What is Theology?: Learning to Live, Living, and Teaching Others to Live a Blessed Life

William Perkins once wrote, ‘Theology is the science of living blessedly forever’ (quoted in J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness, p. 64). The quote is found in volume 1 of Perkins’ works, but today it is virtually impossible to get the book (and the online version is borderline unreadable). Hence, I have no context whatsoever to help me in interpreting that quote. With that said, the quote is a gem.

If this definition is true, then the aim of studying theology is learning to live blessedly. That is, the primary task of theology is to ask, How can I gain the smile of God on my person and life? This is why theology can never, not for one second, be separated from Jesus Christ. For it is only through the person and work of Christ that we find blessedness.

Second, If this definition is true, then the way we live is intimately related to our theology. If we are living a blessed life, then we are good theologians. Understand that the term ‘blessed’ does not mean that you will be rich or problem free. It means that you are living under the smile of God. You are living the sort of life that would cause Jesus to say that you are blessed. And we already know what type of life that is, for he told us – poor in spirit, mourning over sin, meek, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted. A good theologian is not someone who is necessarily able to systematize theology like Charles Hodge. A good theologian is someone who is able to life a life like Charles Hodge.

Third, if this definition is true, then teaching theology is teaching people how to live under the smile of God. And again, this is why the person and work of Christ must be central to all Christian teaching. A sermon without Christ is a sermon with bad theology, for it is not teaching people the only way to be blessed and live blessedly. We cannot experience the pleasure of God if we are not accepted by him through his Son. And we cannot live out that accepted life without learning how the gospel informs our motives and actions.

Ezra 7:10 tells us that Ezra’s aim in life was to study, to live, and to teach God’s law. Perhaps that is why, when confronted with the sin of his people, he was the one pulling his own hair out rather than trying to pull out the hair of others (see HERE). He desired to know how to live blessedly, to do it, and to teach others the same.

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Forgiving Others (Matt. 6:12)

This issue has come up for me recently in counseling and general church life. Others have told me that this line of thought has been helpful, and so I share it with you. Take it and run.
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  • Matthew 6:12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Someone says, ‘you have to draw a line. You can only forgive so many times.’ And Jesus replies, ‘seventy times seven, that’s how many times you must forgive.’ Look at the Savior who drew no lines. He never said, ‘I’ve forgiven you in the past, but enough is enough.’ Look at his meekness: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ Look at his compassion.

If you cannot forgive, if you are continually drawing lines in the sand, keeping scoring cards, then you have not realized the gigantic mass of the forgiveness you yourself have received in Christ.

  • Luke 7:47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many, are forgiven, thus she loved much; but the one who is forgiven little loves little.

How can you see so great a Savior, with his arms hands nailed to the cross, arms stretched out, that he might embrace you, and yet not have pity on those who are in your debt. The debt they owe may be a true debt indeed, and a deep debt. But so was yours. And it took blood to pay the price. You haven’t bled yet. It may hurt, but you haven’t bled.

That type of love – debt-forgiving love – is redeeming love. It is the love of the poor-in-spirit, meek, peacemaker. It is the love of the blessed. Demanding love is cursed. Forgiving love is blessed. Both hurt, but only one pays off, and only one shows off the love of the Savior. Both burn. One burns with the fires of hell (unforgiveness) while the other burns with the fire from heaven which consumes a sacrifice and pays for sin. Both are painful, but only one redeems. Choose not to simply be hurt by someone, but to hurt for them intentionally, and sacrificially.

If you live expecting everyone to give you what they owe, don’t be surprised when God expects the same from you. If you are a demander, don’t be surprised when God is demanding.

This is about forgiveness in general, not just about money. If you demand respect, demand to be treated as you believe you deserve, do not be surprised when, in the end, you actually do get treated as you deserve.

The gospel declares that there is another way, a better way.

