Archive for the 'Sound Words' Category

Summer Vacation Meditation

Perhaps this summer finds you and your family loading up the car and driving off in search of pristine scenery and family memories. As you travel across our beautiful land, many striking sights meet your eye: forested hills, sandy beaches, vast plains, rugged mountains, deep canyons, and pounding surf. What do you see when you look at these beautiful sights?

God’s splendor in creation should provoke our worship.

Worship isn’t just something that happens for an hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday morning; it is giving God the honor and glory due him. It is recognizing who he is and what he has done. David’s meditation on God’s greatness and goodness in Psalm 8 is a great pattern for our thoughts. As we view God’s creation, we can’t help but feel very small. Yet God cares for us in an extremely involved and loving way! Such undeserved kindness!

God’s spectacular universe demonstrates his power and “God-ness” (Rom 1:20). The unrelenting power of the ocean, the silent immensity of the atmosphere, the undisturbed tranquility of mountain peaks and ocean trenches make it very clear that we are out of our league. Man is easily crushed, lost, exhausted, or even killed in his attempts to explore God’s vast creation. Only an omnipotent God could create and maintain such a universe!

God has created a beautiful world that, although marred by sin’s curse and man’s sinfulness, still causes the regenerate heart to resonate with the beauty of God’s greatness. A Christian should be able to appreciate the beauty of creation far beyond any scientist, astronomer, or geologist simply because we understand the greater significance of creation. It does not exist “just because”; it exists because God created it for his pleasure and to accomplish his will (Rom 11:36).

Many of our hymns echo this truth. Listen to these words penned by George W. Robinson in 1876 from the hymn “I Am His and He Is Mine.”

Heav’n above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green!
Something lives in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen;
Birds with gladder songs o’erflow,
Flowers with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know,
I am His, and He is mine.

Allow your summer vacation to be a time of worship as you meditate on our great God!

July 2010

Forgiving as We Have Been Forgiven

From a Roman prison cell Paul wrote a short letter to be hand delivered to a Christian brother. The recipient was Philemon, and the deliverer was his runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul could refer to Onesimus as “my child. . . whose father I became in my imprisonment” (v. 10) because this slave became a child of God by faith. As Paul discipled this new believer, his heart was knit to that of Onesimus. This young believer was of great encouragement and service to Paul, but Paul knew that Onesimus needed to be returned to and reconciled with Philemon. On his behalf, Paul writes to Philemon to receive back on brotherly terms this one who had run away.

While it is easy to harbor a hurt and resentment, it is our duty, our “glory to overlook an offense” (Prov 19:11). If we withhold forgiveness, we put a basket over our light. Nothing causes our testimony to shine brighter than when we forgive for Christ’s sake. Onesimus had an opportunity to show obedience to the Lord by returning to the one he robbed by running away. Philemon had an opportunity to show the forgiveness of the Lord. Paul had an opportunity to lead both men to be more Christ-like.

Onesimus had not a farthing to restore him to Philemon. Philemon could not begin to pay Paul for the spiritual debt he owed him. Paul could very easily have pressured Philemon to do him a favor, but instead he tenderly leads Philemon to the high principle of forgiving one who owed him so much.

It could be said of all of us that we have a debt that we could not pay. No one is more in debt than a sinner is to God for sending Jesus to die in our place. Like Onesimus, we were in no position to contribute anything to change our status before God. Whether someone has defrauded you or maligned you, you are not owed as much as you owe your gracious God for salvation.

Our heavenly Father, like the loving father in the story of the prodigal son, gives total, glorious forgiveness. We have no right to give anything less than complete forgiveness. Paul instructed the church at Colossae, “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13). The standard we are to live by is very high and does not change. We cannot seek what we are not willing first to give (Matt 6:14).

When we show mercy we promote unity. When we forgive beyond what is commonly seen in the world, forgiving as often as someone wrongs us (Matt 18:21), then we show we value true fellowship more than anything and want the focus to be on Christ.

Instead of demanding justice or compensation, the Christian practices compassion in light of the great grace shown to us while a sinner with nothing to offer.

To refuse to forgive someone who has wronged you is to declare that you are not forgiven and changed by God, or else that you have been forgiven your sins by God, but are asking for chastening for not obeying the commandment of God. But to forgive as Christ forgave you is to give a clear testimony to the One who redeemed you.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:32).

