Surely, if the Savior has divine power, as the text declares to proclaim liberty to the captive, and if He can break open prison doors, and set free those convicted and condemned, He is just the one who can comfort your soul and mine, though we are mourning in Zion! Let us rejoice at His coming and cry, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Happy are we that we live in an age when Jesus breaks the gates of brass, and cuts the bars of iron in sunder! – Charles Spurgeon
It may strike you as a little confusing as to why I’m suddenly reading a sermon out of Isaiah, when this is supposed to be a series on the Beatitudes. The sad fact is, as far as I can tell, Charles Spurgeon never preached a sermon explicitly on Matthew 5:4, which of course reads, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I did not want to simply skip the passage, however, and certainly the idea that Jesus speaks to in this verse is one that is found throughout Scripture, so it made sense to pick a sermon that spoke to the same subject. I also wanted to cover it for personal reasons, especially because I am now passing roughly one year since what could be termed “my Weathertop.”
But as the good Brother Spurgeon says in his sermon, mourning for the believer is not something that is simply dreaded or to be avoided. On the contrary, a believer mourns with hope in their heart. Though there is pain and heartache now, the believer in Christ thinks of God’s promises in His Word. Ecclesiastes 7:2, for example:
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.
We will die. It is the result of the curse of sin on all of us, and whether it’s tomorrow or a hundred years from now, whether because we get hit by a bus or because we can’t physically endure one more moment of a long life. And we look to Paul’s words, as he spoke to Christians who faced persecution:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can beagainst us?He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So we can readily see, in a broad picture, why one might believe that those who mourn are blessed. And even more, as was noted in the sermon, the kind of mourning that a believer does is done in such a way as to drive us to prayer, to communion with God, to once again nail our sins to the cross.
Those whose eyes are opened by God to their poverty of spirit are blessed, because that moment is the moment they come into their grand inheritance of the kingdom. Yet on this earth we are surrounded still by darkness, we are still plagued by sinful desires that seek to upend a life in Christ and seek after foolish things that bring no life, and we mourn all of that. We mourn our own sinfulness and we mourn our dry times, we mourn the ways that we have foolishly sinned and stumbled and rebelled. But in that mourning, there is joyfulness, there is the comfort of the Lord, because that is the state of heart that leads us to bow in humility before the mercy seat, and to worship and rejoice in God’s incredible love and graciousness towards us.
“And there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him.” -Luke 23:27 Amid the rabble rout which hounded the Redeemer to his doom, there were some gracious souls whose bitter anguish sought vent in wailing and lamentations–fit music to accompany that march of woe. When my soul…
“No proud man reigns–he is the slave of his boastings, the serf of his own loftiness. The ambitious worldling grasps after a kingdom, but he does not possess one. The humble in heart are content and in that contentment they are made to reign high!” – Charles Spurgeon
Let’s take a moment and look again at the full text of the Beatitudes:
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”–Matthew 5:1-11
We are at the beginning, and one thing that strikes me right away is that in the same way, this is how the life of a believer in Christ begins: we become aware of what we really need. The lack of fulfillment, the lack of peace, the lack of righteousness–these are attempts to express in limited words what are needs in the deepest parts of our being. More even than that, someone who is about to take the first step on this journey has come face to face with two facts: 1) There is a God, who made me and made everything, and who has been generous to me in ways that are unspeakably great, and 2) I am guilty of great sin against this God, because I have been eating His food, drinking His drink, breathing His air, and taking every last bit of it for granted, believing that it is mine by all rights. Paul describes this person in Romans 1:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.Claiming to be wise, they became fools,and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.–Romans 1:18-23
And at the close of the same chapter, he reveals the depths of darkness such hearts descend to:
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.–Romans 1:28-32
Reborn to the deepest need
But we’re talking about the person who sees this in themselves in a way he’s never seen it before. He perceives that he has spent his life taking from God without gratitude, hating Him who made him, blaming Him for his pain all the while not taking it to Him for healing, and compounding sin upon sin–and his eyes are opened by the grace of God through His Holy Spirit. He sees his true state, and he mourns it. He is in the temple of God beside the tax collector who cries out “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
Just like that: that is one who will inherit the kingdom of heaven. Not because he has done anything or said magic words, not because he has atoned for his sins–he could never hope to atone for such a mountain–but yet here he is, someone who has come face to face with his complete poverty of spirit, with the fact that all the achievements of his life will be like ashes in the wind one day, and that eternity is a vastness which he cannot comprehend, yet he feels its great weight on him. He counts himself at the center of the mass included in Paul’s words from Romans, “For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God,” and as one who is due to receive a great sum in pay, “For the wages of sin is death.”