The Beatitudes in the Prayers of King David

I have been teaching through the Sermon on the Mount for the better part of two years now in Sunday School and have never ceased to be amazed at its richness and complexity. Jesus was a master of the Scriptures, and everything he says is accordingly pregnant. Two things peaked my interest in Jesus’ use of the Psalms. First, in my study, it became apparent that in Jesus’ statement, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,’ he is explicitly drawing from Psalm 37. The context of Psalm 37 therefore helps us to define meekness as ‘fretting not over evildoers.’ The meek person is one who can bear evil, and not return in kind, because justice lies in the hands of God (See further notes on this HERE). Second, I noticed David’s repeated pleas to God in which he states that he is ‘poor and needy.’ There were certainly times in David’s life in which this was true physically, but this was certainly not always the case (he was, after all, a king for a good portion of his life). It was, however, always the case that this was the state of his soul.

This intrigued me to the point that I decided to compile a brief list of parallels between the ‘Beatitudes’ and the psalms of David. Each of the psalms listed is explicitly ascribed to David in the superscripts. These are the only psalms under consideration, and I have not compiled a completely exhaustive list, but the parallels should be clear enough:

1. Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

  • Psalm 40:17 As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God!
  • Psalm 69:32 When the humble see it they will be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
  • Psalm 70:5 But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay!
  • Psalm 109:21 But you, O GOD my Lord, deal on my behalf for your name’s sake; because your steadfast love is good, deliver me! 22 For I am poor and needy, and my heart is stricken within me.

2. Matthew 5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

  • Psalm 30:11 You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness
  • Psalm 43:2 For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? 3 Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! 4 Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.

3. Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

  • Psalm 37:1 OF DAVID. Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! 2 For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. 3 Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. 4 Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. 5 Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. 6 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. 7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! 8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. 9 For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. 10 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. 11 But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace. 12 The wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him, 13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming…

4. Matthew 5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

  • Psalm 63:1 A PSALM OF DAVID, WHEN HE WAS IN THE WILDERNESS OF JUDAH. O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. 3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. 4 So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. 5 My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips…
  • Psalm 143:6 I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Selah

5. Matthew 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

  • Psalm 18:25 With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless;

6. Matthew 5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

  • Psalm 24:1 A PSALM OF DAVID. The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, 2 for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers. 3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. 5 He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation. 6 Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah…
  • Psalm 51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. 11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

7. Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

  • Psalm 37:37 Mark the blameless and behold the upright, for there is a future for the man of peace.
  • Psalm 34:14 Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

8. Matthew 5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

  • Psalm 7:1 A SHIGGAION OF DAVID, WHICH HE SANG TO THE LORD CONCERNING THE WORDS OF CUSH, A BENJAMINITE. O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me, 2 lest like a lion they tear my soul apart, rending it in pieces, with none to deliver. 3 O LORD my God, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands, 4 if I have repaid my friend with evil or plundered my enemy without cause, 5 let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground and lay my glory in the dust. Selah 6 Arise, O LORD, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake for me; you have appointed a judgment. 7 Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered about you; over it return on high. 8 The LORD judges the peoples; judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.
  •  Psalm 9:9 The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. 10 And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you. 11 Sing praises to the LORD, who sits enthroned in Zion! Tell among the peoples his deeds! 12 For he who avenges blood is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted. 13 Be gracious to me, O LORD! See my affliction from those who hate me, O you who lift me up from the gates of death, 14 that I may recount all your praises, that in the gates of the daughter of Zion I may rejoice in your salvation.
  • Psalm 22:1 TO THE CHOIRMASTER: ACCORDING TO THE DOE OF THE DAWN. A PSALM OF DAVID. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. 3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. 5 To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; 8 “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” 9 Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. 10 On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God. 11 Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help. 12 Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; 13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; 15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet– 17 I can count all my bones- they stare and gloat over me; 18 they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. 19 But you, O LORD, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! 20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! 21 Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen! 22 I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: 23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! 24 For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him. 25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. 26 The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live forever! 27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. 28 For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.
  • Psalm 31:15 My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors!
  • Psalm 35:1 OF DAVID.Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me! 2 Take hold of shield and buckler and rise for my help! 3 Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers! Say to my soul, “I am your salvation!” 4 Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life! Let them be turned back and disappointed who devise evil against me! 5 Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them away! 6 Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the LORD pursuing them! 7 For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. 8 Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it! And let the net that he hid ensnare him; let him fall into it- to his destruction! 9 Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD, exulting in his salvation…

