The Mortification of Sin by Looking to Jesus

Here’s another talk I gave recently if you’d like to hear me discuss my take on the doctrine of sanctification. What role does the Law play in sanctification? How do we put sin to death? How do we become more holy?  Listen and you’ll hear what I believe to be the Bible’s answer:


Light Before Sun, Idea Before Incarnation

In an essay on Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton picks up an interesting line of thought. He notes the fact that the Book of Genesis records the creation of light occurring before the creation of the sun (Gen. 1:3-19).

To many modern people it would sound like saying that foliage existed before the first leaf; it would sound like saying that childhood existed before a baby was born. The idea is, as I have said, alien to most modern thought, and like so many other ideas which are alien to most modern thought, it is a very subtle and very sound idea.

Chesterton then delivers this sound meditation on the creation narrative:

Whatever be the meaning of the passage in the actual primeval poem, there is a very real metaphysical meaning in the idea that light existed before the sun and stars. It is not barbaric; it is rather Platonic. The idea existed before any of the machinery which made manifest the idea. Justice existed when there was no need of judges, and mercy existed before any man was oppressed.

Like Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker, he relates the idea to literature:

The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists, as a mother can love the unborn child. In creative art the essence of a book exists before the book or before even the details or main features of the book; the author enjoys it and lives in it with a kind of prophetic rapture. He wishes to write a comic story before he has thought of a single comic incident. He desires to write a sad story before he has thought of anything sad. He knows the atmosphere before he knows anything. There is a low priggish maxim sometimes uttered by men so frivolous as to take humour seriously – a maxim that a man should not laugh at his own jokes. But the great artist not only laughs at his own jokes; he laughs at his own jokes before he has made them.

He continues,

The last page comes before the first; before his romance has begun, he knows that it has ended well. He sees the wedding before the wooing; he sees the death before the dual. But most of all he sees the colour and character of the whole story prior to any possible events in it.

(G.K. Chesterton on The Pickwick Papers, from In Defense of Sanity, pp. 127-128)

I do not know if there is a better illustration for the foreknowledge of God than the mind of the writer, the mind of the maker. I saw an interview with J.K. Rowling a while back in which she discussed how she first created the Harry Potter character. As she rode in a train, he essentially just appeared in her imagination, and she knew his destiny right away. C.S. Lewis wrote of his recurring vision of a fawn with an umbrella carrying parcels in the snow. They knew their own characters before they ever set pen to paper. God did too.

  • For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…(Rom. 8:29).

Or as one translation puts it:

  • For those on whom he set his heart beforehand, he did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son.

Snippets: Who Shall Separate Us From the Love of Christ?

I offer my poetic paraphrase and expansion of Romans 8:35-39:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Fiery trials may come, the walls around us crush us in,
But he is in the fire, and provides our sweet support.
We may have no bread, and be stripped of all our clothes,
But he is the bread of life, and robes us in his righteousness.
We may be on the edge of death, the sword pointed in our back,
But he has dulled the edge, our shield has taken the blow.
We may be led as sheep to the slaughter,
But as the Lamb is a Lion, so we conquer.

For his love and power prevail,
And his love is set on us.

For the Word and experience has proved
That death is gain,
That to live is Christ,
That demons bow,
That potentates hold no sway,
That dynamite is weak,
That He is Lord of the present,
And will be ever so,

That no god in the heavens,
Or demon in hell,
Nor anything on the earth,
Can separate us from the love of God in Christ our Lord.

Justification: You are Washed, You are Welcome

Romans 8:30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

I came across this quote during my sermon preparation this week. John Stott references these words of Marcus Loane in his commentary on Romans. The quote eloquently summarizes the importance, and effect, of the active obedience of Christ in our justification. Christ’s passive obedience, his cross-work, procures forgiveness for our sins. His active obedience in positively keeping, and fulfilling, the law of God, ensures our complete acceptance as those counted as positively righteous before the Father through faith in Christ:

The voice that spells forgiveness will say: ‘You may go: you have been left off the penalty which your sin deserves.’ But the verdict which means acceptance will say: ‘You may come; you are welcome to all my love and presence.’