This was me, when I had my eyes opened to the reality of my life and my heart. The amazing thing about this, however, is that God never leaves us there. He didn’t leave me sitting with a handful of nothing except promises of judgment, He instead turned me to the next truth, the one that follows from this: in seeing this deep poverty which I am unable to overcome, I can instead look to His promise that instead of striving to fill myself with things that only frustrate and never soothe, I will be inheriting something so great I can hardly conceive of it.
“The kingdom of heaven is like…”
Yet, that kingdom is not one of lording authority over another. It is not like an earthly kingdom, but as Jesus said, “The one who would be greatest, must be the servant of all.” So our sense of poverty of spirit drives us back to the beginning, back to humility and to service.
So what if you don’t feel like this? What if you don’t feel that you are poor in spirit, but that you have been deprived, that you have not been given a fair shake? This world is fractured by sin and our lives in it are hard. We enter it in pain and leave it in pain. We only are able to get what we need through great toil, because our first parents did not trust God to be God and instead tried to stand alongside Him. So if you are someone who hears this and reacts in anger, and says “Well maybe I wouldn’t need so much from God if He would just give me what I want! My life has been full of pain and hardship, I have lost everything!” And I don’t begrudge such a person their pain, nor do I pretend it isn’t real.
However, just as much I would also point to the fact that such pain serves a purpose even in its darkest times. It is a reminder to me that this world is not ultimate. It’s a blip in time, a glancing look in the grand scope of eternity, and those who trust in Christ, as the Lord himself said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29)
The kingdom of heaven turns the world upside down. Suffering finds its complete healing and fulfillment. Pain and heartbreak end, and what has been broken is restored. We look to the future and the fulfillment of the words of John in Revelation 21:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
Lean on Him, my friends. If you have tasted that emptiness, that pain and knowledge of your own sin, if you long to know how to soothe the damage done by the evils of the world, look to Jesus! Heed the words of the very next chapter of Revelation, and know that your heart can worship and find real peace.
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.
As mentioned on the podcast, below is the full video of the discussion I took part in through my church.
I have desired to begin this series on the Beatitudes since before Christmas, but schedule and then illness held me back. I am very grateful to finally be able to begin this, and the extra time has only allowed me to think and meditate more on this, on the passages in question and to anticipate the effect of preaching on Jesus’ words both on myself and on anyone who listens.
This sermon is definitely one of the shorter ones I have done, but it is the beginning of the second series I’ve ever done here, and the longest one I have attempted. It has been a blessing to read and prepare for it, and it has prompted me to not just spend time talking about my thoughts, but to want to study the text more and speak on it.
One of the points that struck me as I did this, was that these are not simply “good ways to be,” which is how many people think about the word. “Beatitude,” after all, is not “be-attitude,” but rather it comes from the Latin word beati which can be understood as “happiness,” or “blessedness.” In his famous commentary, Matthew Henry notes the same thing Charles Spurgeon did in contrasting the end of the Old Testament, which pronounces a curse, with the opening of Jesus’ first sermon with a blessing:
The Old Testament ended with a curse (Mal. 4:6), the gospel begins with a blessing; for hereunto are we called, that we should inherit the blessing. Each of the blessings Christ here pronounces has a double intention: 1. To show who they are that are to be accounted truly happy, and what their characters are. 2. What that is wherein true happiness consists, in the promises made to persons of certain characters, the performance of which will make them happy. Now,
1. This is designed to rectify the ruinous mistakes of a blind and carnal world. Blessedness is the thing which men pretend to pursue; Who will make us to see good? Ps. 4:6. But most mistake the end, and form a wrong notion of happiness; and then no wonder that they miss the way; they choose their own delusions, and court a shadow. The general opinion is, Blessed are they that are rich, and great, and honourable in the world; they spend their days in mirth, and their years in pleasure; they eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and carry all before them with a high hand, and have every sheaf bowing to their sheaf; happy the people that is in such a case; and their designs, aims, and purposes are accordingly; they bless the covetous (Ps. 10:3); they will be rich. Now our Lord Jesus comes to correct this fundamental error, to advance a new hypothesis, and to give us quite another notion of blessedness and blessed people, which, however paradoxical it may appear to those who are prejudiced, yet is in itself, and appears to be to all who are savingly enlightened, a rule and doctrine of eternal truth and certainty, by which we must shortly be judged. If this, therefore, be the beginning of Christ’s doctrine, the beginning of a Christian’s practice must be to take his measures of happiness from those maxims, and to direct his pursuits accordingly.