Meekness: Bearing Evil, Forgiving Evil, Returning Good for Evil

Meekness and humility are closely related, but not identical. You cannot have one without the other, but they are not precisely the same thing. Meekness is not weakness. It takes a strong person (in the Lord) to be meek. Thomas Watson’s description of meekness, in my opinion, is as clear an expression of this as you will find – meekness is a disposition, granted by God’s grace, that allows us to receive evil, bear it, forgive it, and return good for it (see Psalm 37 below for biblical precedent for this definition). Here’s how he puts it:

Meekness is a grace whereby we are enabled by the Spirit of God to moderate our angry passions…First, meekness consists in the bearing of injuries…The second branch of meekness is in forgiving injuries…The third branch of meekness is in recompensing good for evil… (Thomas Watson, An Exposition of Mat. 5:1-12).

Add to that the Doctor’s description:

The meek man is not proud of himself, he does not in any sense glory in himself. He feels that there is nothing in himself of which he can boast. It also means that he does not assert himself. You see, it is a negation of the popular psychology of the day which says ‘assert yourself,’ ‘express your personality.’ The man who is meek does not want to do so; he is so ashamed of it. The meek man likewise does not demand anything for himself. He does not take all his rights as a claim. He does not make demands for his position, his privileges, his possessions, his status of life…the man who is meek is not even sensitive about himself. He is not always watching himself and his own interests. He is not always on the defensive…The man who is truly meek is the one who is amazed that God and man can think of him as well as they do and treat him as well as they do’ (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, pp. 57-58).

How do we learn to be meek?

The example of Christ: Your king comes unto you meek’ (Matthew 21:5). Christ was the exemplar and pattern of meekness. ‘When he was reviled, he reviled not again’ (1 Peter 2:23). His enemies’ words were more bitter than the gall they gave him—but Christ’s words were smoother than oil. He prayed and wept for his enemies. He calls us to learn of him: ‘Learn of me, for I am meek’ (Matthew 11:29). Christ does not bid us (says Augustine) learn of him to work miracles, to open the eyes of the blind, to raise the dead—but he would have us learn of him to be meek (Thomas Watson, Ibid).

From the example of Christ we learn that the valley is the place of vision:

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see Thee in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory. Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision (from the Valley of Vision).

  • Matthew 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
  • Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
  • Psalm 37:7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! 8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. 9 For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. 10 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. 11 But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.

Judging a Sermon

Sunday was an interesting day for me as I preached at a ‘homecoming’ service. I won’t get into all the details except to say this: I received far more feedback than usual about my sermon. Part of the reason for this is that there were far more people present than usual because of the event.

Knowing that the congregation would swell dramatically, and that there would certainly be unbelievers present, influenced my preparation and thought process leading up to the big day. By my standards I actually kept the sermon relatively short – around 30 minutes, whereas I usually preach between 30 and 40 minutes (I was at the low end of the sermon length spectrum). This will come into play shortly.

Most of the comments I received were overwhelmingly positive and extremely encouraging. But there was one guy. The one guy that’s always there no matter where you are preaching. He’s walking past me in the hallway. He’s almost past me. He stops and turns around.

‘Good sermon,’ he says. ‘A little long, but good.’

When someone makes such a comment all kinds of thoughts immediately race through my mind simultaneously. How should I respond? I have about 5 seconds to answer that question. I give a pretty safe reply, while being sure to challenge his statement just a bit:

‘I left out two points,’ I said. ‘It could have been a lot longer.’

‘Really?’ he asks.

‘Actually it may have been three points, but at least two,’ I said.

To which he replies, ‘Well, I’m a [denomination extracted, I’ll let you guess that one] and we don’t really have sermons, we have messages. And they’re usually about 10 or 15 minutes long.’

‘To be honest with you all of the preaching that has influenced me, and the best sermons I have heard, have often been between 40 minutes and an hour,’ I added.

I wanted to add more, but I could tell he wanted the conversation to be over.

‘Thank you for coming,’ I said. Conversation over.

Now I could go on a diatribe about sermon length, but I’ll try not to. The main issue for me is this: whether a sermon is short or long doesn’t matter so much as the content and the power of the sermon. He wasn’t interested in either. From everyone else, dozens of them, I was hearing things like, ‘I think that sermon may change my life’ or ‘my brother was here visiting today and that was exactly the kind of message he needed, we’ve been praying for something like this.’ But then there was that one guy. You know, that one guy. Every preacher  knows him.