You could paraphrase this a number of ways, here’s my best shot at it, taking forgiveness and acceptance as the flip sides of the coin of justification:

  • Forgiveness says, ‘Go and sin no more.’ Acceptance says, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’
  • Forgiveness says, ‘Go, your sins are forgiven.’ Acceptance says, ‘draw near with confidence.’
  • Forgiveness says, ‘You are washed.’ Acceptance says, ‘You are welcome.’
  • Forgiveness says, ‘You are cleansed by his blood.’ Acceptance says, ‘You are counted as righteous.’
  • The forgiven one says, ‘Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood, sealed my pardon with his blood. Hallelujah! What a Savior!’ The accepted one says, ‘Bold I approach th’ eternal throne, and claim the crown through Christ my own. Amazing love!’

Those on whom He set his Heart Beforehand

Charles Williams‘ paraphrase of Romans 8:29 –

For those on whom he set his heart beforehand he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son…

  • Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”


Getting your head into the heavens

All day I have been thinking about Romans 8:29-30. I will be preaching on the passage this coming Sunday. I am engaged in an inner-dialogue/debate about how many sermons I will preach on these two verses. Like any Reformed expositor, everything that is in me wants to preach on every link in the ‘golden chain.’ But there is a problem. I’m not so sure I understand foreknowledge, and the commentaries have not been especially helpful so far.

My basic policy is that if I’m not comfortable saying I understand the basic meaning of a passage or term, then I simply won’t preach on it. But that doesn’t change the fact that it drives me bonkers not to understand the term or passage. And so, I remind myself of a quote I know by heart from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

I still want to understand precisely what foreknowledge is. But I also want to remember that God does not call me to be all-knowing. He would rather me be in awe of him.

He Presents Nothing but the Flowers (Prayer)

This quote relates to my recent post, God Fixes Our Prayers On the Way Up:

Christ’s prayer takes away the sins of our prayers. As a child, says Ambrose, that is willing to present his father with a posy, goes into the garden, and there gathers some flowers and some weeds together, but coming to his mother, she picks out the weeds and binds the flowers, and so it is presented to the father: thus when we have put up our prayers, Christ comes, and picks away the weeds, the sin our our prayer, and presents nothing but flowers to His Father, which are a sweet-smelling savour.

-Thomas Watson, All Things for Good, p. 23

All Things for Good?

I often marvel at creation. I am amazed that I am privileged to be a part of this part of the tilt-a-whirl that we call Earth. I’ve seen a beautiful bride, who I in no way deserved to marry, walking down the aisle with her eyes on me of all people. I’ve seen the birth of two beautiful daughters. I’ve seen God’s wonders in my own life and the lives of others around me. And I’ve seen darkness. I’ve seen friends suffer. I’ve felt my own pain.

In the past month and a half I have seen my father’s last remaining brother die. We have had a miscarriage. My youngest daughter has broken her arm. And a dear, dear friend (and congregant) is in the hospital with double pneumonia.

All the while I have been preaching through Romans 8. And, lo and behold, I find myself in verse 28:

  • Romans 8:28 ¶ And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

I had a rough day at work today. That rough day was capped off by my fifth straight day visiting the hospital. My friend’s pneumonia has not gotten better. My soul aches for her. I usually leave hospitals finding myself encouraged by the faith of those whom I visit. But tonight was tough.

Then I drove home. I walked in the door and looked at my beautiful children, one with a full length arm cast. They were watching the movie Madeline. I came home just in time to hear Louis Armstrong singing,

I see trees of green,
red roses too.
I see them bloom,
for me and you.
And I think to myself,
what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue,
And clouds of white.
The bright blessed day,
The dark sacred night.
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.

And I thought to myself, ‘Is it really?’

Like all other Americans, I watched in horror as the pictures came in from Oklahoma just days ago. I’ve read stories in the past week about Gosnell’s murder-mill, about a man who tricked his girlfriend into taking a pill that would kill their unborn child, and about the precious lives of children lost in Oklahoma. And I ask myself, ‘Is it really wonderful?’

It is, and it’s not.