Another thing I would like to draw out of this, and which I hope will be very evident by the end of this series, is the God-centeredness of these blessings. Not that He is talking about what God is doing directly, because Jesus is most certainly talking about men here, but that He is talking about what the life of one who truly has God as Lord and center of worship looks like. There is an aspect of holiness that is married to this, and in seeking after these blessings, it is holiness that the believer will find, as he grows in reflecting these.
I want to close by recommending the book The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. You may have heard that Dr. Sproul passed away recently, and it was in light of that, that I decided to take time out and read this book I have heard mentioned so many times, and it has had a profound impact upon me. If you can, I highly recommend that you do the same, because the grace of God is perhaps most profoundly understood, and most sweetly tasted, in light of His tremendous and awesome holiness.
I will try to keep these coming more regularly, God willing, and I am hopeful that my work on this has an influence leading to worship on anyone who is able to listen.
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If you missed it, I did a livestream while I was recording on the Facebook page. Follow this link if you want to see this sermon read unedited for mistakes, coughing, etc.
I won’t belabor this final episode of the year, except to wish you all a merry Christmas and happy new year. I ran a little poll on the Twitter account to see what people would choose for the Christmas episode, and this sermon won out by a large margin. I found it very fitting as well.
Right before things began to officially blow up in my life earlier this year, I recorded an episode called “Joy in Place of Sorrow.” In it I talked about two phrases from Scripture that struck me as being very central to the day to day life of a Christian: “Rejoice” and “Do not fear.” Furthermore, they both seem linked directly to the greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength; and the second which is like it: love your neighbor as yourself. If you are loving God completely, you will rejoice in all circumstances, and that love will kill what Brother Spurgeon here calls “slavish fear,” the fear that drove Adam and Eve into hiding in the garden.
I have been put through a crash course in these truths this year, and as we prepare to close out one year and begin a new one, I want to say to you, my listeners: Rejoice in the coming of Christ, every day. Do not fear the Lord, but call out to Him and seek to worship Him in everything you do. Let that love spill over to how you treat your neighbors, how you love the people close to you and the strangers you meet. I have seen a disturbing trend of many Christians digging in trying to find safety for their traditions and I want to tell you: stop. Safety is not why we are here. Love is why we are here, and we must have our eyes open to those around us, for every way we can show it.
We don’t do it out of fear, but because of the love He has shown us. Do not let your thinking be so high that you cannot lower yourself to the level of Jesus loving the poor, broken, desperate people around Him. If you want to show the truth of Jesus, let your hands match your words, brethren. I pray that I will live as consistently with that as I can in this coming year.
On November 5, a little over two weeks ago as of this writing, a man named Devin Kelley walked into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, and proceeded to murder almost half of the congregation. Of the 50 attendees of that church, he killed 24 of them. When this happened, I was worshiping with my own church in Denton, about five hours north, and the horror of the tragedy struck close to my heart. Not because I was afraid someone was going to appear at our door next, though that thought certainly did cross my mind, but because of the immense pain that such wickedness brings to God’s people. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints,” and certainly many precious lives were lost that day, even as they were welcomed into glory.