For the preacher, or at least for me, that one guy’s comment will stick with me more than rest. It put a damper on all of the glorious things that happened Sunday. If I didn’t write about it here, only my wife and I would know about it. I was smiling, I was trying to answer questions and encourage people. But in the back of my mind I am thinking, ‘Was my sermon really too long? Are all the compliments just people being cordial? Did I bore everyone to sleep?’

I knew I didn’t bore everyone to sleep. The observant preacher can read the congregation. You know when they’re getting restless, and 90% of them were fully engaged. But you have to take criticism seriously. You have to at least open yourself up to the possibility that the criticism is right and true. You have to evaluate.

But here’s the reason I share all of this: My mind drifted back to a statement of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. To my knowledge, the quote isn’t available in print. Rather, it is from a question and answer session the Doctor participated in after giving his now famous lectures at Westminster Seminary that became the basis of the book, Preaching and Preachers. I bought the CD’s of this Q&A from the MLJ Recordings Trust years ago, but they are now available for free HERE (you have to sign up to listen, but the membership is free). In CD form the session was called MLJ ‘In the Hotseat,’ but it is now simply called Questions & Answers under the Preaching and Preachers section.

A question was posed to the Doctor about the judging of a sermon by the preacher to be a success or failure. Lloyd-Jones’ response to the question was precise and helpful. He referenced 1 Corinthians 4:3-4,

1 Corinthians 4:3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.

That, he says, is the ideal for the minister. And he is absolutely right. Now Lloyd-Jones was a very wise man, and he was quick to add that no minister will ever live out this ideal – we’re too proud, to concerned with what others think about us. Yet, he said, this is what we should be striving for.

We are not justified by our performance as a preacher, or in any other human realm. We are justified by Christ. He is, as it were, our judge. Not only does my standing before God, and the calling to which he has called me, not depend on the judgment of me made by others – it doesn’t depend on the judgment I make of myself.

That’s the test. After you have stood up to preach the gospel, can you go home and say to yourself, ‘The Lord is my judge and I am justified in Christ.’ No sermon will ever be perfect, but Christ has paid for our sin and failure. This is all the more reason we should be preaching the gospel – we need the gospel – the preacher needs the gospel every Sunday in order to be able to live with himself. He needs it to humble him when the comments pet his ego. He needs it to encourage him when men condemn us. If you need this message every Sunday, your people need it as well.

Let me share another relevant Lloyd-Jones comment, this time from his Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. He comments on Matthew 6:2-3,

Matthew 6:2 ¶ “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…

Now this is a different context of course. We are talking about the giving of alms. But it is quite relevant. First, he comments on the sounding of a trumpet that your righteous acts might be seen and acknowledged by others:

The wrong way to do this is to announce it…In effect they are engaging a trumpeter to go before them to say: ‘Look at what this man is doing.’ The wrong way to do these things is to proclaim them, and to draw attention to them…(p. 297).

That’s plain enough, but he then begins to press the next verse, which says that the right hand is not to know what the left hand is doing:

In other words, do not announce to others in any shape or form what you are doing. That is obvious. But this is less obvious: Do not even announce it to yourself. That is difficult. It is not so difficult for some people not to announce it to others. I think that any man with even an element of decency in him rather despises a man who advertises himself…Yes, but what is so difficult is not to pride yourself because you are not like that…[and] immediately you become a Pharisee…Note that our Lord does not stop at saying you must not sound a trumpet before you and announce it to the world; you do not even announce it to yourself…In other words, having done it in secret you do not take your little book and put down: ‘Well, I have have done that. Of course I haven’t told anybody else that I have done it.’ But you put an extra mark in a special column where exceptional merit is recorded. In effect our Lord said: ‘Don’t keep these books at all; don’t keep spiritual ledgers; don’t keep profit and loss accounts in your life; don’t write a diary in this sense, just forget all about it. Do things as you are moved by God and led by the Holy Spirit, and then forget all about them (p. 298).

