a synonym for “love” or “choice” or even “sexual intimacy”. For example, in Gen. 4:1 we read “Adam knew Eve, “ which means Adam loved or made love to Eve. To take another instance, in Amos 3:2 God says of Israel “You only have I known of all the families of the earth,” which at first sounds strange because how could the ominiscient God suffer amnesia with respect to all other nations? Of course, what the verse means is that Israel was privileged to be loved by God in a special way above all other nations (cf. Deut. 10:15). Based on these considerations, we can conclude that the foreknowledge of persons in Rom. 8:29 refers to God’s choosing to love certain persons even before they were born and even before they have done anything to deserve his love. To foreknow in the context of our text is simply to “forelove”. Some Bible scholars even say that the foreknowledge of persons mentioned in Rom. 8: 29 is in essence the same as the election of persons in Christ before the foundation of the world mentioned in Eph. 1:4. And in this connection one is reminded of I John 4:19 which says, “We love because he first loved us,” as well as of Jer. 31:3 “The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.” (KJV) One is reminded as well of that most controversial of passages, Rom. 9: 10-13, “And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad–in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call– she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated, ‘ ” which I will not discuss at this time because I intend to devote a whole sermon on it some time soon.

Conclusion: Grace is the Foundation of Glory.

Let me end our study of these very deep doctrines by going back to our main theme: Grace is the foundation of glory. I know that what you have learned today is bound to raise some very serious questions in your mind, questions such as: What about man’s free will? How can a person be held responsible for his decisions if his destiny was already fixed even before he was born? What’s the use of preaching if people are already chosen to be saved? Will they not certainly be saved regardless of whether the gospel is preached to them or not? And the most difficult question of all: How could God be just if he has sovereignly and unconditionally chosen who will be saved, and by implication, who won’t? To be frank, these are not only difficult questions, some of them may well be nigh unanswerable. I intend to provide biblical answers to these questions to the extent that the Bible itself provides them next chance I get. Allow me to say this just to whet your appetite: the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace does not negate man’s responsibility to choose eternal life. There is a sense in which man is truly and genuinely free to choose whether to accept or reject God’s grace. We must be quick to add however that man’s freedom cannot in any wise influence, condition or negate the superior and ultimate freedom of God to do whatever he pleases without consideration of his creatures’ choices, to put it bluntly. Even so, we must also add that God does not exercise his sovereign freedom apart from his holy, righteous and loving character; nor does he do so apart from his perfect wisdom. God does not only choose freely and sovereignly; he also chooses righteously, lovingly and wisely. Nevertheless, his ways are not our ways for his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

 

I hope however that the difficulty of these things will not detract from the importance of knowing them and believing them, firstly because, for better or for worse, they are taught in the Bible and we must assume that they, just like all other biblical truths, are profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. Secondly, regardless of its difficulty the doctrine that grace is the foundation of glory gives to God alone all the glory for our salvation. In other words, the doctrine that grace is the foundation of glory glorifies God much more than the view that grace is ultimately dependent on our decision. And lastly, the doctrine that grace is the foundation of glory helps us to see the real extent of the gratitude that we owe to God. We owe him not only our salvation, we owe him even our very decision to receive his salvation. In other words, we owe everything to his grace. As Karl Barth put it, “The perception of grace is grace.” The very decision to receive God’s grace is the result of grace itself. It is grace which precedes as well as concludes. It is grace all throughout. Salvation is all of grace. Grace in the beginning, grace in the middle, grace in the end. Grace is the foundation of glory so that all the glory for our salvation may go to God alone. Soli Deo Gloria!

 

1Not mentioned in Rom. 8: 30 but certainly implied, as sanctification is the process which culminates in glorification. Incidentally, regeneration (also not mentioned in our text) should be understood as being the commencement of sanctification.

Tips on Preaching

One sometimes gets the impression while listening to a sermon that the preacher concerned is – whether gently or furiously – stirring a cloud of dust before our eyes instead of feeding us with the Word of God. Too many words – like darts which hit everywhere except the bull’s eye. I know these are harsh words and I myself have been frequently guilty of preaching in such a manner. But for the sake of improvement (and, more importantly, for the sake of the sheep who look up and are not fed) we preachers have to confront ourselves and face the fact that we often botch up the task of preaching. Here are some tips which might help remedy our failure in this matter:

*Precision – A sermon is precious. Every word counts. Don’t hide your meaning behind a multitude of words. Don’t let your sermon be all “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” A preacher must be a master of words, using the exact word to communicate the precise idea he has in mind.