The response of those around me was the response that any Christian should have to such acts: to cry out to our Father in grief, in seeking justice, and in need of the strength and wisdom to move to action. Yet just as quickly as Christians moved to pray, the response that has been growing louder to that in popular culture came: sneering responses of “instead of just praying, why don’t you actually trying doing something.” “I’m sick of thoughts and prayers.” And so forth.
Life and death in Christ
The man who murdered those people took their lives, but he could never take them away from their Lord. And a Christian who goes to God in prayer is not sitting in inaction, but is in fact performing the most important and primary action anyone who truly believes in Jesus as Lord should follow: going to God for direction, for strength, and for a reminder of Who truly rules even over the tragedies, Who will achieve His great purpose even when and even through man’s wicked acts, because no one can escape the will and design of God. I wrote to my church in a request for prayer that day for FBC Sutherland Springs:
This is such a dark and wicked act, it is hard to think about how to react. Anger and sadness both seem appropriate. But I wanted to post this here and ask for prayer, and take a moment to talk about prayer in particular. I am not a pastor or elder, but I don’t believe I am out of line to say that prayer is one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of the Christian. The world sees “thoughts and prayers” and sneers at what they believe is inaction, but in fact we have taken one of the greatest actions a believer can take: going into the throne room of God and asking Him for intervention, for protection, for strength to act and wisdom to know how.
I hope we can all take time to pray for the people of this town, with 400 people living there and a church of 50 who just had almost half of those lost. Prayer is not inaction, it is a deep and meaningful act Christians take to call upon the name of the Lord and seek the good mercies He pours out upon His children even in times of turmoil and hardship.
Doing all things
One of the most misused verses in the Bible is Philippians 4:13. We’ve all seen it plastered on motivational posters, athletic t-shirts, and all kinds of places with the completely wrong understanding of what is being said. We tend to take it in a “Yeah, you can do it, you can achieve anything!” sort of way. Paul, however, is not using it in a “rah rah, let’s go team” sense. He is giving thanks to the church of Philippi for their prayers, because it was those prayers which cried out to God to give Paul strength to endure much suffering, and it was through those prayers that God ministered to the hearts of both the apostle and the church.
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.I can do all things through him who strengthens me.–Philippians 4:10-13
No matter what the world may believe about prayer, about the power of God shown in weakness, we the church must persist. I must persist, even as I am weak in my pursuit of holiness. We must persist in seeking after the Lord, because in that we are putting our hands to the plow and stirring up the soil. And when we are done praying, we must stand up, and go out into the world and serve, and love, and minister to the broken and downtrodden.
This is what frustrates me so much about the thoughts and behaviors that tend to typify American evangelicalism, because so much of it involves running from the world around us and hating it, not in a “I hate sin and how it destroys my life and therefore I will preach the gospel” way, but in a “I am more righteous than the world and don’t want to get my precious hands dirty touching it” way. The former brings a drive to serve and love your neighbor. The latter causes you to hate and hide from your neighbor.
I encourage you to hear the words of Charles Spurgeon, and cry out to God every day, whenever it comes into your mind, to strengthen the church, to feed His sheep, and to lead us to righteousness. I ask you, my brothers and sisters, to obey Jesus in making Him first and foremost in your minds as you seek for answers to tragedy in a dark and sinful world. And I encourage you: no matter what it is that you are facing, do not let yourself become discouraged, nor let yourself grow idle. Walk through all of life looking to the cross of Christ knowing that He is the one all things come from, and to whom all things point.
I have been thinking for a while now about what an episode in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation would look like. After all, there are so many things that can be discussed, and are being so discussed in churches, podcasts and blog posts around the world: the fives solas of the Reformation, the history of the church that led up to and resulted from the actions of the reformers, and the finer points of the theological debates that produced such massive change throughout Western civilization and the church worldwide.