You see, this is very common for the preacher. He will never say to someone, ‘Boy, I preached a great sermon Sunday’ to anyone in his congregation. He might not even say such a thing to his wife. But he will certainly say it to himself. So much for, ‘I do not even judge myself.’ Too many preachers become their own judges when we should be saying, ‘It is the Lord who judges me.’ We won’t sound the trumpet to others, but we will sound it to ourselves when no one else is looking.

What’s the answer to this? Lloyd-Jones writes this:

There is only one answer, and that is that we should have such a love for God that we have no time to think about ourselves. We shall never get rid of self by concentrating on self. The only hope is to be so consumed by love that we have no time to think about ourselves. In other words, if we want to implement this teaching we must look at Christ dying on Calvary’s Hill, and think of His life and all he endured and suffered, and as we look at Him realize what he has done for us (Ibid).

The gospel is the answer to pride.

But it’s also the answer to the depression that often comes along with preaching (which, by the way, is also likely an issue of pride). I’ve heard Tim Keller say something to this effect: “The Bible says that ‘he who by faith is righteous shall live.’ And the preacher who by his preaching is righteous (i.e. justified by his preaching) will die a thousand deaths every Saturday night.”

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t live up to all that I have written here. If I did I most likely wouldn’t be writing this particular post. I would have moved on. But in a way writing this post is helping me to do precisely that. It happened. Now it’s over. Move on, place your focus on Christ, submit to the Spirit, and carry on. My ledger doesn’t count anyway. The ledger that count belongs to God, and Christ has assured that my name is in it. As one of my old teachers likes to say, not only my person, but my performance, is covered in him. How else could God ever say, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant’?

Was my sermon good or bad? I preached the gospel. Let the Lord be my judge. I only pray that he will let me live to preach the gospel again.

Sin so Deep it Climbs to the Heights

  • Matthew 6:5 ¶ “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 ¶ “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ comments on this passage greatly affected me as I read them tonight:

Sin, he shows us here, is something which follows us all the way, even into the very presence of God. Sin is not merely something that tends to assail and afflict us when we are far away from God, in the far country as it were. Sin is something so terrible…that it will not only follow us to the gates of heaven, but – if it were possible – into heaven itself. ..

The essence of the biblical teaching on sin is that is essentially a disposition. It is a state of the heart. I suppose we can sum it up by saying that sin is ultimately self-worship and self-adulation; and our Lord shows…that this tendency on our part to self-adulation is something that follows us even into the very presence of God. It sometimes produces the result; that even when we try to persuade ourselves that we are worshipping God, we are actually worshipping ourselves and doing nothing more…

This thing that has entered into our very nature and constitution as human beings, is something that is so polluting our whole being that when man is engaged in his highest form of activity he still has a battle to wage with it. It has always been agreed, I think, that the highest picture that you can ever have of man is to look at him on his knees waiting upon God. That is the highest achievement of man, it is his noblest activity. Man is never greater than when he is there in communion and contact with God. Now, according to our Lord, sin is something which affects us so profoundly that even at that point it is with us and assailing us…

The next portion of the quote hit me the hardest:

We tend to think of sin as we see it in its rags and in the gutters of life. We look at a drunkard, poor fellow, and we say: there is sin; that is sin. But that is not the essence of sin. To have a real picture and a true understanding of it, you must look at some great saint, some unusually devout and devoted man. Look at him three upon his knees in the very presence of God. Even there self is intruding itself, and the temptation is for him to think about himself, and really to be worshipping himself rather than God. That, not the other, is the true picture of sin (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, pp. 300-301).

Sad Christians? No, Seriously Happy

Of all the cultural mandates I despise, fake smiles might be at the top of the list. I work with the public and I see it every day. I remember one time consciously pondering the fact that a lady I worked with, years ago, could go from being the grouchiest, snidest person I’ve ever been around to being the nicest person you’ve ever met, with the brightest smile, at the drop of a hat – as soon as a customer came around. Let’s call it glibness, or, perhaps, an external joviality.

I struggle with glibness. I see it often. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty much, I think, what’s expected of most people on a day to day basis, at least in some settings. You may be having the most miserable day of your life, but you’re called upon, by others or by yourself, to do a 180 and put on the smile, fire up the small talk, and be happy. After all, you don’t want to be considered a grouch.