That’s the only conclusion one can come to. We do see tress of green and red roses too. We do see them bloom for me and for you. But we also see dead trees and shriveled roses. We see thorns and briars. We see cancer and calamity. Over the same ocean we see both hurricanes and sunsets. And each, the good and the bad, leaves its own distinct impression upon the soul.

In the extreme, we have billionaires living lives of posh luxury and children dying of hunger in the Sudan. In the mundane, in our normal experience, we have good days and bad days. We have wonderful days and terrible days. This world, and our lives are a mass of contradictions – birth and death, childhood and adulthood, love and loss, sunshine and storms, wrath and grace.  Our lives are wonderful and our lives are terrible.

But that’s not only the story of our lives, it is the story of Jesus Christ. We find our own story in his. In his life we see hunger, thorns, nails, the spear and the cross. But then there’s that pesky empty tomb. There’s him ascending into heaven with the promise, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ We see pain and death, we see resurrection in glory.

I tire of the endless platitudes – ‘it’ll all work out’, ‘everything happens for a reason’, ‘things will work out in the end.’ Give me someone with some real bones in their body, who will say, ‘life is horrible, and life is beautiful.’ It is both, and thank God it is both, because God is working all things together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.

Outside of Christ you have no reason to think it will work out. Inside of Christ, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the magnificent and the horrific – all of it – is being woven together into a story in which the climax is this: Your Savior will look at you and see someone like himself. We will be like Jesus.

  • Romans 8:29 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. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

There are no promises that it will all work out in this life. It might not. As my old pastor used to say, ‘Reverend Ike is dead.’ Indeed, he is. And we will die as well. But is the ugly the end of the story? If you want streets of gold now like Benny Hinn, then good luck. If anyone tells you that there is hope outside of the resurrection – Christ’s and ours, then they have already received their reward. Your best life now means that the life to come will not be quite so pleasant.

If you want all things to work together, then embrace all things. Let the black be black and let the rainbow be the rainbow, so long as, at the end of the day, you behold my Savior, and see him as he is, and find yourself  to be like him.

  • 1 John 3:2 Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

There’s hope for you. There and only there.

  • Habakkuk 3:17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

“God Fixes Our Prayers On the Way Up”

As I have been engaged in studying Romans 8:26-27 over the better part of a month I have often found myself confused by the commentators trying to explain the ‘groanings’ of v. 26.

  • Romans 8:26 ¶ Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

However complex and beyond me the exact answer to the riddles may be, one truth stands out gloriously. As we pray, the Spirit helps in ways that we cannot comprehend.

In prayer our words, through the intercession of the Spirit, are, as it were, brought to the very ears of the Father. And he doesn’t always hear things the way we speak them. He hears them the way they should have been spoken, for in prayer not only do we speak to the Father by the Spirit, but the Spirit speaks to the Father through us and in our behalf.

A young man, a professing Christian, once came to me and confessed with great grief that he had not prayed in months. He simply didn’t know how to. His sins drove him away from prayer because he was ashamed. His inability to discern who God is, and what his will was for him at that particular time, drove him away. I saw a broken, confused young man who had forsaken the one thing he needed more than anything – communion with God through prayer.

Oh, what peace we often forfeit,
Oh, what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer!

The fact of the matter is that none of us really know how to pray. We have some sense of it, but we are always afraid that we are cut off from God on the one hand, or just getting it wrong on the other. That’s where the Spirit’s help comes in. I wish I could have shared this quote with that young man, but I had never read it. One of my pastors shared it years ago and I’ve always treasured it. In the book Praying: Finding our Way through Duty to Delight, by Carolyn Nystrom and J.I. Packer, Ms. Nystrom basically gives the best summary application of Romans 8:26 I have seen:

Some people get so entangled in the various dos and don’ts of prayer, so transfixed by the problem of sorting out what is our part and what is God’s part, so bogged down fretting over whether they, as mere flawed humans, should ask anything of a holy, almighty God, or conversely whether there is any point in asking since God will do what he wants anyway that they become paralyzed about praying…Don’t fret; just pray. God fixes our prayers on the way up! If he does not answer the prayer we made, he will answer the prayer we should have made. That is all anyone needs to know (pp. 174-175).