I decided, however, to get down to what I see as the real “why” of the entire issue: What was so important that Martin Luther decided to pursue an open debate on the subjects that he did, 500 years ago? What motivated so many people to buck against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and pursue the Scriptures without layering them with Vatican magisterial tradition and teachings? It was the realization that peace with God lay not in the repetitious taking of the mass, not in plenary indulgences or penances performed, not in any deed a man can do, but in the perfectly atoning and transforming blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross of Calvary.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus,by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh,and since we have a great priest over the house of God,let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.–Hebrews 10:19-25
Hebrews 10 contrasts the constant working of the Israelite priests, with the finished work of Jesus. The high priest of Israel entered the Holy of Holies once a year to perform the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement, and even then before he entered he had to ensure that he had observed the sacrifices to cover his own sins, lest he fall down dead while in the holy place. But when Jesus died the veil separating that holy place in the temple from everything else tore. The types and shadows of the Old Testament that, as Hebrews says elsewhere, could not truly pay for a single sin, gave way to the weight of the real and final sacrifice of Christ Himself.
Because of that we can walk into that holy place ourselves–not simply wherever that place might have been on the planet, though the temple itself has long since fallen, but into the throne room of God. We can speak with him in prayer. We can trust in His providing hands to give perfect gifts to us in life. And we can go to Him with our sins, fears, failures and weaknesses, because Jesus did exactly what He intended to do:
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own,for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.–Hebrews 9:24-28
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg castle church, he wasn’t challenging the authority of the pope, at least not yet. He was acting on conviction of the words of Scripture, as he had been teaching through Galatians for the last year and had, as he had examined the Greek text, come to believe that certain traditions of the Roman Catholic Church did not seem to line up with them. Indeed, the reality was that the Catholic Church had set aside its duty to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in and out of season and disciple its people, and instead had become a world power that held great authority over many kingdoms in Europe.
Luther wanted to see debate happen on these theses, these specific statements based on the conviction put on his heart through the Word of God. He challenged the culture that was holding onto false, unbiblical ideas about the nature of our relationship with God, in this case over the issue of buying indulgences that can supposedly help free one from time spent suffering in purgatory before being able to go to heaven. That was only the beginning, of course, but that was the spark that set off the firestorm of the Reformation across Europe.
And it is in that same spirit today that, as Christians, I believe the Reformation must continue. The Reformation did not end when the last of the original reformers died, or when the pope stopped allowing the sale of indulgences.
The Reformation continues today, as we must still hold our cultures accountable to the testimony of the Scriptures. There is a great deal of confusion and deception within elements of the church: the Roman Catholic Church still teaches as official doctrine that you can have right standing before God by taking part in their sacraments. There are many counterfeits of the faith, such as Mormonism and the Watchtower Society’s Jehovah’s Witnesses, that attempt to use Christian lingo and Christian Scripture but use them to arrive at decidedly non-Christian ends. And there are entire denominations that have been taken over by secular humanism and have no gospel to preach, ultimately to shrivel up and die.
Being a Reformed Christian is not simply about believing in the truth of the doctrines of grace or understanding the meaning and importance of the five solas of the Reformation, though certainly those are important and foundational. Being a Reformed believer means you are living out and holding up the truths of Scripture against those inside and outside of the church that would draw us away and distract us from the mission to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the corners of the earth.
That spiritual battle continues, and we must persist exactly as the reformers did in calling for a return to the fundamental truths of Scripture as the ultimate rule of truth, and in pointing to the blood of Christ alone as the perfect and complete atonement for the sin of all who believe in His great Name.
I want to leave you with some recommended reading that I feel is very much on this theme. Firstly, is an article at the Gospel Coalition called “Thank God for Flawed Heroes.” It discusses some history about the reformers and the fact that God used very flawed and imperfect men to effect such a tremendous moment in the history of the church. I also want to link to an article at Desiring God, called “Prisoner Number 2491: The Inspiring Story of the First Nazi Martyr.” It is the story of Paul Schneider, a Christian pastor who stood firm in the heyday of Nazi rule over Germany and refused to bow to pressure to change his teaching of the Christian gospel. As a result he was arrested, horribly beaten, and eventually died in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Schneider’s story reminds of many important truths, but for just a moment I want to mention this one: suffering will come, in one form or another, into the life of every Christian. We know that is true because our Lord suffered, and if we are following after Him, we can very much count on the world and the enemy despising us and seeking to harm us. Schneider, however, did not respond with vitriol. He sought to live and love faithfully in line with the Word and with the example of Christ, and just like the reformers before him, he knew that eternity was so very close and so very much more important that this brief and troubled life.