Have you ever faked a smile, a laugh, a good mood when your soul was really in the depths of despair? Have you ever seen a picture of someone on Facebook whose life is an absolute train wreck? I bet they looked perfectly happy in the pictures. Whoda thunk it?

The implicit problem with acting such a way is hypocrisy. Christians are called to be truthful, not hypocritical. I was always of the opinion that it would be better to keep a straight face in truth than to smile as a hypocrite. But not all agree with this.

Of course this raises problems for me. I am a self-professing Christian Hedonist. I agree with John Piper that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. I agree with the Westminster Shorter Catechism that man’s chief end is not only to glorify God, but to enjoy him. How can I reconcile the fact that it is my joy that glorifies God with the fact that I am not always joyful?

The major touchstone of the issue is that Christian joy is not the same as what the world considers to be joy.

The Apostle Paul does not shy away at commanding Christian’s to rejoice (see Philippians 4:1). Yet it is clear that his idea of joy is not one of glibness or outward joviality. He never commands anyone to smile.

Twice he charges to Thessalonians to be ‘sober.’ For instance:

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.

The word sober in Thessalonians means something to the effect of ‘even keeled’ or ‘even tempered’ (it can be translated ‘temperate’). To be sober is to be in the middle, not too far up, not too far down. Paul commands this multiple times elsewhere including his letters to Timothy and Titus. The Apostle Peter similarly charges us:

  • 1 Peter 1:13 ¶ Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Aside from this, Paul speaks of Christians as ‘groaning’ :

  • Romans 8:23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

He speaks of himself as having the appearance of being sad:

  • 2 Corinthians 6:10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.

His point here is that outwardly the world looked upon him and counted him as one who was full of sorrow. But in truth, in the inner man, he was full of joy. I would not deny that inward emotion has any effect on outward appearance. But perhaps that effect is a bit overrated.

Jesus himself said,

  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4)

The Christian life is a life of mourning and a life of joy, and the two cannot be disconnected. We mourn because of our sin. We mourn because of death and loss and the sad state of the now. Yet underneath this mourning and alongside of it is an abiding joy in Christ and the salvation he has wrought. In, and because of, the gospel, we are constantly mourning, and constantly being comforted.

C.S. Lewis’ idea of ‘Joy’ is helpful here. There is an innate longing in all mankind – even in the Christian – for another world. There is a longing for a happy ending, a longing for peace, a longing for bliss. The gospel breaks into the now and gives us a glimpse of it, and an assurance of its ultimate accomplishment, yet we still do not see the happy ending in full view. Even the departed Christians, the martyrs, who have entered into the full joy of their Master in the presence of God, continue to long that, in the words of Sam Gamgee, all sad things will come untrue:

  • Revelation 6:10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

So the already and not yet rings true. We’re already rejoicing, but not yet fully, for the longing remains. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a crash course in the joyful longing of the Christian (in Middle Earth terms) – so much melancholy, so much loss, so much uncertainty, so much mourning, and yet such hope, bravery, boldness, fearlessness, friendship, joy, happiness.

Likewise, when you read C.S. Lewis you cannot escape the idea that committing yourself to Christ is to commit yourself, in some sense, to sadness. For it is to commit yourself to self-destruction (the mortifying of the old man) and self-denial. As C.H. Spurgeon put it,

When we took Christ’s cross to be our salvation we took it also to
be our heavenly burden.

Yet in the midst of this self-destruction, self-denial, and cross-bearing there is a true joy. And it is a joy that broods within, and cannot always find expression outwardly (or at least its expression is not the glibness and joviality the world expects).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it well in his sermon on Matthew 5:4:

…Christians ought not to affect this appearance of such a wonderful joy that they always wear a bright smile on their face in order to show the world how happy they are (Sermon on the Mount, p. 47).

In other words, joy isn’t something you put on, it’s not a bright smile, it’s not glibness. Whatever it is, it’s not that.

He goes on,

[The Christian] is always serious; but he does not have to affect the seriousness. The true Christian is never a man who has to put on an appearance of either sadness or joviality…The Christian is not superficial in any sense, but is fundamentally serious and fundamentally happy. You see, the joy of the Christian is a holy joy, the happiness of the Christian is a serious happiness. None of that superficial appearance of happiness and joy! No, no; it is a solemn joy, it is a holy joy, it is a serious happiness; so that, though he is grave and sober-minded and serious, he is never cold and prohibitive (Ibid, p. 51).