Don’t get into that position where you are paralyzed, like that young man, and you can’t pray. If you don’t have confidence in your own prayers, have confidence in the intercession of the Spirit. Have confidence that he will ‘fix your prayers on the way up.’ What greater comfort could he give us?

We have an advocate in heaven, Jesus Christ, our great Mediator; and we have an advocate on earth, yet more than on earth, dwelling within us, the Holy Spirit. We are covered from the bottom up. They are not speech writers always giving us the exact words to say. But they are editors presenting prayer to the Father as cleansed with the Savior’s blood and purified with the Spirit. Through the active obedience of Christ, we are counted as though we never uttered an imperfect prayer.

True prayers are like those carrier pigeons which find their way so well – they cannot fail to go to Heaven, for it is from heaven that they come – they are only going home! (Spurgeon, Hindrances to Prayer).

Prayer: Man Speaking to the Father by the Spirit, the Spirit Speaking to the Father through Man

Studying Romans 8, especially vv. 15 and 27, this passage from C.S. Lewis comes to mind.

From Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer:

I’ve just found in an old notebook a poem, with no author’s name attached…[it addresses] the haunting fear that there is no one listening, and that what we call prayer is soliloquy: someone talking to himself. This writer takes the bull by the horns and says in effect: ‘Very well, suppose it is,’ and gets a surprising result. here is the poem:

They tell me, Lord that when I seem
To be in speech with you,
since but one voice is heard, it’s all a dream,
One talker aping two.

Sometimes it is, yet not as they Conceive it. Rather, I
Seek in myself the things I hoped to say,
But lo!, my wells are dry.

Then, seeing me empty, you forsake
the listener’s role and through
My dumb lips breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew…

Lewis comments,

But is he not right in thinking that prayer in its most perfect state is a soliloquy? If the Holy Spirit speaks in the man, then in prayer God speaks to God.

Lewis knows that he might be charged with something like Pantheism for such a statement. But this is not Pantheism:

In Pantheism God is all. But the whole point of creation surely is that He was not content to be all. He intends to be ‘all in all.’

(from Letter 13)

  • Romans 8:15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
  • Romans 8:26 ¶ Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

It is ‘by the Spirit’ that ‘we cry “Abba, Father!”‘ It is the Spirit working in us to inspire our ‘groans.’ In this prayer God is speaking to God (the Spirit to the Father) through the agency of man and man is speaking to God (the Father) through the agency of the Spirit.

In Tony Sargent’s book, The Sacred Anointing, he severally refers to the practice of ‘reading the mind of the Spirit‘ in prayer. This is what the Father does (according to Rom. 8:27). And in some sense it is what we are to be doing in prayer as well. Anyone who has often led corporate prayer has a sense of this – you struggle with the Holy Spirit concerning what needs to be said in prayer for a given congregation at a given time. You do not simply want to be praying your own fleshly desires. You want to pray the will of God and the promises of God that are applicable to a given situation. You are striving that the Spirit would speak to the Father through you and that you would speak to the Father through the Spirit. That is what Sargent calls ‘unction’ in prayer, and we should all strive for it.

  • 1 John 5:14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.

You get an inkling of this type of prayer in the book of Revelation. Eugene Peterson describes it:

At the end of the book he is still praying: ‘Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!’ (22:20). St. John listens to God, is silent before God, sings to God, asks questions of God. The listening and silence, the songs and questions are wonderfully in touch with reality, mixing the sights and sounds of Roman affairs with the sights and sounds of salvation – angels and markets and Caesars and Jesus…St. John lives on the boundary of the invisible world of the Holy Spirit and the visible world of Roman times. On that boundary he prays. The praying is a joining of realities, making a live connection between the place we find ourselves and the God who is finding us (The Contemplative Pastor, pp. 42-43).

Prayer, then, is making applications of the Scriptures to a given situation. It is reading the mind of the Spirit, revealed in Scripture, and applying it in a current context. It is the timeless Spirit speaking to the timeless Father concerning time. It is right now man, in his right now world, speaking the timeless Spirit’s timely word to the Father.