So many today suffer in the same way. My friends, my brethren, let us take this day of remembering the 500th anniversary of the Reformation not simply as an occasion to think of the job as being done back then, but to think how we can continue to pursue the same goal the reformers had in our own day. Let us worship our King boldly and with all love. Let us serve and love our neighbors faithfully, and seek to see the best for our cities. And let us respond to hatred given by those who despise the word of the gospel of Jesus Christ with the same love and humility that Christ himself showed on the cross, trusting as the reformers did that God will accomplish His work perfectly as He has intended to since before the world was founded.
This sermon is a hard and harsh one, and understandably so. And this is one of Charles Spurgeon’s earlier sermons, so it is perhaps a bit “rougher around the edges” than some later ones, after he has spent years experiencing the grace of God amidst the peaks and valleys of life. But I read it because I find it immensely relevant, because God’s justice is a subject that must be discussed if the gospel is to have true meaning.
The justice of God is such a hard subject to talk about, and it is one that is unfortunately neglected in many places. The simple reason is that there are many who fancy themselves teachers of the flock who believe, for one reason or another, that to speak at length on the holiness of God and His wrath against sin somehow dishonors the work and life of Jesus, or maims the testimony of God’s love. But I want to take a few moments here and refute that idea, and speak to why it is just as important to do exactly what Brother Spurgeon here has done and speak boldly to the truth of the coming punishment for sin.
Firstly, because it is a reminder that though tragedy continues to infect our world, it is not so simple to look at death in any form or fashion today and say “This right here, this is God’s punishment for sin.” Though death came into the world through sin and was defeated at the cross along with sin, tragic death is a reality of life in this sinful world and not something you can necessarily use to draw a straight line from Sin A to Death B.
It was a little over a year ago that a man shot up a nightclub in Orlando, and I wrote a few blog posts discussing issues related to that. I also read a sermon based on a text that was read in this sermon, Luke 13:1-5:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Now let’s be clear: Jesus is not saying that if you repent, you will not die. He is calling the hearers to prepare their hearts lest they experience their own tragedy, and denying the superstition of the day that said that one could clearly see who had sinned, by what ill befell them. Jesus called His disciples to serve the brokenhearted, the sick and needy, the widows and orphans. He commanded them to lift up the ones who were laid low, and to make themselves low to serve the ones who desperately needed it most.
All of that is tied in to the fact that God is a God of justice, just as much as He is a God of mercy. He is a God of wrath against sin, as much as He truly is love. And all of you who feel the deep pain of injustice in our world, I would point you to this truth: firstly, because there is absolutely hope of justice. Secondly, because if you seek that justice apart from the truth of God, then all will you do is create a new injustice in place of the old, one stamped with your image and one that will be burned up on the day of judgment as a structure built out of straw and twine. And finally, because if you cannot right an injustice in your time but must endure, you can endure knowing that perfect justice will be done on the Day of Judgment.
Charles Spurgeon was a man who despised the injustices of his day and preached boldly against them. Indeed, this sermon was recommended to me by someone as a sermon that upset Southern slave owners, perhaps because they felt the barbs of conviction pricking very deeply. Of slavery Spurgeon once said,
By what means think you were the fetters riveted on the wrist of our friend who sits there, a man like ourselves, though of a black skin? It is the Church of Christ that keeps his brethren under bondage; if it were not for that Church, the system of slavery would go back to the hell from which it sprung…But what does the slaveholder say when you tell him that to hold our fellow creatures in bondage is a sin, and a damnable one, inconsistent with grace? He replies, “I do not believe your slanders; look at the Bishop of So-and-so, or the minister of such-and-such place, is he not a good man, and does not he whine out ‘Cursed be Canaan?’ Does not he quote Philemon and Onesimus? Does he not go and talk Bible, and tell his slaves that they ought to feel very grateful for being his slaves, for God Almighty made them on purpose that they might enjoy the rare privilege of being cowhided by a Christian master? Don’t tell me,” he says, “if the thing were wrong, it would not have the Church on its side.” And so Christ’s free Church, bought with his blood, must bear the shame of cursing Africa, and keeping her sons in bondage.