That last quote is pure gold, and a balm to my soul. Our happiness is a serious happiness, a solemn joy. It is grave, but not cold. Why do moderns condemn ‘puritanism’ (which is really only a caricature of Puritanism)? It was cold, joyless, looking to keep people from having a good time. God forbid. They were just more serious about their joy than most of us are.

Does this mean that Christian’s can’t smile? Of course not. It means we don’t fake smiles – or frowns for that matter. It means we are who we are, by the grace of God, and can be nothing else without betraying the truth.

Consequently, if you see me and I don’t fake a smile, it doesn’t mean that I don’t like you, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m not happy. I’m seriously happy and solemnly joyful – fundamentally serious, fundamentally happy. I am not under the tyranny of the smile police. I have been set free from such nonsense. The freedom of the gospel is a freedom to mourn, and yet have happiness in the midst – that’s one thing the world can never have apart from Christ and his gospel.

Snippets: Praying ‘Thy Will be done’

 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

Does praying the Lord’s prayer make us all ‘Transformationalists?’ There is a certain streak in Fundamentalism (and I’m no stranger to that label myself) that says seeking ‘social justice,’ racial equality, the eradication of poverty, and the like is nothing but leftist propaganda. I wonder if they have ever prayed the second petition of the Lord’s prayer and meant it. I wonder if I have as well.

Indeed, we get part of the petition right. We want God to be praised and worshiped as he is in heaven – this is certainly his will. But we forget that in heaven all national and racial boundaries have been perfectly demolished, that all men live in God’s house (and some would say mansions), that no man there has want of food or clothing – for Christ feeds him and clothes him. And this is all God’s perfect will.

Is it then not for these things also that we are praying when we repeat the words of Jesus, ‘Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven’? Are we not praying for the unity of all nations and races? Are we not praying for the eradication of poverty? Are we not praying for the eradication of disease, of sickness, of sorrow, of anxiety, etc?

And if we are praying for these things, and meaning it, will we not seek after them in the here and now?

Certainly we await the dawning of a new day and the arrival of the new heavens and the new earth wherein righteousness dwells. Certainly we seek after that city which is to come. Some will quickly remind us – ‘the kingdom is not yet!’

But the kingdom which is ‘not yet’ is also ‘already.’ God’s perfect will, his heavenly will, has broken into this disaster area in history and in the already that is present. Should we therefore not see glimpses of it, and seek after the reality of it now?

I do not believe that we can redeem culture. Only Christ redeems. But can he himself not redeem it? He is redeeming it and will redeem it. And so we pray, ‘Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.’ And we pray it in hope, and act upon it in faith.

Meditation/Prayer on the 4th Beatitude

Father,

Your blessed Son tells me that the one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness is blessed. Who then could have hungered and thirsted for righteousness more than the One who is supremely blessed. I marvel at his hunger. I stand in awe of his thirst. It was his meat and drink to do your will. He panted for you as the deer for the brook.

Yet it is not so with me. I have often, most often, hungered and thirsted for unrighteousness. I have hungered for power, prestige and position. I have thirsted for things to fill my physical, emotional, and carnal desires while pushing back the plate of your offer for real food. Yet there is a hunger within me. There is a thirst I feel. Since I met the hungry One, the hungry One, who shares of his food, I have desired his food more and more. I find myself longing to be perfect, longing to be rid of not only my individual sins but my sinfulness as well.

Fill me then, my Lord, with righteousness. Fill me till there is no room left in my soul for any other food or drink. Satisfy my appetite so that I remain full and desire not the things that flash before my eyes. For if righteousness is a thing for which we may thirst and hunger, then I believe you bid us drink deeply and eat richly. ‘Feed me till I want no more.’

By your grace, through the power of your Spirit, take away my taste for wickedness and self. Wickedness and self will never have their fill. They are a bottomless pit, and gluttons stomach which can never be satisfied. But as for righteousness, you offer us, ‘be filled.’ Fill me then, for your own glory, and for the satisfaction of my soul,

Amen.