April/May 2010

Thoughtful Wonder

One of the most rewarding spiritual exercises I’ve engaged in during the last several years is the writing of hymn texts. Some of them have been useful to local churches, by God’s grace. Many others have never been released from the prison of my hard drive and are in need of serious rehabilitation. A few that should have been locked up in maximum security have managed to escape, much to my embarrassment. At any rate, it’s tiring and sometimes frustrating work searching for just the right words and rhythms and rhymes. A misstep can leave you sounding like Mother Goose—and not in a good way! Nevertheless, it’s incredibly rewarding in that it has deepened my understanding of worship. By God’s grace, the process encourages an intense study of biblical themes, what Joe Tyrpak describes as “meditation on steroids.” It has often revealed to me two things that are often missing from our worship, or at least from mine: thought and wonder. Both are essential.

First, worship should incorporate thought. It is not a brainless thing. Indeed, where there is no thought, there is no worship, for our Lord commands us to love Him with all our minds (Matt 22:37). Though I’ve heard a number of church growth gurus commend the power of music to “bypass the intellect and speak directly to the heart,” that’s not at all what we’re after when we offer praise to God. Certainly we want to worship with our emotions and wills, as well, but we do so by way of the mind, not by avoiding it. Notice how the Psalms often encourage this sort of thoughtful worship by calling for praise and then listing the reasons why it is appropriate: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Ps 106:1) So when we’re listening to Scripture or sermons or testimonies, we should be thinking. When we’re praying, we should be thinking. When we’re singing, we should be thinking: “Why does the text use that word? What is the Scripture behind that idea?” Our worship would be greatly enhanced by what the Bible calls meditation (Ps 1:2, et al)—and what everyone else calls thought.

(This is for free: If one thing missing from our worship is thought, when faced with a near comatose congregation, worship leaders would be wise to encourage thoughtful engagement, not to make a joke or call for vigorous handshaking to liven things up! Encourage brain waves, don’t prohibit them!)

Second, worship should incorporate wonder. To say that worship should engage the mind must not be construed to mean that we worship like scientists who have God figured out. We do not, I assure you. Instead, our worship must be filled with humble amazement; with awe; with the sense that the Savior and salvation of which we’re singing is amazing and thrilling. It’s what the psalmist confessed when he said that truth about God “is too wonderful for me…I cannot attain it” (Ps 139:6). It’s acknowledging that God’s graces can’t be adequately told (Ps 40:5) and that His ways are beyond our understanding (Rom 11:33). It’s recognizing that while we’re coming to know God’s love, it is actually beyond our knowledge (Eph 3:19)—what we mean when we sing of Christ’s death that we “scarce can take it in.”

What would thoughtful, wonder-filled worship look like? Joy—singing and praying that is bursting with gladness! Or tears—amazement and gratitude that brings a lump to your throat, a crack to your voice, or tears to your eyes. Or if you’re not as emotionally expressive as I am (and that will be many of you, which is fine), silent reflection—a private but strong amazement at what you’re hearing or reading or singing. The main thing I’m describing is just engagement—attentiveness rather than bored and habitual mumbling of familiar rhymes and tunes.

I suggest that you try writing a hymn text. It will be good for you, even if it’s a private venture. But even if you don’t take me up on that, I urge you to worship our Lord with thought and wonder. He deserves no less.

January 2010

Let There Be Light!

Categorical rejection often meets the proclamation of the gospel. Over time, this kind of opposition can breed discouragement. Who hasn’t walked away from a slammed door or brusque refusal and wondered why it seems nobody wants to listen?

In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul addresses this very problem by pointing out the obvious: God’s mercy in the gospel has reached us! Remembering we are “Exhibit A” of the gospel’s power encourages us not to give up (v. 1).

However, a very real dilemma faces us: should we change our message or our tactics? Many ministries have done this very thing in the vain attempt to avoid the world’s rejection. Paul’s answer could not be stronger. We refuse to deceive our hearers or distort our message. Instead, we clearly and precisely articulate the gospel (v. 2).

But why do unbelievers reject the gospel? Why doesn’t the gospel seem to “work” sometimes? Paul makes clear that the gospel is rejected because of the hearer, not on account of the message or the messenger. The glorious gospel is only hidden to the lost (v. 3). They do not see the life-changing truth of the gospel because they are blind (v. 4)! Imagine leading a blind friend to the rim of the Grand Canyon with your hands over their eyes. When you reach the lookout point, you pull away your hands in a grand flourish and ask them what they think of the canyon’s immense scope and magnificent colors. They, like the unbeliever, cannot appreciate the glory and splendor before them. We can describe it all we want, but what we need is supernatural intervention!