If you’ve listened to this podcast for more than thirty seconds, you know Spurgeon preached boldly and unapologetically against the evils of sin in his day and for repentence and faith in the grace of Jesus Christ. My brothers and sisters, we must do the same. We must be balanced and biblical in our judgments, we must model mercy and pour out love on those who hate us, but we must remember that love and truth are equal partners in the worship of the One True God. Therefore we must preach the truth about the evils of our time, not because they win us political points (because often they won’t), not because we love to shame our neighbors (because apart from the grace of God we join in that shame), but because we love God and we love our neighbors, and we desire most deeply to see them know Christ and live.
Next episode: a special observance of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
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I want to say thank you to everyone who has had kind words and continued prayers for me as I have been working through the divorce and all of the personal fallout that has been involved. I want to especially thank Alex Humphrey of The Rugged Marriage and his wife Rachel, and I definitely recommend subscribing to their podcast if you don’t already. They were a tremendous encouragement to me, along with many others in my church and around me who have helped counsel me through this.
I debated exactly how I wanted to deal with the ongoing podcast, and I decided I want to just jump back into it with both feet. I have a few reasons: firstly, as I have said before, this exercise is as much a devotional for me as it is a desire to minister the gospel to others, and it does my heart good to be sitting under the teaching of a man like Charles Spurgeon in this manner, who himself was under a great deal of weight on his heart.
Secondly, I want to have my say, for whatever it’s worth, about what I see happening in the world and the way others are talking about it. I invite dialogue, although I do require good behavior. I will be saying things here that many will disagree with. If you can disagree with me respectfully, I will publish and engage with your comments as best I can. If you can’t engage with someone who disagrees with you without treating them as subhuman, I would suggest not wasting your time here. Not because I hate you, but because if even the most fundamental foundation needed for discussion is absent and all you can do is snark and meme your way through a rant, you and I will not be getting very far.
Loving your neighbor, loving your enemy
I want to point out something very important about the concept of loving your neighbor, and to do that I want to look to Scripture:
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”–Luke 10:25-37
The first thing I want to point out about this: this is a command. I’m not exactly breaking new exegetical ground here, but it is common for people to handle moral issues in the context of “Well, I may do X, but that guy, he’s a real jerk!” We do that with everyone from our literal neighbors to people in the public eye we will probably never meet. So, I want to do exactly what Charles Spurgeon did here: I want everyone to take this command and say to everyone, it is pointing squarely at you. It points at me and you, reader, and each one of us will have to stand before God and account for our obedience to it.
Yet it seems that the primary emotion being demonstrated by many right now is fear, with a healthy backing of anger. You have fearful liberals and fearful conservatives, fearful radical progressives and fearful alt-rightists who are so convinced that the other is going to destroy them and everything they hold dear. There is no love for God or for neighbor in their thinking, but there is the thought that “As soon as the other guy is taken down a peg, or removed, or whatever, then the world will be sunshine and butterflies, the poor will have food and the oppressed will be free.”
I have news for you, my friends. Fear and love are enemies. “Perfect love casts out fear.” And if you are a Christian and your reaction to another person who is outside of your camp is fear and anger, if it’s looking for a way to build a compound to hide in rather than to understand and engage with your neighbor, to serve their needs and love them where they are, then I have to put it to you that you are disobeying Jesus, and you need to repent and adjust your heart. I have seen Christians behaving absolutely shamefully towards other Christians–and if your reaction to these words is defensiveness or finger-pointing then I guarantee that yes, I am talking about you.
But there’s no one I’m harder on in this regard than myself. I am always looking to hold my thoughts and actions against the standard of righteousness here, and I am wanting. Yet I do not despair, for two reasons: firstly, because I know that Christ’s sacrifice is enough to cover every sin I have, and that His righteousness will be mine on that day of judgment; and secondly, because I know that God is working in my life through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit to change me, bit by bit, into the image of Christ. I want that, I want to represent Him in love and peace and joy through all things. My friends, I pray that for each of you, you will know the desire for holiness in God in that simultaneous ache of longing and satisfaction of having Jesus.