*Pointedness – The preacher must speak from the heart to the heart. He must feed hearts and not merely inform minds.

*Passion – Logic on fire! Wake them up, don’t put them to sleep. Passion, however, is not a matter of raising your voice. It’s speaking with deep and genuine conviction.

*Persuasiveness – Logic on fire!

*Perspicacity – A sermon must be simple, clear and coherent, so that even a child can understand what you are saying. Sometimes a preacher assumes that just because something he says is clear and understandable to him it is also clear and understandable to his audience. That is not necessarily the case. He should put himself in the place of his listeners and see (or hear) his sermon from their perspective, and make the necessary adjustments.

*Planned – What I mean by this is that a sermon must be coherent. It’s often frustrating and wearisome trying to follow what exactly it is a preacher is saying while he wanders around and across the highways and by-ways of his subject.

*Preparation – “I will not offer to the Lord what cost me nothing.” Included in this is prayerful study. But more than this, your whole life is the true preparation for a sermon. The sermon should merely be the tip of the iceberg. A tree bears fruit in its season, but the whole year round it gathers all the nutrients and power and life-force it can from the soil, the water, the sun and the air, in preparation for the moment of fruit-bearing. This is where I think many preachers are mistaken. They think a week’s study is enough to prepare a sermon. They don’t realize that all of their lives is the preparation needed for making and preaching a sermon worthy of the name.

*Prophetic – a preacher must be conscious of the fact that he is forth-telling the words of God. He is expounding divine truth. The task of preaching is a sacred one. He cannot therefore engage in this task light-heartedly and without a view towards excellence. He must in dependence on the power of the Spirit preach as a dying man to dying men the words of life. How can he approach this task routinely and mechanically, as if it were ordinary and of no moment?

These then are the tips that come to mind as I reflect on the subject of preaching. And I realize no one is more guilty of not following them than I. These tips are therefore primarily meant for me. But I am posting them here because they might also prove helpful to others who also struggle with the difficulty of the task of preaching.

SMO and John Piper

Two days ago, Yesterday (i.e., Aug. 26, 2006 Saturday) the Student Missionary Outreach (SMO)-Philippines celebrated its anniversary (can’t remember whether it was their 30th or 20th year). I was invited by the Bacolod chapter to be their speaker. I spoke to a large group of young people on the theme “Don’t Waste Your Life.” That actually is the title of one of John Piper’s books. I did a post on a quote from that book some time back. John Piper’s influence is certainly spreading and the lives of many young people here in the Philippines are being touched for God. I wonder what this will mean for my country when these young people grow up to become leaders of their respective churches and their communities someday.

One Point!

Andrew Stanley has a great article on being a “One-Point Preacher”.

I grew up preaching according to the standard 3-points formula of preaching. Later on I discovered Martyn Lloyd Jones and the Puritans and I began preaching more than 3 points per sermon with as many subpoints under each point! I distinctly remember preaching over an hour in one church and seeing the people at the back one by one stand up and leave. Then I took a class on preaching and I was surprised to hear my professor (Dr. Stephen Whatley, then of Asian Theological Seminary, Bacolod City, now of Faith Seminary, Tacoma, Washington) say that a sermon should only have one point! We invited him to our local church one Sunday and he preached under 30 minutes from the whole book of Jeremiah – and he had only one point! He began the sermon by asking, “Was Jeremiah a success?” And he ended by saying, “Yes, Jeremiah was a success because he obeyed God!” I will never forget that sermon. I regret to say that I haven’t followed my teacher’s advice. It is much more difficult to preach a sermon that has only one point than one which has 3 or more – believe it or not. But I did force myself to preach much shorter than I did before. Now, everyone in my church is happy when I ascend the pulpit. But I still have a long way to go in order to improve. And one of the things I have to do is to apply the advice of Dr. Whatley and Pastor Stanley: only have one point!