We proclaim the gospel as we praise the glory of Jesus Christ, eternal God who took on humanity, lived a perfect life, and died in our place (v. 5). But our words do not affect the spiritual blindness of a lost person. They cannot see Jesus of Nazareth for anything more than a teacher, a good man, or a prophet.

But when God in his grace sweeps the scales from those blind eyes, the overwhelming brightness of God’s glory dawns on that soul. This marvelous act of God rivals the first moment of human timekeeping when God’s voice thundered, “Let there be light!” Just as light flooded the universe at God’s command (Gen 1:3), so God’s gracious salvation causes the blazing glory of Jesus Christ to dawn on the darkened and unbelieving heart (v. 6).

When we are discouraged by rejection of the gospel, we must remember that we too, once rejected the lordship of Jesus Christ. We strained to no avail to see him with our blind eyes, but when God commanded, “Let there be light,” we basked in the light of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

December 2009

Speaking the Truth in Love

Who among us has never had a situation where you confronted a person about sin, and did so in a firm but caring way, only to have the individual accuse you of being harsh and uncaring? Certainly there will be times when dealing with sin in a biblical manner will set us up for an accusation of being cruel. Although such a charge will sting, we are to be committed to ministry with the mind and manner of Christ.

As fundamentalists we seek to have ministries that speak “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” We remain vigilant against all “deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:14) that prey on undiscerning believers. But not only are we to teach and preach the truth, we are to do so “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15).

The two words “in love” are to be a discipline which impacts all ministry. I say discipline because it is one of those “simple but not easy” matters in Christian work. Truth is to be presented in a manner marked by Christ’s love and compassion. Anything less is disobedience.

The truth often gets watered down by new evangelicals and charismatics who emphasize love. Fundamentalists sometimes are thought to be heavy on truth but light on love. We have a responsibility to present the gospel and train up believers with truth and love. “In love” is not an option; it is clearly a command. All our communication should be stamped by Christ-like compassion.

The fact that Jesus was a gentle Shepherd should not be misconstrued to mean He was soft on sin. Christ spoke some very stern words and yet everything He taught was in keeping with His character. Elders, never be “domineering over those in your charge” (1 Pet 5:3), but be known for your gentle manner (1 Tim 3:3). Love is not canceled out by truth. Truth is to be declared in perfect conformity with true love. Christ’s love is to be the standard for even the strongest message you preach against sin or compromise.

Preachers need to examine themselves daily in this regard. None of us has license to say what we want in any way we want. Apologetics or preaching done in unloving manner are a detriment. Even when it is necessary to “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13), we are duty bound to correct in a manner that testifies to the love of Christ. With truth we at times have to correct, but in love we do so in a way that is not censorious.

Biblical separatists are known for their vigilance, ready to defend God’s Word. May we also be known for our tenderheartedness (Eph 4:32), willing to show God’s love. This is one of the best ways to show that we are under control—the Spirit’s control. Acting in the love of Christ is the best way to show loyalty to Christ.

October/November 2009

A Mess May Mean Success!

The world in which we live is a mess. Lives are dominated by sinful habits. People live with little if any restraint, and it shows in their behavior, their dress, and their language. Sinners are messy. Indeed, even when sinners come to Christ, they bring their messy baggage with them. Thus, ministry that engages sinners is messy. What do I mean?

First, our churches must aim to reach the lost where they are.
I’ve been prone in the past to judge the effectiveness of a church by the condition of its attendees. If the people seemed to “have it all together” (e.g. they dressed up, had high standards, knew the Scriptures, etc.), I assumed the church was strong and effective. On the other hand, if the people had “issues” (e.g. they dressed immodestly or informally, were biblically illiterate, smelled of smoke, etc.), I assumed that the church was weak and ineffective.

The truth is, my means of measuring a church’s effectiveness was simplistic, and perhaps downright backwards! If, for example, a church is filled only with people who “fit in” and have no problems (wink, wink), it may mean that they haven’t seen any conversions for many years! And if a church has down-and-outers, it may mean that they’re reaching their community for Christ—and they’re reaching lost people, not just families looking for strong churches! So a “mess” may mean “success”!

Think of it this way: a house that is perfectly clean is probably a house in which no babies reside. And a house strewn with toys and smelling of soiled diapers—as uncomfortable as it may be—is probably a house where there is new life! And that’s great! To put it the way Proverbs 14:4 does, “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” Cleanliness and productivity are often incompatible. Ministry is messy!