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I want to again thank all of you who have been patient through this last hiatus, and especially for those of you close to me who have been actively praying for and ministering to me during this time. This was not a “I’m just really busy” hiatus. I mentioned in the last episode that there was some turmoil ongoing, and unfortunately it ended in the worst possible way: my wife and I are no longer married. I have no intention of divulging more information than that, but to answer the questions I know many of you concerned will have: yes, this is the end of a process that involved church elders and it is something that was not entered into lightly in any way. I will not say more than that, out of respect for privacy. Those of you who do know us, I appreciate your constant prayers and the loving support that you all have shared through this.
I’ve waited to continue this podcast and blog until after everything was officially finalized. I plan to move forward continuing to trust God in my darkest times, continuing to pray for Jessica, and continuing to rely on the support of His people. I am particularly grateful for the godly men and women who have gathered around me to minister to me through all this.
The fact is that this has been a deeply tragic event for me, and I have struggled with understanding it and with my own emotions, both in trying to figure out exactly how I should feel and think, as well as finding constructive ways to work through my deeper feelings. I have been hurt down to my deepest parts, and I have lost my partner. The pain I have had to endure, the sadness and anger, has been of a kind I can scarcely hope to describe meaningfully.
But as Paul said in 1 Thessalonians, I do not grieve as a person who has no hope. Through all of this, God has held me steady and been true to His promise to provide a way of escape from the temptation to sin. I picked this sermon because the chapter it is from, Lamentations 3, was a strength to me in this dark time. It is a reminder that even though God ordains the darkness, it ultimately serves to the purpose of greater joy when the light comes.
I won’t say that the light has reached me yet, at least in this matter. I will say that God is good, and God is gracious, and I will trust Him with each new step in life. To my listeners who have similar struggles, I would say to you: Do the same. Trust in the goodness and mercy of God.
I have had a few people talk with me about this that clearly expected me to have become embittered towards Jessica in particular, and towards the institution or concept of marriage in general. But I have no intention of letting a root of bitterness grow down into my heart towards either, for several reasons: Firstly, because that would be an incredibly selfish position to take, that would make my marriage all about what I want and what I get out of it, rather than glorify God or honor my wife even in the aftermath of all this; secondly, because I am aware of the ways in which my own sinfulness has contributed to this regardless of other circumstances and such an attitude would be completely unrepentant and un-Christian on my part; and thirdly, because I have not become a different person as a result of this. I still desire to represent Jesus with the way I live and work and speak. I still want to grow in love, and in the grace and knowledge of God–even more now, I would say. I still want to put my sin to death.
On a purely personal level…this has been the most tragic time I’ve walked through in my life. I am deeply grateful to those who have gathered around me during this time, to hold me up in my weakness, to remind me of my true strength in Jesus, and to pour out love onto one who was feeling deeply unloved. But this has been the darkest moment of my life, and I have had to continually turn to prayer and to the strength of my brothers and sisters to help me deal with the enormous weight I have felt upon my shoulders. I have been wrestling day by day with the myriad ways I have sinned and contributed, and having to drag it to the foot of the cross each time. There has been no time for self-pity.
All of this may seem very vague in a sense to many, and honestly it should. Those who need to know more details of my and Jessica’s personal lives know them. To the rest of the world, I would simply ask for prayer. I intend to press forward into Jesus regardless of anything else.
To those listening who are facing darkness, for whom hard times come hard and fast, and who are feeling the weight of despair on their shoulders: I want to urge you, do not hesitate. Do not hide in the dark, because there you will only find more of what afflicts you. Turn to Christ, and run to Him. Make yourself and your struggles known to His people, to those who can love you and gather close to minister to you in those times. The reason the Scriptures are so full of good texts to apply to suffering is because suffering is something that all humans have in common as long as we live in this world. Trust the goodness of God even in your darkest times, and do not hide your struggles. Drag them to the light! Leave them at the foot of the cross, and do it every day! Trust to the renewed grace of God every morning, and never believe that God is tired of you, or that His church has better things to do. This is what it is for: to weep with those who are weeping, and rejoice with those who are rejoicing. We are called simply to trust Him in all things, and that is all I can do in this time of deep pain.