Second, our churches must aim at regeneration, not mere reformation.
Because people’s “issues” make us uncomfortable, it may be tempting to press newcomers about issues like proper attire, hair length, smoking, and the like. Yet, we need to be careful when addressing these kinds of issues. We may needlessly offend them, whether saved or lost. Worse, we may communicate to them that Christianity is about “looking the part,” not changing from the inside out by the grace of God extended through the cross of Christ. John Owen addresses the danger of mere reformation in chapter 8 of his classic book The Mortification of Sin. I commend it to you. In short, he warns that if we succeed at getting outward change we may soothe a smarting conscience illegitimately and create a whitewashed sepulcher! Or, on the other hand, if the person tries and fails to change outside of Christ’s saving power, we may create hopelessness and cause them to doubt the gospel’s power.

Finally, we must get accustomed to the mess of ministry rather than turning up our nose at it.
We mustn’t be more “righteous” than Christ (I speak as a fool). Jesus came not to call the (apparently) righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). So He ate with publicans. So He ministered to prostitutes and adulteresses. So He—to His eternal praise and our eternal salvation!—“received sinners” (Luke 15:2). Mere improvement of morals is worse than useless; it’s harmful!

Bottom line: Don’t help damn people through your efforts to improve them! They don’t need to be more respectable in their sinful condition—though such respectability may keep Christians from feeling squeamish. They need the gospel. They need to be born again. They need heart change that results in habit change, as do those of us who have been saved for decades.

Ministry is messy, at least if it’s productive. May our churches be hospitals for the spiritually sick, and may they be messy for the glory of God!

September 2009

Is God Still Working?

There is a shocking lack of confidence in the Gospel of Jesus Christ today. To borrow a phrase from Romans 1:16, it seems that many are “ashamed” of it, or at least doubtful as to whether it is indeed the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” This Gospel doubting can be seen in at least two ways.

Some doubt the Gospel and therefore supplement or replace it.
There is no question that the church is embarrassingly pragmatic in our day. Pragmatism is essentially the idea that success justifies strategy—that the end justifies the means. “If it works, do it,” we are told. Thus, in the name of evangelism, we see all sorts of circus-like shenanigans: “preaching” that apes foul-mouthed stand-up comics, shockingly explicit “outreach” to the pornography industry, goldfish-swallowing youth pastors, bait-and-switch outreach efforts, felt-needs preaching, and the like. While the Gospel may be “snuck in” to such efforts, they actually reveal a sad lack of confidence in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Such “evangelists” act as though the Gospel is an impotent thing—a hard sell that has to ride the coattails of more attractive products, not unlike the add-ons politicians tie to bills in order to pass unpopular measures using measures with broad support. But make no mistake—the tacky salesmanship that exists both inside and outside of fundamentalism betrays a lack of confidence in the unadulterated, unadorned Gospel.

Some doubt the Gospel and therefore expect no conversions.
Not all Gospel doubting is as crass as the used-car-salesman tactics listed above. Some have a more respectable shame of the Gospel, but it is a tragic doubt nonetheless. Some are convinced that God is finished, that the conversions we read of in the New Testament and throughout church history are relics of another time, evidences of more receptive hearers and more empowered churches. We shouldn’t expect solid churches to grow, we hear. In fact, our declining numbers are justified and almost celebrated as badges of our faithfulness—as though all growing churches must be doing something wrong.

I disagree with the second concept as vehemently as I disagree with the first. To quote a Christmas hymn, “God is not dead, nor does He sleep.” He’s still working. His Spirit is still convicting, illuminating, drawing, regenerating. The Gospel is still the power of God for salvation. The Word is still alive, and powerful, and heart-rending. And thus, I expect to see it work. I pray expectantly. I preach expectantly. And God is saving people—like the deacon who will preach in our prayer meeting in a few hours, like the drug addict whose life has been turned upside down in recent months, like the single mom who has turned from religion to Christ and been eternally changed; like the multitudes that have come to Christ in recent months at Grace Church of Mentor—not because the church is perfect, and not because the church is compromising, but because the Gospel is mighty and they’re unleashing it to one sinner at a time.

One of my favorite hymns about the power of the Gospel is Isaac Watts’ stirring “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place.” After rejoicing in salvation blessings and marveling at God’s including us in them, the hymn ends with a prayer for the Lord to use His victorious Word to save souls, fill His churches, and glorify Himself.

Pity the nations, O our God!
Constrain the earth to come;
Send Thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.

We long to see Thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May with one voice and heart and soul
Sing Thy redeeming grace.

We mustn’t be ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We mustn’t sell it, as though it’s on a discount rack. And we mustn’t shelve it, as though it’s no longer useful. The Gospel is as powerful as ever! God is as alive as ever! Let’s pray and preach like we believe it, by God’s grace.

August 2009


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